U.S. Aides Link Honduran Military Chief, Drug Trade

Times Staff Writers

Honduras’ powerful military chief, Gen. Humberto Regalado Hernandez, is suspected of protecting Colombian drug traffickers who use his country for transshipping cocaine into the United States, Reagan Administration officials said Friday.

As head of a force that includes Honduras’ small navy, which runs the Central American country’s Caribbean ports, Regalado “turned a blind eye to drug shipments,” a knowledgeable State Department official said. “We can only presume he was paid a price for that. He wasn’t doing it out of the goodness of his heart.”

The allegations against Regalado, which stem from U.S. intelligence reports, are only part of a mounting body of evidence that senior members of the military in Honduras, a key U.S. ally in the Contras’ war against leftist Nicaragua, are deeply involved in the international cocaine trade, the officials said.


“We don’t know the extent of the Honduran military’s involvement in drugs,” said the State Department official. “But our educated guess is that all of the senior officers have knowledge, many are involved . . . and they are all reaping the profits.”

“How can we compete with that kind of money?” another official asked. “They’re being offered much more money than they can earn any other way. Even the CIA doesn’t have that kind of money.”

Honduran government spokesmen have long denied any ties between their country’s military, which dominates a weak civilian regime, and the massive Caribbean cocaine trade.

And a federal law enforcement official said Honduras is “no better and no worse than many places.”

But the Drug Enforcement Administration, alarmed by the increasing evidence, has decided to station two agents in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa beginning next month after several years without an office in Honduras. “We do believe the level of trafficking has stepped up there,” a DEA spokesman said. Heightened U.S. concern about the Honduran military’s role in drug trafficking was first reported in the New York Times on Friday.

Several knowledgeable U.S. officials described the situation in Honduras as a minor-league parallel to the case of Panama, where military strongman Manuel A. Noriega allegedly protected billions of dollars in drug trade.

Less Flagrant Than Panama

In Honduras, the shipments were smaller, the payoffs were less lavish, and the alleged complicity of Regalado and other military figures was less flagrant than in Panama, which became a center for cocaine financing, the officials said.

But just as in Panama, the CIA and other U.S. agencies initially resisted investigating the problem, officials said, because they had a major stake in maintaining good relations with the Honduran armed forces--in this case, because Honduras hosts the main bases of the U.S.-backed Nicaraguan Contras.

One official said that DEA agents informally proposed impaneling a grand jury to investigate Honduran officials in the early 1980s, but that the CIA blocked the move. His account could not be confirmed.

All the officials spoke on condition that they not be identified. Several cited the sensitivity of Honduras’ role in support of the Contras, one of President Reagan’s most cherished causes.

Honduras is one of the poorest countries in Latin America. Its senior military officers make salaries estimated at about $30,000 per year for a full colonel--handsome by Central American standards, but far from lavish.

Smugglers’ Way Station

Honduras, with a 300-mile coastline roughly midway between cocaine-producing Colombia and Florida’s Gulf Coast, has long been a stopping point for drug smugglers, but the volume of contraband moving through the country appears to have increased during the past year, officials said.

When 8,000 pounds of cocaine were confiscated in Florida last November in the largest such seizure in U.S. history--a stash with a street value of about $1.4 billion--the drugs were traced to a shipment of furniture from the Honduran town of Puerto Cortes, they said.

And last November, when one of the leaders of Colombia’s Medellin narcotics cartel, Jorge Ochoa, was arrested in Colombia, he was driving a new Porsche that was found to belong to the Honduran military attache there.

But the most worrisome sign of increased narcotics trafficking through Honduras, two officials said, was the reappearance in Tegucigalpa of two suspected cocaine dealers--one a major figure in the Medellin drug cartel, the other a former Honduran military intelligence chief who reportedly worked with him.

Suspect in Drug Cases

DEA officials described the drug figure, Juan Ramon Matta Ballesteros, as a major suspect in several narcotics cases and in the murder of DEA agent Enrique S. Camarena in Mexico in 1985. “Matta is believed to be one of those who ordered Camarena’s assassination,” the DEA spokesman said.

Matta fled Honduras in the late 1970s after the murder of several drug couriers, became a major figure in the Medellin cartel’s operations in Mexico, was imprisoned in Colombia, reportedly bought his way out of that prison, and returned to Honduras in 1985. He was briefly imprisoned in Tegucigalpa on old charges, reportedly in a lavishly appointed suite of air-conditioned cells, but was soon released.

He now lives in a handsome house in Tegucigalpa and has become locally famous as a kind of Honduran Robin Hood, handing out money to poor families, endowing an orphanage and hosting lavish parties attended by government officials.

“We think that if Honduran authorities knew where to pick up Matta, they would do so,” the DEA spokesman said, but added, “Maybe I’m being naive.”

The former military intelligence chief, Col. Leonides Torres Arias, worked with both Matta and Panama’s Noriega to organize drug shipments until he was ousted from his post in 1981, officials said.

Met Twice With Castro

Before his ouster, Torres attracted the attention of the CIA when he traveled twice to Havana to meet with Cuban leader Fidel Castro, allegedly sold weapons to leftist guerrillas in El Salvador, and argued within the Honduran military against support for the Contras. The officers who ousted Torres were strong proponents of the Contra war and worked closely with the CIA, officials said.

Torres reportedly retired from the army to tend his collection of expensive cars and to pursue “private business interests,” one official said dryly.

During the past year, however, Torres appears to have returned to a position of influence, advising Regalado and other senior officers--a development that has American officials worried about the future of Honduran support for the Contras.

“Our problem is simple,” said one. “If we move against these guys on drugs, they can screw us on the Contras.”