Under U.S. President Reagan, Honduras was transformed into the major regional headquarters for U.S. counterinsurgency operations throughout Central America and Latin America. Above, Honduran soldiers operate a mortar for members of the U.S. Army 82nd Airborne Division during a joint exercise, March 1988. (Photo: Department of Defense, NARA)
THE CRIME: The U.S. military and CIA trained, financed, and covered up the crimes of “Battalion 316”—a Honduran military death squad which carried out a campaign of torture, murder, and state-sponsored terror against the Honduran people during the 1980s. At least 184 Hondurans—including labor leaders, students, religious activists, and others the Honduran military considered political opponents—were stalked, kidnapped, brutally tortured, disappeared, and murdered by Battalion 316. Countless others were captured and tortured before ultimately being let go.
Battalion 316 was created under CIA supervision by General Gustavo Álvarez Martínez, Commander-in-Chief of the Honduran Armed Forces, according to declassified CIA documents. Certain units of the battalion were in charge of abductions; other units were charged with torturing prisoners; and others with executions and disposal of bodies.
Battalion 316’s torture methods included suffocation, beatings, sleep deprivation, electrocution of the genitals, rape, and the threat of rape toward family members. One man’s testicles were torn off with a rope before he was murdered.
“The intelligence unit, known as Battalion 316, used shock and suffocation devices in interrogations,” the Baltimore Sun reported in a series based on formerly classified documents and interviews with torture survivors, a former member of Battalion 316, and U.S. and Honduran participants. “Prisoners often were kept naked and, when no longer useful, killed and buried in unmarked graves.”
In 1981 a group of Salvadorans in Honduras, including 30 nuns and women of faith, were abducted, savagely tortured by DNI, the Honduran secret police, and later thrown out of helicopters while still alive.
Ronald Reagan: Under Reagan, Honduras was transformed into the major regional headquarters for U.S. counterinsurgency operations throughout Central America and Latin America. The crimes of the Honduran military under General Álvarez, including Battalion 316, were supported and monitored (while being “overlooked” and denied publicly) by the Reagan administration. U.S. aid to Honduras increased from $45 million to $291 million between 1981 and 1985, and the country’s top military leaders were on the U.S. payroll.
U.S. Army and CIA: The CIA played the central role in creating, training, and overseeing the death squad Battalion 316. General Álvarez and at least 19 other members of Battalion 316 were graduates of the U.S. Army School of the Americas. (See “Case #91: School of the Americas—Training Ground for Mass Murderers and Torturers, 1946-Present.”) In August 1980, the CIA brought 25 Honduran army officers to a location in the Southwestern U.S., where they spent six months being trained in surveillance and interrogation methods, including torture techniques, by the CIA and FBI. The U.S. Army and CIA trained members of Battalion 316 in Honduras and the U.S., and paid for Argentine torturers to provide training. CIA operatives visited one of the battalion’s torture chambers and saw them in action.
“Newly declassified documents and other sources show that the CIA and the U.S. Embassy knew of numerous crimes, including murder and torture, committed by Battalion 316, yet continued to collaborate closely with its leaders,” the Baltimore Sun reported.
U.S. State Department, and John Negroponte, U.S. Ambassador to Honduras, 1981-1985: In a country with just three million people, Honduras would have the second largest embassy in Latin America, housing the biggest CIA station in the entire world. Ambassador Negroponte met regularly with Honduras General Álvarez. Despite growing public exposure of death squad atrocities in Honduras, Negroponte never reported this to the State Department. Instead, he played a key role in covering them up.
The U.S. military and CIA trained, financed, and covered up the crimes of “Battalion 316”—a Honduran military death squad during the 1980s. At least 184 Hondurans were stalked, kidnapped, brutally tortured, disappeared, and murdered by Battalion 316. Countless others were captured and tortured before ultimately being let go. Above, photos of the disappeared in the office of the Committee of Relatives of the Disappeared in Honduras. (Photo: teleSUR)
In a letter to the Economist of London in 1982, in response to exposure of death squad activity, Negroponte adamantly denied that any such activity was taking place: “… it is simply untrue to state that death squads have made their appearance in Honduras.” When Honduran judicial authorities later insisted Negroponte return to Honduras to testify, the U.S. invoked diplomatic immunity to protect him. (New York Times, October 21, 1995)
This ensured that the Honduran military’s crimes continued unabated, and that the flow of funds and support to them wasn’t interrupted.
Negroponte also played a key role in turning Honduras into a base of operations for the CIA’s counter-revolutionary (“Contra”) operations in other Central American countries. The CIA-backed Contras carried out a campaign of terror that killed 30,000 Nicaraguans during the 1980s. The campaign was aimed at toppling the new Sandinista government, which had defeated and driven out the U.S. puppet Somoza in 1979. The New York Times reported that Negroponte worked closely with William Casey, Director of the CIA, “on the Reagan administration’s anti-Communist offensive in Central America. He helped word a secret 1983 ‘presidential finding’ authorizing support for the contras, as the Nicaraguan rebels were known, and met regularly with Honduran military officials to win and retain their backing for the covert action.”
General Gustavo Álvarez Martinez, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Honduras: General Álvarez formed Battalion 316 and personally directed its operations. He told a U.S. ambassador that he intended to use the “Argentine method” of eliminating subversives, referring to Argentina’s “dirty war” against guerrilla movements which used state terror to kill 30,000 people in the late 1970s, including students, labor leaders, and others, along with insurgents.
In 1983, the Reagan administration awarded General Álvarez the Legion of Merit for “encouraging the success of democratic processes in Honduras.”
ACTUAL MOTIVE: Throughout the 20th Century, the U.S. enslaved the peoples of Central America on plantations and in sweatshops. The U.S. domination and exploitation of what it considered its “backyard” of Mexico, Central and South America was essential to the functioning of U.S. capitalism and to its global power as it contended with rival oppressors. Yet, with the victory of the Sandinistas in 1979, and the growing insurgencies against U.S. puppet regimes in Guatemala and El Salvador, the U.S. saw their global rival, the by then social-imperialist Soviet Union, gaining increasing influence in their backyard.
The Reagan administration came into office determined to take the offensive and reverse these advances. Honduras was turned into the headquarters and staging area for U.S. imperialism’s blood-soaked, covert counterinsurgency operations throughout the region—against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, the FMLN in El Salvador, and guerrillas in Guatemala through the genocidal war waged by Reagan’s butcher Ríos Montt. (See “Case #95: Reagan’s Butcher Carries Out Genocide in Guatemala.”) Battalion 316 played an indispensable role in ensuring the Honduran regime stayed in power and helped carry out these towering crimes.
REPEAT OFFENDERS: In 2009, former members of Battalion 316 would play a major role in a coup in Honduras, which the U.S. and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton supported.
“Honduras: The Facts Speak for Themselves—Preliminary Report of the National Commissioner for the Protection of Human Rights in Honduras,” Human Rights Watch, July 1994.
“When a wave of torture and murder staggered a small U.S. ally, truth was a casualty,” Gary Cohn and Ginger Thompson, Baltimore Sun, June 11, 1995.