Swede puts La Penca past to rest with documentary
Peter Torbiörnsson says there are days he wishes the bomb that went off at a press conference 27 years ago had taken his life. At least, he says, he wouldn’t have to live with such agonizing guilt.
Torbiörnsson, a 69-year-old Swedish journalist and filmmaker, was one of the victims at the La Penca bombing along the San Juan River in Nicaragua on May 20, 1984. Four rebels and three journalists, including Tico Times reporter Linda Frazier, were killed, and 21 were injured, including Torbiörnsson.
“I tend to have my moments where I feel like dying. When I listen to [former guerrilla leader Edén] Pastora talk, I still feel very bad,” Torbiörnsson told The Tico Times last week. “I just want to get rid of these memories, and it never stops. … I’ve been very depressed and very sad at times.”
While nearly three decades have passed, for Torbiörnsson, the memory is something that continues to replay on loop. He remembers the river ride with reporters and photographers in a wooden boat down the muddy Río San Juan to the conference. He can still see the members of the press climbing the unsteady steps up to the rickety house on stilts on the Nicaraguan side of the river. He recalls greeting Pastora, a former Sandinista known as Comandante Cero who became rebel leader of the southern front’s Democratic Revolutionary Alliance (ARDE), which fought the Sandinista government during the war.
As reporters interviewed Pastora, a bomb exploded, sending shrapnel and pieces of the floor and walls at the people in the room. Torbiörnsson remembers lying on the floor as the smoke cleared. The moon shone through a window and illuminated the room. He watched Frazier bleed to death in the moonlight.
“When I relive this explosion, it is very vivid. I clearly remember everything, every moment,” Torbiörnsson said.
“Between the time of the bomb and returning to my senses, I thought I was dying. I thought that my life was ending and that I was no longer Peter anymore. I was just floating as energy in the universe,” he said. “Then I return to reality and it was ugly. People are crying, screaming and there was this smell of death. … The images have always haunted me. It is a nightmare.”
To come to peace with his decades-long nightmare, Torbiörnsson released a documentary in late August titled “Last Chapter: Goodbye Nicaragua” that recounts the events of La Penca and presents a conclusion to the elusive mystery of the true orchestrator of the bombing. Torbiörnsson’s contention is that Sandinista leaders ordered the bomber to kill Pastora. Throughout the film, Torbiörnsson travels to Nicaragua, Cuba, Bolivia and France in search of the pieces and voices to validate his theory.
“I do feel like I arrived at a truth in the film,” Torbiörnsson said. “I feel the end result provides justice to the victims.”
In 1984, Torbiörnsson was a cameraman for a Swedish news agency and was assigned to cover the war between the U.S.-backed Contra rebels and the Sandinistas, who assumed power in 1979 after the overthrow of dictator Anastasio Somoza a year earlier. Torbiörnsson spent time in Managua covering President Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas’ socialist intentions for Nicaragua. He openly admits to sympathizing with the Sandinista cause. Pastora had fallen out with the Sandinistas and fought against them.
Before the bombing, Torbiörnsson said he was approached by Col. Renán Montero, a Cuban Sandinista collaborator. Torbiörnsson says Montero, who wore stars on each shoulder of his uniform, said that a Danish photographer would soon arrive to perform undercover work for the Sandinistas.
Weeks later, a Danish photographer using the alias Per Anker Hansen met Torbiörnsson in the Costa Rican capital, where they spent three weeks together. Torbiörnsson said the Dane spoke fluent English though mostly kept to himself. The Dane brought the bomb to La Penca in his aluminum camera case.
In 1993, The Miami Herald and three other journalists proved that the bomber’s identity was Vital Roberto Gaguine, a leftist Argentine spy, who posed as Hansen. Gaguine was killed on Jan. 23, 1989, during an attack on a military barracks in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
“The guy with the two stars in Managua, the high comandante, asked me one night to bring a supposedly Danish photographer to Nicaragua. I thought it was a strange request and bad practice to ask a journalist to do that,” Torbiörnsson said. “If I had known that the Dane would bring a bomb that would kill journalists and innocent people, I would have never taken him to the press conference. I would have turned him in or even killed him myself.”
During the filming of “Last Chapter: Goodbye Nicaragua,” Torbiörnsson returns to Nicaragua to launch a tireless search for Montero, as well as former Interior Minister Tomás Borge and Lenín Cerna, ex-chief of state security. In the film, Torbiörnsson locates the men, but his requests for interviews are denied. Torbiörnsson filed a criminal complaint against Montero, Borge and Cerna for the La Penca murders, but when he returned to confront police a year later, the case had gone nowhere. No official police investigation was launched.
“It is the only terrorist act committed in a country that has never been investigated at all,” Torbiörnsson said. “Nothing was done. That is the reason I tried to solve it.”
The documentary also features two interviews with Pastora, one conducted by Torbiörnsson and one by Susan Morgan, a British journalist who was severely injured in the bombing while working for Newsweek. The interviews show two very different sides to Pastora’s personality. Although he fought the Sandinistas during the war and was the suspected target of the attack, Pastora now works in step with the Ortega government that once likely tried to kill him.
In the film, Pastora initially blames the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency for planting the bomb. During a second interview with Morgan months later, an angrier Pastora says Torbiörnsson acted as a pawn for the Sandinistas.
“Now that Peter Torbiörnsson is old, he regrets what he did,” Pastora said. “Now that he regrets what happened, he is trying to put the blame on someone else.”
In an interview with the now-defunct Nica Times in 2009, Pastora said that he felt Torbiörnsson was an informant for the Sandinistas.
“Peter was with me for 15 days going up and down the river, studying me,” Pastora said in 2009.
As for the journalist’s relationship with the bomber, Pastora said he doubted Torbiörnsson’s alleged innocence.
“[Torbiörnsson] knew he hadn’t brought the Archangel Saint Michael,” Pastora said. “I am absolutely certain of that” (NT, Feb. 13, 2009).
Torbiörnsson said the two sides of Pastora portrayed in the film, which also includes footage of Pastora as the bearded leader of his guerrilla troops in the ‘80s, are indicative of Comandante Cero’s chameleonic nature.
“He is like a gifted ballplayer without a team,” Torbiörnsson said.
Towards the end of the film, Morgan meets with former Sandinista Interior Vice Minister Luis Carrion. Carrion confesses to the Sandinista involvement in plotting the attack.
“I knew it was an intelligence operation of the Ministry of the Interior at the time. I learned that a few days after it happened,” Carrion said. “For me, the most serious part was that I didn’t confront it when it happened. This is the first time I have spoken about this.”
Torbiörnsson also interviews Borge in the final scene of documentary, sneaking his way into the former minister’s home with a group of Australian journalists. In a heated exchange, Torbiörnsson stands and points his finger at Borge, accusing him of orchestrating the bombing. Surprised by the encounter, Borge says he won’t comment on Sandinista involvement at La Penca and orders Torbiörnsson to leave his home.
“That, to me, was the moment I’d been waiting for,” Torbiörnsson said. “For Borge to admit that the Sandinistas had been involved was the closure I’d been looking for.”
Though Borge never openly admits anything, Torbiörnsson considers the acknowledgement of Sandinista involvement as incrimination. Near the end of their confrontation, Borge tells Torbiörnsson that his decision to bring the bomber to the press conference was an act of complicity.
“If you knew something then, why didn’t you say anything?” Borge asked Torbiörnsson. “Now after all these years you confront me, when it was you that was complicit?”
Torbiörnsson said that being forever linked to the bomber and the deaths at La Penca is the dark shadow that has followed him all these years.
“The reason I made this documentary was because I no longer want to be the guy involved with the bomber at La Penca,” Torbiörnsson said. “I don’t want to continue to have to clarify that I wasn’t involved. I did nothing.”
Another theme throughout the film is the cyclical nature of Nicaragua, depicted by the lack of progress in the country since the Sandinistas took over in 1979. Other powerful scenes include a Nicaraguan family – friends of Torbiörnsson’s – struggling to escape poverty, and of Torbiörnsson himself, who returned to Nicaragua in 2009 for the first time in 22 years. Torbiörnsson said that Nicaragua is trapped in a “vicious cycle” and says that his return to find excessive propaganda promoting the reelection of Ortega, considered by many to be a constitutional violation, is an example of a corrupted state.
“Nicaragua has become a parody of what it hoped to be,” he said. “Ortega is back in power though none of the socialist promises of the ‘80s have been realized. … Nicaragua is the black nature of human beings. They had a chance to create a revolution and ended up as corrupt as the man they dethroned.”
The screening of “Last Chapter: Goodbye Nicaragua” in late August was greeted with mixed reviews in Nicaragua. While young Nicaraguans turned out in droves to see the film, Pastora responded by saying he would file charges of terrorism against Torbiörnsson. Pastora said he considered Torbiörnsson and the bomber to be one in the same.
Torbiörnsson hopes the film will show in Costa Rica and is lobbying to have it approved for screenings. Regardless of whether it plays or not in Costa Rica, Torbiörnsson says he is content to close the book on the last and longest chapter of his life.
“I tried to forget La Penca for a long time. My friends said it would be wise just to drop it, but I could not. It changed the lives of so many people. You don’t forget a thing like that,” Torbiörnsson said. “It is my last film. I’m old now. I set out to prove something with this documentary and I think I succeeded. Hopefully now I can allow my mind to rest.”
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