Jorge A. Zimeri-Stafie, the Guatemalan gun inventor and textile manufacturer who some say also is a dangerous international terrorist, said yesterday he was told three years ago by a Guatemalan police detective that there was a government "order to eliminate me."
The warning surprised him, he said. But a month later, according to his account, 15 gunmen ambushed him as he drove home from work. Now, with scars from bullet wounds dotting his shoulders, arms and back, and three bullets still lodged in his left shoulder, Zimeri said he is convinced of the Guatemalan government's intention to kill him.
If he is forced to return to his central American homeland, Zimeri said, "I wouldn't live for five seconds." Then he added, "they would torture me first."
Not long after the short, stocky Zimeri talked for more than an hour yesterday afternoon in an interview with The Washington Post in the U.S. courthouse here about the intrigue surrounding him, the U.S. Justice Department served him with a warrant for his arrest and extradition to Guatemala for the murder of a Guatemalan navy lieutenant in 1976, a charge Zimeri said is preposterous.
Zimeri had been scheduled to be released today after serving a year of an 18-month sentence for illegally possessing a handgun as an allen in the U.S. But the Guatemalan government asked the State Department to hold Zimeri for extradition proceddings, a request State turned over to Justice.
Under terms of a treaty between the U.S. and Guatemala, Zimeri can be held for up to 40 days while the Guatemalan government files the necessary papers justifying his extradition.
Zimeri's Miami attorney, Edward R. Shohat, said he would try to get Zimeri released on bond today. But a Justice Department attorney in Washington, Murray Stein, said Justice routinely opposes bail release of foreign nationals if another government is seeking their extradition in criminal cases.
Zimeri was spirited out of Washington to Miami on Monday afternoon to testify before a grand jury that is investigating organized crime and racketeering here. But Zimeri never appeared before the grand jury yesterday after Shohat, his attorney, told federal prosecutors that Zimeri would invoke his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination and refuse to answer questions put to him by the grand jury.
Shohat said theat prosecutors then decided not to call Zimeri before the grand jury. Shohat declined to say what exactly prosecutors wanted to ask Zimeri.
Zimeri's attorneys are trying to win political asylum in the U.S. for the 34-year-old Guatemalan. But various government officials say they are not sure at this point exactly what will happen with Zimeri.
According to sources familiar with the case, Zimeri has implicated, in conversations with U.S. investigators, one high official in the current military government of Gen. Romero LucasGarcia and two officials in a previous Guatemalan government in connection with the 1968 assassination of John Gordon Mein, then the U.S. ambassador to Guatemala.
"I came across a lot of information" about the killing of Mein and others, Zimeri said in the interview yesterday. Shohat declined to let his client divulge the information.
Zimeri's name repeatedly has been ilnked by international human rights groups to the activities of infamous paramilitary "death squads" in Guatemala. His friends and enemies have suggested that he may have been involved with the mafia, arms trafficking (he is the inventor of a recoiless machine pistol), and terrorism, and may be a"hit man" himself.
Zimeri repeatedly denied that he has ever killed anyone or conspired with anyone to do so. He pictured himself as a wealthy Guatemalan businessman and arms inventor who ran afoul of the Guatemalan government when he started to support political candidates who were opposed to the government in power at that time in Guatemala.
Zimeri said he has spent about half of his life in the U.S. and received a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering in the U.S. He said his family has lived at various times in New York and Mississippi, where they operated textile manufacturing plants.
Zimeri said that his family runs one of the largest textile mills in Guatemala and that as recently as 1970 he was worth between $1.5 million and $2 million. He said he was the general manager of a Guatemalan factory the produced hosiery, pantyhose and socks.
Zimeri said that in 1966 the national police raided his family's million dollar house and "accused me of being a left-wing guerrilla." He said the police broke his nose, knifed his armpits and broke two of his teeth while ordering him to sign a confession that he was a guerrilla.
Zimeri said he refused and eventually was released.
The Zimeri family was extensively involved with Guatemalan politics at least since 1969 when, according to Zimeri, they contributed $250,000 to the campaign of President Carlos Arana-Osorio. Subsequently they supported Guatemalan senator Bernal Hernandex who held hearings to investigate the corruption of the Kjell Laugerud Garcia regime, which followed Arana's administration.
Zimeri said he was Hernandez' chief supporter and that it was in mid-1975, during the hearings, that he was warned Guatemalan government agents had been instructed to kill him. In December of that year, according to Zimeri, Hernandez himself was assassinated in broad daylight on the streets of Guatemala City.
Zimeri said that as he was driving home after work on night in August 1975 gunshots suddenly were fired at his white Toyota. "Those 15 seconds were like 15 minutes," he said. "Then I remember being jolted from the right side to the left side. I could smell the (gun) powder. I couldn't feel my arms . . . I put the car in second gear and took off."
Zimeri said that he spent a few days recuperating at his father's home, had two operations, and then escaped by helicopter to Mexico. He said he eventually traveled to E1 Salvador, the Nicaragua and then flew to Miami.
He had spent several months at his father's expensive Ft. Lauderdale home, where he drove a Lincoln Continental and kept a speedboat in a nearby canal, when he learned that the Guatemalan National Police had charged time with trying to overthrow the government, in addition to the Naval lieutenant's murder.
"This is 10 months after they tried to kill me," Zimeri said. "I'm to blame for everyting except the 1976 earthquake."
Eventually he moved into a modest motel room about a mile from his house because he feared for his life, according to people who knew him there, and it was at the motel that he was arrested for buying two handguns without properly identifying himself.
Guatemala's ambassador to the U.S., Jorge Lamport, said last night that "yes, indeed," Guatemala wanted Zimeri back "because there is a court order against him."
Asked if he thought Zimeri's life would be in danger if returned to his home country, Lamport said "I really couldn't give you an opinion on that except that Guatemala is a law-abiding country. People go to jail or don't go to jail according to what the courts of justice dictate."