La Penca bombing
The "La Penca bombing" refers to a bomb attack on May 30, 1984, in the guerrilla outpost of La Penca in Nicaragua, near the Costa Rican border. The bomb attack occurred during a press conference being conducted by Edén Pastora, a Contra leader, who is presumed to have been the target. Seven people, including three journalists, were killed in the attack.
A press conference had been arranged in the guerrilla outpost of La Penca by Edén Pastora, a former Sandinista who had switched allegiance to the Contra rebels. The press conference took place in an enclosed hut on stilts near the northern bank of the San Juan River that separates Costa Rica from Nicaragua. The press conference had been convened by contra officials in the Costa Rican capital of San José, and the journalists arrived to La Penca in the middle of the night after a traveling all day over land and by canoe from San José. Because of the late hour, Pastora initially asked that the press conference commence in the morning, but as the reporters began peppering the guerrilla leader with questions an impromptu press conference began as the reporters and television news crews gathered with Pastora around a chest-high table situated in the main room of the hut.
The bomb is believed to have been hidden in an aluminum camera case, and planted by an individual carrying a stolen Danish passport. According to witnesses, the bomber used the name Per Anker Hansen and claimed he was a Danish photographer. Afterwards, bombing survivors commented that they found it odd that "Hansen" had so zealouly guarded his "camera equipment", wrapping the unwieldy aluminum box in plastic. "Hansen" is believed to have deposited the camera case containing the bomb underneath the table. News footage later showed the suspected bomber gesturing to his camera as if to indicate an equipment malfunction as a pretext to leave the room. The bomber is suspected to have detonated the bomb remotely using a walky-talky signal as a detonator. Seconds after "Hansen" left the room, an explosion ripped through the hut, leaving the injured and dying crying out in pain and calling for help in sudden darkness.
Those killed in the bombing were an American journalist, Linda Frazier; a Costa Rican cameraman, Jorge Quiros; his assistant, Evelio Sequeira, and one rebel. The bomb attempt also seriously injured Pastora in both legs. About a dozen others were seriously injured.
The bombing led to an investigation by Tony Avirgan (an American journalist injured in the bombing) and his wife Martha Honey, and they concluded that the CIA was responsible. In 1986 the Christic Institute filed a $24M lawsuit on their behalf against several individuals all associated with Oliver North; including Rob Owen, John Hull, Richard Secord, Albert Hakim, and Thomas Clines. However the case was thrown out in June 1988 and the Christic Institute was ordered to pay approximately $1 million in costs to the defendants.
In 1990 the Government of Costa Rica accused the CIA of orchestrating the bombing using two intermediaries. Charges of murder were laid against Felipe Vidal, a Cuban-American, and John Hull, an American farmer who lived in Costa Rica at the time and who had been previously named in the Christic Institute lawsuit.
In 1993, Miami Herald reporter Juan Tamayo and Doug Vaughn, a free-lance journalist working for the Christic Institute, established the identity of the alleged bomber to be an Argentine lefitist named Vital Roberto Gaguine, who worked with the Sandinista militia in the early 1980s. Tamayo got a tip from a former member of Argentina's People's Revolutionary Army, who defected and was living in Europe, and who recognized news photographs of "Per Anker Hansen" to be a former member of the leftist group. Around the same time, Vaughn unearthed a photo of "Hansen" along with a right thumb print from Panamanian government files. Argentine journalists obtained fingerprints of Gaguine from Argentine authorities and Vaughn and Tamayo took the two sets of prints to a fingerprint expert in Miami who found a perfect match. Vaughn showed newsphotos of Gaguine to the alleged bomber's brother and father who confirmed the identification. According to Argentine journalists cited by Tamayo, Gaguine was among a group of guerrillas who died in an attack on the Argentine military base of La Tablada in 1989. However, in 2008, Costa Rica's chief prosecutor who saw Gaguine's file in Buenos Aires said that Argentine authorities never made a positive identification of Gaguine's body and that the case remains open. The association between the perpetrator and the FSLN led Tamayo, to conclude that the Sandinistas were solely responsible. In an article in The Nation, Tony Avirgan concurred.
In 2009, Swedish journalist and La Penca survivor Peter Torbiörnsson broke 25 years of silence to reveal that he knew in advance of "Hansen's" connection to the Sandinistas. He reports he was introduced to the bomber in Managua by the Chief of Sandinista Intelligence, a Cuban named Renan Montero. Torbiörnsson took "Hansen" under his wing and provided journalistic cover as the two traveled throughout northern Costa Rica in search of Pastora. The Swede, who admitted sympathy with the Sandinista cause, said he suspected his travel companion was a spy, but he had no idea he was an assassin. Even as journalists and news organizations spent years trying to crack the La Penca mystery, Torbiörnsson kept silent about his knowledge of the bomber's Sandinista connection. But tormented by the idea that he had been used as an unwitting accomplice to a terrorist attack, Torbiörnsson finally broke his silence by traveling to Managua in January, 2009 to present an accusation before Nicaraguan police authorities pointing to Montero, former Sandinista Minister of Interior Comandante Tomás Borge and Lenín Cerna, ex-chief of state security as intellectual authors of the attack.
In 2011, Torbiörnsson released a documentary film, Last Chapter, Goodbye Nicaragua, which premiered in the DocsBarcelona international film festival, renewing his accusation that Sandinista leaders Borge, Cerna, and Montero ordered the bombing. Torbiörnsson also claimed that Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega admitted to him, five years after the attack, that the bombing had been orchestrated by his government, but that Ortega later chose to cover it up and buy Edén Pastora's silence and cooperation in exchange for a position within the second Sandinista administration.
- Gruson, Lindsay (1990-03-01). "Turnover in Nicaragua; Costa Rica Is Asking U.S. to Extradite Rancher Tied to '84 Bombing That Killed 4". New York Times. Retrieved 2007-12-08.
- "Costa Rica Reopens Inquiry in 1984 Bombing". New York Times. 1993-08-08. Retrieved 2007-12-08.
- "La Penca and beyond". The Progressive. 1996-06-01. Retrieved 2007-12-09.
- "CHRISTIC INSTITUTE ORDERED TO PAY $1M". Boston Globe. Associated Press. 1989-02-04. Archived from the original on 2013-01-29. Retrieved 2007-12-09.
- Tamayo, Juan (1993-08-01). "'84 Bomb Mystery Unravels Sandinista Tied to Jungle Deaths". The Miami Herald. Retrieved 2010-05-03.
- McPhaul, John (2008-08-01). "Costa Rica's chief prosecutor snubs Swede's account of bombing". The Tico Times. Retrieved 2010-05-03.
- "Unmasking the la Penca Bomber," The Nation, 1993-09-06.
- Rogers, Tim (2009-01-30). "Bombing survivor seeks truth, closure". The Nica Times. Retrieved 2011-02-15.
- Sanchís, Ima (2011-02-11). "El amor y la verdad van cogidos de la mano". La Vanguardia. Retrieved 2011-02-15.
La Penca: Thirty years later (Tico Times article on the 30th anniversary of the bombing)