Guatemalan Military Historian Releases New Book: “Los Ingenieros Militares”
By Dialogo September 11, 2015Congratulations friend Kaibil Jorge Ortega on your new book and blessings to you, your wife and daughters. I know how good and illustrative your books are. Sincerely Col. (Ret.) Ismael Rodriguez Meraz, Honduras.
Regards. Dear Jorge: Thank you for mentioning me as a collaborator in writing your book. Your description is very interesting, since I can attest to the work and the research it took over several years. Even though you were removed from different positions, you kept up your drive to get to the end with drive and achieve success.
Retired Guatemalan Infantry Colonel Jorge Ortega, who served his country for 33 years as an Army officer, has published six books about his country's military history, most recently, “Los Ingenieros Militares” (The Military Engineers), which was released at the at Guatemala's International Book Fair - FILGUA - 2015.
In the following interview with Diálogo
, Col. Ortega discusses his latest book and how he wrote his other five books focusing on the Armed Forces, which are considered important reference materials on Guatemala's Military history.
How did the idea for a book The Military Engineers
Colonel Jorge Ortega:
It is part of a series of publications on the special units of the Guatemalan Army that I decided to compose years ago as my contribution to the Military. But apart from that, Engineering Col. Luis Felipe Ramos González, who at the time was the commanding officer of the Corps of Engineers, asked me to draft historical research on the Engineering Branch and the Army Corps of Engineers, saying that I had his full support in locating sources of information. This project lasted about 10 years.
Who were some of the people you interviewed for this project?
The protagonists of the different events discussed, such as General Julio César Ruano Herrera, Colonel Mario Enrique Paiz Bolaños, Colonel Ricardo Méndez Ruiz, Engineering Colonel Edgar Leonel Ortega Rivas, Engineering Colonel Julio Alfredo Antillón Guerrero, Lieutenant Colonel Sigfrido Contreras Bonilla, Engineering Colonel Antonio Meléndez, Engineering Colonel Ricardo Figueroa Archila, General Rafael Rossito Contreras, General Mauricio Izquierdo, General José Luis Quilo Ayuso are among many who provided me with important data.
How did this research project become a book?
It is a long story, but at the beginning, it was a research project to join the Guatemalan Academy of Geography and History. But at the time, political-military events were not favorable towards the project. I left Guatemala to become a defense attaché in Mexico, and that made it more difficult to find information. The project stayed on the back burner for several years, while I completed and published “Los Pilotos Aviadores”
(Aviators), “Nuestras Guerras”
(Our Wars), and a book of ironic short stories.
Upon leaving the Army, I joined the university faculty full time – where I have been for 15 years – and I dedicated a bit of time every day to finish the Military Engineers project, which I presented at that FILGUA 2015 International Book Fair this year. The book’s reception and the critics’ reviews have been very good so far.
The book has a lot of research, but you managed to enlighten the narrative with a lot of human-interest stories…
Because it is a Military history book, academic rigor permeates the work throughout. But I managed to interweave stories and anecdotes from the protagonists from these different times. Can you imagine? From the Late Classical Period of the Mayas to December 2014, in 400 pages. That is an unprecedented odyssey, with many voices that allow us to recover the past and approximate the truth about these events.
How many copies were printed in this edition?
How many military books did you write before “Los Ingenieros Militares”
Five. “Los Paracaidistas”
(Paratroopers), in 1997, which is being revised now for a new edition. “Los Kaibiles”
(The Kaibiles), in 2003, which has had seven reprints. “Los Marinos”
(Seamen), in 2006. “Pilotos Aviadores”
(Aviators), in 2011, and “Nuestras Guerras”
[Our Wars], printed in 2014.
What inspired you to write these books about the Military?
First, it was a personal commitment to give something back to my Army, which gave me the best job in the world: serving my country. Second, the lack of work on Guatemala’s Military history was a void to be filled. Now, there is a reference work and support for those leading Troops in Guatemala and abroad.
Given that there was no tradition of books on Military history in Guatemala, what did you base your works on?
It was a real challenge to locate the sources of information, but I managed to find them through patience and perseverance. Sometimes, you come up against a dead end or doors that are closed tight to you. But for anyone researching the past, greater difficulty leads to greater creativity! It is a continual challenge: You need contacts and a search plan with options and alternatives, and you need to be very flexible. But the most important thing is to never lose sight of your research goals.
What do you think your best book is?
Each book has its charm, some because of the research process, others because of the people you meet while writing it, or the parallel events that facilitate or become obstacles to the composition. Let me give you some examples. The first is “Los Paracaidistas”
(Paratroopers), in 1997, which hibernated for more than a decade after it was drafted before it was published.
After that was “Los Kaibiles,”
in 2003, which is in its seventh reprint with more than 10,000 copies. This has allowed me to bring to life other research projects and publications. It is doing phenomenally in the domestic and foreign markets.
After that came “Los Marinos”
in 2005. Putting this project together took me through an incredible maze to learn the history of the Naval Forces. After it was published, it garnered praise from Swedish and Guatemalan Seamen, the founders of the Guatemalan Navy, and a commemorative postage stamp. It is the history of Guatemala as seen from the sea.
“Los Pilotos Aviadores,”
in 2011, is a fabulous book. It is a collection of 100 years of feats by Guatemalan men and women conquering our air space. This publication allowed us to recognize publicly the pioneers of aviation, including the first female Aviator Pilot of Guatemala, who was decorated with the Guatemalan Air Forces Cross. We also achieved a postage stamp commemorating a Century of Air Locomotion, under the Directorate General of Mail and Telegrams.
The book “Nuestras Guerras,”
2014, is dedicated to recovering from obscurity those Guatemalan men and women who went to war a century ago and were deployed to the borders of our country to defend sovereignty, territorial integrity, and peace for our nation.
It discusses the last two conflicts with our neighbors: the 1903 War of Totoposte and the 1906 National Campaign, in which the Guatemalan forces were victorious, winning a sound and lasting peace with our neighbors that continues to this day. This book was sold out within five weeks of its launch, and a reprint is now being made.
It was a real ordeal to get “Los Ingenieros Militares”
written and published, but it was released this year after more than a decade of work. The manuscript left Guatemala and returned, after a long journey at the end of my Military career. It was a fellow traveler and companion during the autumn years of my Military career. And it is going along very well right now.
How did you balance time for your military duties with time for writing?
There is no conflict between the humanities and the Military. What is necessary is to dedicate time in your off-hours to writing and researching, which require a personal commitment and a lot of discipline to complete research projects on Military history. Make time and be productive.
Have you written books that are not about the Army?
Yes, the challenges of a short story fascinate me. Saying everything in just a few words, recreating settings, feelings, and actions. I published two books of this sort. The first was “Vida y Milagros de Margarita Angulo”
(The Life and Miracles of Margarita Angulo), in 2003, and the second, “La Reina de los Calzones Rotos”
(The Queen of Ripped Underpants), in 2013. Both were published by Editorial Palo in Hormigo, Guatemala.
Are you planning to write more books?
An apprentice writer [like me] always has some ink in his well… I have been working on a document since 2002 about the experiences we lived through during the Domestic Armed Conflict in Guatemala. It is a treatment of a complicated time in our nation’s history. It is slow work collecting the information, evidence, testimony from survivors, the life experiences of widows and orphans, anecdotes, publications, press clippings, news videos, mementos, and official documents from that period. Always within the Military sphere, but with application to any human environment. It is in the final review phase. “La Anatomía del Liderazgo”
[The Anatomy of Leadership], a work about a Soldier’s (Col. Ortega’s) lessons learned in guiding our men and women in uniform, successes and failures in critical combat situations and in peacetime; life-or-death situations.
Another line I’m working on is a book of short stories titled “Alma, ¿cuándo eres mía?”
(Soul, when will you be mine?), always in the genre of ironic short stories.
How has your life been since you retired from the Military three years ago?
Spectacular! With its bright and dark spots, with joy, personal satisfaction, and my family, with sadness at the passing of friends and relatives, with work and with projects for the midterm. There’s always a bit of nostalgia for the Army days, but those are chapters in life that we must complete, and now I am left with the satisfaction of having fulfilled my duty to the nation through my Military career. One is a Soldier forever! We love our country unto death.