The tools of torture

JOSE VALLE DESCRIBED the techniques of torture -- very simple, very painful. One favored technique, Valle said, was to force a prisoner to stand naked on a chair, then to tie a basket to his testicles. As the torturer asked questions, he filled the basket with rocks or corn and swung it back and forth.

"There was nothing to it," Valle said.

Valle, now 37, is a burly man with a round face, curly hair and a sparse beard. As he speaks about the pain he inflicted, he interjects pleas for understanding and forgiveness. Unemployed, separated from his wife, and living in public housing in Toronto, he spends his days watching his small children and 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 and white 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 loved ones."

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

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

Running errands for officers made Valle feel important. He was proudest that he had become useful to Colonel Hernandez, the first head of Battalion 316. "[Hernandez] had so much confidence in me he sent me to buy things 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 instructors were Americans and Argentines, at time when the CIA was paying Argentine counterinsurgency 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 to suffocate him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"We would see if he came straight home or stopped at the restaurant or university," Valle said. "We would take notes. We would take pictures if none existed. We would use motorcycles, cars.

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

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