Harbury’s Fight for Human Rights

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To read Jennifer Harbury’s books is to chart her progress toward becoming one of this nation’s most esteemed agitators. Almost 30 years ago, this Harvard-educated attorney made her first trip from Texas to Guatemala as a human rights observer. The genocide she witnessed there revolutionized her: A CIA-sponsored military dictatorship attempted, through acts of staggering cruelty, to annihilate the country’s Mayan underclass and crush democratic opponents. (See “The Long Road Home.”)

Through an extraordinary series of events, Harbury became more than an observer; she became a historic participant in Guatemala’s democratic movement.

In Harbury’s first book, a 1994 anthology titled Bridge of Courage: Life Stories of the Guatemalan Compañeros and Compañeras, she records the experiences of the members of the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) she came to know and love in the ’80s. One person in particular claimed her affections: URNG Comandante Efraín “Everardo” Bamaca Velasquez, whom she married in September 1991 in West Texas, where she has worked periodically as a legal-aid attorney since graduating from law school. Soon after marrying, Everardo returned to war in Guatemala. On March 12, 1992, he was captured by the military. For the next six to eight months, the military tortured him for information that he didn’t provide, and then allegedly murdered him. It wasn’t until March 1995 that Harbury, with the crucial assistance of journalist Mike Wallace and New Jersey Congressman Robert Torricelli, received confirmation of her husband’s death.

This chapter of Harbury’s life—including her tragically foreshortened marriage and her unrelenting attempts to obtain the truth regarding Everardo’s murder, as well as justice for his killers—is recounted in her heartrending 1997 memoir, Searching for Everardo: A Story of Love, War, and the CIA in Guatemala. In many ways, the memoir represents the United States at its best and worst. Let’s start with the worst: Harbury establishes an undeniable pattern of direct CIA involvement in Central American torture. She relays a relentless series of near-identical stories told to her by survivors, in which “strange North Americans entered their torture cells … Sometimes he asked the questions himself, and sometimes he even supervised … Always he had authority over the torturers. Always he simply left the victim to his or her fate.” This “standard operating procedure for the CIA” was well funded, Harbury writes. One of Everardo’s torturers was paid $44,000 in June 1992, the month he was witnessed bending over Everardo’s “bound and swollen body.”

Harbury’s campaign to shed light on Everardo’s torture and death, on the other hand, paradoxically represents our nation at its finest. As Harbury describes in her memoir, as well as in her most recent book, 2005’s Truth, Torture, and the American Way: The History and Consequences of U.S. Involvement in Torture, she dogged the American and Guatemalan governments in the wake of Everardo’s disappearance with considerable results.

In a riveting passage of Searching for Everardo, Harbury writes of her 32-day hunger strike in late 1994 outside the “looming towers” of Guatemala’s National Palace. As a white American, she was able to stage protests in ways that Guatemalans could not in such a wantonly repressive political environment. Eventually, her actions helped end United States educational funding of the Guatemalan army—in addition to heaping considerable embarrassment on the leaders of both countries through media coverage of her efforts.

What’s most remarkable about Harbury is that she just won’t stop. In the years since her involvement in Guatemala, and her role in successfully pressuring the U.S. to ratify the United Nations Convention Against Torture, she’s only widened the scope of her activism. In Truth, Torture, and the American Way, she effectively argues that our government has exported torture techniques worldwide. And she continues to press suit in international courts against high-ranking Guatemalan military leaders for the torture and death of her husband.

“Nothing has changed in Guatemala,” she told me recently during a telephone interview from her West Texas law office. “It’s merely changed shape.”

Harbury remains likewise unchanged. “This experience has entirely stripped me of fear,” she said. “The most they can do is, what? Kill me?”

Robert Leleux is the author of The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy. His essays and articles have appeared in many publications, including The New York Times and The New York Times Magazine. Robert is currently at work on his second book, The Living End, to be published next year by St. Martin's Press, and an oral history of Texas legend Sissy Farenthold.