“The case of La Penca is not closed,” William Céspedes, a survivor of the 1984 bombing of a press conference in a remote jungle location near the Nicaragua-Costa Rica border, told a small group of journalists gathered inside the Prosecutor’s Office in San José Tuesday. “The investigation has been reactivated and has been advancing.”
No one has been held responsible for the explosion, which killed three journalists and injured many other people.
Céspedes, who in 1984 was a journalist for Radio Reloj news station, is among four survivors of the bombing who met this week with the prosecutor now handling the case to be briefed on the government’s investigation nearly 23 years after the tragedy. After the meeting, the four told the press they could not share the details of their two-hour conversation because the case is still under investigation. They did, however, say the meeting gave them renewed hope.
“I feel that (the case) is no longer in the dark,” said Nelson Murrillo, who worked for Channel 6 TV News at the time of the bombing and who requested the meeting.
“Instead, I feel there are some small lights that are beginning, little by little, to clear the dark path.”
On May 30, 1984, a bomb ripped through a gathering of guerrillas and journalists, who had arrived from Costa Rica for a press conference with Nicaraguan rebel leader Éden Pastora at the rebel base La Penca, on the northern side of the San Juan River between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Tico Times reporter Linda Frazier, 38, Channel 6 TV News cameraman Jorge Quirós, 24, and his sound technician Evelio Sequeira, 43, died from injuries sustained during the explosion.
While no one has ever been arrested for the attack, investigations have produced theories fingering both the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Nicaraguan Sandinistas as the culprits. The bomber, who passed himself off as a Danish reporter named Per Anker Hansen, was later identified as Vital Roberto Gaguine, a leftist Argentinean revolutionary with ties to the Sandinistas. Gaguine reportedly died in a 1989 attack by leftist guerillas on the Argentine barracks (TT, May 28, 2004).
Chief Prosecutor Francisco Dall’Anese said in a 2004 letter responding to inquiries from the Ombudsman’s Office that the investigation was at a dead stop, mostly because the United States would not allow access to some documents declared secret. He added that Costa Rica’s inability to obtain the extradition of U.S. citizen John Hull – who allegedly coordinated CIA flights of drugs and arms to and from a landing strip on his farm in Costa Rica’s Northern Zone – and Cuban-American Felipe Vidal from the United States had further impeded the investigation (TT, May 28, 2004). Costa Rican authorities “provisionally” charged the two with murder in 1990 in connection with the bombing at La Penca.
Alejandra Arce, the prosecutor now handling the La Penca case, told The Tico Times Wednesday that Hull and Vidal are no longer suspects in the case. Arce also said she is asking for information from the United States and Argentina in connection with the case, but not from Nicaragua.
Céspedes told the press that since Arce was assigned to the La Penca investigation in September 2005, she “retook the case with much more force… and began to work on very clear, specific aspects of the case” that allowed the Prosecutor’s Office to advance in its investigation.
The decades of impunity and near silence from Costa Rican authorities led the Costa Rican Journalists’ Association to file a case before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in August 2005, accusing the government of inactivity in the investigation. Meanwhile, the Journalists’ Association, along with Murrillo, continued to pressure the Prosecutor’s Office for information or access to the case file, which led to Tuesday’s meeting. Association members were not let in, however, as Costa Rican law says only those involved have access to ongoing investigations.
Arce told the survivors Tuesday, and later The Tico Times, that the rights commission has not formally contacted the Prosecutor’s Office regarding the case.
Heriberto Valverde, president of the Journalists’ Association, told The Tico Times the news was surprising, noting that in May the association’s board of directors sent a letter to the commission asking for an update on the status of the case. Tuesday night, the board of directors agreed to send another letter, Valverde said, adding the news they received that day from the Prosecutor’s Office.
“It is disrespectful on behalf of the commission to not have processed our complaint or responded to the letter,” he said.
Noting that the new prosecutor and rejuvenation of the investigation came just two months after their case was filed before the commission, Valverde concluded that their action prompted some results.
Despite what appeared on Tuesday to be news of renewed activity in the case – which Valverde said was pleasing – the association president said he still hopes the human rights commission will comment on the matter.
For La Penca survivor Céspedes, however, Tuesday’s meeting appeared to have renewed his faith.
“The Costa Rican judicial system has not abandoned the investigation of La Penca,” he said.