You turn to us for voices you won't hear anywhere else.

Sign up for Democracy Now!'s Daily Digest to get our latest headlines and stories delivered to your inbox every day.

From CIA-Backed Wars to Cartel Violence: Inside the Roots of the Refugee Crisis in Central America

Media Options

Across the United States, thousands of migrant children remain detained alone after the Trump administration forcibly separated them from their parents at the border. Yet, despite the news about the United States’ human rights abuses of migrants, asylum seekers keep risking the dangerous journey to the United States. Texas-based human rights lawyer Jennifer Harbury has lived in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas for more than 40 years and has long worked with people fleeing violence in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. She also knows intimately the U.S. roots of this conflict. Her husband, Efraín Bámaca Velásquez, was a Mayan comandante and guerrilla who was disappeared after he was captured by the U.S.-backed Guatemalan army in the 1980s. After a long campaign, she found there was U.S. involvement in the cover-up of her husband’s murder and torture. We speak with Jennifer Harbury in Brownsville, Texas, about this history and this U.S. involvement in today’s conflicts in Central America.

Related Story

StoryJan 03, 2024“Voluntary Migration” or Ethnic Cleansing? Mouin Rabbani on Israel’s Push to Expel Residents of Gaza
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: I want you to tell that story of Everardo, of Efraín Bámaca Velásquez, your husband, for especially young people who maybe weren’t even born at that time. But to understand the roots of the violence today, talk about what happened. Your campaigning for him was, you know, one of the remarkable moments of protest, in your protest and also what you found out.

JENNIFER HARBURY: Well, as you said earlier, he was a Mayan Indian campesino. He had grown up starving. He was involved in the—what I call the Mayan resistance movement, which was part of the URNG resistance forces during the massacre campaign, etc., etc. He was captured alive. He was one of their highest-ranking officials, and he was captured alive on March the 12th, 1992, by the military. And they realized who he was and how much valuable intelligence he had. So, instead of—instead of killing him outright, which is what they did with 99.9 percent of the prisoners of war, they kept him alive, with the help of physicians, while they tortured him long term, with the goal of breaking him for his information. And I’m pretty sure, from the evidence I have in the CIA files, that he survived two-and-a-half to three years of torture at the hands of the military intelligence people. That team of his torturers, including the former president of Guatemala, they were all intelligence paid officials for the military who were also working for the CIA.

And I set out to search for him as soon as he disappeared, because we weren’t convinced he’d been killed in combat. The army faked his death to better take advantage of his intelligence. They didn’t want Amnesty—Amnesty to be crying out, or the U.N. interfering, or the Inter-American Commission.

AMY GOODMAN: And didn’t you even go to a military base, where they said, “This is the coffin that Everardo was in”?

JENNIFER HARBURY: I went to a military base, where they said he might be buried under the base, along with between 500 to 2,000 other people. I’m pretty sure that’s not where he is. But they faked his death. They told us he was in an unmarked grave in Retalhuleu. And at the same time, about a week after he disappeared, they sent a memo to both the White House and the State Department saying, “Oh, the army just captured Bámaca alive. He’s a very, very important catch. They’re going to fake his death, so they can better take advantage of his information and so that they can torture him.” That was six days after he was picked up. I ended up on a long series of hunger strikes, three total, one of them for 32 days in front of the palace down there.

AMY GOODMAN: Back with human rights attorney Jennifer Harbury on her husband’s death, in 20 seconds.


AMY GOODMAN: We return to our conversation with immigration lawyer Jennifer Harbury when I was in Brownsville, Texas, last week, where she represents people seeking political asylum in the U.S. I played for her a clip of the documentary Dirty Secrets: Jennifer, Everardo & the CIA in Guatemala, a film about the murder of her husband, the Mayan guerrilla and comandante Efraín Bámaca Velásquez in the ’80s.

JENNIFER HARBURY: I want to save my husband’s life. I’m not going to allow him to be tortured for two-and-a-half years in a secret army prison and then shot to death or assassinated as if he was some kind of garbage. I’d rather die. I would literally rather die. And I’m prepared to do so if I have to.

I want people to understand what it means to have someone disappeared in their family. And I want people to understand what that whole system of terror against a civilian population is about.

When you’re looking for someone you care about, you know, you don’t sleep anymore. You just stop sleeping. You wonder every single minute, you know, “Am I fighting hard enough? Are they shooting him right now? You know, are they burning him right now? Are they pulling his fingernails out right now? You know, maybe I should be trying harder. Maybe I should be fighting harder.”

AMY GOODMAN: That’s a clip from Dirty Secrets: Jennifer, Everardo & the CIA in Guatemala. This is when you were on hunger strike in Guatemala City outside the U.S. Embassy there?

JENNIFER HARBURY: The very first hunger strike was in front of the Politécnica, close to the U.S. Embassy, but it’s their army intelligence building. And it looks like the Wicked Witch of the West castle, with cannons and machine gun turrets. That was seven days. The second one, that appears in this clip, was in front of the National Palace, the government seat, and that was 32 days, water only. And then the very last one was in Washington, because they weren’t assisting me. And that lasted 12 days, before the disclosures came out, with Congressman Torricelli, that my husband had indeed been killed by military intelligence officials, who were also working as paid informants of the CIA.

AMY GOODMAN: And link that to what we’re seeing today. So, that was the violence of the 1980s, the U.S.-backed death squads in Guatemala. You really helped to expose this through your own personal experience. How does that relate to people coming over the border in the United States?

JENNIFER HARBURY: Well, let’s take the example of Julio Roberto Alpirez, the colonel, right? He was witnessed torturing my husband in person. He’s also known by the CIA to have helped murder Michael DeVine, a U.S. citizen innkeeper in Guatemala. There are also plenty of CIA files that say he excelled in his task of liquidating not only the guerrillas but all of their sympathizers—in other words, villagers—in the Highlands during the worst of the campaign, and that he was somewhat brutal and not well liked by his fellow military.

So, start with that person as an example. He received $44,000 shortly after he, in person, tortured my husband. He injected him with an unknown substance, out of a cylinder of gas, that made his body swell enormously, so badly that one arm and leg were bandaged because they had hemorrhaged, and he was bending over the torture table. Torricelli named him as one of those people. DEA records show that he’s also on the DEA corrupt officer list. He’s known to be a drug runner, a cartel leader. What did they do when the disclosures were made by Torricelli? The CIA protected him. He’s their asset. They sent him and his whole family to Washington, where he lived happily for 10 years in secret, not far from the CIA. When I found out, so that I would go file a Torture Victims Protection Act case on him, the CIA notified him and immediately sent him back to Guatemala so that he could avoid any consequences. And the DEA is not allowed to take him down, because he’s a CIA asset and partner for many, many years, and that’s forbidden.

So there are many high-level cartel people who engaged in genocide and daily acts of torture, who now are the heads of cartels. The terrifying Zeta gang, for example, was out of Guatemala and formed by military leaders. It’s also composed of many collaborators in the military still and by different police people. So these cartels are fantastically armed and trained to carry out village-by-village massacres, let alone bending people to their will. They’re terrifying. I mean, some women from the Río Negro massacre, back in 1980, were not long ago found in the city dump with their teeth pulled out and their breasts and hands amputated. And those kinds of mutilations, we remember. Those are those military people. These are not street gangs. These are not kids. These are not people we have no idea who they are. The head of the Salvatrucha gang was just discovered to be a military leader in Guatemala who had been working in the anti-gang unit hand in glove with U.S. military people. They really didn’t know?

AMY GOODMAN: So, that takes us to MS-13, to another country—that’s El Salvador—who President Trump says he is protecting us from the gang, the MS-13 gangs in Salvador. How does that relate to what you’re talking about in Guatemala?

JENNIFER HARBURY: Well, of course, the MS-13 had a lot of its roots in the United States, and then those people were deported back to Salvador. There’s a whole lot of history where actually that—that happened in the United States, just as these military intelligence people that went back down there. Those people are firmly entrenched. And then the U.S. is not so much going after them as they are the victims of those people, the people running up here—the woman with two small children on her back, barefoot; the 15-year-old who’s seven months pregnant from a gang rape; the man, the young man, 20 years old, with 17 bullets through his legs, that could show me the scars.

A 20-year-old who fled north after the second time the gangs told him they would kill him and the people close to him if he didn’t join, he’s cannon fodder at that age. And he said, “No,” again, took his wife and baby, and fled north, called his mom to say, “I’m coming back for the rest of you. I’m coming right now.” The day after he left, the gangs had bludgeoned his mother and younger brother to death and had gang-raped his 12-year-old sister, who was in a mental hospital, unable to speak. That young man has been sent back to Salvador.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to the Zetas and their connection to Special Forces, to training. The Zetas—a 2009 U.S. diplomatic cable that was published by WikiLeaks shows at least one Zeta, former infantry lieutenant named Rogelio Lopez, trained at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.

JENNIFER HARBURY: Well, many people, such as Julio Roberto Alpirez, who I keep mentioning because he’s such a template, right? Many of them were trained at the School of the Americas, in torture and kidnapping techniques, and they used them. And then, when the war was over, they kept using them in the same way. And if we would release the files on the human rights violations and massacres committed by all of those people, then the war crimes claims that are—that people are valiantly trying to bring in Central America, something could be done. Those people could be put in prison, and then maybe we would have a lessening of the terror that’s being used to drive people north in order to more easily run the drug cartels.

AMY GOODMAN: Where are the Zetas based?

JENNIFER HARBURY: Well, they were up here for quite a while, near Reynosa. They came originally out of Guatemala and southern Mexico. They were up here and owned the riverfront here for quite a while. They were pushed out a few years ago by the Golfo cartel. But in Reynosa now, they captured the—the army had captured the highest-level person, and they’ve captured or killed several lower-level ones. So that’s fractured, and the Zetas are coming back. And they’re all fighting each other, and they’re fighting the Mexican Army and the Mexican marines. So there’s nonstop shootouts.

Anyone that’s deported to Reynosa, they’re lucky if they can get off the bridge without being immediately grabbed, because they know they’ll have someone up north. People struggling north, you know, with their babies and stuff, they’re lucky if they don’t get trafficked and grabbed. It’s completely unsafe in Reynosa.

And the Zetas are clearly trying to come back, because a group of people recently paid off the correct cartel, what’s left of the Golfo, got to mid-river and were shot to death, with no explanation. And that’s almost for sure the Zetas coming back, saying, “Oh, you paid the wrong guys.”

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Jennifer Harbury, the well-known human rights activist and attorney. And she is also well known now all over the country for having gotten the news organization ProPublica the tape of children, babies, infants, toddlers, children of tender age, crying out for their parents, saying, “Mama,” “Papi.” Let’s go to that clip.

CHILD: [crying] Papá! Papá! Papá! Papá! Papá! Papá!

AMY GOODMAN: So, Jennifer Harbury, you’re the person who got this audiotape out. Describe how this happened.

JENNIFER HARBURY: Well, the true hero, of course, is the whistleblower. And he was present in the building nearby to these children, who had just been separated from their parents recently and who were just crying desperately and in fear, the way you just heard. That whistleblower brought the tape to me, and we discussed the legal issues and stuff. And the whistleblower authorized me to get it through to the press, which is what we did.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you know—can you tell us what detention center it’s from?


AMY GOODMAN: And how old the children were?

JENNIFER HARBURY: The children that you hear weeping would have been possibly as young as 3, up to 6 or 7. And in the background, not weeping, are some older children that are still minors.

AMY GOODMAN: And one child who keeps on repeating the phone number of her aunt.


AMY GOODMAN: Has she been reunited with her family?

JENNIFER HARBURY: I don’t think she has yet. I may be wrong on that, but I believe she’s still trying to get reunited with her family.

AMY GOODMAN: Even though her mother has called up and said that “This is my daughter,” and her aunt has confirmed that that is her number?

JENNIFER HARBURY: Even with that. And—

AMY GOODMAN: So a judge in San Diego has just ruled that these children must be reunited with their parents—under 5 in 14 days, all children in 30 days. So, what’s going to happen? Is this possible?

JENNIFER HARBURY: It’s possible, if they really want to put the time and attention into it that they must. The problem, of course, is that so many people within ICE and Border Patrol feel that these refugees are just kind of trash and should not be coming to our country in the first place, that things can’t be that bad back home, even though you can read that they have the highest murder rates in the world. So, I’m not sure how much—how hard they’re going to try. There can be spelling mistakes in a name. And, of course, in most of Central America, instead of saying June the 10th, 1984, they’re going to say 10th June, 1984, so that can be transposed sometimes, making it harder to find the person. But if they want to find the parents, of course they can. And if they want to release them immediately, of course they can. They always used to.

AMY GOODMAN: So, as we sit here, a major protest about to take place right behind us at the federal courthouse, a courthouse you know well, right here in Brownsville.


AMY GOODMAN: What message do you have for people across the country?

JENNIFER HARBURY: I think first we have to wake up and understand the basic flaw in the administration’s argument that they’re protecting us from cartels and terrorists and so forth. The people we are punishing are moms, kids, fathers, young teenagers that don’t want to be trafficked, young men that are saying, “No, I won’t work with the cartels.” They’re running for their lives. If the cartels wanted to send people to cross the river, as I said earlier, they can—they can buy the airport. They have bought several police units in Texas already. They can buy real—

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?

JENNIFER HARBURY: Well, a whole elite piece of our—of the police force here, not long ago, was found out to have been working with the cartels. That was very—

AMY GOODMAN: Here in Brownsville.

JENNIFER HARBURY: Not in Brownsville, up towards McAllen, in Hidalgo County. And it’s inevitable, with that kind of money. They have no need to send a desperate person who speaks no English, in raggedy clothing, to try to swim the river. They don’t need that. They just buy the passports. They buy the visas that are legitimate. And they can do whatever they want. So, we need to understand the difference.

Once we understand the difference, I think it becomes very clear what we have to do: protect the refugees. Protect them. Don’t leave them on the bridge to go into heat stroke. Don’t leave them to miscarry a child after you’ve been gang-raped. I mean, what are we thinking that we would declare war and bring down total abuse on people that have just run for their lives?

AMY GOODMAN: In the countries they’re mainly running from—Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala—

JENNIFER HARBURY: And much of Mexico.

AMY GOODMAN: And Mexico.

JENNIFER HARBURY: Much of Mexico, and also parts of Africa—not the cartels there, but genocide and anti-gay stuff.

AMY GOODMAN: In places like Honduras, where the U.S.—back to when Hillary Clinton was secretary of state, the U.S. supported a coup in Honduras. And then, even the Organization of American States saying the last election was not legitimate, the U.S. continues to support that government. How does that link, what’s happening there, to the violence there?

JENNIFER HARBURY: We keep supporting our military allies. It was President Otto Pérez Molina in Guatemala, was one of the intelligence leaders responsible for my husband’s three years of torture. And they knew that when he was running for office, and the State Department still covered for him, saying he was a reformist, for example. But what we’re doing is we’re—through our intelligence agencies, we’re still giving massive support and protection to keep these military units in place and in total power over each of these countries, so that they’ll do what we want with their countries. And in return, we cast a blind eye. Well, they set up these hideous drug-running cartels that are chasing these people up here and which eventually are going to land right here. And there already are signs of that in Texas. And if we haven’t done our part to put those people in prison by releasing our files and halting military support for them, through elections and otherwise, then we’re going to get what we deserve.

AMY GOODMAN: Human rights attorney Jennifer Harbury. I spoke to her on the border in Brownsville, Texas, last week. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

Up Next

“Voluntary Migration” or Ethnic Cleansing? Mouin Rabbani on Israel’s Push to Expel Residents of Gaza

Non-commercial news needs your support

We rely on contributions from our viewers and listeners to do our work.
Please do your part today.
Make a donation