The Bámaca Case: An Uncommon Scandal
The CIA has a dirty, bloody history in Guatemala, as in all of Latin America. But never until now have there been such serious charges from so high a level against the CIA and the Guatemalan army.
Trish O' Kane
After three hunger strikes in two years, numerous trips through the corridors of power in Washington and Guatemala, the exhumation of three cadavers, many threats and a suit by the Guatemalan state, as well as a dirty campaign against her in the Guatemalan media, to say nothing of the physical and mental strain brought on by her Quixotic quest, US lawyer Jennifer Harbury finally learned what happened to her husband, guerrilla leader Efraín Bámaca. He was killed by a Guatemalan army colonel in the service of the CIA.
Col. Alpírez: the AccusedOn Wednesday, March 22, a wave of cries went up in Washington and was immediately echoed in Guatemala. US Congressman Robert Torricelli's public revelations linking Julio Roberto Alpírez, a Guatemalan colonel, to Bámaca's assassination triggered a political earthquake in both the empire and its periphery. Torricelli said the colonel was also involved in the kidnapping and assassination of Michael Devine, a US citizen, in the Petén in 1990. (In its day, that killing provoked a serious crisis between the Bush administration and the Guatemalan government. It was believed that Devine was a CIA or DEA agent who had discovered the Guatemalan military's involvement in drug trafficking.)
Alpírez's name had already appeared in connection with the Bámaca case in the testimony of Santiago Cabrera López, a member of Bámaca's guerrilla group who was also captured and tortured by the army. Cabrera managed to escape and testified before the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva.
Cabrera said he had seen Bámaca on July 18, 1992, four months after he was "disappeared" following a battle in March 1992. He was in the hands of the third commander of the San Marcos military zone, Colonel Alpírez. "'Everardo' was naked," Cabrera testified, using Bámaca's military pseudonym, "with his right leg and left arm in casts, and his voice sounded sleepy or drugged..."
Alpírez belongs to the army's hard line faction, according to Ronald Ochaeta, director of the Archbishop's Human Rights Office. He is currently second in command of one of the country's most important military bases in Guatemala City.
"And he will stay there until evidence is offered and there is a trial and a verdict," declared Defense Minister General Mario Enríquez, the day after the scandal erupted. "I never knew," he added with annoyance, "that he was a CIA agent. I would be upset to know that a Guatemalan officer can be on the CIA payroll, because this would damage the Guatemalan army's reputation."
Although Alpírez is a hardliner, the Bámaca case is a stone in the shoe of all army factions. The guerrilla leader's kidnap murder implicates officers who currently support President Ramiro De León Carpio, such as Colonel Otto Pérez Molina, now of the Presidential High Command. Pérez held a high level military intelligence post when Bámaca was captured.
If new revelations emerge, the case could become De León's Watergate, since he was the Human Rights Prosecutor when Bámaca disappeared. De León collaborated in the investigation of the case at that time, and despite Torricelli's information, still insists that the guerrilla died in combat.
Even Public TerrorismThe dimensions that this scandal will reach in the two countries is not yet clear. In the United States, there is now a broad debate about and serious questioning of the already controversial Central Intelligence Agency. According to some analysts, President Clinton could be justified in cutting the CIA budget.
In Guatemala, "Bámacagate" sparked a wave of violence and a destabilization campaign. On Sunday, March 26, four days after the news broke, a series of mysterious explosions at the installations of the army's engineer corps left 3 soldiers dead and over 20 injured. It is believed that the attack was provoked by officers reacting to the international pressure for internal army reforms.
The zone where the explosions took place is near the military base at which the scandal's protagonist, Colonel Alpírez, is second in command. It is also next to the international airport, which had to be evacuated and flights suspended for several hours. The shocks broke windows in hundreds of buildings within a two kilometer radius. The next dhay, army spokespeople announced that President De León had ordered the army to patrol the streets to prevent new acts of violence. There was a clear increase in security around the US Embassy.
"The efforts to purge the army are provoking a very strong reaction. Anything could happen now. We cannot dismiss the possibility of a coup d'etat or the assassination of a leader," considered an analyst and military expert.
The Army's Two LinesTorricelli's assault has intensified the divisions within the Guatemalan army. In recent months, various officers have been targeted in the national and international press for their links to drug trafficking, kidnapping rings, assassinations, car thefts and other crimes. The accusations have annoyed the officer corps, which fears the future Truth Commission, no matter how weak, to be installed within a year.
"The military never considered that some day they would have to explain what they did to a guerrilla," commented a diplomat. "No one has ever questioned them up to now, and they have been acting with total impunity for three decades."
The situation is complicated by the fierce power struggle between the two main factions: the "institutionalists" and the "hardliners." The institutionalists advocate a generational change within the army since the majority of them are colonels or of lower rank who want to move up in the hierarchy.
According to a military source, the Guatemalan army has an exaggerated number of colonels, who had work when the war was at its apex, but are now "unemployed." In order for some of them to be promoted, the older generation must be retired.
This process would replace one sector with another, rather than be an authentic cleansing, because nothing is "pure" about the institutionalists. Reality shows that the changes initiated with De León's arrival to the Presidency are already sparking strong reactions among those who could lose even more power with the Bámaca case.
"No one Knew"The violent incidents appear to have frightened President De León sufficiently that he made no comments about "Bámacagate" until a week later. On Wednesday, March 29, he met with the controversial Colonel Alpírez and later, in an indignant tone, declared to various journalists, "The response is clear: no. The government and the Guatemalan army could not have had knowledge of illegal activity and remain silent. No one knew. And it is untrue that there is an institutional link between the Guatemalan state and the CIA. I have met with Colonel Alpírez to talk about his right to sue Congressman Torricelli in Guatemala and the United States for damages to his family caused by false accusations and slander. It would be a suit in the millions."
De León added that the Guatemalan government had already investigated Devine's murder and was sure that Alpírez had not participated in that crime either.
The day after these comments, March 30, the President suddenly left the Presidential Summit in El Salvador and returned to Guatemala for a few hours, while rumors and speculations ran rampant. De León denied that a coup was underway and insisted that his sudden return was due to the need to sign a document to support the controversial fiscal reform.
On Sunday, April 2, two bombs exploded in the capital and, according to the local press, the police deactivated three others. One of the explosions occurred 200 meters from the Presidential building, while De León was inside dining with UN General Secretary Boutros Ghali, who was visiting for 24 hours to observe the UN mission work in the country.
The bomb killed one man, leaving his body scattered in pieces, and seriously injured a woman. De León called the action a "terrorist attack." The following day, army spokespeople announced that the man carrying the bomb, the same man who was killed, was Carlos René Ixcot Oroxón, an economics professor at the University of San Carlos and a member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR) of the URNG guerrilla group. "We found an ID on the body, as well as two notebooks and other papers that confirm Ixcot Oroxón's links to the URNG," stated army spokesperson Major Berta Edith Vargas.
Relatives of the victim denied that Ixcot was a guerrilla member and demanded an investigation, noting that it was inconceivable that his body could have been totally destroyed yet his ID, his university credentials and various checks would have remained intact. On April 4, FAR commander Pablo Monsanto rejected the army version and categorically denied that Ixcot was a guerrilla, though he did not dismiss the possibility that he could have been kidnapped, sedated and used to perpetrate the attack.
With His Hair on EndMajor Vargas also said that a letter was found with the body, which mentions workers from a nongovernment organization, a person named Frank and the Myrna Mack case. Many fear that the "appearance" of this letter seeks to send a sinister message linking human rights and NGO activists to the URNG,
The army spokesperson's declarations brought back memories of the army press conferences of two years ago, presenting supposed combatants who had deserted the guerrilla, yet who did not even know how to shoot a gun. It appears that this style of psychological war theater could become fashionable again.
In addition to the bombs, other bomb threats were announced by telephone during the 24 hours that the UN General Secretary was in Guatemala. His short tour required extreme security measures.
"If Mr. Ghali had stayed with us a week, there is no doubt that he would have left with his hair on end, because Sunday's bomb was only a small demonstration of what can happen here when the groups dedicated to destabilization get motivated," said an editorial in La Republica.
The Dirty CIA HistoryThe CIA has a history of bloody intervention in Guatemala, as in the rest of Latin America. But this Central American country is where the agency began its foreign dirty work, according to US historians. The CIA inaugurated its work on the continent in 1954 by bringing down the most democratic government Guatemala has had in its history. Many Guatemalans still refer to the Juan José Arévalo and Jacobo Arbenz governments (1944 1954) as "ten years of spring," because that was the decade they enjoyed public education, health care and labor rights for the first time.
The CIA's profile has not been as public in the years since it responded to pressures from the powerful United Fruit Company to bring down the Arbenz government. But throughout the years the agency has had on its payroll some of the Guatemalans most notorious for human rights violations, many of them members of the G 2 military intelligence structure.
According to a former G 2 agent, who worked in Guatemalan intelligence for seven years then deserted and left the country to save his own life, the US collaboration with G 2 has been constant and ongoing. "US advisers support the G 2 in interrogation methods, data processing and tracking people and vehicles," he stated.
More testimony is offered by Celerino Castillo, a former US Drug Enforcement Agency agent who worked in Guatemala from 1985 to 1991. He says that the CIA has always worked closely with Guatemalan intelligence, accompanying G 2 agents on kidnapping, torture and assassination operations. "Alpírez participated in various missions in which he murdered people," said Castillo when asked if he remembered the colonel. "Everybody knew he worked with the CIA."
Castillo is the author of the book Powder Burns, published in New York in 1994, relating his experiences as a DEA agent in Central America in the 1980s. Vietnam war veteran, CIA agent in Cambodia, and DEA agent since 1979, Castillo is now a severe critic of US foreign policy.
A Test for the ArmyIn 1990, when Michael Devine was decapitated, Alpírez was directing the Special Forces School in the Petén. In that school, better known as "hell" by Petén residents, the Guatemalan army's special forces called "kaibiles," famous for their cruelty, are trained.
At the end of the 1980s, Alpírez worked in a special unit of the Presidential High Command known as "the archives." According to human rights defenders, this unit was at the service of the death squads. Among the outstanding "archives" members was Noel de Jesús Beteta, sentenced to 30 years for killing anthropologist Myrna Mack, and Colonel Juan Valencia Osorio, also involved in the Mack case and accused of running an espionage office within the postal and telephone institute.
Colonel Alpírez's record is not exceptional among the members of Guatemalan intelligence. His case is just the tip of the iceberg; the Guatemalan army is plagued by officers trained and paid by the CIA to commit atrocities.
Ample evidence exists of the CIA's dirty work in Guatemala and the US agency's long time links to one of the most repressive armies on the continent. But the evidence had not been listened to at such a high level before Congressman Torricelli's serious revelations and accusations against the CIA and the Guatemalan army.
"The Alpírez case is a test for the Guatemalan army," says analyst Helen Mack. "We are at a key moment, and it is a chance to purify the army. We have to pressure Washington to make public all CIA documents referring to Guatemala."
The UN ReportOn March 13, the UN Verification Commission in Guatemala (MINUGUA) published its first report, severely criticizing human rights violations by the Guatemalan state. The report, which covers the period from November 1994 to February 1995, points to the security forces as responsible for most violations.
"The accusations fit into a pre existing pattern of these types of violations, with similar characteristics in terms of the background of the victims, the kinds of death and the participation of state agents as direct authors, or as those who instigate or consent to the actions or cover them up by not investigating the presumed violation or even by losing basic evidence," reads the report.
One of the most detailed cases the UN describes is the torture of a person within a military base on November 26, 1994, just a few days after MINUGUA installation. The Guatemalan was detained by a military patrol, accused of being a guerrilla, and taken to the base for interrogation. According to the document, "The victim informed MINUGUA that he had been tied up and interrogated with a plastic bag over his head that provoked asphyxia, a thorn in his tongue and blows to his feet. During the interrogation, while chained to a metal bed with his eyes covered, a gold crown was pulled out of his mouth. MINUGUA confirmed the scars of his physical mistreatment." The report continues, "The military leader of this zone was transferred to the command of another military zone."
MINUGUA also notes the existence of paramilitary groups organized to kill. President De León said that, although the first report of the mission was a little "harsh, it corresponds to reality."
Sharpening MachetesWhile all the talk in the capital and among political and military elites was of the Bámaca CIA scandal, a different crisis was developing in the rural areas, also of great dimensions. Since mid February, thousands of peasants belonging to grassroots organizations have occupied over 100 farms, demanding land and protesting the inhuman labor conditions they are forced to endure.
The communities decided to take the lands over because of the lack of government and landowner response. Some organizations, among them the National Indigenous and Peasant Coordinating Body (CONIC), have been fighting for over two years by legal means to force the Labor Ministry to act in cases where the employer does not pay the minimum daily wage of 14.50 quetzals ($2.60). At the end of last year, the peasants decided to act on their own, given the failure of the judicial system and the Labor Ministry.
"We cannot wait two or three years more, until the cases get to the courts," explained CONIC leader Pedro Esquina. "In the meantime, what will we eat, how will we educate our children? The employers' tactic is always to wait and delay, so the people tire of their struggle and the employers win. But we have decided to continue. We peasants will have to sharpen our machetes to defend ourselves. What other choice do we have? Either we die of hunger and spend our whole lives humiliated, with our heads bowed, or we put into practice what our Mayan ancestors said: that we should all rise up, no one should remain behind, so our people can have peace. Peace for our people will come only if we demand and fight for our rights."
According to Esquina, the law was not respected by the employer in 50% of the occupied farms and the employer did not respond to the workers' wage demands. The other half of the farms were occupied because of the need for land and in rejection of the corruption of national and municipal authorities.
The style of the takeovers varies according to each region and the particular history of land ownership in each community. Esquina distinguishes each case. In the western province of San Marcos, for example, the land of the "Unión Tacaná" community was invaded by a farmer years ago. "Now, the peasants in the area have decided to recover their lands."
In other cases, the government itself has provoked the people to take over land because of the corruption of National Agrarian Transformation Institute (INTA) officials. Esquina described how in San Marcos, after President De León gave provisional land titles to peasants, INTA never assigned the lands, and when the peasants began to insist, they discovered that INTA had sold the lands to a large farmer.
In the case of another takeover in the Costa Sur, one farm is located on municipal property, according to documents. Esquina says it is common practice for municipal trustees to sell community lands to private farmers.
And the Peace Process?The peasants' struggle and the wave of land takeovers illustrates that, although accords are signed between the URNG and the government outside of Guatemala, they mean very little within the country. On March 31, an accord on indigenous rights and identity was signed in Mexico, but, given the violent and critical situation within Guatemala with the Bámaca case and the farm takeovers, it was not even front page news.
Esquina and other grassroots leaders believe that the peace process has little impact on national life. "Office workers don't understand. What kind of peace are the peasants talking about? The URNG and the government have been talking for four years and nothing has been resolved. We cannot wait anymore. In addition, what is signed in the documents is not fulfilled. The human rights accord is an example. The peasants are now under more pressure than ever to form civilian patrols and be military agents. What human rights are we talking about? If the farmers don't pay the minimum wage of 14.50, how will political accords that talk about the land issue be fulfilled ? This peace is a pile of papers that is not fulfilled. The only way to force their fulfillment is through the peasant struggle."
According to Esquina, the land struggles have extended throughout almost the entire country: San Marcos, Quetzaltenango, Retalhuleu, Sololá, Chimaltenango, Quiché, Alta Verapaz and Baja Verapaz, Costa Sur and even Izabal.
The official response is an appeal to dialogue, but the non official response has been the same as always: threats to peasant leaders through anonymous letters from the death squads, like those of "The Jaguar of Justice."
Defense Minister General Mario Enríquez's position was notable when he declared to Guatemalan journalists, "The owners must respect the minimum wage law. They have no right to demand fulfillment of the law if they won't respect it themselves."
Humberto Pretti, president of the Agricultural Chamber, replied, "This is a call to anarchy, because he implies that, when certain legal requisites are not respected, this gives people a right to take forceful action. As if a person who buys a loaf of bread, and finding it is missing a slice, returns to the store and has the right to break down the door to get a full loaf."
Human rights analysts and experts fear that the situation created by the farm takeovers, added to the crisis within the army due to the CIA scandal, could trigger a coup, or at least a wave of violence. The danger is in an eventual alliance between a business sector angry about the land takeovers and hard line army officers whose "tail has been stepped on" with "Bámacagate." As history demonstrates, an alliance of this type has always been the beginning of some sort of disaster for Guatemala.