The First Draft of History


Photo courtesy of The Tico Times

The Best and the Worst

by Juan O. Tamayo  

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 Eden 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.

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: American Linda Frazier, 38, a reporter for the English-language Tico Times newspaper 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.

Peter Torbiornsson, 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. Torbiornsson 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.

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.

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 Renan 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.

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.