Silence on the Mountain

Stories of Terror, Betrayal, and Forgetting in Guatemala

Silence on the Mountain

American Encounters/Global Interactions

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Book Pages: 392 Illustrations: 14 b&w photos Published: August 2004

Activism, History > Latin American History, Latin American Studies > Central America

new in paperback
Silence on the Mountain is a virtuoso work of reporting and a masterfully plotted narrative tracing the history of Guatemala’s thirty-six-year internal war, a conflict that claimed the lives of some 200,000 people, the vast majority of whom died (or were “disappeared”) at the hands of the U.S.-backed military government. Written by Daniel Wilkinson, a young human rights worker, the story begins in 1993, when the author decides to investigate the arson of a coffee plantation’s manor house by a band of guerrillas. The questions surrounding this incident soon broaden into a complex mystery whose solution requires Wilkinson to dig up the largely unwritten history of the country’s recent civil war, following its roots back to a land reform movement that was derailed by a U.S.-sponsored military coup in 1954 and to the origins of a plantation system that put Guatemala’s Mayan Indians to work picking coffee beans for the American and European markets.

Decades of terror-inspired fear have led the Guatemalans to adopt a survival strategy of silence so complete that it verges on collective amnesia. The author’s great triumph is that he finds a way for people to tell their stories, and it is through these stories—dramatic, intimate, heartbreaking—that we are shown the anatomy of a thwarted revolution that has relevance not only to Guatemala but also to countless places around the world where terror has been used as a political tool.


“For those unfamiliar with Guatemala this book is a fine acquisition. It is of great value to introduce students to Guatemalan and Central American history, anthropology, and political science. More than that, it is a good leisure read for the socially conscious travel enthusiast.” — Ana Yolanda Contreras , Ethnohistory

“Part travelogue, part historical thriller, and part chronicle of self-awakening, the book does indeed resonate with ‘big picture’ subjects such as terrorism, globalization, human rights, and migration.” — Alvis Dunn , Hispanic American Historical Review

“Wilkinson’s research is a success both in the way in which it is conducted and the manner that it is presented. The author’s narrative style and the craftsmanship of his narration is such that he is able to capture and maintain the reader’s attention throughout the book. He certainly demonstrates much narrative dexterity when selecting the proper organization of events and when providing rich and effective descriptions. Consequently, he succeeds in painting an extraordinarily poignant picture of the situation and is able to coherently connect the facts. Furthermore, his stories are constantly validated by his profound understanding of Guatemalan idiosyncrasy.” — Rony Garrido , Arizona Journal of Hispanic Cultural Studies

"[Silence on the Mountain] document[s] unthinkable horror, insisting as we try to turn away that attention must be paid, that what happened there must never happen again, that the past isn't past at all." — Joanne Omang , Washington Post

"A beautiful, harrowing, and comprehensive history." — Suzy Hansen, Salon

"[A] masterful narrative of an encounter with the secrecy, fear, and distrust that can permeate post-war societies. . . . Wilkinson’s focus on the nature of post-war societies and its narrative style makes this book and its insights accessible even to those whose expertise may lie outside the social sciences." — M. Gabriela Torres , Journal of Latin American Anthropology

"[A] page-turning work of detective nonfiction." — Diana Nelson Jones, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

"A profound book ... both easy to read and compelling ... given the powerful subject matter and how well it is told." — Publishers Weekly

"A series of brilliantly recorded encounters with scores of people.... A well-told and often suspenseful mystery story." — Thomas Quigley, America

"[C]ombines the probity of a serious historian with the literary instincts of a crime writer . . . peeling back layers of silence and deceit in ways that are reminiscent of what Marcel Ophüls's film The Sorrow and the Pity did for Vichy France." — Peter Canby , The Nation

"Given the recidivist nature of U.S. policy in Latin America, Wilkinson's book [is] a well-timed reminder of the potentially devastating consequences of our successes." — Alex Stone, Washington Monthly

"A young human rights lawyer with an eye for detail and the gumption to ride a rickety motorcycle to get to the bottom of a story until now largely untold, Wilkinson has written a book full of grim details about exploitation of coffee pickers, genocidal massacres, and frustrated leftist organizing." — Clifford Krauss , New York Times Book Review

"Anyone who knows little or nothing about Guatemala can pick up Silence on the Mountain and be reliably filled in. Students of anthropology will appreciate its textual accessibility. Specialists, too, should not be disappointed and will surely admire the commitment and dedication that went into the book's composition." — W. George Lovell , American Anthropologist

"As he digs deeper into the past, [Wilkinson] displays a novelist's faith that any particular piece of earth contains a full record of history, and ... delivers the cast and intrigue of a literary saga." — Larry Siems, CounterPunch

"Daniel Wilkinson's debut work could be called creative nonfiction, memoir, political journalism, or even travel writing with a social conscience, but at heart it's a mystery.... [H]is narrative becomes...a page turner.... Wilkinson's powerful book is likely to remain topical for a long time." — Mark Brazaitis, WorldView

"The author's style is taut and precise, but it is the Guatemalans themselves who speak with the greatest eloquence." — The New Yorker

"Well written and wide-ranging. . . ." — Winifred Tate , NACLA Report on the Americas

"Wilkinson's quest for information takes him from the upper to the lower to the middle classes, through the different tiers of Guatemala's dependent export economy, all the way to your morning latte." — David Stoll, The New Republic

"This is the most engaging and hopeful investigation of events surrounding Guatemala's recently ended thirty-six-year civil war that I have read." — Julie Hart , Peace & Change

Silence on the Mountain has the seductive allure and vivid characters of the finest fiction and the penetration of the most elegant journalism. Mr. Wilkinson’s painstaking work has crucial lessons for our government’s future role not only in Latin America but in the entire world. Above all, his book serves literature’s deepest impulse: to bring forth truth out of silence.” — The 2003 PEN/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction citation

“This is an extraordinary tale, and an extremely well-told one. Written like a modern explorer’s journal, Silence on the Mountain is the account of Daniel Wilkinson’s self-appointed mission to uncover dark secrets in a shady corner of Guatemala. With humility, humor, honesty . . . he has given us a rare and intimate understanding of how this achingly beautiful country became one of the Western Hemisphere’s most brutalized places.” — Jon Lee Anderson, author of Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life

“Wilkinson sets out to tell the story of Guatemala’s recently ended thirty-six-year internal war through the secret history of one venerable coffee plantation. The result reads like a novel, narrated by a disarmingly funny, perceptive, deeply humane young American who knows how to wear his courage lightly. You feel as if you are riding with Wilkinson on his beat-up motorcycle up muddy, dangerous jungle trails into the heart of a secretive country just waking up from a long nightmare. . . . A brilliant and important book.” — Francisco Goldman, author of The Long Night of White Chickens


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Price: $25.95

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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Daniel Wilkinson is Managing Director, Americas Division at Human Rights Watch.

Table of Contents Back to Top
I. A House Burned

The Owner 3

The Student 7

The Battlefield 11

Exhumation 19

II. Ashes Fell

Rumor 29

Travelogue 32

Natural History 42

Bildungsroman 48

Revelation 56

Decree 65

III. A Future Was Buried

A Dangerous Question 83

The Law That Would Change the World 157

Betrayal 168

Burials 180

IV. And They Were the Eruption

The Savages 193

Sacuhum 199

The Guerrillas 217

The Politicians 252

The Terrorist 307

The Defeated 337

The Storytellers 350

List of Names 361

Notes on Sources 362

Selected Bibliography 367

Acknowledgments 372

Index 374
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3368-5