From a pasty blue building behind a crumbling church in a Guatemalan highland village, a contortion of antennas stands raised against the sky.
Beneath the antennas is a metal-plated door. Behind that, in a sparse room with a paint-chipped table and a sprawling tangle of wires, sits Osmar Miranda, a radio operator. Adjusting the black knobs on a control board, he takes off his headphones and explains how Radio San José—one of the Central American country’s so-called “pirate radio” stations—offers its poor Mayan population one of the few ways to get their voices heard on the airwaves.
In April, 1997, several thousand fighters from the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, entered the Caribbean department of Bolívar, along the Magdalena River, their stated goal being the “cleansing of the area and (the) handing it over to multinational corporations.”
The AUC, short for Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, was a paramilitary army whose right-wing ideology had grown out of the network of rural businessmen and druglords who supported them. The official raison d’etre of the AUC had originally been to fight the communist guerrillas of the FARC and ELN, against whom the Colombian state had been waging a three-decade internal war. Yet making the departments of Bolívar and Magdalena safe for corporations meant far more than merely clearing out communists, and the broader agenda at play was more sinister than mere “self-defense.”
Early one evening in 1993, Daniel Wilkinson, a Harvard postgrad researcher, was finishing an interview in a remote Guatemalan village when he began hearing gunshots on the mountain above him.
Though at first, the sound seemed to be little more than a discordant series of unconnected reports, it soon became clear that he was hearing a battle between leftist guerrillas and the Guatemalan military. Wilkinson’s interviewee, an indigenous man and former hand on a coffee plantation, insisted on account of the danger that his guest spend the night at his house, an offer which, machine guns rattling in the distance, the fearful Ivy-leaguer was eager to accept.
For conservationist Jen Lomberk, the Matanzas River is both a blessing and a curse.
“We have something very beautiful that a lot of people are passionate about protecting,” she says, contemplating the estuary she’s spent the last year fighting to protect. “But I’ve also noticed it’s very hard to get people to care and pay attention when things aren’t catastrophic.”
As the “Matanzas Riverkeeper,” Lomberk, 28, is a legal expert-turned-conservationist who’s ingratiated herself into a web of local volunteers agitating to protect the waterways around St. Augustine, the majority of which lay within the beautiful but threatened Matanzas River watershed.
Robert Fisk is a journalistic genius—though not because he’s discovered anything new.
The brilliance of Fisk, in his monstrously large The Great War for Civilization, lies in his unparalleled ability to animate swaths of history that could otherwise seem static, doing so with such emotional immediacy that this book—whose raw material could easily serve as a dossier of injustices—is transformed into a vast, compulsively readable human drama. The result is a story that’s by turns intimate, tragic, heartbreaking and epic.
IT WAS IN THE SOUTH MEXICAN town of Comitán, Chiapas that I first caught wind of the shootout. I had been taking a taxi to the edge of town when the driver, hearing I was a journalist, first offhandedly mentioned it to me. Three days before, he said, two rival gangs broke into a bloody territorial dispute in a local market, and the firefight that followed was dispersed only when a local faction of the army arrived. Twenty had been shot in the melee, many of them innocent bystanders. Five more people had died.
“Were you scared?” I asked the taxi driver.
He smiled. “It’s normal around here,” he said, shrugging. The lightheartedness of his response seemed to suggest that he thought the whole scene to be little more than an absurd cosmic joke.
Behind the chain-link fence off State Road 312, hardly a stones-throw away from the Matanzas River, three caterpillar bulldozers amble in the sun.
Construction is underway for the Antigua Development, a sprawling housing complex set to overlook to Intercoastal Waterway—a fate which, within the next year, could befall the pristine Fish Island property across the road to the south.
It’s a prospect that’s put many environmentally minded St. Augustinians on edge.
One of the survivors lost his sister. Another, his entire family. A third one explains, her voice barely audible against the hush of the rain, how she was shot seven times, and watched helplessly as the paramilitaries slit open the stomachs of the pregnant women around her with bayonets.
“When I saw all the people around me dead,” she says, “I began pleading for God to help save my life.”
Seated in a spartan and empty church in the remote village of Acteal, high in the scalloping blue-green mountains of Chiapas, Mexico, three survivors of the Acteal massacre recall the gruesome details of the fateful day, nearly 21 years ago, when 49 people were murdered by a state-allied paramilitary less than 20 yards from where we now sit.
“For Esteva, many myths had been imploded over his life’s long and eventful course: the idea that Mexico had to imitate the United States. That corrupt power structures could be reformed from within. The last myth would be destroyed—its void soon replaced, for Esteva, with a sort of intellectual liberation—with the violent emergence of the enigmatic black-masked insurgents in 1994.”
Reportage made possible by financing from the Pulitzer Center in Washington, D.C.
When the Zapatistas first exploded into the public eye in an armed rebellion nearly 25 years ago, Gustavo Esteva found himself at a crossroads.
It had been decades since he’d renounced violence as a means of pursuing social justice. The Mexican philosopher, economist and educator—who’d spent nearly forty years working to improve the lives of Mexico’s campesinos—had come a long way towards developing a philosophy that could help his country’s peasants escape the wrenching poverty in which they’re trapped. Now, as the army of indigenous Mayans broke into an unexpected war with the national government, Esteva saw that philosophy crumbling apart.
“In the first week of 1994, I was in a very serious conflict with myself,” Gustavo tells me of that era, when he joined thousands of protesters in the streets demanding the Mexican Army cease attacking the Zapatistas. “I was telling myself, ‘Gustavo, why are you so enthusiastic (about the Zapatistas) if for thirty years you have been against the use of violence?’”
You would be hard-pressed to imagine anything of importance ever taking place here.
On any other day, approaching it on the cracked roads leading through the rolling ocean of pine, it would’ve seemed little different from the thousands of similar communities which scatter this rugged, mist-cloaked cordillera. The village of Morelia—a soaking-wet redoubt of clapboard wood shacks, high in the mountains of Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state—doesn’t at first glance look like a viable locale for a political meeting in which hundreds of international visitors would be drawn to spend three days in the country’s remote southlands.