Few Chose to Look at Guatemala's Horror

National Catholic Reporter, March 12, 1999 | Go to article overview

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 (see report on page 13).

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 Atitlan 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. …

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