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Inside NCR

Few chose to look at Guatemala’s horror

“GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala — On Feb. 4 in the town of Ipapa east of here a dog emerged from the forest dragging a human hand in his mouth. When local officials investigated, they found a common grave with 18 corpses, some identified as students by their class rings.”

That paragraph opened a story in the June 7, 1967, issue of NCR. It was an early effort in the paper’s coverage of the evil that eventually would wrap all of Guatemala in a frenzy of genocidal massacres and unspeakable torture. Those who suffered -- the Mayans, the students, the doctors, the organizers, the catechists, the priests and other religious, the inordinate number of women and children -- received a small measure of overdue recognition, if not justice, in the recently released report by the Commission for Historical Clarification.

That 1967 account, frank in its portrayal of the Marxist influences that motivated the young guerrillas, was also remarkably astute in its assessment of the new strength of the army that was “being aided by right-wing terrorists, and the terrorists are being assisted by U.S. military aid received through the army.”

Sadly, that line, or something much like it, would be applied accurately through most of the coverage NCR would devote to Guatemala during the next 30 years, long beyond the point where ideology mattered and where only money, power and racism fueled the violence.

And so often, it seemed, no one was listening.

Victor Perera, a Guatemalan-born writer now living in the United States, in the introduction to his 1993 book, Unfinished Conquest: The Guatemalan Tragedy, wrote: “Guatemala is the Central American country closest to our borders, yet it is by far the most neglected by the U.S. media. After the overthrow of democratically elected Jacobo Arbenz in 1954, a curtain of silence descended over Guatemala. The country and its war ... have remained largely invisible, even to North Americans who defy the State Department’s negative travel advisories and fly to the Mayan ruins of Tikal or visit the artisans’ markets of Atitlán and Chichicastenango.”

The 1967 story was emblematic of the commitment NCR made to telling the story of the marginalized, the poor and the politically unconnected throughout the Third World, and particularly in Latin America.

Such coverage is certainly a distinctive thread running through NCR’s history, our small attempt to poke through the curtain of silence.

And that curtain could be thick, especially during the years of the Reagan and Bush administrations. The great East-West rationale for propping up bloody tyrants and turning a blind eye to massive killing was wearing thin. But it worked well enough and long enough -- wrapping on a foul and evil package -- to allow the butchers uninhibited sway.

Guatemala, in many ways epitomized, as Perera put it, the “interlocking contradictions” that had come to characterize Central America. It was a place where the groaning for freedom and self-determination should have resonated deeply within the North American soul. But we provided the guns, the money and the training and the CIA assistance that helped the civil war grow to monstrous proportions.

It is a rich land that should have become a model of plenty for all and instead it became a classic example of power used to ensure that wealth would be held by a few and poverty would be widespread.

It was a place that should have despaired of religion long before its recent civil war. The Spanish Catholic conquistadors, after all, butchered the Mayans in their own ways more than 400 years before. Early Spanish clerics destroyed irreplaceable Mayan texts and artifacts and turned Mayan social structure on its head.

Yet if there is any counterbalance to the recent 30 years of terror, it is the change of heart of the Catholic church and its courage in publicly naming the sin of the state. During the worst of the brutality, significant segments of the Catholic leadership advocated for the dignity and rights of the poor and of the Mayans.

For a church that long had identified with Guatemala’s elite and the military, it was a monumental turnabout. And the church that walked with the people was rewarded with the people’s heroic fidelity.

One of the more distinguished journalists to regularly file for NCR from Latin America was the late Penny Lernoux.

In an opening scene of her book People of God (Viking, 1989), she relates a searing tale she encountered in a Mayan village in the highlands of northwestern Guatemala during the early 1980s.

Persecution against the church was so severe that all the priests and nuns had left the diocese. But the catechists kept faith, even though being caught with Communion bread or any objects of faith could mean death by slow torture.

One day the army took over the village of Santa Cruz in Chichicastenango. The army assembled the people and told them that the catechists were subversives who had to be killed that night. Otherwise the army would raze Santa Cruz and neighboring villages.

The people refused to do the deed. But the catechists insisted. “It is better for us to die than for thousands to die,” they said.

“At 4 a.m., a weeping procession, led by the catechists, arrived at the cemetery. Graves were dug, the people formed a circle around the kneeling men and relatives of the five drew their machetes. Many could not watch the scene; some fainted as the blades fell, and the executioner’s tears mingled with the blood of the catechists. The bodies were wrapped in plastic and buried. The villagers returned home in silence.”

Far from defeated, though, the villagers revered the martyrs. “In such a community,” wrote Lernoux, “people fear not death, but infidelity -- to one another and to their beliefs. They daily live the drama of Christ on the cross, yet they are convinced of the possibility of change because their struggle itself is a sign of resurrection.”

This issue, we hope, is further sign of that resurrection and a reassurance that the bravery of all Guatemala’s martyrs will not be lost in the mist of that country’s gorgeous, tortured highlands.

--The Editors

Last week, Michael Farrell was on assignment. This week, he’s recovering from assignment.

National Catholic Reporter, March 12, 1999