The U.S. military had increased its presence and influence in Latin America, supporting military strongmen who suppressed any populist movements through harsh intimidation, eliminating (murdering) any union, student or religious leaders speaking out on behalf of the poor. The "banana republics" were safe business environment for corporate interests such as American owned United Fruit.
Early in his term of office, U.S. President Jimmy Carter had established a foreign policy that based financial and military aid on a country’s human rights record. Guatemala’s funding was cut off and this had put a strain on the relationship of the two countries. However the more difficult to control CIA still maintained a presence, providing training and directing counter insurgency campaigns.
In a very real way the earthquake of 1976 had upset the checkerboard and put the entire country in a state of chaos. Desperate for aid on all fronts, the cracks in Guatemala’s infrastructure and control left spaces where groups working on behalf of the poor could squeeze through and organizations like Plenty were able to establish a presence.
By the end of the decade much of Central America was in turmoil. Nothing exemplified this more than the 1979 overthrow of the brutal dictator Samosa in Nicaragua by a broad populist movement led by pro-communist insurgents. Directly adjacent to Guatemala, El Salvador was in the midst of an intense struggle and many thought it would be the next to fall. The long feared domino effect put added pressure on Guatemala’s government to eliminate any possibility of a leftist uprising.
Within the first few weeks after Regan’s election the Guatemalan military set up check points along the Pan American Highway and other roads entering the capital. Buses, the main form of transportation, were frequently stopped and everyone inside ordered off while soldiers checked for weapons and searched for people who might have ties to a growing rebel movement. Plenty volunteers were frequent passengers and orchestrating the relief work included frequent appointments at government offices in Guatemala City, often the target of bomb threats and armed skirmishes.
Much of the countryside surrounding Plenty’s location in Guatemala was undeveloped, steep mountains of virtually impenetrable rainforest. These became the havens for rebel groups which meant the Guatemalan military had an active presence in the region. An army base was set up just outside Solola. Low flying helicopters with armed soldiers holding machine guns passed over the camp on almost a daily basis. For the Plenty volunteers, the idyllic life in the Land of Eternal Spring was disintegrating.
The fear intensified with the emergence of the death squads known as the White Hand, the mark left on doors at the homes of the disappeared. In conjunction with the overt military campaign, the real counter insurgency work was being done outside the realm of accountability.
Life in Guatemala changed dramatically after the election of Ronald Reagan as President of the United States. Even before taking office, it appeared as if deals were being made and the word was clear: use any and all means necessary to maintain control.
Day or night, armed men would arrive murdering anyone even suspected of not being in full support of the government, their mutilated bodies dumped in the center of a village to be an example of what would happen to those who questioned the military’s authority.
Entire were villages burned to the ground, turning anyone who survived into homeless refugees. Ravines with scores of dead bodies began to become commonplace, reported weekly in the country’s newspapers with pictures and in graphic detail.