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Mission Impossible? : Jennifer Harbury had hoped media and congressional attention would persuade Guatemala to release her husband's body. But her wait continues.


WASHINGTON — The FBI took the Guatemalan death threats against Jennifer Harbury so seriously that the bureau sent two agents to knock on her door in Austin, Tex., recently to warn her that her life was in danger. Right-wing elements of the Guatemalan military, angered by Harbury's stubborn refusal to shut up about the torture-killing of her husband, had put out a contract on her after her testimony before Congress on the case. The killers might try to strike in the United States, she was warned, but they would probably be more likely to attack if she returned to Guatemala.

On Memorial Day, Harbury returned to Guatemala.

For three years she has ignored friendly and unfriendly advice, refused to take "no" for an answer, and pretty much made a complete pest of herself, both in Guatemala City and in Washington.

Obsession sometimes works.

Ultimately, Harbury's persistence disrupted U.S.-Guatemalan relations, was a factor in sparking the biggest controversy at the Central Intelligence Agency since Aldrich Ames was arrested, and helped shame the Clinton Administration into launching investigations of at least six federal agencies.

"Jennifer has a case in which she encountered doors blocked over and over . . . people tried to portray her as crazy, as not credible, but she just kept telling her story to anyone who would listen," says Meredith Larson, co-chair of Coalition Missing, a group that represents American victims of human rights abuses in Guatemala.

Yet Harbury has failed to accomplish the one thing she really wants: to find her husband's body and bury him.

So she returned to Guatemala last week, accompanied by officials from Amnesty International and other organizations, to follow up on yet another tip--this time from a disgruntled Guatemalan intelligence officer--about the location of her husband's grave. Her trip was also prompted by a meeting she and her lawyers had with State Department officials in Washington, who finally gave her a briefing about where they believe her husband's body is buried.

It was the first sign that the U.S. government was willing to give her more than just grudging support.

Harbury has made plenty of waves. But until last week, all the ruckus had done little to solve her case.

Indeed, despite her 15 minutes of politico-celebrity status this spring, despite two hunger strikes and sympathetic statements of outrage from senior congressional leaders, she still complains that the State Department, the CIA and the National Security Council--not to mention the Guatemalan government--remain reluctant to help. In fact, the new information from the State Department--coming nearly three months after she first burst onto the national scene--will mean little until the Guatemalan government decides to cooperate. What's more, the CIA has still said little about its involvement in her husband's case.

"Sometimes I feel like I haven't made any progress, like I have to go back on a hunger strike just to get them to listen to me," Harbury says. "Why have I had to go through this to get papers I should have access to?"

What is clear to Jennifer Harbury is this: She has become the latest in a long line of pilgrims to find that inertia tends to take hold in government once the television klieg lights turn off.

Until the night of March 22nd, the 43-year-old Harbury was just one more lost soul in Lafayette Park, one more invisible woman with a sad story trying vainly to catch political lightning by getting the attention of the President of the United States across the street.

She went on a hunger strike in front of the White House--her second since November, when she had been on a longer and more dangerous fast in front of the National Palace in Guatemala City.

But almost no one noticed. A Harvard-trained lawyer, Harbury had the full support of the human rights community, yet she was coming dangerously close to slipping into the special purgatory Washington reserves for people it categorizes as "eccentrics."

Harbury's personality didn't help. A humorless zealot with burning eyes and an almost monotone voice, Harbury often found it difficult to win over allies. Even among her friends, the most common adjective used to describe Harbury is driven .

Spending her days in a park full of nuclear freeze advocates and animal rights fanatics and homeless veterans, she was at most a minor irritant to government officials at the State Department and the White House, including National Security Adviser Anthony Lake, who had heard her story and basically brushed her off.


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