In March 1983, Guatemala is not a place you would want to visit. Since the lifting of the arms embargo by the United States in January, the situation in that country had slowly deteriorated. Unpopularity of the military strongman José Efraín Ríos Montt was at its peak after his refusal to grant clemency to six guerrillas right on the eve of a visit by Pope John Paul II.
Laboring well into the night, Guatemalans laid an 80-mile carpet of colored sawdust and grass, decorated with pictures of doves and brilliant floral designs for the papal motorcade. However, the presidential reception was cold and stiff. A fervent born-again Protestant, Rios Montt proclaimed that “the Guatemala we are building is based on mutual respect between the government and those governed.”The pope privately chastised Rios Montt for killing of the six men, and to a crowd of about 500,000 gathered for Mass at a military parade ground in the capital, the Pope stressed that the government still had to improve its human rights record. Said John Paul: “When you trample a man, when you violate his rights, when you commit flagrant injustices against him, when you submit him to torture, break in and kidnap him or violate his right to life, you commit a crime and a grave offense against God.” There could be “no more divorce between faith and life,” he added.
The above picture–marked with the stark contrast, and the solemn irony–of a cardinal in a military helicopter was taken by Jim Nachtwey as the Pope and his retinue traveled by helicopter to Quezaltenango, some 100 miles northwest of the capital, for a meeting with Guatemala’s Indians, hundreds of whom are believed to have been killed during the past year in a government crackdown on leftist insurgents. Demanding legislation to protect the Indians, John Paul told a crowd dressed in bright colored handwoven outfits that “the church is aware of the discrimination you suffer and the injustices you must put up with, the serious difficulties you have in defending your lands and your rights, the frequent lack of respect for your culture and customs.”
Yet again, the pope was on the right side of history–although history had terrible surprises in store of the Guatemalans. In June, General Rios Montt would establish a state of emergency. In August, another general would overthrow the regime and precipitate a civil war that lasted into the mid 1990s.