The Boston Phoenix
December 16 - 23, 1999


Borderline behavior

In the '70s, US diplomat Jeffrey Davidow helped cover up the atrocities of Chile's Pinochet regime. Today he consorts with drug traffickers. Is this who we want representing US interests in Mexico?

by Al Giordano

In Madrid, Spain, six time zones away from Chile, General Augusto Pinochet is standing trial for torture under international law. Pinochet came to power in a violent US-backed military coup; his military junta deposed and murdered elected president Salvador Allende in September 1973. But though he was a brutal dictator by any measure, he was only a cog in the wheel of Chilean oppression. US officials funded and protected his barbarity, which, critics of US foreign policy now take for granted, was planned not in his country, but in the United States.

Pinochet, 83, is taking the fall for his Washington sponsors, among them the late president Richard Nixon and former secretary of state Henry Kissinger. In the process, another name has surfaced from the wealth of recently declassified documents released in connection with the trial -- that of Jeffrey Davidow, the current US ambassador to Mexico, who cut his diplomatic teeth as an officer in the US embassy in Chile during the coup.

Exactly how large or direct a role Davidow played in US-Chilean politics in the early '70s is difficult to pin down. Davidow, who refuses to answer questions about his alleged involvement, was posted to the US embassy in Chile from 1971 to 1974 and held the title of political officer. Last week, Josie Shumake, Davidow's press secretary at the US embassy in Mexico, downplayed Davidow's authority during that time, telling the Phoenix that Davidow "was a junior member" of the US embassy during the Chilean coup. But typically -- and judging by the high-profile political activities of Jan Erik Hall, who currently carries the title of political officer at the US embassy in Mexico under Davidow -- the post of political officer in a US embassy is not an inconsequential one.

Declassified memos document Davidow's active support of the US's now discredited pro-Pinochet policies, a position Davidow has never publicly addressed. The Mexican press is poring over the Pinochet-trial evidence looking for links between Davidow and specific events of the Chilean coup -- just as the ambassador comes under fire, from critics on both sides of the border, for diplomatic behavior reminiscent of the high-handed tactics employed by the US embassy in Chile 25 years ago.

In 1973, in the aftermath of the Chilean coup, a US citizen and journalist named Charles Horman was assassinated by the Pinochet military. The incident returned to the international spotlight in 1982, when the Horman murder was dramatized in director Constantin Costa-Gavras's film Missing, starring Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek. The Oscar-nominated screenplay recounted the frustrated efforts of the Horman family to locate Charles Horman in the face of US embassy officials' indifference. The martyred journalist's widow, Joyce Horman, and the Center for Constitutional Rights are currently preparing to re-open their lawsuit against the US government and then-secretary of state Henry Kissinger for the wrongful death of Horman.

The global conscience was pricked again this past October 8, when a US State Department memo, reported by London's Independent, revealed that US officials may have played "an unfortunate part" in the murder of Horman by members of Pinochet's military regime. According to the 1976 memorandum, which was addressed to Harry Shlaudeman, then the chief of inter-American relations, and kept secret for 23 years:

In the best of cases, US Intelligence may have been involved in providing or confirming information that helped motivate [Horman's] murder by the government of Chile. At worst, US intelligence was aware the government of Chile saw Horman in a rather serious light and US officials did nothing to discourage the logical outcome of the government of Chile's paranoia.

Further, the memo spelled out that the US government's role in the Horman assassination was "negligent -- or worse -- complicit."

The newly released public document does not mention Davidow, but the Mexico City-based magazine Milenio has laid some of the blame for the Horman cover-up at Davidow's door. According to Milenio, at least 18 of the 5000 documents from the CIA and other agencies that were declassified on June 30 refer to Davidow's direct role in protecting the right-wing military coup -- a role that included advising investigators on the US government's official position on the Horman disappearance.

According to the widening public record of this shameful chapter in US foreign relations, Davidow was certainly aware of the Pinochet regime's massive violations of human rights. In a memorandum dated May 22, 1974, Davidow acknowledged the existence of "many thousands of detainees who have not been brought to trial," eight months after the coup d'état. Chilean security forces, according to Davidow's memo, "often arrest individuals, interrogate them, keep them in custody, and, as much as two weeks later, issue the warrant for arrest based on information they have extracted during the interrogation."

The word "interrogation" here is a euphemism for electric shocks, savage beatings, sexual violations, and mutilations -- the tortures for which General Pinochet now stands trial. Davidow, according to the newly opened files, was instrumental in relaying the State Department's hands-off approach toward these atrocities when they occurred, parroting what was then the US's standard policy of ignoring human-rights issues among its Latin American allies.

"The US Government of course recognizes the internal security problems confronting Chile," Davidow told the leaders of the military regime, as documented in his own "talking paper" for a 1974 meeting with the generals.

He went on to acknowledge the concern of some US congressmen about "the human-rights questions . . . and the adverse effect upon the American public." Yet Davidow clearly instructed the Pinochet regime not to worry too much about the US Congress: "It is not the desire of the US Government to tie the question of human rights to that of assistance," he wrote.

And on March 3, 1974, Davidow wrote another memo -- presumably again to the military government -- suggesting there was "a conspiracy on the part of the enemies of Chile to paint the Junta in the worst possible terms."

Ambassador Davidow declined to be interviewed by the Phoenix about his role in Chile and his behavior as ambassador to Mexico, requesting that questions pertaining to the issues addressed in this article be submitted in writing. The ambassador received 31 detailed written questions. He responded by fax and declined to answer, citing "inaccuracies, falsehoods, and apparent biases in the questions," and criticizing assumptions taken "from other biased or poorly researched press accounts."

Davidow remains the highest-ranking official involved in the Chilean coup who continues to make US policy abroad.

Under siege
Today in Mexico City,
students march against the embassy

MEXICO CITY, DECEMBER 16 - Thousands of striking students from the National Autonomous University of Mexico will converge this afternoon on the US embassy, site of a violent confrontation last Friday. The 270,000 students of the nation's largest university have been striking on campus since April, demanding cancellation of a federal plan to charge tuition for the first time. The strikers, who have strongly allied themselves with the revolt of the indigenous Zapatista rebels in Chiapas, have six demands in total, including the democratization of the campus and an end to government espionage against students and professors. US and World Bank meddling in the Mexican higher-education system has been a bone of contention throughout the strike, which is now in its 192nd day and has caused the university president to resign.

Last Saturday, when 500 students marched on the US embassy, officials threatened to call in the Marines and opened a lawsuit against the students for $650,000 (US) in damages (14 embassy windows were broken by flying debris).

Press flaks for Davidow's embassy later denied making the military threat and this week said that they never intended to sue the students. This one-two punch of knee-jerk overreaction followed by denial is increasingly the modus operandi within Davidow's bunker. Mexico City officials, however, insist that the threat to "send in the Marines" was made. And 73 university students remain in prison, charged with vandalism against the embassy and with orchestrating a riot, a charge that can bring seven years in jail. As a result, the fragile peace talks between striking students and university officials have been suspended and it appears that Christmas will herald the 200th day of the strike. Once again, the US embassy has alienated a key element of Mexican society -- in this case, university youth -- and worsened US-Mexican relations.

The US ambassador to Mexico is one of the nation's most important diplomats, as former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld learned when his 1997 nomination to that post was squashed in Congress. As Jeffrey Davidow himself is quoted as saying on the US embassy's Web site, "There is simply no country in the world which impacts the daily lives of Americans to a greater extent than Mexico, nor any country which impacts the daily lives of Mexicans more than the US."

Yet in Mexico today, Davidow's critics accuse him of supporting human-rights violations and electoral fraud, of enjoying cozy relations with notorious drug traffickers, and of manipulating partisan politics within the Mexican system. There are 350,000 Americans now living or traveling in Mexico, many of whom feel unprotected or, worse, endangered by current embassy policies.

For many Mexicans and Americans living in Mexico, what happened in Chile in 1973 -- thousands of disappearances, assassinations, tortures, and atrocities -- is a frightening preview of what has begun to happen in Mexico today. It is as though the real-life movie -- a story of terror, corruption, and official impunity -- were scripted by the same sick author. And what happens in Mexico today, as Davidow acknowledges, profoundly affects what will occur in the United States tomorrow.

More disturbing still is Davidow's current role in what can be described as the Pinochet-ization of US Mexican policy.

Six examples of Davidow's behavior since becoming ambassador in July 1998 reveal how he has worked against both the interests of the American people and the good relations of the US government with Mexican civil society. He has slowed, not eased, Mexico's path to democracy. And future relations between the two nations and peoples have already been harmed by his behavior.

* Davidow has refused to acknowledge the existence of violent paramilitary organizations in the war-torn state of Chiapas.

In December 1997, 45 unarmed Tzotzil parishioners were killed in a Catholic church in the rural highlands of the Mexican state of Chiapas. Every human-rights organization, Mexican and international, that has investigated the Acteal massacre has concluded that the bloodbath was the work of government-backed paramilitary groups. Members of the Mexican armed forces and police agencies who protected the assassins for seven hours -- while the innocents were brutally tortured and killed -- have since been imprisoned as accomplices in the killings.

Shortly after Jeffrey Davidow took the helm of the US embassy in Mexico, seven months after the massacre, the paramilitary groups had grown so out of control that they kidnapped two US "military advisers" who were snooping around Chiapas and held them for eight hours, mistaking them for human-rights observers. The embassy and the Mexican government intervened to gain the advisers' release. But afterward, Davidow insisted to the press corps that "we don't know of any paramilitary groups" in Chiapas -- a statement that, if nothing else, undercuts the credibility of his office.

* Davidow has defended the reputation of Carlos Hank Gonzalez, a Mexican businessman and politician whom US law enforcers and the Federal Reserve Bank have called a drug trafficker, a money launderer, and "a threat to the security of the United States."

Carlos Hank Gonzalez, professor-turned-politician-turned-billionaire, famous for the phrase "a politician who is poor is a poor politician," is one of the most powerful members of Mexico's ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. In power for 70 of Hank's 72 years, the PRI is the longest-standing ruling party on earth. Hank recently caused a major scandal in Costa Rica when federal legislators there discovered that their nation's president maintains a close friendship with him and helped him establish a beachhead in Costa Rica for his business interests. Among them, according to the Costa Rican congressmen: the trafficking of massive volumes of cocaine toward the US.

When the Washington Post reported on June 2 that Hank and his two sons are under investigation by a joint task force of the FBI, the DEA, the CIA, the US Treasury Department, and Interpol for drug trafficking and money laundering, Davidow called the report "an old act of theater" by US press organizations with the motive of soiling bipartisan relations.

"Ambassador Davidow defends from head to toe the almost retired professor," wrote former Mexican anti-drug prosecutor Eduardo Valle in his June 27 column for El Universal, a leading national Mexico City daily. "This is normal and understandable. In the 1997 meeting when [Hank and his business group] were received by the now-president of Costa Rica, Miguel Angel Rodriguez, a US citizen was present. Is there a need to give his name? Well, his name is Jeffrey Davidow."

Or, as the Geopolitical Drug Observatory of the European Union noted in its November 1998 report:

Carlos Hank Gonzalez is untouchable and probably will remain being so in the United States as well as Mexico, at least until the 2000 elections. So much more so because his company is stockholder of a business that employs ex-US Ambassador James Jones . . . and because according to the ex-president of Costa Rica, Rafael Caldera, the successor to Jones in Mexico, Jeffrey Davidow, was also an invited guest at the Mexican palace of the unavoidable professor.

* Davidow plays partisan politics on behalf of Mexico's ruling party -- which includes covering up electoral fraud, thus further alienating US interests from pro-democracy movements in Mexico.

After the elections in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero (home to the tourist centers of Acapulco, Zihuatanejo, and Taxco) on February 7, 1999, PRI officials directly robbed tens of thousands of votes to give their gubernatorial candidate a "victory" of less than one percent. The fraud has been thoroughly documented by opposition and non-governmental organizations. But the Mexican government sought to discredit the peaceful citizen movement against electoral fraud in the state, and PRI officials charged that the pro-democracy movement had been infiltrated by violent "guerrilla" organizations. Davidow, true to form, then authorized a US State Department "travelers' advisory," warning US citizens not to vacation near Acapulco because of this alleged threat of armed guerrilla activity. The violence never materialized. The citizen activists in Acapulco and its environs proved to be well organized, mature, and nonviolent in their efforts to reclaim their stolen democracy.

Acapulco, punished economically by Davidow's unfounded travelers' advisory, returned the favor this month. On October 3, a left-wing coalition won the municipal elections in Acapulco by a landslide, despite additional attempts at fraud by the ruling party. The new mayor, Zeferino Torreblanca, known for his activism on behalf of human rights, is unlikely to castigate US tourists for the dark role their ambassador played against democracy in his region. At a time when the ruling PRI's hold on power is crumbling, many observers scratch their heads at Washington's and Davidow's apparent policy of coddling the aged regime. The defeat of Davidow's favored PRI in Acapulco presages a US policy fracas on a national scale in Mexico.

* Davidow has abandoned and betrayed US citizens, journalists, and human-rights observers who have been deported from Mexico for their presence in the war zone of Chiapas.

Mexican officials have expelled more than 400 foreign observers and journalists from the country since 1994. The presence of foreigners in the conflict zone of the indigenous Zapatista rebellion has proven inconvenient to the "low-intensity warfare" strategy (as Pentagon manuals label it) of the US-backed Mexican government. For example: would the 1997 Acteal massacre have happened if there had been an American or foreign observer or journalist present? The ruling party's pretext for expelling so many foreigners has been Article 33 of the Mexican constitution, which forbids foreigners from running for public office or meddling in Mexican political affairs. (Mexican federal judges have begun to reverse the expulsions as an illegal use of Article 33.)

In many cases, US citizens in Chiapas have been detained illegally by police or military officials, and some of them have been kidnapped by the paramilitary groups that Davidow claims don't exist. Whereas European ambassadors -- from Italy, Norway, the European Union -- have worked to protect their citizens from this kind of harassment and violation of their human rights, Davidow has ceded the matter of expulsions to the Mexican government.

* Davidow's embassy has tolerated illegal espionage activities against Mexican and American citizens in Mexico.

The mansion at 56 Cima Street in Mexico City was seized from top drug trafficker Amado Carrillo Fuentes -- the Lord of the Skies -- years ago. According to a February 19, 1999, report in El Universal, the palace is now a US Drug Enforcement Administration spy center. The Mexico City daily contends that the mansion is home to a sophisticated computer system that listens to private telephone conversations of government officials, political parties, opposition leaders, journalists, and US citizens in Mexico who are not charged with or suspected of any crime. According to El Universal, the US government selectively shares this illegally obtained political information with Mexico's ruling party. Thus, the Mexican government overlooks the fact that the espionage center is against the laws of both nations, which forbid wiretaps without signed judicial warrants.

According to the national Mexican daily, luxury cars with US embassy plates enter the compound twice a week to collect the illegally gathered information. Neighbors of the mansion have taken note.

A DEA official last month testified before a congressional committee in Washington that the newspaper report forced intelligence agencies to relocate their operations. Nobody in the embassy or the State Department, however, has questioned the illegal nature of the espionage itself. At best, Ambassador Davidow has turned a blind eye to his embassy staff's involvement in illegal espionage.

* As ambassador, Davidow is responsible for all presidential visits to Mexico. In that capacity, his office orchestrated the siting of last February's presidential "anti-drug" summit near Mérida, Yucatán, on the property of a publicly accused drug trafficker and money launderer, BANAMEX president Roberto Hernández Ramírez.

Why did President Bill Clinton agree to hold his anti-drug meeting at the hacienda of an alleged cocaine trafficker? The White House has never discussed the matter, and the mainstream press has never pressed the question. Clearly, part of the motive of Mexico and the US was to "wash" the image of Hernández, the subject of a two-year journalistic investigation by the Mérida daily Por Esto! that charged that the narco-banker's properties on the Caribbean coast are a key entry point for tons of Colombian cocaine on their way to the US (see "Clinton's Mexican Narco-Pals," News and Features, May 14).

The gamble, like so many of Davidow's projects here, has already gone awry. Last month, a Mexican federal judge threw BANAMEX's libel case against the newspaper out of court, stating that Por Esto!'s journalists had indeed proven the existence of tons of cocaine on Hernández properties. And the Federal Reserve Bank has now invoked what are known as "death penalty" charges against BANAMEX for laundering drug money; the Hernández bank could lose its license to practice in the US for its involvement in the drug trade.

In his attacks on the free press, in his support of illegal wiretaps, in his counter-insurgency efforts on behalf of electoral fraud and the ruling party in Mexico, Jeffrey Davidow behaves as though he were still working for Nixon and Kissinger rather than Clinton and Madeleine Albright. His presence in the US embassy in Mexico City sheds light on the fact that, despite the hype, not much has changed in US policy toward Latin America since the Pinochet years.

Now comes the international trial of General Pinochet, the former Chilean dictator. The Pinochet case is, potentially, a two-edged sword, setting precedent for wealthier governments to prosecute Third World dictators while allowing the material authors of their crimes in Washington and other capitals to escape responsibility. Yet the Spanish-driven prosecution has had a positive effect, so far, in forcing the release of thousands of documents that finally prove what critics of US foreign policy have said for years about Washington's clandestine and illegal diplomacy.

President Bill Clinton, more cynical at the end of his presidential tenure than at the start, would surprise many if he fired Jeffrey Davidow from the State Department. But if he allows Davidow to continue his Mexican dirty work, he places in danger the future of US-Mexican relations, and, indeed, US standing in all of Latin America. He also places at risk his own legacy in the rapidly changing history of human rights in this hemisphere. The time has come to say adios to Davidow and to everything he represents, which apparently does not include the American people abroad or the US Constitution at home. If we don't, the next Pinochet-style tragedy lurks around the corner; in fact, right next door.

Former Boston Phoenix political reporter Al Giordano writes from Latin America, where he has investigated human rights and the drug war since 1997. He receives e-mail at

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