Volume 73, Number 33 | December 17 - 23, 2003

37 years later, Elizabeth Butson’s Guatemalan rebel photo article remains the definitive account

Before she was publisher of The Villager in the 1990s, Elizabeth Margaritis Butson, as a young photojournalist, took photos of and reported on the Fuerzas Armadas Rebelde, a rebel group in the mountains of Guatemala. She was the first female journalist the rebels let visit their mountain stronghold.

Last month, her original article was reprinted in El Periodico, Guatemala City’s largest daily; in a sidebar, Cesar Montes, the lone survivor of the guerillas whom Butson interviewed, commented on the article and on her. As they told Buston 37 years ago, Montes said land reform remains Guatemala’s main problem.

Butson’s photos also sparked her great romance with the late Tom Butson, The Villager’s former editor in chief, who was then a young Toronto newspaper editor. He liked her photos so much he started using her as a stringer, and they later married.


In small type in the masthead on Page 2 of every issue of The Villager there appears the name Elizabeth Margaritis Butson and the words Publisher Emeritus. Her husband Tom Butson, who died grievously too soon on January 3, 2000, was the editor of this newspaper, and she its publisher, from 1992 to 1999.

From left, Cesar Montes, the number two in command of the Fuerzas Armadas Rebeldes and only surviving member of the group; commander Luis Turcios; and Arnaldo, known as the group’s “intellectual.”

You can find a picture of this remarkable lady on Page 13 of the Sunday, November 23, 2003, issue of the Guatemalan daily El Periodico. Taken somewhere in the Sierra de las Minas mountains of Guatemala in October of 1966, the photograph shows 28-year-old Elizabeth Margaritis — not yet, properly speaking, a lady, just a young woman with a lot of guts — her hand resting lightly on the shoulder of a man named Luis Turcios Lima who is now a long time dead.

“It was taken by one of those guys,” Mrs. Butson says these 37 years later. “I told him to point” — her Leica — “and he pointed.”

“Those guys” were leftwing guerrillas of the Fuerzas Armadas Rebeldes (FAR), an “armed force” of some 100 to 300 men, at war against 12,000 government troops, and of this detached handful in the mountains — evocative of Pablo’s or El Sordo’s isolated little force in “For Whom the Bell Tolls” — 24-year-old former university student Luis Turcios was the leader.

The story of how Elizabeth Margaritis got to see him and talk with him, there in the Sierra de las Minas in 1966, is almost as good as the story she soon thereafter submitted to Life magazine back in New York — a story that appeared, not in Life mag itself, but in its Spanish-language offshoot, Life en Espanol; i.e., the story now reprinted in full, in Spanish, last month in El Periodico.

Almost as good? Maybe even better. Let her tell it, partly from what she once wrote, partly from what she remembered, as sharp as ever, in a chat just the other night:

Born in Istanbul of Greek parentage (“my father was a professor of mathematics and a lot of other things”), Elizabeth Margaritis came to the United States at 18 and a few years later emerged from Boston University School of Journalism with ideals, a Leica or two and the desire to become a photojournalist.

Former Guatemalan President Cesar Montes Montenegro, shortly after his election —Margaritis’ original assignment had been to take his photo.
“But it was not easy, in those days, in the ’60s, for a woman, especially a foreign-born woman, when there were only a few openings of any kind at places like Life and Time. I actually got hired to do public relations for Philip Morris International, and while I was in that job I got a call one day — an assignment from Life to photograph Cesar Mendez Montenegro, the new president of Guatemala, and the Nicaraguan dictator Tachito Somoza.”

She took off for Guatemala City during vacation time from Philip Morris.

“Soon after I got there I realized that the big story, with very little coverage in the U.S. press, was the revolution in the hills. The crusty U.S. press types were all hanging out in the bar of the Pan American Hotel” — and missing the story. “I asked the editor at Life to assign me to get that story, and was told I was not senior enough. I was too young. I would never get it.”

So she decided to get it on her own.

“A wonderful man named Bob Rosenhouse, a stringer who’d lived many years in Guatemala, made it known to the right people [with links to the guerrillas] that I wanted to do this. The rebels decided to meet with three of us [journalists] to decide which one they’d be most comfortable with, and to my great delight and surprise, they chose me. I think the main reason was that I stood my ground; I made it clear that I was there to try to understand their point of view, though not to accept anything at face value.”

But after that first test, silence.

“To contact the rebels is no easy task,” she wrote in her 1,400-word dispatch for Life. “Dates are made but are seldom kept. The price on Turcios’s head is high . . . I had lost every hope to meet with him when the phone rang. A voice that I did not recognize told me that if I wanted to meet with Luis Turcios I had to be in front of the post office in 20 minutes.

“At 9:03 a.m., a car approached me in front of the post office, and, just as in mystery novels, the driver signaled me to get in the car. In the back seat sat, calmly, Luis Turcios.”

The tense ride — “they take you around and around so you do not know where you are going, it might be only a block away” — ended at a safe house, where Turcios proceeded to cross-examine the young woman from Gringo-land. And she him.

“I asked Turcios why did he consider violence the only solution to Guatemala’s problems. ‘You must be anti-communist,’ he answered me tersely. ‘I only ask,’ I said, ‘because I hate war. Think of the 12 soldiers you killed in a recent ambush — aren’t they children of the same peasants you are fighting for?’

“Turcios stayed quiet for a moment and then said, displeased: ‘They are from the other side. Do you want to come with us to the hills?’ “

She said yes.

The car returned to the city. Turcios got out, mingled casually with the crowd, then entered another car and disappeared. Elizabeth returned to her hotel. Three days later, as she was standing in a pharmacy, a young man in a sombrero walked up to her and said: “My name is Fausto, are you coming with me?” She followed him out to a car. “Another guy in a cowboy hat was waiting for us. This was a scene straight out of a Western.”

The cowboy hat, who gave his name as Arnaldo, also wore a sports shirt under which she could clearly discern an automatic pistol. Elizabeth was blindfolded. The car drove for three hours. When it finally stopped, and the blindfold came off, “we were,” she says as she tells it now in 2003, “in bush country, all thorns and rocks, with rifles sticking out everywhere.”

Arnaldo, nicknamed El Chino for his slanting eyes, turns out to be the group’s intellectual and ideologist. He leads the way uphill, into the night. “I see something protruding in front of me [she writes in the piece for Life] and grab it to balance myself. It is a cold and lean object — a sub-machinegun. Behind the gun, a voice: ‘Senorita, be careful.’ ”

The hike is long and difficult. “Suddenly we come to a river,” says the Elizabeth Butson of today. “We cross the river, on horses, at night, without saddles. I have never been on a horse before. I cross, clutching my Leicas for life, and talking to the horse, not to dump me in the water.”

They finally arrive at their goal: A few huts. A village. Food for the rebels is waiting: rice and beans. A bunch of peasants with stone faces stand and watch — faces that awaken when Arnaldo the ideologist starts talking to them about how they are working the land, their own land, for nothing. But the peasants do not talk, do not eat. Barefoot and silent, they “watch the guerrillas and myself. The girl with the cameras.”

And cameras are all that that girl has with her on this expedition. When, much later that night, the little company reaches a rebel campground, the No. 2 man, Cesar Montes, known as Claudio (and a member of the Central Committee of the Guatemalan Communist Party), asks her if she has brought nothing with her but her cameras — no blankets, for instance? — her reply is no, nothing else. Montes has a blanket.

“So I share a blanket with the No. 2 in command, because it’s either him or the coyotes. And in the middle of the night he wraps all of the blanket around himself.”

Thirty-seven years later a sidebar to the El Periodico reprint of her article will include an interview with Cesar Montes, the only surviving member of that company of guerrillas. He will not be too gracious about the young photojournalist of 1966.

“Of course I do [remember her],” he will say. “I am a gentleman, so I won’t say anything about her reference about the blanket . . . She was conscious of her charm and attractiveness. She was looking at us as if we were ‘little Indians.’ I never saw her again.”

But he does also say: “We liked her and we liked what she wrote . . . [It] gave the movement international exposure, and after that publication came other journalists from the New York Times and the Washington Post . . .”

An editor’s note heading the whole 2003 El Periodico layout says: “This piece of reporting written 37 years ago continues to be today’s reality.”

There in the Sierra de las Minas, over her plate of rice and beans, the young woman from the United States had asked Luis Turcios Lima what he and his FAR hoped to achieve.

“Can’t you see,” he had replied, kicking an empty tin can, “we are fighting against exploitation, tyranny and misery . . . If the Yankees don’t stick their nose into our affairs, we will win very soon.”

She asked him what he thought of President Cesar Mendez Montenegro, who in his first 30 days in power had turned over government-owned farms to the peasants, and whose wife had raised funds to bring medical supplies to remote villages.

“He is a good man, I suppose,” said Turcios with a shrug, “but what can he do? The day he tries to put in place a real agrarian reform program, he will be thrown out of office.”

Turcios, who at 15 had graduated from the Guatemalan military academy, and had received some further training at Fort Benning in the U.S., sits and cleans his pistol and says: “We are willing to cooperate with everybody as long as they help us achieve our objective . . . But I am not a puppet of Lyndon or Fidel or Mao or anybody. I am a socialist without a party,” he says proudly.

Soon after she interviewed him, Turcios was killed on the road in the same car in which they had rode together.

“As soon as I could,” says the Elizabeth Butson of here and now, “I got the hell out of Guatemala and came back to New York and wrote the story for Life, which they printed in Life en Espanol. But because they had not assigned me to go there and do this, I had the right to sell the pictures! Which I did, to Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, Paris Match, a Swiss publication called Illustre and a German publication I’ve forgotten.

“And now,” says Elizabeth Margaritis Butson, her eyes lighting up, “the most important part of the story.

“There is at that time a young assistant managing editor with the Toronto Star. His name is Tom Butson, and he had assigned a young reporter to do a piece on Guatemala, but the reporter’s story had nothing in it about the revolution. The guy couldn’t get anything.

“Tom was fuming, and he fumed even more when he opened Newsweek and saw a story and pictures about the revolution, and it had on it a girl’s byline, and the girl was me.

“At 8 a.m. the following day I’m in my little studio apartment in Brooklyn Heights, and the telephone rings. It is Tom Butson, asking if I would sell my photographs to the Toronto Star. And I’m of course thrilled, and what’s more, he runs those photos for seven days, and sends me a lovely letter saying those were the best photographs he’d ever seen with a story like that.

“He gave me some stringer assignments . . . and a year later we were married.

“Of course, after I did all this in Guatemala, all hell broke loose at Philip Morris. I had to make a choice between journalism and responsibility. Again, it was a question of challenge, being a woman, breaking a lot of barriers. A question of survival. The long and short of it is that I worked 27 years for Philip Morris International, in marketing, and became the first woman vice president at Philip Morris. I had a lot of fun doing it and fought a few battles.”

Elizabeth Margaritis Butson and Tom Butson together at their home in Brooklyn. Their great romance bloomed after Tom Butson, an editor at the Toronto Star, ran her photos of the rebels and then gave her more photo assignments as a stringer.

Her husband, meanwhile, New Zealand-born Tom Butson, had gone from the Toronto Star to many years as a top-rank editor at the New York Times.

“And then, well, life comes full circle. Tom around 1990 discovers he has myeloma. He decides to take time off, perhaps to write. I take early retirement from Philip Morris. We are approached by friends to save a moribund weekly newspaper called The Villager. We buy The Villager and decide to resurrect it. We put our life savings into it.”

Not to mention their lives themselves. They gave God knows how many hours a day of how many days of how many weeks of how many months of 10 full years, may one observe who out of the blue got a phone call one day nine years ago from a Tom Butson asking if I would care to drop down to The Villager to talk about writing for that paper.

“Tom fought the cancer for 10 years. And then,” says Mrs. Butson, “John Sutter came along, offering to buy the paper. For me, it was like someone was watching over The Villager, and us. To see what we built was not only living but growing . . .”

Yes, Cesar Montes, onetime member of the Central Committee of the Guatemalan Communist Party, sole survivor of the 1966 Sierra de las Minas unit of Fuerzas Armadas Rebeldes, the girl did, the lady does, have a charm and attractiveness. Hundreds of thousands have died in Guatemala since you shared the blanket with her in the rebel encampment in the middle of the night. She lives. So does her story, and the photos she took. And thanks to that, and to her, so does your comrade Luis Turcios Lima.


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