A Pint of Gallo 2008

I sat waiting in the comedore, watching a group of local kids playing with a beat up soccer ball. Although our appointment was for noon, I thought that Enrique might be late, so I slowly sipped my bottle of Gallo. He finally showed up at two, in obvious disarray, and refused to even sit down. He told me he was afraid, though he refused to reveal anything further. I suggested we walk to my downtown Guatemala City apartment. As if he were too scared to say anything, Enrique nodded. We patiently walked the twelve blocks as I wondered whether I could call him my friend. We had known each other for almost eight years, after all.

I first arrived in Guatemala working for MINUGUA, the UN mission that brokered the peace accords between President Alvaro Arzu and Commandante Rolando Moran, the leader of the largest guerrilla group. After graduating college as a Spanish major I had hoped to be a journalist, but I found it hard to find work where my knowledge of the language would be an asset. I worked for a time on my hometown newspaper, reporting on the “recent rise in taquerias”, but the work quickly bored me. Through family contacts I found a job working for the UN as a photographer on the mission to Guatemala, which at least would allow me to practice my Spanish. I arrived in March 1996.

Almost immediately I met Enrique Carrera. He had recently finished his military service, and was working as a press photographer for the military. His job was to take flattering pictures of various officers shaking hands with guerrilla leaders.they were perhaps disappointed that these had escaped the scorched-earth death squads of the early 1980s. We didn’t know as much about the horrible atrocities as we later learned from the REMHI and CEH reports, but just from talking to Guatemalans, many of whom had family members or friends killed in the violence, I knew that some in the military were not to be trifled with. Of course not everyone was like that. There were various factions, and not all of them supported the gruesome actions. Enrique, when I first saw him at a MINUGUA-led negotiation, looked like someone just doing his job. I introduced myself as a UN photographer, and we quickly found some common interests, if not in our cultural heritage then in complaining about the poor equipment both of us had to work with.

I wanted to learn more about the country I would be working in, and Enrique agreed to meet with me in one of the many comedores (local diners) to talk. He immediately introduced me to the ubiquitous Gallo beer.which was relatively decent, and at least safe to drink. We quickly struck up a conversation about the peace accords. Enrique was cautiously optimistic.he didn’t expect much after almost forty years of civil war, but he did hope that the arrival of the UN would effect at least some positive changes for the country. He warned me that although most Guatemalans welcomed the end of the civil war, many in the military did not enjoy the civilian rule that had come to the country. They still sought glory by way of arms rather than peace and economic prosperity. I felt safe with my foreign passport, but Enrique’s words did explain his often ambivalent behavior. Like many Guatemalans he didn’t wish to reveal which side he was on. Although it seemed that he was in favor of peace, his job in the military meant that he never disparaged any officer that still held a position of power. When talking with him I had the impression that he acted more in agreement with the UN’s policies than he truly felt. Still, we had enough in common (and I had so few acquaintances in Guatemala) that we met occasionally to talk about politics.

I had been in the country less than a year when, on December 29, 1996, the peace accords were signed. The days surrounding the occasion were very busy for me, as the UN was trying to give lots of positive press for both sides. It was a festive affair not only for us, but for the Guatemalan people. On the eve of the ceremony there were dozens of rallies in Guatemala City. The atmosphere was reminiscent of the World Cup final I saw in Pasadena in 1994. I walked around and talked to some revelers of both groups, all clearly happy at the prospect of peace. Many people were there just to celebrate something.I quickly realized that Guatemala’s checkered history didn’t necessarily allow for such public displays very often.

The implementation of the conditions of the peace accords seemed to go well at first, and I felt that President Arzu was making a real attempt to improve the situation. Thus, at the end of 1997, most of MINUGUA had left Guatemala, leaving behind a small human rights verification team. I was not invited to stay, although my superiors were pleased enough with my work that they offered me a job back in the United States. But I had fallen in love with the country, although to this day I do not understand why. Not only does no one in my family have any ties to Guatemala, but no one except me even speaks Spanish. Still, upon hearing the news that I would have to depart, I felt like this was as much my home as anywhere else.

Although I hadn’t seen him for several months, I called up Enrique and we met to drink Gallo. I told him that I would have to leave Guatemala and he seemed honestly sad about it. I described how much I had come to love the culture and the people, and he quickly interrupted me. “You can stay,” he said. At first I was bemused, but I asked him to explain. He said that I could get a job working as a photographer for Arzu’s government. I found out that the government was looking to legitimize its actions in implementing the reforms the peace accords mandated, and that it was looking for some impartial foreigners to take some small-time journalism and photography jobs. They were having a hard time because, as Enrique explained, the jobs didn’t involve any real work.they were done entirely for PR purposes so that the government could show its good side to international observers. Still, I had to accept the job.I wasn’t yet ready to leave Guatemala. They hired me without even an interview; I learned later that I was the only one that even applied for the work.

I had been working for just a few months when REMHI released their report, Guatemala: Never Again. I wasn’t assigned to have anything to do with it, which wasn’t surprising. I quickly realized that, as Enrique had surmised, I was a perfunctory journalist at most. I would be sent to write some story about an improvement in the lives of Guatemalans (which I was meant to attribute to Arzu), written in English and meant to appear in an international newspaper. I didn’t mind that aspect of the work.as long as I didn’t criticize the government I didn’t necessarily have to exalt it as much as they would have liked. Nevertheless, the report had clearly hit a nerve of some people high up in the military. I was intrigued, and I took the next day off to visit a friend I had in the UN still working for MINUGUA. She provided me with a copy of the report. Once I started reading it, I could barely continue. The first-person accounts of suffering and torture within were absolutely heartbreaking. I couldn’t have known any of the victims personally, and I wasn’t related to any of them, but we were all related as humans. There were stories I heard in the days before, to be sure, but I never thought that the atrocities were on such a large scale. I decided to take a week off from work.

But it was not to be. Just two days later I got an urgent call from Enrique. As part of my mini-vacation I had stopped following the local news, so I was completely unaware of anything when he asked if he could come over. He arrived half an hour later, carrying a six pack of Gallo, which had for a long time become the signature drink of our meetings. “They killed the bishop,” he told me. I immediately saw that it was hard for him to even say the words. Enrique hadn’t told me much about his personal life, but I did know that he was a devout Catholic. I asked him to clarify, but he apparently found it took difficult. He just sat quietly, drinking his beer. I didn’t know what to say, so I waited patiently, watching the look of fear that was painted on his face. After he had finished his fourth beer, tears began to stream down his face. I have never been very physically affectionate, but I couldn’t help but move next to him and hug him. “It’s all right,” I said, “tell me what happened.” He told me that Bishop Juan Gerardi had been murdered, and that he had lived in Gerardi’s parish for several years now. “He may have been too outspoken, but he was wonderful to us,” Enrique described.

I let him spend the night at my apartment, as he was in no condition to go home. He felt a bit better the next day, and when we parted I didn’t realize that I wouldn’t see him for over a year, until that fateful afternoon when he arrived cryptically late for our meeting. I didn’t feel any personal attraction to the bishop.my parents raised me nonreligiously, and so I have remained.and to me his murder wasn’t more significant than that of many others killed in Guatemala. But I could tell that this was not true for most Guatemalans. Like Enrique, there were many that were devastated; for them not only did this epitomize the constant terror and betrayal of the military, widely suspected to be behind the murder because Bishop Gerardi was behind the REMHI report, but also it seemed to signal the death of the peace accords. I wasn’t that pessimistic, and I knew that such difficulties were inevitable, but it was still troubling to see Enrique in such a state of mind.

Just after Juan Gerardi was murdered, my parents suddenly decided to visit me in Guatemala City. I tried to convince them that it wasn’t a good time, with the death of the bishop casting a pall over the city, but they were insistent.after all, I hadn’t seen them since before I left in 1996. I asked to extend my time off from work for another week, and my superiors weren’t troubled. I felt that they didn’t mind if the foreign journalist stayed out of government affairs while the investigation into the bishop’s murder began. My parents hadn’t heard of Gerardi’s murder.the event was naturally much more noteworthy in Guatemala than in the US, and I briefly described the events to them. But I didn’t want them to worry about me, so I downplayed the various conspiracy rumors that were popular in the media at the time. Mostly we spent time together, and I tried to give them a taste of the culture of Guatemala, as I tried, probably fruitlessly, to convey my newfound love of the country. When they left, I at least felt that they understood my decision to stay, even if they wouldn’t have made that decision for me.

As the months wore on, I loosely followed the investigation of Gerardi’s murder. It wasn’t foremost on my mind, as, apart from Enrique, I didn’t immediately know anyone who was directly affected. My superiors continued to send me on nonthreatening, nonpolitical work, which was a welcome change of pace. I tried to contact Enrique several times, but oddly enough he was never at home and he didn’t return my calls. After about a year, I became seriously worried. Certainly we hadn’t been the closest of friends, but his trouble that night after Gerardi died was palpable. And with the mysterious investigation and the rumors that were swirling around, I wondered whether Enrique hadn’t become mixed up in all the drama.

When Enrique finally called me in late 1999, I therefore answered him with huge relief. But he said he couldn’t talk, because he was afraid “they” were listening. I felt that he may have become somewhat paranoid, but I agreed to meet him for lunch the next day. After we had walked back to my apartment, I started to open the door when he seemed to see someone walking down the street. His expression became one of alarm, and he thrust a piece of paper into my hands and ran away. I yelled to him to stop, but he ignored me, and I realized it would be futile to follow him.

The document was a short journal, perhaps specifically intended for me to read, or perhaps just so that someone would know what had happened to Enrique. It described what had occurred to him after he had disappeared following the bishop’s murder. It seemed that a superior of his in the Guatemalan military suggested that they were behind the plot, which made Enrique decidedly unnerved. He soon quit his job, and approached ODHA, the Church’s office of human rights, but they rejected his help in the investigation, so he continued by himself. It wasn’t clear what he uncovered, but he did suggest that it was something “important” that “clearly pointed the finger at some significant military figures.” The journal ended with a note that Enrique would try to give the evidence to the Special Prosecutor for the Gerardi case, and then he would attempt to go into hiding. The final page appeared to have been written in a hurry and very recently. It said simply, “Goodbye, my friend. I do not think we shall ever meet again.” Of course I immediately started to worry about the fate of Enrique.

Later that day I received a call from my superior. He curtly informed me that I had been fired.the government decided that it couldn’t have any foreigners around with the Gerardi case attracting so much attention. My work visa was canceled, and so I was forced to return to the United States. Those last few days were a blur of saying goodbye to acquaintances, packing my things, and preparing to leave the country. My former boss had informed me that I shouldn’t try to get another job in Guatemala, as it had become “too dangerous.” This, combined with Enrique’s alarming actions, was enough to convince me that it would be better if I left.

My one regret is that I never did find out what happened to Enrique. As he never again contacted me, I have my suspicions that he was one of the many nameless killed in the street violence that is so common in the country.whether because he truly had uncovered some dark secret or simply because of his paranoid flight I cannot be sure. Although I still spend nights saddened at the loss of Enrique and others like him, my experiences in Guatemala were so formative that I cannot imagine my life had they happened differently. Actions of that magnitude have effects beyond their local area; they are ripples on the pond we call the Earth.