After 30 years, La Penca case still holds mysteries

This Friday will be the 30th anniversary of La Penca bombing, the failed assassination attempt on Edén Pastore, then the leader of the southern Contras who was called Comandante Cero.

Pastore suffered injuries, but seven persons, including three news staffers, died from the explosion during a press conference. One was Linda Frazier, a reporter for The Tico Times and wife to the Costa Rican bureau chief for The Associated Press.

The scene was at a rebel camp on a finca called La Penca across the Río San Juan in Nicaragua.

This was during the time that the United States was attempting to oust the Daniel Ortega regime in Nicaragua on the claim that he was a puppet of Moscow. The Cold War continued to rage. Some accused the United States for wanting to silence Pastore. U.S. citizens living in Costa Rica also were accused of complicity.

The case still is an enigma with conspiratorial allegations that surpass any current spy movie.

• Pastore has ended up working for Ortega in dredging the Río San Juan, a situation that caused Costa Rica to file an International Court of Justice case. Some say Ortega gave Pastore the job to earn forgiveness for the bombing.

• Two U.S. citizens here, Tony Avirgan, who was a victim of the bombing, and Martha Honey, tried to pin the bombing on the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. They were principals in a 1986 U.S. federal court case that failed legally but appears to have exposed the Iran Contra Connection to the public. The Christic Institutethat carried the suit forward received a $1 million fine and penalty.

• The Costa Rican legislature investigated, and in July 1989 then-president Oscar Arias issued a directive barring Oliver North, President Ronald Reagan’s counter-terrorism coordinator, and others from Costa Rica forever.  In addition to North, those barred from entering the country were Maj. Gen. Richard Secord; John Poindexter, the former national security adviser; Lewis Arthur Tambs, then the U.S. ambassador to Costa Rica; and the former CIA director in Costa Rica, Joseph Fernandez.

• Allegations arose that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration helped John Hull flee Costa Rica to avoid a murder trial. Hull was investigated and was one of several suspects in the La Penca bombing. A U.S. government report later said that agency pilots were involved in his escape but added that the pilots said they did not know Hull was wanted at the time. Hull owned a sprawling ranch with an air strip in northwest Costa Rica near the Nicaraguan border that was used as a supply point for Contra rebels.

• Many of the allegations raised in the wake of the bombing, such as Contra smuggling of cocaine to the United States, surfaced again in 1996 when reporter Gary Webb published his “Dark Alliance” series in the San José Mercury News. Webb said the smuggled cocaine found its way as crack into Los Angeles neighborhoods and provided income for the Contras. Faced with scorn from colleagues, Webb killed himself. A later CIA internal investigation supported many of his conclusions.

• A Miami Herald reporter in 1993 managed to confirm that the bomber was Vital Roberto Gaguine, an Argentine leftist now believed to have been working for Ortega’s Sandinista government. He was reported to have been killed in Argentina in 1989, but others have said they saw him later in Costa Rica.  Gaguine used the name of Hansen to infiltrate the Pastore press conference.

* Costa Rican officials investigated the bombing extensively and ended up unsuccessfully seeking the extradition from the United States of a CIA operative and Hull.

• Peter Torbiörnsson, a Sandinista sympathizer and La Penca survivor, came forward in 2009 to accuse the Ortega regime of engineering the bombing. He produced a documentary, “Last Chapter: Goodbye, Nicaragua,” supporting his claim. Ortega was not directly involved but his security forces were, according to Torbiörnsson, a Swede, who helped  Gaguine learn about Costa Rica.

• Costa Rican judicial officials have closed the book on the case. A formerly secret F.B.I. report released under the Freedom of Information Act is so heavily censored as to be useless.

• The date of the bombing has been designated the journalists’ national day in Costa Rica, the Día Nacional del Periodista.

A British journalist who had survived, Susan Morgan, made a documentary about her experience in 1988, and wrote a book three years later. Jorge Quirós, a Channel 7 cameraman, and his assistant Evelio Sequeira, also died in the bombing.

To mark the day this year, the Cruz Roja and the  Colegio de Periodistas scheduled a seminar starting at 8:45 a.m. to provide tips for reporters and camera operators who might be working in violent areas.

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