I have always understood at some level that the countries where coffee is grown have been marked by violence. In the context of Latin America, the horrible images of rural violence that I have carried in my mind have been set in cornfields — a vision likely inspired by my memory of walking through withered corn stalks during a haunting visit to El Mozote in El Salvador more than 10 years ago. It was only recently, during my travels in the coffeelands, that I came to appreciate that my image is inaccurate. Or at least, incomplete. Certainly, blood was spilled in cornfields in Central America. But it may be in the region’s coffee fields where cries of innocent victims echo loudest.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. The mountainous terrain where quality coffee thrives provides welcome cover to revolutionary groups, and invites the presence of the counter-revolutionary forces that stalk them. This dynamic has put coffee communities in the cross-fire from Mexico to Peru since the early 20th century. And as the proverb suggests, when elephants dance, the grass gets trampled. (For a brilliant long-form adaptation of this concept set in the coffeelands, watch the John Sayles film Men with Guns.)
But for some reason, I never made the connection between the coffee I love and the slaughter of people working to make a better world until this past year, when I visited in Santiago Atitlán in Guatemala and Acteal in Mexico during consecutive weeks, and stepped on hallowed ground in each place — coffee fields where innocent people working for justice were butchered.