Tainted Honduran army turns to TV ads


TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras -- During the evening TV news last week, Hondurans watched a new, unsettling commercial:

Images of bloodly corpses on city streets. Images of electrical generating plants on fire. And there was a deep voice that explained, "This is the decade of the '80s." Filling the screen at the end was the name of the sponsors -- the armed forces of Honduras.

It was a commercial for a military suddenly anxious to make people see the events of the 1980s through military eyes. The past, the armed forces were insisting, was a time of chaos created by leftists and the time when the military did only what was necessary to protect national security. And now, the military was saying, it was time for forgiveness and reconciliation.

The commercial is part of a long-delayed season of public reckonings, a settling of accounts between the armed forces and the public, and between the armed forces and a nervous government.

All of them are rethinking the bloodiest chapter in the recent history of Honduras, when the armed forces kidnapped, tortured and murdered hundreds of people suspected of subversion.

The victims passed through the hands of a CIA-trained military unit, Battalion 316. More than 180 of them are still missing and presumed dead. As part of the final accounting, the government last month filed charges against 11 retired and active military officers, accusing them of attempted murder.

But the prosecution now finds itself stalled.

The armed forces and the public say they want justice. But for whom? And at what cost?

"If the United States can reconcile with Vietnam after their horrible fight, then we should be able to reconcile and go on with our lives," says Carlos Lopez Ossorio, the lead defense attorney for the indicted officers.

Mr. Lopez suggests that an amnesty for the officers would be the proper course. "Both sides committed horrendous acts," he says. "We must put them aside."

Father Fausto Milla wants the military to pay for its violence.

He was kidnapped by Battalion 316 in 1982 and imprisoned for five days. He was not beaten, but was denied food and water and listened day and night to the screams of prisoners being tortured.

"If we give amnesty to the military, then they are all free and they can continue to kidnap and kill anyone they choose," he says. "There has to be justice."

The extremes of public opinion are heard in the capital's central plaza, shared by both the Metropolitan Cathedral in all its baroque beauty and a Burger King.

"What the military did in the 1980s was horrendous," says Ramon Borjas, leaving early morning Mass hand-in-hand with his wife. "Those who are guilty must be punished. But it will be hard. The military is very powerful."

Lydia Hernandez, 45, was watching her sons scare away the pigeons, and considered the victims of Battalion 316. "As a mother I feel very sad for those women who lost their sons," she said. "But we must realize that those young men who disappeared also were hurting innocent people. They planted bombs and robbed banks, so the military did what it needed to stop them. The situation was balanced and fair. A life for a life."

Battalion 316 was equipped by the Central Intelligence Agency in the 1980s when Honduras was the staging ground for the Reagan administration's war against communism in Central America. The Sun reported in a series published in June that the CIA and State Department worked with the secret unit even though U.S. officials knew of its human rights abuses.

Graffiti near the cathedral takes the CIA's role into account: "CIA robs children and women to use for dirty deeds."

And Honduran military officers now frequently cite the American role in the violence of the 1980s. Gen. Luis Alonso Discua, chief of the armed forces, has suggested, for example, that the military should not face prosecution alone because it did not act alone.

The actions of Battalion 316, he said at a news conference last week, were ordered by the civilian leaders of the government and by "external forces" -- understood to mean the United States.

"The only thing that we will fight for is that the process is fair, honest, impartial and transparent," General Discua said. "Every Honduran has a right to a defense."

Father Milla finds the call for justice ironic. "The military never gave anyone the opportunity for a trial," he says. "They never conducted investigations. They only accused, tortured and executed their suspects."

The government itself is divided about what action to take. President Carlos Roberto Rina complained that the attorney general's office was overly zealous in prosecuting government officials of wrongdoing, including the former members of Battalion 316.

Edmundo Orellana, the attorney general, responded yesterday. "It would have been easy not to present these cases to the court," he said in a radio interview. "But I do not want my children to remember me as an irresponsible and cowardly official who was insensitive to human suffering."

The government commissioner of human rights suggests a trial remains preferable to an amnesty, even if none of the military officers is jailed.

"What is more important is that a court determines that these officials ordered and participated in kidnappings and tortures," said Leo Valladares, the human rights commissioner. "That would be a complete humiliation and dishonor for them."

"This is not vengeance, it is beginning a new respect for the law."

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