Put to the test of battle for the first time since its 1969 "soccer war" against El Salvador, the Honduran armed forces have decimated a Nicaraguan-backed insurgence against the government, according to high U.S. and Honduran military officials.
The previously ill-regarded Honduran Army's three-month campaign against the force of Cuban-trained Honduran insurgents, these military officials said, may have been the most successful anti-insurgency operation in Central America since the Guatemalan Army wiped out a guerrilla threat in the late 1960s with the backing of U.S. Green Berets. A column of 96 Cuban-trained guerrillas was virtually destroyed in the engagements in Honduras' isolated Olancho province in recent months and officials say that the aborted revolt's overall leader, Jose Antonio Reyes Mata, was killed.
Reyes Mata, a Cuban-educated physician, had long been considered Honduras' leading Marxist, a man whose revolutionary credentials go back to the 1960s when he was a colleague of the late Ernesto "Che" Guevara during the latter's ill-fated attempt to raise a revolution in Bolivia.
Officials said captured diaries and interrogations of captives from among the Cuban-trained guerrillas provided invaluable intelligence on the guerrillas' overall plan to set up four separate forces in different parts of the country to launch a compaign of sabotage and terror aimed at destabilizing the government of President Roberto Suazo Cordoba.
The campaign was carried out in an isolated and sparsely populated corner of Honduras, in semitropical mountains close to the Nicaraguan border, and few local residents saw any evidence of the guerrillas who had entered their province. Thus initial government reports of the incursion were considered exaggerated by many Hondurans.
Now, with the Honduran Army searching for the few guerillas who managed to evade it, evidence has begun to emerge that substantiates the government's claims.
Interviews with insurgents who deserted the guerrilla force once it entered Honduras and with U.S. military officials indicate that a major effort to subvert Honduras was prevented by a combination of luck and effective military action by the Honduran armed forces.
"The Hondurans were extremely lucky to have found out about the guerrillas shortly after they snuck into the country because of information given to them by deserters," said one high-ranking U.S. military official here. "But they deserve a lot of credit for the efficiency and effectiveness of the counterinsurgency operation that they mounted against it."
The weak point in Reyes Mata's plans to set up an El Salvador-style insurgency in pro-American Honduras was the questionable loyalty of many of the men he hoped to do it with. Many of his recruits, deserters from his ranks say, were virtually duped into joining him, then taken to a special camp in Cuba's Pinar del Rio province for a year of political indoctrination and military training.
"I gave myself up as soon as I was back in Honduras and could get away because I was never in agreement with their plans," Jose Martin Barahona, an 18-year-old rural youth from Olancho province, said in an interview at Army headguarters in Tegucigalpa. "I was deceived by my elder brother, Serapio, into believing that I had been selected for a training course in mechanics in Panama."
Barahona's brother, Serapio Romero, 30, a former mechanic from the Olancho capital, Juticalpa, was one of Reyes Mata's loyal followers in Honduras who helped recruit unwary youths for fictional "training courses" outside country. Once the youths crossed the border into Nicaragua heading for their promised educations, they were taken to a safe house near Managua, according to Barahona, held there for several weeks, then shipped to Cuba for training.
Serapio Romero, who became the commander of one of Reyes Mata's three platoons entering Honduras, is reportedly still at large with an estimated half-dozen men. The Honduran Army believes they are the only survivors from the original 96-man force.
In interviews, two other former guerrillas in government hands, Reinaldo Cruz Zuniga, 26, and Mario Aguirre Rodriguez, 29, told similar stories of being recruited in their villages in 1981 with promises of training abroad, then being taken against their will to Cuba for training.
Honduran military intelligence officials say most of the 21 former insurgents now in custody give similiar stories and most appear to have deserted as soon as they were back in Honduras.
The deserters said in interviews that during their training in Cuba, they kept their opposition to the endeavor to themselves fearing that if they spoke up they would be arrested and never return home.
They said the Honduran insurgent force returned to Nicaragua under Reyes Mata's command a year ago and underwent further training with the Sandinista Army on operations against the anti-Sandinista counterrevolutionaries, whose operations from bases in Honduras are financed and advised by the Central Intelligence Agency.
In July the force was moved to the Nicaraguan border town of Somotines. On July 17 an advance party crossed the Rio Coco into Honduras' Olancho province heading for a planned base camp deep in the Cordillera Entre Rios mountain range. Reyes Mata led the rest of the group over the border two days later.
The plan, as pieced together by Honduran military intellgence from its interrogations of deserters and what they claim are captured diaries of Reyes Mata, was to set up a main logistics base in the mountains. Each man walking in was laden with two weapons instead of one so as to have extra weapons to arm the new recruits they hoped to lure to join them.
A larger Honduran insurgent force of 166 men, under a Reyes Mata lieutenant, Wilfredo Gallardo Museli, was to enter Honduras by the end of year once the logistics base was well organized.
The long-term plan, according to the intelligence officials, was for four guerrilla columns to spread from the staging area to different corners of the country to establish zones of operation covering all of Honduras.
The plan began to unravel almost from the start. The week-long march in through the jungles was grueling. Men quickly became exhausted carrying 60-pound packs in sweltering heat. Food supplies dwindled.
An American-born Roman Catholic priest, the Rev. James F. Carney, known locally as "Padre Guadalupe," who had been expelled from Honduras in 1979 and later joined up with Reyes Mata to serve as chaplin, grew sick at the beginning and caused delays walking in, according to accounts of captured prisoners produced by the government.
Then on Aug. 1 the first two of Reyes Mata's charges deserted. When they surrendered at 11th Battalion headquarters in Juticalpa, Reyes Mata had lost the element of surprise.
By Aug. 11, the Honduran Army had flown in a 250-man company of its previously untested Special Forces to the hamlet of Nueva Palestina in the Cordillera. The move cut off the guerrillas from the one settlement they had counted on for new recruits and food.
Reyes Mata's forces were unable to get supplies from Nueva Palestina and afraid to use their weapons in the mountains lest they give away their position.
Promised air drops of supplies from Nicaragua failed to materialize, apparently because fears they would be intercepted by forces participating in the joint U.S.-Honduran military excercises begun in late August.
According to the Honduran government, at least 12 of the force died of starvation, including Carney, whose body is still missing.
Aided by information that came from a steady stream of deserters, Honduran forces blocked all natural routes out of Olancho.
Two platoons were flown in a blocking operation to the east of the Cordillera by six U.S. Blackhawk helicopters that were supposed to be used only in the joint maneuvers. That action led to press reports that the U.S. forces in Honduras were openly participating in the guerrilla hunt, a charge denied by U.S. officials.
With the area blocked off, the Special Forces began laying ambushes along the Cordillera's few trails. After four clashes, Honduran military officials now maintain, 54 of the guerrillas, including Reyes Mata, were slain.
The only group that got away, according to the Army, was the handful of men led by Serapio Romero who crossed the Patuca River to enter another mountain range to the north.
With Reyes Mata dead, his plans reportedly revealed, his guerrilla column wiped out, his base camp destroyed, his weapons captured and his infiltration routes discovered, U.S. and Honduran military officials are confident that they have dealt a serious, maybe fatal, blow to efforts to destabilize Honduras.