This is the seventh article in Truthout’s series looking at US immigration and Mexican border policies through a social justice lens. Mark Karlin, editor of BuzzFlash at Truthout, visited the border region recently to file these reports.
Jennifer Harbury Married an Armed Populist Leader, Who Was Tortured and Executed in Guatemala With CIA Involvement
By academic pedigree and personal background, Jennifer Harbury should be among the ruling elite in the US. She is a graduate of Cornell and Harvard Law School, in fact receiving her law degree from Harvard just a few years before Barack Obama. Instead of following the path of most of her classmates to money and power, she became a legal aid attorney in Texas.
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As part of her interest in human rights, she traveled to Guatemala in the early ’90s to write a book, “Bridge to Courage: Life Stories of Guatemalan Compañeros & Compañeras.” It was at that time she met, fell in love with and married Everardo (Efraín Bámaca Velásquez), who was a commandante in the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity Front. He was fighting against the US-backed military and government, which was committing genocide against the indigenous population and the poor (ending in more than 200,000 dead – and countless more tortured, but released).
In 1992, Everardo was captured by the Guatemalan military. Harbury demanded to know the whereabouts of her husband and held a hunger strike in front of the Clinton White House, which was covered by the media and made into a national story by “60 Minutes.” Harbury’s request was simple: she wanted the State Department or CIA to tell her what had happened to her husband. But both agencies didn’t acknowledge they knew of his whereabouts.
In an interview with Truthout, Harbury recounted:
After a year of trying to find out what had really happened to him, a young prisoner escaped from the army torture program and reported that Everardo was alive and being severely tortured. After my third hunger strike to save his life, in March 1995, then New Jersey Senator Toricelli disclosed that official US documents indicated that he had been killed by Guatemalan officers on the CIA payroll.
After receiving many files at last through the FOIA [Freedom of Information Act], it became clear that the State Department and the CIA had known where Everardo was and that he was in the hands of our own CIA liaisons or assets, since the week of his capture. They also knew approximately 300 other secret prisoners of war were suffering the same fate. The files show that all these prisoners were tortured to death, thrown down wells, out of helicopters, etc., yet the truth was only revealed to us in 1995. By then all were dead. We could have saved them.
Harbury’s Husband Was Kept in a Body Cast to Make His Torture Easier
In fact, Everardo, Harbury discovered, was kept in a body cast to keep him constrained while he was tortured for more than two years before being executed, all the time with the full knowledge and likely operational involvement of the CIA.
And then there is, of course, the legacy of the infamous School of the Americas (now renamed the euphemistic Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation: WHINSEC). It has been accused of teaching torture, which was confirmed in a US government admission during the Clinton administration. Although now, under its new WHINSEC name, it claims to no longer offer such instruction.
Of the School of the Americas, Harbury told BuzzFlash in a 2005 interview:
Very simply, the School of the Americas is a US military institution that has given training and education to high-level military officials from across Latin America for 40 years now. The students who they have trained and educated, in huge numbers, turned out to have been the worst human rights violators in the Western Hemisphere, bar none. We’re talking about high-level people under Pinochet. We’re talking about eight to twelve of my husband’s torturers. We’re talking about people involved in massacre upon massacre within El Salvador, including people that were highly implicated in the murder of Monsignor Romero and the Maryknoll church women, etc.
The Current President of Guatemala Was Trained at the School of the Americas
The current president of Guatemala, Otto Fernando Pérez Molina, was trained at the School of the Americas and is accused of helping to oversee the Guatemalan military genocide and torture. Pérez was head of the Guatemalan military intelligence at the time of Everardo’s capture, and Harbury has sought to have him charged with human rights’ violations. There is also the allegation that Pérez participated in 1998 in the planning of the assassination of a Guatemalan bishop, who campaigned for human rights accountability.
Harbury points out that US agents are often reported, by survivors, of being in the torture chambers, outed by their American accents in Spanish or by their speaking in English. This was the case of Sister Dianna Ortiz, who was abducted in Guatemala in 1989 for speaking out on behalf of the poor. She was gang raped, forced to kill another prisoner with a knife, used as a human ash tray and was the subject of further barbaric acts of torture. Ortiz also recalls an American serving as a consultant while she was being tortured.
Torture, Killing and Disappearance in the Southern Cone Countries in the ’80s
During the period of military dictatorships in the Southern Cone nations of South America, the US – particularly under Reagan – supported regimes such as Argentina and Chile, which had the two highest numbers of disappeared individuals, tortured dissenters and those killed. More than 30,000 were disappeared in Argentina by the military, tortured and presumed killed (some of them dropped alive – while drugged – from planes and helicopters into the Rio De La Plata between Argentina and Uruguay, bound with weights on their legs).
In Chile where a minimum of 3,000 disappeared (los desaparecidos), the “National Commission on Political Imprisonment and Torture Report,” in 2004, confirmed a minimum of 35,000 tortured in Chile after the Allende overthrow, which some critics of the commission argue is a low-ball estimate.
During the period of the US-backed Operation Condor, figures conforming to the UN definition of torture put the number as high as 300,000 or more tortured in the Southern Cone nations overall, under the brutal military regimes of Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Paraguay, among other nations that carried out gestapo-like torture and elimination of persons deemed a threat to the state.
In a recent commentary in Truthout, Noam Chomsky wrote:
Thus in the “Cambridge History of the Cold War,” John Coatsworth recalls that from 1960 to “the Soviet collapse in 1990, the numbers of political prisoners, torture victims and executions of nonviolent political dissenters in Latin America vastly exceeded those in the Soviet Union and its East European satellites.”… These crimes, substantially traceable to U.S. intervention, didn’t inspire a human-rights crusade [from the US government].
How Does This Background on US-Backed Torture and Murder in Latin America Fit in With Mexico?
Perhaps, part of understanding torture going on now in Mexico is what Sister Ortiz wrote about her horrific ordeal in Guatemala: “So often it is assumed that torture is conducted for the purpose of gaining information. It is much more often intended to threaten populations into silence and submission. What I was to endure was a message, a warning to others – not to oppose, to remain silent and to yield to power without question.”
Only in Mexico, the issue is rather more complex because torture is used by the cartels, the police, the military and death squads. That is not wild speculation. The US State Department confirmed it in its 2011 “Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor: Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2011” for Mexico:
Security forces reportedly engaged in unlawful killings, forced disappearances and instances of physical abuse and torture.
The following problems also were reported during the year by the country’s National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) and other sources: kidnappings; physical abuse; poor, overcrowded prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; corruption and lack of transparency that engendered impunity within the judicial system; and confessions coerced through torture. Societal problems included: killings of women; domestic violence; threats and violence against journalists and social media users, leading to self-censorship in some cases; trafficking in persons; social and economic discrimination against some members of the indigenous population; and child labor.
Despite some arrests for corruption, widespread impunity for human rights abuses by officials remained a problem in both civilian and military jurisdictions….
There were multiple reports of forced disappearances by the army, navy and police….
SEDENA [which oversees the Army and the Air Force] was the government entity with the greatest number of human rights complaints (1,695) filed against it during the year.
In Mexico, killings, torture and disappearances are not fully reflected in statistics provided by the government for a variety of reasons, including a poor reporting system; but, moreover, the lack of trust many Mexican citizens have in the police and the military, which are often seen as equally threatening – particularly to the poor, the indigenous population, Central Americans passing through Mexico and the so-called “undesirable” class.
Not detailed in the State Department report are daily examples of the common use of torture by the police to coerce false confessions, obtain extra money for stopping the torture, being paid off to arrest and torture someone by a person with a vendetta, torturing someone at the behest of a drug lord who pays for the service etc.
Occasionally an American Gets Caught in the Torture Trap in Mexico
Occasionally, an American gets caught in the torture trap. The El Paso Times just recently reported:
El Pasoan Kevin Huckabee, whose son Shohn Huckabee, was tortured by Mexican authorities after his arrest in 2009 in Juárez on suspicion of drug-trafficking, said the [State Department] report reinforced some of his suspicions about why no U.S. or Mexican official has addressed his son’s torture complaint.
“I am concerned that the State Department is capable of reporting on the issues of government involvement, yet continue pursuing a relationship with the security forces that are known to be involved in human rights abuses of the highest order,” Huckabee said. “I do not believe that the economic value in Mexico to the United States is worth looking past the awful array of human rights violations.”
But look away, the US government does.
Segments of the Mexican Military, Police and Government Are Involved With Torture and Killing
What the US State Department doesn’t report is that segments of the Mexican military and police, as well as the government, have a longstanding, shifting relationship with the drug cartels, sometimes fighting them, but often working with one or another of the cartels in exchange for payoffs. This would be difficult for the US to admit due to domestic political considerations, but the national government, the CIA and the US military have a longstanding tolerance (despite the deadly alleged anti-drug war) of tolerating drug corruption in Latin American governments as long as those in power don’t interfere with US trade relations, military dominance or become too populist.
Land reform, for instance, is a trigger that gets the US State Department, CIA and many elected officials in DC very unnerved. Land reform efforts led to the CIA overthrow of a democratically elected government in Guatemala in 1954, and more recently, to supporting the Honduran coup against a democratically elected president who supported modest land reform.
The Mexican Government’s War of Social Cleansing
That may be why the US has done little to stop what appears to be “social cleansing” (limpieza social) carried out by the Mexican military, police and government-sanctioned death squads at times. A 2010 article in El Universal explained (in translation):
In the early 1990s, the lawyer Miguel Angel García Leyva and other citizens formed the Sinaloa Front Against Impunity. For 10 years, they gathered evidence on the activities of “death squads, causing thousands of kidnappings and killings in the state.” These groups were made up of police or military personnel.
“The participation of these squads is known publicly not only in Sinaloa, but throughout the country,” he says. “They operate dressed in official uniforms, driving patrol cars and with weapons, badges and keys just like the forces of the state.”…
To confirm this, he cites an investigation conducted between May 2008 and May 2010 along the highways in northwestern Mexico. They produced video, photographs and written reports on police and military checkpoints in Nayarit, Sinaloa, Sonora and Baja California. “The results astounded us, most of the checkpoints are not only points of extortion, but places to identify and locate people to disappear, assassinate or commit other acts against them,” says Garcia.
The El Universal article argued that much of the killing in Mexico is not just due to the complicated and shifting alliances in the so-called war on drugs, but rather also to the “elimination” of “undesirables” by the government.
Javier Sicilia, whose peace campaign in Mexico was the subject of the fifth Truthout on the Mexican border installment recently reinforced the notion that the killing of innocents is being carried out by both the military and the drug cartels, not to mention the police:
Question: Do you consider the people coming to the US, from Mexico or from other parts of Latin America, refugees because they are fleeing this violence?
Javier Sicilia: …Central American people who have to cross Mexican territory to come to the US are being disappeared by the army or the organized crime. Either way, it looks like social cleansing. In every sense, in every way, this war against drugs is inhuman.
Torture in Mexico Is an Epidemic
Torture pervades Mexican governmental and criminal forces and, for civilians, the lines between law enforcement and criminals is too murky to navigate. If harmed, it is most often better just to be quiet. After all, who wants to be tortured for knowing something he or she shouldn’t know and all the time not knowing if the police officer or soldier to whom you are reporting torture or threats is working on behalf of the person who tortured you? Or perhaps it was the military or police who did the torturing.
As Jennifer Harbury noted in 2005 when BuzzFlash interviewed her, torture “spirals out of control hugely. And because someone under torture will say anything to stop the pain, very often completely innocent bystanders are picked up because they’re incorrectly named by persons who are in excruciating pain. Also, you cannot stop a government force or army force. Once it starts torturing, that also spirals out of control.”
Such is the case in Mexico.
A CIA Latin America Section Chief Makes His Argument for “Ugly” Collateral Damage
Given that the CIA and countless US intelligence agencies, not to mention the Drug Enforcement Agency, are entrenched in Mexico, it might be appropriate to reflect that our real government/corporate interest in the nation is as a marketplace and a non-populist pro-US government.
In a 2007 documentary, “The War on Democracy,” by British, leftist, political commentator John Pilger, he explores the exploitative and deadly anti-democracy efforts to ensure that Latin America stays in the hands of the ruling classes and open to American business and the extraction of natural resources south of our border.
Toward the end of a recounting of the US backing of juntas and keeping tin horn dictators on a short leash, Pilger interviewed Duane Claridge, CIA chief for Latin America from 1981 to 1984 – during a high point of the Central American and Southern Cone nations’ reign of terror and death. In a remarkably pugnacious and blunt series of responses, Claridge vociferously asserted that he didn’t give a hoot about whether a country was a democracy. All that mattered was whether or not the Latin American nation was an obstacle to the “national security interest” of the US, although he didn’t define that term.
Here are some excerpts:
Pilger: Is it then okay to overthrow a democratically-elected government?
Claridge: It depends upon what your national security interests are.
Pilger: What right does the CIA and the US government have to do what you do in other countries?
Claridge: National security. We are going in to protect ourselves. We will intervene whenever we decide it is in our national interest to intervene and if you don’t like it, lump it. Get used to it world!
It is important to understand that our national interest is perhaps often perceived by the US government as preserving our economic status through the guarantee of open markets, cheap labor and natural resources. To do that, the US condones torture and murder when a democracy that represents a populist majority – or an attempt to correct an economic imbalance among classes – gets in the way in Latin America.
“Sometimes things have to be changed in an ugly way,” CIA Latin American Chief Claridge matter-of-factly asserted, citing the war crime reign of Pinochet as an example of a man who, Claridge claims, saved his country. “Chile wouldn’t exist today if it weren’t for Pinochet,” Claridge asserted with conviction.
A country as scarred as Mexico by torture and barbaric killings from all directions may take generations to recover. But the healing process is not yet possible.
The torture, killing and fear hasn’t stopped. It’s still spiraling out of control.
For now, with government-protected torture and killing – existing both separately and intertwined with the narco wars – sections of Mexico look more like a Hieronymus Bosch painting of hell than a civilized democracy that we claim to be promoting.
There may be internal cultural and political foundations for torture and gruesome murders in each country in turmoil south of the border, but the US is also responsible, since torture is a major export of this nation to Latin America.
The next installment of Truthout on the Border will appear on June 17.
With credit to Molly Molloy’s Frontera web site for providing invaluable resources for this installment.
This article may not be republished without permission from Truthout.