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Torturers' Confessions

Sun Staff

TORONTO -- Jose Barrera gulped down a double shot of Sambuca before hebegan to talk about his past as a torturer and murderer.

He recalled how he nearly suffocated people with rubber masks, how heattached wires to their genitals and shocked them with electricity, how hetore off a man's testicles with a rope.

"We let them stay in their own excrement," he said, his gold front toothreflecting the dim lamplight. "When they were very weak, we would take them todisappear."

Images such as these cast a shadow over the lives of Barrera and other menwho served in Battalion 316, a CIA-trained military unit that terrorizedHonduras for much of the 1980s.

At a time when Honduras was crucial to the U.S. government's war oncommunism in Central America, the battalion was created and trained to collectintelligence. But it also stalked, kidnapped, tortured and murdered hundredsof Honduran men and women suspected of subversion.

At least 184 of the battalion's victims are missing and presumed dead.They are called "desaparecidos," Spanish for the "disappeared."

In hours of interviews over two weeks in Toronto, where they live inexile, Barrera and other former members of the battalion -- FlorencioCaballero and Jose Valle -- told The Sun how the unit operated.

Each of the men said he was trained by instructors from the CIA, sometimestogether with instructors from Argentina, where a campaign against suspectedsubversives left more than 10,000 dead or disappeared in the 1970s.

Some training was conducted at an army camp in Lepaterique, a town 16miles west of the capital, Tegucigalpa, the men said. Other sessions were heldat a base in the United States whose location was kept secret even from them.

In separate interviews, they described the courses in the same way: CIAofficers taught them "anti-guerrilla tactics" -- how to stake out suspects'homes, use hidden cameras and tap telephones, and how to question prisoners.

The training of battalion members in the early 1980s was confirmed in 1988by Richard Stolz, then-CIA deputy director for operations, in closed-doortestimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The testimonywas recently declassified at the request of The Sun.

Stolz and the former members of Battalion 316 said that torture wasdiscouraged by CIA instructors in what Stolz called a "human resourcesexploitation or interrogation course."

But the former battalion members said the CIA knew of their use oftorture. When a CIA officer visited one of the battalion's secret jails, hesaw evidence of torture and did not protest, the battalion members said.

"The Americans knew everything we were doing," Caballero said. "They sawwhat condition the victims were in -- their marks and bruises. They did not doanything."

The full names of the CIA officers were not known to their Honduranproteges. The head CIA trainer was known as "Mr. Bill," according to thebattalion members.

Stolz told the Senate intelligence committee that "Mr. Bill" was a CIAtrainer in Honduras and that he was killed in the April 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon.

"Mr. Bill" reportedly was a former member of the U.S. Army special forces.

Caballero, Barrera and Valle said that although the CIA instructorsdiscouraged torture, Honduran commanders demanded it, and that the penalty fordisobedience or trying to leave the unit would have been death,

"Within the organization, there were many who were not in agreement, butthey couldn't get out," Caballero said. "If we wanted to leave, we would haveto leave dead."

The Hondurans escaped to Canada with the help of human rights groups thattook their testimony.

Their accounts, which follow, were corroborated by interviews withsurvivors, by court testimony, by human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Americas Watch, and by a 1993 Honduran government report ondisappearances.

Florencio Caballero said the prisoner who haunts him the most is German(pronounced "HERR-mon") Perez Aleman, a man he befriended and then betrayed.

Caballero said he enticed the union organizer to join him in a phonyscheme to steal guns.

On Aug. 18, 1982, as they prepared to take the weapons from a local policestation, Perez was seized by five men wearing disguises.

"German fought a lot. They bit his ear," recalled Caballero, who was amember of Battalion 316 from 1980 until he fled in 1984. "They wore falsemustaches and beards and wigs. German pulled the wig off one of them. Theyfinally dominated him and pushed him into a blue Datsun."

In a secret jail on the outskirts of Tegucigalpa, the men tortured Perezand accused him of being an armed leftist, Caballero said.

Then they executed him.

Caballero knew the charges against Perez were false. He knew that Perezdidn't even own a gun. But he did nothing to stop the execution.

"It makes me feel very bad because I met him. I became friends with him,and I turned him over," Caballero said. "They killed him unjustly."

He said Perez was held in a country home where as many as 30 prisoners ata time were kept in crowded quarters.

"When there was no more room to keep them there, and they weren'tproviding much information, they killed them. The prisoners always ended updead."

The 37-year-old Caballero is a short, husky man who walks with the swaggerof a weightlifter. He has a sixth-grade education and supports his family byworking part time as a bus driver and as a maintenance man in his Torontoapartment building.

In the midst of talking about his past over dinner at a Torontorestaurant, Caballero suddenly threw a beefy arm into the air and shouted,"Goal!" He had caught a glimpse of the television above the bar and let out acheer when he saw that the Spanish national soccer team had scored against theItalians in a World Cup match.

Grinning, Caballero peeled a shrimp, popped it into his mouth and washedit down with Budweiser. Then he returned to his story of torture and murder.

He has told this story many times. In October 1987, he described Battalion316's operations before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in CostaRica. He later spoke with the staff of the Senate intelligence committee aboutCIA collaboration with Battalion 316.

Caballero's accounts have been consistent over the years. Substantialparts of his testimony have been corroborated by prisoners of Battalion 316,former members of the unit and by the CIA.

The only dispute is over Caballero's role in Battalion 316: He says thathe was not a torturer.

"I was an interrogator," Caballero said.

But a former army commander and a former member of Battalion 316 rememberhim differently.

Col. Mario "El Tigre" Amaya, former head of the Honduran special forces,knew Caballero before he transferred from the regular army to the intelligenceunit.

In an interview at his home in Tela on the sandy Caribbean coast ofnorthern Honduras, Amaya, whose nickname means "the tiger," recalled Caballeroas "a cold-blooded killer."

"Sometimes he killed because he was ordered to," Amaya said. "Other times,because he wanted to do it."

Fausto Reyes, a former member of Battalion 316, recalls him similarly.

"Florencio Caballero was one of the most violent interrogators of 316," hesaid.

Caballero said he cooperates with investigations into the crimes ofBattalion 316 as a way to atone.

"I don't want people to think my heart is pure, but what I'm expressingcomes from my heart," he said. "The truth is, this caused a lot of harm toHonduras."

Battalion headquarters was a flat, gray cinder-block building that oncehoused the Francisco Morazan athletic club, in the 21st of Octoberneighborhood of Tegucigalpa.

The battalion was organized by Col. Gustavo Alvarez Martinez, commander ofthe Honduran military police, and remained under his authority after he becamehead of the Honduran armed forces in 1982 with the rank of general.

Alvarez appointed Capt. Alexander Hernandez to run the battalion.Caballero said execution orders came down to the battalion from Alvarez andHernandez.

Caballero recalled the order to kill Angel Manfredo Velasquez, a35-year-old graduate student, teacher and political activist. The father ofthree was abducted by Battalion 316 on Sept. 12, 1981.

"By order of Alvarez, to be sure that no one would ever find his body,they took him from Tegucigalpa and stabbed him to death," Caballero said."Then they cut his body to pieces with a machete and buried the pieces indifferent places along the road from Tegucigalpa to Progreso de Yoro."

Hernandez, now a colonel in the Honduran military police, denied anyinvolvement with disappearances or murders.

"There is no proof against me," said the tall, thin man, sittingerect with his arms across his chest in his office in Tegucigalpa.

In interviews with The Sun, and in court testimony, Caballero describedthe CIA role in training members of Battalion 316, most of whom never attendedhigh school but had basic reading and writing skills.

He said that he and about 25 other Hondurans were taken in a Honduran airforce plane in 1980 to what he thought was Texas.

"We went to a military base. It was so private. There was no TV, no cable,only videotapes," Caballero recalled. "The [Honduran] officers knew where wewere. They would say, 'here in Texas.' It was like a college. We hadeverything we needed -- food, drink, a swimming pool."

The CIA instructors, Caballero said, taught that torture rarely achieveddesired results. Instead, the instructors showed the students forms ofpsychological pressure: how to study prisoners, discover what they loved andwhat they hated, and then to use that knowledge against them.

"If a person did not like cockroaches, then that person might be morecooperative if there were cockroaches running around the room," Caballerosaid.

But while the CIA instructors discouraged physical torture, Alvarezdemanded it.

"Alvarez said, 'I'm in charge here. I do not like interrogations withoutphysical torture,'" Caballero recalled. "As a result, physical torturecontinued."

The battalion held its prisoners in dozens of places -- an old militaryclubhouse, an athletic center and the country villas of military officers.

German Perez was detained in the country home of Col. Amilcar Zelaya,former head of the Honduran military police force, Caballero said. Thetwo-story, peach-colored house in Tamara, 10 miles outside Tegucigalpa, issurrounded by mango and orange trees, and can barely be seen from the road.

"Many died there," Caballero said.

Caballero was based on the southern edge of Tegucigalpa, near the MilitaryIndustries complex, INDUMIL.

Scattered buildings served as barracks for the battalion. Prisoners werekept in a one-story, circular building that was once a clubhouse for anartillery brigade.

Neither judges, attorneys nor prisoners' relatives were permitted visitINDUMIL.

When judges ordered the military to reveal a captive's whereabouts,Caballero said, battalion members would mock them. "We would laugh at them andsay, 'Why are they asking about that one? That one is already dead.'"

Caballero joined the Honduran military as did many of its soldiers -- hewas pressed into service.

In 1977, as he sat in a theater watching a movie with a girlfriend,soldiers burst in and ordered the women to leave. The men were loaded intobuses and taken to a military barracks for training.

Caballero said he spent a year in an infantry brigade in Santa Rosa deCopan, a town on the Caribbean, where he earned a reputation for violence,according to other members of the Honduran military. He said he was invited in1980 to become a member of a "special intelligence unit," the unit that laterbecame known as Battalion 316.

Unit leaders told him that Battalion 316 would help save Honduras fromcommunism, but Caballero said he joined for the money.

"I didn't do it because I liked it, nor because I had ideas from the farright," he said. "I never considered myself an ultra right-wing person or aleftist. ... In Honduras, if someone comes and offers you a very high salary,of course you're going to accept.

"Alvarez Martinez said to us that we would earn the salary of an officer,750 lempiras a month [then worth $375]. In that time, that was very goodmoney," Caballero said.

Caballero said that he left Battalion 316 in 1984 because he had gottenmarried and his wife pressured him to quit.

"She told me what I was doing was bad."

Two years later, he said, members of the battalion shot at him with amachine gun. Caballero said he had begun giving information about Battalion316 to human rights investigators, and that battalion leaders wanted him dead.He was not injured, but said he knew that the attacks would continue if hestayed in Honduras.

He fled Honduras in 1986.

Jose Valle described the techniques of torture -- very simple, verypainful. One favored technique, Valle said, was to force a prisoner to standnaked on a chair, then to tie a basket to his testicles. As the torturer askedquestions, he filled the basket with rocks or corn and swung it back andforth.

"There was nothing to it," Valle said.

Valle, now 37, is a burly man with a round face, curly hair and a sparsebeard. As he speaks about the pain he inflicted, he interjects pleas forunderstanding and forgiveness. Unemployed, separated from his wife, and livingin public housing in Toronto, he spends his days watching his small childrenand brooding about his past.

"I was involved. Yes, I participated. Yes, I was involved with torture,"Valle said, sitting on his couch beneath a wall decorated with the blue andwhite Honduran flag and portraits of his parents.

"I was doing a job," Valle said, "something I did to give food to my kids.I knew it wasn't right because other families were sacrificing their lovedones."

Valle was 15 when he joined the armed forces. He said his superiorsconsidered him an asset because he could read and write, and because he knewhow to drive.

"I wanted to make the army a career," he recalled. "I wanted to rise anddo something."

Running errands for officers made Valle feel important. He was ++proudest that he had become useful to Colonel Hernandez, the first head ofBattalion 316. "[Hernandez] had so much confidence in me he sent me to buythings like cigarettes for him," Valle boasted.

Valle's loyalty earned him an invitation to a three-month training course.Valle said the course was held at an army base in Lepaterique. The instructorswere Americans and Argentines, at time when the CIA was paying Argentinecounterinsurgency trainers in Honduras.

Valle said the Argentine instructors taught how to use "la capucha" --"the hood" -- a rubber mask that was wrapped around a person's face tosuffocate him.

"The rubber is put over the prisoner's face. They put a foot on the backof the neck and pull up on the rubber. Another person slaps the ears. Beforestarting, they tell you, 'When you want to talk more, nod your head.' TheArgentines taught this."

The Americans, he said, "gave us training in surveillance, disguise andphotography. They showed us a camera that looked like a thermos. They told ushow to open locked doors and taught us methods of interrogation."

Afterward, Valle said, he was assigned to Battalion 316, which heconsidered a high honor. He earned more money. He wore civilian clothes, andhe drove nice cars.

Valle said his superiors told him that the work of the battalion wascrucial in saving Honduras from the Communists.

"When we started with the battalion and started doing disappearances, [theofficers] told us we were doing good for the country," Valle said. "If thecountry fell to communism it would be terrible."

Valle's first job for the unit was surveillance, following suspects forfour to six days to determine the best time to strike.

"We would see if he came straight home or stopped at the restaurant oruniversity," Valle said. "We would take notes. We would take pictures if noneexisted. We would use motorcycles, cars.

"We would go out and execute the kidnapping," Valle said. "We all woreblack masks. ... If a suspect resisted, we beat him and sometimes shot him inthe leg."

After several months on the kidnapping squad, he was allowed toparticipate in interrogations. Torture was always used, he said.

Many prisoners were executed, Valle said. He remembers one executionparticularly vividly.

Late one night, on a dirt road outside Tegucigalpa, he watched as anotherbattalion member pushed a prisoner from the car and began stabbing him, Vallesaid. After five thrusts, the prisoner was still alive, murmuring what soundedlike a prayer.

Valle said his associate pulled a gun and shot the prisoner. They left thebody by the roadside.

"It was the most horrible thing I have ever seen," he said.

In 1985, Valle decided to leave the battalion and fled to Mexico. He andhis family moved to Canada a year later.

He attempts to explain his work for Battalion 316.

"If I get an order and I oppose, I'm risking my life. And what can I do?"he asked, shrugging his shoulders. "I never wanted to wash my hands of what Idid. I know I have responsibility.

"I knew what I was doing," he said. "But there is a point where you gothrough this door and you cannot go back out through that same door.

"Either you go out dead or you go out disappeared."

Jose Barrera was one of Battalion 316's assassins. He keeps in his mind alist of the people he murdered.

There was Jorge Alberto Cubas Carrillo, who Barrera shot to death inDecember 1983 at a bar in northern Honduras. Barrera recalled that hissuperior gave him 600 lempiras -- the equivalent of about $300.

There was Ricardo Garcia. Barrera said that he and other members ofBattalion 316 used a rope to tear off Garcia's testicles. Then they killedhim. Barrera said he earned 300 lempiras and spent it at a June fair.

In August 1985, Barrera thrust a knife into the abdomen of Juan HernandezDominguez.

"I did it to earn merit," he said.

For five years, Barrera gained privileges and money in Battalion 316. Now36, he is a thin man with small eyes the color of coal and thick, blackeyebrows. In an interview with The Sun and in a 16-page sworn statement to theCommittee for the Defense of Human Rights of Honduras (COFADEH) in 1987,Barrera admitted the murders he committed as a member of Battalion 316.

Born to a poor family and never formally educated, Barrera said he joinedthe army at 14 to escape poverty.

He failed many of the army's basic training courses because he could notadequately read or write. It appeared unlikely that he would climb through theranks.

So, in April 1981, when superiors offered him the opportunity to carry agun and make the equivalent of $250 a month, Barrera took the job.

In 1983, he underwent training at the Honduran military base atLepaterique, where he said he was taught interrogation methods by eight U.S.and four Argentine instructors.

"The Argentines taught courses on torture," he said.

Barrera said U.S. instructors later taught him to tap telephones in acourse conducted in San Pedro Sula, Honduras' second-largest city.

He said he served as a torturer and assassin in Battalion 316, travelingthe country on "special assignments."

He said he employed a variety of methods to make prisoners talk. Hehogtied and kicked them, pulled the hair off their legs, jolted their bodieswith electricity and smothered them with a rubber hood.

If those methods failed, Barrera threatened to harm their families.

"The first thing we would say is that we know your mother, your youngerbrother, and it's better you cooperate, because if you don't, we're going tobring them in and rape them and torture them and kill them," he recalled.

"We would show them photos of their family. We would say, 'We're going toget your mother and rape her in front of you.' Then we would make it seem likewe went to get the mother."

In 1986, Barrera said, officers accused him of betraying the battalionbecause he had friends suspected of being leftists. He had seen another memberof Battalion 316 killed for the same reason. Fearing for his life, Barreradeserted in September 1986.

"I knew I was going to disappear," he said.

A month later he was seized from his home. He says he was taken to asecret jail and tortured.

Forty-eight days later, Barrera was released alive, after a campaign byrelatives and leaders of human rights groups.

The activists helped Barrera flee to Mexico. From there, he moved toCanada.

Returning to Honduras would mean certain death, he said.

"First, I look out for me, the safety of my own self."

Battalion 316 did not operate alone. Officers in all branches the Honduranmilitary helped. The Honduran air force flew prisoners out of the country orto military camps throughout Honduras. Officers in the special forces raidedthe homes of suspected subversives or captured suspects camped along theHonduran border.

Honduran police stopped suspected leftists and turned them over to thebattalion.

One collaborator was Fausto Reyes, chief of motorcycle police in San PedroSula from 1980 to 1986. The 39-year-old Reyes described how he helpedBattalion 316 stage kidnappings.

He recalled the morning of Jan. 29, 1983, when he pulled over RTC HerminioDeras, a leader of the Honduran Communist Party. Reyes said he turned Derasover to three battalion members dressed in civilian clothes.

"I gave this guy to them alive," Reyes said. "After that, I went to have asoda and an enchilada. ... I returned when I heard the gunshot. ... Mr.Herminio Deras was dead. He was there on the street.

"I felt bad as a person. I felt bad as a man. I felt bad as a policeman. Ifelt like a violator of the law."

A clean-cut man with smooth, brown skin, a double chin and wide,expressive eyes, Reyes worked for Battalion 316 from 1982 until he fledHonduras in 1988, after he and one of his sons were shot at from an unmarkedcar.

He was interviewed by The Sun in Brockville, Ontario, where he lives withhis wife and five children. Reyes drives a taxi.

Reyes, the son of a banana company manager, joined the police as a buglerat the age of 13. He attended high school at night, graduating in 1974. He wasan instructor at a police academy in Tegucigalpa.

In 1980, Reyes was appointed chief of motorcycle police in San Pedro Sula.In Honduras, the police are a branch of the armed forces.

His mentor was General Alvarez, the head of the Honduran armed forces whocreated Battalion 316.

"I admired him," Reyes said. "He dressed very neatly. He wanted to build aprofessional institution. He was very decent with me. He made me feel verygood. I thought the doors to my future were open."

Reyes said that his loyalty to Alvarez led him to agree to collaboratewith the unit.

"They wanted to capture a group of terrorists that were infiltratingHonduras, and all I had to do was easy -- stop the vehicle and they wouldcapture them," he recalled.

"As a policeman, I felt it was very important to comply. But later Inoticed that these people were not terrorists," he said. "I thought they wouldbe like, Syrians, but the prisoners were Hondurans.

"I thought the prisoners would be interrogated, but later I noticed thatBattalion 316 was killing people."

Reyes said bodies began appearing "in rivers and in the banana fields." Hesaid he was so shaken by Deras' murder that he went to Alvarez to report it.

"I said, 'I know someone who killed someone,' " Reyes recalled. "He said,'Why did they involve you in this?' And he said a soldier must always be loyaland never speak against his superiors.

"He told me, 'What you have seen, you have to take to your grave.'"

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