Bienvenidos al Infierno

A story of diaspora and Guatemalan guerrillas

Eduardo Halfon
December 02, 2022
© Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
The Kaibiles© Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
© Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
The Kaibiles© Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
Editor’s note: The following excerpt comes from Eduardo Halfon’s latest novel, “Canción.” 

I wanted to ask him if he’d really had to eat his own dog. But the question seemed almost unutterable, so I just fastened my seat belt and started to feel queasy from the mental image of his dismembered dog, or perhaps from the jerky way he was driving the white delivery van. Outside, the city was suddenly another city.

And do you like living up there, in the United States?

I was making an effort to keep my eyes on the road so that I wouldn’t feel any sicker, but I couldn’t stop glancing at his hands on the wheel—hands that were too pale and delicate and small, I thought, to have done everything they allegedly did.

I told him I did, I liked it. Although I knew his question wasn’t a question, but a judgment.

We were driving through a slum in the capital. All the buildings had an unfinished look about them: brick and concrete walls, corrugated metal roofs, columns with rebar still sticking out, windows with broken glass or no glass at all. The asphalt on the road was full of holes; he didn’t even bother to swerve.

Burned rubber, he said.

I’d noticed the same smell, and also a faint black cloud hovering in the air. But I didn’t know what it was.

Protesters nearby, he said, burning tires. There’s a rag and a bottle of vinegar in the glove compartment, if the smell bothers you.

We stopped at a red light. On one corner, an old indigenous man was down on his knees, his clothes tattered, his hand outstretched. On the other corner, two young men who looked like gang members were staring at us, or possibly they were just staring at the white delivery van. I felt a strong urge to close my window and lock the door. But I remembered the gun that he always carried with him, tucked beneath his brown polyester blazer.

And are you working over there?, he asked as he used his hand to wipe the sweat from his forehead. I could’ve told him no, I wasn’t, that I’d recently finished my first semester of engineering at the university. But I remained silent. And he didn’t ask any more.

We stopped in front of a huge green gate. There was a security hut on one side, painted the same shade of musty green. Above it hung a flag, lifeless, like an old rag, white and blue.

I left for the United States once, too, he said.

He reached out one of his small hands, grabbed a pack of Rubios from the dashboard, and lit one. I noticed that his forearm had a poorly drawn and blurry tattoo of two jaguars.

Not in an airplane like you, he said as he exhaled a quick burst of smoke to establish the difference between his trip and mine. I was fifteen, he said, and I took off on foot, by myself, with nothing more than a wool rucksack. I managed to get as far as Mapastepec, where two Mexican policemen nabbed me while I was eating tacos. They shoved me into a truck filled with young men and boys, and a few hours later dumped all of us back on this side of the border. And here I’ve stayed ever since, on my best behavior, and he flashed me his mercury smile.

The gate groaned a little and a young man stuck his head out. When he saw us, he pushed the gate as if in a hurry until it was wide open. We advanced slowly beside the young man—body taut, face expressionless, hand firm to his forehead—who blurted out something terse that I couldn’t quite understand. And we entered the military barracks.

You smoke?

He’d asked me that in a whisper as we were walking through an open-air parking lot, past soldiers and military jeeps and trucks with green tents and an antique tank merely for decoration and an all-black German shepherd who never took his eyes off us, his leash tied to the trunk of a cypress tree, his white fangs visible despite the muzzle.

Sometimes, I said.

Near the German shepherd, an old military officer was standing on a small patch of lawn. He wore black boots and a red beret. In his right hand he held a machete.

What do you mean, sometimes?, he asked mock­ingly.

The old officer suddenly raised the machete and, using the side of the blade, hit a badminton shuttlecock that proceeded to fly through the air, over an invisible net, eventually landing on the other side of the lawn. And the officer, his fist held high, celebrated as if he’d won the point.

Either you smoke or you don’t, he said.

The old officer walked over to where the shuttlecock had landed. He picked it up from the ground and once again smacked it with the machete to the other side of the lawn. The dog barked a couple of times as it watched the small projectile soar back over the invisible net and land softly next to the cypress tree. And the officer, waving his machete in the air, once again celebrated the point.

Well, in there, he said, pointing toward the building and offering me the open pack of cigarettes while the officer shouted something and celebrated another point behind us, it’s better if you smoke.

I was surprised to see that the inside of the Matamoros General Barracks was nothing but a bureaucratic office. There were rows of metal desks and metal chairs and metal-looking soldiers, impeccably dressed and moving with the slow, predictable lethargy of electric mannequins in a shop window. I was also surprised that, despite all the chaos and all the soldiers, there was an unnerving silence. A silence of oscillating fans and muffled voices and clattering typewriters and the occasional ringing of a telephone. A silence that made me think of a recently washed bedsheet flapping in the wind. Perhaps due to all the people smoking, the light was yellowish and hazy—I would later realize that all the windows were obstructed with bars, the panes painted jet black. At the entrance to the hall, withering and abandoned and barely lit, stood a small Christmas tree.

I was walking behind him, smoking, watching him weave between the metal desks with stoic, decisive steps. The soldiers greeted him from their chairs. Most said a few words or made a simple gesture with their chins; a few stood up and shook his hand. None of them greeted me. None of them acknowledged I was there, as if it was forbidden, in that place, even to look at a civilian.

We reached the last desk, at the end of the large hall. A small, slender woman stood up, and I immediately thought that she was far too young to work at a military barracks.

You have everything I asked for?, he asked me discreetly, one of his small warm hands resting on my shoulder, the other stubbing out his cigarette in a pedestal ashtray filled with butts. After also stubbing out my own, I handed him a white envelope, which he quickly stashed in the inside pocket of his brown polyester coat. Good, he said, and this is for you, and he gave me his pack of Rubios. I have another one, he said, letting out a strange cackle that I initially judged ironic, then perverse. You stay here with the young lady, he said, and he walked down a long dark hallway to a black door and opened it without knocking and finally closed it behind him.

Sit down, she said in her bagpipe voice.

Everyone called him Beni. I always knew him as Beni. Not too long ago, however, I came across his obituary in the newspaper and learned that his name had been Benito Cáceres Domínguez. Or let’s just say that was his name. Here, for security reasons, that’ll be his name.

I can’t recall if he’d been an employee of my Lebanese grandfather’s, or he’d been an employee of my father’s, or he hadn’t been an employee of either of them and they’d both just hired him from time to time to help out with certain official paperwork and procedures. I rarely saw him and didn’t know too much about him except that he always dressed in a white button-down shirt and a brown polyester blazer, and that he always drove around in a beat-up white delivery van, and that he always had a gun tucked in a holster under his left arm. As a kid, I was convinced I’d seen Beni for the first time one night when he prowled around my grandfather’s house with a group of soldiers while my uncle Salomón was reading coffee grounds and one of the soldiers was talking to my grandfather in the privacy of his study. But later, as a teenager, my father would tell me emphatically—too emphatically, it occurred to me then or it occurs to me now—that Beni had never been there that night. Beni, before, he said, had been a Kaibil. When I asked him what a Kaibil was, my father said a soldier. But given his expression, or perhaps given his insistent yet nervous tone, I understood at once that a Kaibil was more than just a soldier.

The Kaibiles, I would come to learn, are the elite commando forces of the Guatemalan army, highly trained, starting in the early 1970s, in the midst of the civil war, in counterinsurgency tactics and jungle warfare. They take their name from the Mayan prince and warrior Kaibil Balam (he who has the strength and astuteness of two jaguars, in the Mam dialect), who had to undergo a series of trials before receiving the title of heir to the throne; afterward (due to that same strength and astuteness of two jaguars) he was never captured in the jungle by the Spanish conquistadors.

The Kaibiles’ training is both legend and nightmare.

A gigantic military hand is turning the knob to increase the temperature of the water. I thought: They want to boil me alive. I thought: I’m being boiled alive.

It takes place over sixty days at a hamlet deep inside the tropical jungle of Petén called the Inferno (a sign over the entrance warns the young cadets of what’s to come: BIENVENIDOS AL INFIERNO). Besides the usual training in extreme combat and torture techniques for extracting information from rebels, the recruits are subjected to a series of trials designed to be both psychologically demeaning and a test of their supposedly unwavering trust. Like throwing themselves blindfolded from a bridge or a helicopter. Like being awakened every hour through the night, or not being allowed to sleep at all for several nights in a row. Their only daily meal—a meager serving of black beans and rice—must be consumed with their hands in less than three minutes. Hunger, methodically imposed, is devastating. A hunger that reaches its extreme during their final trial, formally or informally named the Dismembering of the Mascot: the recruit must spend two weeks on an inhospitable deserted island, where he’ll have to use all of his skills in order to survive. His sole companion on the island will be a puppy, one he’d received at the start of his training and that he’d cared for and nurtured over those sixty days, and which now, on the island, he’ll have to slaughter and skin and dismember with a machete or with his own teeth and drink its blood and eat its raw meat in order to survive and officially become not only a Kaibil but also—as per the ninth commandment of the Decalogue of the Kaibiles—a killing machine.

The young woman hadn’t once stopped typing with her little-girl fingers. Several times I thought about saying or asking something—anything not to feel abandoned—but she looked so focused that I didn’t want to interrupt her. Soldiers would walk over and leave papers and files on her desk without her even glancing up. Other soldiers were still going in and out the black door at the end of the hallway. Meanwhile, I just kept smoking, perhaps because I had nothing else to do, or because Beni had warned me that in there it was better if I smoked. In any case, I was only getting more and more anxious. What if it wasn’t a simple bureaucratic procedure, as my father had told me the previous day at the cemetery?

We were standing at the grave of my Lebanese grandfather, who had died of a heart attack while I was finishing my first semester at the university. And now, more than thirty days later, as dictated by Jewish tradition, we were finally allowed to lay the headstone. A massive rectangular white marble headstone, with my grandfather’s name chiseled and painted in black, which was also my name chiseled and painted in black.

It’s a simple bureaucratic procedure, my father whispered to me as the rabbi chanted some Jewish prayer under a light drizzle, surrounded by my family members dressed in black raincoats and standing under black umbrellas. It doesn’t mean anything, my father whispered. And it’s also your duty. Whether you like it or not, whether you live in Guatemala or not, you’re still a Guatemalan, and every Guatemalan man who turns eighteen has to enlist in the military and receive his official military ID card. That’s the law, he declared with authority, and didn’t say anything else, and so I just listened to the rabbi pray in an incomprehensible Hebrew and stared at my name chiseled and painted in black and thought that in some way it was also my headstone.

I was struck by the silence.

The young lady had stopped tapping keys for the first time and was now placing a red velvet cloth over the old typewriter with the loving care of a mother tucking in her sleepy child. Then, after picking up all the papers and files from her desk and sticking them inside a drawer that she proceeded to lock, she began putting on an endless series of sweaters and sweatshirts and jackets. First a light turquoise-colored sweater, then a gray sweater with small buttons, then a navy blue wool sweater, then a white sweatshirt, then a white sweatshirt with a hood, then a heavy winter jacket, then a long beige raincoat. I stared at her, a bit confused, since the heat was unbearable both inside and outside the barracks. It occurred to me that she might have been sick, maybe had a fever, maybe something much worse. But I didn’t get a chance to ask. As I watched her stand up and turn off a table lamp and grab her small handbag, I finally realized that it was five in the afternoon and she was leaving for the day, and that all the other employees were also putting their things away and leaving for the day, and that I would be left there by myself, in the middle of a dreary, empty military barracks. And so I also stood up in order for her at least to acknowledge my presence, and I heard a voice very similar to my own—though an octave higher—asking her in a stammer whether I should stay there, whether it would be much longer, whether it was, in fact, just a simple bureaucratic procedure.

She stood still and shot me a glance filled with something that might have been disdain or mercy.

I couldn’t say, she said, then turned and left.

I sat down again in the chair. I lit my last cigarette as one by one the overhead bulbs turned off. In the distance, at the other end of an already darkened barracks, the red and green Christmas lights were still flickering.

The fifty-eight Kaibiles weren’t dressed as Kaibiles. That same afternoon, while they were getting ready, they’d received an order from their commanding officers to disguise themselves as guerrilla fighters: olive green T-shirts, red armbands, jeans. They’d also been ordered to leave behind their military weapons (Galil shotguns and M16s) and only take weapons typically used by the guerrillas (old rifles and handguns). At nine o’clock on the night of December 5, 1982, the fifty-eight Kaibiles climbed into two nonmilitary trucks and left the air base at Santa Elena, Petén. They drove for over two hours in torrential rain, until they reached the entrance to a dirt road. It was almost midnight. The Kaibiles got out of the two trucks—which they would abandon there—and started the six-​kilometer walk through the jungle. Another man led them through the darkness in silence. He was barefoot. His indigenous clothes were all torn. His hands were tied behind his back and there was a noose around his neck. Finally, at two-thirty in the morning, the Kaibiles reached the small village. It was still raining. They split up into groups of three and four and started going shack by shack, yelling, knocking down doors, until they’d woken up the more than fifty families. They put all the men inside the small schoolhouse made of guano. The women and children were put inside the two churches, one Catholic, the other Evangelical. The Kaibiles demanded to know where they were hiding the nineteen rifles. None of the villagers understood. They didn’t know that two months earlier, in an ambush not far from there, the guerrillas had killed twenty-one soldiers and stolen nineteen rifles. Now the military government believed that those nineteen rifles were hidden in that small village lost somewhere in the tropical jungle, and that its residents were guerrilla sympathizers. Red area, they called it. At six in the morning, then, with the first light of day just breaking, after informing their commanding officers by radio that they’d found no rifles nor communists nor communist propaganda nor guerrillas, the fifty-eight Kaibiles received their final order: Vaccinate them all.

It was nighttime. Or maybe not. Impossible to know for sure with the windows painted black. The hands of time, I began to understand, don’t tick at the same pace inside a military barracks.

Sitting there in the dark, my fear and anxiety only grew every time I pondered the absurd idea of getting up and walking through the labyrinth of desks to search for a way out. But out where? And how? And what if the old officer was still on the lawn playing badminton with his machete? What if a soldier stopped me and asked me who I was and what I was doing there so late at night? I didn’t even have any ID with me; I’d given my papers to Beni in the white envelope, along with some dollars. No, it was better not to move, to wait right there. The only thing that gave me a slight sense of refuge was the chair itself, and I clung to it both physically and mentally (I didn’t notice or didn’t care about the pain in my hands, which had too long been clutching the seat). From the chair I saw the silhouette of a cleaning woman sweeping the floor of the entire hall, then mopping the floor of the entire hall, then emptying out each small trash can. From the chair I saw the shadows of soldiers as they hurried between the desks, always ignoring me. And from the chair I kept staring hopefully at the black door at the end of the hallway, even though it had been a while since anyone had gone in or come out.

I closed my eyes, but I couldn’t say if it was because of the anxiety or exhaustion I was feeling, or simply because I no longer wanted to see anything. I had a strange taste in my mouth, which could have just been the taste of too many cheap cigarettes, although it could also have been the taste of defeat. I took a deep breath and had even started to relax a little, when out of nowhere I thought I heard tormented moans, like those of a dying animal. And for the first time I wondered if somewhere deep inside the barracks there weren’t prison cells and prisoners. Perhaps in the basement. Or upstairs, on the second floor. Or on the other side of the black door at the end of the hallway. These were the last days of 1989 and the country was still in the midst of the civil war and it wasn’t implausible to think that somewhere inside—above or below or behind me—there were prisoners of war. The barracks, at that very moment, ceased to be an ordinary bureaucratic office, and I decided that it was better not to close my eyes so I wouldn’t have to hear any suffering or imagine any prisoners lying on the floor of a dark, damp cell. And feeling exasperated, as if on the brink of something, I remembered the frog that my physics professor had told us about a few weeks earlier, to illustrate a concept of thermodynamics.

There were around two hundred first-year students sitting in a huge auditorium, almost all of us half-asleep due to hangovers or boredom or both, when the old professor started talking about the boiled frog theory. He told us that if you drop a frog into a pot of boiling water, the frog will jump right out and save itself. But if you place a frog into a pot of lukewarm water and then proceed to gradually turn up the burner, the frog won’t notice the slight increases in temperature and will eventually be boiled in the pot (the entire auditorium gasped in unison). But the professor quickly and theatrically raised a hand, as if to say stop everything, and then explained that it was a myth, that the boiled frog theory, according to scientists, was incorrect. Back in the nineteenth century, he said, German physiologist Friedrich Goltz, while conducting experiments to identify the exact location of the soul, demonstrated that as soon as the temperature reached twenty-five degrees Celsius, the frog would immediately jump out of the pot. Because the frog is an amphibian, he explained, which self-regulates body temperature by constantly moving about. Thermoregulation, it’s called. And so, he said, if it can, a frog will always jump out of the pot. Some students giggled. Others sighed. I didn’t see the point. And I’m sure no one else there did, either. He was now standing with his back to us, scribbling on the blackboard the formula for the first law of thermodynamics (Δu = q − w, which states that the amount of energy in the universe is neither created nor destroyed, but remains constant), right next to a poorly sketched smiling frog.

And sitting there in the dark of a military barracks, I thought: I’m the frog. I thought: This chair is the pot. I thought: A gigantic military hand is turning the knob to increase the temperature of the water. I thought: They want to boil me alive. I thought: I’m being boiled alive. I thought: Eduardo Halfon, chiseled and painted in black. I thought: The German scientist Friedrich Goltz never found the exact location of the soul but did prove the boiled frog theory incorrect. I thought: Thermoregulation. I thought: I have to jump.

And so I jumped from the chair and ran the twenty or thirty steps to the black door at the end of the hallway and started banging on it with my fist as if my own existence depended on it, and the door slowly creaked open.

A three-month-old baby was dropped alive into a dry well. It was noon. The fifty-eight Kaibiles headed for the two churches and took out all the children and put them in a straight line and told them not to worry, that they were only being vaccinated. The older ones received a blow to the head with a sledgehammer or a gunshot to the temple and were then pushed into the well. The younger ones needed only to be held by their feet and smashed against a wall or against the trunk of a tree and then dropped into the well. The girls and women, before falling dead or half-dead into the well, were raped. Next came the men. One by one, kneeling and blindfolded, they were interrogated and tortured and beaten and shot and then dropped into the well. The massacre finally ended at six in the evening. Night fell and still there came sounds of agony and sobbing from the well and a Kaibil dropped in a grenade to silence them. Some of the women in the village had been kept alive—the Kaibiles needed their dinner of black beans and rice. In the morning, another fifteen indigenous men who had been working far away in their maize plantations came back to the village. But the well was already full. So the Kaibiles torched the fifty shacks and the schoolhouse made of guano and the Catholic church and the Evangelical church and then took the fifteen indigenous men with them and also the last remaining women in the village and later, in the deep of the jungle, they shot and slit the throats of them all, except for a young boy who managed to escape by running through the trees, and two girls of fourteen and sixteen, whom they dressed up as guerrillas and kept alive for three days, raping them repeatedly as they made their way across the jungle. They left one girl’s body in the bushes, the other hanging from an oak tree.

Years later, forensic anthropologists would recover 162 bodies from the well. The village, named Dos Erres, was now nothing more than overgrown bushes and snakes.

One of the fifty-eight Kaibiles, according to testimony, was Benito Cáceres Domínguez.

A middle-aged man was standing on the other side of the black door, one hand still on the knob. His hair was disheveled, his shirt half-open, his face flushed and spotted with tiny droplets of sweat. He was swaying slightly, as if his plump body was trying to balance itself. His black eyes no longer appeared to be looking at anything.

Here you go, he stammered, his breath reeking of rum, as he handed me a flimsy yet official piece of light blue cardboard.

I don’t know why I hadn’t recognized him. One possibility is that I wasn’t expecting him to open the door himself. Another simpler explanation is that there wasn’t enough light in the hallway. But a much more plausible reason is that his physical transformation had gone much further than just having taken off his brown polyester uniform. He was now someone else entirely. His face was someone else’s. His body was someone else’s. His demeanor was someone else’s. His two jaguars were now ferocious and vivid and perfectly tattooed. It was as if when he crossed the threshold of the black door, he’d also crossed another darker and more metaphysical threshold and once again transformed into a Kaibil.

Come in.

There was nothing behind him. Or at least I couldn’t make out anything behind him. No people. No noises or moans. No damp prison cells.

I wanted to tell him that I preferred not to go in, that I couldn’t go in, that I didn’t belong in there, that I’d rather just go back to the chair and wait for him, sitting in the dark. But my mouth couldn’t form the words.

Come in, he said again, his voice tart, his eyes like daggers. And this time I understood that it wasn’t an invitation. It was a mandate, an order, from one soldier to another.

Copyright © 2022 by Eduardo Halfon, translation copyright © 2022 by Lisa Dillman and Daniel Hahn. Published by Bellevue Literary Press: Reprinted by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

Eduardo Halfon is a Guatemalan writer.