Trail of Tears | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Trail of Tears 

From Guatemala to Washington, the truth about a murder.

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By Linda Lutton

She made it as far as Madison. She was three days into a midwest speaking tour, and Jennifer Harbury had planned to spend the weekend of May 10 in Chicago, raising awareness of her case. But the Harvard-educated gringo wife of a disappeared Guatemalan guerrilla never made it. The Guatemalans got to her first.

"They've subpoenaed me on very short notice," Harbury said in a fuzzy home video shot last minute in the Madison airport. It was shown at a fund-raiser at UIC's Latino Cultural Center that went on despite her absence. The mural behind the video screen, painted by students and local artist Hector Duarte, formed a fitting backdrop. A wall-size "Latino Angel"--with wings forged from the flags of the nations of Latin America--is gagged by the American flag, a symbol for U.S. intervention, something Harbury has become intimately familiar with.

For more than four years she has led a relentless search for her husband's body among the 150,000 dead and disappeared of Guatemala. And she's embarked upon an untiring campaign to bring those responsible for his long-term torture and eventual execution to justice.

If it weren't her husband, or if the Guatemalan military didn't have one of the worst human rights records in the Western Hemisphere, the ridiculous hoops Harbury has had to jump through to pursue her case might seem almost comic. (Guatemalans: We don't believe you ever married your husband; show us a federal marriage license. Harbury: There is no such thing as a federal marriage license in the U.S. Marriage here is registered by the states. Guatemalans: We don't care. Give us one anyway. We can only accept a federal marriage license.) At one point of macabre absurdity, Harbury arrived at a military base in 1995 with a court order mandating the exhumation of her husband's body. "You'll have to point out the exact grave site," officials told her, looking out onto the field where human rights groups say between 500 and 2,000 Guatemalans lay buried. "We can't just go digging around."

Harbury's short-notice subpoena last month was her latest annoying hurdle. After flying to Guatemala City and then making an eight-hour drive to San Marcos for her hearing (for the second time in two weeks, no less; the prior week's hearing had been canceled as quickly as it was called) Harbury was asked only four questions. The first? Name, age, and marital status. Harbury said the following three questions were "equally silly," and hardly warranted an emergency subpoena.

But Harbury's scheduled stint in Chicago may be the very reason the Guatemalan government suddenly wanted her around. Harbury has waged a tremendous media campaign in the U.S., drawing attention to what had been for years a largely unnoticed war. Her struggle for information on her husband's death has been featured on 60 Minutes and covered by the Washington Post and the New York Times. Needless to say, Guatemalan government and army officials aren't too enthusiastic about all that publicity exposing state-sponsored human rights violations. Amnesty International has referred to the last 15 years of army repression in Guatemala as the "silent holocaust," and that's exactly how the Guatemalan army would like to keep it--silent.

The sunlight glistens brightly off the lake through the windows of the Gold Coast high-rise. An unlikely mix of solidarity types, big Chicago money, local Guatemalan political refugees, and one guerrilla commander have gathered for the second fund-raiser Harbury was to have attended here. At Harbury's request, the money from the weekend will go toward reuniting Guatemalan families separated by the 35-year-old civil war. Human rights groups estimate that nearly one million Guatemalans--more than a tenth of the country's population--have been internally displaced by fighting; 250,000 more have been forced into exile, most of them either here or in Mexico. As the guests sip champagne and sample the asparagus champignons in wine sauce and the chocolate torte, Harbury talks about her case from a television resting atop a perfectly polished baby grand.

She hurries. Perhaps because there is a lot to tell, perhaps to keep from becoming emotional. This tape was made six months ago, on her last visit to Chicago. Little has changed.

Harbury was working with Texas Legal Aid in the early 80s when Guatemalan refugees began streaming across U.S. borders with stories of rape, torture, and burning villages. They were victims of the Guatemalan military's scorched-earth campaigns, launched in an effort to "take the water away from the fish," to beat an insurgent guerrilla army fighting for social reform by eliminating potential civilian supporters (broadly defined by the army to mean anyone alive: pregnant women's bellies were routinely slashed open, their unborn children skewered with machetes and left to die). Whole areas of the country were targeted for massacre; 440 villages were completely wiped off the map. But U.S. immigration officials complained that the refugees--many of whom had left Guatemala literally barefoot and running--lacked documentation of their persecution. Harbury watched helplessly as people who had only narrowly escaped were sent home to almost certain death.

She went south with the intention of collecting testimony to support the refugees' cases. The week she arrived, two founding members of the Grupo de Apoyo Mutuo, an organization created to denounce army killings and disappearances, were assassinated, shot down in the street in midday. An active member of the group gave the funeral address. She was dead by week's end, along with her brother and her two-year-old child, whose fingernails had been ripped off, a sickeningly familiar torture in Guatemala.

"That's what happened in Guatemala and still happens to those who want to look for the dead. And I think that's a really important context to know about my search for my husband," says Harbury. "I'm incredibly lucky to be standing here and to still be alive, and it's only because I'm a United States citizen. That is the only reason that I can do this and survive."

Harbury met her husband while interviewing members of the Guatemalan guerrilla movement for her book Bridge of Courage: Life Stories of the Guatemalan Companeros and Companeras. Poor and Mayan, Efrain Bamaca Velasquez grew up like most Guatemalans, working from early childhood to make a minimum daily wage that was not even sufficient to free his family from malnutrition. At 18 he left for the mountains, chose "Everardo" as his nom de guerre, and helped to found the Organizacion del Pueblo en Armas (ORPA), the Organization of People in Arms. Two decades later Commandante Everardo was in Mexico City for peace negotiations, and in the carpe diem spirit he had acquired after years in combat, he and Harbury married on the spot.

They were together for six months. Then, shortly after he returned to combat, Harbury received a phone call. There had been a military confrontation, the army said. Everardo had killed himself to avoid being captured. They had sent his body to the town of Retalhuleu, where he was buried in an unmarked grave.

For nearly a year she believed them. Then a soldier from Everardo's platoon escaped from a secret army prison.

"He was buried in a pit under an officer's desk." On the tape Harbury describes the long period of torture Santiago Cabrera Lopez endured before escaping. She is blunt, insistent, at times bitingly sarcastic about the brutality of Guatemalan officials. She does not speak in general terms about torture and murder.

"Cabrera was hung up by his arms from a rifle rack and beaten with cinderblocks until he passed out. He was beaten across the feet with poles until he lost all of his toenails. He was tortured with electrical shocks to the testicles. He was buried in another pit in a hillside, and he was chained to a bed for five months and allowed to leave only to identify dead friends in the morgue."

Harbury says Cabrera saw her husband alive, starting on the day of his supposed death. "He saw him chained to a bed under a serious interrogation, abusive interrogation, for nearly 20 days straight. The next time he saw him, Everardo was strapped down to a medical table. There was an unidentified gas tank next to the table, and he said that Everardo's body was enormously swollen from head to foot, several times normal size. They had called for a doctor to make sure they didn't accidentally kill him. They didn't want to kill him; they wanted his information."

Cabrera testified before the UN about what he had seen. The Guatemalan army called him a fraud, a liar, a drunk. They insisted that Everardo was and always had been buried in Retalhuleu. But when Harbury and a forensic scientist were given leave to open the grave, they found someone 15 years too young and five centimeters too short.

Suddenly there was hope that Everardo was still alive. Harbury met with former Guatemalan defense minister Mario Enriquez to demand information. Prisoners had to be turned over to courts for fair trials, she argued. According to international law, they had to be given access to medical care and allowed visits by family, human rights groups, and lawyers. They could not be tortured; they could not be held in secret detention. But Harbury was up against an army that shows little regard for international rules of war; after 35 years of fighting there are no POWs legally detained anywhere in the country.

Maybe you're just confused, Enriquez told Harbury. All Indians look alike. The guerrillas must have switched the bodies in the grave to make us look bad, he suggested. Or maybe Everardo ran off with another woman.

Since then, Harbury's been playing hardball. In October 1994 she stopped eating. Night and day she sat in front of the National Palace in Guatemala City with a banner reading: "Everardo, I love you. Your life is my life. I'll wait for you here to the end." Her hunger strike was punctuated with harrowing rides into the countryside, where she watched military officials dig up body after body without finding Everardo, passing skulls in buckets, rummaging through the remains of Guatemala's dirty war. She lived through repeated interrogations ("Did you know your husband was a subversive when you met him? Are you a subversive? Have you ever run guns?"), all supposedly in an effort to locate Everardo.

Then came an answer, if only a partial one, and from a source uncomfortably close to home. Her hunger strike in front of the National Palace ended not with any new information from Guatemalan officials, but when the U.S. ambassador made a formal diplomatic statement admitting that the embassy had information.

Everardo had been captured alive, slightly wounded, and held as a prisoner secretly for some time. Beyond that the embassy could offer no information. Harbury had been pressuring U.S. officials for more than a year with almost as much fervor as she had the Guatemalans--the State Department, the White House, the National Security Council, and the U.S. embassy. After 32 days, "my upper lip was freezing over, my speech was slurring, my left eye was closed, my heart beat twice as fast standing up as sitting down, and my hair was starting to fall out, but I got some information, didn't I?"

She pushed for more and got nothing. Her next hunger strike took place outside the White House on the third anniversary of Everardo's disappearance. This fast revealed an even more grotesque secret: on Harbury's 12th day without food, New Jersey congressman Robert G. Torricelli came forward. Documents he had obtained as a member of the House Intelligence Committee linked Guatemalan colonel Julio Roberto Alpirez to Bamaca's torture and later execution.

Everardo was dead.

Guatemalan officials responded to the news with typical audacity, advising Alpirez to sue Torricelli for slander.

Alpirez was the same colonel Cabrera had testified he'd seen in '92, bending over Everardo's torture table. He was trained by U.S. military personnel at the School of the Americas and had worked as a CIA asset for years. He was implicated in the 1990 death of an American citizen (innkeeper Michael DeVine had apparently stumbled across a narcotics smuggling ring the Guatemalan army was involved in). And right around the time of Everardo's execution, Alpirez received a $44,000 check from the Central Intelligence Agency.

"Exactly what were we paying for?" asks Harbury, wanting an answer, terrified to get it.

He has understood none of Harbury's words--he speaks no English--and all of their meaning. Like Everardo, he has fought with ORPA for nearly all of his adult life. Commandante Anibal was accompanying Harbury on her speaking tour and has come to Chicago without her. He hardly has the countenance of a commander. Combat has not robbed him of a proud gentleness common to indigenous Guatemalans; he is quiet, unassuming, and generous with his soft smile. He laughs easily, a not insignificant attribute considering he's been fighting a war for the past 21 years.

Anibal was born in 1955, one year after a CIA-orchestrated coup quashed Guatemala's fledgling attempt at democracy and sparked the nation's still-raging civil war. "After 1954, there was a whole ambience of persecution," he explains. "Political leaders were gunned down in the streets. With their assassinations, the opportunities for change in Guatemala through political means dissolved." Quietly at first, those interested in change began to get organized, and many eventually took up arms. In 1968, Anibal's older brother joined the movement. "He would come home and talk to us about the lucha, the struggle, why the guerrilla was fighting."

But just two years later his brother was dead, hunted down and killed in a Guatemala City safe house. Anibal was 15 at the time. "I just saved up my pain and restlessness and kept studying," he says.

After completing his education as a primary school teacher, Anibal joined ORPA, attracted by their belief that the Mayan majority of Guatemala should play an integral role in the struggle for change. "I had to lie so my mother wouldn't notice that I was with the guerrilla. Seeing what happened to one of your sons, you don't want your other children to suffer the same fate. But later she realized that was the only place I could be."

The commandante has been on the road for ten days so far with talks in Minneapolis and Madison before coming here. "I've put in my hours as a diplomat," he jokes, laughing at the thought that his remark could easily get him killed if he said it in the wrong company. "I've met with university students and religious leaders; journalists follow me to the airport." It's as if he's playing King for a Day, and he doesn't hide his amusement. Poor, born in one of the most remote areas of an all-but-forgotten country, Anibal has come to the most powerful nation on earth to represent a revolutionary poor people's army. "Too bad I don't have a video camera," he teases, "so the people back in Guatemala could see me. Followed around by journalists!"

Anibal hurries through the world's busiest airport. Flying directly to Guatemala would be too dangerous, so he'll land in Mexico City where he'll be met by his companeros and eventually make his way south.

"When we hear in Guatemala that there is international support and solidarity, it's an abstract concept," he says. "But on this trip I have actually met the people; there is a relation. So when I think of Chicago I know now there are people who support us." The Eastern European ticket agent tries out one-word commands in an accented Spanish--pasaporte!--and then calls out the gate--efe cinco, F5.

"For a public that doesn't know our country, it might seem strange," says Anibal in reference to cases of torture like the ones Harbury detailed. "But in Guatemala it has happened too many times to count." When asked if he fears for his life he responds quietly, "We have become used to walking around with a certain amount of risk."

Anibal speaks highly of Harbury. "There has been an awakening of interest" in Guatemala's troubles, he says. Harbury has without question drummed up most of it and continues to do so; she's just completed a book about her case to be published toward the end of this year, and Castle Rock is planning a major motion picture. The activist-lawyer is taking on both the Guatemalan and U.S. governments by filing unprecedented lawsuits against high-level CIA, State Department, and Guatemalan military officials she believes were either involved in or knew about her husband's torture and execution. While Everardo might be dead, Harbury's made it clear that her struggle won't be over until she knows exactly who's responsible and until they've been brought to justice. But she has carefully framed her fight for Everardo to include the rest of suffering Guatemala as well. And she can speak with unique authority when it comes to U.S. complicity in that suffering.

In the end, Harbury's union with Everardo has linked much more than two lives. Their marriage and Harbury's unfailing struggle for justice have been adopted by many Guatemalans as a powerful symbol of the relationship between the U.S. and Guatemala. "The two things are very linked--Jennifer's struggle and the struggle of the Guatemalan people," says Anibal. "If Jennifer and Everardo were bound by love and struggle, then there is hope for us that United States politics can change, that the support for dictatorial and military governments can cease completely."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.

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