Guatemalan terror seeps into U.S. Critics of killings, violence linked to CIA face threats

February 25, 1996|By JEFF STEIN

IN THE 1982 thriller "Missing," Jack Lemmon portrays a stiff-necked American father who cannot accept that his son has been executed during a military coup in Chile with the tacit approval of the U.S. Embassy.

"What kind of people are you?" he asks a smug American diplomat when he finds out the truth.

That question is being asked again today about the CIA's secret operations in Guatemala, where the torture and assassination of government critics and peasant rebels is a way of life. Far from being a fuzzy question about who controls U.S. foreign policy, however, the topic has taken on new urgency because the long arm of Guatemalan terror has evidently reached into the United States.

On Jan. 5, for example, a Washington-based lawyer, Jose Pertierra, heard an explosion outside his house in the middle of the night and rushed from his bed. In the driveway he found his car consumed in flames, destroyed by a powerful bomb that the FBI later said was "not set by amateurs."

Why would anyone attack him? A strong clue is that Mr. Pertierra represents Jennifer Harbury, an American woman whose Guatemalan husband was interrogated, tortured, and summarily executed under the direction of a military officer on the CIA payroll. Ms. Harbury and Mr. Pertierra are trying to force the CIA to release its files on Guatemala.

Terrorists struck again the next night, when a shot was fired into a Washington house that Ms. Harbury shares with Roman Catholic lay workers and nuns concerned with human rights in Guatemala, the Sisters of Notre Dame. Ms. Harbury was not there, but a bullet lodged only a few feet over the bed of someone else. The shot followed telephone calls denigrating the nuns as "idiot, lying, Communist bastards."

These are only the latest and most brazen attacks that suggest that Guatemalan military terrorists are afoot here, attacking human rights critics with the impunity they enjoy in Central America.

Last year, for example, Peter Kerndt, a California man whose sister was killed under mysterious circumstances in Guatemala in 1976, attended a speech by Jennifer Harbury. The next day at work he received a telephone call.

"Peter, I'm going to kill you," a man's voice said.

And in Texas, Daniel "Sky" Callahan, a documentary film maker who was brutally beaten in Guatemala last year, received similar treatment after he came home and spoke out against Guatemalan military repression. He's been threatened by anonymous callers, his house has been fired on, and a dead cat was left at his doorstep.

Sister Dianna Ortiz was raped and tortured seven years ago in Guatemala. Over the years since then she's received several telephoned death threats and survived the gunman's attack on her Washington house. Now, even the mention of a certain Guatemalan general's name, an officer high up in the intelligence service who until recently was stationed in Washington, causes her to tremble.

"I'm sorry," she said, "I just have great difficulty talking about it."

With the recent attacks in Washington, the FBI has begun to home in on the Guatemalan connection. The President's Intelligence Oversight Board, meanwhile, is studying how and why the CIA kept funneling money to the Guatemalan security forces in violation of a cut-off of U.S. aid.

Some others want to know why some suspected Guatemalan thugs have been stationed right in Washington, as Rep. Constance A. Morella, Republican of Maryland, warned Attorney General Janet Reno in a letter Feb. 7.

"As there are several prominent Guatemalan security and intelligence officials of questionable reputation currently in the United States serving in diplomatic posts or inter-American organizations," Ms. Morella wrote, "it cannot be ruled out that they may have played some role in these incidents."

Ms. Morella urged that "the Administration . . . should make it clear to Guatemalan officials that the United States will not tolerate threats or attacks, be they official, unofficial, or extra-official, against its citizens."

Many critics of U.S. policy toward Guatemala, which during the Carter, Bush and Clinton administrations has tried to influence the army by turning military aid off and on, wonder why officers with such unsavory reputations were allowed to come into the United States.

One congressional expert, however, argued that, "it's possible that it's better to have them here, where we can keep an eye on them, than down there where they can run amok," adding that "it's unlikely high-visibility guys" would be involved in death threats and car bombings here.

Another source suggested that wealthy Guatemalan businessmen, hurt or feeling threatened by U.S. human rights activists, may have sponsored a campaign of intimidation here.

The only thing certain is that somebody is sponsoring the terrorism. The FBI hopes to find out -- even if it leads to the ClA's doors.

Jeff Stein is the author of "A Murder in Wartime: The Untold Spy Story That Changed the Course of the Vietnam War."

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