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Ghosts of Regime Changes Past A Review of Silence on the Mountain

A Review of Daniel Wilkinson’s Silence on the Mountain

by LARRY SIEMS

Sixty pages and several months into Daniel Wilkinson’s journey into Guatemala’s heart of darkness, the author spends an evening in a coffee worker’s cinder-block, tin-roofed home, trying to coax from him the barest information about civil conflict in and around the plantation. His host, an evangelical Christian who has painted a mural of the River of Life flowing through Paradise on the wall, deflects every question away from the physical world toward an abstract realm of bible quotations. Suddenly a gun battle erupts nearby. "This was my chance–I could feel it–the moment of truth had come at last," Wilkinson narrates. "No on could deny that something was happening here, something political, something violent."

It is indeed a moment of truth, but not the truth he was after that evening. He gathers nothing about this or any other battles; instead, as his host offers only passages from Revelations as explanation, Wilkinson learns the almost impossible obstinacy of the workers’ silence. What is holding people’s tongues, of course, is fear. In chronicling four more years spent pursuing the events that engendered that fear, Silence on the Mountain becomes more than an excavation of past horrors. By the end, Wilkinson has managed to transport the Guatemalan conflict squarely into the arena of our current national obsession: Terrorism.

Narratively, Wilkinson does this through a feat of misdirection. The present action of the book largely follows his efforts to unravel the mystery of why rebels burned the La Patria manor house to the ground in the 1980s. However, because he is unable to elicit the truth from witnesses directly, he tells those he questions that he is interested in what happened on the plantation during Guatemala’s brief experiment in land reform in 1954. Getting even this much information requires him to learn the geneologies of individual characters. As he digs deeper into the past, he displays a novelist’s faith that any particular piece of earth contains a full record of history, and the story of La Patria delivers the cast and intrigue of a literary saga.

In the 1890s, a German immigrant tries Guatemala; he works his way to the forefront of a generation of Europeans that yoked huge swaths of Central American jungle, and indigenous Americans, into coffee production; he fathers a son by an indigenous woman, and then, in fulfillment of a personal vow that there be no more ‘brown babies’ in the family, takes a German bride and has a legitimate son. Years later, the politics of land reform play themselves out between heir and bastard, just as, a generation later, another pair of brothers, one a popular politician, the other a self-proclaimed brujo and military informant, will shape the local course of the civil war. Wilkinson builds the narrative with eye for details. A university professor he meets "wore glasses and always carried a book or newspaper in one hand, the way boys where he grew up carried slingshots and the men carried machetes." The aging plantation patriarch has a way of driving home declarations in which "he clenched his fists in the air and jerked them in a downward motion, as if he were hammering Spanish exclamation marks on either side of his sentence."

As a character himself, Wilkinson wanders with various Virgils through plantations and villages. For a time, the tormented souls let him approach but will not speak. When they do begin to open up, the narrative voice becomes direct, gathering force and guiding the reader toward a well-merited rage.
The turning point comes when he finds himself facing a gathering of survivors of the January 1, 1982 massacre in the mountaintop village of Sacuchum. He is introduced by his translator as "an important person who was coming to investigate the massacre," and one by one the survivors rise to offer their accounts of a military operation that specifically targeted a civilian population and ended in the murder of 44 residents of the village. That massacre announced a major shift in tactics for the Guatemalan army, from confronting guerrilla units directly to attacking civilian populations from which the insurgents drew their support. The breakthrough at Sacuchum opens the way into the horrors in and around La Patria, where 74 civilians were killed during the war.

The signing of a final peace accord in 1996 accelerates the discoveries, and with new access to former combatants, Wilkinson begins working with local activists to help area residents present their own testimonies to the Truth Commission. As he emerges from listener to activist, he becomes a target of threats himself. He also gathers stories of remarkable moral complexity. In one searing scene, a guerrilla leader describes being confronted on a mountain path by a little boy just after his unit ambushed an army unit:

"I don’t know where he came from, but it was something I’ll never forget. He was Cupertino, a worker in the plantation. He was crying. And because his face was very dirty, his tears left a line of mud on his cheeks. He said to us, ‘why don’t you leave us alone? They killed my father. They killed my father because of you. Why’d you have to come here?’

"There was nothing I could say. Paco spoke to him and asked what had happened. He said the army had killed a group of workers who had been on the road when the fighting broke out. ‘How many people died?’ Paco asked. ‘Eight,’ the kid said.

"We continued climbing. We didn’t say anything to each other. I couldn’t get the kid out of my mind. I thought, ‘God, please give him the answer. And if there isn’t one, punish us.’"

Silence on the Mountain traces the answer to the boy’s question of why the guerrillas came to 50 years of thwarted reform efforts: to the 1954 U.S.-backed coup that pulled the plug on land reform and drove reform-minded Guatemalans into clandestine political parties; to another U.S.-sanctioned coup in 1963 that prevented the return of the exiled progressive former president; to countless assassinations of union leaders and violently-suppressed street demonstrations; and to the "disappearance," in March 1966, of many of the more moderate voices in the fledgling guerrilla movement, killings carried out by the national police in their first major operation after receiving "counter-terror" training from a U.S. military officer.

It is, amazingly, an analysis that does not differ so greatly from that one offered to Wilkinson by General Hector Gramajo Morales, who served as Guatemala’s Defense Minister in the 1980s. Gramajo’s basic grasp of the notion that political repression breeds instability and violence, and his self-declared determination that the military should no longer be used as the "dirty rag" of the oligarchy, allowed him to act the part of reformer even as he was overseeing military operations at the height of what the Truth Commission would later determine was genocide.

Gramajo tells Wilkinson that when he and other Guatemalan officers received military training in the U.S. in the 1950s, they were taught National Security doctrine that viewed local conflicts in the context of the Cold War, and that after the 1954 coup this doctrine became the governing philosophy of the Guatemalan military. Distinguishing between guerrillas, who Gramajo defines as an armed movement sustained and supported by the civilian population, and terrorists, who lack popular support and commit acts of violence to create fear, Gramajo tells Wilkinson, in essence, that the military effectively turned guerrillas into terrorists in Guatemala. They did this, Wilkinson drives home the point, not by killing guerrillas, but by their own textbook campaign of terror: lacking popular support in coffee-producing areas, the army resorted to acts of violence against civilians to create fear. "Guatemala," he concludes, "was a place where terrorism did in fact win."

Wilkinson managed to interview Gramajo by virtue of the fact that both are alumni of Harvard; he first called the general on the advice of a wealthy, Harvard-educated Guatemalan businessman who suggested, correctly, that he might need a powerful friends as he pressed ahead with his research on La Patria. Like human rights advocates working to reconstruct the recent past in so many places, throughout Silence on the Mountain Wilkinson pursues truths he suspects are known not only by locals terrorized into silence but by officials in both Guatemala City and Washington. By the end of the book, it is only U.S. officials that have not spoken about their knowledge of and role in a war that a local politician tells Wilkinson "killed the spirit of the people." Wilkinson’s book is, in the end, a scathing indictment of the shroud of silence surrounding a century of U.S. involvement in Guatemalan politics and support for a 30-year, genocidal war. To Central Americans, that silence is deafening.

I was reading Silence on the Mountain on the subway one morning on my way to work. A woman standing near me identified herself as Guatemalan, nodded at the book, and looked me hard in the eye. "There are many things we need to talk about," she declared. "We need many such books."

LARRY SIEMS directs the Freedom to Write and International Programs at PEN American Center and is the author of Between the Lines: Letters Between Mexican and Central American Immigrants and Their Families and Friends.

Daniel Wilkinson is an attorney with Human Rights Watch in New York. His book, Silence on the Mountain, won the 2003 PEN/Albrand award for outstanding first nonfiction by an American author. You can find out more about the book at SilenceontheMountain.com.