Guatemala is a tiny hummingbird of a country, delicate and dazzling green, with a fiercely beating heart. It is a volcanoland bursting with life, feverishly fertile, violent and vibrant. I have lived in several countries, but no other place has ever made me feel so close to the throb of life and death. Guatemala leaves you both spellbound and scarred. Guatemala grips you by the heart and simply rips it out.
This is a book of tales and trails through the ups and downs of Guatemala’s volcanic landscape. This is a book that celebrates some incredibly death-defying and life-affirming people: Raquel, fighting to find the baby who was stolen from her arms for illegal adoption to the States; Marina, a one-eyed ex-prostitute, filmstar and singing sensation; Poncho, a nonagenarian people’s politician, who never gave up the fight, despite military coups and assassination attempts; Jesús, who works miracles, the first of which was to survive a massacre of 177 women and children.
This is a book about people who’ve chosen to follow extraordinary trails: Norma hunts down murderers who leave women in pieces and plastic bags; Manuel tracks down and reunites family members, several decades after the civil war divided them; Regina walks bloody footprints through the city to protest against the potential Presidency of a former genocidal dictator; Wendy, a daughter of the disappeared, hunts for justice and her missing mother; Fredy, a forensic anthropologist, digs up the bones and puzzles out the pieces of the dead and disappeared.
And this is also a book about visiting volcanoes, such powerful metaphors for the country’s history and psyche: Tajumulco, the highest point in Central America, where I heard from Tino, a former guerrillero, about the live voice of the dead volcano - the revolutionary radio station broadcast secretly from its slopes; Chicabal, whose giant jade green crater lake is a sacred site for modern Maya; Pacaya, where the ground trickles lava like a open wound and the rocks tumble red from the earth’s throbbing heart.
I first went to live in Guatemala in 1994, when the country was coming towards the end of its thirty-six year civil war, a conflict which killed around 200, 000 people, the majority Mayan, murdered mostly by state security forces. I was working in a rural orphanage, a place buzzing with cicadas and creativity, where everyone seemed to be sucking the nectar out of life, like hummingbirds sipping at the tongues of flowers. Amidst all this lovely liveliness, it was sometimes easy to forget what memories were seared into these children’s minds: ‘I remember my father going mad in the cornfields. We’d seen the soldiers sever my mother’s head.’
I fell in love with the people and the place. Life’s constant movement feels tangible there, from the quiet throb of a hummingbird heart to the heavings of the earth in its innermost core. People there speak to the souls of things, murmur encouragement to the maize, whisper thanks to the looms and their rainbow of threads. It’s a land where fish fly and fireflies wink, where red rocks move themselves down mountainsides and flowers weave across women’s blouses as if they were seeded there.
But Guatemala is also a wounded land, formed and deformed by endless collapses, convulsions and violent collisions. It’s a landscape scarred by gaping ravines and sudden sinkholes. It’s a land pockmarked with the pits of hundreds of wartime mass graves. It’s a place of powerful absences and endless Days of The Dead. The Maya invented the zero and represented it with a shell. It’s an apt image for the richness and emptiness, the spiralling circularity of the country itself.
Too often Guatemala itself has been an absence, a hole in international reporting, often veiled, like its volcanoes, in an impenetrable mist. When García Márquez commented on the invisibility of Guatemala’s brutality in the late 1960s, many of the war’s worst atrocities were yet to happen. Even at the height of the repression in the early 1980s, international focus was on the wars in neighbouring El Salvador and Nicaragua. People seem familiar with Argentina’s forced disappearances, horrific in their speed and intensity, but less so with the situation in Guatemala, a tiny country by comparison, but where the numbers of those disappeared were far higher and the impunity greater. Guatemala’s 36 year Civil War was the longest in modern Latin America. Its massacres of the Mayan people the only acknowledged 20th century genocide in the Americas. You would think that this would be reason for remembering. But Guatemala’s conflict has been dubbed ‘The Invisible War’.
And Guatemala still seems unable to shake off its cloak of invisibility. We hear about Mexico’s drug wars and gruesome violence, but Guatemala’s homicide rates are four times higher and its criminal and narco-networks so entrenched within the judicial and political system that the UN has intervened for fear of Guatemala becoming a failed state. We hear of the appalling femicides in Ciudad Juárez, but less about the same crimes happening in Guatemala, with similar impunity. Poverty in Haiti is undeniably problematic, but surprisingly, UNICEF finds that Guatemala’s children have the highest rate of chronic malnutrition in the Americas. Immensely fertile and relatively rich, it is not a country where you would imagine famine.
Eduardo Galeano sees the whole of Latin America a continent ‘condemned to amnesia’. Is Guatemala condemned to be forgotten? Or is Guatemala condemned to forget? El olvido, both oblivion and forgetfulness, has its advantages. Forgetting is a survival strategy for those haunted by the ghosts of war. Forgetting is a political tactic for those who want their warcrimes erased from public memory.
Thirteen years after I had left the orphanage, I felt that I too had forgotten Guatemala. With time, it faded in my mind, like the intensity of a vivid dream. It felt strange that I had never been back. It had been a deliberate decision at first – a place so tough and tender had either to be embraced entirely or completely abandoned. But thirteen years on, I found myself longing to know what had happened to the children. I wanted to understand what had happened to the country since the end of the war. I wanted to go back. I wanted to find out. I wanted to remember.
And so, I fly back to Guatemala. Beneath me, plunging limestone ravines, jutting volcanoes and Pacaya dribbling fire in the dark of the night. And then the winking city, a jewelled grid. The airport is packed with parked helicopters, like giant, greedy dragonflies. I receive an immigration form, which informs me how many firearms and how much ammunition I may bring in. The mis-spelt form requests me in English: ‘Please sing your declaration’. A Guatemalan welcome. A few rounds of bullets and an impromptu song.
When I first return to Guatemala in 2008, I find it in many ways, just as I remembered it – dreamlike in its intensity, psychedelic in its colourful swirl. It is still a place of visceral extremity, of staged theatricality, of improbable surreality. A place of metamorphosis and of magical masks. A place of disappearing acts, where people and volcanoes are suddenly gone, in a mist or a moment. A place where a children’s clown may be a killer by night. Or a hot dog vendor an army spy.
Though the war which many refer to as ‘La Violencia’ is over, Guatemala is still one of the most violent countries in the world. For 17 years of its Civil War, the U.N. classified the Guatemalan state as one of the world’s worst human rights abusers. The perpetrators of those abuses are not behind bars. They are still in the military, still in politics, in business, in the narco-trade that delivers 90% of U.S. cocaine. Positive change is coming, step by tentative step, but the same powers as ever keep the country running in circles. A democracy in name, Guatemala is still a kleptocracy, still a ‘democratorship’, still a dizzying labyrinth with the military as its minotaur and other criminal networks at its heart.
In 2012, for a few brief moments, the eyes of the world were on Guatemala. On December 21st the Mayan Long Count Calendar shifted from one mighty cycle to the next and the celebrations, some spectacular, some more subtle and sacred, were seen on television screens around the world. It was a moment that many modern Maya hoped would be the beginning of a new era of harmony and healing, after a long hard road of violence and persecution. And Mayan resilience in walking the long walk was rewarded in the 2012 Olympics, when Erick Barrondo, a Mayan long-distance racewalker, won Guatemala’s first ever Olympic medal in any sport.
In the same year, Guatemala experienced two other historic moments, one a tiny step on the long march towards justice, the other a seeming step back in time. In 2012, Efraín Ríos Montt, its Dictator-President at the height of the wartime atrocities, was finally arrested and charged with genocide. And yet, also in 2012, for the first time in decades, a military man became President of Guatemala, promising the country a mano dura – a hard hand or iron fist. Ex-general Otto Pérez Molina had been the national director of Guatemala’s notorious military intelligence during the latter years of the civil war. As a younger man, he had been in command in the Ixil triangle, the area where the civil war hit hardest. No surprise perhaps that Pérez Molina should publicly deny the Mayan genocide. And yet, in his inaugural speech, he dared to link his own Presidency with the prophecies of the Mayan calendar, suggesting that both heralded a sweep of ‘great change’ for 2012.
When I had returned to Guatemala in 2008, one key aspect of Guatemala had already changed. When I was living in the orphanage in the mid ‘90s, people were still afraid to speak about wartime atrocities, even though most had happened more than a decade before. Political discussions were whispered. Women in the orphanage whose husbands had been murdered, simply shrugged and said ‘He died.’ The fear of speaking out was not unfounded. In 1998, when Bishop Gerardi published the war testimonies of thousands of people, he was bludgeoned to death by a concrete block - a warning to any who dared to break the silence.
By the time I returned, people were finding an extraordinary range of ways to break the silence and reclaim ‘Historical Memory’. Prising open secret archives. Piecing together broken skeletons. Patching together scattered memories. And, above all, telling their stories. Some came trickling slowly and others erupted like an outlet for internal pressure, but they were all stories that deserved to be told, heard, remembered.
A few days after arriving, I get out my laptop out, ready to write. The table starts to tremble. I think it is my imagination. But a minor earthquake is shaking the city. Shaking me awake, shaking me out of complacency, shaking me as a reminder that I am back in Guatemala.
And Guatemala is as volcanic as ever.
 guerrillero – a member of the guerrilla
 There are a few notable exceptions – the photojournalism of Jean-Marie Simon,
Pamela Yates’ film footage and reports drawn up by human rights organizations
such as Americas Watch and Amnesty International.
 CICIG – the International Commission Against Impunity In Guatemala was set up,
by agreement between the UN and the Guatemalan government. It aims to combat
high-level organized crime and dismantle criminal networks that are sometimes
operating in conjunction with state officials and organizations
 Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano’s description of Latin America
 Democratorship – Galeano’s word for a state with a semblance of democracy, but
still controlled by the same powers that formed its previous Dictatorships
 After the CIA-backed coup of 1954, Guatemala was ruled by military men for over
three decades (with the exception of a few months). In 1986 a civilian president,
Vinicio Cerezo, was elected. Although the military have continued to have
significant power in the country, 2012 is the first time, since return to civilian rule in
1986, that a military career man, with significant participation in the Civil War, has
 Pérez Molina was operating under the name Major Tito and was stationed in the Ixil
Triangle from ‘82-83. The ‘scorched earth’ policy saw 80-90% of the villages there
razed to the ground during the early 80s. Pérez Molina claims to have arrived
afterwards to do reconstruction work.