Joseph Eldridge
From March 5, 1988
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When the peace accord was signed in Guatemala seven months ago, each Central American president pledged to take concrete steps to bring about a cessation of the fighting and to work toward internal reconciliation. The framers of the agreement expected that by declaring amnesties, the regional human-rights panorama would improve. Unfortunately, human rights has not been one of the winners in the tenuous peace process. In fact, Honduras, the only country (with the exception of Costa Rica) not confronting an active armed insurgency, has experienced a frightening deterioration of human rights over the last several months.

With a few exceptions, Honduras had been able to escape the systemic violence that has gripped the three countries with which it shares a border. Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua have all undergone wrenching and widespread political violence. In the early 1980's, Honduras did undergo a spasm of state-sponsored violence. Illegal detentions, torture and disappearances became routine while General Gustavo Alvarez Martinez commanded the armed forces.

The disappearances that occurred under General Alvarez more than five years ago have come back to haunt the current Government. Last year the Organization of American States' Inter-American Court placed Honduras on trial for the disappearance of four persons in 1982. The current upswing in human-rights violations comes even as evidence implicating the Honduran state is gathered by the Court meeting in San Jose, Costa Rica. The recent violations also run counter to the spirit of the Esquipulas peace process underway in the region.

Two people associated with the Inter-American Court's trial have already been murdered. On the evening of Jan. 14, Miguel Angel Pavon, a prominent human-rights advocate and member of the National Assembly, stopped to chat in front of the home of Moises Landaverde, a friend who had asked for a ride. Before either of the two could react, a gunman approached the car and fired three shots at Pavon and Landaverde. Both were killed instantly. Pavon had testified last August in behalf of the families of the disappeared.

In early January, Isaias Vilorio was grabbed from behind and executed as he boarded a bus. Killed two weeks before he was scheduled to render testimony to the InterAmerican Court, Vilorio had been expected to shed light on the military's role in the disappearances. He had been a member of Battalion 316, the special military unit created by General Alvarez that has been blamed for carrying out the illegal detentions and disappearances.

Despite the testimony before the Court implicating Battalion 316 in the disappearances, this unit continues to function. Inexplicably, Honduran President Jose Azcona honored Alexander Hernandez, the battalion's chief during its most active years. In a solemn ceremony last December, Hernandez was not only promoted, but decorated. President Azcona, in a rebuff to the Court, pinned a medal of honor on his chest.

The recent sequence of events points to a disturbing pattern. Workers, peasants, priests and human-rights activists have all received threats, harassment and other forms of intimidation. The Rev. Celso Sanchez, a priest working along the border with El Salvador, was told that unless he abandoned his parish he would be killed. Stopped on the road to one of the churches, he was told (by Lieutenant Ayala of the military's special forces tha he "should die" because he was a Communist. According to Lieutenant Ayala, the church and the military could not co-exist because it was a "fight between systems."

The Honduran Episcopal Conference called on the Government and the military to "stop illegal detentions, using torture to obtain confessions, ignoring the right to habeas corpus and other abuses that violate the Constitution of the Republic."

The Honduran military doctrine divides the world into friends and subversives. All law enforcement is carried out by the military-there is no independent police force-and since it conducts its own trials, its members are virtually immune from prosecution. Under these conditions, the military appears to have made kidnappings and physical abuse the rule. According to military sources, the policy being pursued by the Armed Forces is best described as that of the three "p's": money (plata) for friends, lead (plomo) for enemies and a stick (palo) for those who have not defined themselves.

These developments come at an awkward moment for the White House and the continuing efforts of the Reagan Administration to portray Honduras as a flourishing democracy. Since the beginning of the U. S.-sponsored contra war in 1981, Honduras has received over $1 billion in U. S. economic and military assistance. In spite of Washington's considerable influence, abuses by the authorities are increasing.

Moreover, according to the testimony of Florencio Caballero, a former member of Battalion 316, the United States trained many of the agents who were later implicated in the disappearances and deaths.

In a document prepared last September for presentation to Congress, the State Department certified that "Honduras has made significant progress ... in eliminating any human-rights violations, including torture, incommunicado detention, detention of persons solely for the nonviolent expression of their political views, or prolonged detention without trial." The Honduran security force, despite its record, continues to receive U. S. training and equipment.

The recent increase in human-rights violations raises serious questions about Honduran democracy and about the White House's repeated efforts to extol its virtues. The accelerating polarization should give Washington pause before continuing its huge build-up of the Honduran military. If the current level of unpunished abuses continues, Honduras may be doomed to repeat the tragic experience of its neighbors. 

Picture above: Marta Dubon of El Progreso, Honduras, stands in front of the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa in September 2003 during a vigil demanding that the U.S. government release all its records about the fate of Father James "Guadalupe" Carney, a U.S. priest who disappeared in Honduras in 1983.

Joseph Eldridge, former executive director of W.O.L.A. (Washington Office on Latin America), lives in Honduras.