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Interview with Jennifer K. Harbury
  Jennifer Harbury during a hunger strike in Guatemala City, 1993. GNIB archives.

Jennifer K. Harbury is a Harvard-educated lawyer and human rights activist who first went to Guatemala in 1990 to help protect the rights of refugees fleeing the country's civil war. She gained international prominence in the mid-nineties when she initiated a series of highly-publicized campaigns to demand that the Guatemalan and U.S. governments clarify the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of her husband Efraín Bamaca (known as "Everardo"). In 1992, Harbury's husband, a leader of the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) guerrilla movement, was captured by the local army. In her desperate search for him, Harbury faced the systematic lies of both the Guatamalan and U.S. governments, both of who denied knowing anything about Everardo's wheareabouts. After a three hunger strikes, two in Guatemala and the last one in front of the White House, Harbury succeeded in gaining enough media attention (including 60 Minutes) and public support to pressure the CIA to declassify documents that showed the U.S. government was fully aware of Everardo's capture, torture and killing. Indeed, Congressman Torricelli told her that the Guatemalan colonel who ordered Everardo's execution was on the CIA's payroll.

Harbury presently works for Global Exchange, and in this interview, conducted on January 29, 1999, she tells ISLA about her continuing struggle for human rights in Latin America.


ISLA: Something that is striking about your story, Jennifer, is how it links the personal with the political. It's also personal and collective, because your personal story is linked with the collective plight of thousands of families of the disappeared in Latin America.

JH: Hundreds of thousands. It's not an unusual or special story. Most people have much more to tell. I have a Guatemalan friend who, by the time she was 16 years old, she had served a couple of years in prison under suspicion of being subversive. Seventeen people in her family are missing. And I have two other friends who were eleven when their entire village was massacred. So my story is not unusual. What's very unusual about it is that we were able to get the real names of every army and government official involved, prove their responsibility, and clearly establish their links directly to the CIA. Both the CIA and the U.S. government were involved directly in the aiding, abetting, torturing, secret detention/kidnapping and murder of Guatemalans. It's highly unusual that you can prove something like that. Everybody knows it, there's evidence all over the place, but to be able to get it that concrete, with the real names and all, that's unusual!

ISLA: You have been building bridges between Guatemalan and American civil societies. Your work reminds us that it's not simply a case of the U.S. vs. Guatemala or the U.S. vs. Latin America

JH: It's people versus the military, people vs. the oligarchy, people vs. the corporations

ISLA: So to what extent has this movement been effective in really creating changes in government policies, both in Guatemala and in the U.S.?

JH: Well in Guatemala, it's been very interesting. Until my husband's case came around, the Guatemalan army had never returned a prisoner of war alive in the past 35 years. There were no prisoner of war camps there. And also, there were no political prisoners in the prisons at that time (1992). People used to ask Amnesty International: "why don't you do a letter-writing campaign for political prisoners in Guatemala?" and the answer was because no one ever survives long enough to be put in prison. They just disappear; in other words, they're dead.

After Santiago escaped and he was able to tell me about Everardo's situation, and we were able to compile so much proof, the army began presenting a few prisoners of war alive. Also, they started to become quite defensive. Instead of saying "of course we killed them, they're subversives," now they're at least aware that it's not something they should be bragging about. They've also been brought before the Inter-American Court of the OAS (in Costa Rica) for a full international trial in this case.

ISLA: Who has been brought to court?

JH: The Guatemalan government is on trial in the torture, secret detention and murder of my husband. It also includes obstruction of justice and attempts on my own life. The case first went to the OAS Commission in Washington DC, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. In very rare instances do they send these cases up to the court, but they did send this one. So in fact in June we had a full trial, and in November almost ten military officials who were also in charge of the death squads were tried. We had subpoenaed them by name in June, and they didn't show up, but they did show up in November on order of the court.

ISLA: Could you mention some names?

JH: Yes, high level officials such as the former attorney general Asisclo Valladares; Julio Alberto Soto Bilbao of the Guatemalan Military Intelligence Division, and Major Mario Ernesto Sosa Orellana.

ISLA: And this trial began just last year?

JH: Yes, it was very historical, to actually subpoena death-squad leaders to come in and defend themselves on the murder of an indigenous guerrilla commander. They were horrified! The fact that they are on trial at all, number one, for what they consider an "indio," you know, "who cares," and number two, for a "subversive," someone of whom I've openly said, "yes, he was a guerrilla commander, he carried a gun, he wore olive green, he was in combat for 17 years."

It was very interesting because the courthouse was packed with human rights leaders from Colombia, Chile, Argentina, Honduras, and from El Salvador. They all wanted to hear that case, because previously, when the military juntas disappeared or kidnapped or killed people, they would say: "oh, it's justified because they were subversives." What this case shows is: being subversive or not is not the question. International law says you cannot kidnap, you cannot secretly detain, you cannot torture, and you cannot execute without a trial. If you do those things, you're not a great patriotic hero rescuing the honor of your country. You're a common criminal, and you go to prison. Look how Pinochet is now in trouble! But no one had ever made them come face to face with their crimes before, and it was so shocking to them that I'd stand there and say "yes, he was a guerrilla commander, so what?" you know? Back in 1992 that would have been unthinkable. You just didn't say those words. And even now, had I been Guatemalan I would have been shot at in 15 minutes. But since they wanted money from Washington, they gave me a lot of protection. They didn't want to shoot themselves in the pocketbook.

ISLA: Is the trial still going on? Has anyone been sentenced?

JH: Yes, the trial continues. So far, no verdicts have been issued, but I expect things to move on faster this year.

ISLA: And how do you assess the impact of your work in U.S.? Specifically Washington D.C.?

JH: In the United States, there's an interesting corollary to all of that. In the era of Oliver North, officials in the U.S. almost bragged about how they could do anything they wanted in Central America and it was justified. The same way the army would say, "it's all justified, they're subversives, they're communists."That's what Washington was saying, you know? "Maybe we did a few illegal things, who cares? it's all for the sake of defending the Great American Way." But that amounted to killing hundreds of thousands of people in Latin America, God knows how many more all over the world.

So first, when all the evidence became clear in my case, and with the (partially declassified CIA) files it became clearer and clearer. For example, when I went to the U.S. embassy in 1993 asking for help, they denied knowing anything: But the files show how in fact they already had information that Everardo had been captured alive, and that he and 350 other prisoners were still alive. But for the next two years they sent bulletins to everyone in Congress saying, "we have no information about him or anybody else." And in that two-year period, they were all killed. The files show how the CIA and the State Department knew all about these people; who was holding them. They knew that the people holding and torturing them were on CIA payroll. In other words, they aided and abetted murder. It's very, very clearly a criminal offense. And now, instead of bragging "of course we can do that," there was a very defensive position taken. They would deny what I said had happened, or would claim it was a misunderstanding: "no, no, we would never do that intentionally, it can't really be that way, maybe the Constitution doesn't apply outside the US,"that kind of stuff.

After my campaign caught public attention, the first step the government took was to cut some of the CIA liaison money.

ISLA: What's liaison money?

JH: It's secret funding from the CIA to pay certain military officials abroad for information and collaboration. Then, the CIA passed a ruling that you have to screen "assets," that is, informants, and you can't hire them if they have bad human rights records. I know, realistically, that they're still doing it. But they cut liaison money and they passed a new regulation. The money was cut after my case became public, and I assume it has been reinitiated, but at least there was a public statement on cutting it. And the CIA, after all the international pressure, actually passed a regulation regarding their informants. They also fired two people, and the third one was heavily disciplined. These were officials who had been in charge of the local Guatemala branch office. They also, within a year, "scrubbed," or got rid of one thousand "assets" that they said were no longer useful. No admissions were made, but some half-hearted steps were taken.

Also, Clinton ordered The Intelligence Oversight Board to do an investigation. After a year they issued a report, and it was very interesting, because they tried very hard to explain that the CIA was doing all these bad things in such a way that wouldn't make the U.S. government liable to lawsuits. So they kind of cut the baby in half, if you will. In no particular case, mine or anybody else's did they come to any clear findings. The gist of the report was: "maybe it was a misunderstanding," which made all of us really angry. But they also said that the reports from U.S. government officials in Guatemala to Congress about the human rights situation was routinely off and misleading. Of course, it's something we've known for years. If you read the embassy's human rights report for 1982, and compare it to Amnesty International's or American Watch it's like different planets. And it's just infuriating and disgusting to see them openly lie to Congress about the situation. They also noted that they worked very closely with "assets" that were human rights violators. The third thing that was interesting is that Clinton's Board criticized them severely for lying to family members in several cases. So that was a beginning. I also have a civil rights case against close to 30 U.S. officials pending in federal district court.

ISLA: Do you have cases against ex-CIA directors?

JH: Yes, (laughing) CIA, State Department and National Security Council!

ISLA: Given the recent developments in international human rights, with figures like Pinochet forced to account for their crimes, do you see hope that U.S. officials will be held accountable for their crimes?

JH: It'll be very interesting to see what happens. Several cases like this have been tried before, like the case of Charles Horman (an American citizen killed during the Chilean coup), and Benjamin Linder (American killed by the contras in Nicaragua). Those cases have always been bounced out of court because normally you cannot prosecute government officials. The philosophy behind that is that government officials are doing the best they can, and if they make a mistake, you don't want to take them into court all the time, or they'll be scared to do their job. But when they intentionally violate the Constitution, then you can sue them. And for certain other very limited categories, so it'll be interesting to see what happens. Whether we can get money for the damages they have done, well, that's still another level of proof we would have to gather to show they knew very clearly it was a constitutional violation. I think we can, but we'll be in court for 20 years.

ISLA: The Guatemalan civil society and U.S. civil society have very different resistance traditions. While Americans are critical and reformist, Guatemalans tend to be militant and revolutionary. How have you negotiated these strategies? What have you taught Guatemalans about American strategizing and viceversa?

JH: My strategies in Guatemala were based on the fact that my options were extremely limited. I mean, had I been a Guatemalan woman who went to the army to ask them to return my husband, I would have been hanged by the fingernails, and tortured to say who else I knew of the guerrillas. That's exactly what happened to Rosario Godoy de Cuevas in 1985, who was simply a member of the GAM (Mutual Support Group, a coalition of families of the disappeared), but was raped, tortured and killed along with her two year-old son, whose fingernails had been pulled out. The fact they wanted their money from Washington was what kept me alive. No one remembers Rosario except for people like me, or Nineth (Montenegro, founder of the GAM), right? So I had more options than a lot of people given those realities, but not very many. As I described in my book, I would go to the White House in the U.S. or the Casa Crema in Guatemala (official residence of Guatemala's Minister of Defense); I'd also go to the Intelligence Tower of the National Palace. They didn't kill me, but they laughed in my face. All doors are closed in Guatemala, especially the courts', because if anyone does anything, they get killed. In my case, two years ago my prosecuting attorney and his son were put under 24 hour a day death-threats. The attorney was shot at one day, so he left office. The woman who replaced him was too scared to do anything, but she was shot and killed anyway last spring. She was shot 13 times and her assistant was critically wounded. No one can figure out why, she didn't do anything.

ISLA: It's the strategy of State terrorism.

JH: Yeah. Putting pieces together, that was the time when a lot of Guatemalan witnesses were going to Costa Rica to testify in my trial. They were very high profile, so they couldn't kill them but they killed her, as a warning to them. It was horrible.

So it's not like you can just go to the court in Guatemala. If the judge rules in your favor, he will be killed, or be out of the country in 24 hours. The head of the Guatemalan Supreme Court was assassinated in '92 or '93 in broad daylight. And human rights leaders die by the dozen.

ISLA: That's why people who want to make changes have to resort to militancy and go underground.

JH: That's right. There's no room, or there was no room, for civilian efforts. We're hoping now that with the Peace Accords there'll be a little bit of room. But people are being killed all the time. Two Mayan rights leaders were killed just last month. Also, a week after the signing of the Peace Accords two Mayan right leaders were machine gunned in their cars. Last year Bishop Gerardi was murdered 48 hours after he issued his human rights report that assigns 90% of the responsibility for human rights violations to the military and paramilitary. So even though things are horrible in Guatemala, I did realize I had a little bit of pull I could use, because I could go to congress in Washington and get some impact on their money. And I could go to the international press and get a little bit of attention because I was North American. And since I'm an attorney, I could go to the OAS and at least present the case that was very startling. I had a lot of contacts, and could get some funding. Also, I didn't have children, and wasn't living in Guatemala so I didn't have to worry about them killing my parents. So I could take risks that other people couldn't. I was able to get a lot of pressure put on their money, which helped a little, and since I didn't have children, I was willing to go on hunger strikes in front of their military installations and die there, if necessary. The reason 60 Minutes paid attention was because I was within seven days of convulsions and kidney failure.

ISLA: How much have you strategized with grassroots organizations both in Guatemala and in the U.S.?

JH: I've strategized a lot with the Guatemalan groups. But there was not much they could do for me. If they had publicly done a lot with me, you know, they would have been killed. The GAM and several Mayan groups did activities like demonstrations and bonfire burning as gestures of solidarity, to protect me a little bit. And also, I was addressing their same issues; like you said, it is a collective problem. So the irony is the more I pushed for the rights of all Guatemalans, the more I had to stay away form them. I would have to stay in hotels, because staying at their homes would put them in danger. My lawyers had terrible problems. One of their offices was bombed, and my American lawyer's car was firebombed in Washington. The FBI showed up on my doorstep in Texas and said, "stay off the streets, they've just hired a hit man in Guatemala." So it's been non-stop.

Here in the US, it was quite amazing how the Internet became a big international tool. I had a huge network of just friends that were in solidarity work with Guatemala from way back. I would send faxes to them, and they would publish my weekly letters in the Internet. So by day 30 of the hunger strike, people were just hammering the White House and the State Department with calls. It was like flash fire. Internet is an amazing tool which I didn't know about, but my friends did.

My hunger strike was inspired by Bobby Sands, the Irish activist who died in a British prison during a hunger strike. I did it because the war was coming to an end in Guatemala, and I realized that when the war ended they would kill my husband. I was at the end of the road. I could either hand him over and give up, or I could say "I can be a mirror of what you're doing; you're not going to get away with it without people noticing. If you kill him, I'm going to die on your doorstep with convulsions in front of every camera in the world, you're going to be seen." And that's what hurt them, interestingly. I mean, I was just sitting there not eating food and they were in complete hysterics from the first day in the National Palace. I could see people running back and forth in the gun turrets, taking messages back and forth, I could listen to them in the radio, they could hardly talk. And I didn't have a gun, not even a phone, I was just sitting there looking at them.

That worked for me because I was an American, white, and a Harvard graduate with Internet. Forget it if I had been Guatemalan. In fact, during my first hunger strike in Guatemala, a group of women approached me. Little old women with their white cotton dresses. They told me: "our husbands were taken after the '54 coup, and we tried to do a hunger strike, but they locked us up in a mental hospital and drugged us for two years. So please be very careful!" We are looking at world racism, still.

ISLA: How do you keep you strength, and avoid letting anger and frustration from overwhelming you?

JH: Well, I get my strength from the Guatemalans. I mean, if Nineth could go back to the National Palace after seeing her best friend in a morgue slab next to her baby with no fingernails, I thought: "as a comfortable American with lots of extra protection, I could probably keep on struggling as well."

ISLA: This year will be very interesting in Guatemala, with the national elections, and the URNG participating for the first time in a political campaign. Will the URNG as a party be able to create changes, or is it a domesticated guerrilla?

JH: No, I think in the long term they'll do very very well. I've said this before, and will repeat it on tape: we'll never be able to say who was guerilla and who wasn't in Guatemala. I know, but it's not something that can be said because people are still being killed and discredited and pressured. But before the war ended, people who were attempting civilian reforms were killed. For example, they burned the Spanish embassy over the heads of the Maya civil rights groups meeting with the ambassador (in 1980). Can you imagine? All of them burned to death along with the entire staff of the Spanish embassy. The only survivor was the ambassador, who was badly injured. Talk about not respecting diplomatic immunity!

So what happened is that there was the Guatemalan army and the oligarchy, and then everybody else who was at all progressive united. So the URNG is really a combination of a civil rights movement and a Mayan uprising. Mayans have been in fact uprising against their conquistadores every generation for the last 500 years. And there has never been a generation that wasn't crushed. They don't have the resources, money, guns, or shoes. People like that are not allowed to buy guns in Guatemala, only those to whom the army issues permits to. So the URNG is really a much broader spectrum than what anyone can publicly say, but it's there. When I went up into the mountains we would go through civil patrol checks, and all the villagers were sympathizers. But they had to be in the civil patrols because if they didn't, they'd get shot. We walked right through villages, and they gave us food. No one was afraid, or running, or reported us to the army, God forbid.

ISLA: So the URNG's strength is in the bases, the grassroots level.

JH: And it's huge, but no one is ever going to talk about it. The official story is that of the humble peasant in the cornfields trapped between these two powers (the army and the URNG). Anyway, I think this year the URNG will not be able to do much. They're brand new as a party, they don't have money, they've just come out of a war and are barely reorganizing. But it's important that they participate. That's how you learn, that's how you slowly organize among the bases again. It's going to be a few years before they can really start to throw their weight around and to make the changes they look for, but I think they'll do great.

ISLA: Still, one hears that the Guatemalan population in general is very skeptical about change. They're so hurt from the war, they seem to have lost hope. And the Government is not helping by dragging its feet on the Consulta (referendum on constitutional reforms).

JH: It's true, but remember this has been a three-generation war. You know, they've killed off two out of three generations. People are totally burned out, extremely traumatized. People have grown accustomed to seeing dead bodies all over the place. As my colleagues can tell you, that can leave very bad scars. It's kind of like the generation right after the Holocaust. There's going to be hell to pay for this. Who's going to pay? Society, and they are paying for it already. They have severe emotional problems, they're angry. A complete generation is going to pay for this. But that doesn't mean there's no hope, there's just more work to do.

ISLA: Could you talk a little about your human rights organizing elsewhere in the world, places like Colombia and Israel, and the work you're doing right now at Global Exchange?

JH: Yes; we're just getting started. We want to start a more formal human rights project at Global Exchange. And our priorities are going to be countries where the United States has a great level of responsibility, especially if it's repression against indigenous peoples. If it is repression that we have caused, and that we're still participating in, we're interested in focusing on those countries. I'm at an exploratory phase right now. I'm going to all of those countries to see what's going on, and if there's anything we can do to be supportive, helpful. However, I'm very against just putting American projects in other countries. It's rather: "let's see what they'd like us to do." I'm into empowerment projects. For example, when Bishop Gerardi was murdered, the Guatemalan human rights activists were putting up a great struggle down there to be able to fight for the correct prosecution. For example, they needed a very rare category of forensic doctors specializing in dog bite injuries. So we found two dog bite specialists and a veterinarian. We raised the money and sent them down.

ISLA: It turned out there were no dog bites, as they claimed.

JH: And no dog footprints, nothing! It was just fabricated. Then, the story about how they had framed this innocent priest instead of going after the military culprits, was completely censored in Guatemala. So the activists came up to Washington, and we arranged a big press conference there. But what they're saying now in Guatemala is that they'll let that priest go free, but they'll put two other priests and the Bishop's niece in the jail, because they're supposedly part of a gang. It's just insane.

As soon as the impeachment hearings are over in Washington, we need to organize to have them come up to give a really in-depth presentation to Congress, which I think will be very important. Right now, the press is obsessed with Clinton's affair, which has kept us form bringing this issue to public attention.

ISLA: Thank you very much, Jennifer, and good luck with your campaigns.


Interview by Antonio Prieto

For a full account of Jennifer Harbury's struggle, read her book Searching for Everardo. A Story of Love, War, and the CIA in Guatemala, published by Warner Books, Inc., NY, 1997.


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