Last Rights

updated 04/10/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/10/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

FOR THREE YEARS, JENNIFER HARBURY had faced nothing but dead ends. No official in the U.S. or Guatemala, it seemed, was willing or able to tell the Harvard-educated lawyer anything definitive about the fate of her husband, Efraín Bamaca Velásquez, 35, a leader in the Guatemalan guerrilla movement who had disappeared in March 1992. Then on March 22, a new door finally opened, and Harbury, now 43, was left almost wishing it hadn't.

That afternoon, Rep. Robert Torricelli, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, invited Harbury to his Capitol Hill office. As she sat on a leather sofa, the New Jersey Democrat told her he had learned that Bamaca—who went under the nom de guerre Everardo—had been murdered in 1992 on the orders of Col. Julio Alpirez, a Guatemalan military intelligence officer. Not only that, but Alpirez had been on the payroll of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency about the time of the killing. As Harbury listened in a stunned, sickened silence, tears rolled down her face. "It was so hard to give up that last little piece of hope," she says. "It was as if Everardo had been shot right then and there."

Harbury's private grief quickly became a public scandal. Backed by Torricelli, she accused both the CIA and the State Department of stonewalling her about the murder of her husband. Throughout her two highly publicized hunger strikes in recent months (PEOPLE, Nov. 14, 1994), she said, U.S. officials had continued to insist that they had no concrete proof that Bamaca was dead. For its part, the CIA declared that it had learned about his fate only in January and that it had passed the information along to the State Department. Acting CIA Director William Studeman indignantly maintained it was "utterly irresponsible" to accuse the agency of concealing information. But Harbury and Torricelli scoffed at the notion that CIA officials did not know some time ago about the involvement of one of its own paid operatives, and President Clinton vowed to fire any CIA employee who had held back details.

In retrospect the relationship between Harbury and Bamaca was brief, intense and improbable. She grew up in New Haven, where her father taught biochemistry at Yale and her mother was a homemaker. After attending Cornell University, she went backpacking around the world before entering Harvard Law School. Her first job as a lawyer was working for Texas Rural Legal Aid. In the early '80s she became involved in helping Guatemalan refugees fleeing the turmoil of the long-running civil war being fought between leftist insurgents and the country's oppressive oligarchy. Meanwhile, Bamaca had grown up in Guatemala as a poor, illiterate Mayan peasant. As a youth, he had joined the guerrillas, where he learned to read and write, and eventually rose to become one of their top military commanders. He met Harbury at his camp on the site of a volcano in 1990 during one of her research trips to Guatemala, and she quickly fell in love. "He was all I ever wanted," she says. In September 1991 the pair were married in a small ceremony outside Austin, Texas.

Several months later, Bamaca returned to Guatemala, where in March he vanished during a skirmish with government troops. Initially, Guatemalan authorities claimed he had committed suicide rather than be captured. But based on the testimony of a former guerrilla prisoner, Harbury believed that her husband was being held and tortured by the military, which has been accused by such human rights groups as Amnesty International of killing more than 100,000 Guatemalan civilians over the past 15 years. U.S. officials told her she should assume her husband was dead, but she would have none of it. "No wife in her right mind would just take someone's word for it when her husband might be in a dark cell somewhere being tortured," she says.

Last October, out of desperation, Harbury began a hunger strike in the central square of Guatemala City as a way of pressuring the local government to provide information. After 32 days, during which she lost 20 pounds while drinking only water and a mineral solution, she called off her fast amid signs that Washington was prodding the Guatemalan government to come clean. Still, nothing happened. In January, Harbury filed requests for information with the CIA, which turned her down, and the State Department, which told her once again that they had no hard evidence of her husband's fate. So on March 12, the third anniversary of his disappearance, Harbury began another hunger strike, this one in Washington's Lafayette Park directly across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House.

Her plight did not go unnoticed. According to Torricelli, several sympathetic staffers in the Clinton Administration told him in recent weeks that there was new evidence that Alpirez had ordered the killing of Bamaca and had also played a role in the 1990 murder of an American, Michael DeVine, 47, whose body was found tied and horribly mutilated near the rain-forest inn that he ran with his wife, Carole. No clear motive has ever been established for DeVine's murder, though his wife suspects that it was the result of a personal grudge involving a Guatemalan officer and that Alpirez harbored the killers.

Harbury is hoping that the new disclosures about Alpirez mean that justice will be done in her husband's case. The likelihood, though, is not great. After De-Vine's murder, a Guatemalan captain was convicted of the killing. But on the day of his sentencing he managed to escape from military custody and disappear.

Right now, Harbury is looking into the possibility of filing a suit against the U.S. government. If nothing else, she is determined to retrieve her husband's body and give him a proper burial. She knows, though, that she will carry the pain of her loss, and her sense of betrayal, forever. "For a while I want to go for long walks and read some books and not be around anything that reminds me of anything," she says. "I don't think you ever really heal from something like this. It's like a leg amputation—you're healed but you're not."

LINDA KRAMER in Washington

From Our Partners