20 Years after La Penca Bombing, More Questions Than Answers
Twenty years have produced conspiracytheories, accusations of both CIA andSandinista involvement and links to the Iran-Contra scandal.Twenty years have produced multimillion-dollarlawsuits, several books and lives dedicated toseeking the truth.But the two decades since the May 30, 1984,bombing of an anti-Sandinista headquarters in LaPenca, Nicaragua, during a press conference that leftfour dead, including Tico Times reporter Linda Frazierand two Costa Rican journalists, have produced fewanswers.THE Costa Rican government doesn’t expectthose answers any time soon. Attorney GeneralFrancisco Dall’Anese said earlier this year in a letter tothe Ombudsman’s Office that the investigation of thebombing at La Penca is at a dead stop, primarilybecause of blocked access to documents declaredsecret by the United States.Dall’Anese said failure to extradite former CIAcollaborators John Hull and Cuban-American FelipeVidal from the United States also has impeded theinvestigation.Although murder charges were provisionally filedagainst Hull and Vidal regarding the attack in 1990, one has ever been convicted for the bombing.Prosecutor Paula Guido, who took overthe case three years ago, said she will notwait for the declassification of U.S. Senatedocuments, which could take years. Shetold The Tico Times this week that she hasbegun writing a case to be presented by theProsecutor’s Office before an appropriatejudge.Beyond the implication of Hull, a longtimeresident of Costa Rica’s NorthernZone, Guido gave no indication as to whatthe conclusion of her office will be in thecase. But if it is anything like other investigationsof the La Penca tragedy, it willnot be a simple one.SOME believe that if it was not theU.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)behind the La Penca attack, it had to be theleft-wing Sandinista government in powerin Nicaragua from 1979 to 1990.But more and more people are comingto the bizarre conclusion that both organizations– who can only be described asenemies during Nicaragua’s war-torn1980s – were involved.“The more indications there are, themore there is the real sense of a lack of resolution,and the trail points to both the CIAand the Sandinistas. My guess is itinvolved both sides,” said U.S. journalistMartha Honey, who conducted an 18-month investigation of the bombing withher husband Tony Avirgan, who wasinjured at La Penca while working as acameraman for ABC.THE bombing was widely consideredan assassination attempt against Nicaraguanrebel leader Edén Pastora, who calledthe press conference at La Penca, a remotejungle camp on the bank of the San JuanRiver.Pastora – the charismatic Sandinista turnedrebel who as “Comandante Cero”led the takeover of Managua’s NationalPalace during the uprising againstAnastasio Somoza – was not short on enemies.When he invited reporters to his remoteheadquarters he was expected to announcehis refusal to join U.S.-backed Contragroups to the north. Despite CIA threats hewould lose its support otherwise, Pastorarefused to joint the more conservativenorthern forces, which he said were composedof mostly former Somoza guardsmen.PASTORA told The Tico Times thisweek he believes the CIA and Sandinistaswere both involved in the assassinationplot. Both sides needed him out of the picturein order to implement a treaty to endthe war secretly negotiated in Manzanillo,Mexico, earlier that year.“It was a cross of interests,” he said.“The Frente (Sandinista) and a rightwingsector of the United States wanted to killme. The Frente supplied the manpower andthe CIA supplied the technology.”While this may seem like an odd collaboration,Pastora explained, “TheGringos do not have enemies or friends,they only have interests.”INVESTIGATIONS of La Penca havealso been clouded by interests, accordingto John McPhaul, managing editor of TheTico Times during the 1980s and early1990s.“La Penca really seemed to have a doubledimension,” he said. “There was LaPenca the despicable crime and terroristact, and La Penca the political sideshow …At times during the course of the La Pencainvestigation many seemed more interestedin pinning the crime on one side or theother (the Sandinistas or the CIA) than inbringing the facts to light and letting themspeak for themselves.”AN investigation by The Miami Heraldin the early 1990s revealed the identity ofthe bomber, and pointed the case towardSandinista responsibility. Reporter JuanTamayo revealed that the bomber, whoposed as a photojournalist and carried thestolen passport of a Dane named Per AnkerHansen, was a Sandinista sympathizernamed Vital Roberto Gaguine.Gaguine was part of an Argentine guerrillagroup based in Nicaragua that workedfor Sandinista intelligence, according toTamayo’s report. Fingerprints tied Gaguineto “Hansen” documents. Gaguine’s brotherand father also identified him as the personin photos of “Hansen” taken the day of thebombing. Gaguine was reportedly killed ina 1989 attack on an Argentine militarybase.Tamayo maintains that his investigationreveals that the bombing was entirelythe responsibility of the Sandinistas.However, like so many conclusions inthe La Penca case, there are questions.“About the real identity of Per AnkerHansen, I still have some doubts,” Guidosaid. “I must finish the review of the caseto confirm one thing or another 100%.”REPORTS by other journalists andinvestigators have pointed the investigationin the other direction.In 1990, then-Costa Rican ProsecutorJorge Chavarría supported findings byHoney and Avirgan that La Penca wasmasterminded by Nicaraguan Contras,Cuban-Americans, Costa Ricans and CIAcollaborators with links to internationaldrug-traffickers, including formerPanamanian strongman Gen. ManuelNoriega (TT, Jan. 12, 1990).Following recommendations byChavarría, San José’s Fourth Court ofInstruction “provisionally” charged Hulland Vidal with aggravated murder (TT,March 23, 1990). However, extradition attempts were unsuccessful.Hull was also suspected of using a landingstrip on his Northern Zone ranch fordrug trafficking. These charges were eventuallydropped (TT, July 28, 1989).THE findings of the Honey-Avirganinvestigation inspired not only Chavarría’sreport, but also a series of lawsuits. Hullfiled a libel suit against the couple in themid-1980s, which they beat (TT, May 30,1986).The couple responded with a $23 millionlawsuit against Hull, Vidal, and morethan 20 others. The suit was rejected twiceand a judge ordered the couple to pay thedefendants $1.3 million in attorney’s fees.In May 1999, former foreign press correspondentRoberto Cruz, also injured inthe bombing (see separate story), filed acriminal case with the Costa Rican courtsystem. He alleged the CIA mastermindedthe plot to kill Pastora and foreign pressand frame the Sandinistas, which wouldjustify U.S. military intervention (TT, June8, 2001).WHILE the U.S. Embassy in San Joséthis week again denied any U.S. involvementin La Penca, the U.S. government issuspicious as much for what it has done asfor what it has not, said Joe Frazier, husbandof victim Linda Frazier.With the exception of Senate Iran-Contra hearings, most of what is known bythe public about La Penca has comethrough journalistic investigations andindependently filed court cases.“I don’t think the United States hasdone anything at all to attempt to find outwhat happened. Under the administration atthe time, it couldn’t have cared less,” saidFrazier, a veteran Associated Press correspondentnow living in Oregon.Frazier said his suspicion of U.S.involvement has grown over the years.“I was talking to a former (U.S.) ambassadorto Honduras and we were discussing(La Penca) and he asked, ‘Do you think wedid it?’ and I said, ‘I think you certainlyknew about it, and probably signed off onit,’ and he was silent, didn’t say a word,”Frazier continued.IMMEDIATELY following the bombing,the U.S. government not only failed tosend help for the victims – several of whomwere U.S. citizens – and failed to investigatethe attack, but attempted to derail journalists’investigations with false leads.Efforts by The Tico Times and othermedia to involve the FBI in the investigationwere rebuffed, both in WashingtonD.C. and San José.“Within hours of the bombing, reportscame out of Washington that it was aBasque separatist, but we found out he wasin jail, when that fell apart, they put outanother story, there were a dozen falsereports, but they never really nailed it to theSandinistas,” Honey said in a phone interviewthis week from Maryland.“If it was the Sandinistas, why didn’tthe United States seize the opportunity todenounce the revolutionary government?”Honey asked.ALTHOUGH the Costa Rican legislaturein 1990 appointed a four-member commissionto investigate the bombing, theTico government has also been criticizedfor lack of action.“After so many years, there are noanswers, only a shameful silence,” saidRaúl Silesky, president of the Costa RicanJournalist’s Association, in a statement.Robert Rivard, Newsweek magazine’sCentral American bureau chief at the timeof the bombing, told The Tico Times thisweek, “La Penca was an unjustifiable act ofterror, and there is blame enough for all theregion’s players to bear: the Sandinistas andthe U.S. intelligence community, each ofwhom believed their ends justified themeans; Edén Pastora, a weekend revolutionarypropped up by the ReaganAdministration, who saw to his own evacuationfrom the jungle while Linda Frazierwas left behind to bleed to death; and evenCosta Rica, which turned a blind eye to somuch covert activity on its own soil.”McPhaul said this week in an e-mailfrom Puerto Rico, “A Costa Rican judgerecently told me that in the past 20 years thecompetence of the cops and judiciary inCosta Rica has much improved, and that ifit happened today, authorities could solve aLa Penca-like crime.“I hope for Costa Rica’s sake that that’strue, because the lingering doubts of thekind produced by La Penca, and the recriminationsthey engender, is poison to thecountry’s body politic.”(Tico Times staffers Jennifer Avilla, StevenJ. Barry, Robert Goodier, Rebecca Kimitch,Auriana Koutnik and Tim Rogers contributedto this report.)What Happened that Day?WHEN reporters arrived at the remoteNicaraguan rebel camp La Penca on May30, 1984, it was already late. Leader EdénPastora said the press conference they hadcome for was to be held the next morning.But shortly after the 24 journalists disembarkedfrom the boats they had taken upthe San Juan River to the jungle camp andentered the rustic stilt house, they foundthemselves clustered around Pastora (TT,June 8, 1984).And that is when it happened. At 7:20p.m., as people were pushing forward andsnapping pictures, the bomb went off. Theforce of the blast instantly killed RosaAlvarez, a young radio operator for Pastora’srebel group, and caused injuries amongevery journalist present, from minor to fatal.TICO Times reporter Linda Frazier, 38,did not die from her injuries until the nextmorning, after a night of agony at the site.Channel 6 cameraman Jorge Quirós, 24,also died at the site. The station’s assistantEvelio Sequeira, 43, died a week later.Meanwhile, witnesses reported seeingthe person later identified as the bomber inthe lower area, under the building fromwhere he had used a remote detonator toset off the suitcase explosives.What followed has made survivorswonder for years if more lives could havebeen saved.Pastora, who suffered burns and fractures,was rushed off by speedboat.According to survivors, the least woundedwere among the first to be evacuated – onslow, leaky, outboard-powered dugouts.Witnesses said it was more than anhour before any of the more seriouslyinjured were attended to by the rebelgroup’s terrified personnel, who draggedthem out of the building, applied tourniquetsand administered antibiotic injections, but littleelse. Reports later revealed they wereoperating under a triage system and attendingfirst to those they thought would mostlikely survive.NEWS of the tragedy arrived in SanJosé around 8 p.m., via radio transmission.The first boatload of victims was met bywaiting ambulances in Costa Rica at 9 p.m.,after an hour-long trip on the San Juan andSan Carlos rivers. The trip to the CiudadQuesada hospital was another 45 minutes.The evacuation and treatment continuedinto the evening.Despite requests for helicopters fromthe U.S. Embassy and nearby U.S. rancherswith planes and radios, the entire evacuationwas done by boat and car.Death Came before Answers for Outspoken JournalistUNPARALLELED dedication touncovering the truth about the La Pencabombing died last year with the death offoreign press correspondent Roberto Cruz.The explosion took from him a leg, eyeand hearing in his left ear, and fueled hisdrive to seek justice for the terrorist actuntil his death (TT, Feb. 28, 2003).“There have been no accusations orarrests made of those involved in the massacreof journalists,” Cruz told The TicoTimes in a 2001 interview. “The continuedcover-up makes a mockery of justice andof the journalists who lost their lives.”Cruz maintained the assassination plotwas authored by CIA officials workingwith high-ranking members of the CostaRican and U.S. governments.IN May 1999, after years of accumulatingadditional testimonies and documentationto support his case, he – along withfamily members of the two Channel 6staffers killed in the blast – filed a criminalcase before the Costa Rican court system(TT June 8, 2001).The case, handled by Costa Ricanprosecutor Paula Guido, will come to aclose in the near future with her finalreport, she said this week. She said she ispreparing to present it and her conclusionsto a Costa Rican judge in the future, butdid not say when.No one has picked up the torch thatGuatemalan-born Cruz dropped when hedied at age 67, and Guido says she doesnot believe any new evidence will surface.JOURNALIST Martha Honey, whoconducted an 18-month investigation of thebombing with her husband Tony Avirgan,also injured by the bomb, said Cruz “wasterribly wounded both physically and psychologicallybecause of La Penca, and hestruggled to get to the truth of it.“In my mind, he is the real hero andneeds to be remembered,” she added.
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