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Tales of 1980s Brutalities by Contras Arise in Honduras

Central America: Probe of air base near border with Nicaragua puts spotlight again on U.S. role in region.

October 27, 1999|JUANITA DARLING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

EL AGUACATE, 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."

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