LAS AMERICAS The Truth in Guatemala BY BARBARA FERRY IN GUATEMALA, the latest way to send a death threat is to fax it a bit of information that makes one wonder about the much-touted equation that links technological progress with democracy. On March 27, an anonymous threat was faxed to the Association of Guatemalan Journalists. It sent a collective warning to prominent people, among them popular movement leaders and unionists the people who you might call “the usual suspects” as well as a conservative economist and nine journalists. Guatemala, like other countries where death threats are common means of communication, has a refined and coded language of intimidation, and the wording in this one, I was told, was classic. Either renounce all destabilizing activities by March 31, it advised, or “seek new horizons in another part of the world.” Three days before the fax’s ‘deadline’ I called one of the journalists named on the list, an editor of Siglo XXI youngest and boldest of Guatemala’s four major dailies, with only three years in print. He consents to an interview, but makes me promise not to use his name foreign reporters are always misquoting him, he says. I agree, reluctantly, annoyed that a journalist would insist on anonymity. I suspect him of a bit of anti-American chauvinism. The newspaper’s offices in the capital’s chic Zone 9, near the Camino Real Hotel, are modern and busy. The editor young, extremely thin, with an owlish, intense look ushers me in, and explains why getting quoted accurately is more than just a point of pride with him. An American reporter recently misattributed a statement accusing the military of involvement in drug trafficking to him, he tells me. Shortly after the story appeared, the editor started receiving threatening telephone calls. It seems the people in the intimidation business are sensitive to what American newspapers write about them. We sit in his office and talk about different kinds of death threats and their varying effects. Along with new-fangled faxes there are the old standards the unsigned letters slipped under the door, the jeep without license plates Barbara Ferry is a freelance writer who divides her time between El Paso and Berkeley, California. that trails reporters’ cars. There are attacks meted out on equipment printing presses and newspaper boxes and the burning of papers themselves. There are creative twists the funeral bouquets sent to the houses of the paper’s editorial board members. The editor pauses for a moment to listen as reporters in the newsroom next door sing “Sapo Verde,” the Guatemalan version of “Happy Birthday,” to a colleague. The telephone calls aren’t too bad, he continues. “You can just hang up. But to see your name in a list like that, it gets to you. Your family worries. Your friends tell yOu not to go out alone.” Especially since they know getting the dedazo the finger pointed at you is not something to be taken lightly. After Byron Barrera, the editor of the late liberal news weekly La Epoca began receiving threatening letters in 1989, his wife Refugio Villanueva insisted that he wear a bulletproof vest. But when the Barreras’ car was attacked, in October of 1990, the bullet meant for him bounced off the vest and killed her. Oddly enough, Guatemalan journalists enjoy relative freedom, at least legally speaking. Freedom of expression is protected by the Guatemalan constitution “without censorship or previous license.” The last president to try to impose legal restrictions on the press, in fact, was civilian president Jose Arrevalo, a quasilsocialist reformer. \(The Association of Journalists was formed the same year, in 1947, and successfully fought ered in military rule and a civil war that would last for over 30 years. But even during the height of the counterinsurgency, years when an estimated 100,000 people were killed, the media wasn’t censored. Not exactly. Blunter means were employed to gag it. Between 1978 and 1982, years of turmoil in much of the hemisphere, more journalists were killed in Guatemala than in any other Latin American country, according to the International Committee to Protect Journalists. The sheer absence of much of its talent, either more than 40 murders of journalists were reported dur on the trade. In 1989, one of the country’s leading investigative reporters, Julio Godoy, likened journalism in Guatemala to a desert. But observers agree that the media are now freer from self-censorship than it has been since 1954, the year before the coup. The previous time I had visited the country, in the summer of 1990, it was hard to figure out what was going on by reading the newspapers. Accounts of mutilated corpses in the streets were mixed together with reports of crimes of passion. Both came under the headline “OLA DE VIOLENCIA” Wave of Violence a phenomenon left unexplained, and made to seem as natural and inevitable as the tides. The back pages were filled with updates on the niceties of life among the oligarchy -the baptismal parties of its newly born, the debutante extravaganzas thrown for its daughters, the charity balls to raise funds for cancer treatment. But on this trip, I read detailed accounts of peace talks between the government and guerrillas, editorial cartoons mocking president Serrano, a front-page story about military intelligence infiltration into the post office and state-run telephone company. On a visit to Huehuetenango, a still conflictive state near the Mexican border, I picked up El Regional, a 2-year-old weekly newspaper that carries articles in Jacaltec, a locally spoken Indian language, as well as Spanish. It is Central America’s first Indian-language newspaper, according to its editors. While the number of readers of Jacalteco is low only 3 percent of the language’s speakers are literate, estimates El Regional’s Baltazar Cardenas the paper is popular, selling 5,000 copies each week. It is also apparently taken seriously by the region’s powers that be. The March 25 edition contained a letter to the editor from a colonel at the local army base. He complained that El Regional’ s reporting was biased against the army and reminded the editors that the guerrillas’ habit of blowing up power stations and leaving towns without electricity should also be considered a human rights abuse. That a Guatemalan army colonel would care enough about the military’s image in a local newspaper to write a letter to the editor struck me as something like progress. So I asked the anonymous editor to explain the changes the willingness of the reporters and editors to take risks, as well as the per Continued on page 21 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 17
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