Col. Herminio Velazquez Galeano, the beefy commander of the Honduran 16th Infantry Battalion, stood at the gate of his newest anti-insurgency base in the hills of Olancho province and apologized to two foreigners who had just been detained by a patrol as they rode down a nearby road.
"It could be very dangerous for you on that road because there are insurgents all around here and there is no knowing when they might be down on the road," said the colonel. "I would not want to be responsible for anything happening to you."
Government-inspired newspaper stories in the capital, Tegucigalpa, had reported clashes between the Army and two guerrilla groups that the government claims had infiltrated Olancho province from neighboring Nicaragua in July.
But a drive through the region turned up nothing abnormal. The main road east through Olancho was full of traffic. Buses and trucks lumbered through its muddy potholes. Peasants from the cattle ranches rode leisurely along the shoulder. At a river crossing, women did their laundry as naked children played.
Indeed, the only persons who seemed worried about the alleged guerrilla menace were those in the Army. Officers talked and acted as if they were confronting the sort of security threat that could sustain increases in U.S. military and economic aid to Honduras.
The Army has stepped up its patrols in Olancho. It has sent in several of the few U.S.-supplied helicopters and organized a peasant militia, whose holstered six-shooters and 19th century Winchester carbines give the force an air of Mexican pistoleros in a Hollywood western.
Residents interviewed along the road and in half a dozen hamlets in the sparsely populated province northeast of Tegucigalpa reported no evidence of guerrillas in the area. Time after time, they said all they knew about it came from the capital's newspapers, national radio broadcasts or posters the government has put up throughout the province.
The posters urge the population to denounce any strangers as possible "delinquent subversives," bent on taking away "your families, your land, your religion, your liberty."
"I think there are more rumors than facts," said a shopkeeper in the small town of El Pataste. "People here are talking about these rumors, but so far, no one I know has personally seen any real evidence of any subversives. Certainly none have been around here or we would know it." He acknowledged there were signs of increased military patrols and reported hearing more helicopters and planes.
Back in Tegucigalpa, military spokesmen alleged that two bands of Honduran guerrillas, trained in Cuba and Nicaragua, had infiltrated the province July 19--the fourth anniversary of the Sandinista victory in Nicaragua--to set up camps from which to orchestrate a guerrilla war.
The alleged bands--one of 98 persons, the other of about 170--are organized by the Marxist Revolutionary Party of Central American Workers, a group that directs one of the guerrilla forces operating in El Salvador, the spokesmen said.
Government sources indicate that the Honduran guerrillas are led by a Havana-trained Honduran doctor, Jose Maria Reyes Matta, who is said to have been an intimate of the late Ernesto Che Guevarra.
The Honduran government has presented 17 young Hondurans in the past month who it says were either deserters from the guerrillas or had been captured by the Army in Olancho. In the carefully orchestrated press conferences, they all told identical stories of having been "lured" deceitfully by local Hondurans--who have since vanished--to go to Nicaragua for training in agriculture or mechanics.
Once in Nicaragua, the young men claimed they were sent to Cuba for political and military indoctrination at a camp in Pinar del Rio province. When that training was completed, they said, they were sent back to Nicaragua to serve under the Sandinista Army, then ordered into Honduras this summer.
The veracity of these stories is hard to prove. Antigovernment sources in Tegucigalpa express doubts about them, maintaining that at least in some cases, there are indications the "deserters" were civilians picked up in overly enthusiastic military sweeps in Olancho and then convinced to tell similiar stories in exchange for their eventual freedom.
An incident that gives some credence to these allegations occurred last week in the small Olancho hamlet of Arimis, about 15 miles due east of the provincial capital of Juticalpa. As reported in La Prensa--a newspaper known for its close military ties--four "armed guerrillas" raided the Arimis health center Sept.7, stole all its medicine and kidnaped the nurse.
Asked about such guerrilla raids on towns at his headquarters, Col. Velazquez denied them and insisted that, except for deserters and stragglers that his men had picked up, the "subversives" still seemed to be hidden in the forested hills.
In Arimis, villagers angrily denied that there had been any guerrilla raids on their health center or that any medicine had been stolen. The nurse, Andrea Martinez, 29, had been kidnaped, they said, but by government forces, not subversives.
The villagers said a group of armed men, one of whom was recognized as a traffic policeman from nearby Catacamas, surrounded the village health center while Martinez, who had lived and worked in the village for the past two years, was treating village children for malnutrition. The nurse was taken away at gunpoint and driven off in a pickup truck to Catacamas, about 10 miles away.
Because they had recognized the policeman among the abductors, friends of the nurse drove to Catacamas to denounce the kidnaping. The police at first denied any knowledge and sent the Arimis delegation to the local garrison of the 16th Battalion, where similiar denials were made.
According to the villagers who conducted the search, after repeated inquiries, arguments, demands and the help of one apparently sympathetic official, the nurse was finally spotted in a building of the 126th Infantry Battalion.
"She was standing up and her feet and hands were tied, her mouth gagged and her eyes blindfolded," recalled one villager, who did not want his name used. "When we confronted the Army this time, they claimed Andrea was a subversive and had secretly been slipping out of the village at midnight to meet insurgents and pass on information to them."
"We told them that was an outright lie," a villager said, "and that the whole village could testify to her honesty and good will and that even the woman who rented her a room in her house could testify that Andrea never left her house after dark as the authorities claimed."
After the villagers went to Catacamas to protest--and sign a petition supporting the nurse--she was released in her own recognizance with orders to keep reporting her whereabouts to the authorities.
Martinez, who provides the only medical care in the village, was held overnight. Neighbors who saw her on her return said she had been raped, beaten and tortured with electric shocks that left her heels and hands burned.
Martinez left the village for Tegucigalpa to seek medical treatment and could not be reached to corroborate the story. Local authorities refused to comment on the incident, which Col. Velazquez said had never happened.