Ivan's Place
In honor of the greatest moralist who never lived
Copyright © 2004 by Bill Becker

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The International March for Peace in Central America
December 10, 1985 — January 24, 1986


Return to Introduction and La Marcha Table of Contents.

La Marcha was purposefully scheduled to be in Guatemala for the inauguration of the new president, Vinicio Cerezo Arevalo. Guatemala was host to the longest-running revolutionary movement in the hemisphere. Begun in 1961, it was a response to a succession of unspeakably brutal governments, all of which enjoyed Washington's unstinting support and friendship. (For a fine account of the CIA-orchestrated overthrow of the progressive, and democratically elected Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz in 1954, and the installation of the first of this series of brutal regimes, see Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala, by Stephen C. Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer.)

As I recall it, Cerezo—a member of Guatemala's upper class—had nevethelss been an opponent of the repression, and had been arrested and tortured by the military. In a radical departure from all previous U.S. Presidents, Jimmy Carter actually said out loud that human rights were important, and thereby helped make U.S. support for Guatemala's hyper-brutal repression something of a liability. This in turn helped to make Cerezo's election to the Guatemalan presidency possible.

Thus, the peace and justice community around the world, along with millions of Guatemala's poor, hoped that Cerezo would be able to at least mitigate the horrendous human rights violations committed by the Guatemalan military against Guatemala's Indian community. La Marcha wanted to show Cerezo that he had international support for any such efforts he might make. ¡Que lastima! After all was said and done, Cerezo turned out to be just as corrupt as his predecessors.

My notes show that as of the morning of January 10, a charter flight into Guatemala City seemed possible, but it is likely that opposition from the Guatemalan military put an end to that idea. They would not benefit from a well-publicized, international peace and justice group coming in overtly to draw attention the worst human rights record in the hemisphere.

Thus, we proceeded with the plan which we had prepared: we would fly in as small groups of "tourists," trying not to draw attention to ourselves. We would be met at the airport by marchistas who had arrived earlier, and receive from them advice and directions to the local pensions which would be our home for the next 4 days. Tickets had already been purchased for most of the group—I seem to recall helping in that process myself—and I am not aware that any problems in entering Guatemala were encountered by any of the marchers. (More on this below.)

Whether by accident or by design, Theresa from Canada; Anna from Scotland; Jodi and Eric from Minnesota and I formed a little band of "tourists" for our departure, and we pretty much hung out together during our stay in Guatemala. We arrived at the airport in Managua at 6:30 p.m., and were pleased to learn that the Sandinistas waived the standard $10 tax. Money was running short for some of us, and the gift was greatly appreciated. The plane left the runway at 7:20. We touched down in San Salvador, El Salvador at 8:02, and took off from there at 8:32 without disembarking. We landed at the Guatemala City International Airport at 8:55 p.m.

My sketchy notes show that while we were on the plane, Theresa and Jodi were questioned by a man sitting near them. Where were they from?
"Canada," they answered. They probably added that they were here as tourists, although my notes don't say specifically that they did.
"Do you see those people over there," he asked, pointing at several of us marchistas. "They're all Cubans and Russians."
"Really," asked our "tourists."
"Yes," he affirmed.
"All of them?"
"Yes," he insisted. "I'm from Costa Rica," he said. "Costa Rica is different. It's 99% like the U.S. We have no military, and we have lots of freedom."
This man revealed the same degree of political sophistication as his Costa Rica Libre compatriots.

We found a pension—the MEZA, and a great restaurant—The Picadilly, located as I recall on Guatemala City's main drag, 6th Avenue. We had a very good pizza, and we paid in dollars instead of Guatemalan quetzales. After dinner we walked around the neighborhood playing dumb tourists. It was now after 10:30, and it was chilly outside. Our first sight out of the restaurant was of a small figure huddled in a shop doorway. Across the street two women and three children huddled in another doorway.

The next morning, the 11th, I went to the tourist center to get maps, changed money, bought toilet paper and toothpaste. While walking around town—whether alone or with my little band my notes don't indicate—I met Steven, Stan, and Daniel, and received an update on Brigido Sanchez's situation in El Salvador from Daniel. (See the Salvador page.)

January 12th

The daily paper Prensa Libre carried a diatribe from a right-wing Guatemalan political type condemning Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, who had been invited to attend Cerezo's inauguration. Ortega was accused of being responsible for the deaths of Guatemalan soldiers and officials, but we marchistas had never heard of any direct hostilities between the two countries. Perhaps the politician was referring to Guatemalan soldiers and officials who were covert CIA operatives, and who perhaps had been caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Tom, from Minnesota, related that he had attended a talk by a Guatemalan woman at the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua (UNAN). She spoke about Guatemala's spy network, and about how dangerous it was to talk openly against the government. She also told him some horror stories, which he either did not relate, or which I did not record. I recall being approached by a very friendly Guatemalan who asked a lot of questions and offered me a private tour of the city. I respectfully declined.

That evening, Tom and I waited at the airport for an American from Miami who was scheduled to join us. In fact, I wished that I had been there the night before, to greet him. As he told the story, he was walking toward the baggage check area when he heard a loud voice behind him: "Tom ..., I'm from the CIA, and we're not going to let you into Guatemala." Tom froze, then turned to see the speaker. It was one of the Americans he had seen January 6th, at the meeting with U.S. embassy official Sweeney in Managua. This fellow had followed us to Guatemala, and apparently had been instructed to have a little fun with us.

It worked. Tom had calmed down by the time he told his story, but he said he broke out in the proverbial cold sweat during the encounter. My notes don't say what Tom's response to his tormentor was, but I recall expressing quite vividly my own regret that I had not been the one our spook employee had decided to confront. Perhaps foolishly, at the time I would have given my eye teeth to have been able to confront this CIA compatriot with my own opinions on his choice of livelihood, and perhaps his lineage as well. If I had attended the meeting at the embassy, perhaps I might have been the lucky one. (On the other hand, I'm not totally dumb. Had it actually been me, given the repercussions that I knew could affect the march as a whole, I might well have been quite circumspect in my response.)

January 13:
I called home. Dinner at Los Cebollinos, which had become my favorite restaurant. I have no other notes for the day.

January 14, Tuesday:
Cerezo will be inagurated today at the National Theater at 9:15 a.m. This evening he will address Guatemala and the world from the National Palace. It promises to be a memorable day.

In response to the repression, Guatemala's Indian community formed the El Grupo De Apoyo Mutuo, The Group of Mutual Support [for the reappearance alive of the disappeared, as I once heard the full title expressed]. GAM, with its contacts in the global human rights community, was a painful thorn in the side of the Guatemalan government and the oligarchy. GAM would be there for Cerezo's inauguration and for his later inaugural address. La Marcha would be there too. We did not plan to hide our light under a bushel.

Street urchins It's near midnight, and this little band is only one of many we saw on the streets of downtown Guatemala City.

Jodi and Anna regretted that they could not buy these puppies as mascots for la marcha. The pups were very healthy and well-cared for.

January 14. The National Palace.

The streets are quiet this morning. There are virtually no vendors, and only a few people out on the streets.

This large plaza will be the site of a demonstration later this evening. The blue and white of the Guatemalan flag can be seen hanging from the balcony from which newly inaugurated Guatemalan president Cerezo will address the nation

The National Theater

Cerezo will soon be inaugurated here. GAM and La Marcha line the entrance. We are blocked by a police line from going beyond the guard kiosk (blue roof).

My notes indicate that Vice President George H.W. Bush, and Senator Richard Lugar will attend the inauguration. Too bad they didn't come out to talk with us.

The Group for Mutual Support Demands:

  • We demand that General Mejia Victores and the National Army answer:
  • What have you done with the thousands of detained and disappeared Guatemalans?
  • You have admitted that you captured them (press conference given by General Victores, 5/11/85)
  • Then why do you not respond? Where do you have them? What have you done with them?
  • We ask of the new "civil" government:
  • What steps will you take to return our loved ones to their homes?
  • ¿Habrá justicia por fin ante nuestro Humano reclamo? (I need help with translating this one.)
  • As a lawyer, you, Vinicio Cerezo, told us more than once: "Now I cannot do anything; when I am President, I will do justice by them [the disappeared]."
  • We expect concrete actions now that you have the "power." Will there be another excuse?
  • Try the military criminals and the material and intellectual authors of the kidnappings and the assassinations!
  • Because the military must respond: Where are our loved ones!

In the face of Guatemala's particularly vicious repressive style, these poor Guatemalans showed a kind of courage that our own military heroes have never had occasion to display—the courage to resist your own government's repression when doing so may well result in the torture and murder of your loved ones.

GAM. The photos are those of los desaparecidos—the disappeared. The man in the large picture may have been a leader in the struggle. Another such large photo of a woman appears in a picture below.

Names of the disappeared. Note the years. Another of my photos shows a name list from 1980.

The Vikings with one of their several banners. Ollie Haskell to the right.

I don't recall any serious disturbance that would have called for these soldiers. There were plenty of ordinary policemen who were keeping order.

These guys look oddly familiar, don't they?

This photo, with the National Theater behind me, does seem to show the beginning of a disturbance. The next four photos show a pushing match between the GAM demonstrators and the police.

The man approaching from back center seems to be a higher-level officer.

I do not recall that this brief episode led to any harm to anyone, or that any GAM demonstrators were arrested.

Perhaps I'm being unfair, but I suspect that this policeman would like to have seen me disappeared, too.

The demonstration at the National Theater went off without a hitch, probably a tribute to Cerezo's desire to show that Guatemala was on the cusp of a new policy toward poverty and rebellion.

Later, GAM and la marcha marched along 6th Avenue, with GAM leading the way. Torril Eide can be seen just above the photo poster upper left. I and a couple of other marchistas had decided to get something to eat, and this picture was taken as the march passed, coincidentally, below the restaurant window.

We are at the National Palace, where Cerezo will speak later to the nation and the world.

Still waiting for Cerezo.


I don't actually remember Cerezo speaking, nor do the documentary films of La Marcha show him speaking. I have the feeling that he may have flaked on us.

Around town; date uncertain.

Jeeps were very popular amongst the Guatemalan oligarchy, and there was a thriving local economy based on armoring them. Bullet-proof windows, bomb-resistant underplating.

I suspect that such defensive measures were more for warding off kidnappings of the rich by some of their own well-off compatriots as for protection from rebels. Affluent residences were usually surrounded by walls topped with broken glass and concertina wire.

Given the oligarchy's extensive spy network, I don't think the rebels were too active in the larger cities themselves.

Theresa and Anna wash their hair at the pensión where we stayed.

Clockwise from upper right: Jodi, Eric, Anna, and Theresa at the New World Chinese Restaurant. All of the restaurant food in Guatemala City was superb.

January 15.

We leave Guatemala City and head for Quetzaltenango. The cultivated hillsides are typical of Central America. The oligarchy owns the best land in the valleys, and uses it primarily to grow export crops. The campesinos must farm the hillsides to provide food for their families.

What housing we saw was primitive, dotting the hillsides, and not electrified as in much of Nicaragua's rural areas.

For some unrecorded reason, I did not leave with the main body of the march. I stayed behind, and alone, until 2:30 p.m., when I caught a bus to catch up with them. My notes show that it was no fun at all being alone in a strange place, and speaking Spanish poorly.

I was also in a pensive mood, coming "face-to-face with—what?—timidity, lack of commitment/passion for justice ...?" I never felt myself in danger, but I clearly had no interest in getting killed for the cause. Should I feel guilty about that?

Here we are at a market in Quetzaltenango, inspecting the colorful woven goods that are an important source of income for Guatemala's Mayan Indian population.

These photos show us demonstrating at the rotunda in Quetzaltenango's central square—the zocalo. Blase's report notes that the mayor of Quetzaltenango welcomed us—"a gesture no one expected."

Ollie Haskell related that the nuns he talked with were nervous, gather only in small groups, and don't talk openly about la marcha in town. Others said that they were being watched and that it was dangerous to talk with us. They also said that they were glad we came.

January 16.

I think we arrived in Huehuetenango around 10:30 a.m. It was a cold and frosty morning.

Here the Danes hold a banner at a rotunda identical to Quetzaltenango's. Our Spanish journalist-marchista is recording comments from one of the two Argentine Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo.

My notes say that the people here were decidedly cooler toward us—there were fewer of them, and not much interaction between us.

Richard, from Wisconsin, said that a man came up to him and asked him about the march. Richard asked if he thought Cerezo's election would make a difference. "I don't know—maybe. I'll wait 6 months to a year before deciding to take up arms or not."

Richard asked him if it was dangerous to talk with him [Richard]. "Maybe. While I was dancing with a marchista someone tapped me on the shoulder and said he would kill me tonight. I know three people who have been killed by the military. I'm too angry to be afraid now."

Even though Richard did not suggest this, I suspect that this man was a spy, and was trying to gain Richard's confidence in hopes of getting some information out of him.

January 17.

We awake in Huehuetenago to the sound of gunshots—lots of them.

We then board the buses for Mexico. Here we see a more humane way to lead a bull than the familiar nose ring.

We inspect a bridge over a stream.

As I recall it, this was a bit tricky because the bus wheel separation was about as wide as the bridge itself. I think most marchistas got out.

January 17, 1:30 p.m.

The Mexican border gate, from the Guatemalan side.

Crossing into Mexico. We will board five buses here and will arrive at San Cristobal de las Casas at 8 p.m.

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