THE WIDER WAR: Honduras

September 25, 2007

The president seems determined to add
still another sorry chapter to the chronicle
of Yankee imperialism in Central America.
The Administration apparently has chosen
Honduras to be our new "Nicaragua"--a
dependable satellite, bought and paid for by
American military and economic largesse.
Jack Anderson, The Washington Post
March 23, 1980.
Honduras almost outdoes the stereotype of a
banana republic. The vast plantations run by
United Fruit (now United Brands) envelop the
countryside, while Honduras is second only to
Haiti in per capita poverty. It has seen 150 gov-
ernments in 160 years, and spent the last 18
under military rule. Its present ruling General, Policarpo Paz Garcia, has what's politely re-
ferred to as "a drinking problem," and corrup-
tion is notoriously rife within the military High
Command.
Yet Honduras is being taken very seriously in
Washington these days. In 1980, it was the sec-
ond largest recipient of U.S. economic assis-
tance to Latin America, despite a sparse popula-
tion of three million. It has received $3.5 million
in military aid since April 1980, with $10.7 mil-
lion projected for fiscal 1982. This would
amount to more military aid in just one year
than Honduras received in all the years between
1950 and 1979.'
Why the sudden interest? In the post-Somoza
era, the United States is urgently trying to create
a new balance of forces in Central America, with
Honduras in the lead as the new "regional guard-
ian" of U.S. interests. Jimmy Carter started the
process by tying military and economic aid to
22MaylJune 1981
pressures for a return to civilian rule. Honduras
was to be a showcase of democracy in a sea of
revolutionary chaos, and therefore a more palat-
able ally against regional "subversion." Elec-
tions were in fact held, in April 1980, and a new
Constituent Assembly chose to retain Policarpo
Paz as interim president while it paves the way
for presidential elections in November 1981.
The Honduran Army is deeply divided over
the planned elections and military retreat, and
some sectors feel there will be less pressure from
Reagan's White House to carry through with
the plan. Meanwhile the military aid keeps flow-
ing, justified by the need to cut supply routes to
El Salvador's guerrillas and to prevent Hon-
duras from becoming the "next target" of com-
munist aggression. 2
CONDECA, the Central American Defense
Council, has already been reorganized since
Nicaragua's withdrawal in 1979, with head-
quarters in Guatemala. 3 But the preponderant
role of this regional alliance is reserved for Hon-
duras. Its Army sees communism at both door-
steps-a revolutionary offensive in El Salvador
to the southwest and Sandinismo in power to the
southeast. Accordingly, it has already assumed
the tasks of supporting the Salvadorean Army in
its battles against the guerrillas, and provoking
frequent military confrontations along the Nica-
raguan border. In short, Honduras is fast be-
coming the new U.S. proxy in a Central
American war.
Burying the Hatchet
Every weekend, rain or shine, Honduran
Army officers pack a picnic lunch and set off for
the border to break bread with Salvadoreans of
corresponding rank. Back in the barracks, Hon-
duran soldiers listen to weekly lectures on the
need for cooperation with El Salvador-lest the
communist menace cross the border to Hondur-
as itself.
Cooperation between the two armies might
not be unusual, had these countries not gone to
war in 1969, over a border conflict that involved
complicated economic and demographic issues.
Each side remembers vividly the other's atroci-
ties during that five-day war. And the Hondur-
ans, swearing revenge for their military defeat,
proceeded to create the strongest Air Force in
the region.
Eleven years of negotiations between the two
governments produced no headway toward re-
solving the festering border dispute. Diplomatic
and trade relations remained broken and a de-
militarized zone, three kilometers deep into
each country, stayed under OAS supervision.
But in 1980, it was alleged that the FMLN
had established guerrilla bases in the demilitar-
ized zone. The Salvadorean Army's "clean-up"
operations in the northern provinces were inef-
fective. Coordinated actions between the armies
of Honduras and El Salvador were seen as the
urgent answer to FMLN expansion.
If a common enemy can erase a few memories,
"a common benefactor can arrange a quick deal. At
"a meeting in Miami in April 1980, shortly after the
U.S. Congress approved an aid package to Hon-
duras, there was a sudden breakthrough in the
deadlocked negotiations. Honduras abruptly
dropped its long-standing condition that the bor-
der line be finalized before relations could be
mended. And five months later, a peace treaty was
signed, with much fanfare, that simply outlined a
procedure for future border negotiations while re-
storing full diplomatic and economic relations.
In May 1980, the first border massacre took
place at the Sumpul River. The decision to carry
out the attack on a suspected guerrilla base was
made at a meeting of Salvadorean and Honduran
military commanders at El Poy, a small border
town. But the victims of the joint attack several
days later were refugees-mainly women, chil-
dren and the elderly. Salvadorean soldiers fired on
them from helicopter gunships, forcing the refu-
gees to seek cover in the river. Those who made it
across were pushed back into the blood-red waters
by Honduran soldiers.
The president of Honduras went on national
radio a few days afterward to say the massacre had
never occurred. But one of his Army chiefs ad-
mitted that the "incident" had in fact taken place,
while denying any direct involvement by Hondur-
an troops.'
The massacres of refugees "mistaken" for
guerrillas have continued. Coordination between
the two armies is now chillingly precise, and thou-
sands of refugees have died as a result. But even for
those who make it to Honduras alive, the peace
treaty has meant continued persecution and death.
Honduras has allowed Salvadorean Air Force
planes to fly raids over its territory; Salvadorean
soldiers and paramilitary squads have conducted
tent-to-tent searches in refugee camps, seizing
those suspected of guerrilla ties. 5 And it now ap-
23NACLAReport
pears that Honduras may be willing to do more
than support slaughters on and within its own
borders.
No More Witnesses
Honduran cooperation in the Salvadorean
war is critical to the U.S. plan to rely on proxies
and avoid the use of American troops. Accord-
ing to the New York Times, Pentagon officials are
already worried that the ratio of Salvadorean
soldiers to guerrillas, at four to one, is insuffi-
cient. Done by the book, they say, counterinsur-
gency calls for an advantage of at least twenty to
one. 6 Honduras is an obvious source of addi-
tional personnel.
Church sources in Honduras now report an
unprecedented level of military activity along
the Honduran side of the border, and a large
foreign presence of the "gringo" variety. The
town of Marcala, fifty kilometers from the Sal-
vadorean border, is being used as a major center
for Honduran counterinsurgency forces, newly-
trained by U.S. advisers in late 1980. A new air-
strip has been built within the last year, and the
area has been declared a military zone. All
civilian flights over Marcala are now prohibited.
For Honduras, militarization of the border
area has led to a plan, announced in February,
to remove all Salvadorean refugees-estimated
at 46,000-to tightly controlled camps in the in-
terior. The plan would also remove all interna-
tional relief agencies from the zone, as well as
journalists interested in the refugee angle of the
crisis. The absence of these independent observ-
ers, according to priests involved in refugee
work, could lead to much more direct Hondur-
an involvement in "Operation Sandwich," an
attempt to trap the Salvadorean guerrillas be-
tween two lines of fire. The Honduran govern-
ment has already threatened foreign priests--
the most outspoken witnesses to the massacres to
date-with expulsion.
Eyes on the Other Border
In stark contrast to the plight of Salvadorean
refugees, Nicaraguan exiles have found a hos-
pitable new home in Honduras. Remnants of
Somoza's National Guard, plus some new con-
verts to their cause, are allowed to train on Hon-
duran soil for the "liberation" of their home-
land. They are also allowed, and actively en-
couraged, to launch nighttime raids across the
border, attacking frontier posts and Sandinista
patrols. More than 100 Nicaraguans have been
killed in these raids, including many young bri-
gadistas teaching literacy classes in remote areas
near the border last year. 8
The Nicaraguan government has docu-
mented 37 attacks to date, 44 air space violations
and 15 infiltrations from Honduran territory.
Actions by the Honduran Army are included
within these statistics. According to Nicaraguan
Defense Minister, Humberto Ortega, Hondur-
as' reconnaissance planes have violated Nicara-
guan airspace and its Army patrols have covered
the retreat of somocista raiders.'
In the past few months, the exile raids have
been overshadowed by direct clashes between
Honduran and Nicaraguan troops. The 1,000
mile border has been closed since April, and
heavy troop movements have been reported on
both sides.
Not all sectors of the Honduran Army agree
with what appears to be a conscious plan to bait
the Nicaraguans into a border war, and then use
the Honduran Air Force to sweep the country
and overturn the Sandinista revolution. But
many dissidents within the military have been
purged in recent months, and the Honduran
Army High Command is dominated by a clique
of right-wing colonels who favor the plan.
Dubbed "the magnificent seven," these colo-
nels see a double advantage to an invasion.
First, it would eliminate what they see as an ex-
ternal threat to domestic tranquility; and sec-
ond, it would provide a convenient pretext for
postponing the planned transition to civilian
rule.
The Honduran public is being steadily primed
for a confrontation with Nicaragua. A propa-
ganda blitz, making particular use of the Army's
weekly TV program, plays up the border inci-
dents and makes urgent appeals to defend the
territorial integrity of Honduras. But the
domestic risks of an invasion are still quite high.
In addition to resistance from younger Army
officers, the High Command is nervous about
committing troops to a foreign war when
domestic unrest is on the rise. A war with Nica-
ragua, moreover, would doubtless be highly un-
popular among large sectors of the population
that sympathize with the Sandinista cause.
The "magnificent seven" do draw courage
from Washington, however. An invasion plan
that was set to go in December 1979, according
to reliable sources, was stopped by last-minute
24MaylJune 1981
pressure from Jimmy Carter. Now, with a new
man in charge, Honduran officials see a green
light for their plans. General Wallace Nutting,
chief of the U.S. Southern Command, visited
Honduras in March 1981, and reportedly as-
sured the Hondurans that, "The Pentagon was
fully behind their collaboration with the Salva-
doreans, and would support them in any con-
frontation with the Nicaraguans."' 0 State
Department officials have reiterated that mes-
sage by stating that U.S. military aid to Hon-
duras would not be cut off in the event of a war
with Nicaragua.
In recent weeks, Honduran and Nicaraguan
government officials have been talking to reduce
tensions. And the Honduran Army seems unde-
cided about where to commit the bulk of its re-
sources-to counterinsurgency alongside the
Salvadorean Army, or to counterrevolution in
Nicaragua. Much will depend on how the High
Command perceives the FMLN challenge, and
how willing they are to risk a foreign adventure
that might well bring in Cuba and Mexico as
staunch allies of the Nicaraguan revolution.

HONDURAS
1. Department of Defense, Foreign Military Sales and
Military Assistance Facts, December 1980, p. 6; State De-
partment information released to Congressional commit-
tees.
2. Testimony by Franklin Kramer, Principal Depu-
ty Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Secur-
ity Affairs, House Appropriations Subcommittee of For-
eign Operations, March 25, 1980.
3. For more information on the origins and role of
CONDECA, see, "U.S. Strategies for Central America,"
NACLA Report, Vol. VII, no. 5 (May-June, 1973).
4. London Times, February 22, 1981.
5. Washington Post, January 7, 1981; New York Times,
June 8, 1981.
6. Editorial, Globe and Mail (Toronto), March 3,
1981.
7. Wheaton, op. cit., p. 20.
8. New York Times, April 30, 1981.
9. Latin America Weekly Report, May 8, 1981.
10. Latin America Regional Report, March 20, 1981.

Tags: Honduras, US aid, military cooperation, Salvadoran War, Nicaragua refugees


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