Sarajevo Film Festival 2024

The man who infiltrated a military government

JOURNALISM / The fascinating story of Elías Barahona, who infiltrated the military government in Guatemala's darkest days of civil war.

«They’re burning!» Cries of despair fill the air as throngs of people amass outside the Spanish Embassy in the Guatemalan capital. «Break the door! What’s going on!?» A man shouts to officers with an aggravating sense of helplessness as those inside the diplomatic mission are trapped and barred from leaving. The view shifts back to the two-storey embassy building, capturing a person confined to a narrow balcony covering his mouth and nose amid encroaching flames.

Silence of the Mole Anaïs Taracena
Silence of the Mole, a film by Anaïs Taracena

The occupation

On January 31, 1980, a group of indigenous leaders and students occupied the Spanish Embassy in Guatemala City to draw attention to the atrocities committed by state security forces in Maya Kʼicheʼ and Ixil communities. The embassy takeover descended into violence when the police stormed the building despite the Spanish ambassador’s pleas to negotiate. «During the police action, the occupiers were trapped in an uncontrollable fire», the television footage from the scene said, which resulted in 37 deaths, including the demonstrators and embassy staff. The lone survivors in the incident were Ambassador Cajal y López and protester Gregorio Yujá Xona; the latter was taken to hospital with three-degree burns only to be kidnapped, tortured and killed a day later. The harrowing brutality of state security forces played out in front of the television cameras, marked a new low, and for many, like Rigoberta Menchú, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and daughter of a Maya Kʼicheʼ activist who perished in the Spanish Embassy Fire, «hopes for a peaceful change» died then.

For the years that ensued, the government denied responsibility in the incident, branding the demonstrators as «terrorists» who had «sacrificed the hostages» and «immolated themselves afterward» in an act of protest. The case was brought back to the public realm in Guatemala only some three and a half decades later with the start of a historic trial over the culpability of state actors in the 1980 assault on the occupied Spanish Embassy.

The 2014/2015 trial featured a fascinating witness, journalist and Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP) collaborator Elías Barahona. Elías had infiltrated the Ministry of the Interior in the ’70s as Press Officer and confidant of Minister Donaldo Álvarez Ruiz to gather intelligence and warn persons of planned ‘Death Squad’ operations. Elías was witness to a meeting where a tragic decision was made to expel the Spanish Embassy protesters «at all cost.» The order came from the highest command, involving then head of state Fernando Romeo Lucas García, minister Álvarez, chief of the National Police Germán Chupina Barahona and head of ‘Command 6’ Pedro García Arredondo.

The order came from the highest command…

El Topo

The mysterious story of Elías ‘The Mole’ (‘El Topo’) unravels in Anaïs Taracena’s debut feature-length documentary The Silence of the Mole, which premiered at the 2021 Hot Docs and is screening at Mallorca’s «slow» film festival MajorDocs in early October. The documentary opens with senile Elías being wheeled into a crowded courtroom to testify as a witness in the trial relating to the Spanish Embassy Fire. «Elías had waited many years for this moment. And he knew this was his last chance to », Taracena notes in a voice-over as we observe Elías seated in court.

The filmmaker met Elías for the first time in 2011 after she had gotten a hold of a tape with his 1983 interview, in which – while already exiled – he condemned innumerable human rights abuses by state security forces and so-called ‘Death Squads’. This meeting marked the start of their communication, and several years later, he phoned her, asking her to record him as he testified in the trial. Elías passed away just two weeks after his testimony due to a prolonged illness. His death, Taracena says, pushed her to make this documentary and presented a chance to understand the generation of her own parents, particularly her father, who took part in the revolutionary movement and was too exiled for many years.

The documentary pieces together Elías’ story through conversations with his daughter, former colleagues and old-time friends, some of whom were unsuspecting of his espionage activities for years, as well as through scarce images that survived from the period (we learn that a wealth of footage from the ’70s and early ’80s disappeared, allegedly destroyed in an effort to hide the traces of crimes).

Sitting in a bare cafe, Carlos, who was friends with Elías in their youth, recounts that the moment he found out that Elías got a job at the country’s Ministry of the Interior with «one of the most perverse and cynical murderers the country has ever had» Donaldo Álvarez Ruiz; Elías «was dead to [him].» Carlos, however, was not the only one who thought that Elías had flipped to the side of the government and was a traitor. For years, Elías was shunned by many of his friends and colleagues.

After a 25-year lull in their friendship, Elías lamented in a conversation with Carlos about «the worst job there is» and the mires of spy work, which entailed winning the trust among the highest circles of power in the Guatemalan repressive government. «I was very sure that I was doing the right thing. That I had a task, and I had to fulfil it. I don’t know how I did it. I deserve an Oscar! For making a fool of Donaldo», says Elías.

Silence of the Mole Anaïs Taracena
Silence of the Mole, a film by Anaïs Taracena

Civil War

Carlos was the first person to agree to participate in the documentary and be filmed. While making the film, Taracena observed that many refused to be filmed because talking to her meant they had to remember the decades-long civil war, one of the bloodiest conflicts in Latin America. And many preferred not to talk about that past. Or they said they had forgotten it.

Amid bouts of the military government’s atrocities, the silence pervaded the country’s streets and found refuge in its people and their interior lives. An archivist at the National Film Archive, who is dedicated to salvaging what is left of the country’s fragmented memory, recalls the silence that lingered in his home after his father’s kidnapping. «My sisters never talk about this. Neither did my mom or grandma, and they were there. […]. I am the only one who has these memories», he says.

During the years of Lucas García’s rule (1978-1982), opposition was suppressed on the pretext of an anti-communist mission. During this time, as revealed by Elías ‘The Mole’, with «the very resources of the Guatemalan State», different paramilitary groups were deployed, and seizures without warrant, torture and murders were carried out against those who «opposed or [were] imagined to oppose» the government (a 1981 Amnesty report).

«The point of no return starts here, of a violence that will become the norm, and to this date, still pierces our bodies», reflects Taracena. Over 30 years later, remnants of photographs of victims and «forcibly disappeared» persons, once plastered on the city’s walls, now call to mind the numerous extrajudicial killings perpetrated throughout Guatemala’s protracted conflict that raged between 1960 and 1996. «It was a genocide. 250,000 people were killed», writing coarsely sprayed on the wall reads. Next to it is a storefront packed with headless mannequins with price tags attached to their hips or in place of heads.

Silence of the Mole Anaïs Taracena
Silence of the Mole, a film by Anaïs Taracena

Past and present

The past and present continuously converge in the film as archive materials; some smuggled out of the country, others filmed by foreign filmmakers, coalesce with old newspaper clippings and present-day footage of the city. Unsettling shots from the offices occupied by minister Álvarez and his colleagues during their terms exude the oppressive stillness of the past that still haunts the present. Crumbling pieces of the once lavish furniture, with their insides protruding, emanate an eerie feeling of weariness with war and impunity of its leaders.

Through words uttered by Elías in the ’80s interviews, the documentary touches on critical questions that beg for a discussion. Was there an alternative to armed struggle for the opposition and guerrilla groups when the only security was «either to die or to be tortured and kidnapped»? And what role did the United States play in the Guatemalan Civil War, specifically in training its security forces as well as drawing on the experiences from Vietnam and using ‘psychological warfare’?

Between 1960 and 1996, over 200,000 people were killed or «forcibly disappeared» in the Guatemalan Civil War, fought by the government and assorted leftist rebel groups. According to the UN-sponsored Historical Clarification Commission, 93% of the abuses were carried out by government forces, and about 83% of the victims were indigenous Maya, whom the government and military at the time viewed as siding with the leftist insurrection. In 2015, some 35 years after the deadly assault on the Spanish Embassy in Guatemala, a court found former ‘Command 6’ chief Arredondo guilty of homicide and crimes against humanity. Former president Lucas García and police chief Chupina died before facing punishment. To this day, former minister Álvarez remains a fugitive.

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Sevara Pan
Sevara Pan
Journalist and film critic.

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