Deaths link CIA, Guatemala army

April 02, 1995|By New York Times News Service

Adjacent to La Aurora Air Base in Guatemala City, the workplace of Col. Julio Roberto Alpirez, a CIA informer linked to two murders, stands a new military intelligence school, a two-story concrete building flanked by high walls and barbed wire and guarded by 30-foot towers and soldiers armed with Israeli Galil rifles.

The school was built with the encouragement and financial help of the CIA, said Gen. Hector Gramajo, Guatemala's defense minister from 1987 to 1990. "I got a lot of help from U.S. Central Intelligence," Mr. Gramajo said.

The existence of the school and the case of Colonel Alpirez, accused of ordering the murders of an American innkeeper and a guerrilla married to an American lawyer, are glimpses of a hidden history: the CIA's deep ties to Guatemala's army.

U.S. and Guatemalan officials, who long denied those links, now acknowledge that the CIA gave the Guatemalan military millions of dollars in the 1980s and 1990s, used some of the money as bribes to buy information from high-ranking military intelligence officials, and provided intelligence to the army for its long war against guerrillas, farmers and peasants.

The case also suggests that the CIA sometimes had a closer cooperation with the Guatemalan military than with the State Department. The State Department, voicing fury at the death of the American innkeeper, cut off official military assistance to Guatemala in December 1990, but the CIA continued making payments to the Guatemalan military, officials of the Bush and Clinton administrations said.

In June 1990, after only eight months as U.S. ambassador in Guatemala, Thomas F. Stroock found himself staring into the heart of darkness. An American innkeeper, Michael DeVine, had been slain in the village of Poptun, in the northern jungles of Guatemala. No one knew why. So much else in Guatemala was murky, the former ambassador said in an interview, but this much was clear: The military were the culprits. "We knew that they had murdered this guy," he said.

What the ambassador says he never knew, and has come to learn only in recent days, was how closely his own embassy was tied to the Guatemalan army.

The CIA station chief in Guatemala from 1988 to 1991 had about 20 officers under him, an operating budget of about $5 million a year, and an equal or greater sum for "liaison" with the Guatemalan military, U.S. intelligence officials said. They said his job included placing and keeping senior Guatemalan officers on his payroll. Among the officers on the payroll was Colonel Alpirez, U.S. intelligence officials said.

They said the colonel was recruited in the late 1980s, as a senior officer of an elite intelligence unit attached to the presidential staff.

The Archivo, as the intelligence unit is known, spied on Guatemalans and is accused by human rights groups of carrying out assassinations.

The CIA's station also gave the Guatemalan army "special information" on the guerrillas, said Vinicio Cerezo, the president of Guatemala from 1986 to 1990, in an interview. Mr. Cerezo said he realized during his presidency that the presence of the CIA in Guatemala was a fact of life but tried to keep some control over his military by establishing rules of conduct.

After learning of the murder of Mr. DeVine, Ambassador Stroock said he ordered an investigation.

The ambassador flew up to Poptun after Mr. DeVine's funeral and found the man's widow, Carole DeVine. She told him a white pickup truck filled with soldiers appeared in the village a few days before the murder.

The men had questioned villagers about Mr. DeVine. The truck had been seen entering and leaving a training base for the Guatemalan army's counter-guerrilla forces. Every vehicle that entered or left the base was officially logged in and out.

The base was run by Colonel Alpirez.

Mr. Stroock sent attaches "to talk to Colonel Alpirez about thwhite truck, to see the logs, and to find out how long those enlisted men stayed on the base."

"And guess what?" he said. "The logs were missing. Alpirez stiffed them."

About six weeks after the murder, Mr. Stroock said, the thought occurred to him that the CIA's paid agents in the Guatemalan army might be mixed up in the killing. But the station chief denied it. The ambassador believed him.

In October 1991, the CIA became worried about its connection to Colonel Alpirez and asked the Justice Department for an opinion about his "potential criminal involvement" in the murder of Mr. DeVine, a senior Bush administration official said last week.

"Their question was, do we have to disclose our relationship with Alpirez?" he said.

He said the Justice Department took six months to get back to the CIA with an answer -- that the agency did not have a legal problem -- but that no written record of this inquiry has been found.

That same month, Santiago Cabrera Lopez, a 23-year-old guerrilla captured in 1991, swears that he saw Colonel Alpirez presiding over the brutal interrogation of a well-known guerrilla commander -- Efrain Bamaca Velasquez.

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