Jennifer Harbury

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Jennifer K. Harbury (born 1951) 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. Initially she was trying to discover the fate of her husband Efraín Bámaca Velásquez, a Mayan guerrilla leader who was "disappeared" in March 1992.

The death of her husband at the hands of the army in 1993 was revealed, together with CIA complicity in Guatemala Army human rights abuses. As a result of her efforts, Congress forced the end to a CIA program[citation needed]. In 1998 President Bill Clinton ordered the declassification of decades of documents related to US activities in Guatemala and other Central American countries, and apologized for US contributions to human rights abuses there while on an official visit to Guatemala[citation needed].

Early life and education[edit]

Harbury grew up in Connecticut, graduating from Cornell University and Harvard Law School. Afterward she worked at a small legal aid clinic on the Texas-Mexico border. Among her clients in the early 1980s were Guatemalan Mayans who emigrated to Texas to escape from the death squads that were conducting genocide against them during the long civil war of their home country. Ignorant of the true political situation, US immigration denied refugee status to many and forced them to return. Harbury went to Guatemala to see firsthand what was going on.

Human rights activist[edit]

In the 1980s, Harbury traveled to Guatemala, where she became more involved in helping the indigenous Mayans. In 1990, she met Efraín Bámaca Velásquez in Guatemala, and married him in 1991.[1] An indigenous Mayan, Bámaca was a commandante of the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) during Guatemala's civil war, known by his nom de guerre of Commandante Everardo.[2] This was a decades-long government and military repression and genocide, largely against Guatemala's indigenous populations.[3][4][5][6]

On March 12, 1992, local members of the Guatemalan army captured Efraín Bámaca Velásquez, secretly detained and tortured him for more than a year. His torturers and murderers were paid CIA informants.[1][2]

As a U.S. citizen and lawyer, Harbury set out to find her husband's whereabouts, while working with Guatemalans in the US to protest against human rights abuses, and trying to force the government to find out about his fate. She took legal action despite receiving threats on her life for these efforts.[1][2][7] She initiated two hunger strikes in Guatemala, one in front of the White House, and filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the CIA to gain access to their information.[1][2]

During this period, both the Guatemalan and United States governments claimed they had no knowledge of Bámaca's whereabouts. As a result of Harbury's actions, U.S. State Department official Richard Nuccio did internal research and became a whistleblower in 1996. He revealed that the CIA had known both where Bámaca was being held and that the army had killed him. Specifically, Col. Julio Roberto Alpirez, a Guatemalan Colonel who studied at the School of the Americas and was a paid informant or "asset" of the CIA, had ordered the murder. Alpirez had also been involved in the murder of U.S. citizen and innkeeper Michael Devine. (cite: New York Times, March 24, 1995, "Long Road to Truth About Killings in Guatemala", by Time Weiner.)Moreover, the intelligence agency had a close working relationship with the Central American military death squads who "disappeared" Bámaca and had been funneling money to them, despite a Congressional prohibition since 1990.[7] President Clinton ordered an investigation by the Intelligence Oversight Board.

During April 1996, the American nun Dianna Ortiz was fasting across from the White House, seeking the release of CIA papers related to her case of abduction and torture in Guatemala in 1989. This forced the long overdue release of the Intelligence Oversight Board Report. When the papers were released in May, there was no confirmation of her claim that an American had been involved in her case. However, the report did confirm the CIA practice of using known torturers and human rights abusers as paid informants or "assets", and the failure of the U.S. Department of State officials to properly share information as to human rights crimes with the victims and their families.,[8] 1996 Intelligence Oversight Board Report on Guatemala.

For his whistle blowing, Richard Nuccio was eventually stripped of his security clearance, ending his career with the State Department by 1997.[9][10]

Nuccio's revelations caused a scandal for the U.S. government. As a result, President Bill Clinton ordered declassification of United States secret archives on the Bámaca murder and other human rights crimes committed by the Guatemalan military. Documents dating to 1954 were declassified, revealing complex relationships for years between elements in the two countries. Clinton issued a public apology in 1998 in Guatemala for the United States' role in supporting the country's abusive regimes.[1][4]

Since that time, Harbury has made it her life's work to fight for human rights by documenting, exposing, and speaking publicly about human rights abuses. She has emphasized the abuses by the United States, both historical and contemporary.


  • Bridge to Courage: Life Stories of Guatemalan Compañeros & Compañeras (1995) foreword by Noam Chomsky, photography by Sherrlyn Borkgren
  • Searching for Everardo: A Story of Love, War, and the CIA in Guatemala (1997)
  • Truth, Torture, and the American Way (2005)

Representation in other media[edit]

  • Dirty Secrets: Jennifer, Everardo & the CIA in Guatemala (1998) is a documentary film about her life and work.

Legacy and honors[edit]

Harbury's work has been widely cited. In addition to extensive public speaking, she has appeared as a guest on the Charlie Rose and Democracy Now! TV programs.

She also is the cousin to noted veterinarian Wendy Brooks


  1. ^ a b c d e "The Bamaca Case - an 18-year Struggle for Justice". Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA. June 8, 2010. 
  2. ^ a b c d Megan Hagler and Francisco Rivera (2002). "Bámaca Velásquez V. Guatemala: An Expansion of the Inter-American System's Jurisprudence on Reparations". American University, Washington College of Law. Human Rights Brief. 9 (3). 
  3. ^ Victoria, Sanford. "Violence and Genocide in Guatemala". Institute on Violence and Survival, Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. 
  4. ^ a b Wilkinson, Daniel (October 16, 2003). "Guatemala: A Human Rights Update". Human Rights Watch. Human Rights Testimony Given Before the United States Congressional Human Rights Caucus. 
  5. ^ Sanford, Victoria (2003). Violencia y Genocidio en Guatemala. Guatemala City: FyG Editores. p. 124. ISBN 99922-61-25-0. 
  6. ^ Sanford, Victoria (2004). Buried Secrets: Truth and Human Rights in Guatemala. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. p. 352. ISBN 1-4039-6559-5. 
  7. ^ a b "2003–2004 Radcliffe Institute Fellows: Jennifer K. Harbury". Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University. 
  8. ^ MAX OBUSZEWSKI, "Some CIA Mistakes...", Baltimore Chronicle and Sentinel, 7 June 1996, accessed 14 June 2013
  9. ^ "The Vilification of Richard Nuccio". The New York Times. December 18, 1996. 
  10. ^ Stein, Jeff (March 13, 1997). "Out in the cold". Salon. 
  11. ^ "Jennifer Harbury Biography". Retrieved 10 September 2011. 

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