Torturers' Confessions Now in exile, these CIA-trained Hondurans describe their lives -- and the deaths of their victims

June 13, 1995|By Ginger Thompson and Gary Cohn | Ginger Thompson and Gary Cohn,Sun Staff Correspondents, (c) 1995 The Baltimore Sun

TORONTO -- 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."

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