Departing Honduras to where? Ex-envoy tells how U.S. ignored midair vanishings

ON APRIL 22, 1981, 12 citizens of El Salvador residing in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, along with five of their children, were arrested at their home by agents of the National Investigations Directorate (DNI), a branch of the Honduran police.

Most of these people were members of two extended families, Barrillas and Navarro, and they included three generations of the Navarro family. One of those detained, Nora Gomez de Barrillas, had been secretary to Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, earlier slain by an unknown gunman while celebrating Mass.


The arrest of this group was witnessed by several people, including an employee of a United Nations technical agency who lived nearby. The incident received extensive coverage by the Honduran media. But to this day, Honduran police and military authorities (the police were part of the military establishment in Honduras) have denied any and all knowledge of their detention or whereabouts. This group of people simply vanished without a trace. Or did it?

At the time, I was serving as U.S. ambassador to Honduras. This case quickly came to my attention, not only because of the media coverage, but also because the embassy was monitoring possible human rights violations in Honduras. In addition to the State Department's statutory mandate to observe and evaluate the human rights performance of host governments, we were aware that such violations could threaten attainment of our principal foreign policy objectives. I immediately instructed the embassy human rights officer to look into this case; I also asked the CIA representative and military members of the staff to find out what they could from their contacts. The incident itself was reported to the State Department promptly, and followed later by our assessment that DNI had probably been responsible. But we had no hard information to confirm this suspicion. Nor did we have further information as to the whereabouts or condition of the group.


Later, probably sometime in May, the CIA representative advised me that he had obtained confirmation that DNI had, in fact, detained this group. He also reported that the Hondurans had acted on request of the Salvadoran military, which suspected that at least some of the detainees were members of a support network for Salvadoran insurgents. This information was reported in CIA channels. Publicly, however, Honduran authorities continued to deny responsibility for or knowledge of their disappearance.

In early June, after receiving reports of several other apparent human rights abuses, I personally drafted a restricted distribution cable to the State Department that called attention to the various embassy and CIA reports of possible violations, and pointed out the potential policy implications of this troubling trend.

Less than a week later, after consultations with key members of my staff, I wrote another, longer cable dealing with this problem, its potential consequences for our policy, and proposing a strategy and recommended actions for dissuading the Hondurans from proceeding down this path. There can be no question that the State Department and other U.S. government agencies were aware of this emerging human rights problem at a very early stage and in very specific terms.

At no time did the State Department respond officially to my concerns and recommendations. I was, however, privately XTC cautioned to refrain from reporting such incidents in official channels. And the CIA representative advised me that his agency had told him to "lay off" human rights reporting. Despite these suggestions, we continued to report incidents that came to our attention.

A mystery solved

But what became of the Barrillas/Navarro group? Subsequently, the CIA representative came to me with the following story, which he said had been picked up by happenstance. One of his staff members had been conversing with a Honduran police officer who had been involved in the initial interrogation of this group. This officer reportedly commented that the techniques the CIA had taught were much less effective than those employed by the Salvadorans.

Asked to elaborate, the officer said he had participated in an extended interrogation of the Barrillas/Navarro group, but it had failed to produce useful information. Consequently, Salvadoran interrogators were allowed to come to Honduras and question the detainees. By using torture, he explained, the Salvadorans had been able to confirm that some members of the group were members of an insurgent support apparat and to gain useful information about its operations. The downside, according to this person, was that following interrogation the detainees (except for the two Barrillas children, who were delivered to Salvadoran immigration authorities at a border post) were in such poor physical condition that they could not be released without serious repercussions. The Hondurans therefore agreed to turn them over to the Salvadorans for repatriation.

A Salvadoran air force plane was flown to the Honduran air force base at Tegucigalpa airport (Toncontin), where they were put aboard. According to this officer, "they weren't aboard the aircraft when it landed in El Salvador." In other words, these people were thrown out of the aircraft en route back to El Salvador, over either the Pacific Ocean or the sparsely settled frontier area. It is unlikely that their bodies, if ever found, could have been identified. We received no further information as to the fate of the children returned to El Salvador.


A 'bombshell' report

This report was a bombshell. It indicated, beyond reasonable doubt to my mind, that the Honduran and Salvadoran militaries had collaborated in an egregious violation of human rights. Not only did this action jeopardize our overriding policy objective in Honduras -- the successful transition from 17 years of military rule to a democratic government -- but also our policies in El Salvador and the region as a whole.

Several senior Honduran military officers were already trying to persuade their peers of the need to oust the transition government and resume direct rule. A confrontation with the United States over human rights could, if not very carefully handled, tip this delicate balance the wrong way. The continuing disregard for human rights in El Salvador had limited U.S. policy options, and Congress was pressing for further restrictions on aid to that country. Regionally, collapse of the democratic transition in Honduras and isolation of El Salvador would have been devastating. But this report's capacity to damage U.S. policy objectives was even greater than I realized at that time.

Unbeknownst to me:

* Bill Casey's CIA was busily crafting its contra operation against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, using Honduras as its base and Argentine advisers as its cat's paw but without a presidential finding or other legal basis for these actions.

* Hard-liners within (and without) the administration were pushing for stronger action against Nicaragua, the insurgents in El Salvador and Cuba, just as Assistant Secretary of State Tom Enders was making what was to be our final effort to reach a negotiated agreement with the Sandinistas, an effort that ultimately was to cost him his job.


* Elements of the U.S. military were unilaterally planning to gain access to military bases in Honduras as part of a strategy to contain the "Communist threat" in Central America.

The CIA chief reported the solution to the Barrillas/Navarro mystery in his channels, and I again followed up with the State Department. As before, I stressed the potential danger if Honduran human rights violations continued to escalate, and the increasingly urgent need to dissuade the Hondurans from such actions. I also proposed a more extensive series of actions to put down a firm marker that there were limits as to what the U.S. government was prepared to tolerate. Again, the official response was silence; but I was once more advised not to report such information in official channels.

U.S. missed chance

In retrospect, I continue to believe that the U.S. government missed an opportunity to shape and influence Honduran human rights behavior. We chose, instead, a different, more complicit path. That the actions I proposed carried with them, serious foreign policy risks is undeniable. Yet, in light of what later occurred in Central America -- the "covert" war against Nicaragua and the gross human rights violations in Honduras and El Salvador -- an argument can be made that we would have better off if the entire policy house of cards had collapsed earlier.


Jack Binns served as ambassador to Honduras from September 1980 throguh October 1981. His cables warning superiors in Washington of human rights abuses by the Honduran military went largely unheeded. He retired from the Foreign Service in 1986 and is working on a book about his experiences in Honduras.