By Jean-Marie Simon
I first traveled to Guatemala when I was 26 years old, following a year in Ecuador as a Fulbright scholar; nine months waitressing in New York, to buy cameras; and a year photographing homeless women in Manhattan, where I lived at the time. Initially, I sold my photographs to non-profits, including Amnesty International, whose U.S. headquarters was near my Manhattan apartment. I took pictures of Amnesty demonstrations and of Soviet and Argentine dissidents who miraculously had survived arrest and detention in their home countries. While stuffing envelopes, I heard a good deal about Central America, a region I did not know, and I set my sights on El Salvador, where the top guns in foreign journalism, the people I wanted to be, had planted their flags. I was enamored of the idea of being one of the media pack: AI, however, had other plans. “Everybody is in Salvador; they don’t need you there,” Bob Maurer, a head of the New York AI section told me. He urged me to go to Guatemala instead, drawing up a list of contacts there. I intended to stay a couple months and then move on to the next hot spot war zone, but instead I spent the 1980s in Guatemala as a photographer, representative to Human Rights Watch in New York, and consultant to Amnesty International’s London headquarters.
From the 1960s through the 1980s, half a dozen Latin American military governments forcibly abducted their own citizens with the intent to quash real or perceived popular opposition to the State. These “disappearances,” as they were called, consisted of warrantless arrest by the army or police; torture in secret prisons; and with few exceptions death and burial in clandestine cemeteries. The military that controlled the country until the signing of 1996 peace accords targeted unionists, academics, religious, and the urban intelligentsia, all of whom were deemed subversive. Guatemala, though smaller and less populous than the other countries, incurred the highest number of disappearances: while there is no dispositive list of victims, thousands of citizens were forcibly taken, that number peaking when I lived in Guatemala, with human rights groups estimating 45,000 individuals disappeared over a thirty-year period. Rural Guatemala, which comprised most of the national territory, was also marked by disappearances, but the government, recognizing that opposition leadership and ideological directives originated in its urban cadres, set its sights on Guatemala City, the capital, leaving the submission of five million peasants to the mechanics of 600 rural massacres.
The contact list that AI had given me was largely useless: most of those contacts had either fled into exile, had joined leftist guerrillas in the mountains, or were in hiding in remote safehouses. One of them, however, was not. Luckie (LOO-key) Orellana, a 36-year-old psychology professor and I became friends. Descended from two Guatemalan presidents, she lived with her family in a huge house in a quiet neighborhood with old trees and occasional traffic, across the street from a baseball stadium and a photogenic relief map of Guatemala. Luckie was also a militant in the Rebel Armed Forces, one of Guatemala’s four, armed guerrilla organizations. Luckie confided her militancy to me early on, and in that context our friendship developed, an amalgam of the normal -- dry cleaning runs, movies at the Cines Capitol, a visit to an aunt, toasting cousins who supported Reagan’s re-election with rum and Cokes -- and witnessing her clandestine routines as part of a movement that the government was hell-bent on destroying. In June 1983, a date sandwiched between two military coups, Ana Lucrecia was kidnapped by judiciales, plainclothes army agents, near my hotel and the U.S. Embassy. She reportedly died six months later, in a secret prison in an army base two miles from her home.
I kept working in Guatemala until 1988, when I returned to the U.S. to attend law school. By 1984 I was a stringer correspondent for Time magazine and a contract employee to Human Rights Watch in New York. As such, I combined photography with interviews, seeking out victims of human rights violations; the military; guerrillas; and ordinary citizens caught in the middle. In 1988, my book, Guatemala: Eternal Spring, Eternal Tyranny (WW Norton), one described the height of Guatemala’s war in photographs and interviews, was published in New York.
Perhaps what was most difficult about depicting Guatemala was how its abhorrent human rights situation, particularly in a capital of one million people, blended with the ordinary. In other words, urban Guatemalans went on with their lives. People boarded buses and went to work; children attended school and paraded in Boy Scout jamborees; soccer fanatics packed the Mateo Flores stadium to see the Rojos and Cremas take the field, and they swooned over The Boys of Puerto Rico, a rock group that in 1982 descended by helicopter into a packed stadium. Men filled barber shops; women had manicures, and they treated their children to Happy Meals and snow cones. Families feted birthdays with birthday cakes and pre-dawn firecrackers; penitents carried religious floats at Lent; on All Souls Day, they prepared elaborate fiambre cold cut platters and laid flowers on the tombs of departed relatives; they unwrapped Christmas presents at Christmas and in fealty to tradition ate twelve grapes on New Year’s Eve. Because the capital was not visibly engulfed in ceaseless violence – soldiers were not stationed on every corner, and unlike Bosnia, Tehran and Nairobi, shopping for shoes and crossing the street for bread did not entail risking one’s life -- disregarding it or at least subsuming it to daily preoccupations was possible. Some Guatemalans were oblivious to the violence; those who could afford it acquired bulletproof cars and bodyguards, and fortress-homes traced in barbed wire fences and closed-circuit cameras; many citizens ducked and hoped not to become victims, too; and those like Luckie, members of the armed opposition, who were aware of the risks, carried on public lives while maintaining a clandestine existence with secret rendezvous and blueprints for seizing the National Palace in a facsimile of the much-admired Sandinista revolution. To me, that dichotomy -- how routine and criminality co-existed -- are a crucial element in understanding State terror in Guatemala, not just for their contrast with today’s acts of terrorism, but because they illustrate how urban violence is less scripted and more complicated than stereotypes and agenda-rich post-conflict accounts suggest.