December 10, 2012 — Listening to former Vice President Dick Cheney defend mock executions on the morning news, my mind flashed back to Guatemala, just over 30 years ago.
I am sitting on a terrazzo floor, mostly naked, an interrogation hood covering my head. “OK, this is it. You’re not cooperating,” says the man in the sweat suit. He passes a rifle into my limited field of vision, asking, “Do you know what this can do?”
“Yes,” I reply. Having previously been drafted into the U.S. Army, I know exactly what an M16 could do.
The man chambers a round, and for a moment the rifle disappears from my sight. Then I feel it against my head. “Who are you?” the man demands again.
“James Boldenow,” I reply yet again.
“I am going to kill you unless you tell us who you really are.” Silence. CLICK. Silence. A chuckle. The man says, “OK, now tell us who you really are.”
I was abducted by a right-wing death squad during a trip to Guatemala in September of 1982 while conducting a field visit as the new Central American director of Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC), now called World Renew. Still learning the culture and programs, my language skills were just adequate.
Guatemala that September was in political turmoil. Efraín Rios Montt, a general in the Guatemalan army, had taken power in a military coup five months earlier ousting President Lucas García. At first there was hope that Rios Montt, a confessing Christian, would bring reform, but within months, rumors of atrocities were being reported across the country. Meanwhile, the Reagan administration was pushing Congress to resume military aid to Guatemala, which the Carter administration had stopped in response to human rights violations.
One purpose of my trip was to explore collaborative work with Christian Reformed World Missions (CRWM). This involved traveling in the CRWRC’s Land Cruiser with Moisés Colop, a national staff person, and CRWM’s Jim Dekker to some work sites with the National Presbyterian Church. In one remote area, Jim’s coworker was having trouble with a clutch, so we loaded it into the Land Cruiser to take to the capital for repair.
The trip went well, but along the way we heard some horrible tales of torture and mass graves. Arriving in the capital, Jim suggested that he take the CRWRC vehicle to bring the clutch to be repaired. Moisés and I could use Jim’s car and meet him at his house for dinner that evening.
As the two of us, in Jim’s car, were nearing his house, three vehicles forced us off the road. Two men armed with fully automatic M16 rifles jumped out of a dark Suburban. They opened my door and pulled me out, yelling that they would kill me if I resisted. They covered my head with a smelly sack and threw me into the back of the Suburban onto a mat soaked with blood and vomit. They tied my hands painfully behind my back with wire and held me out of sight while speeding away.
When the Suburban bumped to a stop, the men hauled me out. They took my passport and wallet. Even though my vision was restricted by the sack, I could see the ground in front of me as they prodded me to the edge of a gully with the rifle. A stench came from below, where I could see bodies in what appeared to be a mass grave. I assumed I was at an execution site and that I would soon join those bodies. I heard radio chatter in the background.
Waiting for the bullet, time was suspended. I found myself reciting, “That I, body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ; . . . that without the will of my heavenly Father, not a hair can be blown from my head . . . he assures me of eternal life. . . .” I asked God about my 3-month-old baby, Sam, who would never know me. I heard God assure me that he would take care of my wife and kids. God told me not to be afraid. I visualized a comical picture of the resurrection with my large body rising up with a group of much smaller indigenous Mayan people. I awaited eternity with expectation, wondering what heaven would really be like.
Suddenly the reverie was over—it was almost a letdown. My captors demanded to know if I was Jim Dekker. More radio chatter, more questions. Once again I was thrown into the Suburban and brought to an isolated site for interrogation. During the transfer I flinched as I felt myself falling. Thinking that I was resisting, they butted me across the face with a rifle, breaking several teeth. My captors replaced the wire on my wrists with handcuffs and added leg chains stamped “Made in the USA.” They removed most of my clothing and put over my head a black interrogation hood that restricted my vision.
Then the interrogation began. A man in a sweat suit did most of the physical work while a man wearing a well-tailored suit asked questions. First they attempted to elicit an admission that I was Jim Dekker using an alias. Later they moved on to what I knew about Jim’s activities, as well as my own purposes for being in Guatemala. My interrogators assumed that I was withholding information that needed to be forced out of me, and they employed a variety of strategies.
They threatened to break my arms, legs, and ribs. The man in the sweat suit tapped me with a club in various places to show how it would be done.
They staged three mock executions, including the one I described earlier.
They used sexual humiliation and abuse. An M16 was held to my genitals with the threat to blow them off if I did not talk. I was fondled with the barrel of the M16 and called a homosexual. I was stripped naked except for the hood; my captors discussed and ridiculed my physical attributes and threatened worse consequences if I did not start cooperating.
They applied sensory deprivation. I was kept on the floor of a dimly lit room and left alone for periods of time between sessions.
They withheld food, water, and toilet facilities.
Although I was not subject to waterboarding, my captors demonstrated the equipment as a threat.
Suddenly there was a radical change. The man in the well-tailored suit brought my clothes and told me that some important people were looking for me. He said I should call my embassy as soon as I was free. After bringing me food and water, I was blindfolded, loaded into a vehicle, and dumped into an alley behind a hotel.
I called the embassy.
They asked if I needed medical attention and said that the U.S. ambassador to Guatemala would be at the hotel in 20 minutes. The State Department did a debriefing. They explained that Secretary of State George Shultz had contacted President Rios Montt to release me, as killing a missionary would jeopardize future military aid.
The State Department was surprised I was alive; my release confirmed that the right-wing paramilitary had abducted me. Had they captured Jim Dekker, they said, he would have been assassinated. They explained that the Israeli intelligence agency, doing surveillance work for the Guatemalan government, had picked up Jim’s activities, probably through a phone tap. Jim had been helping people escape from the army and writing articles about the situation in Guatemala under a pen name. My interrogators, the State Department believed, were likely Argentines of German Nazi heritage. They were concerned about the use of Suburbans, military M16s, restraints, and other U.S. equipment in Guatemala.
Because we had traveled together earlier, I knew that Jim Dekker had helped some Presbyterian Church leaders escape oppression. I also knew that throughout Guatemala, people were being displaced and killed. But none of us knew the extent of the genocide that was taking place. And Jim had no idea of the dangers his activities were causing to himself and, inadvertently, to others. Had I been in Jim’s place, I hope I would have acted similarly to the save the lives of fellow Christians.
The U.S. ambassador to Guatemala was the first of many to call my experience a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Only God knows whether Jim Dekker would have been killed if I had not been in his car. But I believe that I was the right person in the right car in the right place at the right time. God used these events to build his kingdom, weaving together my best interests and those of Jim Dekker, Moises, and many others, according to his just and merciful will.
Initially I tried to carry on as if nothing had happened. Over time, though, I experienced the classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. My own sinfulness, and weaknesses including attention deficit disorder and dyslexia, combined with several life-threatening events to result in real brokenness. I experienced frequent flashbacks, reliving the events of my abduction, especially the mock executions and sexual humiliation. I was anxious and easily startled. I tended to avoid situations and people who brought back unwanted memories. Most destructive was my escapist behavior. Within a year I realized that I was drinking too much and had to stop using alcohol altogether.
But God provides peace and grace. The prayer that I uttered when I expected to die was a form of communion with God. Though in mortal terror, I was completely at peace, anticipating eternity.
This ongoing intimacy with God in prayer is a gift I continue to receive. There is grace in knowing that Christ bore not only my guilt but also my sorrow and shame. There is grace when I have unwanted memories of abuse, when I need to read or spell in public, when I am anxious, or when I fall into sinful behavior. God pulled me from the pit of alcohol and other self-destructive behaviors long before they could destroy my career or family. He gave me a supportive and patient wife. On my own I am weak and broken; only God’s grace gives me strength. Of course, this is true for all Christians. My gift is being able to realize it in my life.
Rios Montt’s dictatorship lasted less than 18 months, during which tens of thousands of people were killed. Most of these were indigenous people in the countryside caught between the guerillas and the army. He has been named the worst among the modern Latin American dictators, condoning the indiscriminate murder of men, women, and children by the army and death squads. There is evidence that many women were raped before execution, and children were reportedly thrown into burning homes or tossed in the air and speared with bayonets. Rios Montt’s scorched earth policy left millions homeless and hungry. Now he is under house arrest, awaiting trial for genocide and crimes against humanity.
In December 1982, President Reagan called Rios Montt a man of integrity and said that he was getting a bum rap on civil rights issues in spite of abundant evidence—including some CIA memos that later came out—that atrocities were being committed in Guatemala. It is hard to believe that the president and his administration were unaware.
In January 1983, within hours of the Republican Senate being strengthened by the 1982 elections, a military aid package for Guatemala was passed. A lingering question is how I was abducted using new U.S. resources prior to lifting the ban on military aid.
Creditable evidence, including a 2004 U.S. inspector general’s report, suggests that the CIA was teaching interrogation techniques including waterboarding, sexual abuse, mock execution, and sensory deprivation as early as the 1980s. When, almost 30 years after my abduction, I see newspaper photographs of naked men in chains and interrogation hoods being ridiculed by U.S. personnel, and when I hear a former vice president defend mock executions, I am called to speak out.
As citizens of the kingdom of God, Christians must condemn torture—including the “enhanced interrogation” carried on by the U.S. This includes torture by U.S. contractors, shipping people to other countries where torture is allowed, and torture in secret prisons. As citizens of the U.S. and Canada, blessed with the priceless privilege of speaking freely and voting, we are called to use our influence to stop the practice of any torture.
Many Christians seem to be afraid that the world is collapsing around them. Some of them may agree with Cheney that the war on terror will not be won by turning the other cheek. But the kingdom of God on earth is not built by might or by power, but by the Spirit of God.
Condemning the use of torture does not in any way justify communist or terrorist governments and groups, which need to be restrained. At the same time, restraining evil can never be accomplished by practicing similar evils.
It is not only wrong but shortsighted for a government to condone torture or support corrupt and oppressive regimes. Violating God’s commands, even in the service of boosting security, is never right. By their very nature, such actions will come back to trouble us.