Top Guatemalans implicated in cover-up of slaying Probe finds 2 presidents, defense ministers withheld information

March 24, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - Two Guatemalan presidents, two defense ministers and high-ranking military officers paid by the CIA helped cover up the facts of the killing of Michael DeVine, an American innkeeper, in Guatemala in 1990, U.S. officials have concluded.

The officials are also weighing new accusations from within the Guatemalan armed forces implicating the nation's top military and intelligence chiefs in the killing of Efrain Bamaca, a Guatemalan guerrilla married to an American lawyer, Jennifer Harbury.

The Bamaca and DeVine cases converged one year ago, when Rep. Robert Torricelli, a New Jersey Democrat, publicly accused a Guatemalan colonel, Julio Alpirez, of being a paid CIA agent who ordered both men's deaths.

But the government version of the DeVine case is more complicated, said officials familiar with a federal investigation nearing its completion. The Intelligence Oversight Board, a presidential panel, will present its report sometime this spring.

The emerging official version which Mr. DeVine's widow doubts is that his murder was the mindless work of drunken soldiers, the officials said.

Colonel Alpirez, who at first gave the CIA information on the killing, became involved in the cover-up, they said.

The CIA knew that the colonel had helped cover up the killing when it paid him $44,000 and then took him off its payroll in 1992, they said.

The officials said the cover-up had proceeded with the knowledge of Vinicio Cerezo, the president of Guatemala from 1986 to 1990, and Jorge Serrano, president from 1991 to 1993.

The presidents and their defense ministers helped shield evidence in the case from the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala, as did senior military officers who, like Colonel Alpirez, were paid informers for the CIA, the officials said.

The killing and the cover-up compelled the United States to cut off millions of dollars in military aid to Guatemala, though millions more kept flowing secretly from the CIA to Guatemala's military commanders until last year.

In September 1990, faced with the cutoff of military aid, Mr. Cerezo said that "people linked to the security forces could be responsible for the death" of Mr. DeVine and pledged to "find those responsible."

Mr. Serrano, who succeeded Mr. Cerezo in 1991, promised to do "everything possible" to clear up the case.

Supporters of both men said they were powerless to crack down on the army and faced the threat of a military coup if they pressed too hard.

Federal investigators have spent months interviewing witnesses for the long-overdue report on the DeVine and Bamaca slayings and other allegations of Americans being tortured or killed in Guatemala. "The board is as frustrated as anyone else that it's not finished," its chairman, Anthony Harrington, said yesterday.

The investigators' story of the DeVine case is as follows:

In 1990 two Galil rifles were missing from a military base in Santa Elena, in the northern jungle of Guatemala. Two soldiers at the base were accused. Both were tortured and killed by their commanders. One, before he died, falsely accused Mr. DeVine, who ran an inn in the jungle town of Poptun.

The commanders sent six soldiers to Poptun in June 1990. Their truck pulled into a military base where Colonel Alpirez was a commander. On June 8 they waylaid Mr. DeVine in his van, loaded with supplies for his inn, including cases of beer.

They drank his beer as they questioned him. And then they killed him, nearly decapitating him with a machete. The crime, being senseless, had no mastermind.

Others doubt it. "We always thought the intellectual author was an officer called Mario Garcia Catalan, the commander up at Santa Elena," Thomas Stroock, the U.S. ambassador in Guatemala from 1989 to 1992, said in an interview last year.

Mr. Catalan and Colonel Alpirez both were acquitted by military tribunals last year but cashiered last month by Guatemala's new president, Alvaro Arzu.

Several theories as to why Mr. DeVine was killed exist and were taken seriously by the U.S. Embassy, among them that Mr. DeVine had stumbled across some kind of smuggling operation by the Guatemalan military.

A report in October 1991 by Fred Brugger, then the CIA station chief in Guatemala, said Colonel Alpirez's role in the fatal interrogation was a documented fact. The report resurfaced at the State Department in January 1995, providing a basis for Mr. Torricelli's accusation. The CIA disavowed the report as "seriously flawed" last year and dismissed Mr. Brugger.

Pub Date: 3/24/96

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