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Our Man in Honduras

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. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 6

    El Tiempo, July 31, 2001.

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