Silence on the Mountain

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  • Format: Hardcover
  • Copyright: 2002-09-01
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

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Silence on the Mountain is a virtuoso work of reporting and a masterfully plotted narrative tracing the history of Guatemala's thirty-six-year internal war, a conflict that claimed the lives of more than 200,000 people, the vast majority of whom died (or were "disappeared") at the hands of the U.S.-backed military goverment. In 1993 Daniel Wilkinson, a young human rights worker, begins to investigate the arson of a coffee plantation's manor house by a band of guerrillas. The questions surrounding this incident soon broaden into a complex mystery that compels Wilkinson to seek out an impressive cross-section of the country's citizens, from coffee workers to former guerrillas to small-town mayors to members of the ruling elite. From these sources he is able to piece together the largely unwritten history of the long civil war, following its roots back to a land reform movement derailed by a U.S.-sponsored military coup in 1954 and, further back, to the origins of Guatemala's plantation system, which put Mayan Indians to work picking coffee beans for the American and European markets. Silence on the Mountain reveals a buried history that has never been told before, focusing on those who were most affected by Guatemala's half-century of violence, the displaced native people and peasants who slaved on the coffee plantations. These were the people who had most to gain from the aborted land reform movement of the early 1950s, who filled the growing ranks of the guerrilla movement in the 1970s and 1980s, and who suffered most when the military government retaliated with violence. Decades of terror-inspired fear have led Guatemalans to adopt a survival strategy of silence so complete it verges on collective amnesia. Wilkinson's great triumph is that he finds a way for people to tell their stories, and it is through these stories -- dramatic, intimate, heartbreaking -- that we come to see the anatomy of a thwarted revolution that is relevant not only to Guatemala but to any country where terror has been used as a political tool.

Author Biography

Daniel Wilkinson was born in 1970. He graduated from Harvard College and received his law degree from Yale University. He currently works with Human Rights Watch.

Table of Contents


Acknowledgments ix

the owner 3
the student 7
the battlefield 11
exhumation 19

rumor 29
travelogue 32
natural history 42
bildungsroman 48
revelation 56
decree 65

a dangerous question 83
the law that would
change the world 157
betrayal 168
burials 180

the savages 193
sacuchúm 199
the guerrillas 217
the politicians 252
the terrorists 307
the defeated 337
the storytellers 350

List of Names 361
Note on Sources 362
Selected Bibliography 369


PART I A HOUSE BURNED THE OWNER All I knew when I began was that a house had burned down. And not just any house. This was the house of the patron - the casa patronal - on a coffee plantation named La Patria. I knew it had been an old house with walls of mahogany and a tin roof painted burgundy red - the same color as the processing plant on the ridge behind it, the color of the berries harvested every year from the surrounding mountainside. While not as large as the houses of patrones in some of the neighboring plantations, it had possessed a special charm, a "gracious" and "pretty" design, and a spectacular view of the Pacific coast. Stepping up to the porch on a sunny day, looking in through the front door, down the hallway and through the living room, you could see the glittering blue of the distant ocean out the back window. Time had taken its toll: a half- century of rainy seasons had softened the outer walls; termites had colonized the inner ones. Yet the structure had endured. And for the eighty- year-old patron and his wife, it had still been home, the place where they intended to live out their days. I knew that it was just after Christmas in 1983 that the fire had consumed the house. And I knew it had been set by a group of guerrillas who called themselves the Revolutionary Organization of the People in Arms - and who were called, by my own government, terrorists. I knew all this because I had met the owner of La Patria in one of those chance encounters that begin the detours that become your life. It was 1993. I had just finished college and come to Guatemala with what the people at Harvard called a "traveling fellowship" - money to go see the world and possibly do a little good in it. I had spent some weeks working in a Mayan Indian town and begun research for an article on the community's efforts to reclaim its ancestral lands. On a visit to Guatemala City, the friend of a friend gave me the phone number of an American professor whose published works on Guatemala dated back to the 1950s. I called him one evening to get tips for my research, and before I'd even finished introducing myself he invited me to dinner at his home in an affluent neighborhood in the outskirts of the city. His wife greeted me at the door. With her hazel eyes, snow-white hair, light complexion, and perfect English, I figured that Sara Endler was also from the United States, an academic spouse who had followed her husband to a foreign land. It was only when we had moved on to dessert and a second bottle of wine that I learned otherwise. I was saying something about the disparities between Guatemala's agricultural elite and the workers who generate their wealth when she cleared her throat and said, "I must confess, I own a farm." "A farm?" I wasn't sure what she meant. "A coffee plantation." She told me then how she had recently inherited La Patria from her aging father, Franz Endler, who had abandoned the plantation after the casa patronal was burned down in the 1980s. As she spoke, my mind raced back over the evening's conversation, searching for any comments I'd made about plantation owners that could have offended my host. When she paused, I asked a question, hardly suspecting that it would be the first of thousands: "Why was the house burned down?" The war in Guatemala had been one of the most brutal conflicts in the hemisphere in the twentieth century. By the end of 1983, it had been raging for two decades, with a military government allied with the United States battling a guerrilla movement that was backed by Cuba. The burning of the Endler house was just one of countless acts of destruction i

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