Tales of 1980s Brutalities by Contras Arise in Honduras
Carlos. Fransisco. Rene Pinto Polaco. Prisoner Sauceda. Mario was here.
Carved roughly into the bricks of an abandoned jail cell a few yards from an airstrip that U.S. forces built in 1983, the names symbolize the mystery of El Aguacate.
The United States used this air base in eastern Honduras to supply and train Nicaraguan counterrevolutionaries, known as Contras, fighting their country’s leftist Sandinista government in the 1980s.
But many questionable activities are also believed to have taken place here.
Are the names merely the scrawlings of bored soldiers thrown in the calaboose to sober up? Or were they the last desperate attempts for recognition made by Honduran guerrillas or by Sandinista supporters dragged back from Nicaragua to be tortured here? And are the bodies of Prisoner Sauceda and others like him buried in the unmarked graves just over the hill? Or do those graves hold the remains of Contras who died at the 250-bed base hospital from battle wounds?
Local prosecutor Gia Ridense has set out to find the answers to those questions by filing and winning a motion that will finally, nine years after the Contras left, open up the base to forensic anthropologists and other investigators looking for evidence of what went on at El Aguacate.
In the process, she has revived questions about the U.S. role in Central America, particularly support for the Contras, an intervention that both U.S. and Honduran officials first denied, then minimized and even now will not completely reveal.
Her investigation is proceeding slowly, prompting one Southern California family, which believes that a brother might be buried here, to press for guarantees of progress. During a trip to Honduras last month, relatives of Father James Francis Carney delivered to Honduran authorities a letter signed by several U.S. congressmen, urging exhumations of the graves.
Ex-Soldiers, Peasants Recount Brutalities
As the investigation takes shape, slowly, cautiously, soldiers once stationed here and peasants who lived in the shadow of the base are beginning to talk about what they saw and heard. Their tales of brutality raise issues of how the United States chooses its foreign allies and what behavior Washington will tolerate in order to accomplish its objectives abroad.
“The concern now is not about the left, but about drugs and instability,” said Peter Hakim, director of Interamerican Dialogue, a policy institute in Washington. “El Aguacate reflects one part of U.S. policy. There is no single right symbol for U.S. policy then or now.”
“El Aguacate was part of a policy of making Honduras a platform for waging war against Nicaragua,” said Joseph Eldridge, who was so disturbed by what he saw as a missionary in Honduras that he co-founded the Washington Office on Latin America to study U.S. policy in the region.
“The United States ironically continues to believe that there can be military solutions,” he said. “That was a flawed approach in Central America in the 1980s, and it is a flawed approach in Colombia today. These are fundamentally economic and political problems.”
U.S. anti-narcotics aid to Colombia has soared in the past year, reaching $289 million. Because Colombia’s narcotics production is closely tied to Marxist guerrillas, the line between fighting drugs and fighting the rebels is increasingly blurry.
Most aid is given to the Colombian police, but the United States increasingly cooperates with the army in sharing intelligence and in training carefully screened units.
Reporters are banned from those sessions, just as they were banned from El Aguacate in the 1980s. But at El Aguacate, Eldridge said, “the walls are finally coming down.”
The investigation began because farmers fighting to reclaim the base for agriculture presented the prosecutor with evidence of an unregistered graveyard. That allowed her to obtain a court order for an inspection in early August.
That initial visit included a chemical test showing that the walls of the brick cell had been spattered with blood. It uncovered hooks built into the floor and ceiling.
“With that structure, the only thing it could have been used for is torture,” Ridense said.
Adolfo Calero, a Contra leader who visited the base about half a dozen times, said he doesn’t recall the brick building. But he said of the investigation: “It’s all made up. They are not going to discover anything because there is nothing to discover. It was used for airdrops and as a hospital.”
Honduras’ civilian defense minister, Edgardo Dumas, has authorized the small contingent of soldiers who guard the base to show visitors the jail and two possible graveyards, which Ridense has marked off with yellow tape.
“I am willing to open all the doors of every base,” Dumas said in a recent interview. “I am not the one responsible for what happened.”
In fact, Lt. Adrian Irias, who commands the soldiers at the base, obligingly shows visitors the suspected cemeteries and the jail cell, where the greatest threat nowadays is a colony of wasps.
In this new climate of relative openness, witnesses are starting to tell their horror stories. Ridense’s investigation is the latest of several Honduran efforts to find the truth about what happened during the repression of the 1980s.
The quest that began six years ago--when Honduran Human Rights Commissioner Leo Valladares published “The Facts Speak for Themselves,” a report on human rights abuses from that period--has gained momentum, reaching even this remote area.
The prospect of exhumations at El Aguacate has raised the hopes of families across Honduras, where more than 180 people disappeared during the 1980s. Some disappearances were directly related to the Nicaraguan war and others to Honduran domestic politics.
“Since we don’t know where they are, each time they find a [clandestine] cemetery, we think that they might be there,” said Liduvina Hernandez, a short woman with gray curls. Her son, Enrique Lopez, a union member, was arrested at the border in 1982 as he returned from a training course in Nicaragua and was never seen again.
El Aguacate’s graves have raised hopes especially high because through the years there have been so many rumors about what went on at the remote base in the rolling hills of Honduran cattle country, with its U.S.-run airstrip. Named “Avocado” for a prominent hill here, it was the largest of several Contra bases in Honduras and the one with the biggest U.S. presence.
Base Allegedly Saw Executions of Contras
The Contras are said to have executed four of their own errant commanders at the base in 1983. The base hosted other Contra prisoners, mainly Nicaraguans brought back from forays into the neighboring country, said a former Honduran army sergeant who was assigned to the base from 1982 to 1984. There was even a Contra deserter who was captured fighting for the Sandinistas, he said.
“From the moment that you saw one of those people, you knew what was in store for them,” the former soldier said. “Those who were interrogated did not live.”
Calero, the Contra leader, said he knew of only one interrogation that had taken place at El Aguacate, after a Honduran soldier put a pen cap in a truck’s gasoline tank in an apparent sabotage attempt.
“Nothing untoward happened there,” he said.
The former soldier, however, said that the brick cell below a lookout tower was used for interrogations. Soldiers were punished in wooden cells that have fallen apart, he said.
“The torture was always at night,” he said. He never saw the U.S. advisors participate in the torture, he said. But he added: “The Americans were there as a liaison. It would have been hard for them not to know.”
A U.S. State Department spokesman denied that Americans were aware of any torture at El Aguacate.
“We do not know who is buried at the base or how and when they died,” the spokesman said. “Several groups have used the area.”
The extent of the U.S. role in the Contra war is still hard to determine nearly a decade after the conflict ended with the election of Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, an opponent of the Sandinistas, as president of Nicaragua.
For one, Honduran documents relating to the war simply do not exist. And gleaning information from U.S. documents has been difficult, with page after page censored with a black marking pen.
“The documents that have been released show more about what happened in the Honduran military than about the U.S. role in relation to the Honduran military,” Eldridge said.
Human rights activists hope that investigations at El Aguacate will provide answers that the censored documents have not.
“It is important in this moment that something we all know happened is brought to light,” said Valladares, the human rights commissioner. “If people died there, we need to determine whether they were wounded in battle [and later died] or if they were murdered.”
Forensic tests will show how the people whose bodies are buried at El Aguacate died, Ridense, the prosecutor, said. So far, only one skeleton has been exhumed, and forensic tests have not been performed on those bones, she said. She is still arranging for a forensic team to come and has not set a date for further exhumations.
The former Honduran soldier, on the other hand, warned that investigators might come to incorrect conclusions if they rely on the remains in El Aguacate’s graveyards.
“The bodies of those who were interrogated did not stay there,” he said. “The majority of them were thrown from helicopters.”
The two graveyards were for Contra officers and troops, he said. “They put crosses on some of the graves, but not on most.”
Today, the only cross that remains among the brambles of one graveyard about the size of a tennis court is concrete and bears the name Francisco Guzman Davila and the date Sept. 5, 1986. An armed forces press release says that Guzman was a Contra.
But the families of the disappeared continue to wait eagerly for word of the exhumations.
“I hope that these excavations could give us some information about my father,” Karla Maldonado said.
She last saw her father, Jorge Alberto Maldonado, when she was 11 and he woke her early one morning to give her a kiss goodbye before he went to Nicaragua for training as a guerrilla.
“I want to have something to tell my children about their grandfather,” she said. “Now that I do not have him, I want at least to have his remains.”