The phone rang at daybreak: never a good sign in that place. The "place," after all, was Guatemala. Of the many countries I served in during nearly 35 years in the Foreign Service, Guatemala perhaps remains my favorite: an incredible physical beauty, a fascinating history and culture, the best black beans with eggs on the planet, along with the most complex and even byzantine society and politics imaginable. I owed my assignment there to Assistant Secretary Elliot Abrams whom I met at the UN. He had remembered me and when a new political military officer slot opened, he offered it to me. At the time, the Department had me slated for assignment in Europe. No contest. I snapped up Abrams' offer. You only go around once; why do it where life is easy and comfortable with politics of the corner cafe and unfiltered Gauloises type? Guatemalan politics had color, complexity, raucousness, and lethality. One of my first Guatemalan political contacts, for example, a young, smart politician interested in running for President, got gunned down in front of his house a few hours after we met there. I had just finished writing my "Memorandum of Conversation" when I learned of his murder.
The mysterious "archivos" unit of the Presidency bore responsibility for large numbers of kidnappings and assassinations of persons deemed too close to the guerrillas, and of criminals who had beaten the system and gone free or had become repeat offenders. Army intel officers had formed car theft rings that operated in Guatemala, Mexico, and stretched into Texas; my landlord became involved and paid with his life, but that's a story for another day. The guerrillas, romanticized and glorified by human rights "activists" and lefty loons in the US and Europe, comprised nothing more than leftwing death squads terrorizing the countryside and forming alliances with the drug trafficking organizations then taking root in Guatemala.
We had guards and high walls topped with concertina wire. Most of us packed an assortment of firearms. I carried a .45 Colt or Ruger as my main, with a 9mm S&W back-up, and either a .38 S&W snub-nose or a .380 Colt Mark IV as an ankle or pocket weapon. In the house panic room, we had, inter alia, a Remington 870, a .30 cal M-1 carbine, an awesome Ruger Mini 14, my venerable S&W .357, a Llama 9mm, lots of ammo, and an assortment of gas masks, tear gas, pepper spray, knives, clubs, and a large dog. My wife did well with all of them--except in one instance which she has not yet given me permission to reveal (I have never understood why all women don't know how to use a weapon or a change a tire; those can prove life-saving skills.) We spent weekends at the excellent gun ranges in Guatemala which had what every range should have: a bar. One should always mix large amounts of alcohol with firearms; the day at the range proves much more interesting. (Note from Management: The Editors and publishers of The Diplomad 2.0 in no way condone drinking alcohol while shooting a weapon. To avoid the possibility of spilling and wasting expensive alcohol, always put down your drink before firing your weapon.)
Embassy policy discouraged us from driving our own cars, but we rough, tough political officers did not want to depend on Embassy drivers and armored Suburbans. Regarding cars, I recall an incident near the Embassy. A friend and I had parked next to each other on the street. At the end of the day, a group of street kids, as usual, came to claim a "quetzal"or two for watching our cars. As I usually did, since more rambunctious days in Guyana, I paid them. My friend, however, had a different approach. He gathered the kids around, pulled back his jacket to reveal two .45 cal Sigs, smiled and said, "Listen, muchachos. I park here every day, and will never pay any of you to guard my car. If, however, I come out and anything is wrong with it, a scratch, a dent, anything, I am going to hunt down and kill each and every one of you. OK?" His car became the best guarded on the street.
Sorry. Where was I? Ah, yes. My wife answered the phone, "It's Carlos. He says it's urgent that he talk to you." Carlos, the senior Guatemalan employee at the US Embassy, was incredibly knowledgable, funny, well connected, and loyal. Carlos rarely got rattled or panicky. He loved the USA and planned to live there once he retired. He did. No more than two months after he moved to Florida, doctors diagnosed him with advanced lung cancer. Carlos died two months after that.
OK, back to this story. Carlos asked, "Has there been a coup?" I said I didn't think so. The Defense Attache (DA) had told me the previous night that rumors of a coup in the works were unfounded. While Carlos waited, I called the DA who repeated that no coup had occurred. I told Carlos what the DA said. Carlos insisted, "He's wrong. Turn on the radio. Try changing stations." Every station had the same marimba piece playing. Every minute or two a recorded statement would interrupt with, "Please stand by for an important announcement." Carlos said, "I have lived through a lot of these. That's the sign of a coup." I asked him to make some calls, and said I would check around, too. No sooner had I said that, the phones went out. I had a radio but did not want to broadcast my stupidity into the ether, "Hello? Is there a coup underway?" No traffic noise came through the windows. Dead silence except for one odd sound: a low-flying jet roaring in a bit above rooftop level, pulling up, and then coming around again. I did what husbands should always do, to wit, I asked my wife for advice. (By the way, I mean ask MY wife. She has advice for everybody.)
The Diplowife said, "Let's go look for the coup." Sounded like a plan. I left my usual weaponry behind as we might run into the Army and did not want to give them any additional excuses to shoot. We quickly dressed, and jumped into our blue Ford Aerostar minivan--a good vehicle for coup hunting. We encountered a post-apocalyptic scenario. Except for us, the streets were drained of life. Nothing. No pedestrians, motorbikes, bicycles, buses, and not even food vendors' push carts. Nothing. Except for the occasional roar from that pesky T-33, not a sound. I pulled over, got out, and waited for the jet to pass over. It carried a 250 lb or 500 lb bomb. The plane would skim along the main avenue, Avenida Reforma, then pull up over the Ministry of Defense, located close to the Embassy. If this joker releases that bomb, I thought, it probably will miss the Ministry and hit the Embassy, but the Guatemalan Air Force's Argentine-made bombs rarely explode, so everything will work out.
When I got back into the van, the Diplowife said, "I don't see any of the regular commercial flights coming in. Maybe they have the airport? Let's go look." La Aurora airport lay only five minutes away, so we went. As we neared it we saw trucks carrying soldiers wearing blue bandanas around their necks, and another with soldiers wearing red. My wife asked, "Which color do the golpistas use?" I don't remember which, but there at the airport entrance stood a checkpoint manned by soldiers with the wrong color, aiming rifles at us. As we slowly approached, a jeep pulled up next to us, its occupants also training weapons on us. I stopped: windows down, hands on the steering wheel. The soldiers swarmed around, lots of confusion, one yelling for us to stay put, another to get out, another to open the doors but not to move our hands. I kept saying, "We will do whatever you want, just make up your minds. We have no guns. We work with the Embassy."
A young lieutenant, perhaps in his early twenties, appeared. Nervous, he ordered us out and to keep our hands in the air. While I got frisked, they did not touch my wife which indicated they had a degree of old fashioned civility. The officer asked about us. I repeated that I was a US diplomat. A soldier pointed at the van's license plate, "You do not have diplomatic plates. You are D-2, aren't you?" He put his rifle in my face accusing me of belonging to Guatemalan military intel, a feared organization. The officer told him to put the gun down, and asked me to explain. "No, I am not D-2. The American Embassy does not use diplomatic plates because of the risk of kidnappings and assassination by guerrillas." The geniuses in the Foreign Ministry, however, issued us plates with a number series beginning with "4," the same as official D-2 vehicles. The geniuses in our admin shop accepted the plates which made us targets for anybody with a grudge against D-2.
I said to the lieutenant, "My wife and I work in the American Embassy. If you intend to make us prisoners, I insist on talking to the Embassy. What is your name, sir?" Nonsense, of course, as I had no way to talk to the Embassy which probably had nobody there. He told me to wait. He walked to the checkpoint, looking at a piece of paper, and tried to raise somebody on a field radio.
There we stood with our hands up, a smile on my wife's face. She thought this funny! Let me explain. She comes from a part of Spain where in the 1970s and 1980s getting stopped on the road had become fairly routine. Those roadblocks, however, had well-trained pros, the Guardia Civil, in charge. This operation did not meet her Basque standards.
The soldiers grew increasingly jumpy, constantly glancing around; the lone plane buzzing the city added to the surreal nature of this tableau vivant. The lieutenant returned, obviously perplexed. He had failed to reach anybody, and the paper in his hand did not have instructions on handling captured diplomats. I said, "Sir, we are your prisoners, what now?" He replied, "I think you can go. Yes, go. Go home." He motioned to put our hands down, and told the soldiers to open the doors and help my wife into the van. He said, "I hope you are not too angry with us." I laughed, "No, not all. You run a nice prison. Next time a little coffee would be good." He smiled, we shook hands, and he waved us away.
We drove slowly to the Embassy seeing numerous military vehicles on the road, and the Defense Ministry surrounded by pro-government troops. The lone jet "bomber" had disappeared from Guatemala's bright blue skies. The coup had failed.
I wrote a breathtaking account of the coup attempt, and fired it off to Washington. In my haste, I did not realize that in effect I had nominated myself for a Darwin Award for the Stupidest Political Officer of the Year. The fact that I didn't win says a lot.