EXHUMING THE TRUTH IN GUATEMALA

Program 9749
December 9, 1997

Guests

Jennifer Harbury, American attorney

Sister Dianna Ortiz, Ursuline nun

Calixto Torres, Guatemalan community worker

Meredith Larson, human rights observer

Tom Lantos, US Congressman

Carlos Salinas, Amnesty International

This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.


MARY GRAY DAVIDSON: This is Common Ground.

CALIXTO TORRES: It’s very important to know what happened in the past, in the time of
the war in Guatemala; why people came one night and kidnapped two of my cousins. How can we
explain it to my family? We know exactly why they were killed.

MEREDITH LARSON: I also learned from the declassified Intelligence Oversight Board
report on Guatemala that the CIA had maintained a close relationship with this same unit, the
D-2, for some time, even though the D-2 was widely known in Guatemala for its brutality.

DAVIDSON: Truth, it is often said, is the first casualty of war. Now that Guatemala’s
civil war has ended, many people are trying to learn the truth about what really happened
during that 36-year-long conflict.

CARLOS SALINAS: Those who committed the atrocities walk freely. Most of them have never
had to even face a disciplinary hearing, much less feel threatened in any way by the courts.

DAVIDSON: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape
events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Mary Gray-Davidson.

TORRES: My name is Calixto Torres. I am of the Quiche people from Guatemala.

DAVIDSON: Calixto Torres is a survivor of Guatemala’s brutal war. He is a Mayan Indian,
the group most targeted during that campaign of terror. Torres was forced to flee Guatemala
and sought political asylum here in the United States, where he is now looking for answers to
his country’s history.

TORRES: I am here this day to ask for the truth. It’s very important to know what
happened in the past, in the time of the war in Guatemala, for those 35 years of civil war.
Because we don’t want the history to repeat, because we didn’t know the truth. We still have
people in my country, 60% of the population indigenous, working in the plantation of coffee,
in the plantation of bananas, working 12 hours per day and earning $2 each day. Because it’s
very important to explain what’s happened in the time of the war. How can we demand or ask the
people who are in Mexico, 25,000 refugees, how can we tell them, “The war is over. You are
welcome home. Now, we have democracy. Let’s build again our life.” We cannot do that if we
are not able to explain them what exactly happened. Why people came one night and kidnapped
two of my cousins. How can we explain it to my family? We know exactly why they were killed,
or disappeared. Because they were working with the poor, indigenous people in the community.
Teaching them how to write and read, and that’s why they were disappeared. But how can we deal
with this in this moment of the present? We must know the truth because if we don’t know the
right thing that happened in the past, we cannot build the future.

DAVIDSON: Calixto Torres is just one of thousands of Guatemalans who fled the country.
Some estimates put the number of refugees from the war close to a million. All the estimates
are rough says Carlos Salinas, Amnesty International’s Advocacy Director for Latin America. No
one really knows the extent of the toll taken on Guatemalan society.

SALINAS: The estimates range. Amnesty International, for instance, has used numbers
such as 140,000 dead and disappeared by human rights violations. Other groups and other
individuals charge numbers that are much larger. Amnesty’s numbers are definitely the low end
and a low estimate. And we believe it’s a low estimate. We know that over 400 villages were
razed during the height of the counter-insurgency during the late ’70s and early ’80s. We know
human rights violations continue. It’s a different magnitude. It’s now not as indiscriminate
as entire villages getting razed. But it’s the same type of individuals that are targeted:
peasant leaders, people involved in human rights investigations, people involved in legal
education of people, draft resisters, that type.

DAVIDSON: Is there still a danger for people who are investigating the level of the
atrocities? Human rights investigators for example?

SALINAS: Oh absolutely. Those who’ve committed the atrocities walk freely. Most of them
have never had to even face a disciplinary hearing, much less feel threatened in any way by
the courts, or by the judicial system. So that’s one thing one has to remember. The other
thing is that death threats do persist. Harassment does continue. And there are still
persisting human rights violations. So in that type of climate and also in a climate where
the army has not shown any remorse whatsoever, then clearly the problem does remain.

DAVIDSON: What do we know about U.S. involvement in Guatemala’s 36-year war?

SALINAS: Well, we know that the United States, specifically the Central Intelligence
Agency, was the main instigator of the coup that brought down a democratically elected government
of President Arbenz in 1954. We know that the United States government remained closely engaged
with Guatemala from that moment on. We know that the United States offered training and
support in the 1960s as insurgencies got along, got underway there, and certainly continued
that support, both overt and covert. And we know that even as late as the late ’80s and ’90s,
when the United States government, Congress, passed motions to censure the Guatemalan government
and President Bush actually stopped military aid from going to Guatemala, covert aid continued
nonetheless. So it’s been a very close relationship. It’s been one that has encompassed many
different facets of military and intelligence ties. And it’s one that continues.

SISTER DIANNA ORTIZ: I was subjected to heinous forms of torture, both physical and
psychological, as well as sexual.

DAVIDSON: Guatemalans were not the only victims of this savage war. Sister Dianna Ortiz
is an American nun who went to Guatemala in the late ’80s to teach poor Mayan children. In
this interview last year on CNN, she described the savagery of her ordeal, which began on
November 2, 1989, and has haunted her ever since.

ORTIZ: I was interrogated. My back and my chest were burnt with cigarettes more than
111 times. I was raped numerous times. I was lowered into an open pit that was saturated with
bodies. Some bodies were alive, were moving. And I was also forced to participate in the
torture of another person. [Sister Ortiz begins to cry]

DAVIDSON: To this day Sister Dianna does not know the identity of her torturers, or of
the mysterious man with the American accent who took her away from her torture cell, says
Amnesty International’s Carlos Salinas.

SALINAS: Some were police. We don’t know if all of them were police. We know that there
was someone that intervened on her behalf who she has stated emphatically was a U.S. citizen.
It was someone that spoke with a U.S. English accent. In other words it wasn’t someone from
another country. And she spoke with him in English at one point and she said he definitely has
a U.S. English accent. He was taking her to the U.S. Embassy, where he told her he had some
friends. And that’s when she sort of did not believe anything further after this horrible
ordeal, and left. What’s incredible about Sister Dianna’s case is that when all of this
Guatemalan stuff started hitting the press with the 60 Minutes stories and a disclosure
that the CIA was involved in killing of U.S. citizens in Guatemala there was with much fanfare
again the White House ordered the Intelligence Oversight Board to review all this information
and to do a thorough housecleaning. The Inspector General of the CIA did a 700 page report.
Incidentally only 7 pages, a 7 page summary was released to the public. The Intelligence
Oversight Board, when it released its report, did not comment extensively on Sister Dianna’s
case. And said, “Well, it’s a matter pending, it’s currently under investigation. So we have
to wait. We will have to withhold our judgment.” Well, this matter was being investigated by
the Department of Justice. And when it released its report—or when it, rather, the more
accurate way is to say when it completed its report early this year—it told Sister Dianna
and her lawyer that, unfortunately, the results of the investigations would have to be kept
secret.

DAVIDSON: Sister Dianna Ortiz believes the truth about her kidnapping and torture is
locked away in U.S. Government files and she’s arguing for those files to be opened up.

ORTIZ: A decade ago the great theologian Alan Nolan wrote in despair: “I am thinking
of the false hopes that so many people have entertained. The hope that real change might come
from the top. That members of the government might actually have a change of heart and develop
a conscience. Such hopes are illusions.” While Nolan was speaking of his own South Africa, I
can’t help but wonder if these words apply as well to the United States today. Are Nolan’s
words fact or fiction? I regret to tell you that my own experience with our government
confirms that it is fact. Yet even in the midst of this I continue to hope. I continue to
hope that somehow the leaders of our nation will have the courage to put aside their indifference
of human suffering. As many of you know, this suffering has been inflicted on millions of
innocent people and has been carried out in the name of national security, that immoral
guardian of secrecy. Will our leaders have the courage to put into practice what our country
was founded on? Justice, truth and the basic respect for human rights.

DAVIDSON: Several members of the U.S. Congress also want to know what happened in
Guatemala to Sister Dianna Ortiz and thousands of others. And they want to know what hand the
U.S. may have played in any of these human rights violations. They’ve introduced legislation
in the House and the Senate to open up government files that may answer those questions.
Congressman Tom Lantos, a Democrat of California, and Co-chair of the Congressional Human
Rights Caucus, is one of the original co-sponsors of the Human Rights Information Act,
introduced in the House and Senate earlier this Fall. The legislation names specifically
Guatemala and Honduras. Congressman Lantos, along with Sister Dianna Ortiz, Calixto Torres,
and other supporters rallied on Capitol Hill this past October for passage of the Human Rights
Information Act.

TOM LANTOS: The government of Guatemala and the rebels—the Guatemalan National
Revolutionary Unit—formally ended their hostilities at the end of 1996. But peace cannot
exist without truth, a principal which these parties recognized in agreeing to establish a
Truth Commission, The Commission for the Historical Clarification of human rights violations
and acts of violence which have caused suffering to the Guatemalan people. Given the monumental
task, the commission has only a very short period to accomplish this important work. It is to
exist for only six months, extendible for another half-year. The work of the commission
formally began on July 31, 1997. Swift and comprehensive declassification of all relevant U.S.
agency documents is therefore absolutely critical to the success for peace and democracy in
Guatemala. The legislation my colleagues and I are introducing today would, number 1, ensure
prompt and complete declassification of documents pertaining to human rights violations;
fully respect and protect national security concerns; require government agencies to review
human rights records within 120 days after inquiries by the Honduran human rights commissioner
or the Guatemalan clarification commission, to ensure the release 30 days thereafter. This
country, the one remaining superpower, and the leading democracy on the face of this planet,
must insist that human rights violations are revealed and the perpetrators of human rights
violations are punished to the fullest extent of the law. This is the least we owe to the men
and women who have given their lives, who have been tortured, abused, persecuted, purely
because they believed in human rights.

DAVIDSON: We’ll pause here for a short break. You’re listening to Common Ground,
a service of the Stanley Foundation. This is the final program in a series following the
conclusion of nearly four decades of civil war in Guatemala. The Stanley Foundation is a
non-profit, non-partisan organization that conducts a wide range of programs meant to provoke
thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs. Printed transcripts and audio cassettes are
available of this Common Ground program, and at the end of the broadcast, I’ll give
you details on how you can order.

One may wonder why opening up U.S. files could help restore peace and democracy in countries
like Guatemala and Honduras. Carlos Salinas, Amnesty International’s Advocacy Director for
Latin America, explains that our system requires government accountability, a concept unknown
in many other countries.

SALINAS: The reason that the focus in on the Human Rights Information Act on, the
focus is on U.S. agencies, is that the Guatemalan military and Honduran military, have proved
incapable of cooperating. They are unwilling to cooperate. In Honduras, when the National
Commissioner for Human Rights finally got a court injunction to see the files of a battalion
that had been implicated in serious violations, he showed up with court order in hand, was
allowed in, and found a room full of empty file cabinets. And was told, “Oh, we routinely burn
all files.” Now the U.S. government is a democracy; has agencies that are accountable,
supposedly. This is a way of testing that. Is that true? And so this, hopefully, will get
this information out so that people can find out what happened. Where is the body? Who gave
the order? Who else was killed? Who else was disappeared?

DAVIDSON: One of the better-known cases here in the United States involves an American
lawyer from Texas who went to Guatemala to document allegations of the torture and murder of
Mayan Indians. The Harvard-trained attorney, Jennifer Harbury, met and fell in love with a
Guatemalan guerrilla leader who went by the name Everardo, and she married him. Everardo,
whose real name is Efrain Bamaca Velazquez, had been with the guerrillas for 17 years when he
disappeared. For several years Jennifer Harbury pleaded with the Guatemalan and the American
governments to tell her whether her husband was alive or dead. She even went on a hunger
strike in front of the Guatemalan Presidential Palace to pressure them to tell her if her
husband was in prison or where his body was. She gave this interview to 60 Minutes in
the midst of her hunger strike.

JENNIFER HARBURY: I’m on a hunger strike here because my husband, who’s a Guatemalan
Mayan citizen, has been secretly held and tortured by the Army for almost 2½ years now. And
they refuse to even admit that they ever had him alive in the first place. Many, many
Guatemalan women who have looked for their husbands before have been brutally murdered. A
young woman whose husband was the head of the student council at the University was not only
murdered, but so was her 19-year-old brother who was accompanying her. So was her two-year-old
son. His fingernails were torn out. That’s what happens to Guatemalans who do what I’m doing.

DAVIDSON: To this day Harbury has not recovered her husband’s body, says Amnesty’s
Carlos Salinas.

SALINAS: She not only has not gotten her, his remains back, she was precluded, despite
a court order, a Guatemalan court order, to excavate certain grounds in a military base where
information had been given that his remains might be there. Despite that, despite showing up
with the government’s own prosecutor at the military base, they were precluded from excavating.
Now here’s a question. Given Jennifer Harbury’s case, with all the publicity, with all the
diplomatic pressure and the demarches that have been given, if with all of that, the body
can’t be turned over, what happens with the case of the average Guatemalan? The person that
does not capture headlines. The brother who went off into the night to a student rally and
just never returned. What happens with those cases? Clearly, nothing happens with those
cases. And that’s why this information needs to be turned over, so that those families can
find out what happened, why, who gave the order, why was so-and-so killed, where is the body?
Where is the body?

DAVIDSON: What is known about Jennifer Harbury’s husband and possible U.S. involvement
in his death?

SALINAS: Well, we know that people that were in the employ of the CIA, that were
receiving payments by the CIA for information, were involved in his interrogation. In the
Guatemalan case that means torture. We know that the United States government was aware of
his capture about a week after it happened. And we know that the U.S. government received a
lot of information that Mr. Bamaca was giving under torture. So, we know then that the United
States government had that information from day one pretty much, and did not do anything
about it. When Miss Harbury began her quest to have her husband either turned over or tried
or his body given to her, she was told repeatedly by U.S. government officials that they had
no information about this. Then the story changed. That we did have some information, he was
captured, but then we don’t really know what happened. And so what she’s had to deal with is
denial. You know, first ignoring, denial, and then cover up.

DAVIDSON: And Jennifer Harbury was among the many rallying this Fall for passage of
the Human Rights Information Act.

HARBURY: It’s very, very critical, for example, in Guatemala, to find out what became
of 200,000 people who were killed by the death squads. Where are they buried? Where are the
clandestine cemeteries? Are there survivors that need help? Are there survivors that need
therapy? Are there families that could be reunited? What became of the 440 villages that
were destroyed? Are there any people that could still come back and be reunited with others,
and come forwards? It’s very, very critical to establishing peace in that country that the
truth be known. And the only way for the truth to come forward, I think, is through bills of
this kind. It’s important for many reasons. It’s important because the Truth Commission needs
the information. It’s important because the courts in Guatemala and Honduras need the
information. The family members need to be able to go to the courts with key evidence to be
able to assure that the killings do not continue. If the killers know that they can continue
with full protection, with full impunity, with their names never being released, there’s no
reason not to continue with the murders, with the tortures, and with the kidnappings. And in
that case, there will never be peace in that country. We need to help bring that impunity to
an end.

Most importantly still though, are the humanitarian reasons, I feel. I don’t think any of us
need to be told what it would feel like to search forever for someone who has simply vanished
into thin air. To wonder every night, where is that person? Has the person been broken
psychologically? Are they wandering around somewhere? Are they really dead? What did they
suffer? Can we ever bury them? It’s really an unhealable wound until the truth is known. I
would cite only the example of Adrianna Bartow, a Guatemalan women who came home one day to
find her house filled with blood, her father missing, her husband missing, and her two small
daughters missing. To this day she doesn’t know if her daughters are dead or alive. It’s very
key for the healing process in all of these countries that the truth be known.

It’s key to the healing process in our own country as well, that the truth finally come out
and be fully known. We have to know what’s been going on in our names, with our tax dollars,
and without our permission, if, as U.S. citizens we’re going to be able to insist on the
reforms that we want for our own country. The idea of a secret government is anathema to all
concepts of our Constitution. We have to be able to get the files so that we can then go to
our representatives who stand with us now and ask for certain reforms to be pushed through so
that we know these things will not occur again in the future. I know that I’ve heard very
often that thousands and thousand of documents have been released, in fact with a question
mark, “Do you really need more?” And I can only say for myself and for many others who have
received some of those boxes of documents, many of them are simply press summaries. Many of
them are simply the letters you wrote to Congress or to the State Department asking for
assistance and the form letters that were sent back. Many are simply documents with one key
sentence and the rest completely blacked out. The vast part of the key truth, the really
important part of the truth, is not released. We’re still waiting for that. Should we just
assume that if something important was in there that the State Department or the CIA would
tell us about that? Well, in my own case, for example, I didn’t learn until 1995 what had
really become of my husband, three years after he had vanished. In fact, six days after his
capture the State Department and the White House had been informed that he was a secret
prisoner of war and that a hoax was being carried out. There are many reasons why we need to
see what’s in this, what is in all of these files. And I think the best answer is, “Because
we care about our neighbors.” Thank you very much.

MEREDITH LARSON: I came to be standing with you here today, seeking the truth about
what happened to me and about what happened to so many others, because of experiences I had
while working as human rights observer in Guatemala in 1989.

DAVIDSON: Meredith Larson is another American seeking answers to what happened in
Guatemala.

LARSON: In December of that year, two co-workers and I were assaulted by men lying in
wait for us. I was stabbed in the chest and upper body. Had I not blocked my chest with my
arm I might have been killed. Four months prior to this assault my organization was bombed.
A demolitions expert told us that the grenades were U.S. made. And last year I learned from
declassified and heavily redacted U.S. government documents, that the D-2, Guatemala’s elite
military intelligence unit, may have been responsible for the bombing of my organization and
that of the GUAM, a Guatemalan human rights group. I also learned from the declassified
Intelligence Oversight Board report on Guatemala that the CIA had maintained a close
relationship with this same unit, the D-2, for some time, even though the D-2 was widely
known in Guatemala for its brutality. Because I am a U.S. citizen I have been fortunate to
have obtained a few declassified documents. However, other documents I have sought under the
Freedom of Information Act have been denied to me. Many documents have been denied to other
survivors who are here today. And very little has been declassified on the cases of human
rights violations suffered by Guatemalan and Honduran citizens.

CONGRESSMAN JAMES MCGOVERN: I believe that it is past time for the United States to
open its files and to help put an end to the impunity with which human rights abuses have
been carried out in Central America.

DAVIDSON: Congressman James McGovern, Democrat of Massachusetts, added his voice to
the call for opening up the files.

MC GOVERN: Whatever your view of the turmoil in Central America during the last several
decades, you must agree that the United States played a central role. We armed and trained the
militaries that now must be tamed. We have a wealth of knowledge about these forces and about
the human rights violations that took place. We can scarcely plead ignorance after all these
years. Could it be that we are more reluctant to face the truth about our own history with
our neighbors to the South, with our neighbors to the South? Could it be that we are
embarrassed and ashamed of our past involvement in these countries? It is time to open the
files.

DAVIDSON: Congressman James McGovern at a rally supporting passage of the Human Rights
Information Act, introduced in the U.S. Congress this past Fall. For Common Ground I’m
Mary Gray-Davidson.

Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.

Copyright © Stanley Center for Peace and Security