ON APRIL 22, 1981, 12 citizens of El Salvador residing in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, along with five of their children, were arrested at their home by agents of the National Investigations Directorate (DNI), a branch of the Honduran police.
Most of these people were members of two extended families, Barrillas and Navarro, and they included three generations of the Navarro family. One of those detained, Nora Gomez de Barrillas, had been secretary to Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, earlier slain by an unknown gunman while celebrating Mass.
The arrest of this group was witnessed by several people, including an employee of a United Nations technical agency who lived nearby. The incident received extensive coverage by the Honduran media. But to this day, Honduran police and military authorities (the police were part of the military establishment in Honduras) have denied any and all knowledge of their detention or whereabouts. This group of people simply vanished without a trace. Or did it?
At the time, I was serving as U.S. ambassador to Honduras. This case quickly came to my attention, not only because of the media coverage, but also because the embassy was monitoring possible human rights violations in Honduras. In addition to the State Department's statutory mandate to observe and evaluate the human rights performance of host governments, we were aware that such violations could threaten attainment of our principal foreign policy objectives. I immediately instructed the embassy human rights officer to look into this case; I also asked the CIA representative and military members of the staff to find out what they could from their contacts. The incident itself was reported to the State Department promptly, and followed later by our assessment that DNI had probably been responsible. But we had no hard information to confirm this suspicion. Nor did we have further information as to the whereabouts or condition of the group.
Later, probably sometime in May, the CIA representative advised me that he had obtained confirmation that DNI had, in fact, detained this group. He also reported that the Hondurans had acted on request of the Salvadoran military, which suspected that at least some of the detainees were members of a support network for Salvadoran insurgents. This information was reported in CIA channels. Publicly, however, Honduran authorities continued to deny responsibility for or knowledge of their disappearance.
In early June, after receiving reports of several other apparent human rights abuses, I personally drafted a restricted distribution cable to the State Department that called attention to the various embassy and CIA reports of possible violations, and pointed out the potential policy implications of this troubling trend.
Less than a week later, after consultations with key members of my staff, I wrote another, longer cable dealing with this problem, its potential consequences for our policy, and proposing a strategy and recommended actions for dissuading the Hondurans from proceeding down this path. There can be no question that the State Department and other U.S. government agencies were aware of this emerging human rights problem at a very early stage and in very specific terms.
At no time did the State Department respond officially to my concerns and recommendations. I was, however, privately XTC cautioned to refrain from reporting such incidents in official channels. And the CIA representative advised me that his agency had told him to "lay off" human rights reporting. Despite these suggestions, we continued to report incidents that came to our attention.
A mystery solved
But what became of the Barrillas/Navarro group? Subsequently, the CIA representative came to me with the following story, which he said had been picked up by happenstance. One of his staff members had been conversing with a Honduran police officer who had been involved in the initial interrogation of this group. This officer reportedly commented that the techniques the CIA had taught were much less effective than those employed by the Salvadorans.
Asked to elaborate, the officer said he had participated in an extended interrogation of the Barrillas/Navarro group, but it had failed to produce useful information. Consequently, Salvadoran interrogators were allowed to come to Honduras and question the detainees. By using torture, he explained, the Salvadorans had been able to confirm that some members of the group were members of an insurgent support apparat and to gain useful information about its operations. The downside, according to this person, was that following interrogation the detainees (except for the two Barrillas children, who were delivered to Salvadoran immigration authorities at a border post) were in such poor physical condition that they could not be released without serious repercussions. The Hondurans therefore agreed to turn them over to the Salvadorans for repatriation.