Eight months ago, Leonidas Torres Arias was at the pinnacle of power within his world of military command in Honduras. A full colonel, with all the perks such rank can offer in a small, military dominated region, his position as chief of intelligence put him in charge of his country's most vital secrets and security.
If his principal allegiance was to the nation and armed forces of Honduras, his devotion to the United States, Torres Arias says, ran a close second.
Not only did the Reagan administration entrust his Army with a large responsibility for stopping the spread of leftist revolution in Central America, Torres Arias' entire military career was buttressed by years of U.S. training in places like Ft. Leavenworth, Kan., and Ft. Gulick, in the Panama Canal Zone, and close association with military and intelligence counterparts in his country's biggest ally and weapons supplier.
Today, eight months after he sat at the Pentagon with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, helping present Honduras' weapons wish-list, Torres Arias walks the streets of Washington with the air of a fugitive, his eyes moving continually in search of a suspicious car or passer-by. Effectively in hiding here, he moves among a series of houses and small hotels that his attorney, Michael Maggio, describes as "safe."
Torres Arias has been living this way in Washington for a month, since the government of Honduras charged him with treason and threw him out of the military.
His crime was the Aug. 31 publication of a declaration charging Gen. Gustavo Alvarez, head of the Honduran armed forces, of involvement with clandestine death squads and leading Honduras into unnecessary war with neighboring Nicaragua's leftist government.
The Reagan administration, which considers Alvarez a close ally, has not commented publicly on the treason charge. A week after it was made, however, in a move a ranking State Department official said had "no connection" to it, the State Department cancelled Torres Arias' multiple-entry U.S. tourist visa because of what officials say is a belief he may have been involved with drug smuggling in Honduras.
The situation became more complicated when Torres Arias, despite the cancellation of his visa, showed up in Washington and asked the United States for political asylum, alleging that he was subject to persecution in Honduras for his political actions and beliefs.
There are no actual charges involving drugs against Torres Arias in Honduras. Although implicated in a drug smuggling case four years ago in which several people were convicted, he was exonerated by a special military tribunal. But he says he fears that his political problems might cause the drug case to be revived by Honduras and that the United States might extradite him based on the new charges.
Treason is the only official charge made so far, and that is not an extraditable offense, since it is considered, under terms of the U.S.-Honduran extradition treaty, a "political" charge.
Thus the United States, which depends on Gen. Alvarez as a linchpin of its military strategy in Central America, finds itself in an unusual position.
The same State Department that cancelled his visa for suspected criminal activity, now is responsible for judging, under federal asylum statutes, his claim that the United States should protect him against the United States' own ally. As an applicant for asylum, a process that frequently takes several years, Torres Arias is entitled to "all the rights of a U.S. citizen" except the right to vote.
Torres Arias' road to voluntary exile and requested asylum began last winter, when he says he went to the civilian government with his concerns about Alvarez' activities as well as complaints that Alvarez was being promoted to general outside proscribed lines of promotion. He says he got nowhere because the civilians are "afraid" of the general.
In April, Alvarez assigned Torres Arias to what amounted to diplomatic exile as Honduras' military attache in Argentina. In May, Torres Arias disappeared because, he said, he felt Alvarez' anger at him posed a physical risk.
He stayed under cover until Aug. 31, when he held a press conference in Mexico denouncing Alvarez and published his charges in a declaration "To the People and the Armed Forces of Honduras" in Excelsior, Mexico's largest newspaper. The declaration was quickly reprinted in the Honduran press.
Because Torres Arias' charges tend indirectly to contradict and question U.S. plans in Honduras, the country into which the Reagan administration has poured men, money, weapons and political backing, Maggio says his client does not know anymore who are his friends in this country and who are his enemies.
Maggio notes, certainly correctly, that Torres Arias' knows most, if not all, U.S. and Honduran secrets in an area of high military sensitivity. There must be a lot of people interested in shutting him up, Maggio suggests darkly.
A knowledgeable U.S. official said he knows of no danger to Torres Arias, but added: "He's not persona grata, that's clear."
Torres Arias maintains his innocence in the drug case, saying, "I am no saint, but thank God I have never, never been involved in any assassinations, much less in drug traffic."
Maggio says that it is no coincidence that new allegations of drug involvement have resurfaced. They were reported in the Honduran press as having been made by two criminals imprisoned for four years.
Maggio calls the drug charges "a cover" for the "real" problems Torres Arias' political accusations have caused here and in Honduras. "I can't believe," Maggio said, "that the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa wouldn't have known before this that the chief of intelligence of the Honduran Army was not involved in narcotics."
According to a ranking State Department official involved in the case, "we cancelled his visa on our own for reasons relating to an investigation, ongoing for about a year, into possible drug trafficking. That investigation continues." He said there is "no connection" between the substance or timing of the visa revocation and Torres Arias' political denunciations.
According to Sarah R. Horsey, a U.S. consular officer in Tegucigalpa, however, there has been "nothing in Torres Arias' visa file that indicates any prior grounds for ineligibility" for a U.S. visa up until the day of its revocation by the State Department in Washington.
U.S. Ambassador John D. Negroponte said in an interview with Washington Post correspondent Christopher Dickey last week that the "new allegations" in the drug case led to the revocation.
Another U.S. official in Honduras familiar with the case told Dickey that the combination of new information from the convicts, plus Torres Arias' dismissal from the armed forces "gave substance" to charges and allegations that earlier had been dismissed as hearsay.
But, he adds, "I don't think it would have happened if it weren't" for the statements Torres Arias made in Mexico and the official Honduran response to them.