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A DXer's Visit to Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala

By Don Moore

A slightly edited version of this article was originally published in the February, 1993 issue of The Journal of the North American Shortwave Association in the Latin Destinations column.


Hola amigos! Welcome to Latin Destinations!

Lately, while DXing I have often found myself drawn to 2390. Guatemalan La Voz de Atitlan has been putting in a signal here most nights, at times good enough to rival stations on 60 meters. Their programming is happy and festive; several nights I've listened as long as 45 minutes. Of course many Latin stations have festive programming, but La Voz de Atitlan's is different because behind it is the rebirth of a town and a people. Not long ago there was no festivity in the town of Santiago Atitlan.

Lake Atitlan is the heart of Guatemala's western highlands, home to several million Mayan Indians. The lake is a beautiful blue and is surrounded by lush vegetation and steep mountains, including three volcanos practically on its banks. On the north shore is Panajachel, an Indian village transformed into a tourist mecca. Travelers, mainly European, from vagabonding 'hippies' to wealthy jet-setters come here for the view, the climate, and the wonderful Indian handicrafts. Although Lake Atitlan only measures about 5x10 miles, its shores are dotted with villages of three distinct Mayan tribes. On the west, north, and east banks are Quiches and Cakchiquels, two of the largest Mayan groups, whose lands stretch across much of central and western Guatemala. The south shore is home to the tiny 27,000 member Tzutuhil group. Their main town is Santiago Atitlan.

Guatemala is an ethnically divided nation. About half the people are Mayans, and the other half ladino, a local term for people of mixed Spanish and Indian ancestry. Ladinos live in eastern Guatemala, the southern coast, Guatemala City, and the main towns of western Guatemala. The Mayans live primarily in rural areas and small towns in western and central Guatemala. The relationship between ladinos and Mayans is roughly analgous to that between blacks and whites in the U.S. south eighty years ago. Anything that is done to improve the lives and rights of the Mayans is seen as a threat to the domiance of the ladino power structure.

Since the early 1960s, a small scale guerilla war has been fought in Guatemala's western highlands. At first it was just a few bands of renegade Marxist army officers and college students. But in the late 1970s their numbers were gradually enlarged as over a thousand Mayans joined them. Thousands of soldiers were sent to fight the guerillas and western Guatemala became a war zone. As some Guatemalan generals have admitted, they considered it more like occupying a foreign country than protecting part of their own. The officers and most soldiers were ladinos and didn't trust the Indians. Just the fact that the Indians spoke their own languages, which the army couldn't understand, was seen as a threat. The situation was made worse by rightwing extremists who believed that the Catholic Church and other organizations working to help the Mayans were agents of the guerillas. Across Guatemala death squads began kidnapping and murdering Church and community leaders.

On October 21, 1980, a batallion of soldiers arrived to garrison Santiago Atitlan. Just after midnight on October 24, Gaspar Culan, the manager of La Voz de Atitlan, was abducted from his home by a group of masked men. A few days later his tortured body was found along a roadside. On November 3, the soldiers raided the station, destroying the studio equipment and files. In the next few weeks nine other townspeople working with the Catholic church in the radio station, health services, and other social agencies were similarly killed.

On January 5, 1981, Father Stanley Rother, Santiago Atitlan's 46 year old priest from Okarche, Oklahoma wrote home to a friend,

Things have been pretty quiet here the past couple of weeks until just last Saturday night. Probably the most sought after catechist has been staying here in the rectory off and on, and almost constantly of late. He had been eating and sleeping here, and usually visiting his wife and two kids in late afternoon. He had a key to the house and was approaching Saturday night about 7:45, he was intercepted by a group of four kidnappers. Three apparently tried to grab him at the far side of the church. He got to within fifteen feet of the door and was holding on to the bannister and yelling for help ... I was listening to music but also heard the noise, and by the time I realized what was happening, grabbed a jacket and got outside, they had taken him down the front steps of the church and were putting him in a waiting car. In the process they had broken the bannister where the rectory porch joins the church, and I just stood there waiting to jump down to help, but knowing that I would be killed or taken along also. The car sped off with him yelling for help but no one was able to do so.
Then I realized that I had just witnessed a kidnapping of someone that we had gotten to know and love and was unable to do anything about it. They had his mouth covered, but I can still hear his muffled screams for help ... He was 30 years old, left a wife and two boys, ages 3 and 1. May he rest in peace!
This made 11 members of the church community that had been kidnapped and killed, including health workers and radio staff, leaving 8 widows and 32 children. Not long afterward guerillas attacked an army convoy in the area and in retaliation 17 townspeople were randomly picked up and killed. Father Stanley learned that he was also targeted for death and left the country a few days later. On April 11, he returned to minister to his parish once again. On July 28 nuns discovered his bullet-filled body in the rectory. He was the ninth priest slain in Guatemala in twelve months. The army claimed that the killings were the work of guerillas, but witnesses often recognized the kidnappers as soldiers. Besides, it was pointed out, for guerillas to be able to regularly sneak by an entire batallion of soldiers to carry out these acts, the batallion would have to be a bunch of Keystone Cops.

Visits to Atitlan

As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Honduras, I traveled alone to Guatemala during my school's semester break in June, 1983. I made Panajachel my base for visiting the nearby highlands. The town had been bustling with tourists in the 1970s, but news of Central America's guerilla wars had dried up most tourism. I attempted to take the motorlaunch across the lake to Santiago Atitlan, but there was only one other tourist to join me, so the launches wouldn't run. The next day I left Panajacel for Nahuala, home of Catholic station La Voz de Nahuala. There I learned that La Voz de Atitlan had returned to the air on May 1, 1982, but was only permitted to broadcast for two hours in mid-afternoon.

In September Honduran schools took the customary week off to celebrate independence day on September 15th. I took advantage of the vacation to return to Guatemala, this time with three Peace Corps friends. We made our way to Panajachel and with a few other tourists there were enough this time for a launch to make the trip to Santiago Atitlan. The town was quiet and the streets, buildings, and plaza looked like any other town in Central America. The people, however, were dressed in their own traditional colorful clothing. The women all wore loose white pullover blouses heavily emroidered with the same purple and red geometric pattern and long purple and black wrap-around skirts. The men wore cheap polyester sports shirts and straw cowboy hats, like most Central American peasants, but with loose calf length white trousers with thick vertical maroon strips. This is the traditional costume of the Tzutuhil people and it distinguishes them from other Mayans.

Asking directions, I made my way to the radio station. A few blocks behind the church, it was in a two story thick stone block building. There was no sign. It was mid-morning, and no one was there and the door locked. From a neighbor I found out the the afternoon broadcast times were still in effect and that no one would arrive until well after lunch. Unfortunately, my boat to Panajachel would return before that. I contented myself with walking up the street to their short antenna tower rising from the middle of a corn field. I met my friends back in the plaza and we returned to Panajachel.

Return to Santiago Atitlan

In December, 1987 Theresa and I took advantage of a month long semester break during grad school for a trip through the Yucatan, Belize and Guatemala and once again we made our way to Lake Atitlan. Panajachel didn't seem like the same town. Guatemala now had a freely elected government for the first time in over 30 years and the guerillas had been pushed back in many areas. Guatemala was once again considered safe for tourists and Panajachel was full of Europeans and even some Americans. Prices had gone up considerably from a few years before when hotels and restaurants were begging for customers. Now it was difficult to find a room.

On our second day in town we went to the docks for the launch to Santiago Atitlan. Three full launches made the trip. Unlike Panajachel, Santiago didn't seem to have changed very much, but the people were taking full advantage of the influx of tourists as dozens of vendors sold local crafts to the visiting tourists at the wharf, market, and central plaza. The town was noisy, happy, bustling, and alive. Smiling children were playing in the cobblestone streets as teenagers played basketball by the plaza, and there were people everywhere.

While Theresa went to the market, I once more walked up the street behind the church to La Voz de Atitlan. The station now had a sign; a small piece of scrap board with the station name roughly painted on it had been nailed to the wall over a window. This time the door was open, so I walked in and introduced myself to the manager, Juan Ajtzip and several announcers who were talking inside. Although they were cordial to me, they were very uncomfortable by my presence. They only talked when I asked questions, but allowed me to take a few pictures of the studio, and Sr. Ajtzip looked over the reception reports I had brought for a few friends and dutifully signed and stamped the prepared QSL cards accompanying them. They seemed anxious for me to leave, so I only stayed a few minutes.

I found Theresa in the market and after taking a few pictures, we went to sit in the plaza. Bill, a Canadian travel writer we had met on the launch, joined us and the three of us decided to walk down to a little restaurant near the dock for some lunch. Finishing our meal, we happened to glance out the window and saw all three launches well into the lake on their way back to Panajachel. It was fifteen minutes before they were scheduled to depart! Shocked we paid our bill and walked down to the dock where we were told that the launches thought they had everyone who was returning and had decided to leave early. I couldn't believe it. Nothing in rural Latin America happens on time, let alone early!

There was no other way out of town. Bill had planned to stay the night and offered to show us to a little pension where he had found a basic room for a dollar. Walking with him back up the main street towards the plaza we noticed the gaiety of the morning had totally disappeared. The town now seemed tight as a drum. There was tension in everyone's face; not even the children were smiling. Suddenly we heard some loud shouting from behind us and turned to see a patrol of fully armed soldiers running our way. We followed the example of a few townsmen and pressed ourselves against the wall of a house along the street as the soldiers passed. Nearing the plaza, another patrol charged by us from a different direction. Soldiers were now posted in several postions around the center of town. The teenagers had been kicked off the basketball court where some off-duty soldiers were now playing. We crossed the plaza and walked up a block to the pension and got a room.

Bill took off to do some exploring and after a short rest we left for a walk along the main street away from the plaza towards the other side of town, following some native men carrying huge loads of firewood on their backs. About a quarter mile outside town, we left the road and walked down to the lake shore where some women were washing clothes. Beyond us the town rose on a small hill about 150 yards in from the lake. Between the lake and the town was a marshy low area of gardens and reed beds. Continuing into the marsh, we had to wind around and sometimes backtrack, but there was always a mounded dirt path between the cabbages or among the reeds. Occasionally we would come upon a peasant working his garden and he would tip his hat and greet us. Among the vegetables it wasn't as tense as in town. After walking almost two hours, we neared the docks on the other side of town. We cut up towards town in an alleyway between some houses. From one house we could hear a woman crying hysterically, repeating over and over "They took him away", while another woman tried to comfort her. We continued on to the plaza and found a small store to buy a can of tuna, hard rolls, and soft drinks to have for supper in our room. It would get dark about 5:30 and this was one town where we didn't want to be out in the streets after dark.

Back at the patio of our rooming house we met Bill. Walking along the lake on the far side of the docks, he had met a patrol of soldiers who strip-searched him and interrogated him for twenty minutes. Then, when things started to get really ugly, he told the sergeant, "Look, I'm a travel writer. If you don't want tourists to come here, I can write that in my articles." That simple comment changed everything. The sergeant knew that the last thing the Guatemalan government wanted was another drought in the tourist industry like in the early 1980s. If he caused that to happen, he would be in big trouble. The sergeant apologized, helped our friend up, gave him back all his papers and notebooks, and escorted him back to town. I wondered why we hadn't met the same experience. We had passed several patrols in town at both ends of our walk. Probably it was just that Bill had a beard, mid- length hair and wore jeans. With me balding and in a pair or corduroys and Theresa in a skirt, we probably looked more mainstream.

Luckily I had stuck my ICF-7600D in the camera case that morning. We passed the evening talking, listening to AFRTS and RCI, and eating our tuna and rolls and some fruit Bill had brought. The next morning the roosters woke us around dawn and Theresa and I walked down to the lake. The view was magical. In the chilly morning air, thick fog was rising from the water and just a few yards from shore we could see the shadowy outlines of fishermen standing in their one-man dugout canoes, slowly poling themselves through the water. Three boys, ages 6,7, and 8, joined us and began asking all the usual questions about that distant land of Los Estados Unidos. Suddenly a helicopter passed overhead and the boys froze in terror. "What's wrong with the helicopter?" we asked. "They bring more soldiers," stammered one of the boys. Although the town still seemed tense, the tension gradually disappeared as 10:00 and the arrival of the tourist launches approached. When the boats arrived, it was like a festival once more. Perhaps not so much for us, however. We had seen the other side of Santiago Atitlan. This time we were down at the docks an hour before the scheduled departure.

Back home in Ohio about a month later, Theresa and I were stunned to hear a report from Santiago Atitlan on NPR's Morning Edition. About the end of November someone had anonymously begun circulating a death list of about 100 citizens through the town. In December, fourteen people, including the mayor's sister, were kidnapped, tortured, and murdered. Immediately we both remembered the woman crying "They took him away." Who had taken whom away, we wondered. Had we heard the aftermath of a kidnapping? I thought back to the unease at which I had been received at La Voz de Atitlan. I now realized that the unexplained visit of a foreigner might draw unwanted attention to the station. Could Se´┐Żor Ajtzip or one of his colleagues have been among the dead as a result of my visit? For two years, I could only pray not. On New Year's Eve, 1989, La Voz de Atitlan was heard by myself and a number of other DXers staying on past midnight, local time. After that they began making occasional early evening broadcasts. Dxers heard them and wrote. QSL reports in DX bulletins of La Voz de Atitlan mentioned Juan Ajtzip as the veri-signer. I was relieved; surely if the manager had't been killed, the less important announcers would have been spared, too.


The evening of December 1, 1990 started like all too many other evenings in Santiago Atitlan. A group of armed soldiers dressed in civilian clothes went drinking in a downtown cantina. Once they were drunk the officer among them led the group to the house of a shopkeeper and they began pounding on the door, trying to knock it down. Inside, the man's terrified family began screaming. At this moment, something changed in Santiago Atitlan. Hearing the screams, the man's neighbors poured out into the streets, scaring the small band of soldiers away. Other neighbors ran to the plaza and began ringing the church bell. Almost the entire town left their homes and gathered in the plaza. For a few hours everyone discussed what had happened to their town and what they should do. Perhaps they were just gatheing their courage for what they were about to do. At 4 a.m. the soldiers were awakened by 2,500 shouting people marching up the road towards their encampment. The crowd stopped outside the barb wire fence and a few chosen leaders demanded that the army let them live in peace. Then a couple of unruly crowd members threw some rocks. The army opened fire. Eleven were killed, including three children, and seventeen wounded. The crowd retreated back to town and the batallion stayed in their base.

The next day government officials hurried out from the capital. Upon arrival they were presented with petitions signed by over 20,000 names - almost the entire population of Santiago Atitlan and the nearby rural areas - demanding the withdrawal of the army from their town. The event drew international attention and the Guatemalan government had little choice if it didn't want to damage its tourism industry again. The army was withdrawn from the Santiago Atitlan area.

Now the streets of Santiago Atitlan are patrolled by villagers armed with sticks and whistles. Crime of all types has all but disappeared and not a shot has been fired in the town since the army left. The townspeople make it clear that neither the army nor the guerillas are welcome; they only want to live in peace. When a platoon of soldiers tried to reoccupy the town they were quietly turned away by several hundred citizens. As to La Voz de Atitlan, it's back to its old schedule of more than twelve years ago, signing on at 1100 or 1200 in the morning and staying on well into the evening. And every broadcast sounds joyous. I know it will be a long time before I tire of listening to this station. Hasta luego!

Review of International Broadcasting #49 (March, 1981). The New York Times 7/29/81; 8/15/81; 2/17/88; 12/3/90; 12/12/91.


This article is copyright 1993 by Don Moore. It may not be printed in any publication without written permission. Permission is granted for all interested readers to share and pass on the ASCII text file of this article or to print it out for personal use. In such case, your comments on the article would be appreciated.


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