James Perry Walker, Seated Woman, San Ignacio.
The sky and the earth existed, but the light of the sun and the moon was dim.
Then a being called Wukub K’aquix was very proud of himself because of his wealth. Wukub K’aquix had two sons: Zipacna and Cab Rakan. Their mother was Chimalmat, the wife of Wukub K’aquix. The elder, Zipacna, fancied himself the proprietor of the mountains because he created them in one night. His brother Cab Rakan moved and made the high mountains tremble. The sons of Wukub K’aquix were very proud of themselves.
In this way all of them showed their pride, and this seemed very evil to the two youths, Hun Ahpu and Xbalamque. They decided to kill them.
Pam Yates Tom [Sigel] and I just came back from El Salvador where we were shooting for PBS Frontline. We produce our own films but we also work as a crew for a lot of other people. You know as an independent producer you can’t make it. I mean you just can’t make it. Plus, by working on other people’s films you increase your credibility which is especially important when working in countries where a war is going on. Doing whatever one can to be legitimate, credible, and middle-of-the-road.
Betsy Sussler Middle-of-the-road?
PY Because the thing that you have to fear most is repression from government sources. And so in their eyes you must maintain your credibility and your legitimacy.
BS You seem to be pretty biased in your opinions. When the Mountains Tremble was narrated by an Indian woman whose father and brother had both died horrible deaths at the hands of the government in Guatemala. How do you maintain this middle-of-the-road stand? Is it out of compassion as well as pragmatism? For instance, in Report from the Front, you spent a lot of time with the Contras, the army fighting the Sandinistas. You can’t spend weeks with people, walking over mountains, living with them, sharing their food and sleeping in their camps without having some kind of compassion for them. Can you?
PY No. I wouldn’t say we’re middle-of-the-road. I think a better word is objective. Because I do consider ourselves objective. Biased in the sense that the films represent a chance for people to speak to Americans who don’t usually have that opportunity. They’re not experts, they don’t get on the evening news. It’s a chance for those people to speak and to tell other sides, other parts of the story that haven’t been told. But we always make a really great effort to speak to all sides in a conflict. Because I don’t think the people in the United States would believe a story unless all sides were told. These films are a culmination of five years in Central America.
What we do is take a very clear position and then we also present all sides because we think it’s a better way of telling a story.
BS Yes, documentaries are also narratives. And you gather the tales necessary to reveal the narrative. What was it like living with the Contras? How did you begin to be able to develop a trust?
PY Oh well, just to get to the point where we were able to film the base camps in Honduras and travel with them into Nicaragua on the patrol took several months of traveling along that road on the Honduras side right along the Nicaraguan border. We went to a lot of camps guarded by armed Commandos and they wouldn’t let us in, they told us they were refugee camps and finally, we made contact with the Contra leaders in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras and it was only through negotiations in Tegucigalpa, Miami, and Washington that we were finally given the go ahead.
BS What kind of negotiations?
PY What we were going to do, what they wanted us to do. Who would give them recommendations for us. And then finally, they told us they had checked us out with the Blue Eyes, meaning the CIA, and it was OK. So we went. Now, in all of these situations leadership, military leadership is different from the rank and file. So the people that we walked with into Nicaragua, the Contra …
BS Who are fighting the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.
PY And who are backed by the CIA.
BS And who are trained and supplied by the CIA … are all the Contras Nicaraguan?
PY They are all Nicaraguan. Most of the Contra leadership are former Somoza National Guardsmen. They fled to Honduras after Somoza was overthrown.
BS Would they have been killed if they had stayed in Nicaragua?
PY No, nobody was killed. In fact, the Sandinistas tried about 7,000 National Guardsmen—they had about 7,000 trials for people who had murdered, raped, tortured … Somoza’s Guard was a very brutal army.
A lot of them fled to Honduras and it was there that they regrouped and then when the CIA gave them money, began to launch attacks into Nicaragua, once again, which have intensified in the last year.
BS How do they feel about attacking their own people?
PY They feel that it’s the only way to take back power. And they do attack civilian targets.
BS When you were living with them, what did you discuss with them?
PY Not too much. They’re a very dangerous group of people. Although there are peasants who also make up the rank and file. They were the people I felt close to but I felt very sorry that they had joined the Contra because they were influenced by lies that the Contras broadcast on their radio station.
BS What kind of lies?
PY They say that the Sandinistas are Marxist Leninist, that they are going to send Nicaraguan children to Russia … that they’ll no longer let you practice Catholicism, that the reason food is so scarce is that they are sending all the sugar cane to Cuba—as if Cuba needed sugar cane!—and they are appealing to Nicaraguan nationalism—“the foreigners are taking over the country.”
BS The United States is enforcing an embargo against Nicaragua, which is one reason why there is a food shortage.
PY Exactly, but if you are a peasant who can’t read and write and you live in a small village, how do you know that? All you know is what people tell you. And when the Contra comes through and says that the Sandinistas are killing people and that they are exporting the agricultural goods to Cuba, there’s no way you can know what to believe. Also, in the northern area of Nicaragua, they didn’t participate as fully in the war against Somoza as in the urban centers. And so many of the peasants there didn’t go through the same process as people in the cities. It really was the urban guerrilla war that lead to the general insurrection of 1979 which overthrew Somoza. So, if you are 18-years-old, there’s no work, the economy is not doing very well, you have only a couple of choices: you can be unemployed; or get a uniform, have an automatic weapon, and get fed three times a day. A lot of young men opt for that.
BS What about the young men and women who fight as Sandinistas, do they get three meals a day, a uniform, and a gun?
PY Yeah, they do but what’s ironic is that the Contras are much better equipped than the Sandinista army. This army that’s supposed to be the great big threat to US security is actually less well armed than the Contra.
BS Then is it their sense of morale that gives them such strength?
PY That’s the big difference. The Sandinistas know more why they are fighting. They have a greater level of education. And that education goes on all of the time. Their morale is much much higher.
BS And why are they fighting?
PY The Sandinistas? They’re really just defending their country. Defending what they won when they overthrew Somoza, defending their right to reconstruct the country in peace. And they have a lot of work to do.
BS There is also a war going on in Guatemala.
BS And there, are there government death squads like the ones in El Salvador?
PY Yes. In Guatemala the Indians have joined with the Ladinos (non-Indians) in forming a very broad opposition movement to the government. That movement was attacked and driven underground about four years ago and since then the armed struggle side of the conflict has intensified. It’s funny, because the war in Guatemala is very hidden, you really don’t hear anything about it here. It’s happening because there hasn’t been any room for peaceful reform. We focused on the Indians in Guatemala in When the Mountains Tremble because the Indians are still the majority of the Guatemalan population.
Also, it’s important because it’s really the first time in the hemisphere that the Indian population has joined with the non-Indians, the Ladinos.
BS Why has that happened there?
PY First of all Guatemala’s been at war for 30 years. The war has ebbs and flows …
BS It is a Civil War.
PY It’s a Civil War with the large landowners, industrialists, and the military who, in Guatemala, have become part of the oligarchy. The military have become the landowners. You know, usually the military is the protector of the oligarchy from the rest of the people. But in Guatemala, they themselves have become the oligarchy. They even have the Bank of the Army.
BS Are they backed by the CIA?
PY No, they’re the best counter insurgency army in Central America. Many of the officers were trained in the United States and the Reagan administration considers them great allies. The United States has relied on the Guatemalan military to be the strongman of Central America since Somoza was overthrown. They don’t really need the help of the United States militarily. But they need their help in military aid andeconomically.
BS I see, and they get it?
PY They’re getting it. The military aid was cut off under Carter.
BS There is a retold scene in your film between an ambassador from the United States and Jacobo Arbenz, the leader of Guatemala, that took place in the ’50s. Was that when the United States began to fear a change of government in Guatemala?
PY Yes, the United States was very involved, really had a strong hand in everything that happened in Central America. Examine the number of times the marines invaded it in the first half of the century. And all of a sudden they began to be faced with a moderate reform government in Guatemala that scared them because this new fledgling democracy usurped some of the power of the United States to determine the destiny of that country. Guatemala, as all of Central America, has been the US’s backyard. We control the country’s economic growth.
BS Which companies were there?
PY Principally United Fruit was king because the 1950s was when Guatemala was just beginning to industrialize. Now there are many, many other multinationals with US bases: pharmaceuticals, Coca Cola, banking, mining.
BS In the early ’50s, were they trying to unionize?—Get fair wages?
PY There was a new labor code involved. There was also educational reform, government reform, land reform, teaching the disenfranchised sector of the population to read and write, voting rights.
BS So the conditions down there were pretty bad and the companies weren’t taking responsibility for their workers.
PY Exactly, one of the things that really did it for Jacobo Arbenz and the reason that he was overthrown was that all of the land the United Fruit Company owned and wasn’t using, he took over for the agrarian reform—to distribute the land to landless peasants.
BS As collective farms?
PY No, he was turning over individual plots to individual peasants. It was a verymoderate reform.
BS It was basically to raise the standard of living of the people.
PY Yeah, and Arbenz paid United Fruit for the land. He paid them based on what they had been assessing the land for taxes, which as you can imagine, was very low. That was the final straw. The reason we start the film with the scene of the US Ambassador threatening to overthrow Arbenz is because it’s at that point that the US definitively retarded modern historical development in Guatemala. Our government overthrew one of the first democratically elected governments in Central America and replaced Arbenz with a succession of brutal military dictatorships that we still see today. That was the beginning.
BS Was it greed, or fear of Communism because Arbenz was moderately left wing?
PY Well, I think greed and the fear of Communism are one and the same. Protecting National Security Interests is basically getting the maximum profits, from whatever the investments are, wherever they are in the world. Generating fear of Communism is merely a smokescreen so that this greed appears to be ideological.
BS The Guatemalan people, at this point, started fighting back?
PY The first people to fight back in the early ‘60s were dissatisfied army officers who had supported Arbenz’s moderate reform.
BS What happened to them?
PY They were killed. Two of the guerrilla fronts today are named after them.
BS It’s less of a class war there and more of an overall thrust for a new government?
PY No, it’s evolved into a class war. But you have to use the word class war in a broad sense. In Guatemala, because of the leadership and the participation of the Indians, we’re dealing with a lot of other factors than just class.
BS Like what?
PY Like what is going to be the role of the Indians; how to preserve Indian culture, language, dress. Basically the Indians and the Ladinos want the same things in terms of developing a democracy. But then how they structure their economy and what will be their priorities, I think, could be very different. Not only are the Indians mostly peasants, but we see progress, in western civilization, in one way. We see that you have a growing reform, that you industrialize the country, that you have an integrated economy … those will be some of the things that some of the Indian groups may not see as a priority.
BS What do they see as a priority?
PY To eat. To live in peace with dignity, to preserve their customs. One of the reasons why the Indians and the Ladinos formed an alliance is that both groups have borne the same repression and the same suffering.
BS Rigoberta mentions in the film that two of her young brothers died while working on the plantations. One was sprayed with pesticide by the landowner’s plane while working in the field, and the other from malnutrition? Starvation? While he was employed?
PY Malnutrition, the same thing.
BS Did the Ladinos and Indians meet working, on the plantations?
PY Yes. Also because of the economic crisis in the countryside, and Indians being thrown off their land, a lot of Indians went to Guatemala City and started to work in low-level industry, the unskilled jobs. It was really in the factories and on the plantations that they met the Ladinos.
BS In Guatemala, you got to go with the guerrillas and live with them. Describe the first day of going into the mountains.
PY I have to describe the first night because when you’re with a guerrilla force you usually walk at night. You hide or sleep or meet during the daytime. We probably walked 25 miles the first night through the mountains—it’s highlands. It was so dark, I couldn’t see anything in front of my face. I might as well have been walking with my eyes closed. They knew everything. They knew where to turn, where the lookouts were, where they were going. I just held on to the person in front and walked. So we walked all night from dusk to dawn and that’s where we met the rest of the guerrilla force.
BS Are they all that young?
PY Most of them are very young, 15 to 18. They look younger because they’re small, Indian men don’t have any hair on their face so they look more like boys at that age. We got there and slept and the rest of the time was spent talking and meeting and watching them recruit people, bring them into the guerrilla force. They did a lot of political education. (What’s that?) Teaching people how to read and write; that their destiny doesn’t have to be poverty and suffering, their history as a country, how to organize, who their enemies are, self defense. We walked every day, we changed locations every day. One of the things that was the most impressive to us was at what a high level they were organized because a guerrilla force is really only a military expression of a whole political organization of which the majority is non-military but supports the military. In other words, there is a political organization of civilians; people are organized to cook, to inform, to bring food, transportation, supplies … because they know that the guerrilla forces not only defend them but will ultimately defeat the army.
BS So the whole country is mobilized?
PY Especially in the Indian Highlands. Do you know the scene in the film where there is a meeting, you see people start to gather under the trees and then a woman speaks? (Yeah.) We arrived at a place one morning and the compañero said, “Would you like to come to a meeting?” We figured a few hundred people would come. So they sent out runners who are mostly youngsters of nine to 11 and within six hours 2,000 people [civilians] arrived on the spot. Which to us was a testament to the level of their organization. And the woman who speaks is a civilian leader. They were under those trees hiding from helicopters.
BS Were they happy to have you along?
PY Oh yeah. They were a little confused at first. In all of the countries in Central America, you have to go with one side or the other. You can’t just arrive, present your credentials, and you’re fine. The most amazing thing that happened to us in Guatemala was that before we went with the guerillas, we couldn’t find many people who would talk to us about the government, or the repression, on camera because they are too afraid to. The repression is intense so why should people tell you? They don’t know who you are.
BS They could be killed.
PY They could be killed. When we went with the guerillas it was as if we had crossed an invisible line and all of a sudden everyone would tell us what ever we wanted to know. And it was the most dramatic journalistic experience I’ve ever had in my life.
Funeral of Assasinated Neighborhood Leader, Luis Godoy Meiselas/Magnum.
BS One of the most excruciating moments in your film is when you recorded the results of a massacre. Is that how common it is? You walk into a village and see women and every male around from six-years-old to 70 murdered?
PY Well, it isn’t exactly that easy. Actually the army took us to that place. They took us there and told us the guerillas had massacred the people. So I asked to speak to an eye witness and they brought the Indian woman who was speaking in the film. She was speaking in Quiche, an Indian language. The Army translator translated the opposite of what she was actually saying and never realized we would be sophisticated enough to get an independent translation when we got back to the capital. The reason they took us to the scene of the massacre was because we were with several Congressional Aides who were on a Fact Finding Mission. And the Army took us there to show us that the guerillas kill and the Guatemalan Army needs economic and military aid from the United States.
BS Do the guerillas kill civilian population?
PY They kill informers. But they never massacre the civilian population. They kill informers because they feel that informers jeopardize the lives of hundreds of civilians but 99 percent of their targets are military. They couldn’t—there would be no way a guerilla force could survive without the people. They are the people and they need the support of the general population.
BS What are the guerilla camps like?
PY They use plastic as tents, under the trees, blankets—they have very few personal possessions, they are extremely self-sufficient. Often they have to leave everything behind when the army is coming but they always return.
BS It’s hard to understand a guerilla movement as a war. The whole country is a battleground. There are no decisive battles, but skirmishes—it’s very confusing.
PY That’s because a guerilla war is one stage of a war. To win a war you have to move from the stage of guerilla warfare to conventional warfare. And so what you do is gather strength: you gather support among the population, you raise their political standards, the ideological standards, you attack the enemy strategically and take the weapons, you make alliances; until you get stronger and stronger and you can have general battles. As in El Salvador now, the way they overran the very strategic fort, “El Parcuso” in January. A guerilla war is just one stage of a war.
BS The young people who join the guerilla forces do so with the permission of their parents?
PY Um hmm.
BS So it’s not the young rebelling against an older generation, it’s a long term commitment of generation after generation. (Um Hmmm) There is discussion in your film among the Catholic Priests as to their role in the war. Many of the priests and nuns were responsible for helping these people understand what was happening to them economically and politically. The government’s response has been to try and replace the Catholic Church with right wing missionaries from the US?
PY The conservative Evangelical movement. The reason is that the Indians were marginalized for a long time. And two things had happened: the Catholic clergy had started to teach people how to read and write, build schools, install running water; and were increasingly involved with aiding the poor as a result of Vatican II and the beginning of Liberation Theology throughout Latin America. All of a sudden there was a new growing and changing philosophy about what the role of the Church should be in undeveloped countries. And that it should be on the side of the poor, and work for social change—should work for the rights of the powerless groups. That has created such a furor in Latin America because it means that people within the Church have to take essentially a class position. And they did.
BS And now they’re being killed as well.
PY Yes, and Catholic congregations persecuted.
BS What is the US policy in Guatemala—do they claim not to know about the death squads and torturing, or do they just not care?
PY The US policy is that the Guatemalan government is fighting a serious terrorist threat and that whatever we can do to aid them in that, we should do. Now, the United States, because of American public opinion, is very sensitive to the human rights abuses. They really want to be able to clean that up. So they say, just as they say in Salvador, that they want to clean up the Death Squad activity. But you can’t have it both ways. You either have to have social reform or you have to wage a war which includes death squads, people being tortured, people disappearing. It’s a fallacy, and it’s really only for public consumption in the United States that we want to both get rid of the death squads and get rid of the opposition to the government. The US understands the need for the death squads. What in reality happens is that we support the government. Which means that we support the death squads and we support the murder because the Guatemalan government couldn’t maintain its power without that level of terror.
Jean Marie Simon, Rightwing Vigilantes, Guatemala, 1984.
BS Why do you think the United States is so afraid of social reform in Central America?
PY The face that we see of the government in the United States, is very different from the face that is seen of the US government in Central America. And one of the reasons that we have the level of democracy that we have in the United States is precisely because Latin Americans don’t have it. In other words, those countries were developed to be under-developed, so that most of the wealth would come back to the United States. As long as the American government can keep Americans satisfied at home, they know there’s not going to be too much threat from other smaller countries. And now that the US government sees the spreading revolt in Central America, what they fear most is Mexico. Not only because it has a border with the United States, but because culturally the US and Mexico are very close. I mean so much of the Southwest was Mexico. And Mexico is a very industrialized country. It’s a very wealthy country. That’s what they are afraid of.
BS They are having so many economic problems now.
PY And precisely because Mexico is having an economic crisis—that breeds civil discontent. The US is afraid of Nicaragua as an example of what could be in Central America.
BS One could argue that our foreign policy in Central America will ultimately destroy any influence we could have had. Because we are pitting three, four, five generations of a country against us. Which means we will never have friendly relationships—mutually beneficial—with the peoples of these countries.
PY I’m not sure how much we want friendly relationships as long as we can have controlling ones.
BS And the next logical question is how long can you have a controlling relationship with a people who don’t want it? Which is what’s happening. And do the people of the United States want to wage war against the people of Central America for the rest of our existence?
PY Yeah, because we can always defeat it temporarily. The US could go into Nicaragua tomorrow. But that wouldn’t solve anything in the long term.
BS How did these church groups, these Evangelists crop up in Guatemala all of a sudden. Are they missionaries?
PY Yes, missionaries from the United States. When the Catholic Church began to be identified with social action, the repression hit them very hard. And then these conservative Evangelists came from the United States and taught the exact opposite of Liberation Theology. Their philosophy is that you should obey the people in power because God placed them there. That religion should be totally separate from politics. They exhorted people not to get involved politically—and they wouldn’t get killed.
BS The Guatemalan government invited them in or were they sent down by another group?
PY One of the former presidents of Guatemala was an Evangelist. The American Evangelists that we met were former hippies from Haight Ashbury who saw the light and became Born Again Christians.
BS How dangerous are they to the Guatemalan movement?
PY Very, because people tend to romanticize the situation in Guatemala; that all the people are on one side and all the army and the government are on the other side. There’s a lot of middle ground. And how about the people who are religious people and are terrorized living in Guatemala; they don’t know quite what side they are on. If they want to continue to practice religion, the only way they can do it, is to convert to the Evangelical Church. It has a devastating effect.
BS Are the Catholic churches being closed?
PY They were all burned and destroyed in a lot of provinces, like in the Quiche which is where the heart of the war is, there are no priests or nuns.
BS How long did you stay with the Guatemalan guerillas?
PY The first trip was two weeks, the second, about three weeks.
BS When they went into the village, what was discussed with the villagers?
PY How they could protect themselves better …
BS How could they protect themselves?
PY They have outposts all around the villages that warn the villagers that the army is coming. Then they organize brigades of eight people each, and one person is the head of each brigade—to ensure everyone is together. These brigades all flee the village as groups of eight but in separate directions. They have already decided on a meeting place in the mountains where they will regroup. They take food, and hide it there ahead of time. They make homemade traps and bombs to surprise the army.
BS Why wouldn’t they stay in their villages?
PY Because they know that if the army comes, they are coming there for a purpose and they are probably coming there because they suspect the villagers of collaborating with the guerillas.
BS And does this mean that every villager: child, elderly person, pregnant woman, is in danger?
PY Every. Every. There have been cases of those kinds of killings all the time. Now there are some villages which are more organized than others. In many cases the massacres occur in villages that are not organized.
BS There is a part of Guatemala where the army has control of the land and all of the people working on the land must have passes.
PY In our film we spent time in a Strategic Hamlet, where the Guatemalan guerilla movement first started, called the Ixil Triangle, all of the people in the town, all of the men and women from 18 to 50 have to join the Civilian Patrols, which are patrols that march in front of the army when they go into battle. Or they force these patrols to go and kill people in other villages or else the patrollers themselves will be killed by the Army. So the people in the village have two choices. They can either flee into the mountains—which is a very difficult existence and you could very easily starve to death, or they can stay in the village and be forced to join the Civilian Patrol and be forced to do things that …
BS They couldn’t join the guerillas?
PY You can’t just join the guerillas. To be a guerilla fighter is a privilege. You have to prove yourself first, and be chosen to do that. Because they don’t have enough arms for everyone who wants to fight. So it’s according to what you’ve done and what you can do. Also if you have a family, you don’t have the privilege of fleeing with your whole family into the mountains. So the Civilian Patrols are one of the most insidious parts of the Strategic Hamlet because they force Indians to kill Indians. The guerillas have tried to avoid any attacks with the Civilian Patrols because they don’t want to fall into that trap—but sometimes they are forced to … The Civilian Patrols are highly infiltrated by the guerillas. In fact, in the massacre in the film, I’m sure that is why the Army killed all of those people. Because all of the men in that town were in the Civilian Patrol and the army came in to the town and said, “You didn’t protect the bridge, you let the guerillas blow it up.” And then the soldiers killed the villagers because they suspected them of being infiltrated.
BS Did the Congressional Aides on the Fact Finding Mission who you were with you at this time question the army’s version of what had happened or did they accept it as fact?
PY They accepted it. Until we gave them the translation.
BS Do you think this happens fairly often with our Fact Finding Commissions?
PY Yes, I do. Because it is very hard for them to go out and get independent information.
BS Sure, they’re escorted by government troops.
PY Yes, they are escorted by the government and they are watched all of the time.
BS They must realize, under the circumstances, that they are being manipulated.
BS And yet, they base facts that form their reports on these same Fact Finding Missions?
PY The Guatemalan government doesn’t think anything of lying to a US government Fact Finding Mission. There is a whole other standard operating there than in the US And I think it is hard to change your frame of reference from the way you get information here and the way you get information in Guatemala.
BS The Guatemalan Army is made up of Guatemalans.
BS And the guerillas are all Guatemalans?
BS There are not other nationalities involved in this war?
PY No, other than a few American advisors on the government side.
BS The Indian legend at the end of your film?
PY It’s called the “Road to War” and it’s about the cyclical nature of the history of the Indians in Guatemala from the Spanish conquest to the present. They are completing the cycle that was started when the Spanish came.
Guatemala is at war.
The road that led to this war
is over 400 years old
It led us up into the mountains
when the Spanish came
and tried to wipe out our Indian culture.
Our ancestors preserved our customs.
We grew corn and our numbers increased.
We say that every road
has a coming and a going,
a leaving and a returning.
Now we’re coming down out of the mountains.
We’re going back down to the towns and the
We are reclaiming our rights.
But we don’t travel this road alone.
There can be no returning
unless everyone, Indians and non-Indians
All of us together
will make a new Guatemala.
All of us together will reclaim our rights.
The road is returning.
Together, we will win.