What do you call a young man with no arms?

12 June 2009 by Mike Gogulski
Posted in crime, war | 3 Comments »

One fine evening in the summer of 2004, I sat with my girlfriend at our favorite restaurant in Antigua, Guatemala, as we picked at our appetizers, sipped our wine and chatted.

We had been there a couple of times already during our two weeks or so in the city. Antigua itself is beautiful, up in the high country, filled with classic colonial-period architecture, lots of neat little shops, and plenty for the tourist. Just to the south, Volcán de Agua towers some 12,000 feet above everything. As Guatemala goes, you couldn’t ask for a more serene, lovely place.

Volcán de Agua, Antigua, Guatemala

Volcán de Agua, Antigua, Guatemala

And the restaurant was lovely too, with an indoor courtyard with tropical trees, a lively bar in the back and a menu worth sampling again and again. Though at the top end of the scale for Guatemala, the prices were quite comfortable for bearers of United States dollars looking for great food in a nice setting. The clientele were generally foreign tourists, with the occasional group of darker-skinned, upper-class guatemaltecos appearing as well.

A couple of people walk in and start making for the back of the restaurant, where there might be some tables available. They approach us, as we’re sitting at a table against a wall along the route to the back. A young man, perhaps 19 years of age, followed by a middle aged man, presumably his father. Both guatemaltecos.

My eye is caught for some reason. Something isn’t right about the youth’s gait. In an instant, I see why: his arm ends in a short stump just below his shoulder. And then I notice his father behind him, with a prosthetic arm slung over his shoulder.

Tragic. What horrible accident must have led to this. I can’t even imagine what life would be like, less than physically complete, not to mention the sensations, the horror, the feelings that must come of losing a limb. The folks who live in the countryside and till the land in Guatemala have hard lives, and accidents must be common.

I turn my attention back to my shrimp cocktail, quickly, as they approach our table.

But something is still not right with the young man’s gait, and I turn as they pass, perhaps impolitely, and look again.

And it is then that I see that the father carries not one, but two prosthetic arms slung over his shoulders. And that his son’s other arm is also mostly missing, ending in a slightly longer stump than the other.

What do you call a young man with no arms?


Perhaps I drop my fork as the realization hits me: this young man walking past me, just entering adulthood, was not the victim of an accident.

Silence on the Mountain

Silence on the Mountain

Right up until the end of the bloody 46-year Guatemalan “civil” war in 1996, state-sponsored gangs roamed the countryside, striking targets of opportunity and instilling fear into the populace, in hopes of crushing support for the guerrilla resistance groups. A favorite tactic, described in Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala; Silence on the Mountain: Stories of Terror, Betrayal, and Forgetting in Guatemala and elsewhere, was for the terror squads to attack small, rural villages suspected of sheltering or supporting the guerrillas. Everyone in the village was forced out of their homes at gunpoint, assembled, and segregated: men over here, women over there, children here. The villagers watched as soldiers and police raped their mothers, sisters and daughters. Those who resisted were simply shot. Those surviving now watched as some of the children, boys especially, had one or both of their arms or hands hacked off with machetes. And then most of the men were executed. Still more were led away from the villages, bound and at gunpoint, enslaved or slaughtered and never to be seen again: los desaparecidos, the disappeared.

The armless young man who just walked past me, without doubt, was one of those children in the villages in the early- to mid-1990s — mutilated, crippled by the criminal violence of state agents in the service of an inhuman ruling class, and left to live as a reminder to those who would challenge their privilege.

I tried several times, in conversations with guatemaltecos, to ask about the war, and how it had touched their lives. None would speak of it to me — perhaps because I am a white man, but without question because they want to forget.

  1. 3 Responses to “What do you call a young man with no arms?”

  2. By PintofStout on 12 June 2009

    I have no words. Wow.

    Charles Bowden describes some horrific things done by accomplices of the CIA in Argentina or Chile in his book Blood Orchid that were similarly as terrifying. So much of the history of the US in South America – and everywhere, for that matter – is swept under the rug of history.

  3. By NickyTheHeel on 12 June 2009

    I have not read the book and am not that familiar with Guatemala having only been there for 3-4 very short visits.

    I do wonder, though, how many of these butchers were trained by the US at the School of the Americas.

  4. By Mike Gogulski on 12 June 2009

    @Nicky: the answer seems to be “many”, at least among the officer ranks.

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