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  • To Save Her Life: Disappearance, Deliverance, and the United States in Guatemala
  • Richard L. Siegel (bio)
Dan Saxon , To Save Her Life: Disappearance, Deliverance, and the United States in Guatemala ( Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2007) pp. 306 pages

This book is not for those looking for a typical academic book about human rights. As suggested by the publisher, it is "part human rights drama, part political thriller, part love story." It is also a well researched study that is insightful about the realities of rights and violence in Guatemala during the late 1980s and early 1990s. The author analyzes decisionmaking by US and Guatemalan government and nongovernmental officials while telling an exciting story that brings human rights advocacy to life in ways that will fascinate students and experts alike.

The author, Dan Saxon, has been a prosecutor at the UN International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia for nine years. The events in To Save Her Life took place in 1992, when he was legal adviser to the Archdiocese of Guatemala's Human Rights Office. Having completed years of political and historical research, Saxon provides substantial context to a case study of human rights protection achieved by the work of many groups and individuals. And he is obviously fascinated by the implications of this case for judging how the United States Government weighs human rights considerations against an array of other factors, in particular the need to maintain cooperation with other states in the "war against drugs".

Saxon could write a second book about researching, writing and publishing To Save Her Life. Major and lesser actors involved in the central events had to decide how to respond to his inquiries in interviews that took place years later. This reviewer had a small role in this project as a reader of an initial draft who appreciated Saxon's excellent writing style and his determination to write a very thorough study of the events that he lived through as a major player.

The readers' need for historical and political context is addressed well in a book that is, at one major level, the story of the rescue of a woman and her son. At a second level, it is the story of how individuals, groups and bureaucracies that affect human rights decisions operate across national lines and are affected by the idiosyncratic behavior of other protagonists, a changing political climate at home and abroad, the various ways that advocacy is carried out, and the constraints on everyone involved.

Saxon states in his preface that while he believed at the start that this story was about the collision of humanitarianism and politics, he came to understand that humanitarianism is politics. This particular effort at humanitarian intervention was even more political than most, in part because the object of the rescue, Maritza Urrutia, was an active member of an insurgent organization in a country with friendly but complex relations with the United States. In order to secure her rescue from Guatemala, her life story had to be packaged for American official consumption, and both that story and the intensity of the advocacy work had to be well-calibrated. [End Page 221]

Ultimately, what counted most was the willingness of officials in the US Embassy in Guatemala and in the State Department to commit themselves to facilitating the rescue. Earlier crucial decision making occurred within the Guatemalan Army and in the Office of the President of the country. The choices made by those Guatemalans shaped a disappearance and reappearance that made possible a second phase of politics and humanitarian intervention. Saxon ably allows the reader to view these events from multiple perspectives.

Richard L. Siegel

Richard L. Siegel is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Nevada, Reno and President of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada.



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pp. 221-222
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