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Business as Usual

The evidence that Colonel Julio Roberto Alpírez supplemented his Guatemalan army salary with a decade-protracted stipend from our own Central Intelligence Agency is no longer disputed except by the apparent parties to the transaction. The case is plain enough: Alpírez was trained at Fort Benning, was graduated to the counter-insurgency employments that generated 40,000 widows and 100,000 refugees, advanced to a status qualifying him for the CIA payroll, and stayed there until 1992, when suspicions of complicity in an American citizen’s murder got him downsized with $44,000 in severance.

It is always the egg on its face and never the blood on its hireling’s hand that gets the CIA in trouble, which may be why the ground beneath its household occasionally trembles but unvaryingly settles solid as ever.

But the CIA must again suffer awhile with the piety whose adjective is “false” and the fraud whose modifier is “pious.” All that will pass as it always has because Washington officials rarely bob up to criticize the CIA without scrupulously avoiding the real point of its sins.

What in common sense was the CIA paying Alpírez to do? He was already febrilely serving his government’s will, if not the welfare of its peasant constituents. The CIA might of course pain the sensitive by arguing that Alpírez was also soldiering on in our own country’s interest. To guard the national security against foreign foes is to confront a shortage of such these days and a few hundred thousand poor Indians just must make do instead.

For ten years we paid a fee to Alpírez for doing what he would have done with no less enthusiasm for free. He would likely still be uselessly reaping our sovereign fruits if he hadn’t affronted our sovereignty by showing up too conspicuously among suspects in the murders of the innkeeper Michael DeVine, an American citizen, and of the guerrilla commander Efrain Velásquez Bámaca, husband of an American citizen.

Bámaca had been taken in the field, kept alive for working over for a while, and then executed. To kill a prisoner of war, even a civil war, is a violation of the Geneva Convention, although that breach is so routine in Guatemala that General Julio Balconi once explained to an Americas Watch investigator that such trespassers lost their rights when they joined the guerrillas.

It is necessary to concede that, when Bámaca went to war, he assumed heavy risks of death and harsh reprisal. Even that poor excuse does not obtain, however, either for the uninvolvedly innocent DeVine or for the three farm strikers killed and the twelve others shot by riot policemen last August.

When the steadfast pertinacity of Bámaca’s wife, Jennifer Harbury, finally compelled Washington to press her complaint, Guatemala’s attorney general shrewdly moved to fob off further inquiries with the claim that these two might not have been legally married and that Bámaca’s ghost would be thereby debarred from even the small dignity adhering to the status of an American son-in-law.

Guatemala’s rulers have lived with the parched and tiny desert of the American conscience quite long enough to recognize that all sorts of evils will be tolerated so long as they limit the victimage to their own people. In 1990 the US State Department took offense at Guatemala’s violations of human rights and suspended military aid. The CIA nonetheless maintained its retainer to Colonel Alpírez, who as an officer and a violator had the best-paid reasons to appreciate the difference between what the United States says and what it does.

And so do his superiors. In 1994 the Clinton administration affirmed its confidence in a reformed Guatemala by releasing $11 million in economic aid benefits as a reward for advances toward ordered liberty marked by the gunning down of the president of its constitutional court, and the extra-judicial killings of 107 humbler citizens, none prosecuted and all officially blamed on parties unknown. The CIA shops to suit presidential taste; and it is also a presidential prerogative immediately to express shock, then promptly to forget whenever some purchased criminal has produced too public an embarrassment.

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