Desperate to draw attention to the disappearance of her brother and dozens of other activists, Zenaida Velasquez tried every avenue available to her. She organized street demonstrations, filed complaints to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and helped set up a Honduran committee for the relatives of the missing. She also badgered the U.S. Embassy for a meeting with Negroponte.
Velasquez says she and other relatives met with the ambassador around March 1983. "It was like a bucket of cold water," she said. "Our hopes were high, because we knew the influence that the embassy had with the government. But he denied knowing anything, and said it was an internal affair of Honduras. We got out of there wanting to cry."
Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2001, Negroponte said he had no recollection of that meeting, but did not deny it took place. He expressed "surprise" that he would have described the disappearances as an "internal" Honduran affair.
Negroponte said he preferred "quiet diplomacy." On some occasions, he approached Alvarez and other Honduran leaders about the disappearances. The most frequently cited case was the July 1982 abduction of Oscar Reyes, a Honduran journalist sympathetic to the Sandinistas, and his wife, Gloria.
Reyes, who now edits the Spanish-language Catholic newspaper El Pregonero from an office near Catholic University, said in a recent interview that masked men took him and his wife from their house in Tegucigalpa to another house, where they were beaten and subjected to electric shocks. At one point, he was forced to undergo a mock execution in front of a tree, but the torturers changed their minds at the last moment, saying, "We'll kill him another day."
Cresencio Arcos, who was then the embassy media attache, said that he talked to Negroponte about the Reyeses' disappearance and that the ambassador took the matter up with Alvarez. Reyes and his wife were subsequently brought before a judge and eventually released.
While Reyes is grateful to Negroponte for "helping to save our lives," he said his case proves that U.S. diplomats exercised influence with Honduran authorities and were well-informed about what was going on. "If they saved our lives, they could have saved a lot of other people's lives as well," he said.
No attempt was made to find and arrest those who seized and tortured the Reyeses before handing them over to police. The embassy did not mention the incident in its annual human rights report on Honduras, which said the Honduran government had taken action "to discipline police who violated legal procedures."
CIA Group Backs Claims
In 1983, even as a dissident Honduran army officer accused Alvarez of masterminding "death squads," Reagan awarded him the Legion of Merit for "encouraging the success of democratic processes in Honduras."
Alvarez's fellow generals were less confident about his commitment to democracy. In March 1984, they accused him of abuse of authority and sent him into exile. He was hired by the Pentagon as a consultant on unconventional warfare, and was assassinated by leftist guerrillas in Tegucigalpa in 1989 while exploring a political comeback.
A CIA working group set up in 1996 to look into the U.S. role in Honduras found that "the Honduran military committed most of the hundreds of human rights abuses reported in Honduras" between 1980 and 1984. The report added that "death squads" linked to the military had used tactics such as "killings, kidnapping and torture" to deal with people suspected of supporting leftist guerrillas.
U.S. "intelligence collection and reporting requirements on human rights abuses [in Honduras] were subordinated to higher priorities," the CIA working group reported, according to a summary released to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2001, before confirmation hearings on Negroponte's nomination to become U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
Attempts by Democratic senators to block the appointment evaporated after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Meeting just two days later, the Foreign Relations Committee voted 14 to 3 to support the nomination, on the grounds that the Bush administration needed an experienced diplomat at the United Nations at such a crucial time.
While acknowledging that there had been occasional "abuses of authority" by Honduran police officials, Negroponte reiterated his assertion that they were not officially sanctioned. He told the committee that he associated the term "death squad" with events in El Salvador, where more than 50,000 people had disappeared.
"I did not think that any activities that were occurring in Honduras at that time fit that description," Negroponte said.