The case of the Danish assassin
By: Martin Arostegui
The Left knows who trired to kill the popular Comandante Cero. Or does it?
SPECIAL PROSECUTOR Lawrence Walsh spent six years going after every Reagan Administration Cabinet or intelligence official who might have had anything to do with aiding the Nicaraguan Contras when doing so was allegedly forbidden by Congress. But the conduct of the Marxist side in the Central American conflict has escaped any such scrutiny, and a screen of disinformation has been permitted to obscure the truth about a terrorist atrocity committed in one of the closing battles of the Cold War.
In June 1984, a bomb exploded at a press conference held by Contra leader Eden Pastora ("Comandante Cero") at La Penca, a jungle outpost straddling Nicaragua's border with Costa Rica. Pastora himself was only slightly wounded, but a U.S. newswoman was killed and a score of international journalists were seriously injured. The bomber--who posed as a Danish news photographer--was also wounded, but managed to escape before his identity was established. A book, a television documentary, and even a law suit (filed by the left-wing Christic Institute) have tried to pin the blame for the attack on the usual suspects of left-wing conspiracy theories: anti-Castro Cubans, CIA agents, the Mafia, the military-industrial complex, with even a "right-wing Libyan" thrown in for good measure. But fresh evidence supports a more obvious conclusion: that the bombing was commissioned by the Sandinista government with the assistance of Cuba in a bid to decapitate the anti-Communist resistance movement.
The CIA assassination theory was promoted in the book In Search of the Assassin by British journalist Susie Morgan, who was critically wounded in the bombing and had to undergo months of hospitalization and several operations to save her life. She was steered toward the CIA theory by an American couple freelancing as journalists in Costa Rica, Tony and Martha Avirgan. According to the U.S. Ambassador in Costa Rica at the time, Curtin Winsor, the Avirgans were suspected of being paid agents of the Sandinistas. Tony would openly boast about his efforts, during his student days, to sabotage U.S. Air Force transports moving supplies to overseas bases. Costa Rican sources maintained that money had been seen changing hands between Tony Avirgan and officials of the Nicaraguan Embassy.
Miss Morgan quotes a memo she received from Martha Avirgan just as her investigation was getting under way: "We have now solved the La Penca case, basically we were right all along. It was a CIA plot involving John Hull [an American rancher in Costa Rica with strong anti-Communist feelings who cooperated in efforts to aid the Contras], Cubans from Miami and northern FDN [Frente Democratico Nicaraguense] Contras. The bomber is a right-wing anti-Qaddafi Libyan named Amac Galil."
In addition to her own book, Susie Morgan also worked on a British film documentary about La Penca, produced by a woman named Judy Jackson. Miss Morgan describes their trek through Central America in search of the mystery bomber. At one point the frustrated Miss Jackson bursts into tears as one of the many con men approaching them with "evidence" about Amac Galil's CIA connection disappears wtih $2,000 and cannot be found again.
The two women had chosen to disregard the first thing Pastora had told them, according to Miss Morgan's own account of their interview with the former Contra leader:
Two weeks before the press conference when he had been deep inside Nicaragua, Pastora had been contacted by "Hansen," the bomber himself. Hansen had put through a call on Pastora's radio telephone and had offered him money for an interview and photo session, something that no professional journalist would do. And then, a month after the explosion, something had kept niggling at his mind. He thought he had seen the Dane somewhere before. Searching his memory, he thought Hansen may have been a member of the hit squad that had assassinated Somoza (the Nicaraguan president overthrown by the Sandinistas) in Asuncion, Paraguay (where he had gone into exile in 1980). Somoza's limousine had been blown to bits in broad daylight on a main street. The official Sandinista line was that the operation was carried out by left-wing Argentine guerrillas independently of the Sandinistas. The unofficial version was that although the operation had involved Argentine guerrillas the whole thing had been authorized by Managua. Pastora would be likely to have known some of the members of such a team through his former role as Sandinista deputy defense minister.
"I nonetheless found this story unlikely," Miss Morgan asserts, and moves on to question Pastora about the problems he was having with his CIA backers and with other Contra leaders who were pressuring him to join his small force with the much larger FDN. Pastora's resistance to these appeals was, according to the Avirgans, the true motive behind the plot to kill him, which was supposedly hatched in minute detail at John Hull's Costa Rican ranch between the anti-Qaddafi Libyan and his CIA paymasters as the anti-Castro Cubans looked on.
Tracking Oliver North
SUSIE MORGAN becomes convinced that La Penca is tied to the Iran-Contra scandal. She and Miss Jackson are so upset about not finding the thread that leads to Oliver North's basement office in the White House that they fail to connect what Pastora tells them with what they learned from a Swedish television producer who traveled with the right-wing Libyan Dane to the fateful press conference. Describing Hansen as a cold and rather dispassionate sort of character, Peter Torbiornsson recalls being surprised to see him get all excited when Somoza's assassination came up in the course of conversation. "It was the only time that I saw him get really animated," Torbiornsson. told Susie Morgan. "He kept asking me to describe everything known about the assassination." That the "Dane" hardly spoke Danish did not surprise the Swede, who believed that Hansen was one of many Latin American political exiles living in Europe in the Sixties and Seventies, and that his nationality had been acquired. Torbiornsson thought Hansen was of either Argentine or Uruguayan origin.
Jorge Ricardo Massetti--a former leader of the Argentine ERP (People's Revolutionary Army) who is now writing his memories of the guerrilla operations he mounted for the Cuban and Sandinista governments--saw close-up photographs taken at the press conference and recognized "Hansen" as a fellow member of the ERP. According to Massetti, "Hansen"--whom he knew as Alberto Martin Diaz--got into terrorism through the Junta de Coordinacion Revolucionaria (JCR), a support network for Latin American guerrilla groups which operated out of Europe in the Seventies. Right-wing military takeovers in Argentina and other South American countries had forced revolutionary movements to seek safe haven abroad. The JCR was financially backed by the ERP to coordinate propaganda, recruitment, and logistics for guerrilla activity all over Latin America. At the time the ERP had amassed considerable financial resources through ransoms from kidnappings in Argentina.
"He was only a sympathizer of our movement when we first met" around 1978, Massetti recalls. Massetti has particular reason to remember his encounters with the future assassin at JCR political meetings in Paris: Diaz's middle name, Martin, was the same as Massetti's alias, and they were often mistaken for each other.
They would meet again in Nicaragua in 1979 shortly after the Sandinistas' overthrow of the Somoza dynasty. Massetti had fought in the final offensive against the old dictatorship along with another half-dozen members of the ERP who had come over from Europe the previous year. Diaz had arrived on the heels of the Marxist victory to undergo basic military training at the Sandinista school for militias, located in the outskirts of Managua.
Organizing a totalitarian police state with the close assistance of Cuba's Intelligence Directorate (DGI), Sandinista Interior Minister Tomas Borge, a personal friend of Fidel Castro's, formed a special section called Fifth Directorate (D-5), headed by his deputy, Lenin Cerna. D-5 was charged with conducting terrorist operations outside Nicaragua. Hit men of different nationalities were required in order to mask Sandinista involvement in these actions, and the ERP became part of D-5.
Heading the Sandinista hit list were exiled members of the Somoza family and its defeated National Guard. The ERP took two weeks to set up the assassination of Comandante Bravo, a National Guard colonel organizing resistance against the Sandinistas from neighboring Honduras. An ERP hit team was dispatched under various aliases to lure Bravo into a meeting at a rented villa outside the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa. Falling for the trap, Bravo was shot in the neck with a silenced pistol as he entered the house unarmed.
While Diaz was learning the basics of weapons handling and demolition at the training camp in Nicaragua, he sided with the more militant tendency in the ERP, which favored renewing armed struggle in his native Argentina. Others, like Massetti, were more cautious, pointing out that conditions in Argentina at the time did not favor guerrilla tactics. It was Diaz's reckless enthusiasm for terrorism which would eventually lead to his death in 1989 in a widely publicized assault against the army barracks of La Tablada outside Buenos Aires.
Massetti was not in on the plan to assassinate Somoza because he had been recruited by the DGI to run intelligence operations in support of guerrilla activity elsewhere in Latin America. But the ERP was the natural choice for that operation, as Somoza's home in exile in Paraguay was near the Argentine border.
In his travels in and out of Cuba for specialized training and debriefings, Massetti came across Diaz again only a few months before Somoza's assassination in 1981. The up-and-coming terrorist was now receiving advanced instruction in intelligence and special operations in Havana. He was learning sophisticated skills in karate, code communications, identity laundering, and handling all types of weapons and explosives, especially those from the "capitalist bloc." Massetti encountered Diaz at a villa reserved for the ERP in Hanava's elegant district of Miramar, which is also the residential section for the diplomatic corps.
The last time Massetti met Diaz was back in Nicaragua in 1982, by which time the trained hit man was a full member of the ERP cell working for the Sandinista Department of State Security. They chatted at the safehouse in Managua where Diaz said that he had already participated in an important operation, although he did not specify which one.
The Basque Connection
IN 1983 several members of the Basque terrorist organization ETA were rounded up in the Costa Rican capital, San Jose. They had been observed surveying the homes of Eden Pastora and another Contra leader, Alfonso Robelo, who, like Pastora, had originally sided with the Sandinistas against the Somoza dictatorship. Under questioning by the Costa Rican security service, Organizacion de Investigacion Judicial (OIJ), two of the Basque terrorists confessed to their ties with the Sandinista government.
On this basis, the U.S. State Department openly speculated at the time that the La Penca bombing had been committed by a member of ETA working for the Sandinistas. As it turns out, State had the correct contractor but not the exact subcontractor. The terrorist network operating out of Managua at that time was more complex than many American analysts could fathom. The ETA did not usually supply the trigger men for Sandinista-sponsored assassinations, providing intelligence and logistical support instead. The ETA's role in the operation against Pastora may have also included supplying falsified travel documents to the hit man and smuggling the C-4 plastic explosives into Costa Rica.
Pastora had been a high-priority target for the Sandinistas ever since he defected in 1981 because of his disagreement with the increasing Cuban and Soviet control over Nicaragua. He was a strong rallying point for other disillusioned revolutionaries. His legendary exploits during the insurrection against Somoza, including the siege of Somoza's parliament to secure the release of political prisoners (such as Tomas Borge), had carned him a heroic reputation.
Managua had commissioned a wide range of operations against Pastora. Some months before the ETA was caught surveying his home, there had already been an attempt to kill him with a bomb concealed in a briefcase. While Diaz stalked him in the jungle, a backup assassination was being planned in San Jose by other members of the ERP. This urban operation, run by a terrorist couple code-named "El Turco and Maritsa," would have involved ambushing Pastora in his car on a downtown street.
Coast Rican OIJ investigations indicate that during a brief stay in San Jose under his Danish newsman's cover, Diaz was seen at a hotel in the company of a woman who had entered Costa Rica on a stolen French passport. She is suspected of being Maria Lourdes de Palacios, a niece of Somoza's who was a double agent for the Sandinistas, according to public statements by Borge in 1988.
The explosion at La Penca killed two Latin American journalists as well as Linda Frazier, an American correspondent for the Associated Press and a mother of four. She was also one of the few foreign journalists in Central America at the time who wrote positively about the Contras. The reaction of the other terrorists back in Managua at seeing the picture of their hit man prominently displayed in the press was: "[unkeyable]Que huevon! [roughly translated as: What a jerk!] Couldn't he at least have covered his face?" Diaz was photographed as he lay wounded by his own bomb: the force of its explosion had been diverted because the camera case containing it had been accidentally kicked over, changing its orientation. Thus Pastora got away with only light injuries, while several people who should have been standing safely outside its range were killed or injured, including the bomber and, coincidentally, Tony Avirgan, who was filming the news conference. Despite being hospitalized, Diaz managed to get out of Costa Rica before he could be positively identified.
In Washington, Ambassador Otto Reich, who headed the State Department's Office of Public Diplomacy for Latin America and the Caribbean, tried in vain to initiate an investigation to clear up the incident. He could not get the funding that he needed, and despite assurance from the CIA, its agents did not come up with much. Reich could do little except put two and two together and brief the press with the theory about the ETA.
Then the General Accounting Office started to investigate allegations that the State Department was engaging in domestic propaganda. Despite no evidence of malfeasance, Reich's office was closed down and he was sent to Venezuela.
The CIA's Failure
THE U.S. Government's dereliction in not finding out more about a widely publicized terrorist incident which killed a U.S. citizen was a factor that allowed the vine of disinformation to grow around La Penca. Susie Morgan leaves no doubt about her leftist inclinations, but one can hardly blame her for being suspicious when the OIJ informs her, years after the bombing, that no forensic analysis ever came back on the detonator and other bits from the explosive device which the Costa Ricans handed over to the CIA.
The CIA's competence in counter-terrorism was well known in Managua. Massetti recalls reviewing U.S. intelligence files on the ERP which had fallen into the hands of the Sandinistas: "They had most of our names correct on their computer list but had little idea of what was really going on. The one they thought headed our organization in Europe was nothing more than a decoy. The Americans thought he was important because he drove around in a Mercedes wearing an expensive suit and a Rolex watch, when those of us who really counted in the movement lived very simply for the precise purpose of not calling attention to ourselves."
Alberto Martin Diaz now rests in his grave, alongside other casualties of the last spasm of left-wing guerrilla violence in Argentina. But despite the resounding defeat of the Sandinistas by Violeta Chamorro's Democratic Front in free elections in 1990, those who gave Diaz his orders remain untouchable and in control of security services in Managua--and Havana.