Bombing Survivor Seeks Truth, Closure
25 years after ‘ La Penca,' Swedish journalist is trying to come clean about his role
By Tim Rogers
Nica Times Staff | firstname.lastname@example.org
MANAGUA – Tormented by the idea that he was used as an unsuspecting accomplice in a 1984 terrorist attack in Nicaragua that killed seven people and scarred the bodies and lives of dozens more, Swedish journalist Peter Torbiornsson is now trying to do the right thing.
After years of carrying his secret guilt, Torbiornsson finally went to the police last week to tell his story and finger three ex-Sandinista officials he claims masterminded the deadly plot.
The accused: Cuban Col. Renán Montero, ex-chief of Sandinista intelligence, Comandante Tomás Borge, ex-Minister of the Interior, and Lenín Cerna, ex-chief of state security. Torbiornsson claims the three were the intellectual authors behind the planning and cover-up of the May 30, 1984 bombing of a press conference at La Penca, the jungle headquarters of anti-Sandinista leader Edén Pastora.
National Police spokeswoman Commi-ssioner Vilma Reyes this week confirmed that Torbiornsson had presented his written testimony and accusation to the Judicial Affairs unit of the Nicaraguan National Police. But she said she didn't know yet how the matter would be handled, or if it would be processed.
Borge is currently the Nicaraguan Ambassador to Peru, and Cerna remains a member of Ortega's tight inner circle, working as an unofficial advisor. Montero is thought to be back in Cuba, where he is reportedly convalescing and out of contact.
The Nica Times this week left several messages for Borge at the Nicaraguan Embassy in Lima, requesting an interview to discuss La Penca. Borge's secretary promised on several occasions that she would return the call “as soon as Comandante Borge arrived at the embassy,” but never did.
The Nica Times also tried unsuccessfully to contact Cerna this week, leaving a message for him at Sandinista headquarters with a request for interview regarding La Penca. Cerna, who has made very few public appearances and virtually no comments to the press since the Sandinistas were voted out of power in 1990, did not return the call.
Torbiornsson, 67, a former radio and TV correspondent for Swedish media outlets, says he considers himself the “key witness” to the unsolved La Penca bombing, in which a terrorist posing as a Danish photojournalist detonated a remote-controlled bomb in an aluminum camera case during Pastora's press conference. The incident occurred in a wooden-
stilt shack on the Nicaraguan side of the San Juan River. The blast killed four rebels and three journalists – including Tico Times reporter Linda Frazier, 38, who bled to death waiting for help that never came.
Twenty-two other people, including Torbiornsson, were maimed, blinded or injured. Pastora escaped with minor injuries (TT, June 1, 1984).
Last week, as part of a new documentary he is filming on La Penca, Torbiornsson told police he unwittingly became a naïve accomplice to the plot when he was approached several weeks before the attack by an “unknown Sandinista comandante with two stars” who introduced him to the supposed Danish journalist, Per Anker Hansen.
It wasn't until later, Torbiornsson says, that he learned the “unknown comandante” was the Sandinistas' Cuban spy boss Montero, and the man posing as a journalist was a member of a ruthless Argentine gang employed by the Sandinistas for political assassinations, according to journalistic investigations nearly a decade later. Mercenaries from the People's Revolutionary Army (ERP) were also reportedly used by the Sandinistas to assassinate former Nicaraguan National Guard commander Pablo “Comandante Bravo” Salazar in Honduras in 1979 and Nicaragua's ousted dictator, Anastasio Somoza, in Paraguay in 1980.
Torbiornsson, who was openly sympathetic with the revolutionary cause, says he was eager to win points with the Sandinista brass, so he took “Hansen” under his wing even though he suspected him of being a spy. He said the two became “friendly” while staying in the same Costa Rica hotel for three weeks prior to the bombing.
“I knew he was working for the Sandinistas, and that is breaking a journalistic code, which I regret,” Torbiornsson told The Nica Times last week in Managua. “That might have been one of the reasons that I have a hard time talking about it.”
Torbiornsson says he was suspicious of the cameraman's frequent comings and goings and his eagerness to interview Pastora, but he never guessed he was a killer.
“He was quite a normal guy,” Torbiornsson recalls. “I helped him like I would do with you or anyone.”
Three weeks later, as Torbiornsson stood on the muddy bank of the San Juan River with the burnt smell from the explosion still lingering in the thick jungle air, he watched unbelievingly as “Hansen” pushed past the more seriously injured people and fought his way “selfishly” onto the first boat back to Costa Rica. Torbiornsson was too horrified to accept the truth of the moment: he had been used as a patsy in an assassination plot.
Unable to come to grips with what had happened, Torbiornsson went into denial. In the chaotic days following the bombing, Torbiornsson told Tico Times publisher Richard Dyer that he had been chummy with “Hansen” and that the two had stayed in the same hotel and had even ventured out together several weeks earlier in hopes of finding Pastora along the San Juan River. He also mentioned that he thought it was strange that “Hansen” would never go anywhere without his cumbersome metal camera case, which he said “seemed like an awfully bulky thing just for a few cameras and lenses.”
But Torbiornsson omitted the part about having been introduced to him by the Sandinistas.
“He told me he was a Danish photographer,” Torbiornsson said shortly after the terrorist attack. “We talked about Copenhagen, and I told him I liked Danish beer, especially Toborg and that other one –I couldn't remember the name. Neither could he. I later remember; it is Carlsbad. I thought he was a funny Dane if he couldn't remember the names of his country's two most famous brands of beer” (TT, June 8, 1984).
The bomber, meanwhile, was treated for minor wounds at a hospital in Costa Rica, where The Tico Times photographed him waiting in a wheelchair. Then Torbiornsson said “Hansen” quickly checked out of the hotel and disappeared.
Since both sides had reasons to want Pastora out of the way, the bomber's identity became Central America's most maddening mystery for the next 10 years. Torbiornsson was the only one who held any clues, but he kept them a secret – something that infuriated his colleagues when they found out.
“I was very angry with him for a very long time, because I think he lied to us and to himself,” says British journalist Susie Morgan, who was seriously injured at La Penca. “He once said that he would do anything for the Sandinistas, and they knew that. But he was betrayed. He was used. And he was used to kill and harm his own colleagues.”
Morgan produced her own documentary on the bombing in 1988, titled “In Search of the Assassin,” which was then released as a book in 1991. She said that even when Torbiornsson helped her with her documentary project in 1988, he still didn't mention his previous involvement with the bomber.
“I learned the identify of the bomber (in 1993) before I learned about Peter's involvement, which I read about in other articles written later about La Penca, and not from Peter himself,” Morgan told The Nica Times this week in Managua.
Without any real leads, post-Penca journalistic investigations were frustrated by false information, lies, obstructionism and dead ends. Police probes went nowhere. Conspiracy theories included Nicaraguan Contras, Cuban-Americans, Costa Ricans, a supposed Libyan assassin and CIA collaborators with links to the drug trade.
It wasn't until 1993 that an investigation by Juan Tamayo of The Miami Herald and three other journalists, in part using a fingerprint left by "Hansen," proved he was really Vital Roberto Gaguine, a leftist Argentine guerrilla killed in 1989 in an attack on an Argentine military base. The bomber, according to that investigation, had been working for the left, not the right.
But disagreement persisted over who was behind the attack.
U.S. journalist Martha Honey and husband Tony Avirgan, who was injured at La Penca while working as a cameraman for ABC television, maintained their theory of a complicated conspiracy involving both the CIA and the Sandinistas.
Guatemalan-born journalist Roberto Cruz, who lost an eye and a leg at La Penca, spent 15 years gathering testimony and documentation to support his theory of a CIA conspiracy, which he filed in a 10,000-page criminal case with the Costa Rican courts in 1999, implicating 37 people from previous Costa Rican and U.S. administrations. Cruz died four years later, his file untouched.
Pastora believes both the CIA and the Sandinistas were out to get him. The former rebel leader was out of the country this week and unavailable for comment on the latest developments.
Torbiornsson dismisses the conspiracy theories.
“It was not a complicated operation, it was a very easy operation that has a very easy outline to understand,” he says.
But coming to that realization was not an easy process. In the midst of the post-Penca political and media circus, Torbiornsson faded from the scene. He says he no longer trusted himself to be a journalist, so he began filming documentaries of war zones in El Salvador, Bosnia and Uganda. He hid in wars to avoid facing his inner turmoil, yet he says he realized he would have to confront his demons someday.
In 1990, three years before the bomber's identity was revealed, Torbiornsson returned to Nicaragua to cover the elections as part of a separate documentary. On the eve of the vote, he says, he met with President Daniel Ortega, who called in Lenín Cerna, who admitted to him that La Penca had been a Sandinista plot – something Borge has repeatedly denied over the years.
Asked why he thinks Ortega and Cerna, two men who are not known for disclosure, would admit the Sandinistas' guilt in La Penca, Torbiornsson said he knew the Sandinista leadership more intimately than most.
“It was not out of character with the perception I have of Ortega; he was very open with me, and never threatened me,” Torbiornsson said, adding the Sandinista leader even suggested that he film a documentary on La Penca at the time.
A week later, however, everything changed when the Sandinistas were voted out of power, Torbiornsson claims. He says documents were destroyed, files disappeared and doors were closed.
“After the elections, I lost contact with Ortega and others,” he says.
Though Torbiornsson claims he got a Sandinista confession, it wasn't until 18 years later that he finally went public with his story. In 2008, he filed a criminal complaint in Costa Rican courts and with the office of Nicaraguan Ombudsman Omar Cabezas, a Sandinista comandante and Ortega loyalist.
Nothing has come of those complaints, which are based on his uncorroborated story 25 years after the fact. Still, he hopes that in giving his story to police last week, they'll now be obliged to investigate and question those he has named in his statement.
Though Morgan says Torbiornsson's belated efforts at finding the truth are “courageous,” she is upset he didn't act sooner.
“I still have great difficulties with why it took him quite so long to come to the conclusion that it was the left,” she says. “He had key pieces of information, like the fact that he had been contacted in a safe house in Managua to take the man with him, and he didn't tell us this, so we were following false lines for a long time.”
Despite her frustration with Torbiornsson, Morgan is now helping him film his documentary in hopes of finally solving the mystery that forever changed both their lives. “He is putting a huge amount of emotional energy into it, so I think he will get pretty close to the truth,” Morgan said.
Torbiornsson says his documentary effort is one he finally feels “obligated” to do; yet it's also an endeavor that serves as his public confession of sins.
“It's late, but it's my last job and I want to come clean,” the soft-spoken Swede says of his documentary, appropriately titled “The Final Chapter.” “I am an old guy, and this has bothered me since.”
The documentary will debut in October in Sweden, but will also be translated into English and Spanish, the filmmaker said.
Confession and Closure
Torbiornsson takes a sip of coffee, and his piercing blue eyes appear to gaze across the years into another time.
“The bitterness of having participated in it unwittingly and knowingly is something that ends up something like a nightmare,” he says, shaking his head, his voice barely above a whisper. “I was totally used. I was totally used.
“This is about my guilt also; I am the guy who did not tell the truth,” he adds.
“I omitted truth, I don't think I lied, I really tried not to lie, but I tried to avoid a certain fact,” he said.
The Swede hopes that through telling the truth in his documentary – which he acknowledges might get him killed in the process – he will also be able to reconcile with the victims of the crime and leave a lasting testimony to the horrific, long-term effects that terrorism has on people's lives.
His reconciliation with Morgan is particularly poignant, considering she was standing in front of him when the bomb went off and her body shielded him from the brunt of the blast.
Torbiornsson, who was deafened and took shrapnel to his wrist and ankle, says, “She thinks she saved my life, and she did in a way.”
“I had dozens and dozens and dozens of fractures. I was blinded, my leg was blown up, I couldn't walk for two years. And my arm is still a horrible mess,” Morgan says. “Every time they X-rayed me, they found more fractures, even my fingers were fractured. I had burns. I was in shock. I was thrown against wires and electrocuted. It was a miracle that I lived. A miracle.”
Morgan says returning to Nicaragua brings back the old nightmares. Yet the years have given her a more sympathetic perspective on Torbiornsson, and now she's helping him make the documentary to “find some closure.”
“I'm still very angry, but not really at Peter,” she says. “I think Peter is doing the right thing. I think that in a way my anger was misplaced because the real people whom I blame are the people who ordered this cynical, brutal terrorist act.
“ Peter was just an innocent, naïve, left-wing European and he didn't know the depths of cynicism and opportunism of these people – that they could use him. And I think that's why he feels so terrible, and I am sure that if I were him, I would feel dreadful. He was used in a plot to help kill his own colleagues and that is one of t he worst things that could ever happen to anybody.”
Morgan is frustrated that the case was not pursued after the bomber was identified. Even though the case is still open in Costa Rica, no one has been held to account, and many questions remain about who the bomber was working for and who else was involved. Some even doubt whether Gaugine really died in 1989, or whether that was a cover for him to disappear again.
For Morgan, “The key question is how far up the chain of command did the knowledge go?”
“Did (President Daniel) Ortega know?” she asks. “I don't know. You wouldn't think that something like this would be carried out without the authorization of the leader of the country.”
The Nica Times this week spoke with several other former high ranking Sandinista leaders from the 1980s – including one of the original nine comandantes who ran the revolutionary government – but no one claimed to know anything about the planning or execution of the La Penca bombing.
Morgan says she would like to see the case brought before an international tribunal, to force those who do know to tell the truth before a judge.
“I would like it to come to trial and I would like some compensation for people whose lives were destroyed,” she says.
For Torbiornsson, who says he chooses to believe Ortega didn't know about the bomb plot, the documentary is also about answering the question that's haunted him for 25 years.
“It was a stupid thing, a cowardly thing, and I have a real hard time trying to understand the real motive,” he says. “Why? Why did they suppress all moral, ethical and political value to do this?”
He adds, “I want for the victims to have the truth so they can then go forward with any legal procedure if they want. My interest is with the truth and the people who were so badly affected by this bomb.”
And Torbiornsson is seeking forgiveness. Before he's done, he says, he is going to travel to the United States and tell the truth to Linda Frazier's son, Chris, who was 10 when his mother was killed.
“It's very painful to have been involved in this. I really would have
liked it not to have happened, but it happened,” Torbiornsson says in a
whisper. “And now I am doing this.”