Human Rights Watch researcher Robin Kirk says her intention in More Terrible Than Death: Massacres, Drugs and America’s War in Colombia is “to tell stories,” the complicated, emotional and contradictory stories excluded from the legal-document format of human rights reports. Daniel Wilkinson, in his book Silence on the Mountain: Stories of Terror, Betrayal and Forgetting in Guatemala, makes the absence of stories the central thread of his narrative: Guatemalans’ refusal to talk about what was happening in their country during the waves of political violence from the 1950s to the present. Both books offer valuable and timely reflections on under-reported aspects of on-going conflicts in Latin America. Both highlight U.S. culpability in these conflicts. Kirk indicts U.S. drug use and failed drug policies for “provoking Colombia’s home-grown demons” such as the rampant corruption and illegal armed groups that have become more violent as their ideology has faded.
Wilkenson uses the wealth of U.S. government documents declassified during the Clinton administration to examine the role of U.S. support for Guatemalan military regimes. In both accounts, the voices of a range of “local actors”—military officials, activists, guerrillas—are woven together with personal reflection and historical detail to offer compelling reading and raise timely questions: How do we ensure security for threatened civilians while guaranteeing human rights? How does the global economy link us to and exacerbate conflict? How does history shape how we think about and react to terror?
Kirk’s book features dramatic, often funny and sometimes terrifying tales of her travels as a human rights researcher in Colombia. While her writing occasionally misfires—for example, while touring a garbage dump, one of her companions “swoon[s] like a sapling felled with an ax stroke”—her vivid style more often hits its target, capturing the sensory pleasures and trials of travels in small-town Latin America. The book is framed around the life and 1996 assassination of human rights activist Josué Giraldo. Kirk uses the origins of his activism in the doomed efforts of the 1980s to establish the independent-left political party, the Patriotic Union, to launch a swing through Colombian history. This is brought to life by incorporating stories from other, primarily Colombian, journalists and writers. Given the complexity and breadth of the ground she covers, there are necessarily many gaps in her fast-paced narrative. She does a remarkable job of synthesizing Colombian history for a U.S. audience, but her focus on the conflict leaves aside much of Colombia’s economic and cultural history.
Silence on the Mountain contains a more sprawling narrative that follows the author’s attempts, through a series of research trips, to unearth events in one coffee plantation during the years of the Guatemalan war, an endeavor that requires extensive asides on the coffee economy, agrarian reform efforts and the role of international investment in Guatemala. The deeply detailed historical digressions, and the chronological presentation of the evolving narrative, means a slower and sometimes frustrating pace, but a fuller picture of the forces and actors in Guatemala’s recent history.
Well written and wide-ranging, both books offer something to novice readers and Latin American experts alike. For those interested in further reading, Wilkenson’s extensive sources listing for each chapter will provide more direction than Kirk’s single general bibliography, but as she notes, English-language sources on Colombia are disappointingly slim.
Such engaging and reflective histories are particularly important as the United States faces a new generation of foreign policy challenges, and the public struggles to articulate a response. Understanding how the United States is linked to Latin America, through diplomatic and military ties as well as coffee and cocaine, is crucial.
I lived in both Guatemala and Colombia during the 1990s, and found the difference in tone between the books striking. In Guatemala, I found the silence Wilkenson struggles with almost unbearable, while in Colombia I found a niche among an educated middle class that found ways to celebrate life and was anxious to share political views despite the ongoing war. Since then, the war in Guatemala has officially ended, with a peace settlement and Truth Commission, while the fighting in Colombia only becomes more entrenched. Silence on the Mountain concludes with a visit by the Guatemalan Truth Commission and a tone of cautious optimism; “at the very least, there was reason to hope that the silence of the last century would remain a thing of the past.”
Kirk’s book ends with the 1996 assassination of Giraldo as he played in his frontyard with his two daughters. As hopes for a negotiated settlement in Colombia—or any other kind of resolution—recede, it is hard to find any kind of optimism, even the cautious kind. We would do well to remember the complete phrase from which Kirk draws her title: When pressed to go into exile or give up his risky commitment to human rights, Giraldo would say, “to give up is more terrible than death.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Winifred Tate is a Ph.D. candidate at New York University currently writing her dissertation on political culture and human rights activism in Colombia. She is former senior fellow