The CIA Cowboys 1990



Clinton demands scrutiny of new charges that the agency was complicit in killings and cover-ups


The CIA has always considered Guatemala its private playpen. It was in Guatemala that the agency learned to overthrow Latin governments, engineering the 1954 coup that toppled leftist President Jacobo Arbenz Guzman. Administrations have come and gone. So has the cold war. But the freewheeling tradecraft the agency practiced in Guatemala has barely changed. “If you were going to pick a place where the CIA still has a cowboy mentality, it’s there,” says a former top official with the agency.

Now the cowboys have been swept up in an investigation of CIA complicity in two Guatemala murders and a possible cover-up by other parts of the U.S. government. Democratic Congressman Robert Torricelli first aired charges that an agency informant – Colonel Julio Roberto Alpirez of Guatemala’s intelligence service – was linked to the murders. Last week Torricelli released an anonymous letter, supposedly from a National Security Agency employee, claiming that the CIA and the Pentagon knew early on about Alpirez’s connection to the killings of American Michael Devine in 1990 and Guatemalan guerrilla Efrain Bamaca Velasquez in 1992. (Bamaca was married to an American lawyer, Jennifer Harbury, who conducted hunger strikes in Guatemala and Washington to pressure authorities for information about her husband’s murder.) The letter goes on to accuse the nsa and Army of destroying documents that would show U.S. “involvement in these incidents.”

Blindsided by the allegations, President Clinton ordered his Intelligence Oversight Board to conduct a “government-wide review” of the case. The White House is also investigating whether the CIA in 1990 secretly increased aid to the Guatemalan military to make up for a Bush Administration cutoff of overt military assistance as a protest over the Devine murder. FBI agents were dispatched last week to the NSA’s headquarters at Fort Meade, Maryland, to secure its communications records on Guatemala. The CIA, Pentagon and State Department launched their own investigations.

So far, the FBI has uncovered no document shredding. “No one has indicated to me that they’ve found any paydirt,” says Justice Department spokesman Carl Stern. The CIA denies any early knowledge that Alpirez was tied to the killings. But troubling questions remain over information the CIA held back from other U.S. officials.

By September 1991, the State Department had received CIA intelligence linking Alpirez to the Devine killing. But a former senior official in the Bush Administration tells TIME that the CIA never informed the State Department or White House that Alpirez was a CIA informant. “They should have told us that Alpirez was on their payroll,” said the former Bush Administration official.

For their part, CIA officials say that in late 1991 they dropped Alpirez as an informant and passed along the allegations against him to the Justice Department, which decided in March 1992 that it had no jurisdiction to prosecute. Intelligence officials say the agency then paid Alpirez the $44,000 that was due him before the CIA relationship was severed. That same month, Bamaca disappeared. The CIA last December received a report that Alpirez saw him tortured to death. Meanwhile, the CIA continued to provide $1 million to $3 million annually to Guatemala’s intelligence arm for training and monitoring insurgents and drug traffickers.

The CIA’s Guatemala station in the early 1990s always had a reputation for aggressive and hard-drinking case officers who ignored not only the human-rights abuses of Guatemalan officers on the agency’s payroll but also the directives of U.S. diplomats in the embassy there. At times the station could even be independent of its own agency. TIME has learned that last year the CIA’s inspector general dispatched a team to Guatemala to investigate allegations that the agency’s station chief failed to pass along warnings of an assassination plot that was eventually carried out – unsuccessfully – against a local official. The CIA refused to comment on the investigation or its results. The station chief was ordered back to Washington in January.

Meanwhile, the furor in Washington is unsettling Guatemalans, who fear that the army, already racked by internal divisions and under fire for having the hemisphere’s worst human-rights record, will lash out because of the disclosures. Officers angered by pressure on the army to reform may have set off a series of explosions near the Guatemala City airport on March 26. “Right now anything is possible – a coup, an assassination attempt on the President or Defense Minister,” warned a political analyst close to the military. Washington may have emerged from the cold war, but in Guatemala, military violence and a meddling CIA are still the way of life.

With reporting by Elaine Shannon/Washington and Trish O’Kane/ Guatemala City

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