The Hero Without a Country

By Glenn Sacks

When 14 year-old Fernando Alvarez woke up bloody and beaten in a pool of ice water at an army base in rural Guatemala, he was happy. Happy that the men who jumped him, beat him, and kidnapped him in the market where his mother had sent him to buy lemons for her weren’t criminals or gangsters but government soldiers. Happy to be alive.

In Guatemala this is the way the government "drafted" young men to fight, and they put Fernando in a counter-insurgency unit fighting against the leftist "Guerrilla Army of the Poor" in the hills of Guatemala. He was made a radio operator and given a cyanide pill to put between his teeth and cheek in the back of his mouth—to swallow if he were captured by the rebels.

Many of Fernando’s friends, still no older than an American 9th grader, didn’t survive the fighting in the hills. Fernando did, and after several months he was transferred to the Army’s Intelligence Center. He expected to work in intelligence analysis but was instead ordered to work alongside American CIA officers in interrogating rebel prisoners. "Interrogation" techniques included placing sewing needles in prisoner’s eyes and blowtorches in body orifices.

Fernando, a decent boy, at first refused. "God sees what we are doing here," he told his superiors. They laughed in his face and told him "You’re not in Sunday school, you’re in the army. You do it to the prisoners or we will do it to you." Seeking only to survive, Fernando obeyed the orders. He became a torturer.

And a good one. He tortured and he enjoyed it, or so it seemed. He swore and stabbed and beat the prisoners and got the information that the army wanted. He became one of them, and, a few months later, he was even promoted. One day he was sent to a subterranean prison cell with a guard with instructions to "interrogate" three rebel prisoners. The prisoners were tied up, bound and gagged, anticipating torture, hoping just to die. Fernando fired up the blowtorch but it didn’t seem to work. He struggled with it and swore at it and finally asked the guard to go back upstairs and hunt down another one. The guard left and Fernando decided, as he had planned, to make a run for it.

It would have been easier for him to leave alone.

He didn’t.

Stumbling to their feet, untied for the first time in who knows how long, disbelieving their eyes and ears, and fearing a trick, the rebel prisoners followed Fernando down a corridor and ran out of the building. Watchtower guards fired at them but missed.

Once in the hills the four of them exchanged clothes, and went their separate ways. Fernando felt liberated and began to plot his way home. But, at age 15, he was in a lot of trouble. He had planned his escape, but he had not thought through what would happen next. Now he was a deserter from an army which routinely tortured and killed the deserters it caught. Not only that, but several rebel prisoners who had escaped a couple of months earlier had identified Fernando to their superiors as one of the regime’s torturers and he was put on a rebel death list.

Facing death from both sides, Fernando, with the aid of a friend who was a coyote (smugglers who take immigrants up to the US), came to the United States where he was granted temporary asylum.

Talking to Fernando today it is hard to believe that such a kind, hardworking, gentle man could ever have had two armies seeking his death. He lives a different life now, a very hard one by American standards but one which he’ll tell you is the best he’s ever known. He is a day laborer, putting in long hours on construction sites and picking up money on the side doing weekend gardening. He sleeps on a couch and has practically no material possessions. He’s in English class four nights a week and computer class every Friday, continuing an education that had ended in 4th grade.

Fernando has no illusions about the United States. He knows that many Americans don’t want immigrants like him here. He knows that it was the Americans who engineered the 1954 Guatemala military coup which overthrew a democratically-elected government and set in motion the wave of terror which 30+ years later would swallow and almost destroy him. His asylum ran out a few months ago and he is now, once again, a "mohado", a "wetback", an "undocumented worker", an "illegal alien". His asylum judge told him that if he wants to stay in the U.S. legally he must go back to Guatemala and apply for a visa to visit the United States. Fernando’s not going. "There’s no point," he says, "if la migra catches me I’ll get a trip back to Guatemala anyway—for free."

Like many immigrants, Fernando is intensely interested in the amnesty program being discussed by the Bush administration, even though he knows it may well not include Guatemalans. Like others, he’s surviving the best he can and hoping that someday he can become legal.

America profits enormously from immigrants’ cheap labor and their willingness to do the dirty, dangerous jobs we don’t want to do. At the same time, however, we indignantly reject the suggestion that these same immigrants upon whom we depend should be allowed to live here legally and enjoy the benefits of our society. Perhaps someday America will end this hypocrisy.

Hopefully it won’t come too late for Fernando. If Fernando had done what he did in the service of America or captured American prisoners he’d be a hero with medals pinned all over his chest and an honored guest at this month’s Veterans’ Day memorials. Maybe, like Senator and former Vietnam POW John McCain, he’d even be a well-known leader who is respected and admired. Instead, this magnificent man is an outlaw here and an outlaw there, a man caught between two countries, neither of which wants him.

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