The Guatemalan state was slaughtering tens of thousands of people in the 1980s. To this day, few people have heard about the Guatemalan genocide because it was just too damn hard to get any real information then: it was dangerous; journalists were targeted; the army’s scorched earth actions were mostly relegated to remote mountainous areas; the civilians there spoke Indigenous languages; and those who took up arms to resist were deeply clandestine. It took time, patience, and persistence.
That is why the 1983 issue of the NACLA Report, “Guatemala—The War is Not Over,” was extraordinary for anyone working in Mesoamerica then. We understood its urgency and valued its clarity. Knowing what we now know, it’s terribly sobering to read it again 36 years later.
I was a young sound recordist working on crews in Nicaragua and El Salvador when I heard about the insurgency in Guatemala in the early 1980s and decided to go there with cinematographer Tom Sigel to make the documentary film that would become “When the Mountains Tremble.” In the capital, all seemed eerily normal, and there was no news about the armed resistance in the altiplano. Everyone was too afraid to talk on camera. It would take a long time to penetrate that fear. Guatemalan journalists who tried to report their reality were being killed and disappeared.
The revelations as we filmed in the highlands also challenged the narrative put forth by the military dictatorship—the story that the mainstream media was buying—that when General Efraín Ríos Montt seized and consolidated power, human rights improved, and the war was winding down. In fact, the opposite was true.