Back to Guatemala


No sooner had the planes crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon than the pundits, politicos, and even an ex-President weighed in with a ready explanation for how such a meticulously planned, unimaginably destructive act could have been carried out under the nose of our security forces: The CIA had been de-fanged, its hands tied, by something that happened in Guatemala in the 1990s. That something was the torture and death of Efraín Bámaca Velásquez, a Guatemalan Mayan also known as Comandante Everardo and the husband of Texas lawyer Jennifer Harbury. Harbury’s long struggle to find out the truth about her husband’s disappearance caused one of those periodic bursts of soul searching in the federal bureaucracy. In 1995 the CIA implemented a policy requiring case officers to obtain approval to recruit human rights violators as agents, or in security parlance, “assets.” The CIA has repeatedly said that approval has never been denied. Nevertheless, everyone from George H.W. Bush to the BBC seized upon the policy (which has since been rescinded) in the immediate aftermath of September 11. “Human intelligence is kind of a dirty business,” said the elder Bush. “And in it, you have to deal with some unsavory people. But if we’re going to provide the president with the best possible intelligence, we have to free up the intelligence system from some of its constraints.”

James Woolsey, the former CIA chief, had a shorthand tag phrase to explain those constraints—”the Bámaca-Jennifer Harbury-Congressman Torricelli-Guatemala flap,” a reference to the then-New Jersey Congressman’s disclosure to Harbury that a Guatemalan CIA asset was linked to the death of her husband and an expatriate U.S. citizen. Last fall, Woolsey, who lost his job over the Aldrich Ames-former-Soviet Union-embarrassing espionage flap, told a forum sponsored by The New Republic that “Case officers are sent abroad to lie, cheat, and steal for their country, and they break the laws of every country they commit espionage in because there are anti-espionage laws in every country…. The thing that probably a number of case officers would say is that one thing that has hindered them in recent years is the guidelines that were handed down in 1995—I hasten to say after I stepped down—which my successor put out in response to the Bámaca-Jennifer Harbury-Congressman Torricelli-Guatemala flap, which essentially said we want it to be harder for you … to recruit spies if those spies might have some violence in their background or any propensity to violence. Well, you know… if you’re trying to recruit somebody in Al Qaeda, there ain’t anybody in there except terrorists.”

Well, you know, last fall that statement, along with that of the former President and dozens like it, could be characterized as an exercise in cynicism. Today, that is doubly so, given the revelations that are slowly emerging about the nature and scope of information that was available prior to September 11. Conveniently enough for Woolsey and Bush, we are a nation and a culture with a limited attention span; 1995 is a long way off, not to mention 1954, when a CIA-organized coup toppled a democratically elected government in Guatemala, and subsequently funded, trained, and collaborated with one of the most brutal military regimes anywhere on earth. In 1999 a U.N.-sponsored truth commission finally published its findings on the magnitude of the crimes committed in Guatemala during the 36-year-old civil war—200,000 killed or disappeared and one million displaced. The Commission concluded that genocide—a legal, not a rhetorical term—had been committed against the Mayan people: The vast majority of those crimes were committed by the Guatemalan army and other state forces. The Commission also attributed a hefty share of the blame to the United States.

President Clinton offered an apology to the Guatemalan people that combined quintessential Clintonesque heartfelt angst with platitudes about the nation of Guatemala now being a “market democracy.” It was both more than any President had ever done before, and pitifully little. The United States has never had to explain—let alone pay the consequences for—the kind of humint (human intelligence) that led to the torture of nuns and the construction of clandestine prisons, where Bámaca “and probably thousands of others like [him]” perished, according to intelligence files released after the “Guatemala flap.” We have never had to explain why the School of the Americas functioned for so many years as a kind of Al-Qaeda for the Latin American military, nor why it later became so easy to substitute “counter-narcotics” for “counter-subversive” so the CIA could continue working with the same cast of characters. The Intelligence Oversight Board Report produced in response to revelations about the CIA in Guatemala managed to state the obvious—that the CIA had a long-time relationship with Guatemalan security forces with reprehensible human rights records and had failed in its responsibility to report to Congress. It was also masterfully evasive, and took great pains to ensure that there were no footprints that led back to the CIA in any of the specific cases it investigated.

Meanwhile, as longtime readers of the Observer well know, Harbury has slowly been working her way through the Inter-American court system, where she eventually won a major case against the Guatemalan military. (Former TO editor Louis Dubose’s article “Disappeared in Guatemala” was published in April 9, 1993; the first article about Everardo and clandestine Guatemalan prisons in the U.S. press.)

In 1996, she filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against several top-level U.S. government officials. In December 2000, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia reversed a district court decision and held that high-level government officials had repeatedly lied to Harbury about what they knew about her husband’s fate, had indeed deprived the Weslaco lawyer of her right to go to court. The government officials petitioned for Supreme Court review, and Christopher v. Harbury was argued last March (See “Jennifer, Everardo, and the Courts,” page 4). Later this month the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to issue its decision. Given the composition of the Court and what is euphemistically referred to as “the current climate,” the best we can hope for is a decision that is written as narrowly as possible, so as not to demolish nearly a century’s worth of case law establishing a constitutional right of access to courts. The larger lesson of Christopher v. Harbury is the one raised by the hundreds of pages of the Truth Commission report, which begins with a quote from Guatemalan writer Augusto Monterroso:

As we consume life’s quota, how many truths elude us?