Reporting on Guatemala's remarkable National Police Archive was a personal journey for John Burnett. In 1983, at age 27, he became the Guatemala correspondent for United Press International. For the next two years, when most of the world's attention was focused on wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador, he witnessed one of the bloodiest periods of Guatemala's armed conflict.
The guerrillas and the government signed a peace accord in 1996, after which it was determined that an estimated 200,000 victims died in Guatemala's conflict — more than the other two Central American wars combined.
The two most tumultuous years of my life began on Aug. 8, 1983, when a pair of Cessna Dragonflies with the Guatemalan Air Force began buzzing the National Palace. Every radio station on the dial was playing the national anthem. It was my first day as the brand-new correspondent for UPI — la upi, as it was known in Latin America.
What on earth was going on?
As it turned out, a faction of the army that was out of power was overthrowing the faction of the army that was in power. The golpistas, the topplers, turned their khaki military shirts inside out so as not to be confused with the soldiers defending the palace — shirts versus skins, Guatemala-style.
The coup d'etat was successful. Faces changed, but not the mission. Guatemala was in its 23rd year of trying to put down a guerrilla insurgency that sought to replace the right-wing, pro-U.S. government with a Marxist-oriented regime similar to the Sandinistas. The government's counterinsurgency strategy, which proved brutally effective, was to employ terror against the civilian population. Anyone suspected of being a guerrilla, a collaborator or a sympathizer was a potential target. The army conducted most of the anti-guerrilla campaigns, but the National Police were sometimes called in to help with urban operations in Guatemala City, where I lived.
The police — whose colossal archive is currently the focus of an intense human-rights investigation — was headquartered in a castle-like building on Sexta Avenida. Gangly officers in ill-fitting uniforms were stationed in front of the fortress, hands resting on tassled white batons. They never pursued criminals, never ticketed. With dull eyes, they just stood there all day.
The kidnappings and executions were, as a rule, extra-judicial and could happen anytime, anywhere. One night, I was walking out of my favorite steakhouse, El Rodeo, when I saw a Jeep Cherokee with tinted windows tearing down the deserted street. An early predecessor of the SUV, the Cherokee was said to be the favorite conveyance of death squads.
From details I'd gleaned about past disappearances, I could imagine the hell in store for the bound, blindfolded detainee inside the speeding vehicle. Interrogators used traditional torture like beatings and electric shocks as well as more idiosyncratic methods: pumping chili sauce up the nose, immersing a face in toilet water to the point of drowning or spraying a plastic sack full of pesticides and placing it over the victim's head.
The bodies were usually discovered in the morning dumped along roadsides or pitched into deep ravines called barrancas that surround the capitol. Fire fighters collected the corpses, which appeared in the most frightful conditions. Newspaper accounts of the day described a university professor with a bullet hole through his eye, a human rights advocate with his tongue torn out and a Christian Democrat with a wooden stake through his chest. Violent death was so routine that it lost its ability to shock and was often relegated to inside pages of the newspapers. A Guatemalan journalist friend of mine called these atrocities los muertocitos — the little deaths.
One particular morning, the killings struck home. A friend of mine, Peter Wolfe, a 27-year-old Peace Corps volunteer from Belmont, Mich., was found murdered on the street after leaving a party at my apartment. The homicide turned out to be random and apolitical. But because Peter and I looked uncannily alike there was briefly talk that his death was a case of mistaken identity. Deeply shaken, I visited an acquaintance with close contacts in the Guatemalan army and implored him to find out if I was on a death list. He walked into his bedroom, shut the door, made a phone call, returned, refilled my Scotch glass and said, “John, you're not on any list.” Later that night, after I had returned to my apartment, enormously relieved, the journalist in me emerged and thought, 'I wonder who maintains the official death list?'"
Repressive governments routinely keep track of foreign journalists. I had on good authority that a local reporter with whom I worked at the UPI office was an informant paid by an intelligence service to keep track of me. For some time, I thought I was periodically followed. My suspicions were confirmed one afternoon when the chipper army colonel in charge of public relations leaned back in his chair and asked, with a cobra's smile, “So, John, how was the movie last night?”
I finally called it quits in Guatemala when I contracted typhoid and spent two weeks in the hospital being pumped full of antibiotics. On top of the tropical malady, the anxiety of covering Guatemala's civil war had become more than I wanted to handle. I moved to Atlanta with my fiancee and began stringing for National Public Radio.
Returning to Guatemala this July to research the National Police archive, I was especially interested when Alberto Fuentes, an official with the Guatemalan Human Rights Ombudsman, led me into a musty room with a handprinted sign on the door that read, Mesa 1984 — table 1984. Young employees were busy cleaning the documents from that year and organizing them in preparation for analysis. In coming months, researchers will pore over them for evidence of police involvement in the surveillance, disappearances and executions of the counterinsurgency.
“If you find any documents with my name on them,” I joked, “I'd like to know. And if you find the name of my informant, that would be interesting, too.”
Fuentes didn't think I was kidding. He wrote my name on a Post-It note along with the name of the journalist who spied on me [he shall remain nameless in this essay]. Fuentes then stuck the note on the wall.
“Let me know if you find anything,” he told the workers, and we continued the tour.
I don't expect it will amount to anything, but it's reassuring to me that these human-rights detectives have dedicated themselves to unearthing what really happened in Guatemala City under cover of darkness during those terrible years.
Parts of this column are adapted from John Burnett’s book, Uncivilized Beasts and Shameless Hellions: Travels With an NPR Correspondent, which will be published on Sept. 5.