top of page
Guatemala part 2 - how the death squads became the cartels

Solidarity Engineering met Jennifer Harbury through our work in Reynosa, Mexico where we provide water, sanitation, and hygiene infrastructure in camps and shelters throughout the city. See more about our work in Reynosa here: 

00:00 / 45:30

Jennifer Harbury


Jennifer K. Harbury is an activist, author, and attorney who has spent much of the past twenty years working to monitor and promote human rights in Guatemala. Her husband, Efrain Bamaca Velasquez, was a Mayan resistance leader who was "disappeared" by the Guatemalan military in 1992; subjected to long-term, severe torture; then extrajudicially executed. Harbury's efforts to save his life, which included three dangerous hunger strikes, resulted in startling disclosures about the close working relationship between the CIA and the Central American death squads. Since learning of her husband's death, she has devoted much of her time to pressing for human rights reforms for both the United States and Guatemalan governments. Harbury graduated from Harvard Law School in 1978 and has published two books about her experiences in Guatemala: Bridge of Courage (Common Courage Press, 1994) and Searching for Everardo (Warner Books, 1997). In 2005, Harbury published another book, Truth, Torture, and the American Way, which documents the long time use of torture by the CIA. Since her retirement, she has helped start one of the aid groups at the border: the Angry Tias and Abuelas of the Rio Grande Valley. She now works in Reynosa with the Tias documenting human rights violations and reporting them to Interamerican groups and national networks and leaders.

Audio Transcript

Chloe Rastatter: Hi, and welcome to Dignity Displaced, a podcast by Solidarity Engineering that’s largely focused on explaining why exactly so many people are fleeing to the US/Mexico border. I’m one of your hosts Chloe Rastatter and I'm an engineer and co-founder of Solidarity Engineering, a small grassroots organization that’s been working at the US/Mexico border on the Mexican side in refugee camps and shelters for the past year and a half. In today's episode, we are going to continue our series on Guatemala and why so many Guatemalans are fleeing to the US/Mexico border. Now, if you haven’t listened to the first episode of this series “Guatemala part 1- facing a climate crisis on stolen land ” we recommend you listen to it before this one to help get more context, but this episode can stand on its own. So, in this episode we were joined by one of our friends and close allies in Reynosa, Jennifer Harbury; and just so everyone’s aware today’s episode includes conversation about violence and uses strong language so it may not be appropriate for all audiences. 


Chloe Rastatter: So, Solidarity originally got to know Jennifer through working with her in Reynosa, Mexico. And there’s a lot we knew about Jennifer before making this podcast, but it turned out there’s was way more we didn’t. Most notably, we didn’t know how substantial the impact and the implications that her work in Guatemala and three hunger strikes that took place as a result nearly thirty years ago would have on today - both in Guatemala and here in the US. 

Jennifer has accomplished a lot of things and trying to sum her intro up in the most concise way isn't exactly easy, so honestly we just googled her, and the concise description actually came from her Wikipedia page. Here it is: “Jennifer K. Harbury is an American lawyer, author, and human rights activist. She has been instrumental in forcing the revelation of the complicity of the United States CIA in human rights abuses, particularly in Guatemala and other countries of Central America during the 1980s and 1990s.”  And now, although Jennifer is technically retired, she is still here at the border, working in Reynosa, Mexico under an organization that she helped start with a ground of women in the valley called the Angry Tias and Abuelas of the Rio Grande Valley where she works to connect asylum seekers to active attorneys, and closely monitors and reports ongoing human rights violations and legal violations to InterAmerican groups and national networks and leaders. So, Jennifer’s story is an intense one – it's full of love, genocide, heartbreak, and reliance. And this is why we’ve decided to break it into two episodes: one focused on the past and one focused on what the past means for today. Now, before getting too deep into her story, we wanted to familiarize the audience a little bit with kind of the overarching narrative, and why we did this episode today. We see a lot of Guatemalans at the border and started wondering why are so many people sacrificing everything to make the dangerous journey from Guatemala to the border - so we started the mini-Guatemala series. Once we made the first episode about land and water rights for the indigenous people in Guatemala, we knew that we had to circle back to the genocide against the Mayans that occurred during the civil war, were over 600 villages of indigenous Mayans were systematically annihilated by death squads from the Guatemalan army - an army that the US was funding. Now, as far as Jennifer goes, the short of it is: Jennifer was married to a Guatemalan Indigenous commander, Everardo, who was a leader within the resistance, but he was disappeared by the Guatemalan Army, brutally tortured for information and subsequently extrajudicially killed. In an effort to save her husband's life, Jennifer put together strong a human-rights case and pushed the US and Guatemala to release the whereabouts of her husband, Everardo. When no answers were provided, in an effort to save her husband Jennifer went on three hunger strikes - one in 1993 that was 7 days in front of a Guatemalan military center, one in 1994 that was 32 days in front of the national palace, which almost killed her, and one in 1995 that lasted 12 days on the White House Steps and ended when a whistleblower came forward announcing that her husband was dead and that the CIA knew of his whereabouts almost the entire time.  This resulted in the CIA declassifying documents, that in brief summary, revealed that her husband that she had spent 3 years looking for had been captured, tortured, and murdered by officials in the Guatemalan army, officials who were paid informants of the CIA. So how does this decades old human rights case affect today? We’ll get there.  


Chloe Rastatter: The Guatemalan Genocide, which you’ll hear Jennifer refer to as the “Silent Holocaust”, is documented, and internationally acknowledged and Jennifer was in the front lines for a lot of the genocide, which left an estimated 200,000 women, men and children dead or disappeared.  As everything was happening in Guatemala, Jennifer was working as an attorney at the US/Mexico border, but there wasn't sufficient documentation of the atrocities to help the refugee’s cases. So, Jennifer originally went to Guatemala in the 80s to document what was happening there and as she says it, life just happened from there. We interviewed Jennifer over a cup of tea a few weeks back sitting at her dining room table overlooking the beautiful and wild trees she has in her backyard. We start with what we consider the beginning of our story in Guatemala - the 1954 coup. Here’s Jennifer: 


Jennifer Harbury: The coup of course, the 1954 coup, is well documented by declassified CIA files as having been a CIA coup. What had happened was that for the first time ever, a former military person, Arbenz, but very reformist minded had won the presidency, that had never happened before it was always one or the other of uh, you know the colonial oligarchy, a people of direct European descent, who formed less than 20% of the population in Guatemala, and um, who owned almost all of the land which is very rich agricultural land. So, Arbenz first started with things we consider the most basic rights of all the right to unionize, better schooling, health care in the rural areas, um, the right to form political parties, freedom of speech, and so on and so forth. Then he did very basic land reform efforts which was not a matter of taking land. Like I say, uh, almost all of the usable land was in huge, huge plantations of the, of the small upper class of, of European descendants. Whereas the 80% of the population is basically indigenous, Mayan, were starving to death. They were serfs within their own country. Very much the equivalent of the old South Africa. So what Arbenz decided to do, if there was a huge plantation of more than a certain number of acres and a chunk of those acres for line fowl or unused, he would buy that back at the value declared on the tax form of the owner. It was then turned over to campesino cooperatives to farm and they not only farmed it, it became a huge success. The cooperatives bloomed because cooperative living amongst the Mayans is very much part of their culture. So it fit perfectly, and the churches were very involved in that. But then Arbenz came across the landholdings of the United Fruit Company an American corporation, which owned a gigantic amount of land in Guatemala and much of which was lying fowl. So Arbenz bought that back at the value that the United Fruit Company declared on its tax forms and they'd been shooting with Guatemalan government out of taxes in a vastly underrated the value. He turned that over to the cooperatives. The United Fruit Company sent people to Washington DC and screamed “communism” in the middle of the McCarthy era and the CIA arranged for a ragtag group of dissidents in the military. Armed them heavily and helped them invade the capital and kicked Arbenz out of the plaza, out of the national palace. He was sent into exile immediately, stripped at the airport and sent into exile, but at least he lived. But a huge blood bath ensued, and at that point anyone that was working at universities, um, doing good journalism, doing medical care in the hinterlands in the Highlands doing indigenous rights stuff, any reformists at that point were fair game to be killed by the death squads and the country started tearing apart - you can't really put the genie back in the bottle. So slowly but surely the “URNG” was formed out of four basic guerilla organizations. 


Chloe Rastatter: So with the CIA backed 1954 coup, a civil war that lasted more than 40 years ensued. The Guatemalan army started sending out death squads to indigenous Mayan villages and annihilating all inhabitants - murdering everyone from babies to pregnant women. Many indigenous leaders, social activists, and church people organized and ultimately formed a resistance known as the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity, or the URNG, to combat the genocide and the atrocities that were occurring. The URNG served as an umbrella organization that represented the collective front for four small grassroot resistances - including one that we’ll come back to and is very important to this story know as Revolutionary Organization of the People in Arms or ORPA. So, as the death squads were sweeping Mayan villages and actively perpetuating genocide, the US just sat by and continued to fund the Guatemalan army.  


Jennifer Harbury: The United States of course with its huge farming complexes and corporations and also mining interests had exactly the same interests that the plantation owners did, and the way the plantation owners always defended their property rights in Guatemala was to use the army. The army has never defended Guatemala against an outside invasion. They defend the oligarchy against the indigenous people and the campesinos. And the United States aligned with that oligarchy and with that army, and the way they fought back against this burgeoning demand for basic rights, including voter rights and everything else, was to carry out massacres in a campaign of terror. 


Chloe Rastatter: To be clear, the campaign of terror Jennifer is referring to, which the US knew about, occurred in the 1980s when, in a 3-year period, the Guatemalan army targeted the Mayan population, claiming they supported the resistance against the army, and destroyed 626 villages. The army did not just systematically murder people, they burned buildings and crops, slaughtered livestock, destroyed sacred places and cultural symbols, and perpetuated mass campaigns of torture


Jennifer Harbury: And after 40 years, the United Nations did a Truth Commission report and so did the Catholic diocese and the archbishop's office in Guatemala and they came to identical conclusions: the embassy, US embassy, and also, also all of the Guatemalan military and military presidents - there is a military president, from 54 until 1988 I believe, and then a civilian came in but very quickly it went back to the military or someone working with the military. But at any rate of the United States worked hand in glove with that army to carry out what they called counterinsurgency campaigns. And that meant, in according to many of the documents that had been declassified, sitting at the planning table with military intelligence people who were planning to go into villages and massacre them and the CIA operatives never warned the people in those villages or in any way stopped the massacres from happening. They knew about the kidnappings, they often had paid informants that they trained in the United States at the School of the Americas and that those people then very often became paid informants working back home within the army they, they did work for the Guatemalan army and were very high up in the intelligence division, but they were also paid by the United States for the information they were obtaining through the widespread use of torture. 


Chloe RastatterThe School of the Americas, is an U.S. Army training facility in Georgia that was largely focused on training Latin American cadets and officers. Critics called it the “school for dictators” after multiple graduates went on to be implicated in human-rights violations in their own countries. In 2001, after decades of documentation of its graduates participating in torture, murder, and political suppression, the school changed its name to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. Oh, and by the way, real quick, CIA papers that Jennifer’s talking about that directly showed the US paying Guatemalan military officials, who torture peopled resisting an active genocide? Yeah, Jennifer’s the one that got them released.  


Jennifer Harbury: According to the Truth Commission reports in Guatemala during that incredible campaign of genocide, the genocide was carried out by the army, not by the URNG or any of the civilian groups. 94% of the atrocities that occurred were carried out by the security forces not by the guerillas or any other, you know, civilian “delincuencia” groups, it was all army. The daily kidnappings, the massive torture campaigns, the terrifying mutilations that they would leave on bodies that they would then leave in the streets with posters on them saying “we'll be back for the rest of you”. Tearing out a baby’s fingernails to stop the mothers from looking for their husbands – those kinds of atrocities that are very hard to forget and still continue. A Supreme Court judge was shot to death back then too, he was trying to keep a rule of law going in Guatemala and it wasn’t possible. So, the UN Truth Commission really went after the Guatemalan security forces of course and you know, bluntly held them responsible for torture, terror, mutilations, and widespread murder during the war outside of combat. And they found, I think, I forget the number of, the number of hundreds of thousands of people who had been disappeared or killed outside of combat, but it was greater than Salvador, Chile, and Argentina combined - that was the price of the death squads. And the Truth Commission found that the United States had worked hand in glove with the intelligence level officials in the Guatemalan military who planned and carried out the campaign. They were jointly responsible in other words. 


Chloe Rastatter: Now that we have an overarching narrative about Guatemala, lets rewind and refocus on how Jennifer, a Harvard educated, middle-class-raised American, got involved in all of this.  Jennifer grew up in the 50s in Connecticut, in a middle-class household where powerful women seem to run in the family. She received her bachelor’s at Cornell University and years later went on get her law degree from Harvard Law school. Jennifer started working as an attorney at the US/Mexico border during the Guatemalan genocide, where she saw huge numbers of Guatemalans arriving, fleeing the atrocities occurring there. But there wasn’t sufficient human-rights based documentation of the atrocities occurring there to help their cases, so she went down there herself in the 80s to gather evidence knowing well that by 1985, over 150,000 mostly indigenous people, had been either killed or disappeared. This number would eventually grow to an estimated 200,000 by the time the war ended. Jennifer told me that despite the huge influx of Guatemalan refugees fleeing unspeakable trauma in the 80s, there was still insufficient documentation to help their asylum cases because it was too dangerous to do human rights work in Guatemala. On top of the lack of personnel able to safely document what was occurring, the US did not want to acknowledge the legitimacy of the claims made by the refugees because it is illegal to give aid to countries engaged in systematic human rights violations and, as we just learned, the US was directly aiding the Guatemalan army and the death squads. After years of working in safe houses in Guatemala City helping people flee for their lives, Jennifer was granted permission in 1990 by one of the indigenous led resistance groups that was mentioned earlier, Organization of People in Arms, or ORPA, to come to one of their secret camps on the side of a volcano for research for a book that she was writing about indigenous women on the combat lines. There she met her future husband, Everardo. 

Everardo was a commander of ORPA as well as one of the resistance group’s first members. By the time he met Jennifer, he had been on the front lines of the resistance living in the mountains in secret for 17 years. Everardo was a Mayan villager who grew up in immense poverty. His mother died due to lack of antibiotics, leaving him having to work with his father in fields for less than starvation wages and was thus was unable to go to school. Left with no land, no representation as a Mayan, no rights, and no education, Everado left home at 18 to join the resistance, where he quickly learned to read and became one of the resistance's brightest minds. Jennifer and Everardo fell in love during their time in the volcano and reconnected when Everardo was invited to Mexico City for peace negotiations with the Guatemalan army. The issue Everardo was representing was Mayan rights, and keep in mind there was an active genocide against the Mayans happening during the time of these negotiations and he was who was sent to sit at the table. Jennifer and Everardo were married in September of 1991 in Texas, a year after they initially met in the mountains. As violence against civilians and Mayans increased, Everardo had to return to Guatemala just following their first Christmas as a married couple. On March 12, 1992, Everardo disappeared during an ambush by the Guatemalan army. 


Jennifer Harbury: My husband was in Mexico City, Everardo, during most of 1991 because he was the last surviving indigenous commander. He had been in the mountains for 17 years and the negotiations were going topic by topic. They had already signed the issues for human rights promising that that would go into effect immediately and as we found out it certainly did not and then the next issue is going to be indigenous rights. So, he was playing a key role with ORPA in coming to decide what their positions would be and stuff and writing that up. So bit by bit the different sections of the Peace Accords were signed. The guerillas had been in the mountains hunted down for more than 20 years. Everado was in the mountains for 17 years which is almost impossible. But they had hung out and just weren’t gonna leave until something better could come about and they weren't gonna go back to the massacre era. The army meanwhile was finally being exposed as this grotesque human rights violator and Amnesty declared them engaging in the Silent Holocaust and the worst violator in the Western Hemisphere and they were starting to run out of money and the US had cutoff like you know, direct funding to the army 'cause legally they had to, but they were still channeling it secretly to the CIA to use however they wanted. So we were still paying for atrocities, and we were paying for, for the “assets” as we call it, paid informants to torture people and then turn over the, the, the information to us. My husband's case was the first case that came along where we could actually get the documents that proved that that happened. He was captured alive in 1992 during a brief combat and the army faked his death saying he had been you know that they had had a head on collision with enemy forces which was exactly right and that he then had turned his rifle around and shot himself through the mouth to avoid being captured. Which he would have done if he could have but as we later found out from his colleagues it was, there was no time. I mean they literally were on top of each other and I believe he was shot through the arm from what it sounds like and would have dropped his gun. 

Chloe Rastatter: Everardo was the only person in his group to dissappear during that ambush. The Guatemalan army declared him dead, claiming he killed himself to avoid being captured, but when Jennifer and ORPA organized a court order exhumation of his alleged grave to verify his death, the Guatemalan army swiftly stopped the operation without explanation. Knowing that the army would likely want Everardo alive due to the amount of information that he had as commander with 17 years of experience who attended the peace negotiations, without having definitive confirmation of his death, Jennifer and other ORPA members feared that Everardo had been captured. And this uncertainty of whether he was really dead or being tortured for information started Jennifer’s three-year long battle for the truth. Almost a year after Everardo’s initial disappearance on March 12, 1992, an escaped prisoner of war came forward that he had seen Everado alive and being tortured by the Guatemalan government. When Jennifer heard his story, she waged a legal and physical war with the Guatemalan government and US government demanding to know where Everado really was. She took legal action as his wife and was able to open the grave that the government had said was Everado to prove that is was not him.  She went to many meetings both with US ambassadors and officials on Capitol Hill demanding that they look into this illegal human rights violation seeing as they had involvement with Guatemalan Army. They told her they knew nothing of Everado’s disappearance.  She went to many meetings with high-up Guatemalan military officials, specifically a General Enriquez, demanding to know where Everardo was. General Enriquez and the rest of the Guatemalan army basically told her he was dead and that was that - no proof needed. 


Jennifer Harbury: At any rate we went through a year of going back and forth and I was eventually able to open the grave and it turned out they had captured my husband alive and were subjecting him to long-term torture because he knew everything. He was the third member of ORPA and he had been in the mountains 17 years and he had just spent a year in the capital at the commander's house so there was nothing he didn't know. And so they were torturing him but with doctors present to make sure they didn’t kill him by accident. And there was a very careful program in place, right, that was you sort of ease them through it and then eventually get all their information and then you can kill them. But they had to make sure that they didn't kill them so he could lay the golden egg. There were a number of witnesses that saw that and I eventually opened the grave, it wasn't him in the grave, it was a 19 year-old who had been battered to death, shot and strangled among other things. And when we asked for a description of the body in the grave they sent me my husband's description, Everardo’s description, and not the kid, but when we opened the grave that's who was in there. 


Chloe Rastatter: So as soon as Jennifer opened the grave and saw it wasn’t Everardo, she knew the Guatemalan government had been lying and they must have captured him and possibly still had him. Jennifer hoped that there was still time to rescue him alive, so she got working. 

Jennifer Harbury: I mean first I approached State Department and people on the Hill and I go like hey they picked up my husband and he’s a guerilla commander and they’re like “Whaaaaat” you know. I mean no one was supposed to talk about the guerillas, prisoners of war was an unacceptable issue, it was taboo. Only civilians. And that you know was ‘cause Reagan had sent the FBI out to get all these human rights offices to you know to be labeled as foreign agents and so and get their funding cut off and stuff. So you know krason got really harassed and stuff. So everyone was like real trigger happy in DC, but then when I went down and opened the grave and it wasn’t him, I came back with the forensic reports and wrote up legal memos and stuff for them it’s like “ahh”, you know? And the Inter American Commission issued protective orders so I armed myself with that and went back to the Hill and they started paying a lot of attention and making all these inquiries and stuff but nothing was happening. So when I opened the grave and it wasn’t him, I sent all that information back with a friend who hand carried it to DC, but I was still there right. And I knew I was like I have to make a statement. So I talked to the ambassador who basically said I’m going to make an appointment for you with, with the Minister of Defense at the Casa Crema across the street - that’s like “Military White House”. And it was interesting, she already knew that Everardo was not in the grave, she had known from day six right. I mean she knew exactly what was happening, but she wouldn’t tell me that and when I figured it out her hands were shaking. And she was quite freaked out that when she didn’t say anything she just sent me to talk to him, General Enriquez. So, I went over there and we had a nice long talk about it and it’s like well, “I greatly respect you and you know and you know I can probably send my troops out to figure out where he’s hiding you know. I’m sorry your marriage went South and he’s left you. But there’s really nothing we can do about it and you know mah mah mah.” And I said look, if you send him to the courts of law for a fair trial and stop torturing him you know, then I’ll be quiet, I’ll just stay here and bring him food in the prison and stuff. You have the right to take him to trial. And if you don’t, I’m going to raise hell, and he looked at me and was like “raise hell, honey” you know. 


Chloe Rastatter: So, with little progress being made and still unknowing if her husband was alive or not, and after reading multiple books about people who have staged extreme hunger strikes and gearing up all the documentation surrounding her husband’s case, in September of 1993, a year and half after Everardo’s initial disappearance, Jennifer sat in front of the main military building and started her first of three hunger strikes. 


Jennifer Harbury: So, the next day I went out in front of his, you know, the Politéchnica looks like the Wicked Witch of the West castle and it’s hilarious like this huge military complex with turrets for machine gunners and stuff, but it’s on embassy road, so everybody drives back and forth in front of it. So, I put down my banner and a bunch of like 30 candles and, and pictures of the disappeared there were 40 other prisoners we knew for sure were in there and laid down and announced my hunger strike. And they’re like “What?” and I screamed like this is for the URNG prisoners of war ORPA you know ‘cause you couldn’t say, you couldn’t say those words without getting killed. So, people are like falling out of the buses and rolling their windows down and freaking out. But then one by one, unioners brought like photos of their disappeared ones, and put banners up in solidarity, and people came and sat with me. I mean they could have been killed for doing that. But they all came out and I had planned it for seven days ‘cause the Inter American Commission was there for the week and I gave them my testimony their first night and then I was out there the next morning. And they were leaving on day seven so that’s when I left and went back to DC. But that had opened a lot of doors, I mean everyone took that picture in the world, right? With, with that building behind me and the machine gunner kind of like trying to figure out what to do. I mean that got a lot of attention. And just what I needed. I was just screaming like “you’re not listening to me gang!”.  And then we were in negotiations for about a year. You know we were talking. And then, I would, they would say things like “well, you know you say the body in the grave isn't him, well we’ve never had him.” Then why did you send me this letter with the exact description of him if you never had him? Where’d this come from and why did you say that’s his in the grave? It’s like well you know they must have got the body mixed up or something and it’s like no here’s the forensic report from two years ago and it’s the same guy that’s in the grave now and here’s a witness that knew him personally and here’s his satchel ID card. So, and it’s like “well, you know we can’t explain any of that, he must have just run off. He’s just missing somewhere,” and it’s like no one else was missing from that platoon that day. Only him. And then they were like “well, well, we’ll just have to go capture him somewhere. If we go out and capture him somewhere and give him back to you, what are you gonna do?” And I would say well, you know then you could put him on trial and stuff and I’ll stay here and be quiet and I’ll also sign a letter of thanks to you, General Enriquez, for turning a historic corner in the war in Guatemala by turning over the first prisoner of war in 40 years to the courts of law. I will thank you and of course you can send that to Congress. And he’s like, pour somecuff,  you’re a most intelligent young woman. And then boom, the doors closed about six months later. I had talked almost everybody that was on that torture team. In fact, one of them later became President of Guatemala, you know. But so, I was in and out of in and out. I was going up in the intelligence tower in the National Palace, it’s like, usually you get taken there, right, and don’t come back out. But, like I said, then it just went dead. So like we’re almost to the Peace Accords and then they don’t need him anymore. So, it’s now or never. 


Chloe Rastatter: Almost a year had passed since Jennifer’s first hunger strike, and although it brought a lot of attention to Everardo’s case, still no one would come forward with his whereabouts. Fearing that when the Peace Accords were signed, the Guatemalan army would kill Everardo because they no longer needed his information, Jennifer decided to take her fight to the death in October of 1993 - two and a half years after Everardo’s disappearance - she staged her second, and longest, hunger strike on the steps of the Guatemalan National Palace.


Jennifer Harbury: So, I went in front of the National Palace and said to the Duff - and they freaked out really badly - but at first it was real quiet and like not much attention. Everyone thought I’d leave in a week or so, right. And then at day 32, I was, you know, about to go in convulsions on their front steps right and it’s like, they had said they were going to force me into a hospital and force feed me and put me on drugs for my mental health. And being me, right, I’m like you can’t do that it’s like I’ll sue you for assault and battery, you can’t do anything against my will. So, they were so like, like they just couldn’t figure out what to do with me. They knew what to do with a Guatemalan right: I would’ve gotten pulverized in an hour.  60 Minutes was there and like the Washington Post. I mean, everyone was there. So, they’re like fuck, right. So they checked with their lawyer who apparently said if she approaches suicide then you can intervene to prevent suicide. So they kept pushing me like around day 30 to like, they wanted me to faint or something, right, they sent it forensic doctor out, and he tapped me on the shoulder and said: “they just sent me I’m a forensic doc, doc so and so and I’m supposed to write a report on your condition.” And I said forensic? I’m not dead yet, and he goes, “I know and I’m gonna give you glowing reviews, my nephew’s missing.”  So he did and he said you know “Just don’t faint,” ‘cause I was drinking one thing, a little jar of Pedialyte every morning that had saline solution in it which is the only reason I could speak with that sugar level, right. That was the only reason. I mean, otherwise I probably would have died quite a bit earlier, but it kept my nervous system still working...kind of. I mean I had that, that so they called me into the Supreme Court and I argued for an hour in Spanish. They locked me up for two hours without water and interrogated me in the fiscal’s office. Then they took me out to the middle of the jungle area, like 6 hours away and stood me up in the sun to watch another exhumation. We already knew who it was, and I told him it’s not him it’s like a close friend of his that was killed on such and such a date, and look in your files, and it’s like “well, you have to come anyway.” Then 60 Minutes came out and it was like blew their heads off and blew the ambassador’s head off. 


Chloe Rastatter: On day 32 of Jennifer’s hunger strike 60 Minutes aired a show about Jennifer and Everardo in which they revealed that a trusted source from the US government told them that despite Jennifer and everyone else being told there was no information by both the US and Guatemalan governments, it was actually known by the CIA that Everardo had indeed been captured alive by the Guatemalan Army and that they were lying. Although everyone had been saying for years at this point that they had no information. The US government knew of Everado’s location and torture since the 6th day after his disappearance. After the airing of this program, Jennifer got a call from the White House, requesting her return to Washington so they could talk. So, she returned to Washington, and that’s what ended her 32-day hunger strike. 


Jennifer Harbury: Yeah, the first one was seven days in front of military intelligence headquarters with guys flipping out with machine guns, right. The second one was I said till the death it was 32 days till the White House said they helped me and then brought me back and didn’t help me. And then the third one I went until the disclosures were made.  


Chloe Rastatter: And that one was in the West, that last one...  


Jennifer Harbury: That was in front of the White House yeah ‘cause they’re the ones that brought me back and then and then, yeah, didn’t follow through. 


Chloe Rastatter: After returning to Washington, Jennifer spent months back where she started - with no concrete information from either government about Everardo. So after a few months of going in circles, on March 12th, 1995 Jennifer staged her third and final hunger strike on the White House steps on the third anniversary of Everardo’s disappearance. This hunger strike lasted 12 days until a whistleblower ultimately came forward and revealed that Everardo was dead - and more - he had been tortured and murdered at the hands of Guatamalan army officials who were trained, and then paid as informants, by the CIA. 


Jennifer Harbury: It was so hard the third time ‘cause the 32 days my blood sugar was in coma level right. 


Chloe Rastatter: How much time in between the 32 day one and the 12 day one? 

Jennifer Harbury: A couple months. 

Chloe Rastatter: Not enough time to fully let your  

Jennifer Harbury: It was like just going right back where I started from, but I just didn’t care. I wasn’t going to say “Oh well, I guess it’s over” right, but then all information came out, but all those 350 prisoners were done.  

Chloe Rastatter: So, it’s like, so much, just yeah, like thanks for your time.  

Jennifer Harbury: Yeah, I was wrecked and Everardo was long gone. So, yeah, thanks a whole bunch, right. 

Chloe Rastatter: The CIA documents that were declassified as a result of Jennifer’s efforts did not just confirm his capture, torture, and eventual death, but in today’s context, they directly draw a link from the CIA to the formation of some of the cruelest forms of organized crime we see today.  

Jennifer Harbury: So, um, so one of the really important connections, though, was that they also admitted in those documents that quite a few of those people were in fact CIA assets that had been torturing my husband and all the others. Almost all leading upper echelon of the army, the rulers, they were already getting into the drug trade, and when the war ended, they just changed - as one of them laughing told me – “we just got into civilian clothes and now we do something else, but we’re right here.” And sure enough, they were right there. They formed, for example, the Zetas, one of the scariest of all the cartels, because everybody was so tightly linked with the military, they got all the guns and stuff that they wanted and they taught the same techniques: torture, kidnapping, destroy the courts, destroy the police, pull a person’s teeth out. Make an example of them, leave them with their guts hanging out, hanging from the trees, terrify the community so it doesn’t dare rise up and resist you. And that’s what we’re seeing now with the gangs.  The gangs weren’t formed by kids from the street gangs. Those street gangs were recruited by high level military people who are out of the army and just were looking for another way to get a lot of money. They had taken almost all the money in the US had sent as aid, right, and they just wanted a new source. So, they were the heads of the narcotráfico cartels that were formed and they taught the street kids what to do. Street kids didn’t just come up with the idea about how to force an enormous bus to the side of the road and take everybody off at gunpoint and, and ransacked the place and stuff. That was the old death squads. The military was the death squads in Guatemala and all-over Central America and everybody knew that. It was just something the US always said could not be true because then how could we keep on funding, and we wanted to fund them for the same reason the oligarchy wanted to fund them, they were protecting our economic interests.  


Chloe Rastatter: Today we are facing a crisis at the border that is growing worse by the day. As refugees, mainly from Guatemala and other countries in Central America, are fleeing the same gangs that the CIA aided in creating. Instead of being allowed just the chance to apply for asylum in the US, they are being turned away at our border and sent back to Mexico without due process under the public health policy ‘Title 42’, which has turned over 1 million asylum seekers away into some of the most dangerous cities in the world. Cities like Reynosa, Mexico where we work with Jennifer. Addressing the humanitarian crisis at the border has been almost entirely a grassroots effort because the camps that have formed are not “official” camps designated by the UN, so it’s been largely up to NGOs and local churches to provide for thousands - in a city where the cartel wars still rage. This environment requires collaboration between organizations and is how we really got to know Jennifer and the organization she works with, the Angry Tias and Abuelas. The Tia’s focus largely on providing basic necessities for health and safety for the asylum seekers stuck in Mexico. We have been working with them on various water and infrastructure projects in Reynosa to better address the “health” end of the spectrum and as far as the safety end of their mission, although Jennifer is now retired, she spends much of her time in Reynosa - working on the legal end of the battle.  In an effort to provide safety on a grander level for the refugees, Jennifer now works in shelters and safe houses throughout Reynosa talking to asylum seekers and documenting the human rights violations that are occurring there; she is mobilizing that documentation to file affadavids to aid court cases, such as one with ACLU against Alejandro Mayorkas, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security over Title 42.  As Jennifer tells us in the second half of her interview, the human rights abuses that Jennifer encounters in Reynosa are constant and people are fleeing similar conditions that they were under the 90s, just the threats are from a different source now. So in our next episode, which will be out early January, we talk to Jennifer more about how the death squads - turned cartels - affect today and why exactly now we are seeing over ten of thousand Guatemalans fleeing to our border every month. 


Christa Cook: Hi, my name is Christa Cook, and I’m a field engineer and co-founder with Solidarity Engineering, and I will be delivering the project updates today. With the reinstatement of MPP and a growing population, the Plaza de Republica in Reynosa, Mexico has become the largest refugee camp in the city with an estimated population of 3,000 people. Along with providing 26,400 L liters of potable water and 18 portable bathrooms per month, as well as continued support for the hygiene free stores, we have started a new initiative of distributing hygiene kits to recent arrivals and maternity kits to new mothers. Shout out to Baby2Baby and A Ripple International for supporting these initiatives. At a local shelter in Reynosa, we have finished construction of 8 laundry stations, installed 12 doors with locks for the bathrooms, and installed roofs over the bathrooms for increased privacy and security. We also continue to support two hygiene free stores at this shelter, one for the men and one for the women. We started teaching women and men’s English classes on Fridays at this shelter, which helps us get community feedback on our projects while also helping asylum seekers navigate a foreign language. Thanks to our volunteer structural engineer, Leonard Tate, we have completed designs for the two water towers that we will build at a local shelter. We plan to begin construction on this project next month, in January 2022.  The number of people arriving to the border has noticeably increased, and with the border still closed under Title 42, local NGOs and missionaries are looking to open new shelters to support this population growth. To help out with these new shelters, we have been using drone imagery and GIS extensively to design new shelter layouts, attempting to proactively meet internationally recognized standards using UN and Sphere Guidelines.  Finally, to support this podcast and our work, PLEASE subscribe to our Patreon, Solidarity Engineering. All proceeds from the Patreon go directly into our field projects, supporting potable water and sanitation initiatives. If you want to find more about our podcast episodes or our work, check out our website at and follow us on social media, @solidarityengineering. If you got something out of today’s podcast, please subscribe to wherever you get podcasts so you see when we get a new episode out, or you can leave a nice review and tell your friends about us. This episode was produced by Chloe Rastatter, Christa Cook, and Erin Hughes, edited by Chloe Rastatter. All sounds in today’s episodes come from our projects in the field, with a special thanks to Adam Erispaha for composing music for us. This episode would not have been possible without production support from Siobhan Merrill, Casey Wilson, Rachel Manring, David Rastatter, and Abbie Rastatter. Catch us early January for the second half of Jennifer Harbury’s story! 


Jennifer Harbury: That became the rest of my life pretty much, but that was why I originally went down there, was to gather basic info. 

Chloe Rastatter: I was supposed to be here for a week at the border, and sometimes you just kinda fall... 


Jennifer Harbury: Stuff happens. 

Chloe Rastatter: Things happen. Yeah, stuff happens. A week turns into 2; 2 turns into a month; a month turns into a summer, I get it. 

Jennifer: And it’s best that way. You end up where you’re supposed to be. 

bottom of page