I spent three years in Guatemala City before working in the rural areas, when the cardinal expelled us from the archdiocese of Guatemala for siding with some of his clergy who requested that the Pope remove him. He accused us of being involved in a revolutionary process within the church.
In August of 1980, people began telling me that I was being accused of being a communist and that I should be very careful, that my life was in danger. Shortly before I had to leave I was conducting a mass out in a remote Indian community. After the mass, an Indian leader called me down to his cabin. He sat me down, closed the shutters — there was a little candle on the table — and very dramatically he whispered to me that he had word that there was a plot to assassinate me. And he prescribed various precautions I should take. But I told him that I thought he was the one who should take all these precautions, because I am a gringo and they just don’t do that sort of thing to gringos in Guatemala.
However, from that day on I stopped going to evening meetings where I would have to go along this dark road into the town where I was pastor. The same night they killed Pio they tried to kill this other fellow who had warned me, but he had set up an early warning system so when his people heard the cars coming along they warned him, and he got out. They tried three times to kill him, and failed each time. The third time they came in two carloads of police, with an informant from one of the villages. When they didn’t get him the third time they assembled the villagers and called forth Guillermo Alverado, who was the president of that community. They ordered the villagers to reveal the whereabouts of this Indian leader. When no one responded, they shot Guillermo. He was a young man of 22 with very small children, just starting his family, and they shot him dead in front of everybody. They also killed the informant because he failed them.
We had an informant on our board of directors. One reason we felt somewhat safe is that we had a man on our board of directors who we were told was an informant. Back in the 50s he had been the secretary of the Communist Party for Parramos. But then after the revolution, and the subsequent Eisenhower invasion in 1954 and with it the restoration of land to the owners and recriminations against communists, this man’s life was on the line, and the price of his survival was that he be the informant.
He came to everything that was going on and he was just regarded as the informant. We knew that and we just accepted it as something we had to live with. He was elected to this and elected to that just like everyone else, and he got elected to our board of directors. I would take him back to his house after the meetings, knowing that this man is going to let everybody know the results of our meetings. But we figured that since we had nothing to hide and nothing they could accuse us of, it was better that they get the story straight from somebody who is halfway friendly to us than to get it from somebody else and have all kinds of suspicions.
The day after Pio Coban was captured — it was Sunday afternoon, after our board meeting — I took him home and he wanted to be dropped off at the center of town, but we were afraid that if we did that they would have time to set up an ambush, knowing that we were in the center of town. So we dropped off everybody else first and then dropped him off last at his house and then quickly headed back to Chimaltenango, before he could give them the word. I remember shaking hands with him as he got out of the car, and his hands were soaking wet. He was very nervous. I can imagine what he felt like.
Right after that they set up an ambush for me, but my people warned me and kept me from coming in. Then they hid me out for a few days and got me to the U.S. embassy. Then the embassy people put me into a bulletproof car and took me to the airport with an armed guard.