TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras - 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."