TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras -- A judge investigating human rights abuses by the Honduran military ordered the arrest yesterday of three military officers accused of kidnapping and torturing university students during the 1980s.
It is the first time that arrest warrants have been issued against high-level officers who are suspected of being former members of a CIA-trained unit called Battalion 316. The unit stalked, kidnapped, tortured and murdered hundreds of suspected leftists during the 1980s at a time when the Reagan administration was running a campaign to wipe out communism in Central America.
The three men whose arrest was ordered yesterday are among 10 former and present military officers and enlisted men named so far in a probe of human rights abuses. The arrest orders were the strongest action to date in the probe, which has placed the military on the defensive in this country after decades of unchallenged power.
Judge Roy Medina, who is overseeing the probe, decided to order the arrest of the three officers after repeated efforts to summon them to his chambers to answer questions about the charges against them.
Yesterday, when Judge Medina sent his agents to deliver summonses to three of the defendants, none of the men could be found at their homes or offices. The lead attorney for the accused, Carlos Lopez Osorio, has insisted since last week that if summoned, his clients would disobey Judge Medina's orders to appear in court.
Considering Mr. Lopez's defiance, Judge Medina issued arrest warrants. Others of the ten could be arrested if they continue to refuse to come to his court voluntarily, the judge said.
"When it is clear that the accused have no intention to obey my summons to answer questions about the charges against them, then it is obvious that steps must be taken so that the trial can continue," said Judge Medina, speaking to reporters outside the 1st Criminal Court of Letters.
He added: "It has always been my preference to speak to them freely so that they could provide information for their own defense. But their attitude has been very aggressive. It is clear they never intended to appear."
The three ordered arrested
Among those ordered arrested yesterday was Col. Alexander Hernandez, inspector general of the Honduran military police force. He is suspected of being one of the former leaders of Battalion 316. Arrest warrants were also issued for Maj. Manuel Trejo, of the Honduran police, and retired Capt. Billy Hoya, who operates a security agency in the industrial capital of San Pedro Sula.
The judge's action was so unprecedented that it generated some anxiety about what the next step would be in the confrontation with the military. Earlier this summer when the probe was first announced, the military sent tanks into the streets of Tegucigalpa in a brief show of force.
The armed forces commander, Gen. Luis Alonso Discua, was out of the country yesterday, attending a meeting with military officers in Nicaragua.
Honduran President Carlos Roberto Reina was on a trip to Argentina and France, but his spokesman that he would cut short the trip and return home today.
The arrest warrants for the three defendants are in the hands of the Department of Criminal Investigations (DIC), a civilian police force created earlier this year. The head of the DIC, Wilfredo Alvarado, said he hoped that there would be no resistance.
He said: "Two of those who are to be arrested are members of the police force and we hope they will act as examples to others that they must obey the law."
Mr. Lopez, the attorney for the accused officers, was visibly outraged at Judge Medina's orders.
'Article by article'
"He wants to drag Honduras into chaos," screamed Mr. Lopez, red-faced. "If he wants to talk to someone, I will talk to him. We will go through the Constitution article by article and we'll see who is administering justice."
Mr. Lopez maintained that the entire trial is a farce because a 1991 amnesty, adopted by the Honduran Congress to pardon political crimes of the 1980s, covers his clients. And he said that he was considering filing charges of abuse of authority against Judge Medina.
The probe of the military men began one month after The Sun published a series of articles reporting that the CIA and the State Department collaborated with Battalion 316. The four-part series revealed that U.S. officials knew of the battalion's abuses but deliberately misled the U.S. Congress about the violence in order to keep up public support for the Reagan Administration's war against communism in Central America.
In an effort to seek more information about the battalion, the Honduran government has asked the Clinton administration to declassify more documents about the relationship between Battalion 316 and U.S. officials. Last week, the Clinton administration promised to speed up the process of declassifying those documents.
The promise renewed hope among officials in the Honduran attorney general's office and human rights activists who believe that U.S. documents will help them in the pursuit of justice against other former members of Battalion 316.
Judge Medina's action yesterday was enthusiastically supported by human rights groups.
'Our first glimpse of justice'
"This is our first glimpse of justice," said Bertha Oliva, spokeswoman for the Committee for the Relatives of the Disappeared (COFADEH). "I had almost given up hope that this would ever happen."
Her organization spearheads the ongoing search for 184 people still missing from the 1980s.
Ms. Oliva said COFADEH had planned a protest in front of Judge Medina's office for tomorrow to demand that he order the arrest of the military officers named so far. They are specifically accused of kidnapping and torturing six university students in 1982.
Now, she said, the protest would be canceled.
'Impunity is dead'
"We owe Judge Medina our complete respect and support," said Ms. Oliva, whose husband was kidnapped in 1981 and has not been seen alive since. "Finally, because of him, the people of Honduras see that impunity is dead."
"Honduras is going from a country that calls itself a democracy to one that practices democracy," said Leo Valladares, the Honduran government commissioner of human rights.
Gustavo Landaverde, whose brother was assassinated by military officials in 1988, said, "This is terrific. The whole country should stand behind this man and support what he is doing."
Mr. Landaverde, a leader of the Christian Democratic Party, added: "The judge completely surprised the military. They thought they could disobey him and that he would never dare order their arrest."