Torture and Murder in Honduras (The Baltimore Sun series)
With the nomination of John Negroponte as US ambassador to Iraq, the subject of his past history has resurfaced. Of his past, the most attention has been directed to his tenure as US ambassador to Honduras, of which all discussions seem to refer to the award-winning Baltimore Sun series of articles written by Gary Cohn and Ginger Thompson in 1995. Those articles are saved below and show what happens when there is an independent and responsible press.
When a wave of torture and murder staggered a small U.S. ally, truth was a casualty. By Gary Cohn and Ginger Thompson. June 11, 1995.
The search for Nelson Mackay Chavarria - family man, government lawyer, possible subversive - began one Sunday in 1982 after he devoured a pancake breakfast and stepped out to buy a newspaper.
It ended last December when his wife, Amelia, watched as forensic scientists plucked his moldering bones from a pit in rural Honduras. Spotting a scrap of the red-and-blue shirt her husband was wearing the day he disappeared, she gasped: "Oh my God, that's him!"
Along with Amelia Mackay, the nation of Honduras has begun to confront a truth it has long suspected - that hundreds of its citizens were kidnapped, tortured and killed in the 1980s by a secret army unit trained and supported by the Central Intelligence Agency.
The intelligence unit, known as Battalion 316, used shock and suffocation devices in interrogations. Prisoners often were kept naked and, when no longer useful, killed and buried in unmarked graves.
Newly declassified documents and other sources show that the CIA and the U.S. Embassy knew of numerous crimes, including murder and torture, committed by Battalion 316, yet continued to collaborate closely with its leaders.
In order to keep U.S. dollars flowing into Honduras for the war against communism in Central America, the Reagan administration knowingly made a series of misleading statements to Congress and the public that denied or minimized the violence of Battalion 316.
These are among the findings of a 14-month investigation in which The Sun obtained formerly classified documents and interviewed U.S. and Honduran participants, many of whom - fearing for their lives or careers - have kept silent until now.
Among those interviewed were three former Battalion 316 torturers who acknowledged their crimes and detailed the battalion's close relationship with the CIA.
U.S. collaboration with Battalion 316 occurred at many levels.
* The CIA was instrumental in training and equipping Battalion 316. Members were flown to a secret location in the United States for training in surveillance and interrogation, and later were given CIA training at Honduran bases.
* Starting in 1981, the United States secretly provided funds for Argentine counterinsurgency experts to train anti-Communist forces in Honduras. By that time, Argentina was notorious for its own "Dirty War," which had left at least 10,000 dead or "disappeared" in the 1970s. Argentine and CIA instructors worked side by side training Battalion 316 members at a camp in Lepaterique, a town about 16 miles west of Tegucigalpa.
* Gen. Gustavo Alvarez Martinez, who as chief of the Honduran armed forces personally directed Battalion 316, received strong U.S. support - even after he told a U.S. ambassador that he intended to use the Argentine method of eliminating subversives.
* By 1983, when Alvarez's oppressive methods were well known to the U.S. Embassy, the Reagan administration awarded him the Legion of Merit for "encouraging the success of democratic processes in Honduras." His friendship with Donald Winters, the CIA station chief in Honduras, was so close that when Winters adopted a child, he asked Alvarez to be the girl's godfather.
* A CIA officer based in the U.S. Embassy went frequently to a secret jail known as INDUMIL, where torture was conducted, and visited the cell of kidnap victim Ines Murillo. That jail and other Battalion 316 installations were off-limits to Honduran officials, including judges trying to find kidnap victims.
The exact number of people executed by Battalion 316 remains unknown. For years, unidentified and unclaimed bodies were found dumped in rural areas, along rivers and in citrus groves.
Late in 1993, the Honduran government listed 184 people as still missing and presumed dead. They are are called "desaparecidos," Spanish for "the disappeared." Mackay is the first person on the list to be found and identified. The discovery of an identifiable body has enabled prosecutors to try to bring his killers to justice.
To this day, the events in Honduras have been little noticed, an obscure sideshow to a highly publicized struggle in the region. ,, They came about as the Reagan administration was waging war against a Marxist regime in Nicaragua and leftist insurgents in El Salvador.
Honduras, a U.S. ally, was used by Washington as the principal base for its largely clandestine effort. Keeping Honduras secure from leftists was Battalion 316's mission.
"I think it is an example of the pathology of foreign policy," said Jack Binns, a Carter appointee as ambassador to Honduras who served from September 1980 through October 1981. "The desire to conduct a clandestine war against Nicaragua out of Honduras made us willing to go beyond turning a blind eye and made us willing to provide assistance to people doing these things even though we knew they were doing them."
Elliott Abrams, former assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs from December 1981 to July 1985, when he was appointed assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, vigorously defends the Reagan policy.
"Disappearing people - murdering people, was not the policy of the United States. Nor was it our policy to avert our eyes," Abrams said.
Abrams and other Reagan administration officials said that while fighting communism was the primary goal, they encouraged military leaders in Central America to curtail human rights abuses. In contrast to the Carter administration, which had emphasized human rights in crafting foreign policy, they tackled the issue privately, Abrams said.
"A human rights policy is not supposed to make you feel good," he said. "It's supposed to do some good in the country you're targeting."
Some of the victims of Battalion 316 were subversives, involved in such crimes as bombings and robberies. Nelson Mackay, an easy-going man of Australian descent, had many friends in the military. But he was suspected of arranging gun sales to a radical student group.
Many others were kidnapped and killed for exercising the same freedoms that the United States said it was fighting for in Latin America. Victims included students demonstrating for the release of political prisoners, union leaders who organized strikes for higher wages, journalists who criticized the military regime and college professors demanding fair tuition for the poor.
Among the kidnapped were 14 who described their treatment in interviews with The Sun. Nine said members of Battalion 316 clipped wires to their genitals and sent electric currents surging through their bodies.
"They started with 110 volts," said Miguel Carias, an architectural draftsman who was held captive with Nelson Mackay for a week in 1982. "Then they went up to 220. Each time they shocked me, I could feel my body jump and my mouth filled with a metal taste."
Former members of Battalion 316, interviewed in Canada where they are living in exile, described how prisoners were nearly suffocated with a rubber mask wrapped tightly around their faces. The mask was called "la capucha," or "the hood." Women were fondled and raped, the torturers said.
The body of Mackay, who was 37 years old and the father of five, showed signs of other tortures.
Farmers who found Mackay's body in 1982 and later buried it reported that his hands and feet were tied with rope and a noose was around his neck. A black liquid spilled from his mouth. The farmers recognized the substance as "criolina," a thick, black liquid rubbed on cattle to kill ticks and mites.
Before being kidnapped and tortured, suspects were stalked by Battalion 316.
Jose Valle, a former battalion member now in Canada, describes a typical surveillance: "We would follow a person for four to six days. See their daily routes from the moment they leave the house. What kind of transportation they use. The streets they go on."
Once the battalion determined the time and place an individual was most vulnerable, the person was kidnapped, often in daylight by men in black ski masks. They ambushed their victims on busy streets, then sped off in cars with tinted windows and no license plates.
The prisoners of Battalion 316 were confined in bedrooms, closets and basements of country homes of military officers. Some were held in military clubhouses at locations such as INDUMIL, the Military Industries complex near Tegucigalpa.
They were stripped and tied hand and foot. Tape was wrapped around their eyes.
Those who survived recall interrogation sessions that lasted hours. Battalion members shouted obscenities, accused them of being terrorists, and told them they would never see their families again if they did not answer questions and confess.
Milton Jimenez, former leader of a radical leftist student group, .. endured such interrogation. He and several college housemates were kidnapped by military police on April 27, 1982. When Jimenez refused to answer questions, he said, the officers told ,, him they were going to kill him. "They said they were finishing my grave. . . . I was convinced that I was going to die."
They stood him before a firing squad. They aimed their guns at him, promising that it was his time to die. But they never fired.
Eventually, he was released.
"They never accused me of anything specific," said Jimenez in an interview in Tegucigalpa, where he is now a lawyer. "They said they knew I was a terrorist and they asked, 'Who are your friends?'"
There was nothing sophisticated about the torture employed by Battalion 316. In addition to la capucha - a piece of rubber cut from an inner tube that prevents a person from breathing through the mouth and nose - they used rope to hang victims from the ceiling and beat them, and extension cords with exposed wires for shock torture.
Gloria Esperanza Reyes, now 52, speaking in an interview at her home in Vienna, Va., describes how she was tortured with electric wires attached to her breasts and vagina. "The first jolt was so bad I just wanted to die," she said.
Jose Barrera, a former battalion torturer interviewed in Toronto, recalls such pleas from prisoners. "They always asked to be killed," he said. "Torture is worse than death."
Battalion 316 got its early training from Argentines, who had been invited to Honduras by General Alvarez, himself an honors graduate of the Argentine Military Academy.
"The Argentines came in first, and they taught how to disappear people. The United States made them more efficient," said Oscar Alvarez, a former Honduran special forces officer and diplomat who was the general's nephew.
"The Americans ... brought the equipment," he said. "They gave the training in the United States, and they brought agents here to provide some training in Honduras.
"They said, 'You need someone to tap phones, you need someone to transcribe the tapes, you need surveillance groups.' They brought in special cameras that were inside thermoses. They taught interrogation techniques.
"The United States did not come here and say kill people," he added. "I never saw any efforts by the United States to create death squads."
General Alvarez's chief of staff, Gen. Jose Bueso Rosa, also describes the U.S. role in developing the battalion. "It was their idea to create an intelligence unit that reported directly to the head of the armed forces," he said. "Battalion 316 was created by a need for information. We were not specialists in intelligence, in gathering information, so the United States offered to help us organize a special unit."
(In 1986, Bueso was convicted in U.S. District Court in Miami of participating in a failed drug-financed plot to kill former Honduran President Roberto Suazo Cordoba.)
In the United States and in Honduras, the CIA trained members of the unit in interrogation and surveillance, former Battalion 316 members and Honduran officers said.
The training by the CIA was confirmed by Richard Stolz, then-deputy director for operations, in secret testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in June 1988.
In testimony declassified at The Sun's request, Stolz told the committee: "The course consisted of three weeks of classroom instruction followed by two weeks of practical exercises, which included the questioning of actual prisoners by the students.
"Physical abuse or other degrading treatment was rejected, not only because it is wrong, but because it has historically proven to be ineffective," he added.
He confirmed that a CIA officer visited the place where 24-year-old Ines Murillo was held during her captivity.
Interviews with members of Battalion 316 confirm Stolz's testimony: The CIA taught them to apply psychological pressure, but not physical torture. But former battalion members and victims say the CIA knew that torture was being used.
Florencio Caballero, a former battalion member, recalls the instruction and the reality.
"They said that torture was not the way to obtain the truth during an interrogation. But Alvarez said the quickest way to get the information was with torture," he told investigators of the Senate intelligence committee.
The Senate investigators interviewed Caballero in Canada as part of the same investigation in which Stolz testified.
In an interview with The Sun, Oscar Alvarez also recalls the reality.
"What was supposed to happen was that the intelligence unit would gather information and take it to a judge and say, 'Here, this person is a guerrilla, and here's the evidence," he said. "But the Hondurans did not do that." Slashing his finger across his neck, he said, "They took the easy way."
And, he said, "U.S. officials did not protest."
Mark Mansfield, a spokesman for the CIA, said: "As a matter of policy, we don't comment on liaison relationships." But, he added, "The notion that the CIA was involved in or sanctioned human rights abuses in Honduras is unfounded."
A man, a mission
When Alvarez took command of the Honduran armed forces in 1982, at the age of 44, Washington had a man ideally suited to its mission to combat Communist insurgency in Central America.
"Gustavo Alvarez was very much out of national character - dynamic, firm, uncompromising," said Donald Winters, CIA station chief in Tegucigalpa from 1982 to 1984. "He knew where he wanted to go."
Alvarez was the son of a high school principal who made him recite poetry to overcome a stutter. But his preferred reading was military history. He so admired Germany's "Desert Fox" of World War II, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, that he named one of his sons Erwin and another Manfred, after Rommel's son.
General Alvarez made no secret about his belief that terror and violence were the only ways to deal with subversives. As commander of the national police force known as Fuerza de Seguridad Publica (FUSEP), he had already created an intelligence unit that would become known as Battalion 316.
On Feb. 6, 1981, while still FUSEP commander, but already selected as head of the Honduran armed forces, he told Binns of his admiration for the way the Argentine military had dealt with subversives and said that he planned to use the same methods in Honduras.
The U.S. ambassador was shocked. In an urgent cable to superiors in Washington, he described the conversation:
"Alvarez stressed theme that democracies and West are soft, perhaps too soft to resist Communist subversion. The Argentines, he said, had met the threat effectively, identifying - and taking care of - the subversives. Their method, he opined, is the only effective way of meeting the challenge.
"When it comes to subversion, [Alvarez] would opt for tough, vigorous and Extra-Legal Action," Binns warned.
Four months later, Binns was outraged to learn of the violent abduction and disappearance of Tomas Nativi, a 33-year-old university professor and alleged subversive. Nativi was dragged from his bed on June 11, 1981, by six men wearing black ski masks, according to witnesses and a 1993 Honduran government report.
He has not been seen since and is presumed dead.
In his cable on the incident to Washington, the ambassador said: "I believe we should try to nip this situation in the bud. I have already asked [CIA] chief of station to raise this problem obliquely with ... Alvarez (whose minions appear to be the principal actors and whom I suspect is the intellectual force behind this new strategy for handling subversives/criminals)."
Binns recommended that the U.S. government act to stop the military violence by threatening to withhold military aid. "Those suggestions drew a thunderous silence from Washington," he said in a recent interview at his home in Tucson, Ariz. "My message was not a message anyone wanted to hear."
The Reagan administration had made it clear that it would diminish the criticism of human rights abuses by its allies in places such as Central America where it wanted to go on the offensive against the Communist threat.
Thomas O. Enders, former assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs and a chief architect of the early Reagan strategy, described the change of policy in a recent interview in New York, where he is a managing director of Salomon Brothers Inc., an investment banking firm.
"We didn't think that we could effectively sustain the resistance to the guerrillas in Central America without being willing to give significant public support to their governments," Enders said.
"We were afraid that the approach that had been adopted by the Carter administration, which was highly critical of them and would result in their demoralization, would fail to convince the Soviet Union or the Salvadorans, Hondurans and others that we really meant business."
In the Reagan strategy, Honduras, which the United States had used before to advance its objectives in Central America, was ideally located between Nicaragua and El Salvador. General Alvarez seemed an ideal partner.
"Alvarez was a darling of the Reagan administration," said Cresencio S. Arcos, U.S. Embassy press spokesman from June 1980 to July 1985 and ambassador to Honduras from December 1989 to July 1993.
While General Alvarez's star was rising, President Reagan was issuing orders for an aggressive, largely secret thrust against communism in Central America.
By March 9, 1981 - after less than two months in office - Reagan signed a presidential "finding" that ordered the expansion of covert operations authorized by the Carter administration, to "provide all forms of training, equipment, and related assistance to cooperating governments throughout Central America in order counter foreign-sponsored subversion and terrorism."
On Dec. 1, 1981, he ordered the CIA to work primarily through "non-Americans" against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and leftist insurgents in El Salvador.
The "non-Americans" were to include Argentines, paid for by the CIA, Enders said in an interview last month. He said there did not seem to be any alternative to using the Argentines, despite their poor record on human rights.
"There were not many people with counterinsurgency experience," Enders said. "How many people were there who were Spanish speakers? [Human rights] was obviously a concern, but when we got through looking at it, we didn't see that we had any clear choice."
By the end of 1981, the Reagan administration had replaced Ambassador Binns with John Dimitri Negroponte, a man viewed as committed to the administration's decision to confront communism in Latin America.
The partnership with Honduras and General Alvarez expanded. Military aid to Honduras jumped from $3.9 million in 1980 to $77.4 million by 1984.
The tiny country eventually was crowded with so much U.S. military equipment and personnel that some started referring to it as "the USS Honduras."
While the U.S. government heaped money and praise on Alvarez, evidence of human rights abuses mounted.
One accusation came from Col. Leonidas Torres Arias, after he was ousted as intelligence chief for the Honduran armed forces.
In August 1982, he told a packed news conference in Mexico City about Battalion 316, "a death squad operating in Honduras that was being led by armed forces chief, General Gustavo Alvarez." He mentioned three victims by name, including Nelson Mackay.
At the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa, U.S. officials were confronted with personal and written appeals for help from relatives of the disappeared.
Former Honduran Congressman Efrain Diaz Arrivillaga said he spoke several times about the military's abuses to U.S. officials in Honduras, including Negroponte.
"Their attitude was one of tolerance and silence," he said. "They needed Honduras to loan its territory more than they were concerned about innocent people being killed."
Negroponte, now U.S. ambassador to the Philippines, has declined repeated requests by telephone and in writing since July for interviews about this report, including most recently in a hand-delivered letter to the embassy in Manila.
Almost every day, Honduran newspapers published stories about the military's violence and full-page ads with pictures of the missing. In 1982 alone, at least 318 stories were published about military abuses.
Some directly named Alvarez.
"General Alvarez, as a human being, I beg you to free my children," read one headline from El Tiempo on April 30, 1982.
Members of the Honduran Congress drafted resolutions calling for investigations into the disappearances.
Relatives of Battalion 316's victims marched by the hundreds through the narrow streets of Tegucigalpa demanding the return of the missing.
"Alive they were taken! Alive we want them back!" they chanted, mostly wrinkled old women with white scarves covering their heads, carrying posters with drawings of their missing sons and grandsons.
But, determined to avoid questions in Congress, U.S. officials in Honduras concealed evidence of rights abuses.
"There are no political prisoners in Honduras," asserted the State Department human rights report on Honduras for 1983.
By that time the embassy was aware of numerous kidnappings of leftists and had participated in the freeing of two prominent victims whose abduction and torture had become embarrassing.
Specific examples of brutality by the Honduran military typically never appeared in the human rights reports, prepared by the embassy under the direct supervision of Ambassador Negroponte. Those reports to Congress were required under the Foreign Assistance Act, which in most circumstances prohibits the United States from providing military aid to nations whose governments engage in a consistent pattern of gross violations of human rights.
The reports from Honduras were carefully crafted to leave the impression that the Honduran military respected human rights.
By 1984, other Honduran officers began to worry that Alvarez had dragged the country too far into violence against their own people.
Col. Eric Sanchez, now retired from the armed forces, thought Alvarez was "obsessed."
Recalling a conversation with Alvarez about Battalion 316, Sanchez said the armed forces chief told him: "One had to fight Communists with all weapons and in every arena, and not all of them are fair."
Gen. Walter Lopez, currently one of Honduras' three vice presidents, recalled in an interview: "(Alvarez)was dangerous. He was pushing our country to do something we did not want to do. We were willing to be trained professionally, but only to defend our country. Not for so-called undercover operations."
On March 31, 1984, Alvarez's military career came to a sudden and unexpected end.
Accused of misappropriation of funds, he was ousted by his own officers. One junior officer held a gun to the general's head and handcuffed him. He was put on a military plane for Costa Rica.
Later the same year, Alvarez and his wife and five children landed in Miami, where they lived for five years. He joined an evangelical church in Miami and embraced religion with as much passion as he had embraced the fight against communism.
In 1988, Alvarez said he had been urged in a dream to go back to Honduras and preach the gospel. Shunning offers of protection from friends in the military, he preached on street corners, saying, "My Bible is my protection."
On Jan. 25, 1989, five men dressed in blue and wearing hard hats surrounded his car and riddled it with bullets from machine guns. Moments before he died, bleeding from 18 wounds, Alvarez asked: "Why are they doing this to me?"
The assassins have never been found, but a group called the Popular Liberation Movement claimed responsibility.
In a statement, the group referred to Alvarez as a psychopath who tried "to escape popular justice by disguising himself as a harmless and repentant Christian."
Lilia Alvarez, the general's widow, defends his memory.
"He knew they would criticize him for what he did. ... There were some illegal detentions, and maybe the army executed some people, but think about how many lives were saved. Thousands of people were saved because my husband prevented a civil war."
The Honduran government has taken several steps forward in the pursuit of the truth about the disappearances of the 1980s.
In a 1993 report, "The Facts Speak for Themselves," the government lists the name of each of the disappeared and admits that it did not protect its citizens from the abuses of the military.
"Extrajudicial executions, arbitrary detentions and the lack of due process ... characterized these years of intolerance," stated the report of the National Commissioner for the Protection of Human Rights in Honduras. "Perhaps more troublesome than the violations themselves was the authorities' tolerance of these crimes and the impunity with which they were committed."
The report represents the first time that the Honduran government has admitted that the disappearances occurred and that it shares responsibility.
Within a year after he became president of Honduras in 1994, Carlos Roberto Reina took further steps to identify those responsible.
"Those of us who lived in that time are committed not to relive it," said Honduran Attorney General Edmundo Orellana. "We are committed to building a society that says, 'Never again.' "
One of the most important developments in that task was the discovery of an identifiable body of a "desaparecido" - Nelson Mackay. With an identified body, a murder investigation could be undertaken. The case has been helped by the willingness of Miguel Carias, his alleged co-conspirator, to testify.
In an interview, Carias described their last encounter.
They were together in a brown brick house on the northern edge of Tegucigalpa that Battalion 316 used as a secret jail. Mackay was held in a bedroom, his hands and feet tied with rope. Carias, locked in the closet, heard Mackay praying.
"Hail, Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women ..."
Mackay's voice grew louder as he recited the prayer over and over.
"I told him, 'Mackay please shut up. I am going crazy with all your prayers,'" Carias said.
Mackay kept on. "Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death ..."
"I never heard or saw Nelson again," Carias said.
More than a decade after the execution of Mackay and others, forces in Honduras still seek to thwart the investigation into the crimes of the Honduran military.
Carias is kept under round-the-clock guard. Two other Honduran witnesses in previous inquiries have been killed.
The Honduran human rights commissioner, Leo Valladares, has received so many threats that, in April, he moved three of his children out of Honduras. The move was hurriedly arranged after one of Valladares' bodyguards was gunned down on a bus. No arrest has been made in the slaying.
Despite this sort of intimidation, the relatives of the disappeared remain determined. Once a month, they meet in front of the Honduran Congress, in the center of Tegucigalpa, and pass out fliers with the names and faces of the missing.
Fidelina Borjas Perez, 66, has been searching for her son, Samuel, since he disappeared in January 1982 from a bus traveling to Honduras from Nicaragua.
"One day I hope God lets me find my son, even if it is only his cadaver," she said.
Not one of the relatives believes that the disappeared are alive. But they want to know how their relatives died and who is responsible.
"We are never going to stop looking," says Maria Concepcion Gomez, whose common-law husband, a union leader, disappeared in August 1982. Sitting in her living room beneath a picture of The Last Supper, she said: "We are never going to get tired. If the army is hoping that we will forget or that we will give up, they are wrong."
Nelson Mackay's widow, Amelia, shared that determination.
A few weeks after her husband disappeared, she stopped her public search for him because of telephone threats against her children. Instead, she worked long hours to keep them enrolled in private schools.
During the day she worked as an administrative assistant at the Honduran Foreign Ministry. At night, she baked cakes and sold them to friends to supplement her income.
She stashed beneath her bed a box containing her husband's dental records, his identification card listing his height and weight, and a photograph of him wearing the red-and-blue checked shirt he wore the day he disappeared.
"I could not sleep at night," she remembered. "I would walk around the dark house thinking maybe he would come home. Maybe he would appear."
Honduras is the original "banana republic," a term coined to describe the country's political and economic dependency on U.S. fruit companies during the early 1900s.
The north coast of Honduras, the country's richest farm region, was controlled by U.S. fruit companies at the turn of the century. By 1914, they owned nearly a million acres of Honduras' most fertile territory.
The fruit companies built Honduras' only rail lines to transport produce, installed their own banking systems, and bribed politicians and union leaders to do their bidding.
Almost none of the wealth stayed in Honduras, the poorest country in Central America.
Population: 5.2 million
Average per capita income: $540 per year
Education: Nearly half of the people have not finished sixth-grade. 40 percent are illiterate.
Home life: 55 percent live in rural areas or slums that surround Tegucigalpa, the capital, or San Pedro Sula, the nation's second-largest city.
Religion: Roman Catholic Honduras is not the only place in Latin America where the Central Intelligence Agency has collaborated with repressive regimes.
It was disclosed this year that a Guatemalan army officer linked to two high-profile killings was a paid CIA agent. One of the victims was an American innkeeper in Guatemala, the other a leftist guerrilla married to a Baltimore-born lawyer.
CIA officials allegedly knew that the Guatemalan, Col. Julio Roberto Alpirez, was involved in the killings, but concealed the -- information.
Created in 1947, the CIA has conducted covert operations in Latin America since its inception. In 1954, the CIA engineered a coup launched from neighboring Honduras that overthrew Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz Guzman and installed a military regime.
The CIA supported the overthrow of Chilean President Salvador Allende in 1973, then launched a covert program to enhance the reputation of Chilean strongman Gen. Augusto Pinochet. U.S. officials have admitted that the CIA paid former Panamanian military ruler Manuel Antonio Noriega more than $160,000 as an intelligence source.
In the 1980s, the CIA expanded its activities in Latin America. The agency trained and funded a clandestine paramilitary force known as the "contras" to attack the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.
In El Salvador, Col. Nicolas Carranza, then-Treasury police chief, reportedly was on the CIA payroll during the 1980s as an informant. Carranza and the Treasury police have been linked to right-wing Salvadoran death squads.
In one of its most controversial Cold War actions, the CIA orchestrated the failed invasion of Cuba by a force of Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961.
With the end of the Cold War, questions are being raised about the role of the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies. The intelligence agencies, particularly the CIA, are undergoing an intense re-evaluation by a presidential commission that is expected to report its findings early next year.
Glimpses of the 'disappeared' By Gary Cohn and Ginger Thompson. June 11, 1995
The student leader who would not bend
Eduardo Lanza, a 24-year-old medical student at the National Autonomous University of Honduras, saw dozens of fellow students arrested and beaten by police.
Instead of remaining silent, he incited hundreds of students to block Tegucigalpa streets and bridges to protest government-sanctioned violence.
"I pleaded with Eduardo to please stop his protests," recalled his mother, Gertrudis Becerra. "People were disappearing, and I told him that the police could arrest him, too, and kill him.
"He said he could not stop speaking. He would not let them scare him into silence."
As Gertrudis Becerra feared, her son became a target for Battalion 316. He was abducted on Aug. 1, 1982. The president pTC of the University Reform Front has not been seen since.
Pictured at left, his parents, Roberto Becerra and Gertrudis Lanza Becerra, hold a photo of their missing son at the National Autonomous University of Honduras.
Lanza was kidnapped about 10 p.m. as he and two friends drank beer at The Bachelor's Bar in Tegucigalpa.
Army officers stormed into the bar and ordered the women to leave. The men were taken into custody to begin mandatory military duty, eye-witnesses said. As the prisoners walked -- screaming in protest -- onto a school bus, Lanza was pulled from the line by two plainclothes officers. They forced him at gunpoint into a white Toyota truck.
Posters with Lanza's picture still hang on almost all the 1950s-style high-rises at the university where he studied. Graffiti on the walls says "Eduardo Lanza Vive," Spanish for "Eduardo Lanza Lives."
On a recent visit to the campus, Gertrudis Becerra, who wears her gray-and-black hair in a thick ponytail down her back, ran her fingers over black letters that spelled her son's name.
"I was very proud of him," she whispered.
On June 11, 1981, 14 years ago today, university professor Tomas Nativi was in bed with his wife when six members of Battalion 316, wearing black ski masks, burst in.
Nativi, the founder of the radical leftist group People's Revolutionary Union (URP), was kidnapped and never seen again. He was 33.
Behind his wife, Bertha Oliva (right), director of the Committee of the Relatives of the Disappeared, are photos of people who disappeared at the hands of Battalion 316.
When armed battalion members stormed into their home, Nativi begged them not to hurt his wife, who was six months pregnant.
"I told him, 'Tomas, don't put your hands up. These are not officials, they are delinquents.'" Oliva recalled.
"He looked at me," she said, "and put his hands down."
The hooded men pushed Nativi out the front door and into a car. Oliva grabbed a shirt from the closet and ran to cover her husband's bare chest.
"One of those animals would not let me get to him," she said, tears streaming down her cheeks.
"Tomas looked at me, smiled, and said, 'Be strong, my love.'"
Saul Godinez, an elementary school teacher, was abducted on July 22, 1982, by Honduran military officials as he rode his motorcycle to school.
The quiet, serious man with a round face and thick, wavy hair has not been seen since. He was 32.
Above, his wife, Enmidida Escoto, and daughter, Emma Patricia, stand on the bridge where it is believed that Godinez was abducted. Escoto holds a photo of her husband.
Witnesses told human rights investigators that Godinez was pulled over by a motorcycle police officer near Choluteca, in southern Honduras. Three men jumped from a van in front of him and forced Godinez inside at gunpoint.
It is believed that Godinez was abducted because of his repeated demands for elimination of a $30 fee for books and supplies. The fee effectively prevented the poor from attending classes. Godinez had been planning a strike.
His wife rushed to all the police posts in the area. Officers teased her that her husband had probably run off with another woman.
"I told them, 'No, that is not something my husband would do,' " she said. "It was cruel."
For weeks after the kidnapping, his wife went to the morgue to look at every unidentified body.
"It sounds terrible, but I wanted him to be there," she said. "I wanted to find him, even if he was dead, so I could stop suffering."
Maria Concepcion Gomez, who works as a secretary, recalls her search for German (pronounced "HERR-mon") Perez Aleman, a union leader and the father of her two eldest children.
About 4:30 p.m. on Aug. 18, 1982, Perez was beaten and arrested at a bus stop.
At the police station, officers said they had not seen Perez. He wasn't at the hospital, nurses told her. Gomez went to the morgue. But her husband wasn't there, either.
"He was disappeared," she said.
A former member of Battalion 316, Florencio Caballero, said that he participated in Perez's kidnapping and confirms that Perez was murdered.
The union leader had become a target of the battalion because he had made several trips to neighboring El Salvador. Leftists who traveled to El Salvador were suspected of smuggling guns to the Salvadoran rebels.
But Perez was not a gunrunner, Gomez said. He traveled to El Salvador to visit his dying father, and then to bury him.
The Honduran government concurs. A 1993 government report, "The Facts Speak for Themselves," said: "This disappearance may well have been a mistake. ... The purpose behind Perez Aleman's trips was apparently not to make contact with Salvadoran guerrillas, but to take care of family matters."
Torturers' confessions. By Gary Cohn and Ginger Thompson. June 13, 1995.
Jose Barrera gulped down a double shot of Sambuca before he began to talk about his past as a torturer and murderer.
He recalled how he nearly suffocated people with rubber masks, how he attached wires to their genitals and shocked them with electricity, how he tore off a man's testicles with a rope.
"We let them stay in their own excrement," he said, his gold front tooth reflecting the dim lamplight. "When they were very weak, we would take them to disappear."
Images such as these cast a shadow over the lives of Barrera and other men who served in Battalion 316, a CIA-trained military unit that terrorized Honduras for much of the 1980s.
At a time when Honduras was crucial to the U.S. government's war on communism in Central America, the battalion was created and trained to collect intelligence. But it also stalked, kidnapped, tortured and murdered hundreds of Honduran men and women suspected of subversion.
At least 184 of the battalion's victims are missing and presumed dead. They are called "desaparecidos," Spanish for the "disappeared."
In hours of interviews over two weeks in Toronto, where they live in exile, Barrera and other former members of the battalion - Florencio Caballero and Jose Valle - told The Sun how the unit operated.
Each of the men said he was trained by instructors from the CIA, sometimes together with instructors from Argentina, where a campaign against suspected subversives left more than 10,000 dead or disappeared in the 1970s.
Some training was conducted at an army camp in Lepaterique, a town 16 miles west of the capital, Tegucigalpa, the men said. Other sessions were held at a base in the United States whose location was kept secret even from them.
In separate interviews, they described the courses in the same way: CIA officers taught them "anti-guerrilla tactics" - how to stake out suspects' homes, use hidden cameras and tap telephones, and how to question prisoners.
The training of battalion members in the early 1980s was confirmed in 1988 by Richard Stolz, then-CIA deputy director for operations, in closed-door testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The testimony was recently declassified at the request of The Sun.
Stolz and the former members of Battalion 316 said that torture was discouraged by CIA instructors in what Stolz called a "human resources exploitation or interrogation course."
But the former battalion members said the CIA knew of their use of torture. When a CIA officer visited one of the battalion's secret jails, he saw evidence of torture and did not protest, the battalion members said.
"The Americans knew everything we were doing," Caballero said. "They saw what condition the victims were in -- their marks and bruises. They did not do anything."
The full names of the CIA officers were not known to their Honduran proteges. The head CIA trainer was known as "Mr. Bill," according to the battalion members.
Stolz told the Senate intelligence committee that "Mr. Bill" was a CIA trainer in Honduras and that he was killed in the April 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon.
"Mr. Bill" reportedly was a former member of the U.S. Army special forces.
Caballero, Barrera and Valle said that although the CIA instructors discouraged torture, Honduran commanders demanded it, and that the penalty for disobedience or trying to leave the unit would have been death,
"Within the organization, there were many who were not in agreement, but they couldn't get out," Caballero said. "If we wanted to leave, we would have to leave dead."
The Hondurans escaped to Canada with the help of human rights groups that took their testimony.
Their accounts, which follow, were corroborated by interviews with survivors, by court testimony, by human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Americas Watch, and by a 1993 Honduran government report on disappearances.
Ghost of German Perez
FLORENCIO CABALLERO said the prisoner who haunts him the most is German (pronounced "HERR-mon") Perez Aleman, a man he befriended and then betrayed.
Caballero said he enticed the union organizer to join him in a phony scheme to steal guns.
On Aug. 18, 1982, as they prepared to take the weapons from a local police station, Perez was seized by five men wearing disguises.
"German fought a lot. They bit his ear," recalled Caballero, who was a member of Battalion 316 from 1980 until he fled in 1984. "They wore false mustaches and beards and wigs. German pulled the wig off one of them. They finally dominated him and pushed him into a blue Datsun."
In a secret jail on the outskirts of Tegucigalpa, the men tortured Perez and accused him of being an armed leftist, Caballero said.
Then they executed him.
Caballero knew the charges against Perez were false. He knew that Perez didn't even own a gun. But he did nothing to stop the execution.
"It makes me feel very bad because I met him. I became friends with him, and I turned him over," Caballero said. "They killed him unjustly."
He said Perez was held in a country home where as many as 30 prisoners at a time were kept in crowded quarters.
"When there was no more room to keep them there, and they weren't providing much information, they killed them. The prisoners always ended up dead."
The 37-year-old Caballero is a short, husky man who walks with the swagger of a weightlifter. He has a sixth-grade education and supports his family by working part time as a bus driver and as a maintenance man in his Toronto apartment building.
In the midst of talking about his past over dinner at a Toronto restaurant, Caballero suddenly threw a beefy arm into the air and shouted, "Goal!" He had caught a glimpse of the television above the bar and let out a cheer when he saw that the Spanish national soccer team had scored against the Italians in a World Cup match.
Grinning, Caballero peeled a shrimp, popped it into his mouth and washed it down with Budweiser. Then he returned to his story of torture and murder.
He has told this story many times. In October 1987, he described Battalion 316's operations before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in Costa Rica. He later spoke with the staff of the Senate intelligence committee about CIA collaboration with Battalion 316.
Caballero's accounts have been consistent over the years. Substantial parts of his testimony have been corroborated by prisoners of Battalion 316, former members of the unit and by the CIA.
The only dispute is over Caballero's role in Battalion 316: He says that he was not a torturer.
"I was an interrogator," Caballero said.
But a former army commander and a former member of Battalion 316 remember him differently.
Col. Mario "El Tigre" Amaya, former head of the Honduran special forces, knew Caballero before he transferred from the regular army to the intelligence unit.
In an interview at his home in Tela on the sandy Caribbean coast of northern Honduras, Amaya, whose nickname means "the tiger," recalled Caballero as "a cold-blooded killer."
"Sometimes he killed because he was ordered to," Amaya said. "Other times, because he wanted to do it."
Fausto Reyes, a former member of Battalion 316, recalls him similarly.
"Florencio Caballero was one of the most violent interrogators of 316," he said.
Caballero said he cooperates with investigations into the crimes of Battalion 316 as a way to atone.
"I don't want people to think my heart is pure, but what I'm expressing comes from my heart," he said. "The truth is, this caused a lot of harm to Honduras."
BATTALION headquarters was a flat, gray cinder-block building that once housed the Francisco Morazan athletic club, in the 21st of October neighborhood of Tegucigalpa.
The battalion was organized by Col. Gustavo Alvarez Martinez, commander of the Honduran military police, and remained under his authority after he became head of the Honduran armed forces in 1982 with the rank of general.
Alvarez appointed Capt. Alexander Hernandez to run the battalion. Caballero said execution orders came down to the battalion from Alvarez and Hernandez.
Caballero recalled the order to kill Angel Manfredo Velasquez, a 35-year-old graduate student, teacher and political activist. The father of three was abducted by Battalion 316 on Sept. 12, 1981.
"By order of Alvarez, to be sure that no one would ever find his body, they took him from Tegucigalpa and stabbed him to death," Caballero said. "Then they cut his body to pieces with a machete and buried the pieces in different places along the road from Tegucigalpa to Progreso de Yoro."
Hernandez, now a colonel in the Honduran military police, denied any involvement with disappearances or murders.
"There is no proof against me," said the tall, thin man, sitting erect with his arms across his chest in his office in Tegucigalpa.
In interviews with The Sun, and in court testimony, Caballero described the CIA role in training members of Battalion 316, most of whom never attended high school but had basic reading and writing skills.
He said that he and about 25 other Hondurans were taken in a Honduran air force plane in 1980 to what he thought was Texas.
"We went to a military base. It was so private. There was no TV, no cable, only videotapes," Caballero recalled. "The [Honduran] officers knew where we were. They would say, 'here in Texas.' It was like a college. We had everything we needed -- food, drink, a swimming pool."
The CIA instructors, Caballero said, taught that torture rarely achieved desired results. Instead, the instructors showed the students forms of psychological pressure: how to study prisoners, discover what they loved and what they hated, and then to use that knowledge against them.
"If a person did not like cockroaches, then that person might be more cooperative if there were cockroaches running around the room," Caballero said.
But while the CIA instructors discouraged physical torture, Alvarez demanded it.
"Alvarez said, 'I'm in charge here. I do not like interrogations without physical torture,'" Caballero recalled. "As a result, physical torture continued."
The battalion held its prisoners in dozens of places -- an old military clubhouse, an athletic center and the country villas of military officers.
German Perez was detained in the country home of Col. Amilcar Zelaya, former head of the Honduran military police force, Caballero said. The two-story, peach-colored house in Tamara, 10 miles outside Tegucigalpa, is surrounded by mango and orange trees, and can barely be seen from the road.
"Many died there," Caballero said.
Caballero was based on the southern edge of Tegucigalpa, near the Military Industries complex, INDUMIL.
Scattered buildings served as barracks for the battalion. Prisoners were kept in a one-story, circular building that was once a clubhouse for an artillery brigade.
Neither judges, attorneys nor prisoners' relatives were permitted visit INDUMIL.
When judges ordered the military to reveal a captive's whereabouts, Caballero said, battalion members would mock them. "We would laugh at them and say, 'Why are they asking about that one? That one is already dead.'"
Caballero joined the Honduran military as did many of its soldiers -- he was pressed into service.
In 1977, as he sat in a theater watching a movie with a girlfriend, soldiers burst in and ordered the women to leave. The men were loaded into buses and taken to a military barracks for training.
Caballero said he spent a year in an infantry brigade in Santa Rosa de Copan, a town on the Caribbean, where he earned a reputation for violence, according to other members of the Honduran military. He said he was invited in 1980 to become a member of a "special intelligence unit," the unit that later became known as Battalion 316.
Unit leaders told him that Battalion 316 would help save Honduras from communism, but Caballero said he joined for the money.
"I didn't do it because I liked it, nor because I had ideas from the far right," he said. "I never considered myself an ultra right-wing person or a leftist. ... In Honduras, if someone comes and offers you a very high salary, of course you're going to accept.
"Alvarez Martinez said to us that we would earn the salary of an officer, 750 lempiras a month [then worth $375]. In that time, that was very good money," Caballero said.
Caballero said that he left Battalion 316 in 1984 because he had gotten married and his wife pressured him to quit.
"She told me what I was doing was bad."
Two years later, he said, members of the battalion shot at him with a machine gun. Caballero said he had begun giving information about Battalion 316 to human rights investigators, and that battalion leaders wanted him dead. He was not injured, but said he knew that the attacks would continue if he stayed in Honduras.
He fled Honduras in 1986.
JOSE VALLE DESCRIBED the techniques of torture -- very simple, very painful. One favored technique, Valle said, was to force a prisoner to stand naked on a chair, then to tie a basket to his testicles. As the torturer asked questions, he filled the basket with rocks or corn and swung it back and forth.
"There was nothing to it," Valle said.
Valle, now 37, is a burly man with a round face, curly hair and a sparse beard. As he speaks about the pain he inflicted, he interjects pleas for understanding and forgiveness. Unemployed, separated from his wife, and living in public housing in Toronto, he spends his days watching his small children and brooding about his past.
"I was involved. Yes, I participated. Yes, I was involved with torture," Valle said, sitting on his couch beneath a wall decorated with the blue and white Honduran flag and portraits of his parents.
"I was doing a job," Valle said, "something I did to give food to my kids. I knew it wasn't right because other families were sacrificing their loved ones."
Valle was 15 when he joined the armed forces. He said his superiors considered him an asset because he could read and write, and because he knew how to drive.
"I wanted to make the army a career," he recalled. "I wanted to rise and do something."
Running errands for officers made Valle feel important. He was proudest that he had become useful to Colonel Hernandez, the first head of Battalion 316. "[Hernandez] had so much confidence in me he sent me to buy things like cigarettes for him," Valle boasted.
Valle's loyalty earned him an invitation to a three-month training course. Valle said the course was held at an army base in Lepaterique. The instructors were Americans and Argentines, at time when the CIA was paying Argentine counterinsurgency trainers in Honduras.
Valle said the Argentine instructors taught how to use "la capucha" -- "the hood" -- a rubber mask that was wrapped around a person's face to suffocate him.
"The rubber is put over the prisoner's face. They put a foot on the back of the neck and pull up on the rubber. Another person slaps the ears. Before starting, they tell you, 'When you want to talk more, nod your head.' The Argentines taught this."
The Americans, he said, "gave us training in surveillance, disguise and photography. They showed us a camera that looked like a thermos. They told us how to open locked doors and taught us methods of interrogation."
Afterward, Valle said, he was assigned to Battalion 316, which he considered a high honor. He earned more money. He wore civilian clothes, and he drove nice cars.
Valle said his superiors told him that the work of the battalion was crucial in saving Honduras from the Communists.
"When we started with the battalion and started doing disappearances, [the officers] told us we were doing good for the country," Valle said. "If the country fell to communism it would be terrible."
Valle's first job for the unit was surveillance, following suspects for four to six days to determine the best time to strike.
"We would see if he came straight home or stopped at the restaurant or university," Valle said. "We would take notes. We would take pictures if none existed. We would use motorcycles, cars.
"We would go out and execute the kidnapping," Valle said. "We all wore black masks. ... If a suspect resisted, we beat him and sometimes shot him in the leg."
After several months on the kidnapping squad, he was allowed to participate in interrogations. Torture was always used, he said.
Many prisoners were executed, Valle said. He remembers one execution particularly vividly.
Late one night, on a dirt road outside Tegucigalpa, he watched as another battalion member pushed a prisoner from the car and began stabbing him, Valle said. After five thrusts, the prisoner was still alive, murmuring what sounded like a prayer.
Valle said his associate pulled a gun and shot the prisoner. They left the body by the roadside.
"It was the most horrible thing I have ever seen," he said.
In 1985, Valle decided to leave the battalion and fled to Mexico. He and his family moved to Canada a year later.
He attempts to explain his work for Battalion 316.
"If I get an order and I oppose, I'm risking my life. And what can I do?" he asked, shrugging his shoulders. "I never wanted to wash my hands of what I did. I know I have responsibility.
"I knew what I was doing," he said. "But there is a point where you go through this door and you cannot go back out through that same door.
"Either you go out dead or you go out disappeared."
JOSE BARRERA WAS ONE of Battalion 316's assassins. He keeps in his mind a list of the people he murdered.
There was Jorge Alberto Cubas Carrillo, who Barrera shot to death in December 1983 at a bar in northern Honduras. Barrera recalled that his superior gave him 600 lempiras -- the equivalent of about $300.
There was Ricardo Garcia. Barrera said that he and other members of Battalion 316 used a rope to tear off Garcia's testicles. Then they killed him. Barrera said he earned 300 lempiras and spent it at a June fair.
In August 1985, Barrera thrust a knife into the abdomen of Juan Hernandez Dominguez.
"I did it to earn merit," he said.
For five years, Barrera gained privileges and money in Battalion 316. Now 36, he is a thin man with small eyes the color of coal and thick, black eyebrows. In an interview with The Sun and in a 16-page sworn statement to the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights of Honduras (COFADEH) in 1987, Barrera admitted the murders he committed as a member of Battalion 316.
Born to a poor family and never formally educated, Barrera said he joined the army at 14 to escape poverty.
He failed many of the army's basic training courses because he could not adequately read or write. It appeared unlikely that he would climb through the ranks.
So, in April 1981, when superiors offered him the opportunity to carry a gun and make the equivalent of $250 a month, Barrera took the job.
In 1983, he underwent training at the Honduran military base at Lepaterique, where he said he was taught interrogation methods by eight U.S. and four Argentine instructors.
"The Argentines taught courses on torture," he said.
Barrera said U.S. instructors later taught him to tap telephones in a course conducted in San Pedro Sula, Honduras' second-largest city.
He said he served as a torturer and assassin in Battalion 316, traveling the country on "special assignments."
He said he employed a variety of methods to make prisoners talk. He hogtied and kicked them, pulled the hair off their legs, jolted their bodies with electricity and smothered them with a rubber hood.
If those methods failed, Barrera threatened to harm their families.
"The first thing we would say is that we know your mother, your younger brother, and it's better you cooperate, because if you don't, we're going to bring them in and rape them and torture them and kill them," he recalled.
"We would show them photos of their family. We would say, 'We're going to get your mother and rape her in front of you.' Then we would make it seem like we went to get the mother."
In 1986, Barrera said, officers accused him of betraying the battalion because he had friends suspected of being leftists. He had seen another member of Battalion 316 killed for the same reason. Fearing for his life, Barrera deserted in September 1986.
"I knew I was going to disappear," he said.
A month later he was seized from his home. He says he was taken to a secret jail and tortured.
Forty-eight days later, Barrera was released alive, after a campaign by relatives and leaders of human rights groups.
The activists helped Barrera flee to Mexico. From there, he moved to Canada.
Returning to Honduras would mean certain death, he said.
BATTALION 316 DID NOT operate alone. Officers in all branches the Honduran military helped. The Honduran air force flew prisoners out of the country or to military camps throughout Honduras. Officers in the special forces raided the homes of suspected subversives or captured suspects camped along the Honduran border.
Honduran police stopped suspected leftists and turned them over to the battalion.
One collaborator was Fausto Reyes, chief of motorcycle police in San Pedro Sula from 1980 to 1986. The 39-year-old Reyes described how he helped Battalion 316 stage kidnappings.
He recalled the morning of Jan. 29, 1983, when he pulled over RTC Herminio Deras, a leader of the Honduran Communist Party. Reyes said he turned Deras over to three battalion members dressed in civilian clothes.
"I gave this guy to them alive," Reyes said. "After that, I went to have a soda and an enchilada. ... I returned when I heard the gunshot. ... Mr. Herminio Deras was dead. He was there on the street.
"I felt bad as a person. I felt bad as a man. I felt bad as a policeman. I felt like a violator of the law."
A clean-cut man with smooth, brown skin, a double chin and wide, expressive eyes, Reyes worked for Battalion 316 from 1982 until he fled Honduras in 1988, after he and one of his sons were shot at from an unmarked car.
He was interviewed by The Sun in Brockville, Ontario, where he lives with his wife and five children. Reyes drives a taxi.
Reyes, the son of a banana company manager, joined the police as a bugler at the age of 13. He attended high school at night, graduating in 1974. He was an instructor at a police academy in Tegucigalpa.
In 1980, Reyes was appointed chief of motorcycle police in San Pedro Sula. In Honduras, the police are a branch of the armed forces.
His mentor was General Alvarez, the head of the Honduran armed forces who created Battalion 316.
"I admired him," Reyes said. "He dressed very neatly. He wanted to build a professional institution. He was very decent with me. He made me feel very good. I thought the doors to my future were open."
Reyes said that his loyalty to Alvarez led him to agree to collaborate with the unit.
"They wanted to capture a group of terrorists that were infiltrating Honduras, and all I had to do was easy -- stop the vehicle and they would capture them," he recalled.
"As a policeman, I felt it was very important to comply. But later I noticed that these people were not terrorists," he said. "I thought they would be like, Syrians, but the prisoners were Hondurans.
"I thought the prisoners would be interrogated, but later I noticed that Battalion 316 was killing people."
Reyes said bodies began appearing "in rivers and in the banana fields." He said he was so shaken by Deras' murder that he went to Alvarez to report it.
"I said, 'I know someone who killed someone,' " Reyes recalled. "He said, 'Why did they involve you in this?' And he said a soldier must always be loyal and never speak against his superiors.
"He told me, 'What you have seen, you have to take to your grave.'"
A survivor tells her story. By Gary Cohn and Ginger Thompson. June 15, 1995.
DAY AFTER DAY, for 78 days, Ines Consuelo Murillo was tortured by a secret Honduran military intelligence unit called Battalion 316.
Her captors tied the 24-year-old woman's hands and feet, hung her naked from the ceiling and beat her with their fists. They fondled her. They nearly drowned her. They clipped wires to her breasts and sent electricity surging through her body.
"It was so frightening the way my body would shake when they shocked me. They put rags in my throat so I would not scream," she said. "But I screamed so loud, sometimes it sounded like an animal. I would even scare myself."
Murillo is one of hundreds abducted and tortured during the 1980s by Battalion 316, a unit trained and equipped by the CIA to gather intelligence about subversives, at a time when Honduras was crucial to the Reagan administration's war against communism in Central America.
Many of those kidnapped were later murdered, their bodies discovered in fields and along riverbanks. At least 184 people are missing and presumed dead.
From interviews with Murillo, her parents, battalion member Florencio Caballero and others involved in the case, The Sun has pieced together the story of her days and nights in captivity.
Information about Murillo's ordeal also was obtained from secret testimony by a high-level CIA official before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. In that June 1988 testimony, Richard Stolz, then the CIA deputy director for operations, confirmed that a CIA officer visited the jail where Battalion 316 held Murillo.
She and her captors recalled the visits by the American, a man they knew as "Mr. Mike."
The CIA's visits to the jail are significant because U.S. officials in Honduras repeatedly claimed at the time that they had no evidence that the Honduran military was engaging in systematic human rights abuses.
In his testimony, Stolz said: "I have no facts to contradict Ms. Murillo's statement that she suffered physical abuse at the hands of the Honduran military interrogators."
Stolz also confirmed that two battalion members, Florencio Caballero and Marco Tulio Regalado, were trained by the CIA. Murillo accuses those battalion members of being among her torturers. The two men graduated from a CIA interrogation course on March 13, 1983. It was the same day that Murillo was seized by Battalion 316.
Ines Murillo was abducted that evening as she walked with a friend along the dusty road from Choloma, a small town near the northern coast of Honduras.
She and her companion, shoemaker Jose Flores, were taken away by men who drove up in two trucks. The men beat them, she says, and threw them in the back of a truck.
Murillo said she felt Flores trembling. "Although they will tell you you are guilty of something, and they will tell you that I said you are guilty of something, do not fall into this madness," she says she whispered. "You are completely innocent."
By all accounts, Murillo was not innocent. She refuses to comment on any alleged subversion. But she has been identified as a member of the Lorenzo Zelaya Front, an armed leftist group that robbed banks and businesses and stole weapons from police. Her participation in the group was confirmed by one of its former leaders, Efrain Duarte.
Murillo acknowledges having used false names, carrying fake identification and sleeping in different places to avoid capture.
After their abductors drove for about an hour, Murillo and Flores were hauled from the truck, through a house and into a damp, chilly basement.
She says the men stripped her, then tied her hands and feet.
When they asked who she was, she told them she was Maria Odelia Duvon Medrano, an acquaintance whose name she had used to get the false identification she carried.
The men lifted Murillo and dunked her head in a barrel of water, holding her there until her flailing body went limp.
At first, she fabricated a story.
"I told them that I had gone to Nicaragua, fallen in love and fought with the Sandinistas. ... It was all lies, but it was what they wanted to hear."
'I know your father'
FOR DAYS, MURILLO says, she and Flores were held in the basement with two or three torturers at a time and given nothing to eat or drink. Her captors fondled her and threatened to rape her if she fell asleep.
As torturers attached wires to her body, she saw through her blindfold that they wore graduation rings from the Honduran military academy.
"The rings have a blue stone," she said.
After 10 days, Murillo says, she felt so weak from lack of food and sleep that she was sure the next shock session would kill her.
It was then that a soft-spoken, heavily cologned officer offered relief.
He removed Murillo's blindfold and asked her to look into his eyes to see that he meant no harm.
The heavyset man breathed as if his weight was too heavy to carry, she recalls. She says the man was Marco Tulio Regalado, one of the men of Battalion 316 trained in interrogation methods by the CIA.
Murillo says that Regalado covered her with a rough cotton shirt. Then he held up a plate of cold beans and stiff tortillas. To her, it looked like a feast.
"He fed it to me at first," she said. "Then he untied my hands so that I could eat."
He politely asked her to cooperate. He said that they had checked and learned that her name was not Maria. The tortures would stop, he promised, if she would just tell them her real name.
She suddenly could not remember her false identity.
"I became hysterical and began to laugh," Murillo recalled. "I wrote my real name and my parents' names."
The man she identified as Regalado looked at the names and realized that her father was a former military officer. She says he screamed at her: "Bitch, I know your father."
Attempts by The Sun to locate Regalado have been unsuccessful. But in testimony before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in Costa Rica, Regalado denied any involvement in Murillo's captivity. He said he had no knowledge of the case except for what he had read in the newspapers.
Once her captors realized that she came from a prominent family and was a soldier's daughter, Murillo says, they became less harsh.
For a few weeks she was hardly tortured -- only a few shoves and punches.
Her captors agreed to untie her hands while she slept. They told her they had made anonymous calls to her parents to tell them she was alive. Finally, she says, they promised that when the time came, they would make her death quick.
"I told them, 'When you shoot me, shoot me good so that I die quick,'" Murillo recalled.
One night, after more than a month in the basement, Murillo and Flores were awakened roughly. Her captors seemed angry, she recalls. They shoved her and yelled at her to put on her clothes. They blindfolded her and pushed the two of them upstairs and into the night.
"I thought they were going to kill us," she said. "I began to cry."
But Murillo and Flores were not executed. They rode south for 2 1/2 hours to another clandestine jail near a military complex known as INDUMIL, an acronym for Industrias Militares.
Situated among the low hills south of Tegucigalpa, the jail at INDUMIL was a flat, circular building used as a training center for an artillery battalion.
Murillo heard the booms of large guns.
Her captors pushed her into what she took to be a photo lab because of the odor, then cleared the room, saying they didn't want her to commit suicide by drinking chemicals.
Flores was taken away, Murillo says. She did not see him for the remainder of her captivity.
A radio blared all day, but the music couldn't mute the screams of prisoners. Murillo says she particularly remembers the cries of a woman being tortured in the next cell.
"I heard one of the men say he was going to stick a rod inside the woman," Murillo said. "The woman screamed, 'No, no!' And then she just screamed.
"Sometimes it felt as if they were torturing other people to torture me."
Murillo said the torture at INDUMIL "was much more sophisticated."
"They tortured my mind and my body."
Again she was stripped and not allowed to sleep. Her captors came into her cell every 10 minutes to pour water over her head and shoulders.
"It was only this much water," she said, picking up her coffee cup. "But it had ice in it. It was so cold."
Once, her tormentors brought a German shepherd named Mauser into her cell.
She was blindfolded, she recalls, but she could tell that the dog was huge when her captors forced her to touch his broad head.
"He growled all the time and barked," Murillo said. "I thought they were going to let him attack me."
Murillo was told to stand straight and still; if she moved, Mauser would attack, her captors warned. Murillo says she felt Mauser brush her legs as he circled.
She stood still for more than an hour. Her torturers refused to let her go to the bathroom. When she urinated on the floor, they taunted her.
"They would say to me, 'You Communists have no mothers. You have no morals. You have no country.'"
At INDUMIL, Murillo encountered Florencio Caballero, another member of Battalion 316 who had graduated from the same CIA training course as Regalado.
Caballero spent hours interrogating Murillo in the clandestine jail -- asking about everything from leftist guerrilla activities in Central America to whether she had a boyfriend.
In interviews in Toronto, where Caballero has lived with his wife and children since he fled Honduras in 1986, he recalled how Murillo was brutalized. When she arrived, he said, her body was shrunken from weeks without food. He confirmed that she and Flores were shocked with electricity.
"They attached cables with clips to their genitals, on their sides and on their backs," he said.
Caballero says he never raised a hand against Murillo, but only questioned her.
Murillo, arching her thin eyebrows, says she remembers Caballero as a torturer.
"I remember perfectly well what he did to me," she said, although she refused to describe precisely what it was. "His story that there were some who tortured and others who just interrogated was a lie. Everyone in the jail tortured."
After several weeks at INDUMIL, Murillo says, she heard Caballero ask: "Is she still alive? Why haven't they killed her?"
'Mr. Mike' visits
ABOUT TWO MONTHS into her captivity, an American who seemed to be a regular visitor to the area came to her cell, Murillo says. Whenever he came, she would hear her captors shouting, "Here comes Mr. Mike."
"It was like an uncle coming to visit," she recalled. "I could tell he did not live there, but he was always welcome."
On this occasion, Murillo says, the Hondurans dressed her in a rough cotton shirt and pants, and secured her blindfold.
After being blindfolded for so long, Murillo says, her other senses had become more acute. She heard the footsteps of three or four people enter her cell. Then she heard the sounds of a pencil scribbling on a pad and the passing of the pad from one person to another.
One of her interrogators began to speak. It sounded as if he were reading, Murillo recalls. And although he spoke in Spanish, with a Honduran accent, his questions were not grammatical.
Murillo remembers thinking: "These are not the questions of Battalion 316. They are the questions of Mr. Mike."
He was writing them and passing them to the Honduran interrogator, instead of speaking himself, she believes. And unlike the usual interrogations, there was no torture.
The man she believed to be an American remained silent through the 10-minute interrogation.
THE AMERICAN'S VISIT to the jail where Murillo was held was confirmed in secret testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in June 1988 by the CIA's deputy director for operations, Richard Stolz.
He testified that the agency learned from Honduran military sources on April 5, 1983, that Murillo had been arrested.
A transcript of his testimony was declassified at The Sun's request.
"Mindful of the human rights issue, headquarters inquired about her current condition and asked if formal charges had been brought against her," Stolz testified. He said that a CIA officer went to visit "the area where Ms. Murillo was held."
Much of Stolz's account of CIA involvement in the Murillo case was censored by the CIA before the transcript was released to The Sun.
Stolz declined to comment.
Caballero told The Sun that he remembered the visit by "Mr. Mike." Battalion members put clothes on Murillo that day, he says, but they did not cover all of her bruises and gashes.
"He saw how she was," Caballero said.
Caballero's account is consistent with information that he provided to investigators from the Senate intelligence committee.
He told investigators that a CIA official visited INDUMIL "quite frequently" and "even more so when [Murillo] was in custody," according to a previously classified, 22-page transcript obtained by The Sun.
"I believe it may be three to four times a week," Caballero told the investigators. When we had [Murillo] he visited us very frequently." He said the CIA official "even did some of the questioning."
"We never knew when [deletion] was to visit," Caballero added. "He came and went as he pleased. He had full access."
Two days after "Mr. Mike" visited her, Murillo says, one of her captors offered her a chance to live: She was to give a press conference, admitting that she was a guerrilla and warning the country that Communist groups were plotting to overthrow the government.
"The torturers spent two hours telling me the benefits of giving the press conference," she said. "I would be able to see my family. I would be free."
As an inducement, she says, they made life more comfortable. They allowed her to bathe for the first time in two months. They gave her a meal of beans and rice, and they gave her a thin mattress to sleep on.
"I knew then that the press conference was the idea of the American," she said. "I knew that this American had the power to decide whether I lived or died."
She said she also thought about the possibility of returning home. But her hopes were shattered the next day when she told her captors that she would give the press conference only if it were live, with real reporters, and only if her parents were there.
"They told me, 'Do you think we are idiots?" Murillo recalled. She said the beatings resumed.
A family's pleas
MURILLO'S FAMILY had not given up hope. Murillo's mother, Ines, a German national employed by the United Nations, sought help from German officials in Honduras and from her boss.
Anton Kruderink, a U.N. official in Honduras, spoke to ambassadors in Tegucigalpa and to numerous military officials about Murillo's abduction.
Gen. Gustavo Alvarez Martinez, head of the Honduran armed forces, became indignant about Kruderink's inquiries.
"He told me, 'What business of yours is this matter?'" Kruderink recalled in an interview.
But Kruderink was undaunted. He raised Murillo's plight with every Honduran official he encountered.
"I felt that the more I spoke publicly, the more embarrassing it would be to the people who were holding her," he said.
The ambassadors he met, including U.S. Ambassador John D. Negroponte, expressed interest in the Murillo case and said they would ask about her when they talked with Honduran officials.
Cesar Murillo, Ines Murillo's father, was sure that the more the world knew about his daughter's captivity, the better her chances of being released alive.
He spoke regularly to reporters, human rights investigators, government officials and foreign diplomats. He filed habeas corpus petitions with the Honduran Supreme Court.
"The president of the Supreme Court said he was scared of the army and [that] there was nothing he could do," he said bitterly. "[The judges] told me to look for her in Cuba."
President Roberto Suazo Cordoba told Honduran reporters that Murillo and others listed as disappeared were Communists who had left Honduras to live in Cuba, Moscow or Nicaragua.
Cesar Murillo took his campaign to the United States, traveling twice to speak with congressional aides about his daughter.
He wrote to Honduran Foreign Minister Edgardo Paz Barnica, threatening to expose the activities of Battalion 316 if his daughter was not released alive.
In a letter dated May 25, 1983, he said he had proof that the Honduran military was holding his daughter. He named Honduran officers posted at INDUMIL. He identified an official at the U.S. Embassy -- Michael Dubbs -- as someone who knew where his daughter was being held.
If his daughter was released alive, he wrote: "I promise not to divulge the details of her ordeal and to convince my daughter to live outside Honduras."
A ranking diplomat in the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa at the time confirms that there was a CIA officer named Michael Dubbs stationed there.
The Sun visited Dubbs' home in Indiana. A man who answered the door declined to identify himself or to respond to questions about the Murillo case.
On May 27, 1983 -- 74 days into Murillo's captivity -- her parents purchased a full-page ad in El Tiempo, a prominent Honduran newspaper. The ad was a portrait of Murillo headlined with the words: "Courage, my daughter."
Four days later, Battalion 316 released Murillo and Flores. The prisoners were taken to a public jail and then to a court for arraignment.
"They put Don Jose and me together," Murillo recalled. "I took off his blindfold and I told him, 'I think we have survived.' We were the happiest people in the world."
They made their first public appearance in a courthouse in Tegucigalpa.
Murillo wore an old pair of pants and a flowered blouse. Flores was barefoot.
They were met by a crush of Honduran journalists. Murillo hugged her mother.
In charges presented against Murillo in a Honduran criminal court, military officials stated that they had confiscated crude drawings of police posts from her purse. The drawings listed police personnel and types of weapons held there.
In addition, the military presented as evidence books of Marxist literature that allegedly belonged to Murillo and "subversive" poems they saidshe had written.
IN COURT DOCUMENTS, the Honduran military charged that Murillo was involved in plots to rob banks in San Pedro Sula and attempts to sabotage telephone communication centers. Flores was charged as her accomplice.
"They had no evidence against him," Murillo said. "He was accused because he was a friend of mine."
Murillo and Flores pleaded not guilty. Both testified about the torture they had endured in the secret jails of Battalion 316.
A doctor who examined Murillo reported to the court that she had sustained some injuries, mostly bruises, but that there was no proof that they had been caused by torture.
"It's so ridiculous," said Murillo, poring over court documents in a restaurant where one interview was conducted. "This was Honduran justice. Most of these writings are not mine."
Murillo and Flores were found guilty of treason and attempts to overthrow the government.
She was sentenced to two years in the Women's Jail in Tegucigalpa, and served 13 months. Flores received the same sentence, which he served in full.
In 1986, he fled to Mexico, where he died last year.
Today, at 36, Murillo is usually dressed in bright, youthful skirts and sandals. Her face, though, appears older. Her cheeks are sunken, her eyes twitch and her head jerks slightly when she speaks.
She testified about her ordeal before the Inter-American Court for Human Rights in Costa Rica. In her pursuit of justice for the leaders of Battalion 316, Murillo says, she has put aside the rage she feels about her captivity to interview former rank-and-file members of the battalion.
"It made me sick to my stomach," she said, speaking about interviews she conducted with one former battalion member.
She recently began work as a human rights observer for the United Nations mission in Guatemala.
Previously, she worked with the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights of Honduras (CODEH), which is pressing for charges to be brought against military officials involved with Battalion 316.
"Sometimes I wish I could go away and work on a boat in the middle of the ocean," she said. "I speak not for myself, but for those who cannot speak."
How a journalist was silenced. By Gary Cohn and Ginger Thompson. June 15, 1995.
ON THE NIGHT OF July 8, 1982, a dozen soldiers wearing black ski masks and carrying automatic rifles raided the home of Oscar Reyes, a journalist who wrote articles critical of the Honduran military.
Helicopters hovered above the two-story, brick house as Reyes and his wife, Gloria, were tied up and driven to an abandoned house.
They say they were stripped and tortured as accused subversives.
"I told them, 'I'm not a terrorist. I never have been a terrorist,'" recalled Reyes.
"They tied my hands behind my back, hung me from the ceiling and beat me like a pinata."
Reyes, now 59 and a U.S. citizen, lives with his wife in Vienna, Va.
In an interview, the couple recalled the torture they endured at the hands of Battalion 316.
Reyes says his ribs were cracked with rifle butts in one room of the secret jail while his wife was shocked with electricity in another.
Gloria Reyes, 54, says torturers attached wires to her breasts and vagina and shocked her over and over.
"The first jolt was so bad I just wanted to die. It was horrible," she said. "But then it was very strange, my body became numb. And when they shocked me again, I felt my body shake, but there was not a lot of pain."
She says that she peeked through the rags tied around her eyes and saw blood running down her legs.
"I started to feel sick," she said. "I vomited and I fainted."
Through her blindfold, Gloria Reyes could see the bare walls of the living room, the gray concrete floor stained with blood and vomit. In an adjacent bathroom, she saw a blindfolded woman crouching in a corner. She wore a flowered skirt splotched with blood.
Gloria Reyes remembers the woman's screams. "She said, 'Please, just kill me. Look what you have done. Look at me. Why don't you just kill me?'"
The abduction of the Reyeses caused such a public outcry that Honduran authorities felt compelled to release them.
After a week, the Reyeses were taken to a public court and convicted of subversive activity and sentenced to six months in prison. They were released after five months.
Cresencio S. Arcos, who was press spokesman at the U.S. Embassy in Honduras when the Reyeses were kidnapped by Battalion 316, says that they were not subversives.
"It appeared to be pointless," said Arcos, who later became U.S. ambassador to Honduras. "To silence him over newspaper articles was ridiculous."
A carefully crafted deception. By Gary Cohn and Ginger Thompson. June 18, 2005
A dangerous truth confronted John Dimitri Negroponte as he prepared to take over as U.S. ambassador to Honduras late in 1981.
The military in Honduras -- the country from which the Reagan administration had decided to run the battle for democracy in Central America -- was kidnapping and murdering its own citizens.
"GOH [Government of Honduras] security forces have begun to resort to extralegal tactics -- disappearances and, apparently, physical eliminations ` to control a perceived subversive threat," Negroponte was told in a secret briefing book prepared by the embassy staff.
The assertion was true, and there was worse to come.
Time and again during his tour of duty in Honduras from 1981 to 1985, Negroponte was confronted with evidence that a Honduran army intelligence unit, trained by the CIA, was stalking, kidnapping, torturing and killing suspected subversives.
A 14-month investigation by The Sun, which included interviews with U.S. and Honduran officials who could not have spoken freely at the time, shows that Negroponte learned from numerous sources about the crimes of the unit called Battalion 316.
The Honduran press was full of reports about military abuses, including hundreds of newspaper stories in 1982 alone. There were also direct pleas from Honduran officials to U.S. officials, including Negroponte.
A disgruntled former Honduran intelligence chief publicly denounced Battalion 316. Relatives of the battalion's victims demonstrated in the streets and appealed to U.S. officials for intervention, including once in an open letter to President Reagan's presidential envoy to Central America.
Rick Chidester, then a junior political officer in the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa, told The Sun that he compiled substantial evidence of abuses by the Honduran military in 1982, but was ordered to delete most of it from the annual human rights report prepared for the State Department to deliver to Congress.
Those reports consistently misled Congress and the public.
"There are no political prisoners in Honduras," the State Department asserted falsely in its 1983 human rights report.
The reports to Congress were carefully crafted to convey the impression that the Honduran government and military were committed to democratic ideals.
It was important not to confront Congress with evidence that the military was trampling on civil liberties and murdering dissidents. The truth could have triggered congressional action under the Foreign Assistance Act, which generally prohibits military aid to any government that "engages in a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights."
A comparison of the annual human rights reports prepared while Negroponte was ambassador with the facts as they were then known shows that Congress was deliberately misled.
Assertion: "Student, worker, peasant, and other interest groups have full freedom to organize and hold frequent public demonstrations without interference. ... Trade unions are not hindered by the government."
-- State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1982
Fact: Highly publicized abductions of students and union leaders that year included:
Saul Godinez, elementary school teacher and union activist, abducted July 22, 1982; Eduardo Lanza, medical student and general secretary of the Honduran Federation of University Students, kidnapped Aug. 1, 1982; German Perez Aleman, leader of an airport maintenance workers union, abducted Aug. 18, 1982; Hector Hernandez, president of a textile workers union, abducted Dec. 24, 1982.
All are still missing and presumed dead.
Assertion: "Legal guarantees exist against arbitrary arrest or imprisonment, and against torture or degrading treatment. Habeas corpus is guaranteed by the Constitution, and Honduran law provides for arraignment within 24 hours of arrest. This appears to be the standard practice."
-- State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1982
Fact: "The court got so many petitions of habeas corpus. But whenever we sent them to the police, the police would say they did not have the prisoners," Rumaldo Iries Calix, a justice of the Supreme Court in 1982, said in an interview with The Sun. "They had moved the prisoners to some secret jail. It was like a game to them."
The experience of Zenaida Velasquez was typical. Her brother, Manfredo, a 35-year-old graduate student, teacher and political activist, was abducted by Battalion 316 on Sept. 12, 1981, and has not been seen since.
Zenaida Velasquez filed habeas corpus petitions on her brother's behalf on Sept. 17, 1981, Feb. 6, 1982, and July 4, 1983, asking that he be brought before a court and his detention justified.
"It didn't do any good at all," she said.
Assertion: "There have been reports in the press and by local sources of the use of torture by local police forces during interrogation. Honduran officials assert that it is a common practice for persons held in connection with politically motivated crimes to allege that they were tortured during the investigation and interrogation process."
"The Honduran armed forces chief, Gustavo Alvarez, recently issued a public statement denying that the government used torture and specifically stated that torture was not to be used on prisoners."
-- State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1982
Fact: Alvarez had made it clear to Ambassador Negroponte's predecessor, Jack Binns, that he intended to use Argentine-style, "extra-legal" means to eliminate suspected subversives. Battalion 316 was created largely for this purpose.
According to Florencio Caballero, a former sergeant in Battalion 316, Alvarez demanded torture as "the quickest way to get information."
In one highly publicized case of torture and intimidation, human rights attorney Rene Velasquez (no relation to Manfredo) was arrested on June 1, 1982, in front of his law office in Tegucigalpa and taken to a secret jail where he was kept for four days.
"They undressed me, they tied my hands and they put a rubber mask over my face," he said. "They put something on me to attract flies, because those were my companions for four days.
"I was beaten a lot," Rene Velasquez said. "They hit me in the ribs and stomach. ... I could barely endure the pain."
Assertion: "Access to prisoners is generally not a problem for relatives, attorneys, consular officers or international humanitarian organizations."
-- State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1982
Fact: Not only were they denied access, dozens of relatives of the "disappeared" told The Sun, but police would not even tell them if or where their relatives were being held.
Fidelina Perez and Natalia Mendez visited every police station in Tegucigalpa after finding out that their sons, who were student leaders, had been arrested on a bus as it crossed the border from Nicaragua on Jan. 24, 1982.
Their sons have not been seen since and are presumed dead.
"[The police] all said they had no information. They had not seen them," Perez said. "The police told us to go and look for them in Cuba or Nicaragua."
Said Mendez: "They told us, why did we keep looking for them when they were already dead?"
Assertion: "Sanctity of the home is guaranteed by the Constitution and generally observed."
-- State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1982.
Fact: Raids of homes without warrants were common in Honduras. The military stormed neighborhoods in search of Communist safe houses.
"They would burst into homes of people who were completely innocent and search for evidence," said Honduran journalist Noe Leyva. "Sometimes if they found Marxist books or pamphlets, they would arrest the resident without any warrant. It was ridiculous."
Leyva, now an editor at the Honduran newspaper El Tiempo, reported on human rights abuses for that newspaper in the early 1980s.
In July 1982, Oscar Reyes, a prominent journalist, was seized from his home along with his wife in an illegal raid. Upon their release from prison, the Reyeses found their home ransacked.
Assertion: "In rare cases in which members of the security forces have been accused of murder, the government has brought the perpetrators to justice."
-- State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1983
Fact: "I don't recall one case of that," said Edmundo Orellana, the Honduran attorney general.
Rumaldo Iries Calix, the former Honduran Supreme Court justice, said charges sometimes would be brought against low-level officers, but that the cases were always dismissed.
"No judge dared to convict a military official," Iries said. "There was so much repression against anyone who opposed the military."
Assertion: "There are no political prisoners in Honduras. Individuals are prosecuted not for their political beliefs but rather for criminal acts defined in the penal code."
-- State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1983
Fact: Orellana, who is investigating the disappearances of Battalion 316's victims, shakes his head in amazement at that assertion.
"This is totally untrue," he said. "There were political prisoners, and the disappeared are the proof. They followed, arrested and executed people who just thought differently."
One senator who was serving at the time as a member of the Senate intelligence committee describes what difference it might have made if the human rights reporting had been more truthful.
"I think its extremely important that the State Department be right on human rights, said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat. "If we told the truth about Honduras and the whole Central American policy, ... billions of American tax dollars would have been saved, a large number of lives would have been saved, and the governments would have moved toward democracy quicker."
Negroponte, now U.S. ambassador to the Philippines, has declined repeated requests by telephone and in writing since July for interviews about this report. However, on Thursday, after publication of three parts of The Sun's series, he issued a written statement:
"Under my leadership, the embassy worked to promote the restoration and consolidation of democracy in Honduras, including the advancement of human rights."
He added, "At no time during my tenure in Honduras did the embassy condone or conceal human rights violations. To the contrary, the embassy and the State Department cooperated with the government of Honduras to help remedy recognized deficiencies in the administration of justice."
Negroponte's arrival in Honduras coincided with the Reagan administration's decision to reduce the emphasis that the Carter administration had put on rights issues in dealings with allies.
The new policy had been made clear to Negroponte's predecessor, Ambassador Binns, a Carter appointee, after he repeatedly warned of human rights abuses by the Honduran military.
In a June 1981 cable obtained by The Sun, Binns reported:
"I am deeply concerned at increasing evidence of officially sponsored/sanctioned assassinations of political and criminal targets, which clearly indicate [Government of Honduras] repression has built up a head of steam much faster than we had anticipated."
The reaction was swift and unexpected. Binns was summoned to Washington by Thomas O. Enders, the new assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs.
"I was told to stop human rights reporting except in back channel. The fear was that if it came into the State Department, it will leak," Binns recalled. "They wanted to keep assistance flowing. Increased violations by the Honduran military would prejudice that."
"Back channel" messages are unofficial or informal communications, often in code, sent outside the usual distribution system to restrict circulation of information.
Enders confirmed the 1981 meeting with Binns.
"I told him that whereas human rights violations had been the single most important focus of the previous administration's policy in Latin America, the Reagan administration had broader interests," Enders said. "It believed that the most effective way to overcome civil conflicts and human rights violations was to promote democratically elected governments and that should be his point of focus."
Ample evidence of abuses
There was nothing rare or vague about the evidence of military abuses that confronted Negroponte from the time he took over as ambassador in November 1981.
In 1982, his first full year in Honduras, more than 300 articles in the local press included:
An account in February of the discovery of five bodies in a makeshift grave in Las Montanitas, 15 miles outside Tegucigalpa.
* An account in April of the illegal arrest of six university students.
* A story in September about union members marching through Tegucigalpa to demand the release of one of their leaders abducted a month earlier.
* Another story in September about dozens of children protesting the disappearances outside the Honduran Congress as it considered forming a committee to investigate military abuses.
"There is no way United States officials in Honduras during the early 1980s can deny they knew about the disappearances," said Jaime Rosenthal, a former vice president of Honduras and owner of the daily newspaper El Tiempo. "There were stories about it in our newspaper and most other newspapers almost every day."
"[The United States] had an embassy staff here that was larger than most other embassies in Latin America," Rosenthal said. "If they say they did not know, that is bad, because it would mean they were incompetent."
Evidence came from other sources.
Efrain Diaz Arrivillaga, then a delegate in the Honduran Congress and a voice of dissent in the prevailing atmosphere of intimidation, said he spoke several times to Negroponte about ,, the military's human rights abuses.
Diaz said that in meetings at the U.S. Embassy and at social occasions, he rebuked Negroponte for the U.S. government's refusal to take a stand against the repression.
The Honduran legislator said Negroponte reproached him for refusing to take a strong stand against Communists who were trying to seize control of Honduras.
"I remember Negroponte told me, 'You and others, what you are proposing is to let communism take over this country and over the region,' " Diaz said.
"The most important thing to him was to win public support for the presence of the U.S. military in Honduras," Diaz said. "Their [the U.S.] attitude was one of tolerance and silence. They needed Honduras to loan its territory more than they were concerned about innocent people being killed."
Accusations against the military also came from former insiders.
In August 1982, Col. Leonidas Torres Arias, ousted chief of intelligence for the Honduran military, issued a public warning about Battalion 316. In a news conference in Mexico City, he told reporters about "a death squad operating in Honduras led by armed forces chief General Gustavo Alvarez."
The story made headlines in Mexico and across Central America. reporter from the Honduran newspaper El Tiempo asked Negroponte about the colonel's allegations.
Said Negroponte in an article that appeared Oct. 16, 1982: "Democracy is being consolidated in this country. The armed forces have supported that process. It was the armed forces that turned over power to the civilian constitutional leaders of Honduras. So, I have a lot of difficulty taking those kinds of accusations seriously."
The evidence was also to be found in the streets of Tegucigalpa.
Each week, hundreds marched through the streets of the capital demanding the release of the disappeared. Sometimes they marched past the U.S. Embassy, a hulking concrete complex on Paz Avenue.
The Committee of the Relatives of the Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH)turned to the U.S. government for help. On June 13, 1983, COFADEH addressed an open letter to Richard Stone, President Reagan's special envoy to Central America, complaining that the Honduran military was holding dissidents in clandestine jails.
"More than 40 people have been illegally arrested and tortured," the letter said. "Some have never been heard from since their arrest."
The letter was published in El Tiempo, one of the largest newspapers in Honduras. The U.S. government never responded to the committee's pleas.
In an interview, Stone said that he did not recall the letter.
In October 1983, members of COFADEH visited the U.S. Embassy to ask for help. They said they met with Scott Thayer, a junior political officer assigned to monitor human rights. Among the relatives who attended was Bertha Oliva, whose husband, Tomas Nativi, had been missing for more than two years.
Also there was Zenaida Velasquez, whose brother, Manfredo, had been missing for more than two years.
The parents of Eduardo Lanza attended. Lanza, a medical student, had been a prominent student leader when he was kidnapped by Battalion 316 in August 1982.
The group told Thayer that they had searched jails and hospitals across Honduras for their missing relatives, that military officials only laughed at them and that judges were too afraid to help. They begged the embassy to use its influence with Honduran officials to win their relatives' freedom.
Zenaida Velasquez remembers that Thayer listened politely, then dismissed their allegations.
"He said he knew Honduras had a democratic government and [that] those kinds of practices were not going on," Velasquez said. "They were such a bunch of liars it was disgusting."
Thayer, now a political officer at the U.S. Embassy in Madrid, Spain, said that meeting with Hondurans about human rights abuses "was part of my job. I recall having meetings like that, but I can't recall that specific meeting."
Oliva still fumes over the meeting. In an interview in Tegucigalpa, she said that the embassy official acted as if they were fabricating the disappearances of their relatives.
"He was very cold, very cold," she said, pursing her lips. "Any kindness was gone. He did not even smile at us."
Roberto Becerra, father of the student Eduardo Lanza, said he came away from the meeting with a hopeless feeling.
"We felt like we were screaming in the desert. No one heard us. No one would help us."
In at least one case, Negroponte was confronted with evidence of abuse that he could not ignore -- the arrest and torture in July 1982 of journalist Oscar Reyes and his wife, Gloria.
Reyes, a founder of the journalism school at the National Autonomous University of Honduras, was openly sympathetic to the Marxist Sandinistas in Nicaragua and had written numerous newspaper columns criticizing the Honduran military.
The abduction of the Reyeses sparked newspaper stories and raucous student protests. The Reyeses said they were locked in secret cell for a week, and beaten and tortured with electric shocks.
At the U.S. Embassy, there was fear that if the story got to the United States it might damage carefully assembled public support for the Central America program operating out of Honduras.
Cresencio S. Arcos, then the embassy press spokesman, alerted Negroponte that the Honduran military had abducted the Reyeses.
"If they do this guy, then we're in trouble," Arcos warned. "We cannot let this guy get hurt. ... It would be a disaster for our policy.
"The ambassador did approach [General] Alvarez about this to manifest his concern," Arcos said.
The case clearly shows that Negroponte knew of the Reyeses' abduction and that the ambassador acted in such cases when he felt compelled to do so.
Reyes and his wife were released from the clandestine jail after a week. They were taken before a public court and sentenced to six months in prison. Two weeks before their sentences ended, they were allowed to leave for the United States on condition that they keep quiet about the torture they endured.
That condition was laid down personally by Alvarez, said the Reyeses, who now live in Vienna, Va.
The U.S. Embassy also kept quiet publicly about the Reyes case. It was not mentioned in the human rights report for 1982, even though it was widely covered in the Honduran press and illustrated the Honduran military's violation of human rights on several counts: illegal abduction, secret incarceration, torture and suppression of press freedom.
Instead, the 1982 report asserted: "No incident of official interference with the media has been recorded for several years."
Negroponte's aides at the embassy told The Sun that they knew about serious human rights abuses by the Honduran military, and that the violence was a subject of constant discussion.
One of those aides was a junior political officer, Rick Chidester, who was assigned in 1982 to gather information for the embassy's annual report on human rights, a task that usually fell to a junior officer.
Chidester, now 43 and a private businessman, said that while in Honduras, he interviewed human rights advocates and journalists who provided him with information that the Honduran military was illegally detaining, torturing and executing people.
"I had allegations about vans coming up to police cells and taking out people they [the Honduran military] didn't want ... and shooting them," Chidester said. "I had allegations that, as part of the interrogation techniques, torture was being used."
He said he included the allegations in his draft of the 1982 report.
A supervisor, who Chidester will not name, demanded proof -- sworn testimony or photographs of torture victims. Chidester said he was admonished for basing his report on rumors when he was unable to produce such evidence.
Chidester said he argued that while he had not interviewed torture victims, the allegations came from too many credible sources to be ignored, and that the reports were not supposed to be limited to provable facts.
"While the State Department is not an investigative body, we're supposed to analyze political events and identify trends," Chidester said. "Our analysis is valuable, even if based on opinion and not admissible as proof in a court of law."
His arguments failed.
By the time the report reached the U.S. Congress, the serious accusations against the Honduran military had been removed. Allegations that remained were described as unsubstantiated or isolated abuses that had been dealt with swiftly by the Honduran government.
Overall, the report portrayed Honduras as an emerging democracy where the civilian government and military respected human rights.
The report was such a misrepresentation of the facts that Chidester recalls joking with others in the embassy: "What is this, the human rights report for Norway?"
An official explanation
While Negroponte has refused to be interviewed by The Sun, his boss at the time of his appointment to Honduras described the priorities on human rights.
Thomas Enders, the assistant secretary of state who told Negroponte's predecessor to stop reporting rights violations through normal channels, said it was crucial to keep U.S. aid flowing to Honduras.
"What we were attempting to do was, on the one hand, to maintain our ability to act in Central America. That is, our congressional authority to send economic and military aid, so we avoided direct public confrontations against the military in El Salvador and Honduras," he said.
"And at the same time, privately we were spending an enormous amount of effort in order to change the way they looked at how they behaved. There was endless jawboning."
Instead of telling Congress what was going on in Central America, the Reagan administration employed the State Department human rights reports as instruments to advance policy objectives.
Consequently, the human rights reports differed sharply in tone, depending on whether the government was a friend or foe.
The 1982 report on Nicaragua -- where the United States was trying to topple the Marxist Sandinista regime -- made strong charges against that government.
A section titled "Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from Killing" said: "There is credible evidence that security forces have been responsible for the death of a number of detained persons in 1982."
In the same section of the Honduras report for 1982, the State Department said: "Allegations that death squads have made their appearance in Honduras have not been substantiated."
Cresencio Arcos, press spokes-man in the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa from June 1980 to July 1985 and U.S. ambassador from December 1989 to July 1993, explained the difference:
"Invariably, the result in this process was to magnify your enemies' misdeeds and minimize your friends' misdeeds," he said.
Ambassador Negroponte also made numerous public statements praising the Honduran military for supporting the civilian government and for respecting the rights of its people.
In a letter to the New York Times, published on Sept. 12, 1982, he wrote:
"Honduras' increasingly professional armed forces are dedicated to defending the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country, and they are publicly committed to civilian constitutional rule."
In October 1982, he wrote to The Economist: "Honduras' increasingly professional armed forces are fully supportive of this country's constitutional system."
That was the same year journalist Oscar Reyes and his wife were abducted and tortured by the Honduran military for a week because of articles he had written.
On Aug. 12, 1983, the Los Angeles Times published a Negroponte column in which he acknowledged that there were ""credible allegations of some disappearances."
However, he added: "There is no indication that the infrequent human rights violations that do occur are part of deliberate government policy. Indeed, disciplinary action has been taken against members of the police and military (including officers) who have abused their authority."
That year, in a case that gained notoriety, the 24-year-old leftist Ines Consuelo Murillo was held for more than 11 weeks -- naked, beaten, suffocated, shocked, fondled and threatened with rape.
To this day, none of her torturers has been punished.
Arcos said that Negroponte privately expressed concerns about abuses to Honduran officials.
"The ambassador did pressure the Hondurans. Not publicly. Quietly," Arcos said.
"We were concerned by the issue. Reports [of human rights abuses] were increasing."
Even years after he left Honduras, Negroponte would not publicly acknowledge the crimes of kidnapping, torture and murder that were committed by the Honduran military.
During his Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing as ambassador to Mexico in 1989, Negroponte was asked about Battalion 316 and its abuses.
"I have never seen any convincing substantiation that they were involved in death squad-type activities," he said.
Former envoy to Honduras says he did what he could. By Gary Cohn and Ginger Thompson. December 15, 1995
John D. Negroponte, U.S. ambassador to Honduras during the early 1980s, when the Honduran military kidnapped, tortured and murdered hundreds of people, said this week that he worked diligently behind the scenes to prevent the abuses.
"When allegations of abuses were brought to our attention, we in turn raised those matters with the government," said Mr. Negroponte, now ambassador to the Philippines.
He said he intervened personally to obtain the release of a young woman tortured for more than 11 weeks as a suspected subversive.
In telephone interviews and a letter faxed from Manila, Mr. Negroponte said he did not conceal human rights abuses by a military establishment vital to the Reagan administration's war against communism in Latin America.
His role and that of other U.S. officials were detailed by The Sun in a four-part June series that documented kidnapping, torture and murder by a CIA-trained Honduran military unit known as Battalion 316.
Documents declassified at The Sun's request revealed that U.S. officials knew what was happening in Honduras and engaged in a willful deception to avoid confronting Congress with the truth.
Ambassador Negroponte refused repeated requests for an interview at the time of the series, including one in a letter hand-delivered to the U.S. Embassy in Manila. He said this week that the State Department advised him not to comment.
"It was probably a mistake," he said.
The ambassador's story
Ambassador Negroponte said he wants to "set the record straight."
Mr. Negroponte said he never turned a blind eye to the Honduran military's violence, but struggled constantly behind the scenes to stop the abuses and to win the release of those he knew were held captive.
He disputed the portrait of Honduras created by The Sun's series.
"There were some serious human rights violations, [but] to say that they were systematic, numerous and that the [Honduran] government was consistently abusing the human rights of Hondurans -- I don't agree with that," Mr. Negroponte said. "There was a positive trend in the country toward democracy."
The career diplomat made these points:
* "Compared to Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua, Honduras looked like a Jeffersonian democracy at that time," Mr. Negroponte said.
Hondurans enjoyed a free press, a strong labor movement and did not have the same disparities in wealth that tear apart other Latin American nations, he said. "There was not an atmosphere of repression."
* Mr. Negroponte said he intervened personally with Honduran authorities to obtain the release of Ines Murillo, a suspected subversive who was abducted and tortured for 78 days in 1983 in the secret jails of Battalion 316.
Finally, she was released alive.
* He said he never sanitized annual human rights reports sent by the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa to Washington. The Sun found that those reports, prepared for Congress, played down the violence committed by Battalion 316 in order to keep U.S. aid flowing to Honduras for President Reagan's anti-Communist campaign.
"We certainly made no effort to conceal human rights abuses from Washington," he said. "We called it as we saw it."
* The ambassador stood by remarks that he made before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1989, when he was asked about the activities of Battalion 316.
"I have never seen any convincing substantiation that they were involved in death squad-type activities," he told the senators.
"I stand by what I said," he said this week. "My answers are in the context of believing the country had an improving political situation and [that] the human rights violations that occurred were isolated instances and not a matter of government policy. That doesn't make them less deplorable."
Mr. Negroponte said, "I do not have any regrets about the way we carried out U.S. policies" in Central America.
"The world is not perfect. There were blemishes," he said. "But I think improvements were made.
"Over a period of time, I think the situation has improved in Central America, including in Honduras."
Mr. Negroponte's agreement to talk about events in Honduras comes as his assignment in Manila is set to end next summer. The 56-year-old ambassador has not been given a new assignment.
Thomas Hubbard, a deputy assistant secretary for Asia, has been appointed to replace him in Manila.
The State Department expressed confidence in Mr. Negroponte this week.
"Ambassador Negroponte continues to have the respect of senior members of this department. He is one of our most respected and accomplished senior diplomats, and he is doing a superb job in the Philippines," said State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns.
"I have a 35-year career and a good record," Mr. Negroponte said. "Obviously, anyone who is a public official doesn't like to have this kind of blemish. Not only because of my work in Honduras but because of my work in other posts."
But he added: "I have had four presidential appointments, three subsequent to my time in Honduras. I certainly would have no difficulty standing up in front of anybody in the Senate and explaining my role in Honduras. I think we had a positive record there."
Mr. Negroponte stressed that he achieved the main objective: to consolidate democratic rule in a country that had been governed for most of this century by military regimes. He pointed out that while he was ambassador, Honduras held its first presidential elections in nine years, and that the country has had three others since.
He said that he made reform of the Honduran judicial system a high priority. Through a judicial reform assistance program, he said, he and his staff helped Honduran courts become more independent.
"I don't believe it was a matter of government policy to violate human rights," he said, "even if there was a rogue unit under the military that in time got taken care of as well." He referred to the 1984 ouster of Gen. Gustavo Alvarez, the Honduran military chief and architect of Battalion 316.
That view differs strongly from the findings of a 1993 Honduran government report, "The Facts Speak for Themselves," in which the government acknowledged that it was responsible for the violent campaign against its own people during the 1980s.
The report lists the names of 184 people who disappeared during the decade, most of them from 1981 through 1984. Mr. Negroponte served as U.S. ambassador to Honduras from November 1981 to June 1985.
Mr. Negroponte said that when he learned of rights abuses, he expressed concern to Honduran government officials, including Honduran President Roberto Suazo Cordoba, Foreign Minister Edgardo Paz Barnica and General Alvarez.
The most notorious case was that of Ines Murillo, who was abducted as a suspected leftist at the age of 24 in 1983. For 78 days, Ms. Murillo was subjected to tortures that included being hung naked, nearly drowned and shocked with wires attached to her breasts and genitals.
"I personally made representations to secure the release of Ines Murillo," Mr. Negroponte said. "My memory is not perfect, but I remember raising it personally with the government and saying there was a concern."
Mr. Negroponte said that when he spoke about such violence with General Alvarez, the Honduran would deny that abuses were being committed.
Asked whether he believed the general's denials, Mr. Negroponte said: "Not entirely, no."
"Alvarez was different from many of his colleagues in the Honduran military," Mr. Negroponte said. "Whether he believed in death squad activity, I really don't know that."
Mr. Negroponte said he did not believe U.S. officials could be held responsible for "individual abuses by Hondurans against Hondurans."
"That's the responsibility of those Hondurans who committed the violations, and if they can still be punished under Honduran law, that's what should happen to them," he said.
In his letter to The Sun, Mr. Negroponte defended the truth of annual human rights reports on Honduras.
"The annual human rights reports prepared by the Department of State during my tenure dealt candidly with issues concerning the respect for the integrity of the person, including such problems as alleged disappearances, torture, arbitrary arrests and other human rights violations," he wrote. "There was no effort to soft pedal these matters."
Rick Chidester, formerly a junior political officer in the U.S. Embassy in Honduras, spoke with The Sun about how the human rights report for 1982 was sanitized. Mr. Chidester, who was assigned to write the first draft, said he compiled substantial evidence of abuses by the Honduran military but was ordered to delete most of the accusations from the report.
"Not by the ambassador," Mr. Negroponte insisted this week.
"I'm not trying to say we had no responsibility for them whatsoever," he said. But he added that the annual human rights reports are touched by many hands, beginning with an embassy's political section, before they are "sent to Washington, edited, redrafted, retransmitted."
As for the embassy's role, he said, "You know the process. I don't personally draft them because we want the staff to call it the way they see it."