“There is a crack, a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in.”
Victims, journalists, investigators recall La Penca bombing and aftermath
by Norman Stockwell
A Contra Southern Front camp.The Tico Times
Today, May 30, is the “National Day of the Journalist” in Costa Rica. The day was first proclaimed in 2010 by then-President Óscar Arias – architect of the 1987 Esquipulas II Central American Peace Accords – to honor the dead and wounded in a bombing that took place at La Penca, Nicaragua, just across Costa Rica’s northern border, in 1984. Seven people were killed and 21 wounded, some so seriously as to lose eyes or limbs, during a press conference called by guerrilla leader Edén Pastora.
Three journalists were killed that day: Costa Ricans Jorge Quirós, a cameraman for TV’s Channel 6, his assistant, Evelio Sequeira, and U.S. reporter Linda Frazier, of The Tico Times. Her husband, Joe Frazier, who was then Latin America bureau chief for The Associated Press, remembers that day: “I happened to be in [Managua] on other business. … I’d come back from dinner, … and I got to the InterContinental Hotel, and the clerk whom I’d known for many years, since the ’79 revolution, said, ‘Señor Frazier, there’s been an explosion on the San Juan River. You need to know this.’… And I started asking around, … calling everybody I knew in Costa Rica, sort of calling in every favor I had out there, and I was getting a little panicky. And finally, I got a radio broadcast, someone had gone up live on the San Juan where the boats were coming back from La Penca, describing what was going on, and one of them said, ‘Well, there’s a red-headed foreign lady here who’s a correspondent, and she is sin vida, without life.’ And I knew then it had to be. ... There’s no way it was anybody else. ... I realized that in the morning I had to go back to Costa Rica and tell our 10-year-old son what had happened, and that’s something I don’t wish on anybody.”
Costa Rican journalist Nelson Murillo, 54 and now retired, was a few feet away, asking Pastora a question when the bomb exploded.
“I ended up burnt, injured, fractured. I was two months in physical therapy in Hospital México [in Costa Rica]. … I was left with one shorter leg, progressive deafness, PTSD and spinal problems because of the shortening of the leg. I’ve already had 30 surgeries because of problems beginning at La Penca. They took 70 shrapnel pieces out of me, metallic pieces of the bomb. Since it was homemade, it had everything: screws, BBs, thumb tacks, etc. It’s been a pilgrimage through the hospitals over 30 years. But there were people with amputations – Roberto Cruz, who died 19 years after the bombing at La Penca, lost an eye, an ear and one leg. Of those of us left, the present-day survivors – there were others with amputations and deformations and other serious problems who have over time died from natural causes – but of those surviving today, I am the one left with the most serious health problems.”
La Penca minutes after the bombing on May 30, 1984.The Tico Times
José Rodolfo Ibarra, former president of the Costa Rican Journalists Association, also was injured that day. “I had 52 pieces of shrapnel in my body, in my arms, legs and chest, burns on my face and arms, plus the infection [of the wounds] that all of us who were there had,” he said. Ibarra spent two months in a hospital recovering.
ABC cameraman Tony Avirgan remembers the long wait to get medical aid.
“The rest of us were just lined up on the ground outside and laying there, and there was only a limited number of people who could fit in the one remaining boat. And it was two hours to San Carlos, but it was a four-hour round trip. So, perversely, the least injured rushed down to the boat and jumped in the boat, and that boat filled up, and they said that was enough and they took off. And I was lying on the ground, and I was not one of the most seriously injured. … But next to me was Linda Frazier, and both of her legs were blown off just below the knee. She was in quite bad shape, and no one made any attempt to take her or the other people. There were many Costa Ricans who lost limbs or eyes and things, and it was the least injured people who got in that first boat, including who we found out later was the bomber.”
Pastora, called Comandante Cero (“Commander Zero”), was a charismatic former Sandinista who was leading a rebel army against the Nicaraguan government headed by Daniel Ortega. Pastora was forming a southern front based out of Costa Rica. Stephen Kinzer, the New York Times bureau chief in Managua at the time, said Pastora had fallen out of favor with the CIA.
“The CIA was eagerly recruiting people who were not tainted by collaboration with the old dictatorship. Pastora was perfect for that. He was not only untainted by collaboration with [Anastasio] Somoza, he had led one of the greatest operations that helped bring down Somoza. So the idea that he was then going to make himself available as an anti-Sandinista fighter was thought of as a great coup for the CIA. They tried to establish him in northern Costa Rica, and at the beginning I think they had very high hopes for him. The people who were the main Contra force up in the north, like [Enrique] Bermúdez, were really based in the old National Guard of Gen. Somoza. They hated Pastora, and Pastora hated them. The idea of the CIA was that these hatreds were just details. ‘Now we’ve got a new cause, we’re all trying to overthrow the Sandinista regime, so let’s just put behind us all the quarrels of the past.’ Neither side was willing to do that. And, that’s why the alliance really never gelled the way the CIA wanted it to.”
Former Contra commander Edén Pastora, who now works for the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. The Tico Times
Pastora, who today works with Ortega and the current Nicaraguan government as minister of development in the Río San Juan Basin, said the divisions were ideological and insurmountable.
“Here was a great pressure from the American Central Intelligence and right-wing sectors for me to join the north, the counterrevolution of the FDN [Nicaraguan Democratic Force], which was founded, directed and supplied by Central Intelligence. This was impossible, for moral reasons, for political and ideological reasons. On moral terms, these guardias from the north murdered my father when I was 8 years old. And when I was older, when I was 40, they murdered my people in an act of genocide. So, I could not join them for political reasons,” Pastora said.
Journalist Jon Lee Anderson was with Pastora’s forces a month before La Penca.
“I found out, of course, eventually that he was getting money from the CIA. And in fact, on that attack that I joined in April 1984 in San Juan del Norte, I discovered that he had direct CIA help. Not only had the CIA organized air drops of logistics on certain Americans’ ranches – a network of American ranches were operating as proxies for the CIA in Costa Rica – but they had also helped shell the town from offshore, from a gunboat. And Pastora confirmed this with me. [He] begged me not to report it. I had this from several other commanders and lieutenants in the course of the battle – I really confirmed this. And this was inconvenient at the time for a lot of people, because it was only a week or so since the mining of the harbor scandal had been aired in public and supposedly put to bed. … As it turned out, I got in a fair bit of trouble over it within Time magazine as a result. My biggest scoop of my young career.”
The CIA’s ‘wrong choice’
Retired U.S. Maj. Gen. John Singlaub, who was President Ronald Reagan’s administrative chief liaison to the secret Contra supply effort, in his 1991 autobiography “Hazardous Duty” confirms the CIA involvement early on.
“I learned from embassy officials in Central America that the new Nicaraguan Democratic Resistance movement – the ‘Contras’ – was already in contact with the Central Intelligence Agency, and that covert American support was being organized. My old OSS case officer, Bill Casey, was now director of Central Intelligence, so I knew the resistance was in good hands,” he wrote.
But Singlaub goes on to wonder if the CIA and the National Security Council, led by Lt. Col. Oliver North, were making the wrong choice.
“Pastora was one of those extraordinary characters who believed fervently in his own public image. He was a guerrilla par excellence, a romantic Latin warrior who evoked intense loyalty among his troops. The Agency treated him like a native mercenary. Worse, Pastora’s CIA handlers included bureaucratic bean counters who required all supply requisition forms completed in English, in triplicate. The cultural barriers between Pastora and the CIA were insurmountable. In short, the Agency ruined the only chance they had of exploiting the most famous military leader in Central America. Enrique Bermúdez was a well-educated professional soldier, but Comandante Zero was a national hero troops could rally around,” Singlaub wrote.
Arcadio's portrayal of former National Security Council member Oliver North. Arcadio/The Tico Times
On May 1, 1984, Pastora had been given a 30-day ultimatum by the CIA to join forces with the FDN, and on the thirtieth day, he called a press conference.
“I called a press conference to denounce these issues to the world,” Pastora, now 77, remembers, “and to tell the world that I was not joining the counterrevolution, from my stance as a revolutionary, from my stance as a Sandinista. At that moment, I was a dissident; I was at odds with the National Directorate of the Sandinista National Liberation Front. … So, the reason for the [press] conference, specifically, was to denounce to the people of Nicaragua and to the world, the pressure that I would not give in to or concede to.” Investigator John Mattes, who worked in the Miami public defender’s office and later provided support to a U.S. congressional subcommittee on terrorism, narcotics and international operations chaired by Senator John Kerry, explained that the Contra activities were really part of “a much larger complex operation ... fronted by drug smugglers and con men. And, if you boil it all down to that, that it was a mercenary adventure by elements of the Contras to sell a war to the United States so that they could engage in massive drug smuggling – and that’s really what it turned out to be – [Pastora] was a liability to everyone.
“He was of course a liability to the Sandinistas, and he was a liability to the Southern Front because he in fact was going to get in the way of [Adolfo “Popo”] Chamorro and others who had their own ideas of what the Costa Rica [Contra operation] should look like and what the Southern Front should look like.”
Tony Avirgan and his wife, journalist Martha Honey, undertook an investigation to find the identity of the bomber. Honey, now co-founder and director of the Center for Responsible Travel, based in Washington, D.C., recalls that, “Tony was injured and was operated on in Costa Rica and then taken to a hospital in Philadelphia, and as I was preparing to go up I was contacted by the Committee to Protect Journalists and [the Newspaper Guild] and asked if I would be willing to undertake an investigation as to who was responsible for the bombing. And of course I had lots of reasons for wanting to get to the bottom of this, and so I said yes, and went up and met with them, and thought that this would be a couple of weeks or possibly months of investigation and we would learn what had happened. And literally until today we don’t know the full story.”
The case was later taken on by a public interest law firm known as the Christic Institute, and incorporated into a larger lawsuit against a “secret team” inside and outside the U.S. government. But, Honey says, they “had a very serious falling out with Danny Sheehan, the chief lawyer there. And basically, we kind of broke with Danny and with the sort of official Christic Institute. And a group of us, including Doug Vaughn and Carl Deal and Joanne Royce, who was one of the lawyers, and a number of others, Richard McGough, kept doing the investigation, but really not so much for the Christic Institute, but simply because we were trying to get to the bottom of what was going on.”
The actual bomber, who had entered the press conference with a stolen passport and posing as a Danish journalist, was ultimately identified as Argentine Vital Roberto Gaguine through the work of investigator Doug Vaughn and others. It was Vaughn who first uncovered a fingerprint and a photo of the suspect in Panamanian immigration files.
“Eventually I was able to obtain from Panamanian immigration records fingerprints and photographs of Gaguine when he appeared as Per Anker Hansen and used the Danish passport in Panama before the attack at La Penca in 1984,” Vaughn said. “I was able to locate the family of Gaguine in the Miami area. His father, in 1992, identified a photo of Gaguine to me as his son, Roberto, as he was called, and the brother also identified the photo, and they also identified several of the photos that were taken before and after La Penca in Costa Rica as having been of their brother, who they were convinced even then could not possibly have done the bombing, but that he was actually someone who was fighting for freedom, socialism and democracy.”
La Penca bomber Vital Roberto Gaguine photographed at the San Carlos Hospital after the bombing. Marvin Vega/La República
Vaughn initially worked with Avirgan, Honey and the Christic Institute, and later provided material to Juan Tamayo of The Miami Herald, which published Gaguine’s identification in 1993. Tamayo, a close friend of Joe Frazier and the late Linda Frazier, said he felt obligated to try to find the perpetrators.
“When she died at the La Penca bombing, I always thought that, you know, we all had a responsibility as journalists to solve the murder of a fellow journalist. It was a personal interest, and so for many years, every chance I had I sort of asked people, ‘Do you know anything about this?’ You know, anybody I thought might know something about the case,” he said.
It was eventually determined that Gaguine had died in 1989 in a failed assault on La Tablada barracks in Argentina, but because no firm evidence of his death was found, an Interpol warrant for his arrest remained open until last Fall. Then, on Dec. 2, 2013, Costa Rican Chief Public Prosecutor Jorge Chavarría gave a press conference announcing the closing of the case.
On Nov. 15, word was received from Argentine authorizes that DNA evidence from bones held by his family confirmed Gaguine’s death. But, Chavarría – who had investigated the case as a prosecutor in 1989, resulting in a 180-page report to the Costa Rican Legislative Assembly – said in the press conference that while the investigation is closed in Costa Rica because there is no information about the masterminds of the attack, if another country such as Nicaragua has new evidence, the case in Costa Rica could be reopened, because it has been classified as a crime against humanity, which has no statute of limitation.
Searching for connections
Peter Torbiörnsson was a Swedish journalist who now admits he also was spying for the Sandinistas in 1984. He regularly gave copies of his footage to Nicaraguan intelligence services under the direction of Comandante Tomás Borge, the former interior minister. It was Torbiörnsson who brought the fake journalist Per Anker Hansen to the press conference that day. He recently produced an introspective 90-minute film, full of personal agony, called “The Last Chapter: Goodbye Nicaragua,” released in festivals in 2010 and first shown in Costa Rica and Nicaragua in 2011. The film also features British journalist Susie Morgan, who was seriously wounded at La Penca. Morgan has sought to solve the crime for the past three decades and made her own investigative film for British television in 1988. She authored an autobiographical account of the investigation titled, “In Search of the Assassin.” Morgan was standing next to Pastora when the explosion happened and feels it was her body that actually shielded him from some of the worst effects of the blast.
Pastora, whose legs were injured by the explosion and spent weeks in a hospital in Venezuela recuperating after plastic surgery, blames Torbiörnsson for his role in the attack.
“It was people such as Torbiörnsson, who did the reconnaissance. He spent 15 days with me and brought the information to the Sandinistas and to the CIA, because he was a double agent. As was the fake journalist Per Anker Hansen, whose real name was Vital Roberto Gaguine. They were crazy people, who liked to experience intense thrills, working with the left and with the right. They were double agents. Vital Roberto Gaguine died at La Tablada during the assault on the headquarters of the Carapintadas in Buenos Aires, and Torbiörnsson is still playing his role as a double agent sent by Central Intelligence to misinform the people, feigning outrage and accusing the Frente [Sandinista National Liberation Front] directly. The truth is the Frente gave the order to place the bomb, but at a camp. They gave the order to place the bomb under a hammock, since that was what Torbiörnsson had recommended, not at a press conference. It was a decision by Torbiörnsson and Vital Roberto Gaguine to place it at La Penca, because they had not been able to hunt me down for three months. I hadn’t given them the opportunity to do it at a camp or the other places where I camped. People don’t know these things about these double agents Torbiörnsson and Vital Roberto Gaguine.”
Pastora has suggested that Torbiörnsson, now 73, should be officially accused of crimes against humanity for his role in facilitating the plot. Torbiörnsson responded that, “Edén Pastora has gotten the supervision of Río San Juan in compensation for his effort to transform himself into a mouthpiece for his former enemies. … He has forgotten his moral obligation to the other victims, the right to know the truth.”
La Penca had a profound impact on those who were there or had friends there. Jon Lee Anderson noted that, “The Pastora hit was maybe the first of its type of assassination in which explosives were used under cover of journalists. Everything has changed since then. It was shocking to us and it was dangerous. Of course it made our lives very dangerous. … It made us feel that we couldn’t trust people in quite the same way and made everybody wonder where we stood ... [and] who were the people that we were dealing with, both in regimes and in these insurgent movements, and the people that traveled in those circles.” Juan Tamayo concurs: “We’ve always been sort of concerned about intelligence services passing themselves off as journalists. We find that to be objectionable because it puts real journalists at risk. You know, any number of journalists can then get arrested because some government thinks that they are spies or something. So not only does the killer pass himself off as a journalist, but he then sets off the bomb in a news conference. I don’t think it could have been any worse. That was a blot on journalism.”
Tico Times journalist Linda Frazier with her husband, Joe, and son Christopher. The Tico Times
Joe Frazier knew his work was dangerous, but the bombing at La Penca was totally unexpected.
“I think we all just sort of realized that it was sort of a risky shot out there, and you do your best to be careful, and there are some things you can’t avoid. Now, who would have known, or who would have thought that somebody would have bombed, of all things, a press conference. They might as well bomb a church,” Frazier said.
Stephen Kinzer, who had only missed going to the press conference by chance, said, “I was in total shock. My first reaction was that my friends had been attacked. One of the women who was a victim of that attack, Susan Morgan, lived in Managua and I used to see her every other day. Linda Frazier was a real bedrock of the press corps in Costa Rica. Several of those other people present were people that I worked with all the time. We had never had an episode like this before. And then after I recovered from my shock at realizing what had happened to my colleagues, it dawned on me that it could easily have been me. Just by a trick of fate I didn’t happen to be there, but this was a stunning episode far beyond anything that we had anticipated. …. I don’t think it changed our minds about anything, but it intensified our feeling that we were in a deeply unpredictable and highly violent situation. It really showed that we didn’t have a full grasp of the possibilities of what might happen, and that is always unsettling.”
José Rodolfo Ibarra sees the event as a turning point: “Journalism in Costa Rica can be depicted in a very clear before-and-after phase. Before La Penca, we did not worry much about security because we were not accustomed to those sorts of violent acts. One would enter any press conference, any place where there would be information, without noticing your own surroundings. From that point on the people understood, first that security measures were necessary, and second that journalists are not immune; we are not Superman.”
Nelson Murillo feels that this type of terrorist act needs to be denounced.
“It is a thorn stuck in the [journalists’] guild, and that the impunity could have lasted 30 years is a national and international embarrassment. Only two press conferences have been used for purposes of terrorism, one in Afghanistan [the murder of Ahmad Shah Massoud in 2001], and the one at La Penca in Nicaragua. And so the bombing of La Penca is a case of deception in all ways that deserves more attention, more pressure; it deserves more opportune answers, it deserves more constancy in the media.”
The memories still affect victims even today, said Joe Frazier. “For the first few months after, that entire summer is almost a total blank in my mind. I don’t remember anything really. I don’t remember where I was, what I did, with whom I talked. I know I was in New York for a while, I know I was back in Oregon for a while. I couldn’t function. … I was a wreck for some time.”
Murillo is now one of the lead activists in seeking justice for the victims.
“Especially after the death of don Roberto Cruz, who fought long to find the truth of these things and fought against the scandalous impunity of the case, in time I began to turn into an activist for this cause, because the only hope for justice that is left to us is an international trial at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, where there is a denunciation presented by the Journalists Association in August 2005, when La Penca already had 21 years of impunity. Now it has been 30 years – more than eight years of waiting and the case is still being processed for admissibility. They have not yet said yes or no, officially.”
From left, La Penca Comission President Sonia Rodriguez, journalist Nelson Murillo, journalist Joaquín Vargas Gene and Edén Pastora at a conference at the Costa Rican Journalists Association on June 7, 1991. Julio Laínez/The Tico Times
Will there be a resolution, investigator John Mattes wonders: “I would hope so for [the victims’] peace of mind. Sadly, though, I look back over that period. ... We lost a number of whistle-blowers. We lost people that tried to stand up, and that were lost in the night. So we won’t know everything, though, I think, and in much to their credit, and to the people that did stand up, we now know the truth. We may not know the details, but we know the truth. And we know what the United States did in this failed operation.”
Chavarría ended his 1989 report to the Costa Rican Legislative Assembly with this statement: “In conclusion, this report does not put an end to the investigation of the crime of LA PENCA, which should continue in the clarification of the events. A great deal of useful information is in the United States, and it will depend on the good faith of the authorities of that country to give access to what has been censored in the Senate reports. In the same way, without the help of those authorities it will be impossible to interview witnesses in that country, for which reason I consider it important that the respective steps be carried out by the Public Prosecutor and the Plenary Court.”
Now that three decades have passed since the bombing, and many of the witnesses and participants are no longer alive, a resolution seems difficult. Interestingly, on the day after the bombing, Mike Boettcher of NBC News reported, “The blast occurred in a no-man’s land along a river that separates Nicaragua and Costa Rica. There is no law there. So it will nearly be impossible to determine who planted the bomb and why.”
Tamayo echoes this thought today. “The other thing is the crime took place in Nicaragua,” he said. “The Costa Ricans have sort of become involved in it because many of the victims were Costa Ricans, but the crime, the bombing actually took place in Nicaragua, so is the Nicaraguan government, now under Sandinista President Daniel Ortega, willing to dig up this old history? I doubt it very much.”
Tony Avirgan holds out some hope: “Well, I keep having the hope that someday, somebody on the U.S. side and somebody on the Sandinista side will come forward and we’ll just find all the answers. But I’m not sure that digging anymore is going to help. And we mentioned before, you mentioned before, a lot of the people are dying now. People are getting old and dying.”
But, Martha Honey continued, “I think there’s still room for a real investigation of it, and it should probably be done by people who were not like us, who were not involved, but would draw on a lot of the work that’s being done and just try to make sense of this, because we don’t know the truth. We don’t know the full truth.”
Murillo insists a resolution is necessary: “Although the mercenary that detonated the bomb is dead, and registered as such in Argentina, the responsibility of the masterminds is another thing that is still in force, and is a goal that we must investigate deeply and inform and denounce all that appears in time.”
For Ibarra, it is important to keep the memory of La Penca alive.
“I would hope that this 30th of May, the 30th anniversary of that act, that the new generation of journalists do not forget what happened there. We have to learn from what happened there. May they not forget the dead and the injured. It’s necessary to be aware of what happened so that it does not happen again.”
Doug Vaughn concluded by saying, “You have to do it by telling the truth. Let the chips fall.”
Sarah Blaskey and Jesse Chapman contributed to this article from Costa Rica.
Norman Stockwell is a freelance journalist based in Madison, Wisconsin. He also serves as operations coordinator for WORT-FM Community Radio. Stockwell has reported from numerous countries in Latin America, including interviews on Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast with Contras surrendering to take amnesty under the 1987 Esquipulas Accords.
30 years later, victims deserve justice, says
La Penca survivor
by Fabiola Pomareda
Costa Rican journalist Nelson Murillo, 54.Alberto Font/The Tico Times
Thirty years after the horrific La Penca bombing at a press conference along the Río San Juan, the Costa Rican Journalists Association has asked the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to broaden a lawsuit to include as a defendant the state of Nicaragua, where the attack occurred.
For Costa Rican journalist Nelson Murillo, 54, who survived the bombing, the human rights court case, filed nearly a decade ago by the journalists association against Costa Rica and still in a preliminary review phase, is the last opportunity to bring justice to surviving victims and their families.
The bombing – the first terrorist attack in modern history to target a press conference – killed seven and wounded several others. While the bomber, now deceased, has long been identified, the perpetrators who ordered and planned the attack have never been brought to justice.
In 2005, the Costa Rican Journalists Association filed the case against the Costa Rican government at the San José-based rights court, alleging that the state failed to prosecute La Penca’s perpetrators in a court of law.
Journalists Association President Marlon Mora Jiménez said the association has since asked the court to broaden the complaint to include Nicaragua, where the attack happened.
“If [Nicaragua] failed to [investigate], then they are the ones who are most responsible for impunity,” Mora said. Currently, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, based in Washington, D.C., is studying the admissibility of the case, a first step before investigating and then sending it to the human rights court for hearings.
The commission’s review process is long and tedious. If the commission rules the case admissible, it would then open an official investigation, sending international jurists to Costa Rica and Nicaragua to speak with surviving witnesses and victims and to gather evidence. The commission would then present the court a final report, after which the court would either accept the case or throw it out.
The bombing occurred on May 30, 1984 during a press conference at La Penca, Nicaragua, near the Costa Rican border. The conference was called by a former Sandinista guerrilla leader known as Comandante Cero, whose real name is Edén Pastora. After splitting with the Sandinistas, Pastora formed the Democratic Revolutionary Alliance, or ARDE, whose operations focused on overthrowing Daniel Ortega’s regime from Nicaragua’s southern front. ARDE also planned and coordinated operations from northern Costa Rica.
Today, Pastora has reconciled with Ortega and the Sandinista leadership, and has been tasked with developing Nicaragua’s San Juan River region.
The victims killed by the La Penca bombing include four southern front Contra guerrillas and three journalists: Tico Times reporter Linda Frazier, Channel 6 cameraman Jorge Quirós and soundman Evelio Sequeira. Twenty-one others were injured. Thirty years later, the scars from many of those wounds remain.
In 1993, The Miami Herald and other journalists in several countries identified the bomber as Argentine radical Vital Roberto Gaguine, who posed as a Danish photographer under the stolen identity of Per Anker Hansen. Gaguine died in 1989 during an attack on La Tablada military barracks in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Two decades later, in December 2013, Costa Rican Chief Public Prosecutor Jorge Chavarría officially closed the murder investigation against Gaguine, after the Argentine government confirmed his death in that country. Yet those who gave the orders for the attack and provided logistics were never prosecuted.
In the past 30 years, survivors and victims’ family members have maintained pressure on the Costa Rican government to prosecute the crime’s authors, yet none of those efforts have provided results.
The Costa Ricans who survived La Penca are La Nación reporter Edgar Fonseca and photographer José Antonio Venegas, Radioperiódicos Reloj’s William Céspedes, La República reporter Carlos Vargas Gené (now deceased) and photographer Juan Carlos Ulate, Semanario Universidad reporter Gilberto Lopes, Xinhua reporter Roberto Cruz (now deceased), La Nación driver Miguel Sánchez, Telenoticias’ José Rodolfo Ibarra and Notiseis’ Nelson Murillo.
Costa Rican journalist Nelson Murillo shows scars from the La Penca bombing. He was 24 at the time.Alberto Font/The Tico Times
In 2011, Swedish journalist and filmmaker Peter Torbiörnsson, who admitted aiding Sandinista intelligence in 1984 and bringing the bomber to the press conference, released a documentary film titled, “Last Chapter: Goodbye Nicaragua.” Torbiörnsson, who spoke at length with The Tico Times when the film was released, denies knowing that Gaguine carried a bomb to La Penca. While he admits to aiding Sandinista intelligence operatives leading up to the press conference, he says he knew nothing of a plan to plant a bomb.
In an interview with The Tico Times just days after the attack, Torbiörnsson, who was based in Santiago, Chile as Latin American correspondent for the major Stockholm newspaper Aftonbladet in the early 1970s, claimed to have been duped by the Argentine terrorist.
“He told me he was a Danish photographer,” Torbiörnsson told The Tico Times in a story published on June 8, 1984. “We talked about Copenhagen, and I told him I liked Danish beer, especially Tuborg and that other one – I couldn’t remember the name. Neither could he. I later remember; it is Carlsbad. I thought he was a funny Dane if he couldn’t remember the names of his country’s two most famous brands of beer.”
Torbiörnsson added: “He was traveling with me, and he could have killed me. He’s a rat.”
In the 2011 documentary film, Torbiörnsson sets out to prove the attack was planned and executed by Sandinista intelligence officials, and he reveals that there was more to his relationship with Gaguine than he let on in that initial Tico Times interview.
According to “Last Chapter,” Sandinista leadership wanted Pastora dead. To carry out the plot, Torbiörnsson was contacted by Sandinista Col. Renán Montero, who asked Torbiörnsson to bring a Danish photographer to the press conference to spy on Pastora. Gaguine met with Torbiörnsson in San José and traveled with him to La Penca. Torbiörnsson denies knowing the real objective was to plant a bomb.
The film also shows an interview with former Sandinista Interior Vice Minister Luis Carrión, who confesses to having knowledge of the attack, which he said implicates the now-deceased former Sandinista Interior Minister Tomás Borge. For Nelson Murillo, who was 24 at the time of the La Penca attack, the link between Torbiörnsson’s film and the Costa Rican Journalists Association’s case is crucial.
“The entire debate has been centered on the years of impunity and a long line of speculation about whether the ones who ordered the attack came from the right or left; if they were Sandinistas working with the Cubans in Havana, or if they were CIA working with the Cubans in exile,” Murillo said. “I’ve always been outraged by this, because it always focused on finding an ideological target to blame; it was never about emphasizing the tragedy the survivors endured and the pain of victims’ family members – an agony suffered for many, many years.”
Murillo believes Torbiörnsson’s film is another piece in a long trajectory of developments that should help the investigation move forward to some type of resolution. The film also should pressure the human rights commission to rule the case admissible, he said. Toward that end, the journalists association has annexed a copy of “Last Chapter” to the lawsuit.
“In the documentary, for the first time there is a focus on a line of information regarding who ordered the bombing,” Murillo said. “For the first time there are new political, historical, journalistic and ideological elements that lend weight [to the argument].”
One key figure, say both Murillo and Torbiörnsson, is Luis Carrión.
“Carrión, years later and removed from the [Sandinista] revolutionary process, removed from political life in Nicaragua, goes public and says that days after the bombing he knew the attack was planned by the Interior Ministry, and that he, for obvious reasons involving the war against the Contras and the pressure on all fronts, preferred to keep quiet,” Murillo said.
Nevertheless, Torbiörnsson remains a polarizing figure. Pastora recently accused him of being a double agent for both the Sandinistas and the CIA. Others hold him responsible for the attack, whether he knew Gaguine was carrying a bomb or not.
Torbiörnsson filed a formal complaint with Nicaragua’s Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office against the Sandinista leadership of that era and “those responsible who still serve in government positions,” Murillo noted. But the complaint has gone nowhere, and Torbiörnsson is now persona non grata in Nicaragua because of the film and his pursuit of Sandinista leadership’s suspected involvement in the crime.
“There’s more to learn about La Penca. There are so many interests involved on both sides to keep this a mystery, and not everything’s been said,” Murillo said.
A day honoring journalists
Every year, the Costa Rican Journalists Association commemorates May 30 as the Day of the Journalist to mark the La Penca bombing.
Today, on La Penca’s 30th anniversary, Costa Rica’s postal service will issue a commemorative stamp at a 6:30 p.m. ceremony at the Journalists Association, next to Soda Tapia across from the east side of La Sabana Park in San José.
Fabiola Pomareda is a Costa Rica-based freelance journalist and former editor-in-chief of La Raza newspaper in Chicago, Illinois.
The first draft of history
by Juan Tamayo
Chaos and terror minutes after the bomb exploded.The Tico Times
This story first appeared in ReVista, Harvard Review of Latin America, in their Fall 2013 issue “Memory: In search of history and democracy.” It is published here with permission. Please visit their site.
When an assassin’s bomb tore through the La Penca guerrilla base in southern Nicaragua three decades ago, it cast a spotlight on some of the worst and some of the best of journalism.
The blast was meant to kill Edén Pastora, who had broken with the Marxist Sandinista government and launched a war against it along the southern border with Costa Rica while other “Contras” pushed in along the northern border with Honduras.
The Reagan administration and Central Intelligence Agency backed the Contras in a war that claimed tens of thousands of lives, sparked the Iran-Contra scandal and eventually led to the Sandinistas’ defeat in democratic elections in 1990.
Pastora was therefore a legitimate military target of the May 30, 1984 assassination attempt. But the way in which the assassination attempt was carried out was an outrage to the tenets of journalism.
Edén Pastora in 1983.The Tico Times
The bomb exploded as Pastora started a news conference, spewing a deadly fan of peanut-sized steel balls that scythed through a dozen journalists who had slipped into La Penca from Costa Rica across the muddy San Juan River.
He survived, but three journalists were killed: U.S. citizen Linda Frazier, 38, a reporter for the English-language newspaper The Tico Times and wife of Joe Frazier, The Associated Press correspondent in Costa Rica; and Costa Rican TV crewmen Jorge Quirós Piedra and Evelio Sequeira Jiménez.
That the bomb went off during a news conference was a vicious violation of the neutrality that journalists should enjoy to be able to report on all sides of a conflict. Al Qaida violated it in the same way in 2001, when “journalists” assassinated anti-Taliban Afghan leader Ahmad Shah Massoud with a bomb hidden in their TV camera.
But it got worse.
It turned out that the bomb had been brought into La Penca and detonated by a “journalist” using a stolen Danish passport in the name of Per Anker Hansen. He was not injured, was evacuated to Costa Rica with the other survivors and immediately vanished.
And then it got even worse. Horribly, horribly worse.
The Red Cross transfers victims of the La Penca bombing.The Tico Times
Peter Torbiörnsson, a Swedish journalist who was at La Penca, began confessing in 2009 that he had cooperated with Sandinista intelligence to introduce “Hansen,” whom he knew to be a Sandinista agent, into Pastora’s camp. Torbiörnsson filmed a documentary claiming that he did not know “Hansen” was packing a bomb or planning to kill Pastora.
Soon after the blast, a couple of leftist American freelancers in Costa Rica – Tony Avirgan, who was wounded at La Penca, and his wife, Martha Honey – began reporting that the CIA had ordered the bombing because Pastora was disobeying U.S. orders on the war.
Their evidence was so flimsy that when Avirgan filed a $23 million lawsuit in Miami against 29 contra, CIA and other U.S. officials, U.S. Judge Lawrence King threw it out and dunned the plaintiffs $1 million in court fees.
Yet the Avirgan-Honey reporting led Costa Rican prosecutors to file murder charges against two U.S. citizens for the La Penca bombing: John Hull, an elderly orange farmer in northern Costa Rica who supported Pastora; and Felipe Vidal, a Cuba-born CIA asset who trained and advised Pastora’s guerrillas. They fled to the United States, but Hull lost control of his farm and Vidal could not get a legitimate job for years because of the pending charges.
Journalists Martha Honey and her husband, Tony Avirgan.The Tico Times
And for the first nine years after the blast, the “CIA-did-it” version was the one that most U.S. and other journalists in Central America believed or suspected was true. Even the Newseum in Washington D.C. for years indicated in its displays that Linda Frazier had died in a “Contra” bombing – creating a false historical memory.
That version tended to be accepted because it matched the prevailing biases of the journalists who covered the wars in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala at the time: Reagan was a warmonger, the CIA murdered people and the Sandinistas were driven into the arms of Moscow and Havana by unwarranted U.S. hostility.
But the La Penca bombing made me angry. And I felt a special debt to Linda, Joe and their young son Chris.
Joe and I had been transferred from New York to Mexico City at about the same time in 1979, he by the AP and I by UPI, and we covered the same Central American turf. We lived near each other, our wives were good friends and stayed so after Joe was transferred to Costa Rica and I joined the Miami Herald in 1982.
For years, I made it a point of asking anyone I could about La Penca – especially when I became the Herald’s European bureau chief, based in Berlin and covering the Sandinistas’ former allies in Russia and East Germany. My friend Mark Rosenberg, now president of Florida International University, made fun of my “obsession” with La Penca every time we met.
Linda Frazier.The Tico Times
And then in 1993 the La Penca tale got better. Much better.
An unprecedented collaboration between six journalists in three countries identified “Hansen” as the bomber beyond any doubt.
A Miami Herald correspondent who knew of my interest in La Penca, Andrés Oppenheimer, was interviewing a fellow Argentine who had worked for Cuban intelligence and asked about the bombing. The source replied that he knew the assassin.
Oppenheimer alerted me and I immediately flew to Paris to interview the man. But he knew the bomber only as an Argentine who worked for Sandinista intelligence and was nicknamed “Martín the Englishman” because of his fluent English.
I showed the source a passport-type photo of “Hansen” that investigative journalist Doug Vaughan had found in Panamanian migration files. Although Vaughan worked for the Avirgan lawsuit, he had shared the photo with me as part of an agreement to cooperate in the search for the killer.
“That’s Martín the Englishman,” the source confirmed.
The source explained that after the Sandinista guerrillas, most of them poor peasants, toppled the Somoza dictatorship in 1979, they lacked anyone who could run complex counter-intelligence operations. Most could not even hold a fork properly, he added. So the Sandinistas decided to essentially outsource their foreign operations.
A colonel in Cuba’s elite Interior Ministry Special Forces who used the name of Renán Montero was seconded to the Nicaraguan Interior Ministry as head of its counter-intelligence unit.
And some of the unit’s operations were assigned to members of a Marxist Argentine guerrilla known as the Revolutionary Peoples Army, headed by Enrique Gorriarán Merlo. His men killed a Contra chief in Honduras in late 1979, and Gorriarán himself led the squad that assassinated Anastasio Somoza in 1980 in Paraguay.
I contacted Argentine journalists Juan Salinas and Julio Villalonga in Buenos Aires, who had written about Gorriarán, and they provided one of the final pieces of the puzzle: “Martín the Englishman” was a Gorriarán follower named Vital Roberto Gaguine.
Gaguine’s parents confirmed that the man in the “Hansen” photo was their son. And a fingerprint expert hired by the Miami Herald matched prints also found by Vaughan with a set provided by Argentine authorities to Salinas and Villalonga.
Gaguine was reported killed in 1989, at the age of 35, while leading one of the four squads of Gorriarán fighters that staged a virtually suicidal attack on Argentine army barracks at La Tablada in Buenos Aires.
A $10,000 reward was offered for information on the La Penca bombing suspect, who was photographed at the San Carlos Hospital.The Tico Times
Felipe Vidal and John Hull remain under murder indictments in Costa Rica. Hull is now farming in southeastern Mexico, and Vidal lived in Miami for a while but now lives abroad.
Gorriarán died of a heart attack in 2006 at the age of 64. Montero is believed to have died of cancer in Havana around 2008. And after I complained to the Newseum, its listing on Linda Frazier now reads as follows:
“Killed May 30 by a bomb blast at a press conference called by a Nicaraguan rebel leader just inside the border with Costa Rica. Three others were also killed, including two journalists. Other rebel factions initially were blamed, but several years later, a journalistic investigation said that the evidence points to an Argentine who worked for Nicaragua’s Sandinista government.”
That passport photo of “Hansen” still hangs in my office cubicle, a reminder of both the shortcomings and the power of journalism.
Juan O. Tamayo has been a Herald correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Europe and the Andean region. A Harvard Nieman Fellow class of ’90, he now covers Cuba for El Nuevo Herald.
The other side of Tamayo’s tale
by Martha Honey
Martha Honey comforts her husband, Tony Avirgan, as he arrives at the San Carlos Hospital following the bombing.The Tico Times
This article is a response to Juan O. Tamayo’s story “The first draft of history,” published in the Fall 2013 in ReVista magazine.
In his Fall 2013 article, “The best and the worst,” Juan Tamayo correctly states that he played an important (but limited) role in the journalistic investigation by helping to establish the true identity of the La Penca terrorist who, in May 1984, planted a bomb at a news conference being given at a remote rebel camp in Nicaragua by Contra commander Edén Pastora.
But Tamayo’s piece also contains misstatements, omissions, and half-truths that distort the historical record as well as the questions that still need to be answered. His piece is sadly self-serving – carving out a white knight role for himself while smearing the journalistic investigation that was carried out by my husband, Tony Avirgan, and me, together with a group of other journalists and private investigators. Incredibly, Tamayo seems intent on clearing the reputations of two CIA operatives – Felipe Vidal and John Hull – who were convicted by Costa Rican prosecutors of being involved in the La Penca bombing and other illegal military and drug trafficking operations in Costa Rica.
Tamayo dismisses Tony and me as “leftist American freelancers” who, he claims, botched the investigation by wrongly accusing the CIA of being behind the bombing. The true picture is far more complicated.
The following, briefly, is our account of what happened:
The May 30, 1984 La Penca terrorist bombing, which killed three journalists and injured 22 others, came at the height of the Reagan administration’s covert war against the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Because Costa Rica did not have an army (it had been abolished in 1948) and did not permit foreign troops on its soil, the anti-Sandinista Contra armies operating out of northern Costa Rica were illegal and officially denied by the Reagan administration and the Monge administration in San José.
Civil Guard officer Juan José Ramírez at a Contra armory in Los Angeles, Guanacaste, year unknown.The Tico Times
Tony and I were based in Costa Rica and working as freelance journalists for leading international media including the New York Times, ABC TV and Radio, National Public Radio, Canadian Public Radio, and The Times of London. We had developed excellent sources within the Costa Rican government and Contra movement, and in early 1984, we were involved in producing a series of exposés for ABC TV and the New York Times revealing covert Contra activities in Costa Rica. In return we became targets of a smear campaign, fostered by the U.S. Embassy in Costa Rica, which claimed Tony and I were leftist agents working for the Nicaraguan and/or Cuban governments. Other investigative reporters covering covert U.S. activities in Central America were similarly accused by Reagan administration officials.
On May 30, 1984, Contra leader Edén Pastora summoned the Costa Rican and international press in Costa Rica to La Penca, his small camp on the Nicaraguan bank of the San Juan River. As Pastora began talking, a powerful bomb exploded, killing three journalists and 21 others. Tony, who was there for ABC TV, was badly injured by the blast, and after being operated on in Costa Rica was medevacked to a hospital in Philadelphia.
I had not gone to the press conference because I had learned from sources close to Pastora what he was going to say. I wrote what ran as a front page story for the New York Times stating that Pastora, a mercurial nationalist leader, was under extreme pressure from the CIA to join forces with the main Contra army, the FDN, operating out of Honduras. Pastora opposed this union and called the press conference to publicly denounce CIA pressure and proclaim he would continue to fight the Sandinistas without support from Washington. In the wake of the bombing, Pastora immediately declared that he suspected the CIA.
Journalists cross the San Juan River on their way to the May 30, 1984 press conference at La Penca. The Tico Times
Costa Rican authorities quickly determined that the bomb had been carried to the press conference by someone posing as a Danish photojournalist and using a stolen passport in the name of “Per Anker Hansen.” He had been uninjured in the blast and had managed to leave the hospital, check out of his San José hotel, and vanish.
Within days of the incident, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists asked that I undertake an investigation. The assignment appeared straightforward – identify the bomber and who hired him – and we assumed the investigation would only take a couple of months. At the time we had no idea that this investigation would consume Tony and me for a decade or more and would lead to both the Iran-Contra scandal and to a covert intelligence operation within the Sandinista’s Interior Ministry.
One of the first people I contacted was an intelligence officer in Pastora’s military wing. He said: “Pastora has many enemies” and could have been targeted by either the Sandinistas or the CIA. But he suggested looking first into U.S. farmer John Hull, whose farms in northern Costa Rica were staging areas for the Contra forces. The source said that in the weeks before La Penca, Hull had suddenly cut his support for Pastora.
Until then Hull had maintained a low profile. But this tip eventually led us, together with other journalists, to uncover a hornets’ nest of covert, illegal operations tied to the Contras that was being run in part from Hull’s properties. This network included Felipe Vidal and a handful of other Cuban American CIA operatives, as well as key officials at the U.S. Embassy and collaborators within the Costa Rican government. In the process of investigating La Penca we stumbled upon not only rebel armies financed by the CIA but also drug (cocaine) running using the Contra airstrips, planes and personnel. The investigation into the La Penca bombing gradually revealed a far bigger story: the “Southern Front” of the Iran-Contra scandal.
Contra Southern Front, on April 22, 1983.Mario Castillo/La República
In October 1985, we presented our written report to the Committee to Protect Journalists and at a news conference in Costa Rica. We presented evidence that showed that John Hull and a group of Miami Cubans were working with the CIA and Oliver North’s network to run Contra operations in Costa Rica, that Hull and others in this network had played a role in the La Penca bombing, and that Hull and the Cuban Americans were under investigation in connection with arms and cocaine trafficking. While we had uncovered a number of aliases and false identities, we still did not know the true name and nationality of the La Penca bomber.
Within days, John Hull retaliated by filing a lawsuit in San José against Tony and me for “defamation of character.” The suit demanded a half million dollars plus court costs, and if we lost, we also could have been sent to prison.
John Hull's finca in Pocosol de San Carlos, in northern Costa Rica, on April 30, 1985.The Tico Times
Initially, we doubted we could get sufficient witnesses to testify publicly about what they had told us in confidence. However, in May 1986, as we went to trial in San José, we were able to present an impressive lineup of 10 witnesses, including Pastora, a mercenary arrested on Hull’s ranch, and others with knowledge of illegal military activities and drug trafficking. In a remarkable two-day trial, these witnesses substantiated our written findings against Hull and Vidal. Despite death threats and other harassments, a courageous Costa Rican judge ruled in our favor, finding us innocent. Hull skulked out of the courtroom vowing it wasn’t over.
Indeed it wasn’t. Over the next several years, as our investigation into U.S.-backed activities in Costa Rica expanded, so too did the efforts to silence our staff, our sources and us. In the course of our investigation, one of our witnesses was killed, we had to get another key witness and his family out of Costa Rica (with help from Amnesty International and others), we received death threats, and we were followed by unmarked cars we traced to the U.S. Embassy and Costa Rican security. We also were mailed a packet of cocaine and charged with drug trafficking, and were accused of being spies by a CIA-funded, right-wing Costa Rican group. The drug and espionage charges were eventually thrown out for lack of evidence. When we sought help from the U.S. Embassy, they suggested that we either get a gun or leave the country.
A composite of John Hull and the May 1986 trial against Martha Honey and Tony Avirgan in San José, Costa Rica.The Tico Times
Just after our legal victory against John Hull, Tony and I, out of a combination of fear and a desire to have more help with our investigation, agreed to become plaintiffs in a lawsuit brought by a Washington, D.C.-based legal firm, the Christic Institute. The institute’s lead lawyer, Daniel Sheehan, claimed to have a great deal of information that dovetailed with what we had found in Costa Rica. However, over time we and a handful of lawyers, journalists and private investigators (including Doug Vaughan, Carl Deal and Richard McGough), working with the Christic Institute, became disillusioned with Sheehan’s wide-ranging conspiracy theories and often sloppy attention to detail. As the case spun out of control and was eventually thrown out of court, we continued to concentrate on answering the core question: Who was the La Penca bomber and who was he working for?
During this period, the political atmosphere in Costa Rica only began to change after President Óscar Arias took office in May 1986 on a “peace” platform. Despite pressure from Washington that he continue supporting their military agenda, Arias immediately and courageously set about successfully negotiating an end to the Contra war and the region’s other conflicts. In 1987, Arias won the Nobel Peace Prize as the chief architect of the Central American Peace Plan that was signed, over U.S. objections, by all the Central America presidents. The Arias government also cracked down on a range of illegal Contra operations, including publicly revealing and closing the two-kilometer Santa Elena airstrip secretly built by Oliver North’s network on the edge of a northern Costa Rican national park.
A clandestine airstrip used by the CIA to supply the Contra at Potrero Grande, Guanacaste.The Tico Times
During Arias’ tenure as well, a Costa Rican legislative investigation into U.S. violations of Costa Rican neutrality (“hostile acts”) declared Hull, U.S. Ambassador Lewis Tambs, CIA station chief Joe Fernandez, National Security Council adviser Adm. John Poindexter and his deputy Oliver North to be personas non grata. And, with Arias’ blessing, Costa Rican judicial authorities reopened investigations into La Penca and ultimately brought murder charges against both Hull and Felipe Vidal. Both fled the country, but the charges remain. While Tamayo scoffs that Costa Rica’s judicial and legislative investigations unjustly accused Hull, Vidal and other U.S. officials of committing crimes, these probes in fact foreshadowed the U.S. congressional Iran-Contra hearings that named and indicted some of these same personalities.
* * *
For the record, while Tamayo claims “the Avirgan-Honey reporting led Costa Rican prosecutors to file murder charges against two U.S. citizens [Hull and Vidal] for the La Penca bombing,” we actually provided no testimony to either Costa Rica’s legislative or judicial investigations. In fact, both were carried out independently from our own and turned up significant new information. In the mid- to late-1980s, other press investigations – including a book, several TV documentaries, and scores of written exposés – all reached similar conclusions that the CIA was involved in La Penca and other illegal activities in Costa Rica.
However, throughout this period a central mystery remained: What was the true identity of the bomber? We had a number of aliases and a string of false identities, but not his real name. That began to change when, in 1989, I tracked down Swedish television journalist Peter Torbiörnsson, with whom the bomber “Hansen” had traveled in the weeks leading up to La Penca. Torbiörnsson had brought “Hansen” to the press conference and, like the bomber, was uninjured in the blast. Both slipped out of the hospital together and the bomber subsequently vanished. Torbiörnsson’s story that he was an innocent victim had never seemed to hang together; we always felt he had more information. When in 1989 I reached him by phone in southern France, he said simply, “I’m now certain he was working for the Sandinistas.” He reluctantly explained, for the first time, that he had actually been introduced to the bomber in Managua, a month before La Penca, at a gathering of Sandinista intelligence operatives. Stunned by Torbiörnsson’s revelations, I contacted Doug Vaughan and Richard McGough, two excellent private investigators working on our lawsuit, and proposed that we all debrief Torbiörnsson in person.
Victims are taken to hospital.The Tico Times
During three days of meetings at a Miami Beach hotel, Torbiörnsson admitted that he, like the bomber, had been working for a top secret Sandinista intelligence and dirty tricks unit, known as The Fifth Directorate, which was housed in Tomás Borge’s Interior Ministry and was directed by a Cuban named Ramón Montero. Torbiörnsson admitted that he had routinely given Sandinista agents copies of video he had shot of Pastora and other Contras. He said he agreed to travel with “Hansen” because he assumed he was also a Sandinista spy. He denied he knew that “Hansen” was carrying a bomb.
Contrary to Tamayo’s dismissal of us as leftist ideologues, we, in fact, immediately agreed we needed to carefully seek to confirm Torbiörnsson’s stunning new revelations. We still didn’t have the true identity – name, nationality, and background – of the bomber and we knew that because Torbiörnsson had lied in the past, his story linking the bomber to the Sandinistas needed careful confirmation before we went public. (The Christic top lawyer, Dan Sheehan, never accepted the evidence of Sandinista involvement and, in fact, denounced Tony and me as working for the CIA.) Over the next several years, we made trips to Nicaragua, Cuba, Mexico, Panama and elsewhere seeking answers. In immigration files in Panama, Vaughan managed to locate a fingerprint of the bomber who had traveled there on his stolen “Hansen” passport in the months before La Penca.
* * *
We met with top Sandinista officials and gradually pieced together evidence that the bomber had been living in Managua and working for the Sandinistas. Tony convinced a reluctant Torbiörnsson to go to Managua with him and confront then ex-President Daniel Ortega with the evidence of Sandinista involvement in the bombing. Ortega pledged that he was committed to the truth coming out and agreed to investigate and report back in 30 days. Two months passed with no word from Ortega, so Tony went back to Managua and managed to meet again with Ortega. Ortega said obliquely that Borge “had a thousand secrets” and did not report to anyone else in the Sandinista government. The Nicaraguan president did not deny Sandinista complicity in La Penca.
In a subsequent meeting with me, Borge admitted that “Hansen” had been part of his operation, but he claimed he was sent to spy on Pastora, not to plant a bomb. We also identified, we believe, “Hansen’s” illusive female accomplice who traveled with him in the months before La Penca, using a stolen French passport. She is a Nicaraguan socialite and occasional journalist who worked for both Borge’s Fifth Directorate and the CIA. She is one of several operatives revealed by us and other investigative journalists of being double agents. Borge promised to check his records and get us full details of the precise roles and dates of employment of “Hansen” and this woman, but he never did. He has since died, as has the Cuban intelligence operative Renán Montero.
John Hull, far right, sued Martha Honey and Tony Avirgan for “defamation of character.” The Tico Times
Then in 1993, Juan Tamayo did, as he writes, make contact in France with Jorge Masetti, an Argentine by birth and a former Cuban intelligence operative who had broken with Havana. Masetti identified the bomber as a fellow Argentine known as “Martin the Englishman” (because he spoke English well), who had been with a left-wing guerrilla group, the ERP, and had worked for Sandinista counterintelligence. Eventually, two journalists in Buenos Aires tracked down seven other former leftists in Argentina who also identified photos of the bomber as someone they had known as “Martin.” They eventually determined that his real name was Vital Roberto Gaguine – and that he had reportedly been killed in a 1989 leftist attack on La Tablada, an Argentine military base outside Buenos Aires. These journalists also managed to obtain a fingerprint of Gaguine.
Tony and Vaughan tracked down Gaguine’s brother and father who owned a men’s clothing store in a Miami Beach hotel. When shown the photos of the La Penca bomber, they confirmed that they were pictures of Vital Roberto, and they added they had been told by Argentine authorities that he had died in the La Tablada attack. They said they knew nothing of his involvement with the Sandinistas or the La Penca bombing, although they said he would occasionally visit them in Miami during the 1980s. Two days after this encounter, Vaughan and Tamayo obtained confirmation that the “Hansen” fingerprint from Panama matched the Gaguine fingerprint from Argentina.
With the La Penca bomber’s true identity now confirmed, Tony and I, as well as Tamayo and other journalists, wrote a series of articles. The following year, 1994, I published an academic book (“Hostile Acts: Impacts of U.S. Policies in Costa Rica in the 1980s,” University Presses of Florida, 1994) laying out the details of our investigation as well as U.S. economic and military policies in Costa Rica under the Reagan and Bush, Sr. administrations.
But unlike Tamayo’s conclusion that the bombing was done purely by the Sandinistas, our investigation found, in essence, two streams: one running from the Sandinista’s counterintelligence unit, the Fifth Directorate, and the other running from the covert U.S. network that included the Hull and Vidal operations along the border. The evidence of U.S. involvement remains both perplexing and mysterious, but it cannot be simply discarded. Some of the most troubling findings include:
- The night of the bombing, John Hull, Oliver North’s chief envoy Robert Owen, the CIA station chief and others were meeting together in a safe house in San José.
- Despite calls for help from wounded journalists and the Costa Rican government, John Hull ordered his operatives along the border to “stand down” and not to send rescue planes or boats to help evacuate the wounded.
- Even though one U.S. journalist died and two were injured, the U.S. Embassy was the only diplomatic mission that did not send any representative to the Costa Rican hospital where the wounded journalists were being brought.
- A U.S. military official took the most important piece of evidence to survive the blast, the detonator. The Americans promised to examine it and prepare a report. The detonator simply disappeared and no report was ever given to the Costa Ricans authorities.
- Within hours of the bombing, Reagan administration officials in Washington put out a story falsely identifying the bomber as a Basque ETA terrorist named José Miguel Lujua Gorostiola. Major U.S. media went with this story. Only days later did The Tico Times determine that this ETA person, who bore a slight resemblance to the bomber, was in fact under arrest in France and could not have been in Costa Rica. Curiously, we later discovered that several weeks prior to the bombing, Costa Rica’s right-wing daily La República, had carried a photo of Lujua and reported that he was en route to Costa Rica with other ETA operatives. Again, this was false. We subsequently learned that La República routinely ran non-bylined stories given them by a Costa Rican intelligence unit directed by the CIA. It was known as “The Babies” because it was directed by CIA operative Dimitrius Papas, who was called “Papi.”
- Multiple sources connected to the Contras and Miami Cubans said they had seen the bomber at Hull’s ranch and in Miami in the months before La Penca.
- In 1985, the U.S. Embassy effectively closed down Costa Rica’s initial investigation into La Penca by suddenly offering the chief investigator, Harry Barrantes, a scholarship for a three-month training course at Ft. Benning, Georgia.
* * *
As I wrote in my 1994 book, “Hostile Acts,” “In dozens of ways the U.S. Embassy, CIA, State Department and NSC [Oliver North’s network at the National Security Council], orchestrated a cover-up, put out false leads, ‘disappeared’ crucial evidence, derailed any serious investigation, and interfered with or prevented journalistic, legal, policy, and congressional inquiries. This is not logical.”
Martha Honey, center, and Tony Avirgan, right, celebrate with Otto Castro, far left, during their trial in San José in 1986. He lost.The Tico Times
The Reagan administration, in its campaign to topple the Sandinistas, had every reason to quickly prove the Sandinistas were behind La Penca. “The fact that they did not,” I wrote, “raises the question of why Washington had an interest in blocking the true story behind the La Penca bombing.”
Today, three decades after the La Penca bombing, official U.S. government behavior remains a central unanswered question. While we certainly accept that the bomber was Gaguine and was working for Tomás Borge’s and Renán Montero’s Fifth Directorate, we do not believe that is end of the story. Nor, it seems, do Costa Rican officials. In December 2013, Costa Rica’s Attorney General Jorge Chavarría, who led the La Penca investigation in the late 1980s that indicated both Hull and Vidal, announced that even though Argentine authorities have reported that Gaguine died at La Tablada, the La Penca investigation “remains open” in Costa Rica because its “masterminds” have never been determined.
Martha Honey is co-director of the Center for Responsible Travel (CREST), based in Washington, D.C. She and Tony Avirgan live in Silver Spring, Maryland.
The useful fool and the masterminds of power
by Peter Torbiörnsson
Members of the Costa Rican Intelligence Agency DIS detain Swedish journalist Peter Torbiörnsson on June 5, 1984.Maria E. Esquivel/The Tico Times
The following is a column written by Peter Torbiörnsson and published in the Nicaraguan daily El Nuevo Diario in 2009. It is published here with permission. Read the original Spanish version here.
For people with bad luck, seconds can transform lives into a nightmare. A nightmare so awful that it kills the will to live – if you cannot forget.
The effects of a few seconds of horror have stolen from me all the sense of honor and dignity that I had.
You must wake up in the morning, but you don’t want to; life is too real in its darkest dimensions, and you prefer to dream and evade. It’s a survival mechanism, nothing else. The enchantment and happiness from before have fallen like lost stars on the horizon of time; now is the after, and you live under the sign of the lost cause of your life. You have a problem that you can’t resolve; you are the fool used in an act of terror and you can’t see an escape, neither to defend the truth, nor for your values of loyalty. You are the lost link, the key witness of a crime against humanity committed by dark forces from the Interior Ministry under the command of Tomás Borge. A crime that killed seven people, among them three journalists, and that gravely injured more than 20 others. Mr. Borge called the La Penca bombing, which transcended the limits of wickedness, the “perfect crime.”
Let me explain
At the end of April 1984, a Sandinista commander asked me to help a Danish photographer named Per Anker Hansen obtain political and journalist contacts in San José, Costa Rica. Years later, I learned that this commander was Renán Montero, head of the Fifth Directorate at the Interior Ministry. It was a time of many wars in the region, and Nicaragua lived under the threat of invasion. I was a journalist working for radio, print and television in Sweden. In that historic era, my sympathies were with the Nicaraguan revolution.
I had lived through the overthrow of Allende in Chile, and the gray and terrible years of dirty wars in Argentina, Uruguay and Bolivia in the 1970s; that’s why I was so happy to see a reversal of the situation here in Nicaragua; the people would triumph instead of the militaries and dictators. Maybe Nicaragua’s intelligence chief knew that when he sent the supposed Danish photographer to me in San José, Costa Rica. We worked together, filmed lots of footage of the Contra forces in the Río San Juan. In those days, Edén Pastora was in hiding for security reasons, but even so, he gave a press conference at La Penca, on the Nicaraguan side of the river.
Pastora in those days was a very controversial person; he had abandoned the Sandinistas to enlist on the side of the Contra forces, financed by the CIA. For the CIA, Pastora also was a suspicious person who didn’t help bring cohesiveness to the Contra troops.
Former Nicaraguan Interior Minister Tomás Borge with Sandinista soldiers on Aug. 6, 1983.LaVerne Coleman/The Tico Times
Pastora had many enemies back then
We were about 15 journalists who arrived in canoes with outboard motors at about 6 p.m. at that isolated site in the jungle that was called La Penca. The darkness fell as we crowded into the upper floor of a wooden shack where the press conference was to be held.
Just after 7 p.m., the conference with Pastora began in a very dense environment, both physically and psychologically. We journalists tried to get as close as possible to Pastora in that narrow and bare room. The house was surrounded by armed Contras.
An exotic spectacle
Pastora had answered maybe two questions when those horrifying seconds happened that would change the lives of everyone present forever. When a bomb explodes, the first thing you feel is the heat wave that burns you, and then an infernal noise that destroys your eardrums.
You don’t understand when you lose consciousness on the journey to death. It’s later, when you begin to wake, with that smell of burning flesh and wood mixed with the screams and moaning of people who are dying; its in those seconds after that you realize that you’re living a nightmare.
A bomb had just exploded in that small room in the jungle and I couldn’t see more than a meter; in front of me, a cameraman from Channel 6 in Costa Rica was dying, his right leg was no longer attached to his body and there was no way to stop the bleeding.
I saw the journalist Linda Frazier on the other side of the hole, on the ground, in agony with a white and cold moon spilling its light on her bare torso. You could hear the intense pain of Susan Morgan, a journalist from The Economist, when she tried to bear the fractures in her legs and arms. I saw my assistant, Fernando Peredo, bleeding from the more than 200 pieces of shrapnel that penetrated his body.
It is the inferno of a human slaughterhouse
I realize one thing: It could have been the Danish photographer sent by the Interior Ministry by commander Renán Montero who planted the bomb. He’s the only one among the group of journalists who isn’t in the jungle house at the time of the explosion. He’s the only one in the group who is unharmed.
The majority of journalists in the group had done work favoring the Sandinistas. We had risked our lives to cover events that in those years were at the center of global attention. I also did it many times before this catastrophe.
I realized, on that dark night, that if it were the Danish photographer who placed the bomb, then the Sandinistas were responsible for the indiscriminate killing that broke all rules of human coexistence. My own friends wanted to kill me and my colleagues. It was the Sandinistas who for the first time in modern history violated the concept that a press conference is a sacred place, one of peace, a forum that is absolutely necessary to provide information to the world, an essential platform both for the right and the left.
It was the Sandinistas, in this case, who on May 30, 1984 utilized fascist methods, indiscriminately killing, outside the theater of war, innocent people who sympathized with their cause. If it was the Dane, then the Interior Ministry of Nicaragua used tactics of state-sponsored terrorism, and those in the ministry responsible for the bombing are war criminals.
For me, in those years, it was impossible to believe. I had to seek alternative theories that would clear the fake Dane. (In reality, he was Argentine. His name was Vital Roberto Gaguine, member of Gorriarán Merlo’s group, who was another Argentine who collaborated in Nicaragua with Renán Montero and the state security chief, Lenín Cerna. But I didn’t know that until long after La Penca.)
So I devoted a few years looking for other people who could have placed the bomb at La Penca. But there was no other explanation, not in Miami, not in Honduras, and not in Costa Rica. It was the Sandinista high command who destroyed so many lives at La Penca.
When Daniel Ortega and his entourage arrived in Sweden at the end of the ’80s, I found him at the Haga Palace in Stockholm. I asked Comandante Ortega what he knew about Sandinista involvement in La Penca. He told me he knew nothing, but he would find out. A few days before the elections in 1990, I found him again, in Managua. In my presence, he called Lenín Cerna, who arrived and sat down at his side. He confirmed to me that it had been a Sandinista operation.
“Yes, we have a little problem there in the Río San Juan,” he said. For reasons unknown to me, both of them offered to make a documentary about the attack.
I had arrived at the confirmation and beginning of the truth. I didn’t get any further, because a few days later, the Sandinistas lost the elections and the FSLN commanders no longer thought it a priority to help a Swedish journalist who was desperate with an overwhelming sense of guilt. In the Interior Ministry they were too busy destroying documents from the past before a new administration arrived.
In the years that have passed since then, I have searched for other situations in the world to escape that feeling of shame and guilt that I feel for having helped the Sandinista command to plant a bomb, for having helped the Sandinistas in my role as a journalist to commit a cowardly and vile act that transcends my imagination.
Members of the Costa Rican Intelligence Agency DIS detain Swedish journalist Peter Torbiörnsson on June 5, 1984.Maria E. Esquivel/The Tico Times
Several years ago, I filed a complaint with the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office in Managua. In that office they have done nothing to investigate the case. It’s just a piece of paper that is collecting dust, like a Kafka novel, in the offices controlled by Omar Cabezas (who was my friend during the insurrection and who has known of my doubts about La Penca since we met in Stockholm in the summer of 1984).
For these reason I again accuse:
Renán Montero (now deceased) – former intelligence chief in Nicaragua and retired colonel in the Cuban military – for crimes against humanity, for being the mastermind behind the death of seven people at La Penca and for gravely wounding 21 others in an act of terror.
Tomás Borge (now deceased) – former interior minister and ex-ambassador to Peru – for having approved and supervised the work of Renán Montero.
Lenín Cerna – former state security chief – for collaborating with Renán Montero and for covering up the truth about a crime against humanity.
I place myself at the disposal of the justice system in Nicaragua so that they can finally learn the truth about La Penca. I have witnesses of the events that I have described in this article. I don’t want to mention their names here. I urge a tribunal or international court to call them to testify, without fearing for their lives.
I have waited many years for the right moment to arrive to make this accusation. But the right moment never arrived. There are always wars in the world, and situations that affect Cuba and Nicaragua and that always will be used for dark propaganda to bury the truth. I can’t avoid that. My commitment is to the truth, and I must say it in life, before dying.
In the end, only truth matters.
Peter Torbiörnsson is a Swedish journalist and documentary filmmaker. In 2011, he released the film “Last Chapter: Goodbye Nicaragua.” The Nicaraguan government has since kicked him out of the country and made him persona non grata.
Guerrilla travelogue: In search of the story
The Tico Times archives
Contra camps in Nicaragua, date and location unknown.The Tico Times
Editor’s note: Tico Times reporter Linda Frazier, a native of Portland, Oregon, was 38 when she was killed by an assassin’s bomb at La Penca on May 30, 1984. She had moved to Costa Rica with her husband, Joe, and son Christopher two years before, working as a tenacious reporter for The Tico Times, The Associated Press and other U.S. publications. A June 1, 1984 Tico Times editorial paid tribute to her “sunny enthusiasm, boundless energy and warm humor,” adding that her “carefully researched articles reflected her astonishing array of interests and talents, and earned her countless fans among readers of The Tico Times.”
The following story, published on April 27, 1984, was one of Linda’s last articles, and it shows that although she didn’t get the story she wanted that day on the San Juan River Delta, she got something else. And she continued chasing the truth under difficult circumstances to the very end, for her readers, because “nothing like this ever happens in Arkansas.”
When Nicaraguan rebel soldiers of the San José-based Democratic Revolutionary Alliance (ARDE) captured and held the Nicaraguan Atlantic port town of San Juan del Norte on April 12, the international press descended upon the isolated area in hopes of interviewing Edén Pastora, the colorful “Comandante Cero,” on the site of his victory.
But the ARDE victory, more important for its propaganda value than any strategic military value, was short-lived, and most members of the media found themselves shut out of the area before they could even get there.
On the Monday following the rebels’ announcement that they held San Juan del Norte, this reporter decided to go there with The Associated Press and The Washington Post. We made arrangements for a 7:30 a.m. charter the following morning, and arrived in light rain in Barra del Colorado at 8:30 a.m. At the lodge, usually populated by foreign tourists who have been to Tortuguero and wealthy sport fishermen who come to catch tarpon, we ran into an NBC TV crew and Time magazine reporters and photographer. They had been in the ARDE-held town the day before, and reported seeing the Sandinista army prisoners freely strolling around town.
With this encouragement, we made arrangements to charter a small boat from the lodge to take us to Delta, the point where the Río Colorado converges with the Río San Juan – Nicaraguan territory. From there we were told to hitch a ride with an ARDE supply boat to get into San Juan del Norte. As we waited for the morning’s fishing boats to return, Jorge, the lodge manager, called us from the lounge to the porch, pointed to his ear and said, “listen.” In the distance, we heard deep thudding. The Time photographer said it must be the 50-caliber recoilless rifles the rebel soldiers had on the beach, trained toward the Nicaraguan patrol boats at sea.
There were rumors of a counter-attack the day before, and now the town was rumored to be under attack from the air and the sea. With a bit of apprehension, we headed off upriver in a scalloped-edged, canvas-topped tour boat piloted by a lodge guide, with the thudding continuing on one side and the lodge’s Scarlet Macaws squawking on the other.
The trip, which had been billed as a 40-minute jaunt, took over two hours. The guide swung our boat in close to the first Costa Rican Rural Guard station so the armed patrol could get a good look at us. Because of the dry season, the river was at its lowest point. We hit bottom, breaking the propeller off the motor. After repairs, we proceeded on to the last Costa Rican guard station before the river flows into Nicaraguan waters. A guard with a Gallil rifle recorded our names in a pocket notebook, and took us on to the sandy delta between the two rivers, where he let us out.
There is a large ARDE post across the Río San Juan, and the guerrillas watched our approach across the wet sand, where tiny frogs were hopping. We called across, asking for the commanding officer. He refused to come out. Instead, a white-haired man with a German accent arrived to send us away. (We later learned he is some sort of freelance TV cameraman who spends a lot of time around the guerrillas – and who tells some people he is doing a documentary on Pastora and others, and that he is doing a story about the “Diana D.”)
He told us we couldn’t go past this point, waving his arms dramatically and insisting that Sandinista planes were bombing San Juan del Norte and the Río San Juan. We asked how long it would take to get to the town, and he said 25 minutes by boat or three hours walking – but “you’ll never get there alive.” We could hear a large propeller plane in the distance, coming closer, but no bombing.
“Listen – they’re coming!” said the man, trying to get us to leave immediately. Our guide also wanted to leave, and we didn’t know whether to let the boat go or not.
There were at least 40 soldiers around the post and a half-dozen small boats. One group was setting up a tent on the delta side of the river. Others were wading up the shallow river toward the base. It was beginning to look like a retreat, and we decided to go back to the lodge.
We stopped at the Rural Guard station to check in and learned that two other journalists had left their boat there and walked over the hill, with the Rural Guard as guides, to a different ARDE post further down the Río San Juan. We learned later that this is the way we should have gone in.
The propeller broke again on the way back and it was now raining hard. We had no photos and no story.
The world of the lodge seemed unreal after our day on the river. A group of older tourists from New Orleans, Arkansas and Texas were playing cards in the lounge. Others, who opted not to fish in the afternoon rain, were splitting a bottle of rum. Even the NBC reporter had gone fishing, and came back with a huge “triple tail.”
The two journalists who went overland from the Rural Guard station soon returned, and we learned that if we had waited 10 more minutes, we would have met Pastora coming out, and had a photo of him washing his face in the river after his retreat.
Someone poured more scotch.
Earlier, several women who had taken the jungle train to Limón, toured Tortuguero and were going back to the U.S. the next day, had asked if they could take our picture.
“Nothing like this ever happens in Arkansas,” one exclaimed. They obviously were getting even more than their travel agent promised.
We, unfortunately, got less – and with Pastora’s departure, the chances of getting more seemed remote. We made a last-minute decision to return to San José. Jorge called the plane and it arrived at twilight, long past the time we thought it could land, coming in over the river in a gigantic wheelie with its lights on. It swung to a stop on the runway, and with its engines still running, we hopped on.
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