More than 460 refugees from El Salvador who arrived in this remote mountain village on May 5 are living in makeshift tents of plastic and sticks or simply in hammocks strung beneath trees that offer only scant protection from the season's daily storms.
Many of the children are naked, their bodies covered with sores, their bellies distended with malnutrition, playing in sewage-drenched mud among emaciated pigs and dogs.
But they are the lucky ones. Other Salvadorans who have attempted escape to this country have been caught between what a Honduran journalist called "the hammer and the anvil." Fleeing before the counterinsurgency sweeps by the Salvadoran armed forces, they arrive at the border to be met by Honduran troops.
Reports sifting out of an even more remote region about 50 miles west of here suggest that the biggest massacre in recent Salvadoran history may have taken place nine days after these people arrived, when another large group of refugees tried to cross the Sumpul River into Honduras.
Accounts by priests and nuns who have traveled on both sides of the border vary as to the number of casualties and some key details. Some say the other Honduran troops fired on refugees, others that the Hondurans fired on the Salvadoran soldiers to try to stop the slaughter, and some say the Hondurans never fired at all.
But the basic outlines of the story are clear.
The people of Las Minas and several other small Salvadoran border villages had been organized and some of the men given rudimentary military training by militant leftist organizations over the past few months. Early in May they took over some fallow lands not far from the border to begin farming them.
On May 13, the Salvadoran military luanched an operation from the town of Las Vueltas, using infantry and two armed helicopters. The people of the villages fled in terror, and spent the night hiding in the mountains before starting for the border.
When they reached the Sumpul near the settlement of La Arada they found it swollen from recent rains and on the other side they could see several Honduran soliders patrolling the contested border, which was a factor in a brief war between the countries in 1969.
The Honduran soldiers warned the refugees not to cross. As the refugees hesitated on the morning of May 14, Salvadoran soldiers alledgedly picked up children who were still on shore and threatened to throw them into the river if the refugees did not return, but no one did and the Salvadoran forces are said to have opened fire. The Hondurans on the other side reportedly forced the refugees to turn back.
Priests and rescue workers who went up to the area from the Salvadoran capital a few days later were not allowed to enter the vicinity of the alleged massacre. The villages from which the refugees had fled were found deserted. Within a week, cases of typhoid -- possibly related to the rotting corpses -- were reported in the area.
This story of atrocity has raised a furor throughout the region. The bishop of the Honduran diocese of Santa Rosa de Copan has accused the Honduran government of secretly conspiring with the military of Guatemala and El Salvador, and the Organization of American States, which watches over the demilitarized zones along the border, in a cover-up.
Salvadoran Defense Minister Jose Guillermo Garcia said he has seen no proof that any such event took place. "There have been dead in that area, but not in such 'industrial' quantities," he told a reporter.
The Honduran military rejects the notion of any complicity between its forces and the Salvadorans.
The chief OAS observer, Alfonso Rodriguez, is quoted as saying, "Clearly, we have the obligation to supervise the maintenance of order in the border area, but we have not become aware of the events referred to by the church."
What is clear is that despite the worsening violence that besets densely populated El Salvador, fewer than 1,500 Salvadoran refugees have made their way into Honduras so far.
This may be because many have decided to go not as refugees but as immigrants to other Central American countries, to Mexico or, in many cases as illegal immigrants to the United States. If it is also that they are afraid of the Honduran troops patrolling the border, the Honduran government hardly finds that upsetting.
Many Hondurans regard the refugees as the vanguard of a Salvadoran revolution. As one diplomat in the capital city of Tegucigalpa put it, "the government is scared to death and they think that if the thing gets out of hand they could have a half million people here and no one to help them."
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Poul Hartling, recently visited Honduras and the camp at La Estancia in an attempt to assuage the fears of local authorities. Both the United Nations and the OAS are supplying food to these refugees.
For Honduras, the difficulties posed by these people are not merely questions of sustenance.
The poorest nation in Central America, Honduras, still suffers from admitting many of the 100,000 Nicaraguan refugees during the Sandinista revolution a year ago. Those eventually left, to be replaced by several thousand defeated Nicaraguan National Guardsmen, who have been both an economic burden and a political liability for Honduras in its relations with the new Nicaraguan government.
Tremendously complicating matters as far as the Salvadoran refugees are concerned is the lack of diplomatic relations between Honduras and El Salvador, dating back to the 100-hour "soccer war" in 1969. Although a disputed soccer game was involved, the cause of the conflict was Honduran resentment of Salvadoran immigration, and after the war 300,000 Salvadorans were expelled from Honduras. This country has a million fewer people than El Salvador's 4.6 million and Honduras has a far larger territory.
Negotiations are under way through OAS auspices to reestablish relations and define the frontier.
"If we open the door to Salvadoran refugees now," said a ranking member of the Honduran government, "it could give a bad impression to the Salvadoran government. It's a very, very delicate situation."
The same official suggested, however, that if full-scale civil war breaks out in El Salvador, and the current U.S.-backed junta is not longer clearly empowered to negotiate, then the doors may be opened to Salvadoran refugees. "We're not going to shoot them," he insisted.
The majority of the poeple here are women and children. One of the men, a young peasant, stood looking back at his homeland less than three miles away as clouds gathered for the afternoon storm.
No, the Honduran troops had not tried to stop him from crossing. Yes, he would like to go home. No, he was not a member of the militant organizations, but the Salvadoran troops could not have known that when they attacked his village of Nueva Esparta May 7.
"I didn't come here because I was a [revolutionary]," he said, although members of one of the leftist organizations have organized the camp, as they tried to organize his village. "I came here because I thought I was going to die."