Using papers found at the UK National Archives, VICE previously revealed the extent of cooperation between British forces and the murderous Guatemalan junta at the height of that country's 36-year long civil war. In 1983, Britain had a garrison of 1,500 soldiers stationed in neighbouring Belize. They were supposedly there to prevent a Guatemalan invasion of the former British colony, but our investigation showed how they ended up helping the regime of former president Rios Montt – currently awaiting trial for genocide – and hunted down Guatemalan rebels sheltering in Belize. They also shared intelligence about rebels with junta officers that had been linked to human rights abuses.
Following our investigation, a former Belizean spy who worked with the British has claimed that a rebel informant was handed over to the junta's forces, who later killed him. As the British passed him over, they played a recording of the rebel detailing massacres carried out by the Guatemalan government's forces, something which could have led to the informant's death.
We sent a man to his death
Our investigation told how a British patrol to find rebel bases was guided by a 27-year-old Guatemalan, Pedro Barrera – a former rebel turned informant. Barrera failed to lead the patrol to any rebel bases, so he was interrogated by Belize police's special branch before being handed back to Guatemalan authorities, who went on to murder him.
A former Belizean special branch officer is claiming to be the interpreter for that patrol with Barrera. Commenting on the VICE investigation, the man said: "What I read there is what I did." The retired spy, who did not want to be named, told Belize's Amandala newspaper that, "Pedro Barrera wanted support – that we grant him refugee status in Belize to protect him and stay here, so he started to cooperate with us and he promised that he was going to show us a guerrilla camp."
The patrol was inserted into the jungle by a British "Gazelle" helicopter. When the patrol failed to find any guerrilla activity, the ex-spy claims Barrera started crying, begged for refugee status and offered to "share everything he knew about the Guatemalan army". British officers allegedly recorded as Barrera detailed Guatemalan army massacres of indigenous Maya people. When Barrera was handed into Guatemalan custody, the officer alleges that "the British played the recorded tape … [and] upon hearing Barrera's accusations the faces of the Guatemalan officers contorted with anger".
Shortly after he was handed over, Barrera was executed by Guatemalan government gunmen. "We sent a man to his death," the ex-spook told Amandala.
The agent did not regret working in intelligence. "I enjoyed it. Sad to say, but I find it intriguing… the James Bond type of thing," he said. However, he reflected that, "At the time, you feel you're doing something good; you don't see the bigger picture. You don't see the consequences; for example, the thousands of peasants that were massacred in Guatemala… i n time it bothers your conscience."
His revelations will reinforce concerns that British forces in Belize failed in their legal duty of care towards Pedro Barrera. Lawyer Daniel Carey from Deighton Pierce Glynn Solicitors, who won an award for his work in Guatemala, commented that Britain has "a human rights obligation not to hand prisoners in its custody to regimes where they face a risk of torture or death."
At the time, British diplomats did not appear to take the issue seriously, scribbling in the corner of one telegram that the patrols were "real Sherlock Holmes stuff".
DINING WITH THE ENEMY
Belize's special branch was funded by UK aid money and effectively run by a British policeman. The ex-spy claims that intelligence officers were invited into Guatemala to dine with the military regime, including the officers from the notorious Kaibiles special-forces unit, which is believed to have murdered Pedro Barrera and carried out genocidal massacres.
These diners were "characterised by excesses of Guatemalan Gallo beers, game meat and marimba music", he told Amandala. "During the night, the Guatemalan soldiers would chauffeur them into the seductive Flores night life," a riverine town almost 100km inside Guatemala.
A file found at the UK National Archives supports this allegation, and shows that a Belizean major visited the Kaibiles' notorious training academy, even drawing a crude map of the camp. (Belize's tiny army was then under the command of a British officer.)
Despite the Kaibiles appalling human rights record , the document shows that the visitors "had a very good lunch with most of the instructors … barbecue chicken, beef, corn tortillas, bread, soup made from carrots and pumpkin, cheese chips, watermelon, pepsi-cola in cans and beers".
According to the file, one Kaibiles officer "was anxious to find out if Belizean security forces were patrolling the [border] area, as he believed that whenever his patrols came near to the guerrillas they would cross into Belize and evade capture". The major replied that British and Belizean soldiers constantly patrolled the border, which made the Guatemalan officer "visibly relieved".
The ex-spy also claims he carried out surveillance of left-wing groups in Belize who were supporting the Guatemalan rebels, by providing them with "food, medicine and possibly arms", which they buried in secret dumps along the border. "All of the players in those support groups were interviewed, photographed and monitored by the Special Branch," he told Amandala.
The Ministry of Defence did not reply to our approach for comment.
The initial VICE investigation detailed some of these secret surveillance missions, such as Operation Octopus, which was mentioned in a file found at the UK National Archives. Parts of the file were classified, so I submitted a freedom of information (FOI) request for full access to the file. Although official guidance stipulates that FOI requests should only take one to two months to process, the Archives claims it needs four-and-a-half months to consider the public interest. Can this secret file really be more damaging than what has already emerged about the British army in Belize's cooperation with a murderous Guatemalan regime?
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