The week of living dangerously
In the early-morning hours of July 8, 1995, Sky Callahan staggered through the dark and unfamiliar streets of Guatemala City, his mind and body reeling from a brutal beating.
Two men whom he believed to be government agents had kidnapped the Dallas documentary filmmaker, forced him into their car at gunpoint, then driven him around the city while subjecting him to a diatribe "about how there really are no problems in Guatemala, and the press is creating the problems," he recalls.
After an hour had passed, Callahan's abductors pulled into a remote residential district, ordered the filmmaker out of the car, and kicked him repeatedly in the shins, knees, hips, face, and groin until he finally passed out.
When Callahan came to, he had no idea where he was. He wandered through a maze of streets until he "miraculously" found his rented home, and temporary refuge.
As he lay there, seriously injured and slipping in and out of consciousness, his predicament seemed supremely ironic--in a dark, ugly way. Here he was in a foreign country, documenting ordinary Guatemalans' claims of human-rights abuses by the country's right-wing government, and he'd been savagely beaten two times within four days by agents of the very government whose alleged crimes he was investigating.
It isn't the natural chain of events to go from capturing the gaudy world of drag queens, as Sky Callahan did in one of his films, to documenting human-rights abuses in a small Central American country. But Callahan has no regrets about shifting his focus from being a humorist and animator to a sober chronicler of political turmoil.
Callahan, a 37-year-old Dallas native, is best known as a filmmaker for projects like My Adventures in the Time Spiral, an animated series, as well as Circus of the Sexes, a collection of satirical shorts about relationships. In fact, the Circus of the Sexes episodes--on which Callahan collaborated with close friend and business partner Randy Clower--won first prize for fiction in the American Film Institute competition on two occasions, in 1994 and 1995.
Today, Callahan is concentrating his energies on completing a documentary based on his extraordinary experiences in Guatemala. As a result of his journey, he now calls himself a "bitter enemy of Guatemala," and has become a direct participant in human-rights efforts there.
Callahan's interest in Latin American affairs is not new; it stems from his eight-year marriage to a Chilean nationalist who survived that country's bloody coup in 1973. After narrowly escaping execution, she emigrated to the United States, where, in Dallas, she met and fell in love with Callahan. After their marriage, the couple traveled throughout Latin America--including hot spots like Nicaragua and Chile--and although the two later divorced, Callahan's close involvement with his wife's group, the Chilean Human Rights Coalition, increased his awareness of human-rights issues in general.
A Mountain View College English professor would eventually introduce Callahan to Guatemalan affairs. They tossed around the idea of Callahan donating his services and shooting some type of documentary in Guatemala for more than a year, and finally, this past summer, Callahan began making plans to go. He coordinated his trip to arrive in Guatemala in early July when several human-rights groups were converging there in preparation for the 1995 Guatemalan presidential election.
Callahan hoped his documentary would educate Americans about the political problems and human-rights abuses in Guatemala. A Houston-based group called the Guatemala Support Network paid for his airfare and provided other assistance for his documentary with the agreement that, while Callahan would retain creative control, the Network would get free access to his footage.
Callahan departed from the United States for Guatemala on June 29, 1995, hoping to visit a beautiful country, shoot some footage for his latest documentary, and even assist in grass-roots human-rights efforts in this small, troubled nation.
The outcome of his journey, however, was far different than anything he'd expected.
Almost immediately after arriving in Guatemala City, Callahan heard about a group of peasant farmers who had been ordered off their properties by the Guatemalan government. Agents had apparently seized the farmers' hereditary lands without compensation, and had warned the peasants that if they remained there past 30 days, they would kill them.
Ernesto Mendez, a simple farmer, led the peasant group in responding to the government threat by erecting a make-shift tent city in the central park across from Guatemala's National Palace.
Callahan interviewed Mendez that next Monday--July 3. Soon afterward, however, forces of G-2, a military intelligence agency in Guatemala, began placing Callahan under 24-hour surveillance, he says. American and British expatriates who had lived in Guatemala for many years recognized some of the G-2 agents shadowing the filmmaker, and informed him that he was being tracked.
According to Callahan, G-2 is a sophisticated, covert network that acts as the right-wing Guatemalan government's enforcer, and is usually referred to simply as the "death squad." Callahan insists G-2 lived up to its reputation. Callahan says the agents' surveillance efforts were "blatantly obvious," with a small entourage of G-2 officers in plain clothes, as well as uniformed soldiers, constantly following him wherever he went.
On Tuesday, July 4, Callahan returned to the park to shoot atmospheric shots to go with Mendez's words. While he was shooting footage, three palace guards dressed in camouflage fatigues and carrying Israeli Galil rifles approached Callahan and ordered him out of the park.
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.
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."
The Guatemalan government's scheme against him has backfired, he adds. While his initial interest in the country was mostly academic, Callahan now has an emotional attachment to the little nation's political future.
"Rather than just intimidating me, I think their [Guatemalan government agents'] purpose in kidnapping me and beating me was that they specifically wanted me to come back to the States and scream about this, and intimidate other filmmakers from going down there. But what they've done instead is make a bitter enemy out of me.
"Because I would like to go back down there. I'm not turned off to the country as a result of this. I'm cautious. Just cautious.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Observer's biggest stories.