When Secrets Kill

My husband, Efrain Bamaca Velasquez, or "Everardo," was a Mayan leader of the resistance movement in Guatemala for some 17 years. He was captured alive by the Guatemalan military on March 12, 1992. Because of his extensive information and experience, army intelligence officials decided to subject him to long-term torture to break him psychologically and force him to talk. In order to avoid international human rights outcry, the officers falsely announced that he had been killed in combat.

I learned of Everardo's true plight when a young prisoner escaped in early 1993. I spent the next several years attempting to save my husband's life, including three dangerous hunger strikes. Throughout this period, I met repeatedly with State Department officials, who assured me, as well as Congress, that they had no information but would do everything they could to help. In March 1995 I learned that Everardo had been executed without trial by a Guatemalan officer who was also a paid CIA informant.

In the ensuing uproar, a number of government files were declassified and additional witnesses came forward. The reports show that the CIA had indeed informed the State Department some six days after Everardo's capture that he was a prisoner in army hands and that the military would probably falsify his death in order to better take advantage of his intelligence value.

AS I BEGAN my search in early 1993, yet another CIA report was sent to the State Department, confirming that Everardo was still alive. Still other reports show that he was in the hands of CIA paid informants. Additional information continued to arrive about his ongoing abuse, but none of this was shared with me, the Red Cross, or Congress. We could have saved his life. Instead, he was tortured and drugged for close to two years, according to recent information. He was held in a full body cast to prevent his escape and eventually either thrown from a helicopter or dismembered. It did not have to happen.

On Dec. 10, 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court decided to hear my case, Harbury vs. Deutch. The issue now approaching the Court for review involves the constitutional right to access to the courts. Pursuant to a long line of well-established cases, U.S. officials may not engage in a cover-up in order to prevent suit against them or the government. Classic examples involve the old medical experimentation cases and police brutality situations. Where a cover-up occurs to prevent embarrassment and liability for illegal actions, then the right to proceed to the courts for redress has obviously been harmed. A complaint cannot be filed or properly pursued if key evidence has been withheld or even falsified.

This is precisely the issue in my own case. Had I been told the truth in a timely fashion, I could have gone to U.S. courts for an emergency order requiring the CIA to properly supervise and control their assets, require them to bring Everardo to a fair trial and treat him in accordance with basic humanitarian laws.

I do not argue that all classified information had to be released to me. Had the information appropriate for declassification been given me in a timely manner, or had the officials in question even issued the standard "glomar denial," refusing to confirm or deny the existence of such information, I could have saved my husband's life. Instead the path of deception was selected, and we were all told again and again that no information existed. It is now too late. Everardo is beyond the reach of any court.

Jennifer Harbury is a U.S. citizen, writer, and attorney. She has been heavily involved in Guatemalan human rights efforts since 1985 and is the author of Bridge of Courage (Common Courage Press, 1993) and Searching for Everardo (Warner Books, 1997).

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"When Secrets Kill"
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