TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras -- For generations, the route in Honduras to power and even wealth has been the military. The armed forces had firepower, a long tradition of meddling in politics and a seemingly endless flow of weapons and training from the United States.
But the armed forces' exalted status is showing signs of decay.
There is, for example, a startling drop in willing recruits. So serious is the lack of volunteers for service that the army last year persuaded President Carlos Roberto Reina to order an emergency draft, something of an oddity for a country at peace with its neighbors and without any obvious internal threats.
"The attitude of most young men is very poor," says Guillermo Pagan, a spokesman for the armed forces. "It is not one of morals and service to the country."
Most, although not all, of the aid from the United States has stopped. In 1984, the U.S. provided the armed forces with $77 million, plus whatever was spent by U.S. intelligence agencies. The total was $532,000 in 1994, a decline in support mirroring the decline of fears in Washington that Central America was about to be overrun by communism.
But the most powerful threat to the military's standing has come from the government itself.
Last month, the attorney general's office filed criminal charges against 10 current and former military officers, charging them with having kidnapped and tortured student activists during the 1980s. No such charges had been filed in the past -- and perhaps no one during the 1980s expected that an attorney general would ever dare to do so.
Two weeks after the indictments Gen. Alonso Discua, the armed forces chief of staff, briefly sent tanks into the streets of the capital's outskirts, a hint of the armed forces' displeasure at the prospect of being held to account for their actions.
"They are afraid," says Ramon Oqueli, a military historian. "They feel trapped -- and they could react violently. That is what I am afraid of."
There is indeed a long tradition of the military taking matters into its own hands. More of the country's presidents have taken office thanks to military coups than through national elections.
Senior officers, not civilians, decided it was time for a change in the country's leadership and installed a president of their choice in 1956, again in 1963, again in 1972, 1975 and 1978.
Whatever the military's actions, there was always money or support of other kinds arriving from the United States. In the 1970s, U.S. aid was justified as a way to maintain good ties with a military establishment that was traditionally friendly to Washington and exerted broad influence over Honduran society.
During the eight years of the Reagan administration, U.S. aid to the military doubled, then quadrupled, then doubled again. It was the period when the U.S. conducted military exercises with Honduras and used it as a base to arm and train "contra" rebels battling the government of Nicaragua.
It was also the period when a secret intelligence unit named Battalion 316 was trained by the Central Intelligence Agency and kidnapped, tortured and murdered Hondurans suspected of subversion. U.S. officials deliberately misled Congress about the Honduran military activities, as reported in June in a series of articles in The Sun.
General Discua maintains that the military was not the only party committing crimes. "In the decade of the '80s there were those who planted bombs and those who kidnapped businessmen and robbed banks," he said at a recent news conference. "Where are they now?"
President Reina in effect shrugged off the general's remarks. Mr. Reina said it was only to be expected that commanders would support what their colleagues had done: Officers would be "bad friends," he said, if they did not show solidarity with the men under indictment.
"In other countries, Discua's statements and the movement of the tanks would have been cause for his demotion," says Efain Diaz Arrivillaga, a former member of the Honduran Congress and a leading member of the Christian Democratic Party. "But his remaining in office is a sign of the military's power."
Military commanders want an amnesty for their colleagues who have been indicted, insisting they should benefit from a 1991 congressional decree pardoning all political crimes committed during the 1980s.
"The Honduran Congress passed the amnesty as a way to end the pain caused by all the violence of the '80s," says Carlos
Lopez Osorio, lead attorney for the accused officers. "If we continue to allow one side to accuse the other, then we will never move forward."
Mr. Lopez says that his clients have suffered by having to relive memories of the fight against subversion. "They do not understand why after all these years they are forced to relive those events," he says.
"But they are not afraid. They are absolutely confident they will not be convicted."
For officers, the armed forces still offer an attractive career. For officers, there are luxury cars and large homes. There is an impressively large pension fund that owns the country's most profitable cement company, a commercial bank, a radio station, a funeral home, plus a Sheraton Hotel that is under construction.
But little of the comfort trickles down, as can be seen at the headquarters of the 1st Infantry Battalion, a few miles south of the capital.
At meal times, privates walk to the mess hall carrying beer mugs and plates brought from home, since the military does not provide any. New recruits are paid about $5 a month, barely enough to pay only for toothpaste and soap; sergeants receive about $20 a month.
"I am only going to serve my two years," says Sgt. Dilmer Sanchez, who has finished a first year with the battalion. "Then I ++ am getting out, because I know I can make more of my life outside the army."
Some senior officers agree with him: "A capable person would not volunteer for the armed forces to make $5 a month," says Lt. Col. Natanahel Guevara. "So most of those who come are people who can't read or write, have nothing to eat and nowhere to sleep."
"As a soldier in this battalion, I have no importance," says Sergeant Sanchez.
"Only the officers are important."