By the time I flew into Guatemala City 10 years ago, the civil war was almost over. There were soldiers, army bases and checkpoints everywhere, but the rebels were mostly a rumor confined to the hills, their presence only suggested by occasional power blackouts and newspaper headlines about the UN-sponsored negotiations to end the conflict. In my six months in Guatemala's western highlands, almost everyone I met knew someone—usually a close friend or family member—who had died or simply disappeared.
During Guatemala's four decades of civil war, hundreds of thousands of people were murdered, the overwhelming majority killed by the U.S.-backed military. The height of the butchery took place in the early 1980s, a moment in time chillingly captured by American filmmakers Pamela Yates and Newton Thomas Sigel, whose 1984 documentary about the Guatemalan conflict, When the Mountains Tremble, has just been released on DVD.
The film's rerelease commemorates the 50th anniversary of the CIA coup that overthrew Guatemala's democratically elected government in 1954 and ushered in a series of military dictatorships. It was originally broadcast on PBS and aimed to stir the U.S. public against American support of Guatemala's military regime. Thus, the movie features narration by Nobel Prize winner and human-rights activist Rigoberta Mench and a couple of clumsy re-enactment scenes pertaining to the 1954 CIA coup.
When the Mountains Tremble also suffers from a rather naive approach to Guatemala's fractious, poorly armed rebels, who are shown marching into rural villages to the obvious joy of the their isolated supporters. Unfortunately, by the time the movie hit American TV screens, the Guatemalan military had all but defeated the rebels by wiping their supporters off the face of the Earth, one torched village at a time.
Ten years after the military's campaign of terror in the Guatemalan countryside, the ground was still shaking. Guatemala was still a nation gripped by fear. The country's most powerful political party was led by an evangelical Christian and former army general, Efrian Rios Montt, who seized power in 1982 and supervised the systematic genocide of tens of thousands of indigenous Guatemalans suspected of aiding the guerrillas.
Yates and Sigel were the only foreign camera crew operating in Guatemala during Rios Montt's bloody reign. The military considered Yates and Sigel harmless, especially after they survived a helicopter crash that also nearly killed a high-ranking army official. The pair took advantage of that trust to film exclusive interviews with Rios Montt and other army generals who are scheduled to be tried in Guatemala next year on charges of crimes against humanity.
The film itself—which shows the military on search-and-destroy operations in the countryside and rounding up villagers for forced participation in armed civil patrols—is likely to be used as evidence in that trial. One particularly revealing scene late in the movie is set at a foggy hilltop mountain post, where three farmers nervously ask a soldier for permission to gather food from their fields. After he writes down their names, the camouflaged guard teases a farmer whose last name is Pu.
“Just Pu?” he asks.
“Yes, Pu. P-U,” the villager responds.
The soldier then smiles at the camera and helpfully explains that getting names straight is important because anyone who is caught carrying food outside the village without the army's permission will be suspected of aiding the “subversives.”
“Some of these farmers have fields very far away, and there are a lot of military patrols between here and there,” he explains. “We have a list. And if someone's name is on this list, they die.”
When the Mountains Tremble was Directed by Pamela Yates and Newton Thomas Sigel; produced by Peter Kinoy. 90 minutes. Available for $26.95 by calling Docudrama at (800) 314-8822.
Award-winning investigative journalist Nick Schou is Editor of OC Weekly. He is the author of Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb (Nation Books 2006), which provided the basis for the 2014 Focus Features release starring Jeremy Renner and the L.A. Times-bestseller Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love’s Quest to bring Peace, Love and Acid to the World, (Thomas Dunne 2009). He is also the author of The Weed Runners (2013) and Spooked: How the CIA Manipulates the Media and Hoodwinks Hollywood (2016).