In June 1981, Binns cabled the State Department to say that he was "deeply concerned at increasing evidence of officially sponsored/sanctioned assassinations," which suggested that the repressive policies Alvarez favored were being implemented "much faster than we anticipated." The State Department's response, Binns said, was to instruct him to use "back channels," meaning the CIA, to report on sensitive human rights issues that could create problems for Honduras if they were leaked to Congress or the media.
A 1994 report by Oscar Valladares, a lawyer appointed by the Honduran parliament to investigate human rights abuse, blamed the Honduran army and the contras for 174 disappearances and kidnappings in the 1980s. Most of the incidents took place before the March 1984 ouster of Alvarez as armed forces chief.
The kidnapping of Manfredo Velasquez in September 1981, a few weeks before Negroponte arrived in Honduras, established what would be a familiar pattern. A university student and left-wing political activist, Velasquez was seized in daylight in a public parking lot by several men in civilian clothes, one of whom was later identified as a Honduran police sergeant. They bundled him into a car, and he was never seen again.
According to a November 1985 CIA report, which has since been partly declassified, the kidnapping was the work of the Honduran Anti-Communist Liberation Army, or ELACH. A 1997 CIA study identified ELACH as a "death squad" with close ties to a special security unit reporting to Alvarez.
In a 1988 ruling, the Inter-American Commission Court on Human Rights found the government of Honduras responsible for Velasquez's disappearance and ordered it to pay damages to his family.
The disappearances continued after Negroponte became ambassador. The Valladares report cites 17 disappearances and kidnappings in 1982, 20 in 1983 and 18 in 1984. There were 26 disappearances in 1985, but they were mainly the work of the contras, rather than Honduran security forces, the report says. The kidnapped included trade union activists, journalists and professors opposed to the military authorities.
The embassy played down the problems in the annual human rights reports on Honduras that it was required to submit to Congress, according to declassified cables collected by the National Security Archive, a nonprofit research group. In 1982, for example, the embassy recommended including a sentence asserting that there was "no evidence of systematic violation of judicial procedures" by the Honduran police.
"Allegations to the effect that death squads have made their appearance in Honduras appear to be totally without merit," the embassy cable added, reflecting a position Negroponte has maintained ever since.
In an interview, Binns noted that reporting about killings and disappearances "would have made it much more difficult to sustain our economic and security assistance" to Honduras.
A 1997 report by then-CIA Inspector General Frederick P. Hitz on CIA activities in Honduras contains numerous references to Negroponte's concerns about the possible "political ramifications" of negative human rights reporting. It cites several instances when reports were "suppressed" or given very limited circulation because of fears that they "would reflect negatively on Honduras." Hitz quoted an analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency as saying that "the Embassy country team" wanted to keep human rights reporting "benign" in order "to avoid Congress looking over its shoulders and to keep Congress satisfied with the ongoing implementation of U.S. policy." The analyst's name was redacted.
Raymond Burghardt, head of the embassy's political section under Negroponte, said he never felt any pressure from Negroponte to "pull our punches or delude anybody in Washington as to what the real situation was." But he did not contest references in the 1997 CIA report to attempts by Negroponte to "manage perceptions" of Honduras in Washington at a time when the political debate about Central America was highly partisan.
"There are two ways you can manage reporting," said Burghardt, who is now director of seminars at the East-West Center in Hawaii. "One way is to make sure that reports are balanced. . . . The other is to steer people away from reporting on certain topics, and lie about what is going on. Negroponte's approach was the former, not the latter."
Negroponte and his supporters have criticized some of the conclusions of Hitz's report, saying that the ambassador never "suppressed" information about human rights abuse. During Negroponte's 2001 Senate confirmation hearing, then-Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) quoted from a letter written by a senior CIA officer at the Tegucigalpa embassy asserting that decisions on disseminating such information were made entirely on "intelligence merits, and not on any extraneous political considerations."
In his own testimony, Negroponte described the Hitz report as "grossly unfair" and "misleading." He said his attitude about human rights reporting was "almost the opposite" of the picture presented in the inspector general's report.