Accessories to Murder

June 12, 1995

The sordid record of U.S. complicity in atrocities committed by Latin American thugs trained and financed by the Reagan administration added a new chapter in The Sun yesterday. The first of a series of articles resulting from a 14-month investigation revealed a sickening tale of mayhem and murder by Honduran death squads with the connivance of CIA officials and U.S. diplomats.

Unlike neighboring Nicaragua and El Salvador, Honduras was not a cockpit in the Reagan administration's clandestine war against a communist takeover of Central America. It was, however, a valuable base camp for U.S.-supported anti-communists. It had to be kept pure of subversives. If that involved torture and murder, so be it.

Not that CIA officers participated directly in kidnapping foes of the Honduran regime, or torturing and murdering them. That would be wrong, they said. Not to mention ineffective. Yet some of them observed clear evidence of torture and ignored it. No CIA hands got dirty training Honduran troops in the techniques of physical torture. They brought in Argentine intelligence agents, who already had a well-established record for making domestic enemies "disappear," and the CIA let them do the teaching. That's a distinction without a difference. In this country it's called being an accessory. People go to prison for that.

Some of the 184 documented cases of Hondurans who "disappeared" in the early '80s may have been subversives by anyone's definition. Perhaps some of them belonged in jail. But not slain without even the semblance of a trial. Many of them, however, were guilty of what in this country would be exercising their right of free speech. Who were some of these threats to Honduran political stability? A journalist who criticized the Honduran military. A law student who demonstrated for lower tuition. A medical student who led protests against the beating of fellow students. A rural teacher protesting a stiff fee imposed on his students. All "disappeared," without a trace, even a decade later.

The central figure in this loathsome episode was, once again, one of those uniformed thugs so dear to the hearts of cold warriors in Washington. Even after Gen. Gustavo Alvarez Martinez's leadership of a secret goon squad was well known in Honduras, the Reagan administration awarded him a medal and the CIA station chief made the officer godfather to his child. But he was too much for fellow Honduran officers. They deposed him at gunpoint and shipped him into exile the next year.

What of his mentors? Most are enjoying retirement rather than the severe punishment they deserve. As will become clear in subsequent articles by reporters Gary Cohn and Ginger Thompson, key U.S. officials in Honduras abetted these atrocities, while their superiors in Washington blandly deny to this day they knew of them. The statute of limitations and limited U.S. jurisdiction over crimes committed outside its borders protect some of them from the prison terms they richly deserve.

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