At 9:30 a.m. on April 23, a car driven by a National University law student named Yolanda Batres had a flat tire on a winding, narrow street of this normally languid capital. A young man leapt out of the car and fled ahead of pursuing police, who arrested the 24-year-old driver.
A fellow student who happened to be passing witnessed the arrest and tailed Batres and the police to a precinct station. The student contacted Batres' family, which began a frustrating round of inquiries with police authorities, who insisted they had no information on the young woman or her arrest.
Incidents involving "missing" persons in hands of police are commonplace in many countries of Central and South America, but for several reasons this one was unusual in importance and impact. It conveyed a special sense of urgency and unease to many in the Honduran leadership, who drew sharply differing, sometimes opposite, conclusions from it about political and social conditions here and about the probable future of this centrally located country.
Yolanda Batres is the daughter of one of the country's most prominent figures, Cesar A. Batres, who formerly served as foreign minister, secretary of the presidency and president of the National Industrial Association. Her mother's uncle is Oscar Mejia Arellano, minister for government and justice, who is considered the second most powerful official on the civilian side of the government and theoretically should have clout with the police.
The incident in which she was involved, moreover, was almost as interesting as her identity. The Department of National Investigation (DIN), the Honduran secret police, charged that Batres had driven the getaway car for members of an urban guerrilla band, the Revolutionary Popular Forces -- Lorenzo Zelaya, which had set off explosive charges that shattered the peace and scattered propaganda leaflets shortly before the arrest.
Urban terrorism has been far less common here than in the three adjoining hot spot countries, El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua. Although traditionally the poorest country of the four, political and economic conflicts in Honduras have often been channeled through such institutions as trade unions and the press. Successive governments and many people here have proclaimed proudly, "Honduras is different."
For some, the Batres case was dramatic evidence that the "difference" is being rapidly eroded. If the daughter of one of the country's most respected people had joined the revolutionaries, they reasoned, defiance and danger had spread further than anyone supposed.
For Gen. Gustavo Alvarez Martinez, chief of the Honduran armed forces and in many respects the most powerful figure in the country, the Batres case was an unwelcome sign that children of the upper class are beginning to join the violent opposition much as they did years ago in Argentina, where Alvarez received his military education. The case added to already heightened apprehensions based on the discovery of heavy weapons in guerrilla caches in recent weeks and intelligence reports that Honduran guerrilla groups, newly unified under the patronage of Cuban leader Fidel Castro, have decided to undertake intensified armed struggle.
The Revolutionary Popular Forces -- Lorenzo Zelaya, named for a student leader killed by police bullets in a 1976 demonstration, has claimed responsibility for more than a dozen terrorist acts in the past two years, including the spraying of the U.S. Embassy with automatic weapons fire early one morning before anyone was around. Last Thursday, almost a week after the "propaganda bombs" incident and the Batres arrest, the same group claimed responsibility for the hijacking of a Honduran airliner which put down at Tegucigalpa airport.
"All indications are that something big is being prepared for Honduras," said a senior military official. In some interpretations, the increased terrorism and guerrilla activity are a shot across the bow of the Honduran military with its increasingly close links to Washington. It is a tangible warning, in this view, that the formerly peaceable kingdom will become a battleground if it is used to block the flow of leftist weapons to El Salvador, as a staging area for cross-border raids against Nicaragua, and even, through U.S.-enhanced air bases, for military pressures against Cuba.
In the well appointed homes and offices of the Honduran elite, the Batres case conveyed to many an alarming message of a very different sort. Word spread that throughout most of the day and evening of the arrest, police shrugged off urgent inquiries from some of the country's most prominent people on grounds they knew nothing about the law student. Finally about 2 a.m., according to these accounts, she was released to her family, some said with the understanding that she soon will leave the country.
Among those who have known her for years, the belief was widespread that Yolanda Batres had done little or nothing wrong but was the victim of increasingly arbitrary police tactics. After hearing of the case a former minister of state, still a powerful and well known person, restricted his teenaged daughters to their home and instructed his 17-year-old son, who is attending school in the United States, not to return for vacation because of growing danger, especially from the police. "I have never felt fear in my own country, but now it is coming," the former minister said.
To this man, the case is a particularly grave matter because it proves nobody is safe from the police, which is a branch of the army and thus controlled by the increasingly powerful Alvarez, a man viewed by some in the elite as an unreasoning "visceral anticommunist." One well informed Honduran expressed the belief that more terrorism, disappearances and armed robberies here are the responsibility of the secret police than of leftist guerrillas.
Many of the facts of the Batres case remain unclear or ambiguous. According to a family friend, Yolanda Batres grew up with wealth and was educated at the American School here and in Switzerland before returning to the law school of the highly politicized National University. Her friend said she was shocked by the poverty, inequality and seeming injustice in her own country related by her fellow students, and seemed to be ridden with guilt at the privileges she had enjoyed.
At the university she took a leading role in a student-faculty struggle, with strong ideological overtones, over the naming of a new dean for the law school. It was through this activity, friends said, that she met the students who participated in the Tegucigalpa "propaganda bombings." She told friends after her release that she did not know she was participating in terrorism, but believed instead that she was merely making a prearranged pickup of a student who had borrowed a book across town.
Compared to other strife-torn countries of Central America, it is clear from even a brief visit that "Honduras is different" when it comes to terrorism and security. There are fewer armed guards on the streets or at public buildings, and those who are visible carry carbines or other light weapons. El Salvador and Guatemala, reflecting decades of bloody conflict, are heavily armed camps. Even a McDonald's in San Salvador is guarded by a man with a submachine gun.
"Personal security here is better than in many countries in the neighborhood," said Carlos Roberto Reina, a Honduran who is president of the InterAmerican Human Rights Court. The police, he said, appear to have been responsible for about 60 "disappearances," far fewer than in other countries, and most of those who vanished are reported to be Salvadorans fingered by that country's army or secret police.
Reina is concerned, however, by the new practice of Honduran pbig is olice, possibly learned from Salvadoran police, not to acknowledge holding those who have been detained in order to keep them out of the range of courts and other civil authority.
"We are different," said Reina stoutly. To Hondurans of several persuasions and stations, however, the country seems a little less different than it was before.