It has been two decades since John D. Negroponte left his post as ambassador to Honduras, but the man President Bush has chosen to become the United States' first intelligence czar is still being hounded by human rights activists such as Zenaida Velasquez.
Their paths first intersected in 1983, when Velasquez asked for the ambassador's help in tracing dozens of Hondurans, including her brother, allegedly kidnapped by agents of the U.S.-backed Honduran military. Little came of the meeting, and the disappearances continued for at least another year.
Over the years, Velasquez has gotten the CIA, an official Honduran ombudsman and an international human rights court to acknowledge that the Honduran army was responsible for her brother Manfredo's kidnapping and presumed killing. But Negroponte has repeatedly insisted that military-backed death squads did not operate in Honduras while he was ambassador.
The selection of Negroponte for the new post of national intelligence director has focused renewed attention on the question of how much he knew about the Honduran military's involvement in nearly 200 unsolved kidnappings during the 1980s, and what he did about it. The subject has dogged him in the past, and Democratic staff members said it is likely to be revisited when the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence holds nomination hearings, tentatively scheduled for April 12.
A review of hundreds of declassified State Department and CIA documents suggests that Negroponte was preoccupied with "managing perceptions" about a country that had become a key U.S. ally in a decade-long campaign to stop the spread of communism in Central America. The documents show that he sought to depict Honduras in a generally positive light in annual human rights reports to Congress, and played down allegations of government abuse.
Opinions differ sharply over whether Negroponte, who served most recently as U.S. envoy to Iraq and the United Nations, ever suppressed pertinent intelligence information for fear of undermining support for U.S. policies.
Negroponte's admirers see him as a tough-minded, professional diplomat who loyally implemented Reagan administration policies in Central America during an exceptionally difficult period. His critics view him as a symbol of what they consider a dark chapter in American history, when the United States closed its eyes to crimes by Third World strongmen because they were seen as partners in a larger anti-communist crusade.
For Velasquez, who founded a relatives' committee to investigate the spate of kidnappings and disappearances in Honduras in the early 1980s and is now a U.S. citizen living in California, the controversy is more personal. She wants Negroponte to do something he has so far declined to do: acknowledge the existence of death squads in Honduras, and their ties with the U.S.-backed Honduran security forces.
"It's like a slap in the face," she said of Negroponte's selection to the intelligence post. "He knew what was going on, but he still refuses to speak the truth."
Negroponte declined through a spokesman to be interviewed for this article, in accordance with the tradition that presidential nominees refrain from public statements before their confirmation hearings. Appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in September 2001, before assuming the U.N. post, he continued to insist that the disappearances were not the result of Honduran "government policy."
Human Rights Concerns
When John Dmitri Negroponte arrived in Tegucigalpa as ambassador in December 1981 at age 42, Honduras had just become key to the Reagan administration's strategy of rolling back communism in Central America. Over the next six years, Honduras would become the principal staging ground for U.S.-backed contra rebels struggling to overthrow Nicaragua's Sandinista government.
Honduras had a better human rights record than its neighbors -- Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala -- and was fairly tranquil. The army was transferring power back to an elected civilian government, while retaining control over security matters.
After winning the 1980 election, President Ronald Reagan needed someone reliable in Honduras to replace Jack R. Binns, a Carter administration holdover. The new ambassador would coordinate a huge increase in military assistance, from $3.9 million in 1980 to $77.4 million in 1984. Negroponte had hawkish credentials: A former aide to Henry A. Kissinger, he had criticized his patron for making too many concessions to the North Vietnamese in the previous decade.
Before his departure, Binns had sent cables to Washington warning of some ominous human rights trends. Gen. Gustavo Alvarez Martinez, who was selected to be commander in chief of the Honduran armed forces, told Binns privately that "extralegal" methods might be necessary to "take care" of subversives, declassified State Department documents show. He praised the "Argentine method" of dealing with the problem, which Binns took to refer to the kidnappings and disappearances of thousands of government opponents.