hunt for 2 lost in Guatemala
Just about one year ago, Nick
Blake, a free-lance journalist originally from Philadelphia, strapped on a
knapsack and hiked into the lush highlands of Guatemala. He and another
American were searching for a story that had eluded other journalists, a
story about a reclusive guerrilla army.
The two never hiked out.
They were reported missing on April 8, 1985. The U.S. Embassy undertook
an investigation, which was inconclusive. Guatemalan officials said they
To Blake's affluent family in Chestnut Hill, the official response
appeared to be a hasty dismissal. Nobody seemed to care what happened to
Blake, 27, and his friend Griffith Davis, 38, of Scranton.
So the Blakes began their own investigation. They hired a private
detective and enlisted the help of other free-lance journalists who knew
Blake. Blake's younger brothers, Randy and Sam, thought their own embassy
was lying to them. They traveled to Central America to explore Guatemala's
murky underworld, trying to verify scraps of information independently.
They discovered that the truth can be a rare commodity in Guatemala.
They were buffeted by rumors and changing stories, and their theories
about Blake's disappearance have swung across the spectrum. And the
politically conservative parents and their liberal sons became more and
more divided over how the investigation should be conducted.
Today, they have little more understanding than they did a year ago of
what became of Blake and Davis in the beautiful, mist-shrouded hills of
"Even at this late date," said his mother, Mary C. Blake,
"we don't know for sure what happened."
From the outset, Nick's brothers suspected that the military had killed
a couple of enterprising journalists. Guatemala's archbishop and various
human rights agencies had blamed the military for most of the tens of
thousands of disappearances in the country since the army took control of
the government in 1954.
A few weeks after the disappearances, Gen. Oscar Humberto Mejia
Victores, then Guatemala's military ruler, told a news conference that the
two missing gringos probably were "with the guerrillas, writing an
article in their favor, or they are being used by them to tarnish
Mejia denied that the military was involved, but then, Mejia had always
denied that the military was responsible for disappearances.
Unsatisfied, Blake's brothers began their own inquiries. "They may
get away with it with these peasants," Sam said, "but they're
not going to get away with it with me."
Stoked up on outrage and equipped with gold American Express cards and
connections in high places, the brothers set off to Guatemala.
They knew that Blake and Davis had reported their movements to a
military garrison before their trail disappeared. They knew also that the
family's investigator had talked to a witness who reportedly saw two tall
men, one a blond like Nick, being hustled into a military helicopter at
about the same time.
And they knew that Nick's landlord said he had received a typewritten
note after the disappearence, saying that Nick was with the guerrillas and
that the landlord should "tell friends, not authorities." But
they were told that such notes are a common ruse used by death squads to
Nick Blake had told friends that he wanted to interview a physician who
had left her wealthy family in Guatemala City to join the anti-government
Guerrilla Army of the Poor, known by its Spanish initials, EGP. It was the
type of story Nick liked, Sam said. "He was most interested in
humanitarian stories, not high politics."
Nick had been a reporter on a small New Hampshire newspaper after he
graduated from the University of Vermont in 1979. "But that sort of
reporting didn't suit him," his mother said. "He wanted to write
more active stories." About four years ago, he went to Central
America, where the action was.
There, he joined the ranks of journalists working as single
proprietors, mostly young reporters who scratch a living selling their
work to newspapers. The fortunate ones have steady outlets with a few big
dailies. Blake, like most of the free-lancers, would work for a few weeks
on a story and sell it for perhaps $100 to papers. There were no expenses
paid and no guarantees.
Nick's family approved of his life, although they were worried.
"Ever since I saw the movie Missing, I was afraid something like that
would happen," said Mary Blake. The film depicts a family's search
for an American free-lancer, not unlike Nick, who was kidnapped by the
army in Chile.
According to his associates in Central America, Blake understood the
risks and knew how to minimize them. Two months before his hike in
Guatemala, he ventured with another journalist for three weeks into
guerrilla-held territory in El Salvador, making certain to report his
movements to the military until he entered the rebels' turf, where he
switched to reporting his movements to the local guerrilla comandante.
While El Salvador and Guatemala share a border, the guerrillas
operating in those countries share little, other than a similar leftist
ideology. Salvadoran guerrilla groups are media-conscious, broadcasting
their communiques from clandestine radio stations and routinely receiving
journalists for interviews. To their countrymen, the guerrillas are known
as los muchachos, the boys.
The EGP in Guatemala is another creature. It is a secretive group that,
during its two decades of activity, has been periodically pummeled by the
Guatemalan army, an efficient military machine trained in Israeli and
Argentine counterinsurgency techniques. An interview with the guerrillas
would be a good story.
A guerrilla spokesman told Blake's younger brothers that Nick had
approached the EGP in Nicaragua about interviewing the rebel woman, but
that the EGP had said it could not arrange anything. The guerrillas said
they might risk the arrangement if Blake represented a television network.
Blake decided to go ahead with his plans, following the rules of the
road that he had learned in El Salvador. "I think Nick just got fed
up and said, 'Dammit, I'm going in there,' " said Sam, 24, a graduate
student of law and diplomacy at Tufts University near Boston. "I
think it was a miscalculation."
In Guatemala, Blake met Griffith Davis, a resident of Guatemala for
eight years. Davis had settled in the picturesque village of Santiago
Atitlan after journeying overseas in the years following his graduation
from Pennsylvania State University. He and his American girlfriend made
handicrafts and sold them in nearby Panajachel, a town known as a hangout
for 1960s American dropouts. Davis returned to the United States every
year to visit his family in Scranton and to accumulate some money by
picking apples in Vermont.
With Davis as guide and photographer, Blake left on March 25 from the
city of Huehuetenango. The younger Blakes trailed the two to the town of
El Llano in El Quiche province. The province is the heart of the area
where the guerrillas and the army had been fighting.
In El Llano, Blake and Davis told the military commanders that they
wanted to go to Sumal, a day's hike away. The army advised against it. The
Americans went anyway. That was the last place they were seen.
The Blake brothers' early investigation led them to believe that the
army had kidnapped Blake and Davis. Guatemalan officials, they said, were
uncooperative. A guerrilla official they met in Mexico City denied that
the EGP had even seen the two men. The U.S. Embassy's explanations, the
brothers said, seemed designed to benefit the military regime.
"The embassy started out real suspicious," said Sam Blake.
"They just seemed to be pawning it all off on the guerrillas without
checking it out."
The embassy, Sam figured, was "the only tool we (could) use to
bash the army." He said that family members contacted their
congressmen, and that "a bunch of big shots in Washington" sent
cables to pressure U.S. Ambassador Alberto Piedra to step up the
investigation. Sam contacted his professors at school to do the same.
Through a family friend, the Blakes asked Vice President Bush to
intercede. Bush, Sam explained, "lives about 10 minutes from us"
in Maine, where the Blake family spends its summers.
"The embassy finally got off their duffs and did some
things," said Randy Blake, 25, an aide in the Washington office of
U.S. Rep. Bob Edgar (D., Pa.).
Embassy officials in Guatemala City said they dropped leaflets from a
helicopter a couple of weeks after the disappearances and urged the
Guatemalan military to look for the two.
"I don't think the Blake brothers appreciated the work we
did," said a State Department official in Washington.
The brothers didn't trust the embassy. Last fall, their inquiries
became more combative. In November, during a presidential election that
returned the power in Guatemala to a civilian government, Randy and Sam
flew to the capital to hold news conferences suggesting that the military
had kidnapped their brother. They scaled a fence in Guatemala City to join
the Mutual Support Group, an organization that had seized the the
country's cathedral to draw attention to their calls for an investigation
into mass disappearances of Guatemalans.
While the brothers were holding news conferences, Mary Blake remained
Mrs. Blake, who visited Guatemala last April after her oldest son
disappeared, said she had information that led her to believe that Nick
was alive, but she would not say what it was.
"I've always proceeded from the point of view that he's
alive," she said. "As long as there's a chance that he's alive -
a hope - I have to do that. My sons proceeded from the assumption that he
The Blake brothers said the divisions with their parents also stemmed
from their different political points of view. The three sons considered
themselves liberal Democrats, while Mary and Richard Blake, who works at
First Pennsylvania Bank & Trust, "are staunch Republicans"
who are more inclined to believe the government, Sam said.
The sons' beliefs, however, changed to align more closely with their
parents' views after Sam's third trip to Guatemala last month.
Sam met the witness who was supposed to have seen the army cart away
two gringos in a helicopter. The story Sam heard was not remotely like
that, and he dismissed it as groundless.
He also met with the new civilian president, Vinicio Cerezo. The
president told the military to cooperate with Sam. The army commanders
showed him their intelligence reports and activity logs from last April.
They flew him into the area where his brother and Davis disappeared. He
interviewed men at the garrison near El Llano.
The army's story - that the Americans had gone into the countryside
despite its warnings that the area was crawling with guerrillas - rang
true, Sam said. "Just going up there, I realized the army wasn't in
control of the area," he said, which is what the Guatemalan military
and the U.S. Embassy had been saying all along.
"I think we've exhausted everything against the army, and I think
we should say we were wrong," he said.
That does not mean the Blakes are going to apologize for everything
they said before. "They seemed pretty honest," Sam said of the
military. "I've got to admit, those guys are pretty sleazy when it
comes to Guatemalans. But when it comes to Americans, they just don't take
And as for the embassy officials in Guatemala City, he said,
"Maybe we shouldn't have been so confrontational with them. . . .
They're pretty despicable, but I don't think they're going to tell us lies
for six months."
That leaves the question of what happened to Nick Blake and Griffith
Davis. "My parents don't want to come close to the possibility that
he's dead, and Randy and I accept it," said Sam.
There seems to be only one plausible scenario in which the two would be
alive - if they have joined the guerrillas. The highly mobile insurgents,
as well as the army, are not known for keeping prisoners. They are excess
baggage in irregular warfare.
But the Blakes and Dolores Davis, Griffith's mother, said the hikers
were unlikely recruits for the guerrillas. While they were sympathetic to
the social unrest that caused thousands of peasants to join the
insurgency, neither was known to have strong political views.
Randy and Sam Blake said they are turning their attention to the
Guerrilla Army of the Poor, whose officials, they said, were circumspect
and reluctant to help their investigation.
"Maybe excessive doctrinaire thinking got in our way," said
Sam. "I mean, we're liberals and, you know, the army down there is
one of the worst in the world for human rights violations. But maybe we
ought to start rethinking this case."
U.S. officials say only that the investigation is "ongoing."
"I get calls now and then from the State Department," said
Dolores Davis. But the incident seems so foreign to her, so dreamlike.
"The State Department is talking about places they went to, towns,
you know. I can't even pronounce the names of the towns."
The incident has brought home the emotional torment that thousands of
Guatemalan families experience, the families that have no body and few
clues as to what happened to their loved ones.
"Not knowing is hard," said Dolores Davis. "This could
go on forever."
Blake's family filed a suit in 1993 accusing the
Guatemalan government with complicity in the murder of Blake and Davis.
President Clinton in 1995 ordered an investigation into allegations that
U.S. intelligence agencies assisted the Guatemalans to cover up facts
about the deaths. The matter remains unresolved.