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For Guatemalans, Today's 'Ghost' Stories Are Familiar

U.S. secret detentions in the terror war evoke memories of the disappeared.

September 15, 2004|Ana Lucia Fuentes | Ana Lucia Fuentes, a molecular biologist, teaches at Douglas College in Vancouver, Canada.

Americans call them ghosts, the detainees the U.S. government hid in Iraqi prisons, as if they did not exist. Where I come from, Guatemala, they were the desaparecidos, the disappeared.

The first feeling I associate with that word is pure and absolute terror. Then despair, the sense of being completely at a loss, not knowing what to do, where to go, whom to ask. I was only 13. More than 30 years have passed, and yet, unlike any kind of physical pain, I can still recall those feelings.

My head turns every time I read between the lines of today's news -- and recently not so much between the lines. The ghosts. The disappeared. It seems so extreme, so unlikely, it must not be true. Surely a government that claims to be fighting a war for freedom must not be involved in such a practice.

It was the evening of Nov. 12, 1970. I was in my bed in Guatemala City when I heard them banging on the gate. I heard my father run to the back patio. I then saw him climbing up and jumping onto the roof. I remember getting dressed, maybe in the hope that we all would somehow escape up onto the roof. The street was silent, all the lights out. Nobody wanted to be a witness to what was going on.

For what seemed like a long time, but was probably only five minutes or so, we heard nothing, saw nothing. Then we heard my father's voice, asking us to open the back door. He was in his pajamas. There was no time for anything. My father was pushed forward by a machine gun carried by one of the six men who had come to take him away. The leader ordered my father to put on some street clothes.

My mother and I just stood and waited. The men did not look at us, their faces covered by woolen masks and their bodies shielded by bullet belts and machine guns. They didn't expect any resistance from a woman and a girl. Then they took my father away. I walked out behind them. The abductors didn't seem to care. Two old, black Chevrolets with no license plates were parked on the street. The men pushed my father into one of them, like in the movies. I had heard the stories, that this was how "they" came and took them: labor leaders, students, teachers, women and men alike.

I feared I would never see my father again. One more added to the list of desaparecidos, those who are searched for endlessly by their loved ones, yet cease to exist for the rest of the world.

My father, Alberto Fuentes Mohr, was not a mafia leader, or a corrupt banker or thief, much less a terrorist. He had earned a doctoral degree from the London School of Economics. He founded the Social Democratic Party in Guatemala in opposition to a long-standing military dictatorship supported by the United States. He cared deeply about the fate of people in Latin America and believed that his nation's government cared mostly about the wealthy.

What's more, he was not afraid to say as much at forums throughout the world. Perhaps this was a crime in their eyes. They came for him the day before he was to travel to New York to address the United Nations.

Not all the desaparecidos were, or are, so prominent, of course. But just like any other of those unfortunate people, then and today, my father was never charged and never tried. My mother and I went from prison to prison looking for him, only to find no record of his arrest. Like the others, he was not supposed to be found.

We were lucky, though. A sympathetic guard tipped us off to his whereabouts. He was in a secret dungeon in the bowels of the central prison. We confirmed it by bringing a basket of food to the prison and asking that it be brought to him. When the guard said, "I'll give it to him," we knew. My father was well known, and once word got out, backdoor pressure from prominent local people and foreigners, including some in the U.N., won his release after two weeks.

Last week, the press reported that up to 100 detainees may have been "disappeared" by the CIA -- like ghosts -- after their capture in Iraq. There was no trace of their whereabouts, no record of the justification for their detentions. Their existence was kept secret even from the International Red Cross.

Most readers probably took notice of the news and moved on. Perhaps they shelved it as another minor scandal, or even as a necessary evil in the "war against terror." Or perhaps they pondered the potential effect of the "new development" on the U.S. presidential campaign.

But Americans need to understand how reports of such practices "play" in parts of the world where they cannot be so easily sloughed off. The U.S. trumpets high ideals, but throughout Latin America and elsewhere, people see such actions as the familiar stuff of governments that no one would mistake for beacons of democracy.

The headlines brought me back to my thoughts and fears as a 13-year-old. I wonder what the children of these ghosts are thinking.

Seven years after his disappearance and release, my father was killed by military patrols that emptied their machine guns on him while he drove home for lunch. I don't suffer the anguish of not knowing where my father is, or whether he is being tortured or whether he is still alive. I know my father is dead.

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