One Woman's Vigil for Human Rights: Hunger Strike in Guatemala

Article excerpt

Jennifer Harbury, a Harvard-educated lawyer who married Guatemalan guerrilla Efrain Bamaca Velasquez (a k a Comandante Everardo), stopped eating on October 11. Since then, she has remained day and night in the plaza in front of the National Palace in Guatemala City, with a banner that reads, "Everardo, I love you. Your life is my life. I'll wait for you here to the end."

Harbury is only drinking water and electrolytes until her husband, who according to witnesses is being secretly detained and tortured by the army, is turned over to the courts, as required both by international law and a landmark human rights accord signed in March by the Guatemalan government and the rebels, the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (U.R.N.G.)

Bamaca vanished in a skirmish with the Guatemalan Army in 1992. According to the government, he was wounded and shot himself through the mouth with his rifle to avoid capture. When the guerrilla leadership requested information on the only body recovered after the battle, Ramiro de Leon Carpio, the human rights ombudsman, now the country's president, gave a minutely detailed description that matched Bamaca. But then the lies began to unravel.

The U.R.N.G. requested an exhumation of the grave. The government's human rights office agreed to this but then Guatemala's attorney general inexplicably canceled the proceedings. Eight months later, a U.R.N.G. member who had escaped from a clandestine army detention center said he had seen Bamaca at a military base months after his disappearance, chained to a bed and being tortured. According to the witness, instead of killing captured rebels, as the Guatemalan Army has traditionally done during three decades of armed conflict, it is demoralizing, reindoctrinating and torturing them until they agree to work for the military as informers.

An exhumation arranged by Harbury in August 1993 confirmed the witness's testimony. The body was not Bamaca's but that of a young boy who had been tied up, strangled and beaten to death. The sequence of events this suggests is obvious: To cover up its capture of Bamaca in the 1992 battle, the army took another prisoner to the combat site, killed him and informed the press that a guerrilla had fallen in combat. The army then sent false information to the U.R.N.G. that the body was Bamaca's.

This past January, shortly after $10 million in U.S. Economic Support Funds for Guatemala was delayed, in part because of this case, Guatemalan Defense Minister Mario Enriquez visited Washington, where he stated publicly that Bamaca was not in the hands of the army but was perhaps lost in the jungle. Throughout the spring, Enriquez held what seemed to be negotiating sessions with Harbury, in which he proposed possible scenarios for Bamaca's reappearance and she offered, in return, to drop her lawsuit with the Organization of American States. But nothing happened.

Suddenly, in the summer, as the peace negotiations with the U.R.N.G. seemed to be progressing well and Guatemala was promised close to $1 billion by the international community after a final accord was signed, the Defense Minister refused to meet with Harbury. …