Our Man in Honduras

When a country finds itself at the center of world history, it begins attracting spies, mercenaries, war profiteers, journalists, prostitutes, and fortune-seekers. Often they gravitate to a particular hotel. In Honduras, which was shaken from its long slumber in the 1980s and turned into a violent staging ground for cross-border war, the Maya was that hotel. Perched atop a high hill near the central plaza in the capital city, Tegucigalpa, its tinted windows giving it an air of mystery, the Maya attracted a variety of sinister characters. Counterrevolutionaries hatched bloody plots over breakfast beside the pool. You could buy a machine gun at the bar. Busloads of crew-cut Americans would arrive from the airport at times when I knew there were no commercial flights landing, spend the night, and then ship out before dawn; they said they didn’t know where they were going, and I believed them. Friends told me that death squad torturers stopped in for steak before setting off on their night’s work. But in those days, much of what anyone said in Honduras was a lie. That was certainly true at the Maya, and equally so at the American embassy a couple of miles away.

The diplomat who presided over that embassy from 1981 to 1985, John Dimitri Negroponte, was a great fabulist. He saw, or professed to see, a Honduras almost Scandinavian in its tranquillity, a place where there were no murderous generals, no death squads, no political prisoners, no clandestine jails or cemeteries. Now that President Bush has nominated Negroponte to be United States ambassador to the United Nations, his record in Honduras is coming under new scrutiny. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a hearing on his nomination soon, probably in September. With the chairmanship of the committee now passed from Jesse Helms to Joseph Biden, this hearing promises to be anything but routine. It will recall the polarizing drama of Central America in the 1980s, a historical chapter that seemed closed but that the Bush administration has chosen to reopen. It may even throw some light onto places that have for two decades been as dark and scary as the Maya Hotel bar at midnight.

Over the last few weeks, investigators for the Foreign Relations Committee have been reading classified government documents written by or about Negroponte. They have also conducted an extensive private interview with him. At the committee hearing on his nomination, senators are likely to ask him about what they suspect were false reports that he filed on human rights conditions in Honduras, and about questionable sworn testimony he later gave the committee.

The material we reviewed pertains specifically to that time in Honduras and to the question of the alleged and real human rights abuses that took place,” said Norman Kurtz, a spokesman for Senator Biden. “The key question people are asking is what John Negroponte knew at the time and to what extent did he report back to the State Department. We are trying to have some of these documents quickly reclassified so we can have them on the record at the time of the hearing.”

In Honduras Negroponte exercised US power in ways that still reverberate throughout that small country. His most striking legacy, though, is the Honduras of his imagination. Most people who lived or worked in Honduras during the 1980s saw a nation spiraling into violence and infested by paramilitary gangs that kidnapped and killed with impunity. Negroponte would not acknowledge this. He realized that the Reagan policy in Central America would lose support if truths about Honduras were known, so he refused to accept them.

By nominating Negroponte as ambassador to the United Nations, the Bush administration is sending at least two clear messages. The first is addressed to the UN itself. During his years in Honduras, Negroponte acquired a reputation, justified or not, as an old-fashioned imperialist. Sending him to the UN serves notice that the Bush administration will not be bound by diplomatic niceties as it conducts its foreign policy.

Negroponte’s nomination is also part of a concerted effort to rehabilitate those who planned and organized the Nicaraguan contra war of the 1980s. When last heard from, these men were objects of public opprobrium and, in some cases, criminal indictments. Bush administration officials believe that they were shamefully mistreated and that they ought to be honored for their much-maligned service. No one is more worthy in their eyes than Negroponte, whose work made it possible for the United States to turn Honduras into a staging area for the contra war.

In this new administration, we have a lot of people who are a decade or two older than the people who had the same jobs in the last administration,” a State Department official told me. “They remember the cold war. They want to reward and elevate people who fought on our side, including people who supported the contras. Negroponte is known as a guy who is devoted to realpolitik, which is in many ways the opposite of what the UN stands for. Giving him this job is a way of telling the UN: ‘We hate you.’”

Honduras has fallen far from the world’s attention, which may be a good thing. During the 1980s it was the base for a marauding army of anti-Sandinista fighters from neighboring Nicaragua, the platform for American military maneuvers in which thousands of soldiers and paratroopers staged mock invasions, and a dangerous place for dissidents. Guerrilla war raged across all three of its borders. Jack Binns, the American ambassador who arrived in 1980, was horrified by what he saw. In June 1981 he sent a cable to Washington saying he was “deeply concerned at increasing evidence of officially sponsored/sanctioned assassinations” and warning that “repression has built up a head of steam much faster than we had anticipated.” That was not what the Reagan administration wanted to hear. Binns fell from favor and was soon recalled. John Negroponte became the new sheriff in town.


Born in London to a well-to-do Greek family, Negroponte attended Exeter and Yale, joined the foreign service straight out of college, and was dispatched to Vietnam, where he served as a political officer at the American embassy. Between 1971 and 1973 he was officer-in-charge for Vietnam on Henry Kissinger’s National Security Council, and he advised Kissinger during the Paris peace talks. He developed a reputation as a hard-liner and broke temporarily with Kissinger when he thought Kissinger was making too many concessions to the North Vietnamese. In 1981, when the Reagan administration’s Sandinista-hunters needed a reliable man in Honduras to replace Jack Binns, he was an obvious choice.

If Honduras is thought of at all, it is as a quintessential backwater, the epitome of the banana republic. That stereotype is not entirely inaccurate, nor is it necessarily negative. Being a backwater has not allowed Honduras to escape the poverty and social inequality that afflicts most of Central America. It has, however, brought a measure of domestic peace that is remarkable on the isthmus. Honduras never had great massacres like the one that shattered El Salvador in 1932, or bloody family dictatorships like the one that dominated Nicaragua for nearly half a century, or waves of sustained repression like those that have devastated Guatemala. During the twentieth century, Hondurans managed to work out social arrangements that, while not seriously addressing the needs of the poor majority, at least allowed that majority to live and work in relative peace. The army played an important part in national life, even ruling directly for several periods, including one that lasted until 1982; but it treated the population with a measure of respect. By Central American standards, these were precious and highly important achievements.

During the early 1980s, the social peace to which Hondurans were accustomed was shattered. Leftist revolutionaries had taken power in Nicaragua and were gaining strength in El Salvador and Guatemala. The Reagan administration was determined to turn back this tide by force, and chose Honduras as its platform from which to do so. American military engineers built bases, airstrips, and supply depots at key spots around the country. American troops poured in for saber-rattling maneuvers whose main purpose was to intimidate the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. American intelligence agents trained Hondurans in techniques of surveillance and interrogation. Between 1980 and 1984, United States military aid to Honduras increased from $4 million to $77 million. Economic aid surpassed $200 million by 1985, making Honduras, with its four million people, the eighth-largest recipient of American foreign aid.

After Congress cut off aid to the contras in late 1984, the Honduran government also began to distance itself from the contra project, even intercepting a shipment of arms intended for contra fighters. This alarmed the White House. President Reagan telephoned his Honduran counterpart, Roberto Suazo Córdova, and sent then Vice President George Bush to meet with him. Honduras soon resumed its old policy of helping the contras. At the same time, according to a US government document, the United States released aid to Honduras that had been blocked, “expedited delivery of US military items to Honduras,” and expanded “several security programs underway for the Honduran security forces.”1 Ambassador Negroponte, who was present at the Bush–Suazo meeting, was asked about it at a 1989 Senate hearing. He said he could not recall any direct mention of an arrangement under which the United States increased its aid to Honduras in exchange for Honduras’s commitment to support the contras.

As the United States raised Honduras to the status of an important military ally, cultivating its senior officers and pouring money into its modest army, the military naturally became a more powerful force in Honduran society. Almost overnight it found itself with unimaginable amounts of money and resources, along with the blessing and active encouragement of the United States. The delicate balance that had kept Honduras at relative peace for generations was upset.

The personification of this change was General Gustavo Álvarez Martínez, a passionate anti-Communist who had been trained at the US Army School of the Americas and in Argentina. He believed that Honduras should take the Argentine approach to dealing with dissent, which consisted largely of kidnapping suspects and torturing them to death in secret jails. His fanaticism disturbed some of his comrades, but when American officials decided to use Honduras as a base for the contra war, they found him an eager ally. He was willing not only to turn over parts of Honduran territory to the contras and allow them to function with impunity, but also to tolerate and even direct the “disappearance” of Hondurans who protested.

There is no doubt that Marxist subversives were at work in Honduras. In the summer of 1983 a band of ninety-six guerrillas entered Honduras from Nicaragua with the declared intention of setting off a revolutionary war. They were tracked with the help of American helicopters, and in a matter of weeks their column was wiped out. The fate of many of the guerrillas, however, remains unclear. Two whose bodies were never found, a former Green Beret named David Arturo Baez Cruz and a Catholic priest, Reverend James Carney, were American citizens. Relatives of both men say that Ambassador Negroponte repeatedly stymied their efforts to find out what the United States knows about their cases.

Although everyone agreed that subversives were at work in Honduras, there was intense debate about how the authorities should deal with them, their sympathizers, and outspoken leaders of labor, peasant, and student organizations. American documents show that General Álvarez, who was chief of the Honduran security police and then the country’s top military commander, favored the simple expedient of murder. Among the special units he created to carry out this policy was Battalion 3-16 (or 316), which has become the most infamous military unit in Honduran history. According to a heavily edited version of a CIA report that was released in 1998, Brigade 3-16 emerged as an independent entity “based on recommendations from the ‘Strategic Military Seminar’ between the Honduran and the US military.”2 Some of its members were flown to the United States for training by CIA specialists. One of them, Florencio Caballero, has given a detailed account of the “horrible things” he did to dissidents in secret jails; one of the few survivors, Inés Murillo, has corroborated his account, describing an eighty-day ordeal that included beatings, electric shocks, and sexual abuse.3

Although I and other news correspondents in Honduras did not know details like this at the time, we all sensed the pall descending over the country. Political activists lived in constant fear. Hardly a day passed without a newspaper article about a kidnapping, assassination, or “disappearance”; by one count, over three hundred such articles appeared in 1982 alone. Also in that year, a former chief of Honduran military intelligence, Colonel Leonidas Torres Arias, held a press conference in Mexico to denounce “a death squad operating in Honduras led by armed forces chief General Gustavo Álvarez.” Ambassador Negroponte was not impressed. “I have a lot of difficulty taking those kinds of accusations seriously,” he told a Honduran reporter.

In a series of statements whose distance from reality seemed bizarre, Negroponte insisted that the repressive violence everyone else saw in Honduras was not happening. What is more, he publicly endorsed the officers who were directing it. In October 1982 he wrote a letter to The Economist protesting a dispatch it had published about the emergence of death squads in Honduras. He called the dispatch “simply untrue,” and asserted that Honduras was blessed with “increasingly professional armed forces” and “liberal democratic institutions including full freedom of expression.”

That same year, the State Department’s annual human rights report on Honduras, prepared under Negroponte’s direction, found “no evidence of systematic violation of judicial procedures” and even praised Gen-eral Álvarez, who “recently issued a public statement denying that the government used torture and specifically stated that torture was not to be used on prisoners.” Negroponte’s 1983 report was equally positive. It found that “the Honduran government neither condones nor knowingly permits killings of a political or nonpolitical nature,” that there were “no political prisoners in Honduras,” that “sanctity of the home is guaranteed by the Constitution and generally observed,” and that “freedom of speech and the press are respected.”

In February 1984 Negroponte told Hedrick Smith, a reporter for The New York Times, that he did not believe Honduran society was being milita-rized, and added ritual praise of General Álvarez, who, he said, was “committed to the constitutional process.” Apparently he was the last person in Honduras who believed that. Even Álvarez’s fellow officers had come to fear him as an out-of-control dictator-in-the-making, and in a surprisingly well-planned coup on March 31, they arrested him and packed him off into exile. The Pentagon, always ready to help an old friend, hired him as a consultant on unconventional warfare, ultimately paying him more than $50,000 for his undoubted expertise. In the late 1980s he began making trips back to Honduras in what seemed like a bid to regain some of his former power. That was a miscalculation; he was assassinated on a Tegucigalpa street in January 1989.

Several months after the assassination, Negroponte appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which was considering his nomination by President Bush as ambassador to Mexico. When asked about Battalion 3-16, he replied: “I have never seen any convincing substantiation that they were involved in death-squad-type activities.”

All that has been discovered in the last few years about General Álvarez and Battalion 3-16 confirms what logical deduction told us during the 1980s. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights asserted in 1988 that “there were many kidnappings and disappearances in Honduras from 1981 to 1984 and that those acts were attributable to the Armed Forces of Honduras.” A long inquiry by the Baltimore Sun in 1995 found that hundreds of Hondurans “were kidnapped, tortured and killed in the 1980s by a secret army unit trained and supported by the Central Intelligence Agency.” The reporters who conducted the inquiry based their conclusion in part on declassified documents that “show the CIA and the US Embassy knew of numerous crimes, including murder and torture, yet continued to support Battalion 316 and collaborate with its leaders.”4


The political climate in Honduras improved after the contra war ended, and in 1992 President Rafael Callejas named a prominent law professor, Leo Valladares Lanza, as the country’s first commissioner for human rights. Valladares investigated the disappearances of the 1980s and early 1990s, and produced a lengthy report called The Facts Speak for Themselves. It documents the cases of 179 people who disappeared after being abducted, and assigns responsibility for most of these crimes to Honduran police and security agencies. Valladares concluded:

During this same period, despite the significant increases in foreign assistance to Honduras, the State Department failed to recognize and respond to credible reports of human rights violations in Honduras, particularly the increasingly common phenomenon of disappearances…. The number of disappearances increased dramatically between January 1982 and March 1984, while General Álvarez was commander-in-chief of the armed forces. In this period, there existed within the armed forces a deliberate policy of kidnapping and forcibly disappearing persons suspected of having ties to the Nicaraguan government, the Salvadoran guerrillas, and people simply considered political or union leaders or peasant activists.5

Soon after Valladares completed his investigation, the CIA inspector general made one of his own. The version of his report that was released in 1998 is heavily censored but still goes far beyond what Negroponte has ever admitted. It concludes that “the Honduran military committed hundreds of human rights abuses since 1980, many of which were politically motivated and officially sanctioned.” It also suggests that diplomats at Negroponte’s embassy were discouraged from reporting these abuses. One of these diplomats, whose name is blotted out in the public version of the report, is quoted as saying that “the embassy country team in Honduras wanted reports on subjects such as this to be benign” because reporting about murders, executions, and corruption “would reflect negatively on Honduras and not be beneficial in carrying out US policy.” In one edited section of the report that apparently deals with a 1983 atrocity, the inspector general concludes that Negroponte

was particularly sensitive regarding the issue and was concerned that earlier CIA reporting on the same topic might create human rights problems for Honduras. Based on the ambassador’s reported concerns, actively discouraged from following up the information reported by the source.

The next two pages of the report are censored in their entirety.

A former commander of Battalion 3-16, General Luis Alonso Discua Elvir, might have made an informative witness at Negroponte’s confirmation hearing, but although he has lived in Florida for several years, he is suddenly unavailable. He left the United States in February after his residence visa was canceled. “I think you as journalists can draw your own conclusions,” he said upon returning to Honduras. When an American reporter asked about the notorious battalion, he demurred, saying he wanted no more “problems with the United States” because “your country is too powerful.”

Around the same time that General Discua was deported, so was a second veteran of the battalion, Juan Angel Hernández Lara; he spent an uneasy month in Honduras, returned illegally to Florida, and was arrested and imprisoned there. A third veteran, José Barrera, was deported from Canada in January. But although these men are not talking, the effort to uncover their secrets is continuing. This month Honduran investigators plan to begin searching for human remains near the old base at Aguacate, which during the 1980s was a bustling headquarters for American and Honduran troops. The Honduran official who announced the search said: “Justice maintains the hope that sooner or later, the matter of the disappeared will be resolved.”

Negroponte had some trouble finding another diplomatic post after he left Honduras in 1985, but he went on to have a successful career. For a time he returned to a job he had held before, deputy assistant secretary of state for oceans and fisheries affairs. Later he worked as Colin Powell’s deputy on the National Security Council. He was confirmed as ambassador to Mexico in 1989, and he served there when the United States was negotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement and giving help to the Mexican government in its fight against Zapatista rebels. In 1993 President Clinton named him ambassador to the Philippines. When he retired from the foreign service in 1997 to become an executive at McGraw-Hill, he could claim the friendship of high officials from both parties.

He’s professional, competent, creative, he has the right integrity, and he serves the administration,” former Secretary of State George Shultz told me by telephone one day recently. “He has a sense of the distance between people who get elected and people who serve.” Shultz also said that Negroponte’s many contacts in Washington, built up over thirty-seven years in the foreign service, would allow him to build support there for United Nations initiatives: “In that job, it isn’t only what you do in New York or on the Security Council. It’s what you do in Washington to build a base for what you do.”

Negroponte is not the only beneficiary of the Bush administration’s drive to rehabilitate former contra warriors. Roger Noriega, an aide to Senator Jesse Helms who was a vigorous contra supporter, has been nominated as ambassador to the Organization of American States. Elliott Abrams, who as undersecretary of state in the Reagan administration was a principal architect of the contra project and who later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of misleading Congress over the Iran-contra affair, is working as a human rights specialist at the National Security Council. And Otto Reich, a militant Cuban exile and lobbyist for Bacardi and Lockheed-Martin, has been nominated to be assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, the post Abrams once held. Reich’s corporate connections and colorful statements, like one in which he compared the Baltimore Orioles’ baseball tour of Cuba to “playing soccer in Auschwitz,” make him a tempting target for senators. In many ways he is an easier one than Negroponte.

Yet Negroponte’s case is different from the others because the position to which he has been nominated would make him a highly visible figure in world affairs, a spokesman for the United States and its values. One of his first tasks would be to try to regain the seat the United States recently lost on the UN Human Rights Commission. Presumably he would have to argue that the United States is a faithful defender of human rights, not one of those hypocritical nations that observe principles only when it suits them.

News of the Negroponte nomination has jogged the memories of several people who met him in Honduras. One of them, Juan Almendares, was rector of the Autonomous University of Honduras and a critic of United States policy toward his country. In a column published last month in the Honduran newspaper El Tiempo, he recalled a frosty meeting with Negroponte in 1982 that left him convinced Negroponte would try to prevent his reelection as rector that year.6 Almendares was reelected, but his victory was challenged in court. Soon afterward a friend of his, Justice José Benjamin Cisne Reyes of the Honduran Supreme Court, came to him with a remarkable story. The entire Supreme Court had just been called before a triumvirate made up of Ambassador Negroponte, General Álvarez, and President Suazo, who “pressured us to annul your recent reelection as rector, giving the reason that you endanger the security of the state.” Judge Cisne said he would vote to commit “this dishonest act” out of fear for his and Almendares’s life. Other judges evidently felt the same way. Almendares’s reelection was annulled, and a prominent critic of United State policy was thereby removed from public life.

Those who know Negroponte, including some of his critics, agree that he is informed, perceptive, hard-working, and well versed in the ways of Washington. He has obviously mastered a key diplomatic skill, the ability to embrace the policy of the moment. That is a classic definition of loyalty. In Central America during the 1980s, however, some United States ambassadors interpreted loyalty differently. By reporting what they saw and refusing to shape their cables to meet the political demands of the moment, they exposed the reality of disturbing places like the Maya Hotel, in some cases at the cost of their careers. When senators make their decision on Negroponte, they will have to consider the responsibilities of diplomats, the meaning of duty, and the limits of loyalty.

August 21, 2001

  1. 1

    US Government Stipulation on Quid Pro Quos with Other Governments as Part of Contra Operations,” filed April 6, 1989, at the trial of Colonel Oliver North; quoted in The Iran-Contra Scandal: The Declassified History, edited by Peter Kornbluh and Malcolm Byrne (New Press, 1993), p. 91.

  2. 2

    The 316th MI Batallion,” secret CIA cable dated February 18, 1995, declassified October 22, 1998, as Document H4-4, approved for release September 1998.

  3. 3

    Report of Investigation: Selected Issues Related to CIA Activities in Honduras in the 1980s” (96-0125-IG), August 27, 1997, declassified October 22, 1998, as Document H4-5; Caballero quoted in James LeMoyne, “Testifying to Torture,” The New York Times Magazine, June 5, 1988, pp. 45.

  4. 4

    Cited in judgment of July 29, 1988, Inter-American Court of Human Rights (Ser. C) No. 4 (1988); Baltimore Sun, June 11, 1995, p. 1.

  5. 5

    The Facts Speak for Themselves: The Preliminary Report of the National Commissioner for the Protection of Human Rights in Honduras (Center for Justice and International Law/ Human Rights Watch, 1994), pp. 212, 225.

  6. 6

    El Tiempo, July 31, 2001.