Aura is barely 15 years old when she is kidnapped in Guatemala. It was the military, at her school, before the nuns who had to protect her. These are the times in the power of the bloodthirsty dictator Efrain Rios Montt. Ella aura doesn’t know what they accuse her of. She hears words like “communism”, “guerrilla”, which don’t sound like anything to her. They lock her in a basement, in a torture center. They strip her of all dignity. She suffers terrible humiliation, she lives among the filth and with the nightmare of the dark, of hosed baths with cold water, with the terror and disgust of systematic rapes by her tormentor, from whom she becomes pregnant. And as if that were not enough, they take her son from the young woman, they kidnap him. Although Aura is a fictional character, her story is real, based on dozens of testimonies read and heard by the Mexican writer Ximena Santaolalla (Tlanalapa, Hidalgo, Mexico, 39 years old), who denounces in Sometimes I wake up shaking (Random House Literature) one of the cruelest times in Latin American history: the genocide caused by the dictator Rios Montt. Santaolalla, who says he feels ashamed for having known that nightmare too late, hopes that his novel moves and stirs consciences so that episodes as terrible as the one suffered by Guatemalans do not happen again.
Ask. At the end of his novel, he asks the Mexican reader to look back at Central America. He draws attention to how little Central America and its history matter to Mexico, especially when taking into account how close it is.
Reply. It was in 2013 that I realized what had happened in the dictatorship of Efrain Rios Montt. And that was when I realized for the first time in my life, I was 30 years old, that it had been the most brutal dictatorship on our continent. That hurt me, realizing so late. And that’s when I also realized our attitude as Mexicans towards the history of Central America, of complete ignorance, of pretending it doesn’t exist.
Q. Despite the fact that there are thousands of Central Americans who cross Mexico every day.
R. 250,000 more or less a year. And of those 250,000, at least 4,000 die a year in my country. I wonder why there aren’t more spaces for refuge, care, even spaces where people who were murdered or disappeared here can be honored. And not only here, but also in the United States, considering that many of the problems, if not most of the problems that occur in Central America, were implanted by the United States.
Q. In his novel he tells how these bloodthirsty Guatemalan soldiers, the kaibiles, who committed atrocities in Guatemala, were trained in US military camps.
R. Yes. This kaibil training is based on the US Rangers and the Israeli Mossad. Even Efrain Rios Montt trained at the School of the Americas and it is very important that this is recognized, that more is said about it. Now that I have presented the novel at Harvard’s David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, I said that it should be recognized that there is a responsibility of the United States, because the consequences of this, although it happened 40 years ago, continue to exist. It must be recognized that there are still open wounds and a lot of pain and palpable post-traumatic stress. When a wound of that magnitude is done, there are also financial consequences in a country, there are psychological and emotional consequences. So I believe that there must be a real response from the United States.
Q. Many of the members of the kaibiles ended up joining the ranks of organized crime in Mexico. From Los Zetas, for example.
R. Yes, but I would not say that Mexico was affected as well. Mexico is the one who invites them, the Gulf Cartel invites them to be their bodyguards, they hire them. And then they realize that it is better for them to make their own cartel, to make Los Zetas. If a State decides to train people by dehumanizing them and teaching them to become killing machines, these people will slowly realize that it is better for them to do the same work for organized crime, because they will earn more money.
Q. You mentioned the wounds that remain open in Guatemala. What impact has it had on the victims that a genocide like Rios Montt has died in impunity?
R. There was a positive feeling when Judge Yazmin Barrios said with all her words that what happened in Guatemala was genocide and that there should be a sentence that includes all those testimonies, even if that sentence was later annulled. The bad thing is that in Guatemala there are still many corruption problems and there are still all these terrible forces like the Foundation against Terrorism, which now has a lot of power to terrorize judges and other officials who are trying to imprison those responsible. [La Fundacion contra el Terrorismo es un organismo de extrema derecha, financiado por poderosos grupos economicos y exmilitares, que ha mostrado mucha beligerancia en los juicios contra los jueces y fiscales anticorrupcion]
Q. The military still have a lot of power.
R. Yes Yes Yes. The situation in Guatemala is very delicate for people who are trying to do justice and I think that is why this wound has not yet healed, despite the fact that 40 years have passed. Now that I went to Guatemala, there were several people who told me ‘thank you for talking about something we don’t dare to talk about’. And that’s because there are still all these terrorizing forces to shut up.
Q. Guatemala is still a very polarized country. There are sectors that prefer that what happened be forgotten.
R. Something funny happened to me. A person from Guatemala told me that he hoped that Zury Rios, the daughter of Efrain Rios Montt, would win the elections next year and that he hoped that my novel would not take away a single vote from her. That person is an older man who met 17-year-old Zury at the home of Efrain Rios Montt and told me that she was a very beautiful young woman and that he saw her come down the stairs in a see-through nightgown and that he was struck by her beauty. A completely unpleasant and sexist anecdote. I also received a message on Twitter from one of the owners of the German School in Guatemala City telling me that Efrain Rios Montt did his work against the guerrillas and I shouldn’t speak ill of him.
Q. And yet, in Guatemala his book has been very well received.
R. And how good! I am happy, because it is important that this does not go out, that it continue to be known, that it be talked about, that it be discussed. In a book club organized by The newspaper Two people from Guatemala thanked me for turning south and talking about their country. I was embarrassed that they told me that. I am ashamed that I did not know about this before 2013. And I am ashamed that we are not moved by this story.
Q. How was your encounter with the victims of those atrocious years in Guatemala?
R. All my research had been documentary. It was not until 2018 when I first spoke to the victims. And I was very surprised to realize the fear of speaking. I thought that many years had passed and that they were going to speak freely and no. For example, they asked me to download applications to talk to me. Nobody wanted to talk to me about these things on WhatsApp, because they told me that they were going to listen to us or intervene and that it was very dangerous and that this was very delicate. And I was surprised and said but who is going to listen to us. Later I began to realize that it is still very dangerous in Guatemala to talk about these issues.
Q. Who instills that fear?
R. It seems to be the Foundation against Terrorism. It is the most active in this espionage and instilling fear to try to imprison, to scare, to invent crimes that these people who are talking about what happened and trying to accuse the guilty did not commit.
Q. In his novel he gives an account of the atrocities committed by the Guatemalan Army. Women impaled, raped, pregnant women whose bellies were cut open to take out their children, children who were tortured, destroyed, women thrown into a well and then grenades were thrown into that well… What was your reaction when you found out about this level of violence? atrocities?
R. The character that hurt me the most when writing was that of Aura. I based myself on the case of a survivor, Yolanda Aguilar Urizar, who is the daughter of a trade unionist who they wanted to punish for her work as a trade unionist. And to do so, the National Secret Police kidnapped her 16-year-old daughter and kept her locked up for nine months. That case broke my heart and I decided to create Aura to tell the story. She is a completely fictitious character, to which I also added that of a pregnancy in prison, because I have also read several cases of women who were raped and became pregnant and also had their babies stolen.
Q. How difficult was it for you to reconstruct these stories?
R. It was quite an odyssey to write it. I got depressed, I got angry. It was a very painful topic for me. And I wish the pain was just like that, like mine when writing, but imagine what it was like to experience it, how terrifying it was for these people. I immersed myself in the story, I tried to imagine it so that I could convey it as best as possible to whoever read the novel. I wanted whoever reads it to try to imagine what it was like to experience something like this, as close as possible. And to question why we have to allow this to exist, why does this policy of subjugating entire countries have to exist, where they torture and kill in such a horrible way. What impressed me so much about this dictatorship, the most horrible that has ever existed on this continent, is living all the time under that terror of who knows when they are going to take me, my family. And not just thinking that they are going to kill them, but that they are going to torture them in the most cruel way possible.
Q. It is terrible not only that the wound is still open, but also that the fear of reporting what happened continues.
R. Yes, it’s a very fresh wound, especially since there are acts so terrible that I don’t know if a lifetime is enough to heal them. I don’t know if talking about something so hard is useful, but I want to think so, that a novel can raise awareness, that it be a grain of sand so that it doesn’t happen again.
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