Human Rights Activist Jennifer Harbury On Asylum Claims

By Anne Lewis

“The problem, of course, lies with the realities concealed from us. This has always been the case... In the end, however, this is our government, and torture is being utilized in our names and supported by our tax dollars. We are responsible.”

Jennifer Harbury’s husband, Efraín Bámaca Velásquez, a Mayan resistance fighter, “disappeared” in March 1992. He was tortured for two and a half years and murdered by CIA-paid, School of the Americas-trained members of the Guatemalan army.  Jennifer exposed her husband’s torturers to the world and then wrote about it.

Jennifer is a lawyer, author, and human rights activist who has lived and worked in Weslaco, Texas for nearly twenty years and speaks truth from direct knowledge. When she looks at the brutality that pushes people out of Guatemala and other Central American countries to smash up against our southern border, she speaks with the intensity of one who can live with the horror of a baby’s fingernails torn out – albeit many years ago – and know deeply why people flee that terror these days. Her husband’s torturers took off their military uniforms and continued on as high-level drug lords terrorizing civilians, protected by the CIA who were concerned about what they might say about us.

Jennifer was responsible for getting that crying babies tape to Pro Publica

Matthew Gossage, Laura Varela, and I went with women from the Angry Tias and Abuelas of the Rio Grande Valley across the bridge at Matamoros. We couldn’t pass to Reynosa. It was too dangerous to go there. I often wonder what life must be like for all the people stuck there if we are afraid to go even for a few hours. 


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And what did we see on the other side of the bridge in Matamoros? Children’s socks drying on a fence, razor wire at the top; a half-grown cat sleeping in a box, unresponsive and perhaps dying; exhausted people in tents, waiting, who had been waiting for months.

There were also those things we didn’t film. 

A young child with a smile that stretched her face, couldn’t stop hugging Laura, couldn’t keep her hands off the microphone I held. Laura wondered how she could trust strangers like us and thought it must have been the volunteers who gave her water and oranges.

A young man came towards us at the edge of the bridge, beautiful, almost falling from exhaustion, trying to smile in greeting. From Cameroon, he spoke only French. He had been on the streets of Matamoros for 3 weeks, shunned by shelters because he was black. He pulled up his sleeves and showed us scars. It looked as though a machete had hacked at his arms.

When you look at our work, you, the viewer, will have to forgive our inadequacies. We would need a tripod and wide lenses. We would need the stamina and commitment of someone like Jennifer. We would need much greater intuition about what needs to be told. 

Please look at these pieces as fragments of understanding through Jennifer’s eyes, stories of people she knew in the most harsh and imprisoned situations, in our government’s (and our) hands. Look at the actuality as fragments of a humanitarian crisis that our country has made. Try to imagine what must be seen. 

The discussion above is the first of perhaps eight short webcasts. 

Our greatest hope is that in forgiving our flawed material, you realize that you must bear witness yourself. Perhaps it’s good that it’s not art; it’s not complete. Fill it yourself, not with guilt that confines itself to an inward gaze, but with the rage of perception that makes change. And go there to see for yourself. These short pieces are at best snapshots of what is there, less than 250 miles away from Austin, Texas, and of what must be done.


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