Inside Guatemala’s Civil War

1988 - Guatemala_003In 1997 leftist indigenous rebels signed a peace accord with the Guatemalan government, ending 43 years of civil war and rule by military junta in a country where an oligarchy 2% of the population own 80% of the land. Ten years earlier I ventured into the remote northern Guatemala war zone. Here is what I found.

(Excerpted from Chapter 4: Gringotenango: The Grateful Unrich: Revolution in 50 Countries)

Sayaxche, Guatemala


At El Subin – a small town south of Flores – a man jumps on the bus and launches into a public speech about economics and politics. I only understand bits and pieces, but his sympathies are clearly with the leftist rebels. When he is finished, he receives a hardy round of applause and a hat full of quetzals. I am obviously headed in the right direction.

After three hours wandering around Sayaxche, I begin to lose hope that I will find a ride into the rebel-held zone. I plop down dejectedly in a small comida for an orange soda. Just then a goofy looking American strolls up and starts reeling off the seemingly standardized list of traveler interrogatories. He says his name is Ferlie and that he is on leave as a member of the US Cavalry, which has been “training” in Panama, Nicaragua, El Salvador and here in Guatemala. While in Nicaragua, he explains, he had accompanied contra battalions on night-time raids as an observer.

I am leery of the fellow, believing him to be CIA. But the more he talks – and he can’t seem to stop talking – the more harmless and lonely he seems. I decide to reveal my plans and he says that he would be eager to accompany me as “official photographer”. Since I am carrying no camera of my own, I decide it may be a good idea. If some Guatemalan corporal is going to torture the shit out of me, we may as well get it on film. Besides, Ferlie seems to have survival skills, which could be very useful as we head into this largely unexplored area where there will be no hotels. It’s a go.

A Toyota Land Cruiser has just driven off the ferry that brings people across the Rio Naranja into Sayaxche. There is no bridge. We hurry out of the comida to flag the driver down. It’s the first vehicle I’ve seen all day. We’re in luck. Carlos the driver says he is going all the way to Ixtan Playa Grande on the Mexican border – the heart of rebel territory. He is obviously wealthy and tells us, as we embark upon the badly pot-holed dirt track, that he is heading to the region to check on his 300 hectare property, on which he grazes cattle and grows cardamom for export. He is a member of the oligarchy.

The average US cat eats more meat in a year than the average Guatemalan person, yet beef is the major export here. I try to conceal my rage. Cardamom, Carlos tells us, is primarily exported to the Middle East. He says he doesn’t believe there are any guerillas, but that the government uses their alleged existence as a scare tactic and to extract US military aid.

Between Melchor and La Polvara in southern Peten province we spot a huge army encampment. I tell Carlos they look pretty convincing for actors. The soldiers appear very tense. There are sandbags around the checkpoint in the road through which we must pass. What look like a bunch of scared new recruits are running along the road up ahead. Four young boys with freshly shaved heads lean on a fence inside the camp. I can make out the words Kaibil on the shirt of one of them. These young indoctrinates, likely scooped up onto a military flatbed truck at the latest national fiesta, look especially trigger-happy and dangerous. A German doctor in Flores had told me that the bus he was on from Macanche to Rio Dulce had been stopped by the military. A very young commander made all the passengers lie face down in the road while they were frisked. The commander flew into an uncontrollable rage and the German said he had never been so scared in his life.


Narrowing eye lids are the only license issued here

Heavy breast striding in Hell’s uncertain direction

Bounty for rainbow skirts

Do you remember wearing that kind?

Here in the jungle, as if Satan’s face were really so obvious

Bustling streets try to forget

It’s hard to conceal terror with false teeth

Remembering it’s a one-way ticket out of this fiery cauldron

Carlos keeps driving. He goes out of his way to run over two dogs, cursing them as he speeds away. He raves about the homemade weapons that the vigilantes make to use against the rebels – pipe guns that fire 20 caliber slugs using a nail as a primer. The military troops we pass are equipped with Israeli Galil assault rifles and ancient WWII carbines. We pass two more bases as the village of Ixtan Playa Grande comes into view in the darkness. The second base seems especially busy for this time of night. There are Huey helicopters hovering overhead and a hulking C-130 transport plane sits on a huge lighted runway, awkwardly carved out of this wilderness.

Ixtan Playa Grande, Guatemala


We pull into the only restaurant in town around midnight. There is no menu. The meal tonight will be pollo frito, papas fritas and Coca Cola. Carlos loosens up some after his long day of driving, but is noticeably nervous about this town. Just ten days ago, eighteen people were killed in a fire fight here. I ask him what he thinks of the US military presence in Guatemala. “In the end”, he says philosophically, “there are no flags, my friend. There is only friendship and greed.”

The owners of the restaurant are Hermano and Maria. I ask them what has been happening here of late. Hermano says the guerillas attack frequently from Mexico, then retreat when things get dicey. He says the military then comes to terrorize the townspeople into giving them information on the whereabouts of the rebels. He describes one incident he witnessed recently where soldiers began to indiscriminately grab little children, swinging them by their feet and smashing their tiny heads against wooden posts. He says that under the reign of General Lucas-Garcia during the early 1980’s, things were even worse, but that it is still dangerous to talk like this. A man walks in and Hermano is visibly nervous. I casually put my paper and pen in my bag and we leave to stretch out for the night in the Landcruiser.

Carlos drives off this morning. We are on our own for a lift out of here. The action in town seems to be coming from the church, so we walk in its direction. As we stroll into the compound, the padre is giving outdoor Sunday mass in Quechua language. Upon seeing us he stops everything and comes running towards us, screaming angrily. He quickly pulls us in under the roof of a shed, then points angrily at the whirring choppers overhead, explaining that we must be very careful here because the military may think we are guerillas seeking refuge in the church. It has happened before and put the Catholic missionary in deep shit with the military authorities.

Padre Tiziano Sofia Costa is from Italy. His compound is extensive, totally surrounded by 15’ brick walls. There is a lookout tower. The entrance is guarded by wrought iron gates. It looks more like a military fort than a church. Costa is first an eccentric, then a priest. His belief in liberation theology – a radical left understanding of the Bible – has made him a target of security forces. Twice in Guatemala City, he tells us, he has had his life threatened by a military officer named Moliviati.

Despite his allegedly progressive politics, the more I am around him the less I like him. The altar in his church is a mahogany stump. Out back he keeps a virtual zoo – with cages crammed with deer, toucans, parrots and monkeys. He has his own lumber yard for the numerous building projects he undertakes using the free labor of his indigenous congregation. I find his attitude towards the Quechua people extremely condescending. He shows us a picture of himself riding a horse adorned in robes and a crown like God Almighty, with the Indians attending to his every need. He seems to pity the “savages”, viewing them as less than human, as some wild entity that must be converted to Christianity so that his own soul may enter the pearly gates.

Whether he knows it or not, his real mission here is to pacify a potentially revolutionary people who have been shafted since the Spaniards arrived here centuries ago. Their imperial progeny now run the Guatemalan circus, though their ringmasters own the stock exchanges in New York and London and live comfortably on the French Riviera. We see Israeli Black Beret soldiers in the village, along with Taiwanese Special Forces and one American – who eyes us suspiciously while he drinks with Guatemalan soldiers in the village bar.

Padre does clue us in a bit with regards to the guerillas. He says they travel back and forth from Mexico to Guatemala and number around 3,000, including numerous European Marxist mercenaries. The locals know them as GARP, the Guerilla Army of the Poor. This frontier outpost is the center of their activities, so the Army has turned Ixtan into a “model village”, where the military holds weekly seminars on the evils of communism, while rewarding informants with USAID food and weapons. Padre seems to have an ambivalent attitude towards GARP, whom he says he has encountered in the mountains on several occasions. The opportunist in him seems to be hedging its bets until a winner emerges.

Convinced that we have seen and heard what we need to know, Ferlie and I set out in the same direction we came into the village – this time on foot. Though we start early, not one car passes all day. Soon darkness is upon us. We have walked around fifteen miles, occasionally passing small clusters of mud huts containing the friendliest people I have ever met. I step on something soft and instinctively jump sideways. Ferlie shines his flashlight down on the road. It is a small brown snake that the locals call a step-and-a-half. Its neurotoxin bite causes full paralysis in a matter of seconds. Fortunately this one is dead, already run over by a car.

We notice a corn crib in the jungle to the right and head towards it. It has a thatched roof, which counts quite a bit during the rainy season. We string our hammocks and settle in for the night. Ferlie, now fully aware of my revolutionary politics, confesses what a bunch of fuck-ups the Nicaraguan contras are. He says they often receive payment via heroin injections or cocaine. He says their morale is low and that the only reason they fight is for money and drugs. They have no ideological commitments. He recalls one occasion when a unit he was observing came upon a Sandinista army battalion. The contras became scared. The Sandinistas saw them and opened fire. The contras dropped all their weapons and ran.

My feet are sore. I notice a fruit bat nestled into the thatch above me. Luckily I don’t watch television much. He seems content, so I will share his sentiment and get some sleep.

Dean Henderson is the author of five books: Big Oil & Their Bankers in the Persian Gulf: Four Horsemen, Eight Families & Their Global Intelligence, Narcotics & Terror Network, The Grateful Unrich: Revolution in 50 Countries,Das Kartell der Federal Reserve, Stickin’ it to the Matrix & The Federal Reserve Cartel.  You can subscribe free to his weekly Left Hook column


One response to “Inside Guatemala’s Civil War

  1. Sherri Nevers Reyna

    I found this very interesting. I have never really studied recent history of Guatemala but I have a strong interest in it now since living on the border in Chiapas, Mexico for over a month last year (I did cross into Guatemala briefly). I traveled extensively in the mountains from Palenque to Comitan/East in Mexico along the border. It is some of the most beautiful and captivating places I have ever been. The poverty is profound but the people are wonderful. I will never forget it. Of course, they are not “at war” now but it is still a very dangerous place. It probably doesn’t look much different in some places today than it did then. I hope to go back some day.

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