Victims, journalists, investigators recall La Penca bombing and aftermath

by Norman Stockwell

(*I was reminded of this story today and it immediately resurrected memories of the time I appeared as British journalist for Time Magazine, Susan Morgan, in a two-part Costa Rican TV investigation and reconstruction of events surrounding the La Penca bombing that happened in the secret hideout of the guerrilla leader, Eden Pastora on the Nicagraguan-Costa Rican border. Pastora was about to blow the lid off the CIA involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal. However, word got out and a bomb was placed in the hut where his press conference was taking place. My character, Susan Morgan, survived despite the fact she was standing right next to Pastora when the bomb went off. Linda Frazier of the Tico Times, played by Susan Liang, was killed. Many others were severely wounded. Pastora, too, was wounded and was spirited down the river and out of the country.    –  Caroline Kennedy)

A Contra Southern Front camp.The Tico Times

Today, May 30, is the “National Day of the Journalist” in Costa Rica. The day was first proclaimed in 2010 by then-President Óscar Arias – architect of the 1987 Esquipulas II Central American Peace Accords – to honor the dead and wounded in a bombing that took place at La Penca, Nicaragua, just across Costa Rica’s northern border, in 1984. Seven people were killed and 21 wounded, some so seriously as to lose eyes or limbs, during a press conference called by guerrilla leader Edén Pastora.

Three journalists were killed that day: Costa Ricans Jorge Quirós, a cameraman for TV’s Channel 6, his assistant, Evelio Sequeira, and U.S. reporter Linda Frazier, of The Tico Times. Her husband, Joe Frazier, who was then Latin America bureau chief for The Associated Press, remembers that day: “I happened to be in [Managua] on other business. … I’d come back from dinner, … and I got to the InterContinental Hotel, and the clerk whom I’d known for many years, since the ’79 revolution, said, ‘Señor Frazier, there’s been an explosion on the San Juan River. You need to know this.’… And I started asking around, … calling everybody I knew in Costa Rica, sort of calling in every favor I had out there, and I was getting a little panicky. And finally, I got a radio broadcast, someone had gone up live on the San Juan where the boats were coming back from La Penca, describing what was going on, and one of them said, ‘Well, there’s a red-headed foreign lady here who’s a correspondent, and she is sin vida, without life.’ And I knew then it had to be. … There’s no way it was anybody else. … I realized that in the morning I had to go back to Costa Rica and tell our 10-year-old son what had happened, and that’s something I don’t wish on anybody.”

Costa Rican journalist Nelson Murillo, 54 and now retired, was a few feet away, asking Pastora a question when the bomb exploded.

“I ended up burnt, injured, fractured. I was two months in physical therapy in Hospital México [in Costa Rica]. … I was left with one shorter leg, progressive deafness, PTSD and spinal problems because of the shortening of the leg. I’ve already had 30 surgeries because of problems beginning at La Penca. They took 70 shrapnel pieces out of me, metallic pieces of the bomb. Since it was homemade, it had everything: screws, BBs, thumb tacks, etc. It’s been a pilgrimage through the hospitals over 30 years. But there were people with amputations – Roberto Cruz, who died 19 years after the bombing at La Penca, lost an eye, an ear and one leg. Of those of us left, the present-day survivors – there were others with amputations and deformations and other serious problems who have over time died from natural causes – but of those surviving today, I am the one left with the most serious health problems.”

La Penca minutes after the bombing on May 30, 1984.The Tico Times

José Rodolfo Ibarra, former president of the Costa Rican Journalists Association, also was injured that day. “I had 52 pieces of shrapnel in my body, in my arms, legs and chest, burns on my face and arms, plus the infection [of the wounds] that all of us who were there had,” he said. Ibarra spent two months in a hospital recovering.

ABC cameraman Tony Avirgan remembers the long wait to get medical aid.

“The rest of us were just lined up on the ground outside and laying there, and there was only a limited number of people who could fit in the one remaining boat. And it was two hours to San Carlos, but it was a four-hour round trip. So, perversely, the least injured rushed down to the boat and jumped in the boat, and that boat filled up, and they said that was enough and they took off. And I was lying on the ground, and I was not one of the most seriously injured. … But next to me was Linda Frazier, and both of her legs were blown off just below the knee. She was in quite bad shape, and no one made any attempt to take her or the other people. There were many Costa Ricans who lost limbs or eyes and things, and it was the least injured people who got in that first boat, including who we found out later was the bomber.”

The backstory

Pastora, called Comandante Cero (“Commander Zero”), was a charismatic former Sandinista who was leading a rebel army against the Nicaraguan government headed by Daniel Ortega. Pastora was forming a southern front based out of Costa Rica. Stephen Kinzer, the New York Times bureau chief in Managua at the time, said Pastora had fallen out of favor with the CIA.

“The CIA was eagerly recruiting people who were not tainted by collaboration with the old dictatorship. Pastora was perfect for that. He was not only untainted by collaboration with [Anastasio] Somoza, he had led one of the greatest operations that helped bring down Somoza. So the idea that he was then going to make himself available as an anti-Sandinista fighter was thought of as a great coup for the CIA. They tried to establish him in northern Costa Rica, and at the beginning I think they had very high hopes for him. The people who were the main Contra force up in the north, like [Enrique] Bermúdez, were really based in the old National Guard of Gen. Somoza. They hated Pastora, and Pastora hated them. The idea of the CIA was that these hatreds were just details. ‘Now we’ve got a new cause, we’re all trying to overthrow the Sandinista regime, so let’s just put behind us all the quarrels of the past.’ Neither side was willing to do that. And, that’s why the alliance really never gelled the way the CIA wanted it to.”

Former Contra commander Edén Pastora, who now works for the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. The Tico Times

Pastora, who today works with Ortega and the current Nicaraguan government as minister of development in the Río San Juan Basin, said the divisions were ideological and insurmountable.

“Here was a great pressure from the American Central Intelligence and right-wing sectors for me to join the north, the counterrevolution of the FDN [Nicaraguan Democratic Force], which was founded, directed and supplied by Central Intelligence. This was impossible, for moral reasons, for political and ideological reasons. On moral terms, these guardias from the north murdered my father when I was 8 years old. And when I was older, when I was 40, they murdered my people in an act of genocide. So, I could not join them for political reasons,” Pastora said.

Journalist Jon Lee Anderson was with Pastora’s forces a month before La Penca.

“I found out, of course, eventually that he was getting money from the CIA. And in fact, on that attack that I joined in April 1984 in San Juan del Norte, I discovered that he had direct CIA help. Not only had the CIA organized air drops of logistics on certain Americans’ ranches – a network of American ranches were operating as proxies for the CIA in Costa Rica – but they had also helped shell the town from offshore, from a gunboat. And Pastora confirmed this with me. [He] begged me not to report it. I had this from several other commanders and lieutenants in the course of the battle – I really confirmed this. And this was inconvenient at the time for a lot of people, because it was only a week or so since the mining of the harbor scandal had been aired in public and supposedly put to bed. … As it turned out, I got in a fair bit of trouble over it within Time magazine as a result. My biggest scoop of my young career.”

The CIA’s ‘wrong choice’

Retired U.S. Maj. Gen. John Singlaub, who was President Ronald Reagan’s administrative chief liaison to the secret Contra supply effort, in his 1991 autobiography “Hazardous Duty” confirms the CIA involvement early on.

“I learned from embassy officials in Central America that the new Nicaraguan Democratic Resistance movement – the ‘Contras’ – was already in contact with the Central Intelligence Agency, and that covert American support was being organized. My old OSS case officer, Bill Casey, was now director of Central Intelligence, so I knew the resistance was in good hands,” he wrote.

But Singlaub goes on to wonder if the CIA and the National Security Council, led by Lt. Col. Oliver North, were making the wrong choice.

“Pastora was one of those extraordinary characters who believed fervently in his own public image. He was a guerrilla par excellence, a romantic Latin warrior who evoked intense loyalty among his troops. The Agency treated him like a native mercenary. Worse, Pastora’s CIA handlers included bureaucratic bean counters who required all supply requisition forms completed in English, in triplicate. The cultural barriers between Pastora and the CIA were insurmountable. In short, the Agency ruined the only chance they had of exploiting the most famous military leader in Central America. Enrique Bermúdez was a well-educated professional soldier, but Comandante Zero was a national hero troops could rally around,” Singlaub wrote.

Arcadio’s portrayal of former National Security Council member Oliver North. Arcadio/The Tico Times

On May 1, 1984, Pastora had been given a 30-day ultimatum by the CIA to join forces with the FDN, and on the thirtieth day, he called a press conference.

“I called a press conference to denounce these issues to the world,” Pastora, now 77, remembers, “and to tell the world that I was not joining the counterrevolution, from my stance as a revolutionary, from my stance as a Sandinista. At that moment, I was a dissident; I was at odds with the National Directorate of the Sandinista National Liberation Front. … So, the reason for the [press] conference, specifically, was to denounce to the people of Nicaragua and to the world, the pressure that I would not give in to or concede to.” Investigator John Mattes, who worked in the Miami public defender’s office and later provided support to a U.S. congressional subcommittee on terrorism, narcotics and international operations chaired by Senator John Kerry, explained that the Contra activities were really part of “a much larger complex operation … fronted by drug smugglers and con men. And, if you boil it all down to that, that it was a mercenary adventure by elements of the Contras to sell a war to the United States so that they could engage in massive drug smuggling – and that’s really what it turned out to be – [Pastora] was a liability to everyone.

“He was of course a liability to the Sandinistas, and he was a liability to the Southern Front because he in fact was going to get in the way of [Adolfo “Popo”] Chamorro and others who had their own ideas of what the Costa Rica [Contra operation] should look like and what the Southern Front should look like.”

The investigation

Tony Avirgan and his wife, journalist Martha Honey, undertook an investigation to find the identity of the bomber. Honey, now co-founder and director of the Center for Responsible Travel, based in Washington, D.C., recalls that, “Tony was injured and was operated on in Costa Rica and then taken to a hospital in Philadelphia, and as I was preparing to go up I was contacted by the Committee to Protect Journalists and [the Newspaper Guild] and asked if I would be willing to undertake an investigation as to who was responsible for the bombing. And of course I had lots of reasons for wanting to get to the bottom of this, and so I said yes, and went up and met with them, and thought that this would be a couple of weeks or possibly months of investigation and we would learn what had happened. And literally until today we don’t know the full story.”

The case was later taken on by a public interest law firm known as the Christic Institute, and incorporated into a larger lawsuit against a “secret team” inside and outside the U.S. government. But, Honey says, they “had a very serious falling out with Danny Sheehan, the chief lawyer there. And basically, we kind of broke with Danny and with the sort of official Christic Institute. And a group of us, including Doug Vaughn and Carl Deal and Joanne Royce, who was one of the lawyers, and a number of others, Richard McGough, kept doing the investigation, but really not so much for the Christic Institute, but simply because we were trying to get to the bottom of what was going on.”

The actual bomber, who had entered the press conference with a stolen passport and posing as a Danish journalist, was ultimately identified as Argentine Vital Roberto Gaguine through the work of investigator Doug Vaughn and others. It was Vaughn who first uncovered a fingerprint and a photo of the suspect in Panamanian immigration files.

“Eventually I was able to obtain from Panamanian immigration records fingerprints and photographs of Gaguine when he appeared as Per Anker Hansen and used the Danish passport in Panama before the attack at La Penca in 1984,” Vaughn said. “I was able to locate the family of Gaguine in the Miami area. His father, in 1992, identified a photo of Gaguine to me as his son, Roberto, as he was called, and the brother also identified the photo, and they also identified several of the photos that were taken before and after La Penca in Costa Rica as having been of their brother, who they were convinced even then could not possibly have done the bombing, but that he was actually someone who was fighting for freedom, socialism and democracy.”

La Penca bomber Vital Roberto Gaguine photographed at the San Carlos Hospital after the bombing. Marvin Vega/La República

Vaughn initially worked with Avirgan, Honey and the Christic Institute, and later provided material to Juan Tamayo of The Miami Herald, which published Gaguine’s identification in 1993. Tamayo, a close friend of Joe Frazier and the late Linda Frazier, said he felt obligated to try to find the perpetrators.

“When she died at the La Penca bombing, I always thought that, you know, we all had a responsibility as journalists to solve the murder of a fellow journalist. It was a personal interest, and so for many years, every chance I had I sort of asked people, ‘Do you know anything about this?’ You know, anybody I thought might know something about the case,” he said.

It was eventually determined that Gaguine had died in 1989 in a failed assault on La Tablada barracks in Argentina, but because no firm evidence of his death was found, an Interpol warrant for his arrest remained open until last Fall. Then, on Dec. 2, 2013, Costa Rican Chief Public Prosecutor Jorge Chavarría gave a press conference announcing the closing of the case.

On Nov. 15, word was received from Argentine authorizes that DNA evidence from bones held by his family confirmed Gaguine’s death. But, Chavarría – who had investigated the case as a prosecutor in 1989, resulting in a 180-page report to the Costa Rican Legislative Assembly – said in the press conference that while the investigation is closed in Costa Rica because there is no information about the masterminds of the attack, if another country such as Nicaragua has new evidence, the case in Costa Rica could be reopened, because it has been classified as a crime against humanity, which has no statute of limitation.

Searching for connections

Peter Torbiörnsson was a Swedish journalist who now admits he also was spying for the Sandinistas in 1984. He regularly gave copies of his footage to Nicaraguan intelligence services under the direction of Comandante Tomás Borge, the former interior minister. It was Torbiörnsson who brought the fake journalist Per Anker Hansen to the press conference that day. He recently produced an introspective 90-minute film, full of personal agony, called “The Last Chapter: Goodbye Nicaragua,” released in festivals in 2010 and first shown in Costa Rica and Nicaragua in 2011. The film also features British journalist Susie Morgan, who was seriously wounded at La Penca. Morgan has sought to solve the crime for the past three decades and made her own investigative film for British television in 1988. She authored an autobiographical account of the investigation titled, “In Search of the Assassin.” Morgan was standing next to Pastora when the explosion happened and feels it was her body that actually shielded him from some of the worst effects of the blast.

Pastora, whose legs were injured by the explosion and spent weeks in a hospital in Venezuela recuperating after plastic surgery, blames Torbiörnsson for his role in the attack.

“It was people such as Torbiörnsson, who did the reconnaissance. He spent 15 days with me and brought the information to the Sandinistas and to the CIA, because he was a double agent. As was the fake journalist Per Anker Hansen, whose real name was Vital Roberto Gaguine. They were crazy people, who liked to experience intense thrills, working with the left and with the right. They were double agents. Vital Roberto Gaguine died at La Tablada during the assault on the headquarters of the Carapintadas in Buenos Aires, and Torbiörnsson is still playing his role as a double agent sent by Central Intelligence to misinform the people, feigning outrage and accusing the Frente [Sandinista National Liberation Front] directly. The truth is the Frente gave the order to place the bomb, but at a camp. They gave the order to place the bomb under a hammock, since that was what Torbiörnsson had recommended, not at a press conference. It was a decision by Torbiörnsson and Vital Roberto Gaguine to place it at La Penca, because they had not been able to hunt me down for three months. I hadn’t given them the opportunity to do it at a camp or the other places where I camped. People don’t know these things about these double agents Torbiörnsson and Vital Roberto Gaguine.”

Pastora has suggested that Torbiörnsson, now 73, should be officially accused of crimes against humanity for his role in facilitating the plot. Torbiörnsson responded that, “Edén Pastora has gotten the supervision of Río San Juan in compensation for his effort to transform himself into a mouthpiece for his former enemies. … He has forgotten his moral obligation to the other victims, the right to know the truth.”


La Penca had a profound impact on those who were there or had friends there. Jon Lee Anderson noted that, “The Pastora hit was maybe the first of its type of assassination in which explosives were used under cover of journalists. Everything has changed since then. It was shocking to us and it was dangerous. Of course it made our lives very dangerous. … It made us feel that we couldn’t trust people in quite the same way and made everybody wonder where we stood … [and] who were the people that we were dealing with, both in regimes and in these insurgent movements, and the people that traveled in those circles.” Juan Tamayo concurs: “We’ve always been sort of concerned about intelligence services passing themselves off as journalists. We find that to be objectionable because it puts real journalists at risk. You know, any number of journalists can then get arrested because some government thinks that they are spies or something. So not only does the killer pass himself off as a journalist, but he then sets off the bomb in a news conference. I don’t think it could have been any worse. That was a blot on journalism.”

Tico Times journalist Linda Frazier with her husband, Joe, and son Christopher. The Tico Times

Joe Frazier knew his work was dangerous, but the bombing at La Penca was totally unexpected.

“I think we all just sort of realized that it was sort of a risky shot out there, and you do your best to be careful, and there are some things you can’t avoid. Now, who would have known, or who would have thought that somebody would have bombed, of all things, a press conference. They might as well bomb a church,” Frazier said.

Stephen Kinzer, who had only missed going to the press conference by chance, said, “I was in total shock. My first reaction was that my friends had been attacked. One of the women who was a victim of that attack, Susan Morgan, lived in Managua and I used to see her every other day. Linda Frazier was a real bedrock of the press corps in Costa Rica. Several of those other people present were people that I worked with all the time. We had never had an episode like this before. And then after I recovered from my shock at realizing what had happened to my colleagues, it dawned on me that it could easily have been me. Just by a trick of fate I didn’t happen to be there, but this was a stunning episode far beyond anything that we had anticipated. …. I don’t think it changed our minds about anything, but it intensified our feeling that we were in a deeply unpredictable and highly violent situation. It really showed that we didn’t have a full grasp of the possibilities of what might happen, and that is always unsettling.”

José Rodolfo Ibarra sees the event as a turning point: “Journalism in Costa Rica can be depicted in a very clear before-and-after phase. Before La Penca, we did not worry much about security because we were not accustomed to those sorts of violent acts. One would enter any press conference, any place where there would be information, without noticing your own surroundings. From that point on the people understood, first that security measures were necessary, and second that journalists are not immune; we are not Superman.”


Nelson Murillo feels that this type of terrorist act needs to be denounced.

“It is a thorn stuck in the [journalists’] guild, and that the impunity could have lasted 30 years is a national and international embarrassment. Only two press conferences have been used for purposes of terrorism, one in Afghanistan [the murder of Ahmad Shah Massoud in 2001], and the one at La Penca in Nicaragua. And so the bombing of La Penca is a case of deception in all ways that deserves more attention, more pressure; it deserves more opportune answers, it deserves more constancy in the media.”

The memories still affect victims even today, said Joe Frazier. “For the first few months after, that entire summer is almost a total blank in my mind. I don’t remember anything really. I don’t remember where I was, what I did, with whom I talked. I know I was in New York for a while, I know I was back in Oregon for a while. I couldn’t function. … I was a wreck for some time.”

Murillo is now one of the lead activists in seeking justice for the victims.

“Especially after the death of don Roberto Cruz, who fought long to find the truth of these things and fought against the scandalous impunity of the case, in time I began to turn into an activist for this cause, because the only hope for justice that is left to us is an international trial at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, where there is a denunciation presented by the Journalists Association in August 2005, when La Penca already had 21 years of impunity. Now it has been 30 years – more than eight years of waiting and the case is still being processed for admissibility. They have not yet said yes or no, officially.”

From left, La Penca Comission President Sonia Rodriguez, journalist Nelson Murillo, journalist Joaquín Vargas Gene and Edén Pastora at a conference at the Costa Rican Journalists Association on June 7, 1991. Julio Laínez/The Tico Times

Will there be a resolution, investigator John Mattes wonders: “I would hope so for [the victims’] peace of mind. Sadly, though, I look back over that period. … We lost a number of whistle-blowers. We lost people that tried to stand up, and that were lost in the night. So we won’t know everything, though, I think, and in much to their credit, and to the people that did stand up, we now know the truth. We may not know the details, but we know the truth. And we know what the United States did in this failed operation.”

Chavarría ended his 1989 report to the Costa Rican Legislative Assembly with this statement: “In conclusion, this report does not put an end to the investigation of the crime of LA PENCA, which should continue in the clarification of the events. A great deal of useful information is in the United States, and it will depend on the good faith of the authorities of that country to give access to what has been censored in the Senate reports. In the same way, without the help of those authorities it will be impossible to interview witnesses in that country, for which reason I consider it important that the respective steps be carried out by the Public Prosecutor and the Plenary Court.”

Now that three decades have passed since the bombing, and many of the witnesses and participants are no longer alive, a resolution seems difficult. Interestingly, on the day after the bombing, Mike Boettcher of NBC News reported, “The blast occurred in a no-man’s land along a river that separates Nicaragua and Costa Rica. There is no law there. So it will nearly be impossible to determine who planted the bomb and why.”

Nicaragua’s responsibility

Tamayo echoes this thought today. “The other thing is the crime took place in Nicaragua,” he said. “The Costa Ricans have sort of become involved in it because many of the victims were Costa Ricans, but the crime, the bombing actually took place in Nicaragua, so is the Nicaraguan government, now under Sandinista President Daniel Ortega, willing to dig up this old history? I doubt it very much.”

Tony Avirgan holds out some hope: “Well, I keep having the hope that someday, somebody on the U.S. side and somebody on the Sandinista side will come forward and we’ll just find all the answers. But I’m not sure that digging anymore is going to help. And we mentioned before, you mentioned before, a lot of the people are dying now. People are getting old and dying.”

But, Martha Honey continued, “I think there’s still room for a real investigation of it, and it should probably be done by people who were not like us, who were not involved, but would draw on a lot of the work that’s being done and just try to make sense of this, because we don’t know the truth. We don’t know the full truth.”

Murillo insists a resolution is necessary: “Although the mercenary that detonated the bomb is dead, and registered as such in Argentina, the responsibility of the masterminds is another thing that is still in force, and is a goal that we must investigate deeply and inform and denounce all that appears in time.”

For Ibarra, it is important to keep the memory of La Penca alive.

“I would hope that this 30th of May, the 30th anniversary of that act, that the new generation of journalists do not forget what happened there. We have to learn from what happened there. May they not forget the dead and the injured. It’s necessary to be aware of what happened so that it does not happen again.”

Doug Vaughn concluded by saying, “You have to do it by telling the truth. Let the chips fall.”

Sarah Blaskey and Jesse Chapman contributed to this article from Costa Rica.

Norman Stockwell is a freelance journalist based in Madison, Wisconsin. He also serves as operations coordinator for WORT-FM Community Radio. Stockwell has reported from numerous countries in Latin America, including interviews on Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast with Contras surrendering to take amnesty under the 1987 Esquipulas Accords.

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