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Open the Files: A Chance to Aid Demilitarization in Honduras

September 5, 1997 | Policy Brief

By , Susan Peacock

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Graphic of fugitive Honduran officers

"Fugitives Wanted": A poster from COFADEH, an organization of relatives of Honduras' disappeared, demands that military personnel stand trial for their role in human-rights crimes. The three officers pictured have chosen to become fugitives rather than answer a civilian court's summons. "The judge is still waiting," the poster reads. "And so is jail."

Of all Central American countries with armies, only Honduras is fortunate enough to have avoided a civil war during the 1980s. This means, however, that no peace accord or other postwar commitment obligates the Honduran military to reform itself.

Though they lack this leverage, Honduran civilian leaders—often at great personal risk—have been pressuring for an end to their armed forces’ dominance of politics and society. One of the main fronts in their uphill battle is an unprecedented attempt to prosecute officers for past human-rights crimes. With testimony from new witnesses and continuing discoveries of clandestine burial sites, evidence of these crimes is accumulating. But the military’s resistance to justice has been stiff and unyielding.

Worse, the United States is hindering Honduran civilians’ efforts. The U.S. government continues to work actively with its uniformed former cold-war allies. Meanwhile Honduran government investigators, who seek human-rights information from U.S. government files, have seen their declassification requests ignored by the very agencies that trained and supplied the Honduran military during the worst period of abuses. Without a change in U.S. policy, a historic opportunity for democracy to move forward in Honduras—and all of Central America—will be lost.

Birth of an army

Honduras had no military until 1954. It created one then with assistance and training from the United States, which at the time was arming its anti-Communist allies in the region. Two years later, Honduras experienced its first military coup.

Though the Honduran generals killed fewer of their fellow citizens compared to their counterparts elsewhere in cold-war Central America, they were just as anti-democratic. Their credentials during the early cold war included three coups between 1956 and 1972, endemic corruption, and a tendency to "swallow up" roles and powers normally reserved to civilians. Repression of dissent—though not on a par with Somoza’s Nicaragua and the military regimes in El Salvador and Guatemala—was common, especially during the 1960s reign of Col. Oswaldo López Arellano.

By the early eighties all three countries with which Honduras shares a border (El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua) were embroiled in full-scale civil wars. Though it suffered from the same poverty and social division that afflicted its neighbors, Honduras faced no insurgency of its own (other than short-lived irregular groups which controlled no territory).

The "U.S.S. Honduras"

Instead, Honduras became the staging ground for U.S. efforts to eradicate insurgencies in El Salvador and Guatemala and to overthrow Nicaragua’s Sandinista government. U.S. military and intelligence-agency personnel used Honduran territory as the operational base for the Nicaraguan rebel group they helped to create (the contras) and for training and resupply of the Salvadoran and Honduran armed forces.

Aid to the Honduran military exploded during the early 1980s. U.S. grants to the country’s armed forces shot up from $3.9 million in 1980 to $77.4 million in 1984. The number of soldiers more than tripled.

At U.S. urging, the Honduran military also adhered to the so-called "national security doctrine." This strategy, prevalent during the cold war, taught security forces to focus their missions not on external threats, but on potential internal subversion. Rooting out dissent—often without regard for the human rights of dissenters—was a high priority.

Despite the fig-leaf of civilian presidents in Honduras throughout the 1980s, the military retained control of society. Though President Roberto Suazo and his successors were constitutionally the commanders-in-chief of the military, few Hondurans held the illusion that they exercised such power.

The military controlled all aspects of internal security. The national police force, under military command since 1963, grew increasingly repressive, while military intelligence services—not least among them the feared National Investigations Directorate (DNI, a secret police of sorts)—closely monitored citizens whom the generals regarded as potential subversives.

In the early eighties, the ultraconservative General Gustavo Alvarez Martínez was commander-in-chief of the Honduran armed forces. A notoriously fanatical and Machiavellian figure, Gen. Alvarez embarked on a systematic campaign to eliminate all groups advocating change.

Battalion 316

Gen. Alvarez, a graduate of the Argentine Military Academy, brought Argentine advisors—fresh from that country’s "dirty war"—to Honduras to train Battalion 316, a military unit specializing in counterintelligence that more closely resembled a state-run death squad. With surveillance, kidnapping and torture among its tactics, Battalion 316 spearheaded the armed forces’ offensive against all suspected subversives. Battalion 316 members were responsible for the capture, torture and "disappearance" of student, labor and popular-movement leaders, journalists, progressive religious figures, and others.

During the 1982 conflict in the Falkland Islands, the Argentine trainers withdrew from Honduras. They were soon replaced by a group with more extensive counterinsurgency experience: the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. In a landmark series of articles about Battalion 316 published by The Baltimore Sun in June 1995, former Honduran special-forces officer (and Gen. Alvarez’s nephew) Oscar Alvarez described the transition:

The Argentines came in first, and they taught us how to disappear people. The United States made them more efficient. The Americans ... brought the equipment. They gave the training in the United States, and they brought agents here to provide some training in Honduras. They said, "you need someone to tap phones, you need someone to transcribe the tapes, you need surveillance groups."

The CIA drilled Battalion 316 agents in psychological operations and "human resource exploitation" techniques. Training included practical exercises in which actual prisoners were questioned. In declassified testimony cited by the Sun series, former CIA Deputy Director for Operations Richard Stolz told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that "physical abuse or other degrading treatment was rejected." But the testimony of victims and torturers alike indicates that Battalion 316 used hideously brutal methods against its captives, including vicious beatings, electric shocks, and rape of female captives.

"[The CIA] said that torture was not the way to obtain the truth about an interrogation," Florencio Caballero, a former Battalion 316 torturer, told the Sun. "But [General] Alvarez said the quickest way to get the information was with torture."

Silence from Washington

The U.S. government remained silent as the military’s clampdown grew tighter and the brutality of its methods increased. The administration was unwilling to antagonize its uniformed allies by registering disapproval, while it shared their desire to keep instability within Honduras to a minimum. As former Honduran Congressman Efraín Díaz told the Sun, "They needed Honduras to loan its territory more than they were concerned about innocent people being killed."

The United States worked closely with Gen. Alvarez, who appeared to be untroubled by concerns about Honduran sovereignty. As the United States ratcheted up its presence and operating capacity within Honduras, the military chief’s deference to U.S. wishes made him an indispensable junior partner. "Alvarez would agree to anything the United States wanted," Gen. Walter López, Alvarez’s successor following a barracks coup, told The New York Times in 1984. "He was even willing to invade Nicaragua." Donald Winters, the CIA’s station chief in Tegucigalpa at the time, asked Alvarez to be his adopted daughter’s godfather.

Washington turned a blind eye to the army’s human-rights violations even when the U.S. ambassador himself reported them. Jack Binns, a Carter appointee who served as ambassador to Honduras from September 1980 through October 1981, was rebuked by his State Department superiors for continuing to report the rapid rise in violations that accompanied Battalion 316’s emergence.

As Amb. Binns told a May 1997 seminar hosted by the Center for International Policy, the Reagan State Department made clear its displeasure with his insistence on reporting human-rights violations. In June 1981, after Binns described a rash of abuses and recommended a cutoff of military assistance, he was summoned to Washington by Thomas Enders, the assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs. Enders asked Binns to discontinue his reports about the military’s crimes because it could prejudice attitudes toward the administration’s policies in Central America. Binns refused to honor this request.

Upon returning to Tegucigalpa, he learned that the CIA had been instructed not to share information on human-rights issues with the embassy. The ambassador, ostensibly the highest U.S. authority in the country, was cut "out of the loop" by a supposedly subordinate agency.

Forced to rely on overt sources for information, Amb. Binns continued reporting the military’s abuses and urging Washington to take action; by the fall of 1981 he was called home early and replaced with John D. Negroponte, a "team player" who shared the administration’s vision. During his four-year tenure Amb. Negroponte cleared the way for a massive U.S. and Honduran military buildup—a strategy that required categorical denials of the Honduran military’s human-rights violations in order to be palatable domestically. Unlike Amb. Binns, Amb. Negroponte willingly obliged.

The embassy’s sales job included blatantly false statements, such as those in the State Department’s yearly human-rights reports. The 1982 report on Honduras, for instance, alleges that "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."

Amb. Negroponte, whose influence within the country caused Hondurans to refer to him jokingly as "the Proconsul," has since gone on to serve as ambassador to Mexico and the Philippines. Most recently, until his retirement in September 1997, Amb. Negroponte returned to Central America to serve as President Clinton’s chief negotiator for an arrangement with Panama that would alter the 1977 Canal Accords, allowing some U.S. troops to remain after the year 2000 as part of a "multinational counter-drug center." Amb. Binns, on the other hand, was forced into early retirement.

Honduras begins to demilitarize

In recent years, with wars over or winding down in neighboring El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala, Honduras finally began to reverse its 40 uninterrupted years of creeping militarization. For the first time since the Honduran armed forces’ creation, civilians have been meaningfully chipping away at military power, raising hopes that—as in much of the rest of Latin America—the country may overcome its history of authoritarianism.

Demilitarization has proceeded more slowly in Honduras than elsewhere in Central America. The high command has jealously guarded its influence and prerogatives, and no triggering event—such as civil war, peace negotiations or a U.S. invasion—has given civilians the leverage they need.

Significant steps have nonetheless been taken during the last few years. A presidential decree in 1992 created the office of the human-rights "ombudsman," the National Commissioner for Human Rights. This autonomous agency is empowered with investigating claims of abuse at the hands of the Honduran government, ranging from failure to deliver services to serious human-rights violations. Human Rights Commissioner Dr. Leo Valladares Lanza has been a vocal critic of the Honduran military’s excesses.

In late 1993, as one of its first official acts, Valladares’ office released a detailed "preliminary" report documenting the role of the armed forces—and particularly Battalion 316—in 184 disappearances during the 1980s. The report, entitled The Facts Speak for Themselves, represented the first official confirmation of what nongovernmental Honduran human-rights groups had argued for years: that the Honduran military systematically disappeared and tortured its own citizens.

In early 1994 the Honduran government created a Public Ministry, an autonomous agency empowered both to investigate and to prosecute claims of government abuse. It includes a new investigative agency, the Criminal Investigations Directorate (DIC). The DIC is the first civilian crime-fighting body in Honduras since the military took over police duties in 1963. Its creation accompanied the dissolution of the National Investigations Directorate (DNI), which was the military’s main internal investigative and intelligence service. The DNI was used to keep tabs on suspected subversives, including outspoken opponents of the military. Reports of human-rights abuses steadily decreased after the DNI’s abolition.

The pace of change grew still more rapid after 1994 with the election of a new president. Though it has been less than consistent in its positions,* the administration of Carlos Roberto Reina has repeatedly tested the boundaries of the civil-military relationship.

Courtesy Institute for Policy Studies

Leo Valladares, the Honduran Human Rights Commissioner, accepts the 1996 Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award. 

 Reina, a former head of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in Costa Rica, began his term with a May 1994 decree which fulfilled a campaign promise to end the decades-old practice of forced military recruitment. Practically overnight, the Honduran army became an all-volunteer service—and saw its ranks dwindle rapidly as a result.

Reina appointed civilians to head many institutions long dominated by the armed forces, among them the telecommunications company, the merchant marine, the National Directorate of Migration Policy, and the National Geographical Institute.

His administration has also moved to put the military-run public security force (FUSEP, the last military police force in the region) under civilian control, a process that is now nearly complete. By early 1998 at the latest, civilians will be fully responsible for internal security for the first time in thirty-five years.

In 1996, President Reina broke with a long tradition by refusing to nominate the armed-forces chief’s choice for minister of defense (a largely ceremonial post.) Earlier, Reina introduced legislation stipulating that future defense ministers be civilian and that the office of the armed-forces chief—by far the most powerful military position—be abolished after the current chief’s term.

Reina has also refused to give in to military demands for a budget increase, arguing that the army must first agree to an unprecedented civilian audit of its finances.

The Honduran military has largely acquiesced to these changes, which have perhaps weakened the institution but have not directly threatened officers’ power or wealth. The United States deserves some credit for the military’s reduced profile, as its financial support for the Honduran armed forces has been cut back deeply in recent years.

The fight to end military impunity

There remains one area, however, in which Honduran civilians have made little progress. Military impunity, particularly in human-rights cases, remains almost complete. As in other new democracies emerging from a militaristic past, the fight to hold the armed forces legally accountable for their past actions has been bitter, putting fragile new institutions to their most serious test. Military resistance in this area has been unyielding, and the United States has so far done more to hinder than to help Honduran prosecutors’ efforts.

Until 1993, Honduran military personnel could not be tried in civilian courts for any crime. In that year, a Honduran congressional resolution reinterpreted the "fuero militar," or military justice system, in a way that gives predominance to civilian courts in cases where civilian and military jurisdictions overlap.

Where human rights are not involved, there has been a slight weakening of military impunity. 1994 saw the first trials of military officers in civilian courts for "common" (that is, non-human rights) crimes. The Honduran daily La Prensa reported in July 1997 that 34 military personnel are currently in prison for common crimes ranging from drug-trafficking to robbery. Col. Juan Blas Salazar, a former head of the DNI who participated in some of Battalion 316’s activities, was arrested in 1994 and later fined and sentenced to 21 ½ years in prison on drug-related charges. (This sentence was later reduced to five years.)

On July 25, 1995 the Honduran government made a historic first attempt to try military officers for human-rights crimes. Sonia Dubón de Flores, the Public Ministry’s special prosecutor for human rights, filed charges of attempted murder and illegal detention against ten active and retired army officers—several of them former members of Battalion 316—allegedly involved in the kidnapping of six students in April 1982.

This case was chosen as an important test of civilian prosecutors’ power to hold the military accountable. Unlike cases of disappearance, the victims are all alive and willing to testify. With eyewitness accounts and positive identification of many perpetrators, there was little chance of this case being thrown out for "lack of evidence" or similar technicalities—a common outcome of attempted military prosecutions elsewhere in the region.

Even this relatively clear-cut case has proven impossible to prosecute, though, because the accused officers have stubbornly refused to appear before a civilian judge. Judge Roy Medina of Honduras’ First Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for three of the ten accused officers on October 17, 1995. As of this writing, Col. Billy Joya, Col. Alexánder Hernández, and Maj. Manuel de Jesús Trejo remain fugitives from the law, their whereabouts officially unknown.

The number of fugitive officers rose on June 24, 1996, after a judge in the southern city of Choluteca issued thirteen arrest warrants for current and retired military and police agents. They are believed to be involved in the murder of Honduran Adán Avilés Fúnez and a Nicaraguan laborer, Amado Espinoza Paz. Of the thirteen, only two answered the court’s summons: Col. Blas Salazar, who was serving a jail sentence for narcotrafficking, and another officer who was released after proving he was not in the country when the crime was committed.

The other eleven—among them the above-mentioned Col. Hernández—are still at large, along with Col. Joya and Maj. Trejo. The roll call of fugitives now includes a brigadier-general, three colonels, four lieutenant-colonels, a captain, and a major. Five were members of the now-defunct DNI.

"We lost contact with them two years ago," army spokesman Lt. Col. Mario David Villanueva insisted recently. "They left their posts, and we know nothing about them. We suppose they are out of the country. Nobody has seen them." But it is widely believed that, in a clear challenge to civilian authority, the Honduran military is protecting the fugitive officers.

In June 1997, for instance, Honduran Attorney-General Edmundo Orellana revealed that fugitives who were on active duty continue to receive their salaries via transfers into their bank accounts. In 1996, Col. Joya—despite his wanted status—was able to host a small press conference and release a report on human-rights violations by the Honduran left. The head of the DIC, Wilfredo Alvarado, claims that his agents have seen several of the fugitives in public, but they have not acted because "they [the fugitives] are accompanied by heavily-armed guards."

The search for answers

Despite the ongoing civil-military stalemate over impunity, investigators continue to look for new evidence about these and other cases of 1980s abuses. Whether seeking to discover the fate of friends and relatives or working to prosecute those responsible, brave Hondurans—both within and outside the government—are pushing for new information wherever they can find it. Much of the evidence found so far has come from exhumations, interviews, and perusals of old press reports.

The Honduran military, unsurprisingly, has withheld all information about its activities during the 1980s. The armed forces claim that they burn their files every five years to save space, and that no documentary evidence of their crimes exists. After a lengthy legal battle Human Rights Commissioner Leo Valladares and Human Rights Prosecutor Sonia Dubón were allowed access to the Battalion 316 archives. When they arrived, however, they found only dozens of empty file cabinets.

Their search for answers has led investigators to the United States. Its intimate relationship with the Honduran military during the 1980s makes the U.S. government’s records a potential goldmine of evidence implicating Honduran officers in human-rights abuses. As President Reina indicated during a recent trip to the U.S., "Most of the available evidence is in the possession of the United States government."

But access to this evidence has proven to be extremely difficult, as investigators have seen their efforts continually rebuffed. The U.S. agencies which collaborated most closely with the Honduran armed forces a decade ago have been only slightly more forthcoming than the Honduran generals themselves.

An unfulfilled request

Human Rights Commissioner Valladares made his initial request for human-rights information from the U.S. government in late 1993 (see the chronology at the end of this webpage). After the U.S. government indicated that the declassification request was too broad, Valladares narrowed its scope, not once but twice. The detailed request which is currently pending was personally submitted by Valladares in August 1995. It seeks information from six U.S. agencies.

Assurances by the Clinton administration that the U.S. would cooperate and expedite the declassification of information have had an empty ring. The response has been excruciatingly slow, and the amount of substantive human-rights information gleaned from the documents released to date has been bitterly disappointing.

Though the State Department (which, as discussed earlier, was largely cut out of planning and implementation during the 1980s) claims to have released all of its relevant documents, Valladares has been able to dislodge fewer than 200 documents from the CIA, the National Security Council, and three Department of Defense agencies. More than half of the text of the documents received from the intelligence and defense agencies has been "blacked out."

This poor response has occurred despite consistent follow-up. Valladares, members of Congress and U.S. nongovernmental organizations have been tremendously persistent in their efforts to speed the declassification of human-rights information. Valladares has met on numerous occasions with officials in all relevant agencies. During a May 1997 visit to Washington, President Reina appealed publicly on two occasions for an adequate response to his human-rights commissioner’s request. Dozens of Congresspeople signed letters to President Clinton in 1996 and 1997 demanding a speedy declassification; both letters received written promises that major releases were imminent, but little information was forthcoming.

Clinton’s second letter, dated June 13, 1997, even provided target dates for future releases. While cautioning that "this release will not include any material that could be expected to cause damage to national security," the president’s letter outlined the following timetable:

  • June 1997: By the end of the month, the Department of Defense was to have completed its "survey to identify any additional materials that are responsive to the Honduran government’s request."
  • July 1997: By the middle of the month, the CIA was to have completed its review and release of documents about the five specific human-rights cases covered by Valladares’ request.
  • September 1997: Early in the month, the CIA was to release "human rights-related material" on Gen. Gustavo Alvarez.
  • November 1997: Late in the month, the CIA will release human rights-related material on Battalion 316.

"I am a person of good faith. And I believe President Clinton is a person of good faith as well," said Valladares when the June 1997 letter was made public. "I just hope that these positive feelings will materialize into information that can help us resolve these cases."

Nonetheless, the President’s timetable has been utterly ignored. As of mid-September, the only information received consisted of about 300 heavily-redacted pages from the CIA about the five cases, released about six weeks late on August 29. These pages contain little new information about the circumstances surrounding the capture, illegal detention, torture, extra-judicial killing or other abuse of the five individuals in question. "We are in the same situation as if they had handed us nothing," said Valladares.

IG report: the wait continues

Under pressure from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, the CIA’s Inspector-General (IG) has kept active an investigation of the CIA’s relationship with the Honduran military during the eighties. The President’s letter promised that the IG’s long-awaited report would be released by the end of June 1997; this deadline also went unheeded.

Though investigations of the CIA role—both within and outside the IG’s office—have been going on for more than two years, the agency’s foot-dragging has kept information from seeing the light of day. A review of files was begun in 1995, shortly after the Baltimore Sun released its series about Battalion 316. This investigation was quietly closed in early 1996, however, with no release of information and no action taken against CIA personnel. Only under Intelligence Committee pressure did CIA Inspector-General Frederick Hitz reopen it later in 1996.

President Clinton’s letter indicated that though the IG’s report itself will be classified, they "will be shared with the appropriate committees of Congress." The intelligence committees finally received the IG report in early September 1997. Given the continued shroud of secrecy surrounding this report, it is absolutely imperative that intelligence-committee members and staff read it cover to cover and scrutinize its findings.

The roots of U.S. intransigence

Why has the U.S. government so consistently blocked the efforts of those seeking the truth about Honduras in the 1980s? Part of the answer is that Honduras is a small, poor country in a region that—now that peace has arrived—is of little geopolitical importance to U.S. policymakers. Honduras must also compete with its neighbors: its human-rights violations, while serious, pale in comparison to the outright slaughter that took place in El Salvador and Guatemala. Greater pressure for declassifications regarding those countries has helped put Honduras on the "back burner."

Institutional damage-control also partially explains the U.S. stance. U.S. complicity in abuses is exposed by the fact that defense and intelligence agencies played a significant role in arming, training and advising rights violators in Honduras. Such revelations, however, would damage institutional reputations and individual careers. A reluctance to release information is not surprising.

Another factor is the historically close relationship between the United States and the Honduran military. An institution created, trained and armed with U.S. support, the Honduran armed forces continue to work with their U.S. counterpart on many fronts.

Though the massive financial support of the 1980s has mostly been "zeroed out," 236 Honduran officers are receiving $425,000 worth of free training in Honduras and at U.S. military installations this year under the International Military Education and Training (IMET) program. In 1996, Honduran military personnel made up 13.4% of the total student body at the U.S. Army School of the Americas at Fort Benning, GA. Honduran troops are participating in four exercises with U.S. troops in 1997, and a major "civic assistance" infrastructure-building exercise in Honduras is planned for the first six months of 1998. A $7 million donation from the U.S. Army paid for a recently-completed Army Technical School in Honduras, which will offer training in high-tech and mechanical skills.

The U.S. Southern Command (Southcom) maintains 500 troops from its Joint Task Force Bravo at the Soto Cano base, at an annual cost estimated in 1994 at $38 million—even though a 1995 General Accounting Office (GAO) report found the U.S. presence there "not critical to ... current U.S. policy objectives in the region." During an April 1997 visit to the base, Southcom Commander-in-Chief (now NATO Commander) Gen. Wesley Clark praised the Honduran military’s "long and fruitful relationship" with the United States, which allowed them "to form a team during the cold war."

Clearly, the U.S. defense establishment continues to value its close working relationship with the Honduran armed forces. Actions that might threaten this relationship—such as the declassification of incriminating information—would naturally be discouraged. A desire to maintain influence appears to contribute to the lack of official U.S. support for Honduran civilian investigators.

"Protection of sources and methods," however, is how the CIA and other agencies most frequently justify their withholding of information. Documents, they argue, must remain secret or be heavily redacted if they reveal secret information-gathering methods or the identity of the person who provided the information. By choosing to be a paid U.S. intelligence source, the argument goes, a foreign individual risks being accused of treason or a similar crime; for that reason, source identity must remain secret.

While on its face this is a reasonable rationale, it raises difficult issues in a country like Honduras, where some of the worst abusers of human rights also happen to be paid U.S. intelligence sources and evidence in U.S. files can help bring them to justice. In these situations, the need to protect sources is in direct conflict with the need for justice and military accountability to civilian oversight. Protecting a source’s identity in effect guarantees that source’s impunity for life.

What must be done

A country cannot attain democratic stability if its military can act with impunity. If Honduran military human-rights abusers—aided by U.S. secrecy—manage to avoid their day in court, then their victims’ families will be denied their right to know the truth. The gains of the past few years will ultimately be unsustainable. This would be a major defeat for proponents of democracy in Honduras and the rest of Central America.

The U.S. could help Hondurans win the battle against military impunity by responding promptly and substantively to human-rights investigators’ pleas for information. Immediate compliance would send a convincing message that the United States is clearly and unequivocally on the side of Central America’s democratic leaders.

Within the United States, the CIA inspector-general’s report must be made public. Can it be that the public release of the contents of the IG report would endanger our national security? Or is the CIA hesitant to divulge the contents for fear of jeopardizing the impunity enjoyed by its officers and assets?

Impunity and a lack of accountability must not prevail at home, either; the misdeeds of our intelligence and defense officials must be told if democracy is to be strengthened in the U.S.

By the same token, it is important to vindicate the role of career officials—like Amb. Binns—who take seriously their oath to the constitution and their obligation to report the facts.

These actions would of course require that the Clinton Administration be more proactive and firm with the agencies in question. A good start would be to hold them to the declassification deadlines laid out in the President’s June 1997 letter. If the administration is unwilling or unable to do this, then it is apparent that our own political system faces fundamental problems. As Leo Valladares told the Honduran press recently, the fight over declassification "gives the impression that the Central Intelligence Agency has much more power than the average U.S. citizen thinks it does."

A chronology of the declassification effort

1993 NOVEMBER 15: Initial letter from Dr. Leo Valladares Lanza, National Commissioner for the Protection of Human Rights in Honduras, to U.S. Ambassador William T. Pryce requesting U.S. government information for a preliminary report on human rights abuses in Honduras.

1993 NOVEMBER 23: Letter from five U.S. Senators and three Representatives to U.S. President Bill Clinton states: "... Dr. Valladares has officially requested access to all information the Government of the United States may have on this issue ... we urge you to make available any relevant facts and documents as soon as possible."

1993 DECEMBER 8: Letter from Pryce to Valladares indicates: "If you could provide us the names of the victims in the cases ... it would greatly facilitate our ability to provide you with whatever relevant information might be found in the archives of the Government of the United States."

1993 DECEMBER 18: Clinton writes Senator Claiborne Pell: "We are willing to assist Dr. Valladares. However, it is not feasible to review all the reporting on Honduran human rights matters since 1980 for material related to all the 140-plus disappearance cases, as Dr. Valladares has so far requested ... Preliminary checks indicate that the Department of State's holdings of possibly responsive documents amount to well over 2,000 for the period 1981-84 alone."

1993 DECEMBER 20: Letter from 46 members of the U.S. Congressional Human Rights Caucus to Honduran President Rafael Leonardo Callejas notes: "... Commissioner Valladares Lanza is completing a report on the cases of disappeared persons in Honduras. We wish to express our support for this initiative which will provide information and answers about the plight of disappeared persons in Honduras."

1993 DECEMBER 21: Follow-up letter from Valladares to Pryce to which is appended a "List of Questions on Topics About Which Information Is Requested from the United States Government". There are questions on general topics and on specific human rights cases.

1995 AUGUST 1: Valladares hand-delivers a detailed declassification request to Pryce in Tegucigalpa. The request has been narrowed to six cases of "disappearances" (Fr. James Francisco "Guadalupe" Carney, Tomás Nativí González, José Eduardo Becerra Lanza, German Pérez Alemán, Inés Consuelo Murillo Schwaderer and Gustavo Adolfo Morales Fúnez), General Gustavo Alvarez Martínez and Battalion 3-16. It is directed to the: Central Intelligence Agency, Department of Defense, Defense Intelligence Agency, U.S. Army, National Security Council, and Department of State.

1995 SEPTEMBER 12: Six Senators and two Representatives send a letter to Clinton indicating that: "The commissioner's new request appears reasonable and it is our hope that it will yield a prompt response."

1995 SEPTEMBER 15: Valladares meets in Washington, D.C. with John Hamilton, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Inter- American Affairs, who turns over a packet of documents which had previously been declassified and released to The Baltimore Sun or to the family of Father Carney.

1995 SEPTEMBER 20: U.S. Senate Amendment No. 2722 reads: "It is the sense of the Congress that the President should order the expedited declassification of any documents in the possession of the United States Government pertaining to persons who allegedly 'disappeared' in Honduras, and promptly make such documents available to Honduran authorities who are seeking to determine the fate of these individuals."

1995 SEPTEMBER 28: Valladares meets in Washington, D.C. with Richard Feinberg at the National Security Council.

1995 OCTOBER 12: Then Executive Secretary Kenneth Brill at the U.S. State Department sends a memorandum to other executive intelligence agencies, requesting their support and cooperation on Honduran declassification issues.

1996 JANUARY: Officials of the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa release over 588 pages of State Department documents on the Carney case.

1996 MAY 31: Letter to Pryce from Valladares expresses eagerness: "to learn the status of our declassification request to other U.S. government agencies. To date, I have had no communication from the Central Intelligence Agency (C.I.A.), the Department of Defense (D.O.D.), the Defense Intelligence Agency (D.I.A.), the U.S. Army or the National Security Council (N.S.C.) regarding the declassification of information in response to our request. Any help which the State Department could provide in ascertaining the status of our requests with the various agencies would be most appreciated. Concretely, it would be extremely helpful to us to know the process which each agency has put in place to respond to our request, and how much longer we might anticipate waiting for the release of those documents."

1996 MAY 31: Letter from four Members of Congress to William J. Perry, Secretary of Defense, and John M. Deutch, Director of Central Intelligence, urges those agencies "to declassify documents in as broad a manner as possible and as quickly as possible", and expresses the belief "that U.S. documents should be declassified as quickly as possible because the information they contain could play an important role in efforts by the Hondurans to strengthen civilian institutions."

1996 JUNE 13: Valladares meets in Washington, D.C. with Hamilton at the State Department; Maria C. Fernandez-Greczmiel, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Inter-American Affairs; and Lee S. Strickland, Chief -- Information, Privacy and Classification Review Division, C.I.A.

1996 JUNE 14: Valladares addresses a Congressional Human Rights Caucus Staff Briefing on "Declassification and the Struggle to Stop Impunity in Honduras."

1996 JUNE 15: Letter from Valladares to Strickland at the C.I.A. clarifies in writing his position on topics which they discussed at their meeting two days earlier.

1996 SEPTEMBER: Officials at the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa turn over 2,033 pages of State Department documents.

1996 SEPTEMBER 30: Valladares meets in Washington, D.C. with Hamilton. No one at C.I.A. is available to meet with Valladares.

1996 OCTOBER: Letter from Strickland to Valladares states that: "During the past week, I have discussed with our Executive Director the documents pertaining to Father Carney and can advise that the redaction process is complete and the documents are in the final stage of coordination. Once the coordination and approval by the Executive Director has been completed, copies of these documents will be sent to you. Furthermore, I can advise you that our Honduran Working Group has completed their task of locating relevant material and a decision on addressing this material is currently being considered by our Executive Director."

1996 OCTOBER: Memorandum from Ralph B. Novak, Deputy Director, Inter-American Region, Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense to Donald McConville, Office Director, ARA/CEN, Department of State reports: "To date we have searched 140 boxes of documents covering the period in question: there are 120 additional boxes to be brought in from our archives and surveyed before the requirement can be completed. We are proceeding as expeditiously as possible, and at the current rate of search should complete the requirement no later than 31 December 1996."

1996 DECEMBER 3: Letter to Clinton from 34 Members of Congress "to request the expeditious and complete declassification of all U.S. documents pertaining to human rights violations in Honduras."

1996 DECEMBER 5: Valladares meets in Washington, D.C. with State Department officials and with Fernandez-Greczmiel at the Department of Defense. No one at C.I.A. is available to meet with Valladares.

1997 JANUARY 7: Clinton responds to the December Congressional letter: "The Department of Defense is in the final stages of its review and declassification responding to Dr. Valladares' request, and expects to complete work shortly. The Central Intelligence Agency is also close to releasing its documents related to the Father Carney disappearance."

1997 MARCH 13: The CIA releases 124 pages, consisting of 36 documents related to the Carney case and a "Summary of CIA Documents on Father Carney". The Defense Department releases 34 documents responsive to the entire Honduran request. The CIA and DOD documents are heavily excised.

1997 APRIL 1: Honduran Foreign Minister speaks with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright about declassification during a meeting in Washington, D.C.

1997 MAY 7: Valladares addresses a Congressional Staff Briefing on "The CIA in Honduras" sponsored by the Center for International Policy.

1997 MAY 13: Letter from 51 Members of Congress to Clinton requests that he: "instruct the relevant agencies, namely the DOD and the CIA, to expedite the declassification and release of documents on all of the subjects identified by Mr. Valladares, by an agreed upon date."

1997 MAY 22: Honduran President Carlos Roberto Reina in a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. states: "Dr. Valladares' valiant efforts to discover the truth about past human rights abuses, and bring the perpetrators to justice, have been a major contribution to human rights, the rule of law and democracy itself. His efforts have been only partially successful, however, because much of the available evidence is in the possession of the United States government. While President Clinton has committed to sharing this evidence with us, and some documents were provided, some U.S. government agencies -- especially the ClA -- have refused to declassify their documents concerning human rights abuses by Honduran government officials during the 1980s. I intend to raise this issue with U.S. Government officials during my meetings in Washington this week."

1997 MAY 23: Reina meets at the White House with Thomas F. McLarty, Counselor to the President and Special Envoy for the Americas.

1997 JUNE 13: In response to the May Congressional letter, Clinton gives target dates for the CIA and DOD release of documents responsive to Dr. Valladares' request and for the completion of a classified report on CIA activities in Honduras by the CIA Inspector General.

1997 JUNE 18: Fernandez-Greczmiel of the Department of Defense informs Valladares of her hope that: "we can make this submission to you, through the State Department by early July."

1997 AUGUST 29: The CIA releases 97 documents [313 pages] on the five human rights cases involving Hondurans included in the Valladares request. The documents are heavily excised and contain more information on the organization and activities of leftist groups in Honduras than they do on the kidnappings, illegal detentions, torture and extrajudicial killings in the individual cases in question.

 

 

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