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Assignment Guatemala, 1968: An Early Encounter with TerrorismThe political scene in Guatemala in the late 1960’s was very volatile. Incidents of violence were common, as were retaliations. The capital resembled an armed camp with military police armed to the teeth stationed in front of every public building, banks, all embassies and consulates, and some businesses, as well. Many wealthy Guatemalan landowners and businessmen were blackmailed into paying extortion money to the communist guerrillas or face the consequences. Our consulate was besieged by frightened people applying for visas. Many left all their possessions behind and sought the safety of the United States, fearful of their lives.

Newcomers to our embassy were given security briefings on how to protect themselves and their families. We were told never to accept packages from strangers and to instruct our servants to do likewise. We were cautioned never to leave our houses unattended. It had happened that entire interiors were stripped bare within an hour. Sometimes even fierce watchdogs were stolen in the absence of the occupants. If we happened to be involved in a traffic accident, we should be prepared to get arrested even if we were innocent of any wrongdoing. It was the practice of the police to arrest both or all parties, the innocent with the guilty. Questions were asked later to sort out the details. Embassy officers were encouraged to take as many alternate routes from home to the office as were available and to be vigilant at all times.

In this setting of political volatility, one day in August 1968 something truly terrible happened that shook not only our community but the world.

I remember having been invited to a tea party at a Guatemalan lady’s home, a woman who was friendly toward America. As I was stepping out of my car, a black chauffeur-driven embassy limousine drove up and stopped directly opposite the hostess’ villa. To my surprise, it was my husband who emerged from the vehicle, looking absolutely ashen.

Neil walked over to me and told me, his voice trembling, that our ambassador, John Gordon Mein, had just been assassinated one block from the consulate. Neil had seen him lying on the median of the Blvd. La Reforma, covered with blood. Two ambassadors’ wives coming from a luncheon had passed the scene and thought they recognized Ambassador Mein by his white hair and the abandoned official car with its flag blowing in the breeze.. They had stopped at the consulate, extremely agitated, and informed Neil of the murder, whereupon Neil ordered his car and was the first at the scene to identify the Ambassador.

We embraced in shock, too dismayed to frame adequate words. Then Neil asked me to fetch the wife of the deputy chief of mission, Esther Krebs, who was a close personal friend of Mrs. Mein. She was needed to help inform Mrs. Mein as kindly and tactfully as we could of the death of her husband.

When we arrived at the residence, Mrs. Mein received us in a somber mood. Before we could say anything, she told us in a resigned voice that she knew what had happened. How was it possible, we were wondering, that she already knew since less than an hour had elapsed.

She told us that a reporter had called the residence not long after lunch, after Ambassador Mein had left for the embassy, and wanted to know whether it was true that the Ambassador had just been killed. We were appalled at the insensitivity of that individual. The anguished cries of her young son were echoing through the quiet house. We felt overwhelming compassion and utter helplessness at the same time, but offered our services in whatever way she needed. Mrs. Mein was extremely composed. We had great admiration for her.

We were devastated. Not only the local community but the whole Western world was stunned by the assassination of this distinguished American diplomat, the first American ambassador ever to meet with such a fate. The perpetrators were Castro-paid guerrillas. A month of official mourning was declared and people from all walks of life paid their respects during a wake. A beautiful memorial service in the Union Church, in which the Meins had been active, followed where the ecumenical chorus, of which I was a member, performed the Faure Requiem. We had performed this work under the leadership of the University of Guatemala a month earlier in the great concert hall with the symphony orchestra, so were familiar with it. It was a fitting tribute to our beloved ambassador.

A short time later Neil received threatening anonymous phone calls and the chargé, Max Krebs, informed him that he had learned from reliable underground sources that Neil’s name was at the top of the guerrillas’ assassination list. He gave him a choice: either stay on and become a target or retire and return home before it was too late. We needed time to think it over. His term of duty was three years and we had been in Guatemala only seven months. It was a difficult decision for us. Life had become a challenge.

While we were in the process of making up our minds, we received police protection at home twenty-four hours a day. We fed the men on duty, two at a time, around the clock to stay in their good graces, even supplied one deck chair for the night shift so one could rest while the other stood guard. We felt it would not hurt to humor them a bit, since they were not excused from their regular police work after they were through with us. They were very appreciative. They washed our car voluntarily and scouted the street before either of us drove out through the gate.

Neil stopped coming home for lunch to eliminate unnecessary travel and his office window was barricaded with a thick steel plate so nobody could shoot at him from the outside. The Marines were only allowed to guard the consulate from the inside. The staff had to rely on the local military manning the entrance gate for protection from the outside.

In the serenity of the lovely hotel at Lake Atitlan we came to the conclusion that Neil’s usefulness to the embassy was jeopardized. Guatemala was his last post before retirement. His chances of getting out alive if he stayed were greatly diminished. Those communist guerrillas meant business. In the best interest of the family we decided that Neil should take an earlier retirement. He had twenty one years in the Foreign Service and was over fifty, which meant that he was eligible.

It was the correct decision. Six or eight months after we left, the German ambassador was kidnapped and subsequently killed. It would have been only a matter of time before Neil likely would have met with a similar fate. I was not prepared to become a widow or have the children grow up without a
father just yet. The Cold War was heating up and Castro’s influence, aided by the Soviets, was growing in Central America. People in the United States could not possibly understand the real physical danger our embassy personnel were exposed to and what a toll it took on their daily lives. We literally had to look over our shoulders when we went out. From reports of one of Neil’s vice consuls who stayed behind, we learned that every time anyone ventured into the city, they had to be escorted by a Guatemalan police vehicle, be it to the office, the market, a dinner with friends or wherever. Under the best of circumstances, this routine proved anything but simple.

Now that our nation has been exposed to terrorism of the worst kind right here at home, there will be a better understanding of what our embassy and consular personnel around the world are facing every day.

We were naturally sad to leave this beautiful but strife-torn country so soon—just nine months after our arrival. The children hated to part with their new-found friends, but the impending car trip along the famous Pan American highway with stops along the way for sightseeing and a relaxing time at the lovely beaches in Acapulco reconciled them to the change. Since we left Munich, son Carl and daughter Madeleine had already changed schools three times. Before the year was up, they would be attending their fourth school. Our son had a more difficult time adjusting each time than our daughter, who was four years younger and took it more in stride. However, they felt privileged to have seen so much of the world already, meeting people of different cultures and learning new languages. They may not have felt the advantage completely at the time, but they came to value their experiences as they grew more mature.

Since leaving in the late 1960’s, I have kept a marginal interest in the development of the Guatemalan political scene. The cessation of open hostilities was a step in the right direction and made possible the emergence of a fledgling democratic system of government with free elections and the participation of opposition parties. It remains to be seen how stable the current government will be in view of higher unemployment which plagues all of Central America. I hope the United States continues to support the positive developments in this beautiful country of great treasures and resources. And I shudder to think what could have happened had we not shown support in the past. Although our own stay was too short, I secured a lasting fondness in my heart for Guatemala and its people.

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