A Guatemala-CIA Scandal Splits Army

Hard-line officers fight to retain their power against younger ones eager to clean up the military's image

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

A CIA scandal over its links to murders in Guatemala has triggered a sharp reaction within this nation's military.

As the scandal escalates in Washington, pressure has mounted on many Guatemalan Army officers to curtail their often-unchallenged actions against civilians.

Worried about a loss of power, disgruntled officers may be behind a rash of recent bombings in the capital, Western analysts speculate.

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Some officers are upset over accusations by United States Congressman Robert Torricelli (D) of New Jersey that Guatemalan Army Col. Julio Alberto Alpirez, while on the CIA payroll, was involved in the murder of a leftist guerrilla commander, Efrain Bamaca Velasquez, and a US innkeeper living in Guatemala, Michael Devine. Devine's widow testified yesterday before Congress.

The links to the Central Intelligence Agency were revealed following efforts by Bamaca's widow, US citizen Jennifer Harbury. Her hunger strikes and attempts to extract secret official information on her husband helped bring the murders to the public eye.

The US congressman's charges against Colonel Alpirez are the first time a member of the US government has publicly accused a Guatemalan military officer of murder. Over the past several months, local press reports have named various military officials for drug trafficking, kidnapping, and other crimes. But the Army has been able to shrug off the charges.

''It never occurred to Army officials that they would ever have to explain what happened to one guerrilla. No one has ever questioned them before. They've acted with complete impunity over the last three decades,'' a foreign diplomat explains.

But the accusations come at a time when the Army is wracked by division. Hard-line officers are fearful of losing power to younger officer, called ''institutionalists,'' who have been displacing hard-liners over the last year-and-a-half.

Some analysts speculate that Guatemalan press accusations are part of a campaign by younger officers to ''clean out'' the Army. Alpirez belongs to the hard-line faction, says Ronalth Ochaeta, director of the Human Rights Office of the Archbishop here.

''Efforts to clean out the Army are provoking a strong reaction. Right now, anything is possible. We can't rule out a coup or an assassination attempt on the president or defense minister,'' explains a political analyst close to the military.

On April 2, a bomb exploded inside an Army compound, killing three and wounding over 20 soldiers and firefighters.

And last Sunday, another explosion occurred outside the presidential complex while President Ramiro de Leon Carpio was hosting UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. And last week, there were strong rumors of a coup in the works.

Hard-liners oppose talks with the leftist Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity, which maintains a dwindling guerrilla force. The institutionalists, on the other hand, want to remake the Army's image and support a UN-brokered peace process with the left.

Many younger officers also want to clear out senior officers to help speed up promotions. But their hands are hardly clean, say human rights advocates, because they were in the lower ranks of the Army during the ''dirty war'' and counter-insurgency campaign in the early '80s, when thousands of Guatemalans disappeared or were killed, and over 400 villages were destroyed.

The CIA's history in Guatemala dates back to 1954, when it engineered a coup during the cold war to overthrow a democratically elected government. Since then, the CIA has been involved with some of Guatemala's most-notorious human rights abusers, most of them officials in military intelligence known as the G-2, says Celerino Castillo, a former US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agent who worked in Guatemala from 1985-1991.

Intelligence officials were often trained and paid by the CIA, with Alpirez just the tip of a very dirty iceberg, he says. ''Alpirez went on several missions where people were murdered,'' he adds. ''Everybody knew he was working for the CIA.''

One reason for the CIA's involvement is its concern over Guatemala being used as a transit point for drugs heading to the US from Colombia, says Castillo, the former DEA agent.

The 1994 Zapatista uprising in neighboring Mexico gave the CIA yet another reason for continuing operations in Guatemala. Some analysts fear that having leftists on both sides of the border could trigger a regional conflict.

On Tuesday, President Clinton suspended a CIA program that helped train a Guatemalan Army intelligence unit accused of serious human rights violations. Left untouch ed is funding for an anti-drug program.

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