Kaibiles

Guatemalan Army Elite Kaibil Troops

Usually translated as “Tigers,” the kaibiles are elite counterinsurgency troops of the Guatemalan army. According to Ronald Wright’s Time Among the Maya: Travels in Belize, Guatemala, and Mexico, the Mayan word actually implies a “double” or something of double the normal strength. Wright describes meeting a kaibil detachment as he enters Guatemala from Belize:

The pole across the road is lifted, and we are waved through, between a wooden watchtower and a sandbagged machine-gun nest. Not far beyond the tower there’s a billboard with a naive painting pf a Guatemalan soldier in camouflage fatigues. The soldier is shouting, “If I advance, follow me; if I delay, hurry me; if I retreat, kill me!” An inscription below him boasts: ¡AQUI SE FORJAN LOS MEJORES COMBATIENTES DE AMERICA!—HERE ARE FORGED THE BEST FIGHTERS IN AMERICA! I have just begun to wonder whether this is intended for Belizean visitors or rebellious citizens when I see the back of the sign, which direcs its message to those coming from the Guatemalan interior. It shows a gorilla head in the King Kong tradition, or maybe Planet of the Apes. Maniacal eyes burn ferociously, the gaping mouth is dripping with blood and armed with sharp fangs; and lest anyone fail to get the pun … the creature wears a Che Guevara cap. Above it is the single word ¡ATREVETE!—roughly, MAKE MY DAY.

Wright goes on to describe kaibil hazing rituals which include cannibalism and drinking human blood.

His book, which was originally written in 1989, is (fortunately) now a little dated. Most of the depredations on the Maya population by the Guatemalan army have ceased since a peace that was signed in 1996. Still, when I go to Guatemala in January, I plan to steer clear of the army. Many of the army posts Wright describes no longer exist. I hope.

 

 

The Thunder Horse

What Happened When Cortés Left a Horse Behind at Tayasal

In 1525, Hernan Cortés visited Tayasal in Guatemala—where some 172 years later, the last Mayan were conquered by the Spanish—he left behind a horse that became, for a while, a god in the Maya pantheon. Here is how Robert J. Sharer tells it in The Ancient Maya: Sixth Edition:

[In 1618, Fathers Bartolomé de Fuensalida and Juan de Orbita] were shown a large idol in the form of a horse, called Tizimin Chak, the “yhunder horse.” When Cortés had visited Tayasal in 1525 he had left behind a lame horse with the Kan Ek’ of that day, promising to return for it himself or to send for it. After Cortés’s departure, the Itza treated the horse as a god, offering it fowl, other meats, and flowers, but the horse soon died. The Itza later made a stone idol of the horse. When Father Orbita saw this image, the idolatry so enraged him that he smashed the image to bits. The Itza, outraged at this sacrilege, tried to kill the missionaries, but Father Fuensalida seized the occasion to preach a sermon of such eloquence that the tumult subsided and the missionaries’ lives were spared.

On the island of Flores in Lago de Petén, the site once occupied by Tayasal, there is today a stone statue of a horse commemorating the poor thunder horse.

 

Handsome Devil

Pedro de Alvarado (1485-1541), One of the Cruelest of Cortés’s Lieutenants

Even his enemies were impressed with him. The Indians of New Spain (Mexico and Guatemala) called him, in Nahuatl, “Toniatuh,” meaning “sun.” In Robert J. Sharer and Loa P. Traxler’s scholarly study, The Ancient Maya: Sixth Edition describes the depredations wrought by this cruelest of conquistadores:

[Fray Bartolomé] Las Casas goes on to itemize the atrocities committed by Alvarado during the conquest of what became known as Guatemala. There is no reason to reject Las Casas’s account, for Alvarado’s own letters, which provide the best history of the conquest of Guatemala, allude to the terror tactics he employed against the defenseless populace.

About his campaign in the Valley of Quetzaltenango, Alvarado writes:

We commenced to crush them and scattered them in all directions and followed them in pursuit for two leagues and a half until all of them were routed and nobody was left in front of us. Later we returned against them, and our friends [the Mexican allies] and the infantry made the greatest destruction in the world at a river. We surrounded a bare mountain where they had taken refuge, and pursued them to the top, and took all that had gone up there. That day we killed and imprisoned many people, many of whom were captains and chiefs and people of importance.

One of the victims was Tecun Uman, a K’iche commander, now considered a hero to the Maya people, and after whom a city bordering Mexico has been named.

Monument to Tecun Uman, One of Alvarado’s Victims

There was no way the Maya could withstand the force of firearms, horses (which the Maya had never before encountered), and the ruthless military intelligence of Pedro de Alvarado.

Below is a mask of Alvarado used in Highland Maya processions and ceremonies in Guatemala to commemorate the losses sustained by the Maya:

Guatemalan Dance Mask of Pedro de Alvarado Used in Maya Ceremonies

 

I Finally Commit

The Airline I Will Be Taking on My Vacation

I have been talking long enough about my upcoming trip to Guatemala, but I finally took steps to reserve my flight to Guatemala City and back and reserve accommodations for the first part of my trip in the highlands. These include the Antigua and Santiago Atitlán. Within the next few days, I will also reserve single-night stays in Panajachel and Chichicastenango.

The second part of the trip—to visit the Mayan ruins of Tikal, Copan, and Quirigua—will remain fluid because of lingering transportation concerns. Right now, the plans for the second half of the trip appear to be a bit complicated:

  • Take a shuttle bus from Antigua or Guatemala City to Copan, just over the border into Honduras
  • Take “chicken buses” from Copan to Rio Dulce in Guatemala via El Florido and Chiquimula
  • Hire a car and driver to take to from Rio Dulce to Quirigua and back
  • Take a first-class bus from Rio Dulce to Flores and then to El Remate
  • Take a minibus from El Remate to Tikal
  • Return via bus to Flores
  • Fly back to Guatemala City, or take a 12-hour first class bus back if I haven’t burned up too many days by the above

My airline of choice for this trip is Colombian-based Avianca. If you are not familiar with the airline, it is the oldest commercial carrier in the Western Hemisphere—older than any of the U.S. carriers with their money-grubbing extra fees. The plane may have Taca or Lacsa livery, because Avianca purchased these two Central American airlines a few years back. The only airline in the world that is older is KLM in the Netherlands.

I’ve mentioned this before, I think, but I am prejudiced against U.S. carriers. The last time I flew to South America, I had to take American to São Paolo, Brazil. I ordered a cup of hot tea. They gave me coffee instead. I spit it out (being the coffee-hater that I am) and complained bitterly to the stewardess, who insisted it was tea. Until she tasted it. Oh! So sorry! (And so typical.) On Avianca, they know the difference between coffee and tea.

A Nostalgia for Evil Empires?

Ruins at Mayapan in Yucatán

You can see the prejudice even in the naming of the archeological periods of Maya civilization. There is Preclassic, Classic, and Postclassic. The Classic Period ended around AD 800, while the English were struggling with Viking invaders, and while Charlemagne ruled in France. The Classic period was when most of  the big pyramids and temples were built—some 700 years before Cortés and the Spanish decided to muscle in on the action.

When we travel in Yucatán or the jungles of Petén, what we marvel at are the Classic ruins of places like Tikal, Copan, Calakmul, Uxmal, and Chichen Itza. In our simple way of admiring the wrong things. The Classic period was great for the divine kings who wasted their subjects in massive construction projects and endless wars.

After the Classic period, the Maya actually improved their lot: In place of pharaonic dictates to abject slaves and massive tragedies when one of their divine kings bit the dust, the new emphasis was on trade and multiple sources of power. Of course, there were no more huge pyramids, but the Maya could spend more time on agriculture, trade, and a slightly less domineering religion.

When the Grijalvas and Alvarados began attacking the Maya, the Maya resisted. The Aztecs lasted only a couple of years under the onslaught of the Conquistadores, whereas the Maya held out until 1697, some 175 years after the Aztecs fell. Today, there are about a million speakers of Nahuatl, which was the language of the Aztecs. The Maya today number about six million in Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador—and they speak some 28 dialects of the Mayan language! While the Aztecs went down in flames, the Maya survived in greater strength despite multiple attempts to curtail their numbers and their power.

 

Tikal

Temple 1 at Tikal in the Petén Region of Guatemala

I had always wanted to visit Tikal. In the 1980s, when I visited Yucatán several times, I wanted to swing south through Belize to the ruinsat Tikal. Unfortunately, a murderous religious madman named Efraín Ríos Montt was in charge at the time; and the State Department was recommending that American tourists stay well away from the massacres and disappearances that were plaguing Guatemala at the time.

Tikal is huge, 575 square kilometers (222 square miles) in area. It almost defined the Classic Period of Mayan archeology, from approximately 200 AD to 800 AD at its height. The area in which it is located is a monkey jungle, pure and simple. With my hared of mosquitoes, I am thinking of spending three nights in nearby El Remate, where the hotels have electricity 24 hours a day, and not just sometimes. If there is air conditioning, or at the very least a functioning ceiling fan, one can escape being bitten to death and coming home with Zika or Malaria or Dengue, to name just a few baddies.

The Shores of Lago de Petén at El Remate

Although Guatemala is not a large country by North American standards, the road from Guatemala City to El Remate takes twelve hours or more on good roads. One has to go all the way to the Atlantic Coast before cutting north. There is a little matter of some high mountains preventing a direct route. If I took the mountain route, it would take at least twenty hours and several buses. I am actually thinking of flying from Guatemala City to Flores, which is within a few miles of El Remate. (I could stay in Flores, for that matter, but if I wanted to spend two days at the ruins, I want to be a bit closer to Tikal.)

There are sunrise and sunset tours at Tikal, but I don’t want to lose sleep just so I can gamble on a perfect sunrise or sunset. I’m willing to take pot luck.

 

Serendipity: Paul Theroux in Guatemala

The Rail Line Between Tecun Uman and Guatemala City

I have read Paul Theroux’s The Old Patagonian Express: By Train Through the Americas several times. It got me interested in visiting South and Central America in the first place; and I keep tryi9ng to relive the experience of reading it the first time. Back in the 1970s, there was still passenger rail service in Guatemala. Now there are only railroad museums with rusting locomotives. The following is the author’s take on recent Guatemalan history—which is still largely true.

I had a political reverie on that train [the one between Tecun Uman and Guatemala City]. It was this: the government held elections, encouraged people to vote, and appeared to be democratic. The army appeared to be impartial, the newspapers disinterested. And it remained a peasant society, basically underfed and unfree. It must perplex any peasant to be told he is living in a free country, when the facts of life contradict this. It might be that this does not perplex him; he has every reason to believe, in accordance with the evidence, that democracy is feudal, a bureaucracy run by crooks and trigger-happy vigilantes. When one sees a government of the Guatemalan sort professing such high-mindedness in its social aims and producing such mediocre results, one cannot be surprised if the peasant concludes that communism might be an improvement. It was a Latin American sickness: inferior government gave democracy an evil name and left people with no option but to seek an alternative.