Wife of missing Guatemalan rebel looks for answers


GUATEMALA CITY -- When Jennifer Harbury met the man who would become her husband on Guatemala's Tajumulco volcano four years ago, she knew their life would never be simple.

But she certainly didn't imagine that the disappearance of Efrain Bamaca Velasquez and her campaign to get to the truth of what happened to him would create an international controversy.

She was a Harvard-educated lawyer. He was an indigenous peasant and top guerrilla commander in the civil war between the elite and the Indian peasantry of this country that has lasted more than three decades.

More than 100,000 people have died in the civil war, and human rights groups hold the army responsible for the forced disappearance of another 40,000 people.

Despite the odds against a normal life, Ms. Harbury married Mr. Bamaca in 1990, and they were together until March 1992. Then he vanished after a battle between government troops and rebels.

Since then, Ms. Harbury's life has been turned upside down as she has tried to unravel the mystery of her husband's disappearance. She has combed remote areas of Guatemala looking for clues and won support for her campaign from an impressive array of political figures, including former President Jimmy Carter and dozens of members of Congress.

On Monday Ms. Harbury will begin the fifth week of a hunger strike outside Guatemala City's National Palace to press the army for information about her husband. She's finally getting some results.

Under pressure from the U.S. government, President Ramiro de Leon Carpio ordered an investigation last week into the disappearance of her husband. Attorney General Acisclo Valladares and Guatemalan lawyer Factor Mendez accompanied her to a private hearing last Thursday.

Her fast has brought the diminutive 43-year-old into open confrontation with Guatemala's powerful army, which insists that Bamaca killed himself to avoid capture and was buried in the town of Retalhuleu in south west Guatemala.

"She is suffering in vain," said Defense Minister Gen. Mario Enriquez in a recent interview.

But a rebel from Mr. Bamaca's unit who escaped from a military base in the western San Marcos province in late 1992 has testified before the United Nations that he saw the guerrilla commander there.

Ms. Harbury's hopes that her husband may be alive rose again last year when an exhumation of the grave where the army said Mr. Bamaca was buried unearthed someone else's body.

She believes the army is holding her husband as part of an intelligence program to brainwash captured rebels to become informers.

"I'm going to stay here until they give me him back. I won't settle for anything else," she said from her makeshift bed of wood and plastic in the main square of the capital, clasping the cellular phone she uses to keep in touch with family and friends at home.

Her conviction that her husband is alive and her memories of him have fueled her resolve during the hunger strike, she said.

Ms. Harbury first met Mr. Bamaca during a month-long trip to a guerrilla camp on the Tajumulco volcano to interview combatants for a book she was writing on Guatemala's civil war.

Mr. Bamaca, whom she knew by his nom de guerre "Comandante Everado," was in charge of arranging interviews and assuring her security.

"We became good friends," she said. After Ms. Harbury returned Texas to work on her book, Mr. Bamaca kept in touch through "folded-up notes" sent from the volcano to the United States via Mexico City, site of the rebels' headquarters.

In 1991 the couple met again when Mr. Bamaca was called to Mexico City to participate in peace talks between the rebels and government. They married in September during a trip to Austin, Texas.

Early the next year Mr. Bamaca was sent on a short trip to Guatemala to relay information about the peace talks to his guerrilla unit. Ms. Harbury never saw him again.

Ms. Harbury, who was born in Baltimore but left as an infant, has sought support from the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala and has held meetings with Embassy officials.

The case has strained relations between the U.S. and Guatemalan government and brought back bitter memories of other unresolved cases involving U.S. citizens.

In June 1990 Michael Devine was hacked to death by soldiers in the northern Peten province. His killing prompted the U.S. government to cut military aid to Guatemala.

Sister Diana Ortiz, an Ursuline nun who returned to Guatemala this week to support Ms. Harbury's campaign, has brought a case against the security forces alleging that she was tortured and raped in a military base after being abducted in 1989.

In the mid-1980s, journalist Nick Blake was killed by an army-sponsored paramilitary group on his way to interview guerrillas.

The Harbury case has also divided Guatemalans. Each day a steady flow of Guatemalan victims of the civil war quietly visit Ms. Harbury, leaving flowers or letters.

But a couple of hecklers wearing placards reading "Gringo go home" and "Go back to Cuba Communist" patrol the makeshift home Ms. Harbury has set up. Newspaper editorials have lambasted her for marrying a guerrilla.

Weak and tired after her long fast, Ms. Harbury said she has no regrets about marrying a guerrilla commander in spite of the heartache.

"I could have chosen not to have anything to do with him. But I married him because he was a great person. I knew exactly what I was getting into, and it was worth everything," she said.

A picture of Mr. Bamaca, a Mam Indian whom she describes as a "real quiet, simple and amazingly intelligent man" lies beside her.

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