JMS: My phone was tapped. I don’t know if my room was tapped. I made some calculated decisions about that. I never asked for names and I figured that if they are tapping my room, all they’re going to hear is the truth. And getting the truth out was a double-edged sword in Guatemala because on the one hand it was a “screw you” attitude towards human rights groups, whom they equated with the Soviet Union; on the other hand they wanted to perpetuate the illusion that there was freedom of the press in Guatemala. You know, “Look, we’ve even got these Commies here like Human Rights Watch and nothing happens to them, so that proves that either we’re not the bad guys that people say we are, or we’re on the road to democracy.” That was the mantra back then in 1985 and 1986.
But there’s a natural tendency to ask foreigners who live in a place, especially women who were young when they did this, “Was your life endangered? Did anything happen to you?” And occasionally things did happen to me.
It wasn’t a pleasant place to live because you were in a state of constant paranoia. I had a friend from the French embassy who was a political attaché and he would call me and he would just scream into the phone, “Hi G-2, Hi Army Intelligence! Hi CIA! Hi Jean-Marie, let’s go to lunch.”
Once I was walking back to my hotel room at night by myself and this man followed me to my hotel, and it was obvious he was following me. He was a real judicial type and the receptionist, Fernando, took a look at the guy and said, “You followed Ms. Simon into this hotel. You’re a judicial looking to arrest her. Get out of here because the Guatemalan Constitution provides that you can only arrest people between 9 AM and 5 PM. And it’s 9 PM. So leave.” (She laughs.)
And the miracle was that the guy did leave.
And the lesson I learned from all of this, and not to be naïve, is that if they want to kill you, they kill you. If they want to frighten you, they frighten you. And there’s a difference, because I’ve been through it a thousand times over. But what would killing me have gotten anybody? “It’s a dead human rights worker. The States will suspend aid for another two years.” (She laughs.)
Like once Frank Goldman [the author of The Art of Political Murder] and I were living in a house in Zone 1 in 1984. It was an awful time as there had been a series of directed kidnappings of leaders in Guatemala City. So Frank and I walked out to 4th Avenue one night to get some beers and a van, a Cherokee, whatever it was, pulled up all of a sudden on the other side of the street as far as that box (she points about 12 feet away), and they get out and they pointed their machine guns at us. Well, you know, if they had wanted to kill us, they would have killed us. We jumped on a bus, and we didn’t know what to do, and so I spent a few days at Cerezo’s house. Cerezo was the presidential candidate in 1985. He was the first civilian president in 1985. And so, it’s that kind of stuff.
You know, things happen by accident, too. Once I was out with this Green Beret who was illegally teaching counter-insurgency at the Politécnica, the Guatemalan West Point. We went out in his truck and he was showing us army maneuvers and a bomb detonates underneath the truck. I’m sure it was just a training bomb, but it went off underneath the truck and the shrapnel hit me: my legs, my earlobes, I still have a piece of shrapnel right here (she points to a small scar next to her left eye). I was blind in one eye for about 45 minutes, and covered in blood. Then I went to the rural infirmary and washed everything off and went back out with them because we were really determined to get this Green Beret on film.
Military aid [from the United States] had been suspended in 1977 and here he was in 1982 teaching counter-insurgency at the Politécnica under the guise of being an English instructor. And this guy was so naïve that he actually told us, “Well, yeah, they call me an English teacher but I really teach counter-insurgency.” And the reason he told us all of this is that he really didn’t think anything bad could come of it. It was an open secret. Everyone knew what he was doing. Except Congress. And so we went back to the States and it was a front page article in the Washington Post, and my photo was on the front page. It was also the lead story on CBS News with Dan Rather.
And as someone recently said, “That guy is probably the oldest U.S. Army Captain in the history of the United States.”