The week of living dangerously

Sky Callahan went to Guatemala to shoot a documentary on human-rights abuses. He didn't know he'd be a victim.

Callahan had no intention of picking a fight. He'd already begun packing his equipment when suddenly, he says, the soldiers struck him repeatedly with their rifle butts and beat him to the ground. The three soldiers then watched from a distance as Callahan got up, gathered his equipment, and left.

That same afternoon, Callahan reported the beating in official complaints to MINUGUA, the United Nations' observation mission in Guatemala, and to the U.S. Embassy. "While MINUGUA went on with an investigation, the U.S. Embassy basically shelved it," Callahan says. "They just didn't consider it important enough to pursue." Embassy officials apparently reasoned that an investigation would place the filmmaker in even greater danger. (Embassy officials would not respond to specific questions about the handling of Callahan's case, providing only a written statement stating the ways in which they'd helped the Dallas filmmaker.)

Human-rights activists, in fact, accuse the Guatemalan security forces of carrying out a campaign of violence and terror against leaders of trade unions and human-rights organizations; the campaign is an attempt by the Guatemalan government to stamp out supposed supporters of the radical guerrilla group URNG--Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca--which is involved in a continuing conflict with state forces.

MINUGUA did follow up on Callahan's complaint, and investigated it while only identifying the Dallas man to Guatemalan authorities as a "foreign national."

Meanwhile, Callahan resumed his documentary work, despite the bruises and the headaches that resulted from the beating.

For three days, Callahan was able to shoot interviews and street scenes without incident.

On July 7, he attended a birthday party for a Guatemalan human-rights activist at a Chinese restaurant in downtown Guatemala City. By 11 p.m., Callahan felt tired and decided to take a cab home.

He'd walked about a block from the restaurant when a sedan with dark-tinted windows--similar to the cars driven by G-2 agents--pulled up next to him, and two men he'd never seen before jumped out; the men shoved Callahan into the back seat, and one climbed in beside him and put an automatic handgun to his throat.

The other drove the car and took off. Callahan's attackers, whom he believes were G-2 agents, drove all over the city for an hour, offering the filmmaker some words of "advice" in English--all the while training the gun to his head to prove they meant it.

As Callahan recalls, the man in the back seat told him he should have taken the July 4 attack "more seriously" and left the country then; since Callahan had chosen to remain, the man said, they were forced to take "more drastic action"; and if Callahan did not leave immediately after this, they would kill him.

The man then launched into his diatribe about how the press had created all the problems in Guatemala. "He said it was nothing the government can't handle," Callahan says. "It was nationalists and particularly North Americans who were causing all these problems."

An hour had gone by when Callahan's abductors pulled into a dark and quiet residential district somewhere in Guatemala City and made the filmmaker get out, he says. The driver came up from behind and grabbed Callahan in a choke hold. Callahan says he fell to the ground on his back, and the man with the gun kicked him all over his body until he blacked out.

The filmmaker regained consciousness in time to see his attackers drive off.
In a state of shock, Callahan wandered around the city for several hours until he stumbled across his rented home. Exhausted and in pain, he passed out again for some five hours.

When he finally woke up, he called the U.S. Embassy. Callahan recalls bitterly that Embassy officials "kind of pooh-poohed my story. This probably wasn't anything political at all. They said that I had just been mugged in the street, and I wasn't recalling all of the events."

Callahan turned elsewhere for help. He called his Dallas friend Randy Clower, who immediately alerted everyone he and Callahan knew who might be able to help.

Callahan called the Embassy back later that morning, hoping they'd help him find a doctor or hospital to attend to his injuries. Callahan says officials told him they could not send a car for him, but if he brought himself to the Embassy, they'd provide a list of hospitals.

But Callahan was a long way from the Embassy, had no cab money, and knew that riding Guatemala City's buses at night would be a "very dangerous" proposition in his condition. He was in intense pain and was still losing consciousness periodically from his injuries. "I hung up the phone realizing the Embassy was to be of no assistance to me whatsoever," Callahan says.

Meanwhile, Callahan's friends and fellow human-rights activists were joining forces in the United States to help him get out of Guatemala. They contacted several congressmen's and senators' offices, and throughout July 8, many persons called the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala, questioning officials about the progress on Callahan's case.

Some human-rights workers eventually picked up Callahan and planned to drive him to a Guatemala City hospital. His condition was getting worse, and he was passing out more frequently.

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