For centuries, the countries harboring the remnants of Mayan society have been at each others’ throats. So who could have imagined that a semiretired journalist and part-time vintner operating out of his cluttered study in Great Falls, Va., would be the one to get them all to cooperate?

Since 1988, Bill Garrett has—with little official acknowledgement or support from the U.S. government—pulled off one of the most striking, and least-recognized, triumphs in the recent annals of diplomacy. Toward the end of his 36-year career with National Geographic magazine, Garrett became increasingly interested in preserving Mayan culture, which continues to exist—in an endangered form—in Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico.

The problem was that grudges both ancient and recent had kept the five nations from speaking to one another. So in a seemingly quixotic effort to get them to cooperate on cultural, artistic, and environmental matters, Garrett dived into a round of face-to-face diplomacy with the five countries’ leaders. Armed with little more than his journalistic affiliation and an impressive network of academic and political contacts, Garrett began his Mayan project in 1988 under the guise of reporting a special issue of National Geographic.

To Garrett’s surprise, his pitches worked, even surviving the subsequent disgrace or removal of several politicians he won over, including former Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari. “I don’t think of it so much as diplomacy,” Garrett says. “We were trying to sell an idea. We were saying that they should basically create a small NAFTA among the five countries. I told them if they were going to prosper, they had to cooperate. Once I explained it, they said it sounded right.”

The October 1989 Geographic, which ran several articles on the Maya, turned out to be both an end and a beginning for Garrett. Just months later, he was controversially and messily sacked as editor-in-chief. But the career change had a silver lining: It allowed him to pursue Mayan preservation through a shoestring operation known as La Ruta Maya Conservation Foundation. (The name is Spanish for the Mayan Route, an ahistorical concept Garrett made up as a way of symbolically linking the scattered vestiges of the culture.)

Not all of Garrett’s ideas have moved beyond the pie-in-the-sky stage; for instance, a rain-forest peace park featuring an elevated cable car lives on only in the special issue of the magazine, where it was dreamily rendered by one of Garrett’s staff artists. (A similar venture in Costa Rica—not one of Garrett’s projects—has encountered greater success.)

Nor, for that matter, was Garrett moving montañas single-handedly; regional experts point out that his cause was boosted mightily by the dissipation of Central America’s Cold War alignments, something over which he had no control. “Obviously, much of this would have happened without our pushing,” Garrett acknowledges. “But we are given credit in the region for having been the catalyst.”

Allen Weinstein, a one-time colleague and head of a Washington-based group called the Center for Democracy, is one admirer. “If you can imagine Ben Bradlee reinvented as Don Quixote, that’s Bill,” Weinstein says. “He’d been a hard-bitten, deadline editor. Then along came a cause, and it seized him. He would plunge into the field and wander the roads with a camera and a tape recorder. It’s a very difficult part of the world, and he didn’t just see it from the editor’s desk. I give him an awful lot of credit.”

Capitol Hill aide Caleb McCarry, who got to know Garrett while in Guatemala several years ago, puts it even more simply: “You could say that he had both vision and cojones.” (These qualities were viewed somewhat differently by former colleagues. According to a Washingtonian piece on the National Geographic shake-up, “a former Society division head” said, “Bill Garrett is one smart son of a bitch—the ‘son of a bitch’ goes first.”)

Wilbur E. Garrett was born 67 years ago in Kansas City. Graduating from high school at 15, Garrett was too young to see action in World War II, but he later served two years in Korea as a combat photographer for the Naval Reserve. Abandoning plans to be an engineer, Garrett transferred to the University of Missouri’s journalism school. After the managing editor of National Geographic visited campus to collect an award, he hired Garrett as an assistant. “I didn’t want to work there—I turned down his offer repeatedly,” he says. “I didn’t like the magazine. But my professor said to take the damn job. So I went for two years, and it turned into 36.”

A handful of Garrett’s 30 articles for the magazine were cushy—Prince Philip, for example, gave him a major scoop in the 1950s—but the vast majority were not. “Starting in 1958, I spent a lot of time in Vietnam and Laos and Cambodia, in the hills with the highland people,” he recalls. “Most of what I did was in the boonies. When that tapered off in 1972, I kept going back—not to work but to absorb the ancient cultures of Southeast Asia.” In 1968, he won the Magazine Photographer of the Year Award for his coverage of the war in Southeast Asia.

Oddly enough, his exposure to Asia, though half a world away, was what led Garrett to the Maya; to him, Southeast Asians and the Maya have much in common. “In places, Angkor Wat looks like a Maya pyramid,” he says. “They both lived in the same latitudes, they had the same technical skills, they were great farmers, and they used limestone for their buildings. If you look at a Khmer child and a Mayan child, you cannot tell them apart.”

After Garrett’s first trip to Guatemala—for fun, not work—he quickly fell in love with the place. Writing in the special issue of the Geographic, Garrett succinctly described the enigmatic nature of Mayan civilization: “Like a mist in the night, the Maya appeared in this unforgiving land more than 3,000 years ago. They built a culture that flowered while Europe languished in the Dark Ages and that survived six times as long as the Roman Empire. They lived by a calendar the equal of ours, developed the concept of zero in mathematics, predicted eclipses of sun and moon, and traced the path of Venus with an error of only 14 seconds a year. In the 16th century, the Spanish, with muskets and measles, applied the coup de grâce to the ghostly remains of the Classic Maya culture, which was already fading as mysteriously as it had blossomed.”

Garrett was drawn in despite—or perhaps because of—the Mayas’ sad history of cultural ruin. “Most of the losses occurred 500 years ago,” he says. “The Spanish considered any Mayan cultural artifact to be heathen, and they did everything they could to destroy the culture. They also killed a lot of Indians, most by disease—about 90 percent.” In the 1800s, Mayas in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula fought the so-called Caste War. It was extraordinarily bloody, and eventually the Maya lost; by the early 1900s, they were fully under the control of the Mexican army.

Unlike in other regions throughout Latin America in which race-mixing has long been common, a large proportion of Mayan descendants have remained isolated and ethnically distinct—a pattern that has helped produce widespread neglect by their nominal governments. Worse, the whims of international politics—from Cold War alliances to centuries-old grudges—have led to occasional periods of slaughter.

Mayan cultural monuments—the objects that initially grabbed Garrett’s attention—weren’t faring much better. Those that had survived the Spanish conquest were coming under increasing pressure from looters, environmental carelessness, and the elements. And because of strained relations among the countries involved, there was no coordinated effort to preserve them.

Guatemala, for instance, harbored ancient colonial grievances toward Belize, whose long Atlantic coastline it envied. This ill will was exacerbated by an ethnocultural divide: Guatemala was heavily Indian and influenced by Spanish colonial rule and language, while Belize, whose population included many people of African descent, had a legacy of English rule. In the meantime, El Salvador was immersed in a civil war, and Honduras had been serving as a base for the Nicaraguan contras.

“At the time, you couldn’t even travel easily,” Garrett recalls. “If you were in Guatemala City and wanted to get to Mérida, in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, you had to hop a flight up to Miami to do it. Nor could you cross over from Mexico into Belize.” So Garrett began what he dryly calls his “Kissinger period,” holding out the idea of a European Union-style federation. “The State Department wasn’t involved. I would just get appointments with the leaders and carry messages back and forth between them.”

The first to back the idea was President Vinicio Cerezo of Guatemala. Cerezo was the nation’s first elected civilian president since a CIA-backed coup in the 1950s. A democrat, Cerezo had popular standing but nonetheless felt compelled to defer to the still-powerful Guatemalan Army on many issues. Even so, Garrett recalls, “Cerezo thought it was a great idea. We schemed a bit and drew some maps. I think he had ambitions of a Nobel Peace Prize, but it turned out that Oscar Arias of Costa Rica got it instead.”

The next chip to fall into place was Mexico’s Salinas. Despite worries among his advisers that Mexico’s neighbors might steal its tourists away, Salinas was feeling some pressure to mend fences. There had been occasional skirmishes on the Mexico-Guatemala border, and the theft of timber from neighboring Guatemalan forests was becoming an international irritant. The crucial evidence that brought the two men together, however, came from the most unlikely of all sources: outer space.

National Geographic had asked Landsat to prepare a series of satellite images for its researchers, so that they could locate hidden Mayan ruins in the forest. One picture, much to the researchers’ surprise, showed something even more dramatic. For years, Mexico’s farmers and loggers in and around the state of Chiapas (which later became ground zero for the Indian-based Zapatista uprising) had thoroughly plowed under their rainforest. By the late 1980s, the border between Chiapas and the more lightly populated Petén district in Guatemala was, in the magazine’s words, “razor-sharp.” The Landsat image showed the border to be—as Garrett puts it—”written in the trees.”

“When Salinas saw it, he shook his head,” Garrett recalls. “He was a Harvard grad, a sharp guy. He said, ‘This is awful, isn’t it?’ When he showed it to Cerezo, he told him, ‘Let’s not do this to the rest.’ That one photo launched it all.” Fortunately, by the time the issue of National Geographic rolled off the presses, the editors were able to place another shot side by side with the Landsat image: a photo of Cerezo and Salinas embracing on a Suchiate River bridge that connects the two countries. Easing more than a century of tension along the border, the two men signed several agreements on environmental issues that day.

Slowly, the rest of the countries fell into line. At first, Garrett says, “the president of Honduras wanted nothing to do with Guatemala. In essence, he said there was no way he would have anything to do with Cerezo, whom he considered a Yankee imperialist running dog. But his successor, a man named Esquivel, cooperated and opened the borders for trade and tourism.”

When representatives of all five nations finally met in Guatemala City in 1989, some old habits died hard; Belize, for one, sent a non-Spanish speaker to the parley. On the other hand, given that it and Guatemala were, at the time, barely short of waging war, Belize’s decision to send a representative at all seemed like a positive sign. By now, far more tourists head to Tikal, the famed Mayan ruin in northeastern Guatemala, from nearby Belize City than from faraway Guatemala City, previously the gateway by default.

“They were all overcoming hundreds of years of prejudice,” Garrett says. “But they decided to write up a declaration of cooperation that led to the formation of a working group called Mundo Maya. Unfortunately, it’s more concerned with joint tourist ventures—things like joint airline marketing of tour packages—rather than ecological and cultural issues, which is what we wanted. But at least economic issues have become a touchstone for these countries. The point of this has been that tourists can now go to each of these countries, not just the big fancy hotels in Cancun.”

U.S. tourism remains lower than it could be, thanks to accommodations that are still a bit more rustic than most Americans like. Still, the inter-American cooperation has held surprisingly firm, in spite of the disrepute that awaited not only Salinas (whose economic policies turned sour and who headed a party widely perceived as corrupt) but also Esquivel (who was indicted for corruption) and Cerezo (who fell into popular disfavor after caving to army pressure, though he later explained it as his imperfect method of preserving the precedent of peaceful succession in a frail democracy). The accords have even survived the numerous cabinet ministers who grew rich from their authority to control assets and bribes, and the functionaries who became dictatorial (to Garrett’s chagrin) in such fiefdoms as archaeological oversight.

Big problems remain, of course. Across the region, Indians (who exist in a roughly three-to-two ratio with whites) still lag far behind in income and wealth distribution. Still, for the most part, Garrett says, “these countries are now out of dark ages—it’s much more decent than it was.”

To continue the good works within a useful framework, Cerezo and Salinas suggested that Garrett design a nonprofit, nonpolitical organization to enhance the cause of environmental and cultural protection. The political leaders themselves, Garrett says, “either didn’t have the power or else thought the time wasn’t right because poverty and politics were standing in the way.”

The nudge from Cerezo and Salinas convinced Garrett to form Ruta Maya. Aside from Garrett himself and his wife Lucille, Ruta Maya has never had any permanent staff, and it has never been a membership organization. Instead, it has survived on scattershot grants from anonymous donors and a motley group of corporate funders, including Royal Dutch Shell, Land Rover, and R.J. Reynolds, whose Camel brand sponsors an auto rally through the region.

“I’m not a fund-raiser,” Garrett sighs. “Fund-raising is very expensive. Big organizations spend a lot of money taking trips with donors down to their sites. And it’s easier for a foundation to give to the Nature Conservancy. With us, they say, ‘Who are they?’”

Even so, Ruta Maya’s accomplishments have been tangible. It has mapped 100 previously unknown Mayan sites, making it more difficult for developers to unknowingly disturb them. Along with the Nature Conservancy, Coca-Cola, and the Belize government, Ruta Maya helped arrange for the purchase of land for the Rio Brava Biosphere Reserve, which is currently being run by a Belize-based nonprofit. Garrett was also involved in agreements that tightened rules and enforcement for the export of cultural artifacts. And where possible, Garrett’s group has overseen the manufacture of weatherproof casts of carved cultural relics; the casts are kept on site, while the originals are moved to museums for public display and safekeeping.

“We ran into a few problems because we were not trained in diplomacy,” he says. “In Guatemala, the ministry of culture decided that if we gringos were doing cultural preservation, then it must be to make money—so they canceled on us and tried to do it themselves. They failed, but we never got back in.” Garrett had better luck in Honduras, where officials were already interested in doing what he was suggesting. “Now there’s a beautiful museum in Honduras. I feel that we’ve made some useful changes through our efforts. Before, people didn’t care. Because of our name, I think we have made Maya culture more economically viable than it had been.”

Weinstein chalks up Garrett’s successes to his ability to float across borders without hailing from any one country—except, possibly, the country of National Geographic. “Throughout Central America there were a whole bunch of folks working in different countries,” Weinstein says. “When I was in Guatemala, I had no clue about what was doing in Mexico. But Bill was the thread that sewed us all together.”

American University professor Johanna Mendelson, a friend and colleague of Garrett’s from Central American projects, agrees that his accomplishments have been significant. “It’s to his credit that he found a window of time in history where his issues could be brought up,” she says. “He parlayed what is pretty much a neutral forum into a means of getting people to discuss how to preserve things.

“He knows all the elite in these societies and has been able to use them to advance the foundation’s goals. The tragic part is that he doesn’t get enough resources from places like [the U.S. Agency for International Development]. He would only need what amounts to chump change in the development community, but he almost never gets it.”

Satisfied with his rate of progress on cultural issues, Garrett has since decided to focus Ruta Maya’s efforts on medical and humanitarian issues. For the past year, the group has been using a simply illustrated book, Manos de Mujer (Woman’s Hands), to teach rural, usually illiterate women the basics of nutrition, health, pregnancy, hygiene, and home economics. (It’s in Spanish, since no written Mayan language has any currency today.)

The project was born when Garrett learned that a woman named Luz Marina Delgado was touring Maya country—a place where infant mortality sometimes reaches 50 percent—to give women firsthand lessons in these topics. Garrett asked her to put her advice into book form, then helped foot the bill for its publication.

Ameliorating poverty across five countries is a tall order, of course. So in the meantime, Mendelson offers another, more achievable goal that seems right up Garrett’s alley. “There’s a map in the airport in Guatemala City,” she says. “Because of historical tensions, the place where Belize is supposed to be is obscured by the picture of a quetzal, the Central American bird. Maybe Bill can be the one to remove the quetzal from that map.” CP