A Carefully Crafted Deception

June 18, 1995|By Ginger Thompson and Gary Cohn | Ginger Thompson and Gary Cohn,Sun Staff Correspondents 1995 The Baltimore Sun

EGUCIGALPA, HONDURAS — TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras -- 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."

Fact vs. fiction

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.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.