introduction
most people in the United states likely know Guatemala for two things: tour-
ism and terrorism. almost two million people visit Guatemala every year.
They take in the country’s many maya and colonial ruins, stunning land-
scapes, and mountain lakes, and they visit its picturesque towns and verdant
lowland rainforests. at the same time, over the last thirty years the coun-
try has become practically synonymous with government-backed political
repression. The
CiA’s
1954 orchestration of a coup that overthrew a demo-
cratic government is so well documented that it has become the example of
choice by teachers, historians, reporters, and politicians when they want to
illustrate the misuse of United states power in latin america. in turn, this
coup precipitated an appallingly violent civil war that lasted nearly four de-
cades. By the time the war ended, government agents had killed hundreds of
thousands of Guatemalans, committed more than six hundred massacres in
indigenous communities, and completely razed hundreds of maya villages in
a campaign the United nations ruled to be genocidal.
Tourism and terrorism have been intertwined since Guatemala’s found-
ing in 1821, when the country, roiled by war, began to attract the attention
of amateur archaeologists, ethnographers, and naturalists, mostly from the
United states and Great Britain. in their dispatches home, published widely
in magazines, broadsheets, and travel books, these travelers depicted Gua-
temala as a beautiful but strife-ridden land. One of them, John stephens,
entered Guatemala from the caribbean along the lush, green rio dulce in
1839. in his subsequent best-selling book, Incidents of Travel, stephens speaks
of the river when he asks: “could this be the portal to a land of volcanoes
and earthquakes, torn and distracted by civil war?” he had come to survey
maya ruins, and he landed in the country at the tail end of a massive in-
surrection led by rafael carrera, an illiterate peasant swineherd. stephens’s
book tacks between celebrating the wonders of half-buried, vine-wrapped
acropolises and luridly relating the atrocities of the “tumultuous mass” of
the “half-naked savages” who supported carrera. in one widely excerpted
passage, stephens writes that when he had “asked the indians” who had
made one particularly intricate set of stone carvings, “their dull answer was
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