Saturday, May 5, 2007
Here's an excerpt- "Hired Guns in Guatemala"
The elevator door opened. Three men stood inside. Unlike Pepe and me, they were not wearing business suits. They were dressed casually in slacks and sweaters. One wore a leather jacket. What got my attention, though, were the guns. All three carried AK- 47s.
“An unfortunate necessity in Guatemala these days,” Pepe explained. He ushered me toward the waiting elevator. “At least for those of us who are friends of the United States, friends of democracy. We need our Maya killers.”
I had flown from Miami to Guatemala City the day before and checked into the city’s most luxurious hotel. It was one of those few occasions when Stone and Webster Engineering Corporation (SWEC) asked me to do something for them, other than refraining from writing about EHM. Pepe Jaramillo (not his real name) had signed a contract with SWEC agreeing to help the company develop privately owned power plants in his country. He was one of the most powerful members of a small group of rich elites who have controlled the country since the time of the Spanish conquest. Pepe’s family owned industrial parks, office buildings, housing complexes, and huge agricultural estates that exported to the United States. The important thing from SWEC’s perspective was that he had the political clout necessary to get things done in Guatemala.
I had first visited Guatemala as an EHM in the mid- 1970s. My job was to convince the government to accept a loan for improving its electric sector. Then, in the late 1980s, I was invited to join the board of directors of a nonprofit organization that helped Mayan communities organize microcredit banks and other grassroots endeavors aimed at pulling themselves out of poverty. Over the years, I had become very familiar with the tragic violence that had torn this country apart during the latter half of the twentieth century.
Guatemala had been the heart of the Mayan civilization that flourished for roughly a thousand years. That civilization already had entered a period of collapse that many anthropologists attribute to its failure to cope with the environmental damage caused by the growth of its spectacular urban centers, when the conquistadors invaded in 1524. Soon Guatemala became the seat of the Spanish military authority in Central America, a position that lasted until the nineteenth century and resulted in frequent clashes between Mayan and Spanish populations.
By the end of the 1800s, a Boston- based company, United Fruit, had beaten the Spanish at their own game and established itself as one of the most powerful forces in Central America. It ruled supreme and essentially unchallenged until the early 1950s when Jacobo Arbenz ran for president on a platform that echoed the ideals of the American Revolution. He declared that Guatemalans ought to benefit from the resources offered by their land; foreign corporations would no longer be permitted to exploit the country and her people. His election was hailed as a model of the democratic process throughout the hemisphere. At the time, less than 3 percent of Guatemalans owned 70 percent of the land. As president, Arbenz implemented a comprehensive land reform program that posed a direct threat to United Fruit’s Guatemalan operations. The company feared that if Arbenz succeeded he would set an example others might follow throughout the hemisphere, and perhaps the world.
United Fruit launched a major public relations campaign in the United States; it convinced the American public and Congress that Arbenz had turned Guatemala into a Soviet satellite and that his land reform program was a Russian plot to destroy capitalism in Latin America. In 1954, the CIA orchestrated a coup. American planes bombed the capital city; the demo cratically elected president was overthrown and replaced by a brutal right- wing military dictator, Col. Carlos Castillo Armas.
The new government immediately reversed the land reform process, abolished taxes paid by the company, eliminated the secret ballot, and jailed thousands of Castillo’s critics. A civil war erupted in 1960, pitting the antigovernment guerrilla group known as the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Union against the United States– supported army and right- wing death squads. The violence intensified throughout the 1980s, resulting in the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of civilians, mostly Mayas. Many more were jailed and tortured.
In 1990 the army massacred civilians in the town of Santiago Atitlán, located near the high- altitude Lake Atitlán, renowned as one of the most beautiful spots in Central America. Although just one of many massacres, this one made international headlines because it happened in a place popular among foreign tourists. According to eyewitness reports, it began when a group of Mayas marched to the gates of the military base. One of their neighbors had been abducted by the army and, fearing that he would join the ranks of the thousands officially classified as “disappeared,” they demanded his release. The army opened fire on the crowd. Although exact numbers are disputed, dozens of men, women, and children were seriously wounded and killed.
My trip to visit Pepe Jaramillo came shortly afterward, in 1992. He wanted SWEC to partner with him and obtain World Bank financing. I knew that the Mayas believe the earth is a living spirit and that places where steam gushes from the land are considered sacred. I suspected that any attempts to construct a power plant over geothermal springs would result in violence. Based on the United Fruit experience—as well as more recent ones I was intimately familiar with in Iran, Chile, Indonesia, Ecuador, Panama, Nigeria, and Iraq—I believed that if a U.S. company like SWEC called for help in a place like Guatemala, the CIA would show up. The violence would escalate. The Pentagon might send in the marines. I already had enough blood on my conscience; I was determined to do everything I could to prevent more mayhem.
A car had picked me up at my hotel that morning and driven me into the circular driveway of one of Guatemala City’s more impressive modern buildings. Two armed doormen ushered me in. One escorted me on the elevator to the top floor. He explained that the building was owned by Pepe’s family and all eleven floors were occupied by them: their commercial bank on the ground floor, offices for various businesses on two to eight, and family residences on nine, ten, and eleven. Pepe met me at the elevator door. After coffee and a brief introductory conversation, he gave me a quick tour of his building, except for floor nine, which he said was reserved for the privacy of his widowed mother (I suspected additional reasons). If the intent of the tour was to impress SWEC’s representative, it succeeded. Following a meeting with him and several of his engineers on floor five to familiarize me with the geothermal project, we lunched with his mother, brother, and sister on eleven, then headed for the elevator and a visit to the proposed site. We boarded the elevator with the AK- 47–bearing men.
The elevator door closed. The man in the leather jacket pushed the bottom button. No one spoke as the elevator descended. I kept thinking about the AK- 47s. I realized they were there to protect Pepe and me from the Mayas, the very people I worked with through the nonprofit. I wondered what my Mayan friends would think of me now. The elevator stopped. When the door opened, I expected to see the afternoon light through the portico where I had entered earlier. Instead, I saw an immense concrete garage. It was well lighted in the extreme and smelled of damp concrete.
Pepe’s hand gripped my shoulder. “Stay here,” he commanded in a soft voice.
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