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 says he insisted on first going to the human-rights office he'd been using as his informal Guatemala City work-base. That afternoon, MINUGUA agents came to the office and finally carried Callahan to the hospital. MINUGUA informed the U.S. Embassy about their actions, and when Callahan arrived at the hospital, three Embassy agents were waiting for him.

"Suddenly, they couldn't do enough for me," Callahan says, "the reason being that they'd got all this flak from the U.S."

But Callahan's week of living dangerously wasn't over yet. While he was waiting to be checked in, he noticed a G-2 vehicle and two Guatemalan national-police vehicles across the street. He quickly reasoned that the hospital wasn't the safe place he'd expected it to be. So, within a few hours, after being examined by doctors, Callahan decided to return to the United States for treatment.

Even so, it took two days before the U.S. Embassy arranged transportation out of Guatemala, and during that time, officials offered Callahan no protection whatsoever.

On July 11, the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala issued an official statement about the second attack on Callahan:

"We are deeply concerned about the July 7 attack on U.S. citizen Daniel Robert Callahan in Guatemala City," the statement read. "Available information indicates that this was not a case of random criminal violence, but that Mr. Callahan was attacked because of his work as a filmmaker.

"The Embassy assisted Mr. Callahan in obtaining medical care, in filing a complaint with the public prosecutor's office, and in departing Guatemala safely. The Embassy stands ready to provide Mr. Callahan further assistance in pursuing his case. We are expressing our concern to Guatemalan authorities, in Guatemala and here in Washington, and will continue to engage them on this matter in coming days."

The U.S. State Department and Embassy also protested the attacks to the Guatemalan government.

After receiving medical treatment in Dallas, Callahan began sifting through the 11 hours of video he'd shot in Guatemala.

While pursuing some form of justice for the attacks, he also contacted the office of his U.S. representative, Eddie Bernice Johnson. Coincidentally, Johnson, according to Callahan, had just returned from Guatemala a few weeks earlier, where she'd been a guest of the Guatemalan government on a "fact-finding" tour.

"All of her information was fed to her by the Guatemalan Congress," Callahan says, "so she came back to the States saying, well, 'There are no problems in Guatemala.' Then, two weeks later, I get the shit kicked out of me."

Callahan says Johnson responded to the filmmaker's visit by sending a "lame" letter to the American ambassador to Guatemala, and never spoke another word to him.

After being contacted by the Dallas Observer, Johnson said, in a written statement, "I am familiar with Mr. Callahan's case and I am truly sorry he was assaulted while in Guatemala. My office has worked with Mr. Callahan and we have tried to resolve his problems. My office sent letters on his behalf and we contacted the Guatemalan Embassy to inquire further into his situation."

Ironically, it was Republican U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, who Callahan calls his "political polar opposite," who took the most active interest in the filmmaker's case. Hutchison serves on a Senate intelligence oversight committee that is now focusing on Central American affairs, and although her opinions differ from Callahan's on many issues, Callahan says her office helped him greatly. (Hutchison's office did not return several phone calls from the Observer.)

"So even though we've gone head to head over continued PBS and NEA funding--and she probably thinks I'm the spawn of Satan--she's taken more of an interest than my Democratic congressional representative," Callahan comments.

Later in August, the Guatemalan government invited Callahan back to their country to testify before several human-rights commissions. This time, the U.S. Embassy provided security, including six guards with pump shotguns and automatic weapons who accompanied Callahan everywhere. "I had my own private army," the filmmaker says.

At one point, Guatemalan officials lined up several palace guards to see if Callahan could recognize some of his attackers from the first assault in the park. But he wasn't able to identify any suspects.

The Guatemalan government would ultimately--and preposterously--conclude that Callahan had been "set up" for the attacks by human-rights activists. Fortunately, Callahan says, "the U.S. Embassy is not buying all this bullshit, but there's not much they can do about it."

Today, Callahan is still recovering from his injuries, some of which are permanent. Doctors expect that he will probably be sterile as a result of the second beating. They are still assessing the extent of damage to his kidneys, and say he will probably have trouble with them for the rest of his life.

Callahan recently completed a rough, 23-minute cut of his documentary, which he's titled No Callo Ni Muero--Guatemalan slang for "with no silence there is no death." He hopes to show it locally sometime this year.

"I think I've reprioritized a lot of things," Callahan says today. "It used to be that every career move I made, every decision I made, was with the idea that one of these days I'd have kids. I always assumed that was a fact, and now that's not going to happen."

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