To: Subcommittee on Government Management, Information and Technology of the Committee on Government Reform and Oversight
Re: May 11, 1998 Hearing on the "Human Rights Information Act"
My name is Jennifer Harbury, I am a United States citizen, 46 years of age, and a licensed attorney at law. I have been deeply involved in human rights efforts with the people of Guatemala since 1984. I very much appreciate the invitation of the Subcommittee to share my experiences with regards to the release of information by certain U.S. agencies, and hope that the following information will prove to be of assistance.
For purposes of clarity I have divided the information into two parts. The first gives the history of my case, beginning with my husband's disappearance in Guatemala in 1992, and including official statements made to me and to the U.S. Congress during my three year effort to save his life. The second part summarizes the key agency documents I later obtained through litigation, and which clearly indicate who knew what in the U.S. government, and when they knew it. The picture formed is highly disturbing.
As discussed below, the documents indicate that many high level officials in U.S. agencies were fully aware that my husband and many other prisoners were being secretly detained, tortured, and executed without trial by the Guatemalan army. Despite the clear reports in their possession, they repeatedly sent letters to enquiring Congressional offices that there was no evidence that such prisoners existed and that they had no information as to the whereabouts of my husband. By the time the truth was told years later, my husband and I fear, many others, were dead and I was close to death after three highly dangerous and prolonged hunger strikes. Had the truth been told from the beginning, lives could have been saved.
My husband's death, from what I know now, was not an easy one. He was held in clandestine detention for more than a year, tortured repeatedly, drugged repeatedly by army physicians, and kept in a full body cast to prevent his escape. There are three versions of his murder. He was either beaten to death and buried under a remote military base, where local villager report that some 500-2000 other victims are buried as well; or he was thrown from a helicopter into the sea; or he was dismembered and scattered across a sugar cane field so that I would never be able to identify him. I must live now, with this difficult reality, as well as the reality that it did not have to happen.
I. Background Information :
My husband, Efrain Bamaca Velasquez, was a Mayan leader of the resistance forces, or U.R.N.G., in Guatemala during that nation's tragic thirty five year civi1 war. He was also known as Commander Everardo. We met in 1990 when I travelled to the front lines to work on my first book about the war. We met again in 1991 while he was in Mexico City, assisting in the preparations for the peace negotiations on the issue of Mayan rights, and we married later the same year. He returned to the mountains in early 1992.
On March 12, 1992 Everardo vanished during a brief skirmish with the Guatemalan military forces. The Guatemalan army reported that he had been wounded during the combat, and had committed suicide in order to avoid being captured. They also stated that army officers had recovered his body, and buried him in the nearby town of Retalhuleu. For many months I believed that my husband was dead. However, in early 1993 I learned from an escaped prisoner of war that a hoax was being carried out. Everardo had in fact been captured alive and was being subjected to severe torture in a nearby military base. Because of his high rank and his unusual level of information, army officials were seeking to break him psychologically through long term torture, The goal was not to kill him but to force him to work as a secret informant for the army intelligence division. In order to avoid international human rights protests, military officials had falsely reported his death in combat, The witness also reported some thirty other secretly detained prisoners of war.
Upon receiving this information, I began my long effort to save Everardo's life, guarantee his rights under the Geneva Conventions, and obtain a fair trial for him. I asked for the same rights and treatment for all other clandestine prisoners as well. I began my efforts in early 1993, seeking the help of the OAS, the United Nations, the international human rights community and the U.S. Congress. All of these organizations immediately took steps to assist us. I first approached the U.S. Department of State in March of 1993, giving them all of the information I had. They told me they would look into the matter at once and assist me in all ways possible.
During the summer of 1993 I travelled to Guatemala and opened the grave where the army claimed to have buried my husband. The body was of a person far smaller than my husband, some 15 years too young according to forensic tests, and with completely different dental patterns. I reported all of this to the Department of State officials and was again told that they would look into the matter at once and give me all possible assistance. I was also told that they had asked military leaders about the case, and that they army denied having ever taken Everardo prisoner, and that the U.S. did not know what had happened to him. From then through late 1994, the Department of State sent a form letter to all inquiring Congressional offices, stating that they had no independent evidence that any secret prisoners existed, and that they had no information about the whereabouts of my husband.
I then began a series of highly dangerous hunger strikes in an effort to save my husband's life. The first was for one week in September of 1993 in front of military headquarters in downtown Guatemala City. In October 1994, after I had exhausted all other avenues of assistance, I went on a hunger strike to the death in front of the National Palace. The Embassy expressed great concern and sent someone to speak with me on a daily basis, but continued to insist that no information existed. After some thirty days I was developing a heart murmur, was constantly cold and dizzy and could no longer open my left eye. My glucose level was dangerously low, and I was receiving constant threats and abuse from the authorities. At that point a "60 Minutes'' broadcast aired, during which Mike Wallace reported that the U.S. Embassy in fact possessed a CIA report which clearly stated that Everardo had been captured alive by the Guatemalan army. Two days later, the U.S. Ambassador called me to her office and, with some embarrassment, informed me that according to U.S. intelligence sources it had been concluded that Everardo had been captured alive by the Guatemalan army, that he had been lightly but not seriously wounded, and had been a prisoner of war fox a period of time. No information existed to suggest that he was still alive. When I asked if evidence suggested that he was dead, I was told there was no more information. The Ambassador offered no explanation as to why such critical information had not been released long before.
During the ensuing political uproar I received an invitation to speak with high level officials at the National Security Council, and decided that I could best assist my husband by ending my hunger strike and returning to Washington. Nearly three years had passed and I was close to despair. I was very much aware that the delays in releasing the information might well have contributed to his death. When I met with the members of the National Security Council I made it very clear that time was of the essence with regards to saving his life, if he was in fact still alive, and that I needed all information about his situation at once. I was given many reassurances but no information, I met again and again with State Department officials and was given the same oddly worded message that there was no evidence that my husband was still alive. When I asked if there was evidence of his death 1 was told no, that nobody knew what had become of him, and that the U.S. government would assume he was still alive for purposes of the ongoing investigation. U.S. Rep. Richardson and former Ambassador Robert White travelled to Guatemala on my behalf and were given the same information. The U.N. monitoring team, or MINUGUA, was convinced to take the case on the grounds that Everardo might still be alive.
By then I had completely lost confidence in the different U.S. agencies, and in January 1996 I filed Freedom of Information requests with all relevant agencies. Although expedited processing was granted in light of the exigent circumstances, I received no documents and no further information of any kind. I therefore resumed my hunger strike to the death on March 12, 1995, the third anniversary of his capture, but this time in front of the White House. I had not yet recovered from the earlier, 32 day strike and became very weak quite quickly. On the twelfth day, U.S. Rep. Toricelli informed me that Everardo had been dead for some time. His extrajudicial execution had been ordered by Col. Julio Roberto Alpirez, a former CIA "asset".
During the uproar that followed, the official explanation offered to myself and to the public was that certain rogue operators in the CIA had kept the State Department in the dark about the situation, and that corrective steps were being taken.
However, I have slowly gained access to a number of documents through my federal lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act, I believe these documents make it very clear that my husband's situation, as well as that of many other prisoners, was promptly and routinely circulated to many U.S. agencies, including the White House National Security Council and the State Department. For reasons known only to them, rather than promptly releasing the information once I sought assistance, they sent clearly disinformative communications to me, to the human rights community and to the U.S. Congress. As one internal legal bulletin makes clear, the State Department was not obligated to so disinform. As a member of the executive branch, officials could have made the decision to declassify the information and released it to me and to others at once. The failure to do so had life and death consequences.
II. Summary of U.S. Agency Documents:
NOTE: Copies of all documents referred to in this memorandum will be presented to the offices of U.S. Rep. Horne, and can be made available to any other Member upon request.
As I noted above, I first approached the U.S. Department of State in March of 1993, asking them for emergency assistance. From 1993 through the end of 1994, with the broadcast of the "60 Minutes" program, the State Department sent a form letter to all inquiring Congressional offices. This letter stated that they possessed "no independent evidence" that any secret prisoners existed, and that they did not know what had happened to my husband.
The files I have received reveal the following:
1. Both the White House and the State Department were issued a CIA bulletin on March 18, 1992, a mere six days after my husband's capture. It notes that he had been captured alive, that the army was keeping this matter a secret, and that the army would probably face his death in order to best take advantage of his information. In March of 1993, when I first approached the State Department, they did not inform me or the U.S. Congress of this document.
2. I first sought State Department help in March 1993. In May 1993 the State Department received a CIA report that three Guatemalan military officers had been interviewed. One reported that Everardo was still alive and the other three did not deny it. This report also went to the National Security Council. A separate State Department chronology shows that this document also reported that some 350 prisoners were in army hands. Despite this information, the Department of State continued to declare that no independent evidence existed as to any clandestine prisoners. Had they told the truth, lives might have been saved.
3. In September 1993 the Department of Defense sent to the State Department as well as the U.S. Embassy a report stating that Everardo had been captured alive, interrogated and killed. The report also states that clandestine military prisons have always existed in Guatemala and still do. It further states that the army, when it captured any POW, would hold them incommunicado, interrogate them, and then kill them and dispose of their bodies. When this report came in I had just completed my first and highly dangerous hunger strike just down the street from the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala City. Neither I nor the U.S. Congress was notified, and the same form letter continued to be sent. Had the truth been told, lives could have been saved.
4. In December of 1993, as I continued to fight for my husband's life, the State Department filed an internal memo regarding their interview with an unnamed source who evidently had spoken directly with Everardo's captors and knew where he had been held. This information was not shared with Congress or with me.
5. In April 1994 a Defense Department bulletin was issued. The dissemination list is blacked out on the copy released to me, but such documents were apparently routinely sent to State. It describes the routine torture of prisoners in the hands of the Guatemalan army, and the practice of throwing such prisoners, dead or alive after "interrogation" session, from a helicopter into the sea. The same form letter continued to be sent.
6. In Nov. 1994 the Department of Defense issued another report. Again, the dissemination list is blacked out, but I note that the final paragraph refers to an Embassy comment, and these is a warning to the State Department to keep the matter highly confidential, confirming that this information would have been shared with the Department of State and others. The report states that my husband was held for some time and "interrogated", as well as drugged repeatedly by army physicians, and kept in a full body cast to prevent his escape. The report also notes the conspicuous absence of the other POWs on the military bases. Had their existence been reported earlier, lives could have been saved.
III. State Department and National Security Council 1994-1995:
After being forced to give an embarrassing demarche by the public reaction to the "60 Minutes" broadcast, U.S. officials confirmed to me that they did have evidence that Everardo was captured alive, and was only slightly wounded. He had been held as a secret prisoner for a time, but there was ''no evidence that he was still alive", when I pressed for whether there was any evidence that he was dead, I was told that they did not know what had happened to him and that they would assume he was alive for purposes of the investigation. They also pressured me to presume him dead, based on the long time he had been missing, and based on the fact that he could not be found alive. The files, again, tell a different story.
1. Nov. 1994 press instructions from the State Department followed closely on a "credible" report they received that Everardo had been thrown into the sea. It repeats the official position described above. It also instructs that if asked if they knew he was thrown from a helicopter, one should answer "No that is not the case... we have been as forthcoming with Harbury as possible."
2. December 1994: Another State Department internal memo notes that Mike Wallace of "60 Minutes" was accusing them of having information that my husband had been killed and was warning them that he would tell me. In the response memo, it is decided to maintain the official position.
3. Dec. 1994: Internal notes from a meeting with me report that State Department officials told me there was no information that Bamaca (Everardo) had been killed and that I seemed to accept this.
4. Jan. 1995: A CIA report is sent to the State Department and the White House containing information that Col. Alpirez had killed my husband. This information was never passed on to me and the official story remained unchanged and was frequently repeated to me and to members of the Congress as well as international human rights organizations.
5. Feb. 1995 : An unnamed U.S. off icial notes that the information about Everardo's treatment, and the full body cast, is shocking and very important. The official also complains that this information is being withheld, and that the Embassy is not coordinating intelligence in good faith with the other agencies.
6. March 1995: Just two days before my third hunger strike, U.S. Ambassador Marilyn McAfee gave a public speech in which she said, "And that is why questions continue to swirl around the case of Efrain Bamaca. What happened there?" 7. April 1995: An internal memo, shortly after Torricelli's disclosures, notes that the Department of State cannot claim to have been legally proscribed from giving me the information. As the executive branch, they could have simply declassified it and given it to me.
It is clear from my own experience that United States agencies in fact possess a great deal of information about human rights cases. Much of this information, properly edited, can be released without any threat to the national security interests of the United States government. It is also clear that certain U.S. officials have acted in a highly recalcitrant, and at times deceptive, manner in releasing this information. I am therefore asking the members of this subcommittee for its support of the Human Rights Information Bill, which I believe will have the following highly positive results:
1. Release of the information will help to bring peace and stability to Central America by helping to end the official impunity that has so long shielded those who commit torture and murder. It is precisely this impunity which recently lead to the brutal killing of Bishop Gerardi in Guatemala. The peace accords cannot be implemented if the civilian leaders, courts, and other institutions continue to be terrorized. In turn the terror will continue until the impunity is finally brought to an end. Releasing the information in our files will send a clear message that torture and murder will not be tolerated or protected by the United States government.
2. Release of the information will end the private agony of the family members of the "disappeared". This pain I know only too well from my own experience. The dead cannot be returned to life, nor can their suffering be erased. However, I ask that the survivors be granted the truth that they need in order to heal and continue with their own lives.
3. The new bill will have the very positive effect of clarifying to the various U. S. agencies in question, the correct practices expected by the United States Congress with regards to releasing the truth about human rights violations to family members and to Congress itself.
Once again, I thank you for your time and consideration to this most important hill.
Jennifer K. Harbury