When examining the deaths of journalists over the past three decades, the famous cliché holds very true: the more things change the more things stay the same.
That is the case that publications director of the Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies June C. Erlick makes in her new book Disappeared: A Journalist Silenced. The book, from which Erlick read at the Harvard Coop last week, tells of Irma Flaquer, a Guatemalan who disappeared in 1980.
Such is unfortunately the fate of more than a few journalists that cover war-torn and other high risk areas—Ernie Pyle, for example, was killed by a Japanese bullet during the later stages of World War II.
More recently, the death of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in 2001 and the subsequent foundation started in his honor emerged as unintended consequences of the U.S. military response to the Sept. 11 attacks.
Flaquer was not the victim of unintended consequences. A firm Guatemalan patriot, she fought unfairness in her own country for over 20 years in an effort to bring justice and equality to the tiny Central American country.
When Flaquer was sequestered in 1980, presumably by Guatemalan governmental forces, she became one of thousands of people in that country to be tortured and/or killed for their political beliefs.
Flaquer’s death was completely intentional, and even today, almost 25 years after the fact, justice has still not been served to those who killed her—Irma Flaquer’s body has never been recovered.
Recent Latin American history is littered with dictatorships, torturous regimes and the deaths of those journalists who try to expose the truth. Perhaps the most famous case is Rodolfo Walsh, the Argentine writer who, using the jargon of the subject, was “disappeared” the day after he wrote an open letter criticizing the Argentine government.
Flaquer’s is a similar case in many ways, but has many elements that make it good fodder for a uniquely compelling narrative. The subject is a difficult one considering that Flaquer was a woman plying her trade in a traditionally male-dominated society and profession.
The Irma Flaquer that Erlick creates is a human being who fights her own battles within the greater context of the fight for Guatemalan freedom.
During a recent phone interview, Erlick explained that the reason she decided to write about Flaquer was surprisingly simple—“I was assigned by the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA) to research the disappearances of Irma and Jorge Carpio, as part of the Unpunished Crimes Against Journalist program. I never could completely solve her case. However, I became so fascinated by her life story that I decided to write this book.”
The life that Erlick documents is indeed a fascinating one, and the author does a good job of showing the reader what kinds of sludge Flaquer had to wade through in her search for truth.
In many ways, Flaquer’s was mirrored in Erlick’s own quest for the truth of what exactly happened. “I had been told there was a former member of Congress who knew what had happened to Irma,” she said, “but by the time I got down there [to Guatemala] he had gone into a diabetic coma and never came out. I now seriously doubt, however, if he really knew the truth.”
Finding Flaquer’s family members was also difficult. “It was hard to locate members of Irma’s family, but once I did, people really started to talk and to help,” Erlick said. “My investigation coincided with the 1996 peace accords, so it was really interesting to hear people talk. Everyone had something to say and it was really like a litmus test of public opinion.”
The question remains, however, as to how strong the legacy of a single journalist can be. Erlick said she feels that Flaquer’s is very powerful. “My investigations received a lot of publicity, and there is now a street in Guatemala City named after her, as well as a UN scholarship,” she said. “In a sense, she’s almost become an Anne Frank type figure, she’s part of the Guatemalan public mythology.”
“It’s important to tell people’s stories,” Erlick said. “And especially with someone like Irma Flaquer, who was from a country where human rights violations were not being widely publicized. As a journalistic figure, she is not that well known outside of certain circles, and was part of a smaller intelligentsia than in somewhere like Argentina or Brazil.”
“My real hope with this book is that people will realize that one person can make a difference in society, the way Irma did,” Erlick said. “As a subtext, I would hope that people would also realize that murderers should not be allowed to get away with murder.”
—Staff writer Doug G. Mulliken can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.