A Nation of Prisoners : GUATEMALA : Eternal Spring, Eternal Tyranny <i> by Jean-Marie Simon (W. W. Norton: $35, cloth; $19.95, paper; 256 pp.) </i>

<i> Perera, author of "Rites: A Guatemalan Boyhood" (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich), is working on a contemporary portrait of Guatemala for Times Books. </i>

One of the stunning photographs in this book shows a group of Mayan Indian women in colorful dress moving across a landscape of brown earth and green, a shimmering cornfield that might have been painted by Monet. Another shows the mutilated body of a young woman schoolteacher in a morgue. The teacher was the victim of a paramilitary death squad that cut off her hands and placed them on her chest next to a cardboard sign reading “More to follow.”

In these and other photographs taken in Guatemala since 1981, photojournalist and human rights investigator Jean-Marie Simon reveals the beauty and the horror that live side by side in the most populous and most contradictory country in Central America. Guatemala is the richest in natural resources and it attracts the most dollars in corporate investment, yet its Indian majority has the lowest per-capita income and the highest infant mortality rate. Guatemala is the Central American country closest to our borders, yet it is grossly neglected by the U.S. media. And Guatemala has the worst record of human rights violations in the Western Hemisphere. In the last 20 years, 100,000 people have been killed in the army’s counterinsurgency campaigns, and another 38,000--the large majority of them Indians--have disappeared without a trace.

“Guatemala” is a valiant, flawed attempt to get behind the official neglect and the numbing statistics in order to convey the story through exhaustive testimony and pictorial documentation. Jean-Marie Simon is an indefatigable investigator who traveled to every corner of Guatemala to take photographs and interview hundreds of Guatemalans, not only the surviving victims and eyewitnesses but the chief architects of the bloodiest chapter in Guatemala’s history since the Spanish conquest.

The sheer density of the testimony is overwhelming. We hear the sardonic voices of the Guatemalan generals justify the massacres of Indians with a chilling casualness: “Isn’t the killing of 300, 500 Indians worth it to save the country?” asks ex-President Oscar Humberto Mejia Victores. A former agent of G-2, the military’s intelligence service, speaks of it as “God on earth” and adds that “the army is a machine; it can build a town or destory a village.” As reported by America’s Watch, the army, in fact, admitted to wiping out 440 Indian villages during the 18-month presidency of born-again evangelist Efrain Rios Montt. An army spokesman, Djalma Dominguez, icily contrasts Guatemala with Argentina, where President Raul Alfonsin succeeded in putting army officers on trial for human rights abuses. “Guatemala’s military can’t be put on trial, because we were victorious,” says the spokesman, echoing President Vinicio Cerezo’s own explanation for failing to prosecute guilty generals. Dominguez continues, “Do you think we left proof? In Argentina there are witnesses, there are books, there are films, there is proof. Here in Guatemala . . . there are no survivors.”


Jean-Marie Simon set out to refute Dominguez’s claim by collecting testimony from those who survived the army’s killing machine. The witnesses include former soldiers who admit to maiming and dismembering victims and drinking their blood; campesinos who say that carrying more than two tortillas means instant death because they are assumed to be food destined for guerrillas. In one highland community, civil patrollers testify to having been forced to kill five of their neighbors as “subversives,” to avert the army’s reprisals against the entire village.

Simon is particularly effective in exposing the duplicity of the U.S. State Department’s yearly reports on Guatemala that whitewashed the army’s abuses so long as they succeeded in “thumping the Commies” and maintaining a stable climate for foreign investment.

Simon succeeds almost too well in documenting the horror. Massacre is piled upon massacre, official deception follows on official deception until the reader is numbed and seeks refuge in the striking colors or pretty landscapes behind the horrific foreground. What sense can we make of this? In her determination to tell the whole story, Simon hurts her cause--and the integrity of this book--by adopting a tone of aggressive sarcasm that alienates the sympathetic reader. One gets the sense that Simon has seen and heard too much and does not yet have the distance to put it all into perspective.

We hear an Indian recruit’s reasons for joining the Guerrilla Army of the Poor, and we learn that militants of the Organization of People in Arms are fond of Shakespeare and Bruce Springsteen. But for all the accumulated evidence, there are important omissions. We don’t hear the voices of the guerrilla comandantes who made the fateful decision to involve the peasant populations in their war and who brought down on their heads the full weight of the army’s retaliation.

Vinicio Cerezo, Guatemala’s first freely elected civilian president in 20 years, gained international stature after he hosted the historic peace agreement signed last August by the five Central American presidents, but it remains to be seen if he will gain the leverage--and the political will--to loosen the military’s stranglehold on Guatemala’s civilian population. Whatever happens, Simon’s photographs will stand as compelling graphic evidence of high crimes by the Guatemalan military, and the testimony she gathered is the raw material for a future indictment.