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Radio and Alta Verapaz, Guatemala

By Don Moore

A slightly edited version of this article was originally published in the May, 1992 issue of The Journal of the North American Shortwave Association in the Latin Destinations column.


Land Of True Peace

This month let's take an in-depth look at one of my favorite places in Latin America, the department of Alta Verapaz in Guatemala. Alta Verapaz forms a rough rectangle in central Guatemala with its capital, Coban, in the southwest corner and the Belize border in the northeast corner. Most of the department is a high plateau, about 4,500 feet above sea level. This gives Alta Verapaz a spring like climate with cool mornings and evenings and warm days. The altitude also puts Alta Verapaz up into the clouds so that unlike most of Central America it doesn't have distinct wet and dry seasons. Instead, there is a fine, misty rain called the chipi-chipi that falls throughout the year. Alta Verapaz is always lush and green.

Alta Verapaz is the home of 200,000 K'ekchi Indians, Guatemala's fourth largest indigenous group. Historically, Alta Verapaz was isolated from the rest of the country; not until 1958 was a real road built to Guatemala City. Because of this isolation, the K'ekchi Indians continue to live much as they have for hundreds of years. Ninety percent of the K'ekchi don't even speak Spanish! The K'ekchis mainly live in rural villages while Spanish-speaking mestizos live in the larger towns and cities. Alta Verapaz is well known for its traditional weaving and handmade silver jewelry, which can be seen on the dozens of K'ekchi women who bring goods to the market in Coban each day. The women all wear huipiles, a loose fitting pull-over cotton blouse finely embroidered with floral patterns around the neckline, and skirts made by wrapping several yards of colorful hand-loomed fabric around their waists. This traditional costume is topped off with silver necklaces and earrings.

When the Spanish conquered Guatemala in the 1520s, they found the Indians of Alta Verapaz especially warlike. In fact, the Spanish soon gave up any attempt to conquer the region, which they gave the name Tezulutlan, a Mayan word for "land of war". Then in the early 1530s, Friar Bartolome de las Casas asked the authorities to let him try to convert the Indians to Christianity. The government agreed and forbade any other Spaniard from entering the region, so that the Friar could proceed unmolested. With the help of wandering Indian traders, de las Casas and several Dominican friars were able to learn some K'ekchi and translate Bible verses into the language. The Bible verses were then set to music and taught to the traders who were then given mirrors, metal knives, and other goods and sent into the region to trade and teach the inhabitants these new songs.

Soon, Matalbatz, one of several regional K'ekchi rulers, wanted to learn more about these verses. The traders told him that the verses were composed by a new type of Spaniard who wore robes instead of armour and were more interested in religion than in gold. The traders arranged for de las Casas to visit Matalbatz, and soon Matalbatz and his people were converted. De las Casas and his fellow friars continued to convert Indians in other villages, and in 1538 he founded the town of Coban, which means 'cloudy place' in K'ekchi. By 1548, the conversion process was complete and the land was given the new name of Verapaz.

Unfortunately, the story does not have a happy ending. As soon as the conversion was complete, the Spanish colonial government sent in soldiers to take control and find treasure. In the process, Indian villages were destroyed and looted and the people enslaved. The Verapaz region became an isolated backwater, generally forgotten by the Spanish, and, after 1821, by the independent Guatemalan government.

European Influences

Alta Verapaz's fortune's changed in the 1870s under President Barrios. Barrios invited German immigrants to help develop the country. Many were awarded huge tracts of land in Alta Verapaz, which became the center of German influence in Central America. Most Germans established prosperous coffee plantations, while others opened silver mines or set up shops and hotels. They soon controlled almost all aspects of the economy in Alta Verapaz and made Coban the most prosperous town in Central America. The Germans even built a railroad to the Caribbean to export their goods. In fact, it was easier to go from Coban to Europe, by train and steamship, than it was to go to Guatemala City by mule train over the mountains!

Although the Germans of Alta Verapaz became an important economic force in Guatemala, they never abandoned their ethnicity. Each generation retained German citizenship and continued to speak German in day-to-day life. This led to their downfall. In the 1930s, most of the Alta Verapaz Germans supported Hitler. They decorated their houses and clubs with swastikas and the phrase "Heil Hitler!" became common in the streets of Coban. In 1941, Guatemala followed the United States' lead and declared war on Germany. All the Germans in Guatemala who had retained their German citizenship were kicked out of the country and their property confiscated. Other than a very few German surnames, the only visible trace of the Alta Verapaz Germans are the large decaying wooden houses scattered throughout the city of Coban.

However, the Germans also left the seeds, literally, of Alta Verapaz's modern economy. Although the Germans main economic interests were in coffee and silver production, some planted small fields of cardamom, which they brought from India. The Germans never considered it very important, but today Alta Verapaz is the center of Guatemala's cardamom growing industry, and Guatemala is the world's largest exporter of the spice. Over 200,000 Guatemalans make a living off cardamom. Almost all of Guatemala's cardamom is exported to the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia, where it is widely used in cooking and is added to coffee.

Alta Verapaz on SW

Alta Verapaz has two shortwave stations, one Roman Catholic and the other Protestant Evangelist, each looking to save the souls of the K'ekchi Indians. In fact, the two stations are only on shortwave. Alta Verapaz's commercial medium wave stations broadcast in Spanish for the townspeople. Catholic Radio Tezulutlan, in Coban, has been on the air since 1975, while Evangelist Radio K'eckchi, in the small town of Fray Bartolome de las Casas, just came on the air in 1988. It is somewhat ironic that the Protestant station is in a town named after the original Catholic missionary to the region! Both stations broadcast primarily in K'ekchi, although they also have Spanish broadcasts. I believe that Radio K'ekchi also has some programs in Pokomchi, a related language spoken just south of Alta Verapaz. Don't let the Indian languages fool you into thinking you're hearing Spanish. Although they are very different from Spanish, the languages have adopted enough Spanish vocabulary to mislead the casual listener. (The apostrophe in K'ekchi, by the way, represents a glottal consonant not found in English or Spanish.)

Radio Tezulutlan uses 4835 and 3370 kHz, while Radio K'echki in on 4845. The Guatemalan communications ministry is very well organized in assigning frequencies, and it is very strange that two stations only a few miles apart have frequencies as close together as these two do on 60 meters. My speculation is that Evangelists in the ministry conspired to give Radio K'eckchi a frequency close to that of Radio Tezulutlan so as to draw away listeners. Listen for them in the evening or in the morning around 1100-1200 UTC. Along with religious and educational programming, both stations play a lot of beautiful Guatemalan marimba music. Good listening and Hasta Luego!


This article is copyright 1992 by Don Moore. It may not be printed in any publication without written permission. Permission is granted for all interested readers to share and pass on the ASCII text file of this article or to print it out for personal use. In such case, your comments on the article would be appreciated.

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