COMAYAGUA, HONDURAS -- Suyapa, a 20-year-old cashier wearing a leopard-patterned jumpsuit, looked around the nearly deserted establishment called Paradise Inn and sighed.
"This place used to be full," she lamented. "But now the Americans don't come here anymore."
At a bar on the outskirts of town called the Ace of Gold, Lisep, 19, who dresses for work in a bathing suit and cowboy boots, worn over yellow knee socks, said she misses her boyfriend, a military policeman from Texas whose tour here has ended. Worse than that, she said, "business is very bad."
Times are tough these days in Comayagua, a once proud town that was the capital of Honduras 100 years ago. Now it is better known as sleazy R and R spot for the 1,200 American servicemen assigned to Joint Task Force Bravo at nearby Palmerola Air Base. And that reputation has made Comayagua a focus for complaints that the U.S. presence is spreading depravity, disease and moral corruption.
But since a bomb went off in a Chinese restaurant here Aug. 8 and slightly injured six American soldiers, U.S. authorities have placed this city of 46,000 inhabitants, including 350 prostitutes, off limits to U.S. servicemen. Business is hurting, and now the town seems to want the GIs back.
Businessmen's organizations in Comayagua have condemned the still unsolved bombing and asked U.S. authorities to rescind the off-limits order.
A dozen female brothel owners, describing themselves as "proprietors of houses of tolerance," recently sent a similar joint appeal to the U.S. Southern Command in Panama. And, according to local press reports, a woman who owns a house of ill repute called Los Cocos has written a letter to President Reagan, with a copy to Congress, asking that the GIs be allowed back.
In their letter to the Southern Command, the 12 brothel owners said the off-limits order could "cause a social upheaval." They said their businesses were "going broke" and the result would be "roving prostitution" not subject to health checks.
This, they argued, "will turn our beloved city into an immense uncontrollable bordello." The letter did not explain where prostitutes would find customers if the town remains off limits.
The U.S. servicemen, the letter added, "have behaved like gentlemen, setting an example of order and respect and visiting us with complete discretion, thereby indirectly helping many families."
According to Honduran newspaper reports, the owners of restaurants, bars and discos also have been demanding repeal of the off-limits order, going so far recently as to march the few miles from Comayagua to Palmerola to request a meeting with the U.S. commander.
A U.S. military spokesman said there has been no decision yet to allow off-duty servicemen back into Comayagua, as the security threat to Americans is still being evaluated.
Three weeks after the mysterious restaurant bombing, Honduran authorities arrested four suspects, including a lawyer and a local leader of a left-of-center political party. They were later released on "provisional liberty" while an investigation continued.
Then the case became the focus of an international wrangle involving Mexico, the United States and Honduras when a schoolteacher implicated in the bombing sought political asylum in the Mexican Embassy in Tegucigalpa. The teacher, Alfonso Guerrero Ulloa, is wanted by Honduran police after having been named by a youth who was among the four original suspects. The U.S. Embassy has given the Mexicans information on the case to support a Honduran request for custody of the former student activist. Mexican diplomats have declined to comment on the fate of Guerrero Ulloa, who has been in their embassy since Sept. 17.
U.S. servicemen's use of this town as a sort of sexual resort had been widely denounced by an unlikely coalition of church-going conservatives and anti-American leftists. The governor of Comayagua province, Haydee Aguiluz, a former schoolteacher, had been agitating to move the bars and brothels out of town, calling them a "shame for Comayagua."
A Honduran leftist group has daubed a number of Comayagua's walls with "Yankees Get Out," and leftists in Tegucigalpa have accused American troops of introducing AIDS to the country.
In fact, according to Honduran health officials, the country's first confirmed victim of acquired immune deficiency syndrome was a Honduran homosexual who had traveled often to the United States before he died here in 1985. One U.S. serviceman last year was found to have AIDS antibodies and was sent home, the only reported case among the U.S. contingent at Palmerola. Most cases of the virus have been found in northwestern Honduras, notably in the city of San Pedro Sula.
According to a health ministers' conference held in Tegucigalpa recently, Honduras has 51 confirmed AIDS cases, the most in Central America. Next on the list, with 39, is Costa Rica, which has no U.S. military presence.
All this does not seem to bother the employes of Comayagua's "red zone" much. Apparently desperate for company, they aggressively court the occasional visitors who venture down the street, making hissing sounds to get their attention and entice them into dimly lit establishments with names like the King Size Bar and The Blue Lake.
While comparisons have sometimes been drawn between the American presences in Honduras and Vietnam, any similarities would not seem to extend to Comayagua's red-light district, which makes the strips of Bangkok and pre-1975 Saigon look like Fifth Avenue.
Dogs sleep in the rutted dirt road, pigs occasionally wander across, and overweight women in skimpy outfits peek through curtains in the doors of squat adobe buildings they call "houses of appointments." A pair of Honduran military policemen patrols the strip, at times venturing into one of the bars for a desultory look around.
A few men who appear to be Honduran soldiers patronized the "red zone" one Saturday night, but no GIs were in sight.
At the Ace of Gold, a jukebox blared songs through a fuzzy-sounding speaker to an empty dance floor covered with sawdust. Red light bulbs burned in the ceiling, barely illuminating a large poster of the heavy-metal rock group Kiss, and a framed picture of Grace Kelly.
Honduran men occasionally walk hand-in-hand with their women acquaintances out a rear exit into a courtyard surrounded by rooms in which the bar's prostitutes live and work. Before the American soldiers were stationed at Palmerola more or less permanently five years ago, there used to be two such brothels in town, Comayagua's mayor said. Now there are 14, plus several "clandestine" ones.
Lisep, the cowboy-booted hostess in the Ace of Gold bar, said she is having trouble supporting her 2-year-old daughter, who lives with her mother on the northern coast.
"We hope the gringos come back next week," she said.