Down there

Isabel Hilton

  • In Search of the Assassin by Susie Morgan
    Bloomsbury, 207 pp, £15.99, May 1991, ISBN 0 7475 0401 6

It may be that the grotesque world of the small wars waged by the Reagan Administration in Central America has faded from public memory. Even at the time, there were never that many who were prepared to make the effort to distinguish between Nicaragua and El Salvador, let alone the even more obscure Honduras and Costa Rica. Nowhere was this more true than in the United States. The Vietnam War eventually engaged mass attention, not least because it was fought by a conscript army. But Central America remained a blur. Within the Administration, there was a continuum which ran between the two conflicts: Reagan’s officials had pinned to the front of their minds the slogan ‘Never another Cuba, never another Vietnam.’ And of the personnel overlap one newspaper headline proclaimed: ‘The gang that blew Vietnam goes Latin.’ But in spite of Reagan’s efforts to endow those sad little countries with the stature of a real threat to their giant northern neighbour, and, even more implausibly, to paint the sordid Contra forces in the heroic colours of America’s founding fathers, the voters refused to be inspired, or even to get out the atlas. Central America was the President’s favourite topic in his addresses to the nation, yet, relatively late in his Presidency, opinion polls reported that most US citizens were not sure who were the good guys and who were the bad guys ‘down there’. Asked to decide whether Daniel Ortega was a Mexican fast-food chain or the President of Nicaragua, a substantial majority opted for the tacos.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that they were confused. Nicaragua was the enemy, yet the fiction was maintained that the US was not prosecuting a war. The truth hid behind the sleazy façade of fake identities, double roles, CIA-sponsored companies and deniable assets, semi-detached Cuban veterans, freelance gangsters, dealers in arms and dealers in drugs. They were not the sort of people who cared for the niceties of the Geneva Convention, but then, if the law was being broken in the basement of the White House, who was going to point a finger when the arms flights came back to the US from Costa Rica full of cocaine that had been loaded on the ranch of a man who acted and boasted like a CIA asset.

There were two external worlds in which the jumble of names, and of noms de guerre, of little towns up dusty mountain roads, meant something. One consisted of the journalists who lived in Central America and who had the thankless job of translating the blood, the bad smells, the paranoia, the relentless suffering into newspaper stories. The other consisted of the underworld that became an instrument of US policy. Susie Morgan earned a special place in both worlds. She was part of the first, a journalist who began to report from Central America in 1981. She became a victim of the second in 1984.

The victims of the Central American wars are not an over-publicised group. It was one of the charms of Low Intensity Conflict, better understood by its other name of ‘total war at grass roots level’, that its victims were petit peuple who died in a steady flow rather than in a big bang. ‘Seventy thousand Salvadorans die at once’ would have been a headline, as might ‘Forty-five thousand Nicaraguans’. But these victims died in dribs and drabs: five civilians there, ten here, eight mutilated bodies on a rubbish heap over there. The anonymity of the victims was one of the big successes of Low Intensity Conflict.

Susie Morgan and her fellow victims however, were different. They were journalists some Central American, mostly foreign correspondents, who had made the difficult and irritating journey to La Penca, an obscure spot in the Nicaraguan jungle, over the border from Costa Rica, to attend a press conference called by Eden Pastora, the Sandinista commander turned Contra. Many journalists were killed and wounded covering Central America, victims of their jobs, their temperaments, their bad luck. But the dead and wounded of La Penca were victims of something quite special: the criminal underside of President Reagan’s Central America policy.

I first met Susie Morgan in Honduras, sitting by the swimming-pool of the Maya Hotel in Tegucigalpa. In the pool, an American with a shaved head was executing an aggressive crawl at unusual speed, up and down, up and down. Any evening in the basement bar you could see his fully-clothed clones. They were easy to spot. They wore dark glasses in the dimmest of lights. To meet someone like Susie there was memorable. For one thing, she seemed so extremely English. For another, she had kept more of her decency and sanity than had many of her colleagues in that frenetic, incestuous press corps. We were to meet again in other sleazy international hotels through 1983 and 1984. Then, sitting in London one day in September 1984, I heard that a bomb had exploded at Eden Pastora’s press conference. Shortly after that, Susie’s name came up amongst the victims.

Her injuries were terrible. She had been standing next to Pastora when the bomb went off, a coincidence that may have saved his life. Her own life was probably saved by a mundane accident that had happened moments before, when a woman who was passing a cup of coffee to Pastora kicked over the camera case containing the bomb, thus changing the direction of the blast. Susie didn’t die, though many thought she would. Others did. An American reporter, Linda Frazier, a Costa Rican cameraman. Jorge Quiros, his soundman, Evelio Sequeira. Others were so shattered that their lives splintered into pieces that could not be reassembled. The ‘Danish’ photographer whose camera bag contained the bomb was outside the hut when it exploded, and was not hurt. He later checked out of hospital and vanished.

Susie was evacuated to Miami by the efforts of her family, another factor in her survival. There she endured many operations before she was returned to England, a place that could hardly have been more remote from her experiences. But, as she expressed it, memorably, to a misguided occupational therapist, ‘foreign correspondents do not weave baskets.’ Not this one at least. Mired for a time in physical and mental trauma, Susie eventually decided to try to solve the mystery of the La Penca atrocity. She set out to discover who had done it, a story that became first a film and now this many-layered book.

It is about transcending the state of victim to become a survivor. It is the story of great physical and psychological courage. And because of the efforts of Susie and her film team to make sense of their journey through that appalling social landscape, it is one of the best portraits in print of the covert operations in Central America and of the men who ran them.

At the beginning, it was not evident to Susie, though it was to some more committed political eyes, that the CIA were responsible for La Penca. As an operation, it didn’t make sense. Killing Pastora, who was as much a thorn in the flesh of the Contras as of the Sandinistas, might have seemed like a legitimate policy goal to Oliver North. But that the CIA would try to kill him by blowing up a substantial part of the press corps seemed unthinkable. Unless, of course, it could be blamed on the Sandinistas. It was so unthinkable as a US act that many preferred to believe it was a piece of crass Sandinista stupidity. Susie began the search for evidence, a heartbreakingly difficult task. A fragment here, a hint there. Confusion, contradiction and lies. Witnesses who disappeared. Rumours that dissolved in the Costa Rican rain. Evidence that had been spirited to the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, never to return. In the end, as she puts it, quoting Conan Doyle, ‘whenever you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.’ The whole truth will never emerge from the sleaze of those deniable operations. Never the neat sort of truth, or, more satisfying, the truth of justice brought to bear. Right at the end of the book there is a fresh and devastating ambiguity. But Susie’s quest reminds us of another truth: the only protection that democracies have against the men they employ to do their dirty work is the transparency and honesty of their political systems. La Penca happened because US policy-makers willed it to happen, and because the rest of the world let it happen.