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Death of a double agent: British torture and betrayal in 1980s Belize

To stop communism in one of the UK’s last colonies, one man was handed over to a death squad and another was tortured. Only now is the truth emerging.

Phil Miller
28 September 2019
British marines training in Belize this year
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Ministry of Defence

In May, the tiny Central American nation of Belize held a referendum. It was a poll that made the Brexit vote look low stakes. Belizeans were asked to make a decision that could ultimately lead to half their country being carved off and swallowed up by their belligerent big brother, Guatemala.

The choice before them was simple, and yet agonising. Did Belizeans wish to ask the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to settle this long-running territorial dispute? Or would it be allowed to linger on and possibly one day spill over into all out war, a war Belize would lose almost instantly?

Guatemala had already voted, by an overwhelming majority, to accept the court’s authority on this matter in 2018. Belize’s ballot was due to take place in April this year, but in an extraordinary twist just days before the vote, the opposition party filed a lawsuit and managed to delay the referendum. Eventually, polling booths opened on 8 May.

You may not know the result, because there was almost no coverage of this vote in the international media. This was despite the UK Foreign Office spending hundred of thousands of pounds in aid money on promoting the merits of the ICJ to both Belize and Guatemala over the last decade. For Whitehall, the UN-endorsed court in the Hague was a rare chance to resolve peacefully one of those awkward hangovers from Empire.

One of Britain’s last colonies, Belize became independent in 1981 but continued to rely on the UK military for its external defence, principally from Guatemala, until as late as 1994. Even today, the British army maintains a training camp there, at considerable cost to the taxpayer, and plans to enlarge its footprint after Brexit.

Despite this sustained military presence, the British media rarely reports on Belize unless it involves the powerful Conservative Lord Ashcroft and a tax haven scandal. As a result, the British public knows and hears very little about the Belize/Guatemala border dispute, especially as it has never spilled over into open conflict, unlike that of Britain’s other garrison in Latin America – the Falkland Islands. And yet the British army presence in Belize has not always been entirely peaceful.

There were moments when fighting came incredibly close. Periodic threats of invasion from Guatemala’s far-right military governments dominated the 1970s. By 1983, a year after the Falklands war, there was a real prospect of UK forces in Belize fighting a left-wing Guatemalan guerrilla group that most Britons have never heard of – the Fuerzas Armadas Rebeldes (FAR), a resistance movement despised by US hawks. Some of those same hawks today advise President Donald Trump: Republican Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, for instance, is now Trump’s special envoy on Venezuela.

There were casualties in this shadow war – a fatal betrayal, a mountaintop torture session and a family torn apart – but the evidence was buried deep inside vaults of paperwork and kept classified for decades. How much more remains secret about this undeclared battle in Belize is a matter for the British government to share with us one day. But this is what I can tell you so far.

Arenal

Passengers disembark after crossing the Mopan river in Arenal | Phil Miller

Nestled beneath a great green hill and hedged by a sleepy brown river lies the village of Arenal. Its most remarkable feature has to be the football pitch. The children who play on its undulating turf enter an international game from the moment they kick their first ball: one half of the pitch is in Belize, the other in Guatemala.

A tall, timeless tree near the sideline demarcates the border. Today, the village is peaceful, and people can cross the international boundary without even noticing they have gone abroad. But on 5 June 1983, Arenal found itself on the front line. Hundreds of British soldiers rushed here to guard the border, as Guatemalan Kaibiles commandos looked on menacingly from the other side.

Earlier that day these same Kaibiles had shot a villager, Pedro Barrera, in broad daylight. It would be the most transparent moment in an otherwise utterly opaque affair. His bullet-ridden body lay on the Belize side of the border. In his last grasps he had clung to a tree to stop his assassins taking him into Guatemala.

So the gunmen slaughtered him where he preferred to die, before running the short distance out of the country. The assassins wore civilian clothes, but their distinctive Israeli-made Galil rifles gave away their affiliation to the Guatemalan military. That state had just executed one of its own citizens in cold blood, and violated Belize’s sovereignty in the process.

The nascent Belizean government registered a token protest with the UN Security Council, and local police travelled to the border village to investigate. Among the constables to come to Arenal that day was a man who understood far more than anyone else.

As soon as he saw Pedro’s face, he knew something truly terrible had just happened. Something that continues to haunt him today. But right then, he kept silent. A silence that would last for 33 years, until one day I began to write about Pedro’s life and death, and this policeman could keep quiet no more.

Kew

My journey to Arenal started five thousand miles away, on the banks of another river bend. The National Archives in Kew, west London, is a brutalist building whose raw concrete shell juts out of the ground and jars with the surrounding suburban serenity.

There are always plenty of people there, leafing through declassified British government files that sleep in the bowels of this bunker-like building. Many come here to relish the second world war, our familiar ‘island story’ of fighting fascism. But there are some more covert operations to uncover at Kew.

Britain has been at war somewhere in the world almost every single year since the fall of Hitler, although most of my compatriots know nearly nothing about many of these conflicts. Our military and diplomatic files remain sealed for thirty years, at which point they are drip-fed to the National Archives.

This ritual ensures that a steady trickle of old diplomatic telegrams arrives at Kew, and one day I came across the name Pedro Barrera in one of them. He was named in a file from April 1983, which was when the British army first met him, three months before he was assassinated. He came to them courtesy of the Guatemalan military. It was a highly unusual arrangement. At that point, Guatemala was run by a ruthless right-wing dictator, General Efraín Ríos Montt. He was engaged in what judges would later rule amounted to a genocide against his country’s indigenous Mayan population. Hundreds of thousands were wiped out.

Former Guatemalan president Efrain Rios Montt testifying during his genocide trial in 2013 | Elena Hermosa, CC2.0

One of the worst atrocities happened shortly before Pedro appeared in the British records. The Kaibiles, Guatemala’s most fearsome military unit, slaughtered over 200 Mayan men, women and children in the village of Dos Erres, not far from the border with Belize. And the Maya were not the only ones under fire.

Like any CIA-puppet ruler, General Montt despised trade unions and left-wingers (winning him the approval of Assistant Secretary of State Abrams). To resist Montt’s onslaught, Guatemala’s political Left banded together into guerrilla groups such as the FAR, which translates simply as the Rebel Armed Forces. In time, the junta became wary that the FAR were crossing over into Belize to seek shelter, and wanted British troops to help stamp them out. There was never any proof of guerrillas in Belize though, until Pedro turned up.

On yellowing, brittle paper tucked away at Kew, Pedro is first described by British diplomats as an unnamed “suspected guerrilla courier” who knew where the guns were hidden. And the Guatemalan military had managed to persuade Pedro (through coercion or other means) to guide Britain to these arms dumps in Belize and shut them down.

British soldiers, fresh from fighting Argentina’s fascist junta in the Falklands, were now being asked to help another Latin American military dictatorship eliminate its own opposition activists, by cutting off their arms supply. And incredibly, at some point on the afternoon of Monday 11 April 1983, the British and Belizean authorities agreed to do it.

Pedro was transferred and taken over to the border town of Benque Viejo del Carmen, one mile inside Belize, to prepare for this mission. His new handlers questioned him until midnight, during which time Pedro described the guerrilla camp as “large”, in place for some six months, with a hundred people possessing Beretta submachine guns. Ten armed guards were said to be on sentry at any one time, and claymore mines secured the outer perimeter.

This was a relatively large guerrilla operation to go undetected in an area controlled by British troops and may have sounded fanciful. But the UK’s High Commissioner in Belize, Francis Trew, said that Pedro’s “intelligence was regarded as firm”. So firm in fact that in the early hours of Tuesday morning a British army helicopter scrambled to conduct aerial reconnaissance of the jungle south of Benque, near the border village of Arenal with its famous football pitch.

London calling

With the helicopter airborne, Britain’s ambassador began urgently cabling London for advice about just how deeply involved his troops could become. The army wanted a ground patrol to follow up on the first aerial observations, but Foreign Office ministers began to fret that this might be a step too far.

The High Commissioner was instructed to ask the troops to “hold”, but the telegram system malfunctioned and crucial messages arrived in the wrong order. An initial authorisation for “limited” reconnaissance was interpreted by British troops as a green light to fly out into the jungle and march around with Pedro looking for the camp.

But Pedro could not find it. After hours of fruitless hunting, the troops reached the conclusion that their “guide was worthless”. By now, the communication system was catching up with missed telegrams and the patrol was radioed back to base.

The escapade had caused some ripples at the highest level of government. The UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) had pushed hard for the second patrol, arguing: “It is fundamental to the way in which we operate that we are able to investigate reports of armed bodies of men operating across the border into Belize.”

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was open to persuasion, but her foreign secretary Geoffrey Howe was more cautious. He assigned his aide, a young staffer called John Holmes, to relay a note of providence to Downing Street. (Holmes is better known today as the head of Britain’s Electoral Commission.)

Former UK diplomat Sir John Holmes has denied Britain was “too close” to Guatemala’s military dictatorship | Chatham House, CC2.0

A ground patrol to root out rebels would exceed the remit of the British garrison, which Holmes said was there to “defend Belize against external attack and not to be used for internal security”. Holmes reasoned that our military should provide helicopters only to airlift local Belizean personnel within a safe distance of any proposed operation. A formal Cabinet meeting then followed, at which ministers again pressed pause on the patrol.

These deliberations had dragged on for the best part of a week. By Friday morning, Britain’s envoy told London that Pedro had now been handed back to Guatemala, after the locally staffed Belize police Special Branch “conducted further interrogation”. Pedro’s whistle-stop week in Belize was over.

In his exit interview, Pedro had seemed to say the Guatemalan army had pressured him into telling the British a story about the guerrilla camp. “In any case,” the envoy concluded, “his story fell apart under rigourous cross questioning.” The Commander of British Forces in Belize, Brigadier Anthony Pollard, chimed in, saying that his intelligence staff had concluded Pedro was “unreliable”.

Ironically, that same day ministers appear to have relented on their earlier opposition and telegrammed Trew to say “we can authorise reconnaissance”. Further ground patrols and aerial observations would then take place, but Pedro would play no part. For he was now back in Guatemala – where exactly, the British authorities no longer cared.

That was until six weeks later, when the brigadier sent another cable. Pedro was dead. Nearly twelve hours earlier, at nine o’clock on a Sunday morning in June, a dozen Guatemalan troops and three civilians had arrived in a pickup truck at the border village in Arenal. The civilians were armed, with their weapons hidden inside sugar sacks.

They went to Pedro’s house, on the Belize side of the border, and tried to drag him into Guatemala. Pedro attempted to escape, “but was caught in a fence and shot at close range… first in the leg and then in the head”. The attackers then swam across the river to escape, bypassing the local ferry, and rejoined their military escort.

The British commander was in no doubt about who had just been killed. “The dead man was the informant who passed info concerning the alleged guerrilla camp,” he noted. Without any remorse, he disclosed that after leaving the British patrol in April, Pedro had spent a month and a half in Guatemalan custody. He had been released around 10pm the night before his murder, and then enjoyed less than twelve hours of liberty before the junta decided to come back and execute him.

A post-mortem was hastily completed in Belize’s largest nearby town, San Ignacio, and Pedro’s body was laid to rest in Arenal. I could find no mention in the archives that anyone from the British army informed Pedro’s friends or family about his military service weeks earlier. And there appeared to have been no reflection among UK forces about whether they should have protected Pedro from the Guatemalan military after he had failed to find the camp.

Instead, Britain’s most senior military officer in Belize was disdainful of Pedro, who he believed “was a double agent” who had fed information to the Guatemalan military. In any event, the bungled handling of a British army double agent appears to have had no negative repercussions for the brigadier, who was later awarded a CBE for his services in Belize.

Finding John

There was an anxious fortnight of silence after I published my investigation on the website Vice before anyone else picked up on it. But when the response came, it was worth waiting for. A man who knew Pedro saw it and decided to give an interview to Belize’s leading newspaper, Amandala. He was not Pedro’s friend or relative, but a retired policeman from Belize’s Special Branch. “What I read there is what I did,” the officer said. “We sent a man to his death.” It was a bombshell confession.

The constable, who wishes to remain anonymous and I will refer to as John, claimed he was an interpreter for the British army ground patrol with Pedro, who spoke only Spanish. He had flown in by helicopter with the soldiers and Pedro to an area south of Arenal and spent hours searching through the jungle, until it fell dark and they had to camp out overnight. Eventually, the British halted the operation, having grown distrustful of their guide.

So far, John merely corroborated what I had found at Kew. But he went on to reveal an awful twist. Pedro began to cry as they left the jungle, begged for refugee status and described the slaughter of indigenous people by the Guatemalan army. The British officers, John claimed, tape-recorded the entire conversation.

Yet still, they decided to hand Pedro back. To make matters worse, the UK personnel played the tape to the Guatemalan troops who came to collect Pedro, which inevitably aggravated them. Perhaps this was why Pedro was later executed in such gruesome fashion.

It would take another two-and-a-half years before I was able to hear John’s side of the story in person, once I had scraped together funds for a flight to Belize. After landing near the country’s Atlantic coastline, an old Greyhound bus catapulted me inland along the western highway, amid dry, unceasing heat. In a land that the British media identifies with Tory grandee Lord Ashcroft, there are a quarter of a million other people trying to eke out a living in this low-regulation tax haven.

There's more to Belize than Michael Ashcroft | Policy Exchange, CC2.0

The country is an extraordinary melting pot of Caribbean culture, Mayan ruins and European colonial facades. When my bus pulled into the capital, Belmopan, it resembled a small rural English town. The tallest building was the three-storey health ministry. John commuted into Belmopan for our long-awaited rendezvous and soon settled in at my rented apartment, which he referred to as my “safe house”. He began to talk about everything, except Pedro.

He had joined the police in the 1970s, when Belize was still a British colony, and went on to join the Special Branch. “It was like being James Bond in the films,” he recalled fondly. John was trained by a Welsh officer, Alan Jenkins, in the tricks of the trade. Disturbingly, one of the most well-worn tricks he learned was to spy on journalists.

“What you’re doing here in those days would have counted as subversive,” he told me unsettlingly. “You’re a freelance journalist and I’ve read a lot of your writings, so you might be a target of MI5 in England. Those are the kind of journalists they watch! Investigative journalists, I know where you’re coming from, Phil!”

Perhaps my safe house was not so safe after all. John continued: “The British always used to tell us to focus on trade unions and journalism. The media is so powerful, if you get all the media against you, you lose. And in the 1970s, we were being asked to recruit media people by the British.” It was a fascinating lesson in colonial media manipulation. “You either turn a journalist as an agent or you send a spy to join the company. It’s the easiest way to gather intelligence, it’s what the CIA do, MI5, MI6. They taught me to do this. We recruited journalists to work for us – they are the best agents.”

"The British always used to tell us to focus on trade unions and journalism. The media is so powerful, if you get all the media against you, you lose."

John’s mentor, Jenkins, also drilled into him the main threats facing Belize. Top of the list was the Guatemalan military, followed by international communism and then local left-wingers. The seventies were a time of turmoil in Central America and the Caribbean. Cuba was asserting itself, supporting the Sandinista insurgency in Nicaragua and the FAR in Guatemala, to name but a few.

This Cuban influence was key, John explained to me in his impromptu political geography lesson. Most people look at a map of Belize and fixate on the long, straight western border with Guatemala. They rarely look out to sea, and notice that one of Belize’s nearest eastern neighbours is Cuba.

For many young people growing up in Belize in the seventies Cuba was seen as a beacon, with its free healthcare and support for anti-colonial movements eclipsing its less admirable approach to domestic dissent. Special Branch began to worry that youthful radicals in Belize would seek to emulate Fidel Castro-style policies. Two young Belizean attorneys, Said Musa and Assad Shoman (incidentally both of Palestinian heritage), were identified as some of the most subversive activists among the new generation.

This revolutionary duo were leading figures in anti-colonial and black power street agitations in Belize, to such an extent that the pre-independence government had to offer them a seat at the top table. By 1979, the Premier George Price had made Musa education minister and Shoman was given the health ministry. However, their British masters disliked what the pair were doing to Price’s moderate People’s United Party (PUP), which they began to infuse with socialism.

A nightmare scenario soon emerged. “Belize was going to become independent in 1981,” John explained. “The British and US were worried that Belize would go communist. They thought if Belize was granted independence with people like Shoman and Musa in power they would create a mess for the US with another Nicaragua or Cuba in Belize.” Even something as innocuous as Shoman inviting the popular Sandinista singer Luis Enrique Mejia Godoy to Belize was enough to frighten the CIA. Soon they wanted to help Special Branch bring down the PUP and promote its more right-wing alternative, the United Democratic Party.

“We were tasked to spy on our own government,” John told me. “That’s what we were doing. Spying against Assad Shoman, spying against Musa, and reporting directly to the British – not reporting to the then Premier.” To cover their tracks, they had to make two sets of reports – the real one, that their British overlords would see, and an edited version for Belizean leader Price, so he would not know his colleagues were under surveillance.

At this stage in his career, John was intensely ideological. “I really thought that we should stop communism,” he said. “I read about Stalin and Lenin, and the way Russia suppressed freedom.” The collective paranoia ramped up around 1979, with the fall of the US-backed dictator Anastasio Somaza in nearby Nicaragua and Maurice Bishop’s revolution in Grenada.

The Americans began making weekly visits and trained Special Branch to use new eavesdropping equipment. John was tasked with recruiting an agent at Belize Telecommunications Limited (BTL), the main exchange, to tap Shoman’s phone. The spooks wanted to monitor the health minister’s conversations with an exiled Spanish socialist, Joan Duran, who had founded the Cubola publishing house in Benque, right up against the Guatemalan border. It seemed that the Americans were most afraid of books and songs.

Together, the colonial Special Branch and the CIA developed a plan. The telephone company would disconnect Shoman’s phone so that John’s agent could go into his house under the pretext of making repairs. He would then switch Shoman’s phone with a duplicate that had a bug installed. The Cubola phone was tapped in 1979, and the next year they tampered with Shoman’s as well.

It reached the point where John was listening to Shoman’s calls with the publisher “every day”, and even moved to San Ignacio to be closer to the politician. Although the CIA was increasingly involved in this surveillance, John was keen to point out that this was happening while Belize was still a UK colony: “The British cannot wash their hands of it.”

Assad Shoman outside his old house in San Ignacio, which was put under surveillance (Credit: Phil Miller)None

Ashcroft

Part of me had expected John to be a reactionary old Branch man, yet there was another side to him that I was learning about. He had spent years listening to what he called the “eloquent” speeches and private conversations of Shoman. Almost by osmosis, he had gained a grudging respect for socialism, especially its emphasis on literacy and healthcare projects. And John’s sympathy for socialism has only grown over the past four decades as he became increasingly disillusioned with life in a capitalist Belize.

“Shoman’s last speech on the eve of independence warned that we were only achieving our political independence. Thirty-seven years later I’m still waiting for my economic independence,” John commented bitterly. “Up to now, Belize is still economically under control of these big countries. To get independence, we had to allow capitalism to move in. Lord Ashcroft has as much money as the whole country. That’s why I have some sympathy with Shoman. If you look at Honduras, Nicaragua, Belize, these are rich countries, but it is the system – capitalism – that means a few elite get richer and the masses get poorer. Belize wasn’t like this in the 1970s, but now it’s getting just like Guatemala or Mexico, you’re either down or you’re up.”

In other words, there is no middle class, which is where a successful Branchman like John could have expected to end up, after his years of loyal service to capitalism and empire. Instead, he resents the foreign influence in his homeland. “The US investors started to take over Belize after independence. You can buy a whole island – like Leonardo DiCaprio [in 2015, the movie star purchased Blackadore Caye, with grand plans to build an eco-resort].”

Although economic data on Belize can be patchy, in the 1990s the country’s Gini coefficient (one measure of income inequality) ranged from 53 to 61, according to the World Bank. Economists regard scores above 50 to be indicative of high inequality. More recent data compiled by the UN shows that Belize is, by some measures, more unequal than Jamaica.

I put it to John that foreign investment, such as the dazzling tourist resorts along the coast, might be good for Belize’s economy, but he pushed back. “It creates jobs but as a waiter, with a meagre salary. When will you be able to own something tangible, or become middle class? Then you have Ashcroft, I mean he’s a billionaire, he used to own the BTL telephone company, and he still owns the Belize bank.”

This shadow war against socialism in Belize did not benefit its protagonists, such as John, but it did create a climate in which foreign businessmen like Ashcroft could flourish. Although Ashcroft did not respond to my request for him to comment on this episode, it is a matter of public record that the Tory grandee had spent some time growing up in pre-independence Belize, where his father was a diplomat. He returned in the 1980s, and a year after Pedro died, he began to buy up the country’s assets, gradually gaining control over the same phone network that had been used to spy on Shoman.

The driver

John’s love-hate relationship with Shoman is key to understanding this shadow war against socialism in Belize. On 8 December 1980, when most of the world was reeling from the murder of John Lennon in New York, there was another assassination. Alvin August, Shoman’s driver, was gunned down in Belize. The killer has never been caught. Or at least that is the official line. But John knows what happened in the shadows.

“What I am about to tell you now is very sensitive,” he said in hushed tones. “We intercepted a suspect who was an informant of the Guatemalan army. We took him to a place called Baldy Beacon.” This was a mountaintop British army base used for live firing, where temperatures could plummet to freezing in winter and clouds close in until visibility was almost zero. “Alan Jenkins [then head of Belize Special Branch] arranged that we would do an interrogation there. At that time you still had the Irish uprising, and Jenkins said we’ll have somebody from the army that is coming from Northern Ireland.”

John continued ominously: “We had the Guatemalan man in prison, and in the middle of the night we blindfolded him, put him in a vehicle, and circled around San Igancio like we were going to the border. Then we put him in a second vehicle, and headed to the mountain. It was a psychological method of interrogation to confuse him, to put him in fear.

“The British taught us to use these psychological methods: blindfolding, moving in vehicles, cocking a pistol like you’re going to shoot them. The man would have felt like he was going through hell.” When they finally reached the mountaintop base, they started to interrogate the man day and night. Five of them took part, from Special Branch, the British army and other intelligence units. “We made him stand up and did not let him sit down,” John recalled gravely.

“A man can break down under a certain amount of time – the British would always say it’s better to use psychological methods. No sleep. Eventually they want to sit down and cooperate.”

Indeed, the man did begin to crack and ask for water. “You haven’t told us anything yet,” the interrogators growled. “Who sent the person to shoot Assad Shoman? Were you part of it?” The inquisitors were relentless, only giving him sips of water in return for information.

“In 36 hours you can break a man,” John told me, clearly speaking from experience. “A man can become trash. You can really be broken down with just deprivation of food, water and being questioned repeatedly while blindfolded. That’s a part of torture that we used, I know it’s torture, I’m convinced.” An eerie silence filled my safe house. The British army was technically banned from using these very techniques at the time, after outcry over abuse of detainees in Ireland.

Finally, the captive confessed that the killing of Alvin August was a ‘hit’ from Guatemalan intelligence designed to warn the socialist Shoman. After this penance, the prisoner was taken to the border blindfolded and handed back to his country. “I don’t know what happened after that,” John shrugged.

I asked why the British had gone to such lengths to punish the Guatemalan gunman, given that they had a shared enemy. “If they had killed Shoman, there would have been a big uprising in Belize, it would have made him a martyr,” John explained. “Belize would have blamed the British for not protecting Shoman, as it was still a colony. Politically it was volatile. Belizeans wanted independence and Shoman was a very popular man, who helped make Belize’s sovereignty recognised by Cuba and Nicaragua. His death would have created more turmoil in Central America.”

Shoman had lived to fight another day, but the spying would continue even after independence. When it came to the handover, the British finally had to tell Price they had bugged some of his Cabinet. Surprisingly, the prime minister of a newly independent country agreed to keep the wire-taps in place. “Price was openly anti-British but secretly he obeyed them,” John said. “He never selected any of his Leftist ministers to head the police department. He always put a right-winger there.” This careful cabinet reshuffle would ensure Shoman and Musa never found out their phones were compromised.

And besides, independence was bitter-sweet. “Britain did not remove the troops overnight,” John noted. The British army remained responsible for the external defence of Belize. The country’s own military, the Belize Defence Force (BDF), had only a hundred people and would initially be led by a British officer.

Jenkins did not leave the country. Instead, John said, the old colonial spy chief became an advisor to the new head of Special Branch, who in practice did nothing without the approval of his old boss: “Anything that happened, Jenkins was the one who decided.” For John, little would change. “I just continued to spy on the socialist ministers here. It started under the British and it continued.”

Vote Yes!

We wound along the western highway from Belmopan to San Ignacio, passing mile after mile of verdant horizon as the sun set slowly, spilling a great golden haze over the landscape. The driver was a man of few words. He preferred to speak Spanish, and seemed Cuban, with a quiet intensity. I had hitched a ride in the back. The other passenger was much more friendly, once he had satisfied himself I was not working for the CIA.

His precautions were justified. After all, I knew they had spied on him before: I was riding with Assad Shoman. We were on our way to a Belize-government sponsored debate about the ICJ referendum. A school basketball court had been requisitioned for the event, which was just one stop on a nationwide tour. Shoman was going head to head at each rally with campaigners who opposed asking the ICJ to adjudicate. The events were capturing the nation’s attention, sparking fierce debates about which way to vote.

Shoman seemed calm as we drove to the venue. He was an expert on this subject, having played a pivotal role in many of its milestones from the mid-seventies until he helped negotiate an agreement with Guatemala in 2008 to one day hold referenda. In some of the final stages of those delicate talks, Shoman was foreign minister, and his old comrade Musa was prime minister. The socialist subversives had eventually taken power in Belize, but it had come at a cost.

Musa in particular had significantly watered down his politics, passing laws that made it easier for foreign businesses to buy up Belize. Shoman resigned himself to focusing on the border dispute, yet the decade between agreeing to hold referenda and now was long and difficult. Shoman had gone into semi-retirement in Cuba, disillusioned by Belize’s limited appetite for socialism.

But now he was back. This charismatic Palestinian with a thick Caribbean accent, who seemed to not tire with age, was taking everything in his stride. Even what I had to tell him did not come as a great surprise, although the level of detail was disconcerting. “I knew all along that I must be being spied on by the British, by the Guatemalans, by the USA,” Shoman said. “But that didn’t stop me from doing anything. You know you are being watched but you are not doing anything illegal.”

“It was the height of the Cold War and the US was deathly afraid of the influence of Cuba on Belize,” he said, confirming John’s assessment. “They were afraid that Belize would become even mildly leftist. I had very good relations with Cuba, but I had to keep it almost underground because at that time in Belize it was anathema.”

Castro’s repression of domestic political opponents made many of his neighbours understandably wary, but Shoman felt there were positive lessons to learn from Cuba that could have benefited Belize if socialist politicians had succeeded. “It would be very different,” Shoman said, reflecting on how Belize could have looked today. “We don’t have universal free education or universal healthcare. More and more over the years these things have been privatised. And of course just after independence the fact the British troops were here tied our hands a lot.

“Our independence has always been limited to a large extent by that,” he sighed. “We needed the British troops here because of the Guatemalan claim. So I’ve always maintained that the Guatemalan claim in and of itself has limited our potential and limited our choices in very real ways.” And that was why Shoman had come back to try to win the referendum, to settle the border dispute once and for all, so that the next generation has a chance at socialism.

Shoman was looking to the future, but he still had time to listen to what I had found out about the past. Not long before he was due at the debate, we pulled up at a series of detached villas on a crest overlooking San Ignacio. He had taken me to see his old house, the one that had been bugged. Our attention then turned to his neighbour’s rusty iron gate. This was where his old driver, Alvin August, was killed. “As he was walking down here... he was shot with a shotgun,” Shoman pointed at the gate and grimaced. “I knew nothing about it until the neighbour started shouting and I found him lying just there, shot in the back.”

Assad Shoman outside the gate where he found the dead body of his driver Alvin August in 1980. Video: Phil Miller.

“I immediately suspected that it had to be the Guatemalans because they had already been saying that I was the main person who was in the way of them getting their way in Belize. I knew that they had their eyes on me.” Eventually, several years later, one of Price’s right-wing ministers who was privy to Special Branch matters let slip some of the story.

The then deputy prime minister, Lindbergh Rogers, told Shoman that a Guatemalan prisoner who wanted a lighter sentence had voluntarily divulged that the slaying was ordered by the Guatemalan military. When I told Shoman this may not be exactly the whole story, he was not surprised. “This is the real world, we are dealing with the British military intelligence”.

Octopus

When I first wrote about Pedro, my article mentioned another operation, codenamed Octopus. This was a Special Branch surveillance mission against FAR cells in Belize, but the National Archives had refused to disclose the file to me. They said it contained: “sensitive personal information of a number of identified individuals assumed still to be living, including unsubstantiated allegations and criminal histories.”

The secrecy was oppressive, but my article had triggered a silent confession. Sitting in Havana, Shoman noticed something out of place: “I saw among my papers a few sheets, maybe eight or ten, legal size paper.” Someone had given him a copy of an Operation Octopus file, which Shoman mockingly called ‘Octopussy’ after the Bond film.

“That paper shows they were cooperating with the Guatemalan military dictators to help suppress the Guatemalan guerrilla movement who they thought had contacts in Belize,” Shoman said sombrely. “They included my name, but suggested that I was more than just a sympathiser – that I was a collaborator with the guerrillas, which of course in a sense I was.

“The guerrilla movement, the FAR, came out publicly supporting Belize’s independence. So if they had won the war there, I think the whole problem would have been resolved. So of course one had sympathy with them and would do anything to help, within the law of course.” When I push him for more details, he laughed. “No I can’t talk about that! I mean it was no big thing. Nothing illegal, no guns or nothing.”

Surprisingly, Shoman’s strategy now has some sympathy with the Special Branch veteran. “He was right. He was perfectly right,” John exclaimed. “If a Guatemalan guerrilla group had won in Guatemala, they would have abandoned the claim to Belize, and that’s why he was supporting the guerrillas in Central America.”

At the time though, John was doing everything he could to stop a guerrilla victory. By coincidence, Operation Octopus had a major breakthrough the same day that Pedro first encountered the British army in April 1983. A man had crossed over from Belize’s northern border where he was caught by Mexican police with a strange letter.

Unlike Pedro, David Magana really was a FAR courier and was relaying a message to the Cuban embassy in Mexico City. The rebels called Magana’s mission Cristina – their codename for FAR cells in Belize. Magana’s letter detailed the structure of these cells, in an attempt to impress the Cubans into giving more support. But in the wrong hands, this letter was a suicide note.

A leaked copy of Operation Octopus, the secret scheme to round-up Guatemalan guerrillas in BelizeNone

The Mexicans interrogated Magana for over a month, during which time he confessed and was handed over to Belize Special Branch. They held Magana in the police training centre in Belmopan, a sprawling complex of shabby concrete bungalows opposite a pizzeria. “We had a room just for him,” John recalls. Under threats of lengthy imprisonment, Mangana began to betray his comrades. “He identified the whole set-up,” John marvelled. The trove of intelligence was so vast that it took Special Branch the next three months to travel around Belize arresting FAR sympathisers.

Many of them were Guatemalan refugees who had settled in Belize under a UNHCR scheme. The prime minister, George Price, was keen to welcome these new arrivals. The UN was paying to rehouse them, and Price saw the refugees as a source of fresh voters who would thank him for giving them sanctuary.

New settlements began to spring up in the sparsely populated country, with evocative names like Valley of Peace. And it was in these new villages that John found the FAR cells were strongest. “They used to collect donations from the immigrants in the form of food. That’s what we found out after we broke up the organisation. Corned beef, a lot of antibiotics from pharmacies, and at that time Belize used to sell shotguns in stores without a licence.”

For the rebels, this supply of food, medicine and small arms was a lifeline – a lifeline that had just been severed. Shoman is saddened by what was done to stop the Guatemalan guerrillas. He told me the FAR and the Maya were facing “extreme repression, massacres, scorched earth policies and killings by the thousands” from Rios Montt’s regime.

“There was a genocide, and now we know the British were co-operating with them. They were complicit in the genocide of the Guatemalan people – the British military and the intelligence services, and so were our Special Branch, sad to say, but they were.” I asked what may have happened if the rebels had been helped. Could they have stopped the genocide? “Of course,” he responded. “Of course.”

It would be a foray into the realm of counterfactuals to say, with any certainty, how much support the rebels would have needed to halt Montt’s well-armed army, and what other consequences may have arisen. Human rights groups estimate that left-wing rebels were responsible for three per cent of killings during Guatemala’s long war, suggesting it would have taken a significant escalation in their firepower to outgun the junta’s forces. But the Belize Special Branch evidently regarded mere medical supplies for the rebels as a dangerous step too far.

When I asked John Holmes, the former diplomat turned UK electoral commission chief, if he would have done anything differently, he rejected criticism of Britain’s attitude towards the rebels. “The events described in your email took place a very long time ago and were only one of many issues I was dealing with at the time,” he insisted, saying his recollection was hazy. “However, I do not believe it would be right or fair to describe the British Government of the day as ‘too close to the Guatemalan junta’. As I recall, the focus was always on Belize’s own welfare and security, which remained a major concern at the time.”

Survivors

Pedro had a wife and two children. This tragic detail lay hidden in an unassuming whitewashed building in the middle of a field, its roof crowned with steel bars waiting expectantly for an extension. This was Belize’s National Library in Belmopan, a humble hub for researchers, and a repository of old newspapers. Some had carried Pedro’s death as front-page news in 1983, while others only mentioned it in passing. One had a grainy picture from Arenal showing where Pedro was shot. But it was the names of the next of kin that struck me the most. “Barrera is survived by his wife and children.” The kids were aged just five and three.

Were they still alive? Local researchers in Belmopan told me there was a chance. One had worked in Arenal as a teacher a year after Pedro was shot. He recognised the family name, and began to sketch a map of where they might now live. He also shared a number of a local youth worker who he said I should call in Arenal. It seemed like a long shot, but I had two days left in Belize to find Pedro’s family.

As I swung the taxi door shut, its entire handle came loose. The windscreen was smashed and a wing mirror was hanging off. My driver smiled enthusiastically, blared salsa music from the radio and began to bomb along a mud track cut through dense jungle. Soon my phone switched on to the Guatemalan mobile network. The drive to Arenal was a rollercoaster ride, and I was relieved to arrive in the village and find my local contact, Aide.

She knew the village intimately, and soon we were ambling around the cemetery, where a dog slept on a raised concrete tomb. As hard as we tried, Pedro’s name was nowhere to be found among the headstones. “Years ago people used to just make a hole in the ground and put the body there,” Aide explained. Concrete was too costly for most families here. This left the makeshift graves vulnerable to flooding, and a few years back the swollen river had washed some remains away. She said Pedro’s body would probably never be found.

We moved away from the sombre site and strolled along Arenal’s pride and joy, the football pitch. “The sheep are in Guatemala,” Aide pointed out as she walked over the halfway line to demonstrate where the border lay. We wandered deeper into Guatemala, past the Mopan river where women and children washed clothes in baskets. High above our heads, men dangled over the river, constructing a simple bridge. But until they had finished, the villagers continued to rely on a small eight-person boat to ferry them across the water, as they had done in Pedro’s time.

Aide was armed with a newspaper clipping, which offered clues about Pedro’s family. We were walking up a small street of houses when she suddenly cried out “Hola” cheerily to several inhabitants – two women who were busy cleaning as their children ran amok amongst them. These were Pedro’s nieces, Aide announced, confirming that his family still lived here after all.

She began to read out in Spanish a translation of my original article, as one of the nieces listened intently. “She was very young and they didn’t tell her many things about what happened, so she wants to know how he was killed,” Aide explained. “She said it’s good that you came here, because they didn’t know about the real story.” It seemed that Pedro’s time with the British had been kept secret even from the family themselves.

We took a photo with the nieces and their children, two generations of Pedro’s family standing on the veranda, and I asked if there were any other relatives in Arenal. “Si, si.” Aide interpreted: “They live on the other side, in Belize. His wife is still there.” With that, we began to head back across the border, up a hill and past some roaming pigs.

Finally, Aide decided to confide in me. “It’s important for me to know this story, because I can understand the sadness and the fear of my mother.” I frowned at her. “She is my mother, my lovely adopted mother.” After Pedro died, his widow had adopted Aide when she was five months old. My guide was in fact Pedro’s step-daughter.

Aide Sanchez, adopted by Pedro Barrera’s widow, standing on the Belize side of Arenal’s football pitch | Phil Miller

The first she had heard about it was when someone shared a link to my article on Facebook. “I was in shock. I knew Pedro Barrera’s name because of my mother, but I didn’t know what had happened.” Her mother rarely spoke about him. “The hurt made her feel afraid to talk about this situation,” Aide reflected. “It was the first time I read in a newspaper that someone, somewhere else, was trying to make justice for what happened.”

I asked her how her mother would react to my news. “I think it will remove some feelings that she has been hiding, or she had way in the bottom of her heart.” As we turned to enter the courtyard, Aide let out: “My heart is beating like crazy now!” Her young children rushed out to greet her and we stepped inside an airy wooden hut, with great gaps in the walls through which light flooded.

Nervously I perched on a stool as Aide introduced me to her mother, a stern-looking lady with a wonderful wizened face. A more relaxed man swung from a hammock, who turned out to be Pedro’s friend. Aide introduced me in Spanish as a periodista, a journalist, who had found some information about what happened to Pedro. There was so much to say.

Betrayed

John flat out refused to talk about Pedro until near the end of our second long rendezvous. He had insisted I understand the context first. The geopolitics and the local dynamics. Only then was I ready to learn truly what happened to Pedro, and appreciate how intimately involved John had been in the affair from start to finish.

It was John, while stationed in Benque, who had gone to the border to collect Pedro from a Guatemalan Kaibil in April 1983. He went there with a British Field Intelligence Non-Commissioned Officer (or “Finco”) from the UK army’s intelligence corps.

The pair consulted with their superiors before taking Pedro into their care. John checked with his head of Special Branch, who would have consulted Jenkins, while the Finco spoke to the British head of military intelligence in Belize. Immediately they were given permission to take Pedro back with them to Benque. At first everyone was friendly, and Pedro was co-operating, but later this dynamic would change drastically.

The Monday afternoon interview took place at an empty two-storey building in Benque, which is now the main police station, plastered with yellow paint. Back then it was a police barracks, with rooms requisitioned by Special Branch to quiz Pedro. He began pointing to locations on a map around Arenal where he claimed the guerrillas were based. “We regarded him initially as an informant of the Guatemalans,” John said. “And we did not pay him a cent. We took pictures of him and the British army audio recorded all the interview onto a tape.”

They carefully sifted the quality of his intelligence. “The British are very meticulous, they don’t rush into anything, especially any operation dealing with guerrillas. They ensured we got every detail on background about Pedro and why he joined the guerrillas. Pedro said he was from a guerrilla stronghold in Guatemala. At that time Rioss Mont was wiping out entire villages. It’s like what Saddam Hussein used to do, leave no one behind, no mother, no grandmother.”

Once the briefing was complete, they traipsed out to Benque’s football stadium early on Tuesday morning, a site the British army regularly used to land helicopters. A small Gazelle aircraft was waiting for them, with its glass dome to aid aerial observations. There was only room for four: the pilot, Pedro, John and a broody British soldier who would lead any subsequent ground operations against the guerrillas.

The flight did not go well. “We circled and circled, and Pedro was roughly pointing to [where he thought the rebel camp was],” John said. “We hovered low and wound around valleys and rivers, taking pictures. It was the scariest mission I went on. The man was confused, and from there we realised. Maybe the man was genuine, but these people aren’t used to doing aerial reconnaissance. He’s an ordinary man, if we were in the bush then maybe he could find it.” By this point, Pedro was probably suffering from severe dehydration. The British army conducted altitude tests on its pilots in 1983, to monitor how they coped with the humidity in Belize. The tests showed even highly trained airmen rapidly lost fluids.

After the Gazelle landed back in Benque, the army pushed for a larger-scale search mission. “It came as a shock that they wanted to take me on the operation,” John recalled. “But I was instructed to go. I don’t think it was the right decision. Although Pedro didn’t speak English, I had no training in the bush, so it felt like I was taken as an expendable item. I really didn’t like it, we were intelligence officers who were not trained to do jungle warfare.”

This time, a larger Puma helicopter was waiting for them at Benque stadium, packed with troops. The Finco told John they were a “special assignment team, people who deal with terrorism in England”. John remembers them as rugged, physically fit, “people that seldom talk, serious people. They had all the weaponry you could think of, and bullet-proof vests. They’d been at war before. It was not an ordinary patrol. I think they were SAS, from the way they behaved.” If they were special forces, then it would explain some of the redactions I had found in the files at Kew whenever the patrol’s provenance was mentioned.

By contrast to the elite soldiers, John was armed with only a small revolver. The helicopter dropped them into the jungle at an opening half a mile from Arenal, and they began to hunt for guerrillas. “He couldn’t find this bloody camp,” John complained. “It was terrible. Eventually we realised he was taking us for fools. We slept the night there and it was one of the scariest nights of my life. They camped and put me with Pedro and I saw them disappear. They made a circle around us with wires, so if any intruder walked in it would trigger.”

“I didn’t sleep the whole night. The guerillas have machine guns, carbines, what the heck am I doing with a .48 revolver? I’m not trained to fight jungle warfare,” John complained bitterly. “I would say I was sent on a suicide mission and I didn’t know if this man was setting us up either. In the morning I asked Pedro to tell us the truth, and warned if he didn’t tell us the truth then we could send him to jail here for telling the army a false story.”

Despite these threats, the man remained quiet. Eventually John and the special forces commander decided to call for a helicopter to extract them. They landed back at Benque, where the Finco picked them up in his car and took them back to police barracks. Pedro’s questioning started all over again. By now, the mood was much more adversarial. “Are you lying and don’t want to give up your colleagues?” John fired at him. Pedro started to cry, saying he did not want to go back to Guatemala because they would kill him for failing to find the camp. “He said the Kaibiles won’t forgive him, they’d think he lied to them. He said if you give me refugee status in Belize I’m willing to tell you the truth.”

John relayed the situation to the head of Special Branch, while the Finco spoke to his superior. He assumes Jenkins was consulted, because it took an hour to get a decision and the protocol back then was to call the advisor. The response was inconclusive. “They said they would consider asylum based on what he says, but we wouldn’t promise anything.” Still, Pedro began to talk. “He said the Guatemalan army had set him up, they’d briefed him to mislead the British army.” To them, it would ‘prove’ that the UK was harbouring Guatemalan guerrillas in Belize if we had refused to take him on a patrol. “It was a funny twist,” John commented. “I don’t know if he was truthful. When I analyse it sometimes I think he had a guerilla camp there and didn’t want to give up his friends, and if he gave us information on the Guatemalan army he thought we would give him refugee status in Belize.”

Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom apologised for the 1982 Dos Erres massacre by government troops | (Credit: Guatemalan Government/Luis Echeverría, creative commons 2.0)

Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom apologised for the 1982 Dos Erres massacre by government troops

(Credit: Guatemalan Government/Luis Echeverría, creative commons 2.0)

John has some sympathy for Pedro’s plight. “A lot of people got killed innocently in Guatemala. They would kill innocent people, just based on what an informant said. They’d abduct you and torture you.” He recalled that at that time in Melchor, the Guatemalan town across from Benque, “you had five or six bodies executed each morning, scattered around the town. And when Rios Montt sent jets to bomb the mountains, it was like an exodus. There were hundreds of people coming continuously into Belize who got UN protection.”

I asked John why Pedro was not eligible. “He would have qualified for asylum at that time,” John conceded. “But it was not in our best interests to keep him in Belize because he came as a Guatemalan army agent. If we gave him asylum Guatemala would say we were granting shelter to guerrillas.”

And so Pedro’s legal right to asylum was sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. In this shadow war of spy games, of agents, double agents and perhaps even triple agents, the priority was not to protect the source, but to prevent blowback. “I think the best option if you look at it from a political standpoint was to hand him over,” John maintained: to keep him would have angered the junta. “But the manner in which we handed over the man aggravated it and put a sentence on his life. That wasn’t in the best humanitarian way, and it wasn’t my decision.”

Finally, John turned to the vexed issue of the tape. “Pedro started to say how the army there was cruel, how they were burning villages and killing children, and all that was recorded,” John confirmed. In the end, it was a joint order from Belize and Britain to tell John and the Finco to hand back Pedro. “They told us to do the handover, to look for a Guatemalan army officer to come to Benque, and convince him there’s no guerilla base here by playing back the recording to rebut their allegation.”

I asked John if the British had really authorised this, or whether it was Belize alone. He repeatedly ruled out the latter scenario. “The British were still in charge of defence until 1993, the British went with me on patrol. The poor BDF did not even have the capability to confront rebels. There was no BDF intelligence officer to interrogate Pedro with me, it was the British Finco.”

With the fateful order now in motion, the same Kaibil came back to Benque to collect Pedro. The desperate man was waiting downstairs in the police barracks, unaware of what was about to unfold. He had been kept inside under close supervision whenever he was not out on patrol, and was effectively in custody. John and the Finco took the Kaibil upstairs and said they had followed Pedro’s information but found it to be baseless. “To prove it, we played the tape,” John said. “Part of the tape, just the part that said the Guatemalan military had set him up. And then we played a little part on the accusations of how they had killed people in Guatemala.”

“We just played three to five minutes, to confirm it to him. The expression on his face was shock. Immediately he asked what we were going to do with him. We said he’s yours, he’s your countryman, you brought him, you take him. Pedro cried like a baby when we handed him over to Guatemala. I was so moved but I couldn’t believe at that time that the army would turn back and kill him. The Kaibil wore civilian clothes and put him in a civilian vehicle. Pedro didn’t resist but he was broken by that time and lost control of himself. He was so afraid of the Kaibil that he just obeyed orders. That was it, they took him and I thought that was the end of that story.”

At this point in the plot, as I relay John’s testimony to Pedro’s widow in Arenal, she is weeping too. We are sat a few feet away from one another, on plastic chairs in this forsaken wooden shack, as Aide begins to comfort her adopted mother. Over 35 years after Pedro’s death, I was telling his widow the full story about the events leading up to her husband’s death and how it could have all been averted. No one from the British military had ever told her, or checked to see if she existed.

Pedro’s friend sat up from the hammock, and began to fit the rest of the story together. When Pedro disappeared in April 1983, he went to look for him in Benque and thought he saw a familiar face inside the police barracks. But the officers there denied holding him, so he went back to Arenal empty-handed. The next time they saw Pedro, he was in a Guatemalan prison. He had managed to send them a letter, and his widow and their son came for a short reunion. But Pedro, presumably under guard, did not mention his time with the British army to her. And in the precious twelve hours he spent back in Arenal before his assassination, he had not had time to tell her either.

The tape

On that fateful Sunday, when the police in Benque went up to Arenal to investigate this sudden murder, John tagged along. “The whole village was up in arms. I went there to see the body, and I recognised his face.” He said nothing to his uniformed colleagues, preferring to save his insight for a Special Branch report. “Our conclusion was that he was killed because he embarrassed the Kaibiles. And that was the end of it, case closed. No debrief.”

By now, John had far more tangible threats to address. Magana was in his custody and had revealed the entire FAR structure in Belize. Five days after Pedro’s death, Special Branch wrote another report outlining the Cristina network, which alarmed the British to such an extent that they began to divert more aid money to better furnish the Special Branch.

Meanwhile, Pedro’s widow was living in fear, terrified that the Kaibilies would come back for her. She burnt photos of Pedro to conceal their relationship, meaning that even today his two biological children do not have a photo of their father. When I came to Arenal, they were away working on a farm, but I have since heard they wanted to know if I had found a photo at Kew.

There were none at the archives, but there is someone else who might be able to help: the British army. After all, John says they photographed Pedro when he arrived in Benque. And then there is the question of what happened to the interview recording. “It was a British army tape,” John insisted. “I don’t recall sending any tape to Special Branch HQ in Belmopan. The British army took the tape. I didn’t have that type of special recorder. You could record for hours, they wired it in an adjacent room so Pedro didn’t know it was being taped.” If the tape still exists, it may be stored in a British army intelligence corps archive somewhere in England, along with the photos. A carbon copy of Pedro’s cries for asylum, a rare record of his voice and photos of his face that his children may never hear or see.

When I returned to England, I went back through the Kew files to see if there was anything else written down that would corroborate what John had said. Finally I found it. At the end of April 1983, less than a fortnight after Pedro was handed back, a meeting took place at the Belize Special Branch HQ. British diplomats and soldiers were also in attendance. The report reviewed the operation, naming the Kaibil who handed over Pedro as Hugo Vicente Hernandez Matzer, who used the cover name Lieutenant Romeo Sierra.

Special Branch said the ground patrol with Pedro lasted some 18 hours, and upon return to Benque Pedro had “confessed that the statement he had made earlier was totally false and made up entirely by GAF [Guatemalan armed forces] officers”. Crucially, the debriefing goes on to confirm that at least some of Pedro’s confession was relayed to the Kaibil: “Lieutenant Sierra when confronted with the retraction totally rejected all allegations of GAF involvement in any scheme to mislead the Belize authorities.”

The report also acknowledged that Pedro was working for the Guatemalan military “under duress” – in other words he was not a willing informant. Further reports say ‘Sierra’ appears to have been the one who ordered Pedro’s assassination weeks later. So the paperwork would strongly suggest that Pedro really was handed over to his killer, with his card clearly marked.

Shoman is adamant Pedro’s death could have been avoided. “We should not have co-operated with the perpetrators of genocide to carry that out against all the laws of humanity.” But it is certainly not the first time that Britain and its allies have been involved in handing someone over to a murderous dictatorship, as I know from my time working at the human rights charity Reprieve.

In recent years the charity’s work on the case of Libyan exile Abdul-Hakim Belhaj and his wife Fatima Boudchar has rocked Whitehall. At the height of the war on terror, British spies shared intelligence about the couple’s whereabouts with the CIA, who abducted them and rendered them to Colonel Gaddafi’s torture chambers – an act for which the UK government issued a belated apology and half a million pounds of compensation in 2018.

Such contrition was only obtained after years of litigation by the couple and sustained support from Reprieve. Whitehall’s reaction to Pedro’s case, when I have raised it as an independent journalist, has been much more muted. The Foreign Office has told me, “We do not comment on the papers of previous governments,” and the Ministry of Defence has never responded to my queries.

Their silence is ominous, given how much the UK military continues to rely on Belize as a training ground. A small British base remains in operation, attached to the country’s international airport, from where troops spill out into the surrounding countryside for live fire exercises.

When the MoD announced vague plans around New Year to build more military bases in the Caribbean after Brexit, it emerged that the department’s “focus is on developing our footprint in Belize”, according to emails disclosed to me through Freedom of Information processes. The Belize base will remain open for the next fourteen years at least, and the army is building a new water treatment plant at the barracks which will cost over half a million pounds.

In January, Royal Marines went to Belize for “Exercise Curry Trail”, a crash course in jungle warfare that saw them “hack away with machetes to cut through the thick vegetation… and finally ‘killing’ an adversary”, according to a press release. On social media, the marines posted a photo of them posing atop a Mayan ruin, with the unashamed hashtag “unitedweconquer”.

Their commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Paul Maynard, said “It is essential that the UK’s commandos can operate with partners and allies in the many close tropical environments in the Indo-Pacific region.” Without any reference to Pedro’s case, he added: “We have a long and distinguished history of operating in the jungle and the advanced soldiering skills required to be effective will be equally important as we look to the future.”

Despite this officer’s confidence, it remains to be seen what appetite the people of Belize will have in the future for an enduring or enhanced British military presence. On 8 May, Belize voted by 55% in favour of going to the ICJ. The court has now given both sides until mid-2021 to submit their legal arguments on the border dispute. There is still a long road ahead, but for now at least it seems as though Belize’s future will be determined by international law and not British soldiers.

Take Action: Demand the British government apologise for their role in the murder of Pedro Barrera

Email Claire Evans, British High Commissioner, Belize:

Pedro Barrera begged the British government for his life. Yet, as this new research shows, he was handed back to the brual Guatemalan government in the midst of their genocide in 1983. He was tortured, then murdered by a death squad. The family wants an apology - and copies of photographs of their relative. Please write to Belize’s High Commissioner, asking her to intervene.

Advice:

Be clear about what you are asking for: an apology from the British government for their involvement in the muder of Pedro Barrera, and any copies of photographs the government may have of Pedro.

Keep it polite - remember this happened in the 1980s, and the woman you are emailing was not personally involved.

Keep it brief - you don’t need to go into details, she can read the story if she wants them.

Refer to any personal experience you have. If you are a British citizen, tell her how it makes you feel that your government was involved.

Draft email:

Dear High Commissioner,

Explosive research published by openDemocracy has revealed British government complicity in quashing resistance to the Mayan genocide in Guatemala in the 1980s. As part of this collaboration, the British government handed their own informant, Pedro Barrera, over to Guatemalan forces.

Hours after being released from Guatemalan custody, a death squad went to his home, and killed him.

I am writing to you to ask you to help secure an official apology from the British government for their complicity in the murder of Pedro Barrera, and that all photos the government may have of Barrera be released to his family.

Yours sincerely,

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