by David Gonzalez, New York Times
MIAMI - The alert from Amnesty International flashed across the Internet,
warning that an American human rights worker monitoring Guatemala was facing
threats to her life.
Calling for "urgent action," the bulletin of April 25 said that Barbara
Bocek, who had reported for the international watchdog organization since
1997, had been left bound, gagged and blindfolded in her car by two men
said she would die if she returned to the Central American country.
The Amnesty appeal set off an unusual alarm because it said Ms. Bocek
attacked not in Guatemala, but near her home in Washington State. At a time
when human rights workers are under increasing attack in Guatemala, one
the most respected international human rights organizations was alleging
that thugs linked to a deadly network of former military officials there
were operating on American soil.
But police officers in Washington who investigated said the evidence
not support Ms. Bocek's account. They are not pursuing the case.
"I think it was staged," said Detective Randy Pieper of the Clallam
County Sheriff's Office Major Crimes Unit. "I'm positive."
The doubts American law enforcement officers raised about Ms. Bocek's
claims represent an important challenge for Amnesty. The group, founded
1961, bases its reputation on dispassionate investigation of rights
violations around the world. Governments whose abuses are exposed by Amnesty
and other rights monitors frequently seek to defend themselves by accusing
the groups of political bias and inaccurate reporting.
In Guatemala, during a three-decade civil war in which 200,000 people
were killed, Amnesty doggedly defended rights workers and rallied its
members to demand justice from the government, especially for mass killings
of civilians by the rightist military. Ms. Bocek's work included reporting
on a resurgence of violence in recent years, after peace accords in
Officials at Amnesty International U.S.A., the American branch of the
organization that put out the alert, said this weekend that they had no
reason to doubt Ms. Bocek's credibility or her account. The officials said
they stood by their warning about the perils she was facing, but were
continuing to investigate her case.
"Amnesty International takes every report on alleged human rights abuses
extremely seriously," said Charles Brown, a deputy executive director at
Amnesty U.S.A. "When one of our own people receives threats, we are going
take that particularly seriously."
Mr. Brown said the alert about Ms. Bocek was based largely on her
description of threats. Amnesty officials acknowledged that they had not
spoken with the police in Washington and were unaware that the police had
In nearly three hours of telephone interviews in recent days, Ms. Bocek
also stood by her account.
"No, I am not making this up," she said calmly. She has left her home
was speaking from an undisclosed location, citing security concerns. "Why
would anybody make it up? I am not looking for publicity."
Ms. Bocek has told American local and federal law enforcement authorities
of some 15 threats she said she had received in the United States since
last year. Last month, Amnesty highlighted her work at their annual meeting
in Seattle, praising her dedication.
An official at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which has been
involved in Ms. Bocek's case since last May, said the case was active and
would not comment on it.
Ms. Bocek, 48, said she had a doctorate in anthropology from Stanford
moved to Guatemala in 1992 to work with the Peace Corps and later other
social projects in Mayan villages. She became a volunteer country specialist
for Amnesty in 1997 after she moved, for family reasons, to Washington
state, where she works with a local Indian tribe. Amnesty has about 100
unpaid specialists who monitor human rights part time around the world.
A chronology compiled by Amnesty shows that the reported threats against
Ms. Bocek began in May of last year, about a week after she wrote an opinion
piece for the Baltimore Sun, focusing on the trial of Guatemalan military
officers for the murder of a Roman Catholic bishop, Juan Gerardi, who was
leading human rights advocate.
On June 11, Ms. Bocek said, gunmen tried to abduct her from the Camino
Real hotel in Guatemala City. After that, she reported receiving calls and
finding threatening notes and a strange knife in her Washington home.
Nonetheless, she agreed on March 7 to return to Guatemala to give a
statement to prosecutors about the attempted abduction.
Three days later, Ms. Bocek said, she was driving home from her office
just after 7 p.m. when she pulled over to check out a noise from the right
front wheel of her car. She said that while she crouched on the gravel and
moss along the narrow shoulder, a car with its lights off pulled up.
"The first thing they said was `If you go to Guatemala you will not
return,' " she said, adding that the two men spoke Spanish with the accents
of Guatemalan natives.
"I would have said anything to keep them from hurting me," she said.
they stuffed a gag in my mouth. They didn't give me time to say anything.
When they did that, I felt one of my teeth break."
She said she did not look at the men, out of fear. They pushed her to
ground, tied her hands with wire behind her and then tied them to her feet,
which were taped together. They left her bound in the car.
"The last thing they said was, `When and if you get loose, we'll be a
long way away,' " she said.
Deputy Brian King of the Clallam County Sheriff's Department said he
across Ms. Bocek's car around midnight, and broke the driver's window to
open the door and free her. But, he said, she did not appear to be tied
tightly, and her gag was neatly covered with strips of electrical tape.
"If you saw the way her feet were done, it was basically one or two
passes of electrical tape which you could pull apart if you were there for
four hours," Deputy King said.
Ms. Bocek was taken to a hospital, where she was examined by doctors
interviewed by one of Deputy King's colleagues. She declined to stay at
women's shelter and went home, Deputy King said.
Investigators who examined the scene said they could not find any marks
on the grass or gravel to show more than one person walking around Ms.
Bocek's vehicle. They said the only other tire tracks they found appeared
indicate that Ms. Bocek had backed up her own vehicle 100 feet.
"Unless they can levitate, we can't find anything consistent with that
many people milling around," Detective Pieper said.
Deputy King added that Ms. Bocek's recollection of the sequence of events
quickly grew vague.
"It is like she has no desire to help us find the bad guys," he said,
even give us a hint or a clue. She did everything in her power not to be
able to identify these people."
Ms. Bocek said no one from the sheriff's office informed her of their
questions. "If he had all these doubts about me, why didn't he just ask
Ms. Bocek said. "All I can do is say what happened. I can't force anybody
A summary of a psychological evaluation of Ms. Bocek done late last year
by Judy Okawa, a clinical psychologist in Falls Church, Va., who directs
program for torture survivors, concluded that she had authentic symptoms
trauma. The summary, provided by Amnesty officials, said her account of
threats she received seemed credible.
Reports of Ms. Bocek's attempted abduction in Guatemala last year
generated outrage among human rights advocates. Ms. Bocek told authorities
there that two men took her at gunpoint from her hotel room and bound her
with medical tape in a stairway, leaving her with the promise to return.
Francisco Soberón, a member of the Amnesty delegation staying
the hotel, said he discovered Ms. Bocek bound and groggy in the
"I am convinced and can reaffirm to anyone what I saw," he said in a
telephone interview from Peru.
Manuel Ríos, the resident manager of the Camino Real Hotel,
recalled the incident but declined to provide details. But he did say,
"Everything points to her having done a self-kidnapping."
Ms. Bocek said she remains willing to cooperate with authorities in
Guatemala but will not travel there. She said her experiences gave her a
appreciation of the dangers faced by rights workers in the country.
"Now that it has happened to me," she said, "I know what they are going
through all the more."