My recent posting on the Bourne Supremacy got me thinking about my own encounters with the espionage community.
Last weekend Miseryguts and I were reminiscing about our visits to the Soviet Union in '84 and '85. We recalled how the KGB agent-provocateurs that sidled up to us with tempting souvenir offers ("meelyatary belts...Russian flegs") were, as they say, straight out of central casting - long brown leather overcoats, high cheekbones and close-cropped hair. This was the first time that I came across the phenomenon that Cold War spies nearly always looked exactly as they were supposed to. Indeed when I first went to Central America in the late 80s I could always spot the CIA men - they were the ones sitting alone at the back of the bar wearing Hawaii shirts and Panama hats. I haven't met any British secret agents but when I do, I expect they will be wearing black tie!
By a curious coincidence when Surfer and I flew into Central America on a TAN SAHSA 737 in 1989 we were unable to sit together and both found ourselves sitting next to CIA agents on opposite sides of the aisle. Mine was quite tame. He described himself as an "Operations Logistics Officer" and spoke quite passionately about his interest in dinosaur fossils. He was on his way to a Honduran military base to install security systems, he told me. Not the license to kill type I concluded. Surfer's was more of a livewire. If anyone remembers Joe Don Baker in the BBC's Edge of Darkness , that's roughly the type. He lectured Surfer on why Daniel Ortega was the "noo Robes-pee-yairr" and confided that his favourite "toon" was the Hallelujah Chorus. Not one to meet the Sandinistas half-way.
On that same flight a family of Cuban stowaways were forced at gunpoint down the aisle and into the rear toilets by US Immigration officers. Once we were airborne one of the Honduran stewardesses started a collection for them in a sick-bag.
The next agency man I encountered on the same trip had actually attached himself to an archaeological dig organised by two Texan Universities. Not quite sure what he was up to there, but interestingly enough my own reason for being in northern Belize at that time was my loose connection to a Cambridge University expedition that was being run by a charismatic Indiana Jones-like figure with el Che's Guerrilla Warfare tucked under his arm - lets call him Ramon. With an everpresent maniacal glint in his eye Ramon was gaily channelling funds donated by his family's extensive network of gullible philanthropist friends towards his own little scheme for stirring up a separatist Maya revolution in Northern Guatemala. (To be centered on that civilisation's final point of resistance to the Spanish, Tayasal on lake Peten Itza) Needless to say I was not the only non-archaeologist attached to this particular archaeological expedition.
Anyway, the CIA agent, whose name I conveniently forget, was seemingly more interested in his own private business activities which involved acquiring land on the cheap in El Salvador - much of the country was then under effective guerilla control and the landowners in these parts were inclined to sell up. Ramon even suggested to me that the guerrillas and the American were in it together.
This is the other truism about Langley's agents in the field - they all seem to be on an exceptionally long leash and are all up to no good in one shape or form. The most disturbing example I know is a man we shall call 'C'. I have to be a bit cautious about what I say about him here, as he is still resident in Antigua as far as I know, and is unquestionably deranged. The strange thing is that your first impression when you meet C, in spite of his uncanny resemblance to Dennis Hopper, is 'harmless old geezer' - one of those occupants of the sixties that never quite broke out and is now holed up south of the border scraping a living making hippy-style costume jewellery.
Now it's a pity I have to be quite so discreet, because the most immediately interesting thing about C in the context of Guatemala is his surname - by extraordinary coincidence his name just happens to be the term that locals use to describe themselves. Yet in fact it is also a name with a great American heritage. A clergyman bearing that name was one of the passengers on the Mayflower and another 19th century ancestor of his famously said "Bigotry dwarfs the soul by shutting out the truth."
Just how much of the truth was being shut out became apparent when C asked V to help him out with his new computer system as a kind of PA-trainer. It seemd that his fortunes had taken a turn for the better when he suddenly and unexpectedly inherited the bulk of the family fortune. Yet after only a couple of weeks in her new job V bolted. She discovered that C had the kind of armoury in his living room that would make even a T800 model Terminator cream in its pants. She also found she had to work with C's "nephew", a much bejewelled young man from Puerto Rico not averse to waving an automatic pistol around. And she found out from la boca del caballo no less, that in his agency days C had been responsible for training Guatemala's deadly secret service unit G-2, to all intents and purposes a death squad. One of their most global media-unfriendly projects was the abduction, rape and torture of Sister Diana Ortiz which occurred at the time I was living in Antigua back in 1989. V also learned quite a lot about C's extra-curricular commercial activities but I think I'll leave those to your imagination.
This December V's brother 'O' told me about another local asset gone bad called Jimmy. Jimmy was a blubbery figure living biblically in a house with six Guatemalan orphans - by biblically I mean rather like a local operative of that other pernicious and seedy global organisation, the Catholic Church. The FBI got wind of this inappropriate conduct and Jimmy was forced to flee back to the States. 'O' recalled that the next they heard of Jimmy was when they saw him on TV in the act of being arrested for first degree murder x 6. His subsequent defence was that the agency promised him that if he whacked those people for them they would forget all about his DIY orphanage.
Perhaps the CIA's most famous alumnus from Guatemala is none other than George Bush (Daddeh Bush). He played his part in the abortive Bay of Pigs invasion by re-badging three ships that were to be used in the landings as the Houston, the Zapata and the Barbara! It was Gabriel Garcia Marquez no less, then working as a journalist in Cuba who helped rumble the American preparations in Guatemala. The Yanks added a magical realist touch of their own by failing to account for the one hour time difference between Guatemala and Cuba which meant that the air cover for the poor buggers on the beaches arrived precisely 60 minutes late. It's amazing that someone in any way connected with a clusterfuck of this magnitude could rise to become the dynastic leader of the free world.