Justice in Central America?

July 31, 1995

Honduras and the United States have examined their roles in atrocities committed in Central America during the past 10 years. So far the Hondurans have the best of it. Eleven current and former Honduran military officers have been indicted on charges of kidnapping and torturing student activists who dared to demonstrate against high tuition fees and the like. At the same time, the CIA has investigated its behavior in neighboring Guatemala and, as usual, found some administrative shortcomings but no serious misconduct on its part.

Honduras is still a long way from a just resolution of the "disappearances" of hundreds of political activists during the 1980s, vividly described in a recent series of articles in The Sun. The military has been a law unto itself in that country for a long time, and it is not at all clear it will permit some of its leaders to be arrested and brought to trial. This will be a real test of the strength of democracy there. If there are trials, there will also be a test of U.S. integrity.

Although there is no evidence U.S. intelligence agents directly participated in kidnapping or torture in Honduras, there is ample evidence some CIA officers knew all about it. They may also have abetted it by helping the Honduran thugs import some Argentine experts in torture and murder to train them. Their testimony, even if not used to incriminate them in any way, would greatly strengthen the Honduran prosecution.

That would raise some delicate issues in Washington, since the CIA officers who conspired with the Honduran goon squads probably had diplomatic immunity. The sanctity of diplomats abroad from legal sanction is a fundamental principle that must not be impaired. However, an administration in Washington that practices what it preaches about human rights should be able to find a way to supply the Honduran prosecutors with supporting evidence without exposing its diplomats, real or contrived, to loss of immunity.

As for Guatemala, where a U.S. citizen and the husband of one were murdered by a special squad of soldiers under the command of a paid CIA informant, the intelligence agency has once again looked just hard enough to find bureaucratic errors but nothing truly reprehensible. Maybe their guy was involved, the CIA inspector general has concluded, but he can't be sure. And he isn't going to look a little harder for more evidence.

The agency again admits having withheld information from Congress it was legally entitled to. Again it will take steps to resolve that failing, as it has been promising for 30 years. Some people learn by repeating their lessons over and over, but clearly the CIA is not among them.

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