The case of American journalist Nicholas Blake and the right to truth

George HW Bush, John Kerry and Edward Kennedy appeals for information ignored as US officers covered up Guatemalan army.

Guatemalan army troops parade during the
The Guatemalan Army initially blamed guerrillas for the disappearance of Nicholas Blake, even though it was later found that Blake and his photographer, Griff Davis, disappeared in an area directly controlled by the military [AFP]

It all started with a phone call. A cold voice on the other side, reporting that their eldest brother was missing in the mountains of Guatemala. As an investigative journalist working in the field, interviewing guerrillas or narrating adventurous trips in the region, it didn’t sound unusual.

Nicholas Blake, 27,  a well-connected freelance journalist from a Republican family in Philadelphia, was based in and writing about Central America since 1984. By 1985, he was still looking for the big story that would take his career as a foreign journalist to the next level. After two failed attempts, he decided to take his last chance to get what he wanted: an interview with the Marxist-Leninist Guerrilla Army of the Poor (EGP), hidden in the highlands. He started his journey on March 28, together with Griff Davis, a photographer. Their return was expected on April 3. On April 12, Davis’ girlfriend  reported the incident to the US Embassy in Guatemala City.

When the Blake family heard the bad news, Randy Blake was just finishing school, his brother Sam had started a new job and their world of privileged upper class, well-connected and being socially – whose family shared summers with the Bush LeBlondes – was about to radically change. Sam and his mother flew to Guatemala, the first trip of many and the beginning of an endless journey seeking the truth.

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Their arrival was their fist encounter with a culture of lies and cover ups, and misleading information from the Guatemalan Army and their own government. The first action taken by the Embassy was to spread flyers in isolated areas where most of the people were illiterate. After that, they arranged meetings with Army officers. All of them told them they strongly believed that Nicholas Blake was abducted by the guerrillas, so all the efforts of the Blakes focused on contacting the EGP.

The family took advantage of their position and connections, advocating at the highest level in Washington, with at least seven members of the US Senate – including Edward Kennedy – express instructions from the Vice President and members of the US Congress, including appeals by current Secretary of State John Kerry.

Edward Kennedy, through a Cuban connection, helped them establish communications with the guerrillas. They then travelled to Mexico just to find out that the guerrillas had no information or presence in the area where Nick was travelling. It was an area under full control of the Guatemalan Army. At that point, it was evident that the authorities and the local government were concealing information from them.

The Blake brothers did not stop a day in their struggle for Justice. They even joined the Mutual Support Group of the families of disappeared Guatemalans in demonstrations in front of the Cathedral. Public demonstrations during the 80s were a rare, brave act. While more than 40,000 families suffered the forced disappearances of their loved ones, only very few demanded their rights – and they paid a high price. They were often killed, or in the best case, harassed and socially marginalised.

Samuel Blake wondered why their government was not demanding the truth. After all, it was President Reagan who lifted the embargo of military aid, arguing that the human rights situation was improving. Together with other American families whose relatives were tortured, murdered or disappeared in the Central American nation, they formed the “Missing” support group, which would later lead a series of requests of public information under the Freedom of Information Act, which would later shed some light on the US involvement in the abuses.  

The Guatemalan Army and its parallel body, the Civil Patrols (PAC) were the prime suspects of the crime, and they were not willing to talk. US officers in Guatemala were concealing information as well. In 1988, three years after the disappearance, when the family travelled to the area where Nick was last seen, a schoolteacher provided the most relevant help until then, confirming that the two guys were murdered by the Civil Patrols, following orders of members of the military. They provided such information to both the Guatemalan and the US government. FBI agents were sent but achieved nothing. The Guatemalan Army did not even provide the list of personnel in the area on that date. And it was only in 1992, after offering a reward and also a signed agreement not to prosecute, that the paramilitaries involved in the murder agreed to reveal the location of the remains, only after strong pressure from General Otto Noack. With assistance of forensic experts from the Smithsonian, the identity was confirmed along with the cause of death: the two Americans were murdered by several gunshots and their remains, years later, were burned and relocated. When they found Nick, the family decided that their struggle was not over. They wanted justice.

General Noack admitted that Guatemalan intelligence knew what happened at a very early stage of the case. It was later confirmed by an international court that the Guatemalan Army lied for years, denying the right to know to a family suffering enormous pain. They blamed the guerrillas, they even blamed the victim for his travels to a conflict zone. It is also believed that certain offices of the US government were also involved in the high-level cover up, making sure that the image of the Guatemalan Army was not affected. A State Department officer, as a declassified Confidential cable sent to Guatemala shows, even suggested that no causes of the death should be included in the death certificate of Blake.

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By 1995, the CIA director of operations in Guatemala was accused of covering up records documenting human rights abuses and the killings of American citizens in order to protect his military informants. Other agencies were involved in the scandal, and President Bill Clinton ordered a full investigation and further release of relevant information used by other American citizens. But very little information was released about the Blake case, as it was probably classified as Top Secret. In an article published in the New York Times in 1995, Samuel Blake wondered what else the CIA and other agencies knew and were refusing to disclose about the death of his brother.

The Guatemalan state was declared responsible for the disappearance and murder of Nicholas Blake by the Interamerican Court of Human Rights, 14 years after that phonecall. The Court ordered a payment of material and moral damages to the family and the prompt investigation and prosecution of any suspect of the crime. Fourteen years later, the case remains in impunity.

While I worked as a lawyer for the Guatemalan genocide case, preparing the witnesses who presented their testimonies before Spanish National Courts, I struggled with the lack of information about the Army suspects. Counterinsurgency plans and information of the chain of command were obtained either via whistleblowers or Freedom of Information requests filed in the United States, evidencing the importance of both the freedom of information architecture and whistleblowers as key instruments where not even a Bush or a Kennedy can obtain the truth. Up till now, the Military Archives remain sealed, secret. Key files needed for the cases are reported “missing”.

Now as the Genocide Trial against former dictator Rios Montt is starting, some say there is hope for justice and truth, the preconditions of any form of genuine reconciliation in the country. However, with General Otto Pérez Molina as the current president and a vast number of former military officers of his generation appointed in key positions of the Executive – unaccountable for their past – I have strong doubts.

Renata Avila is a Guatemalan Human Rights and Intellectual Property Lawyer, and an advocate for freedom of expression, privacy, access to information and indigenous rights. She is also a contributor for Global Voices and Global Voices Advocacy.

Follow her on Twitter: @avilarenata