Members of a notorious Honduran military unit responsible for dozens of death-squad killings in past years continue to commit sporadic acts of violence even though top commanders have said the unit has been disbanded, according to a Honduran police officer who deserted and fled to the United States.
Sgt. Fausto Reyes Caballero, a 19-year veteran of Honduras' security forces, said that a two-man sniper team from the unit, known as Battalion 316, gunned down a human rights activist, Miguel Angel Pavon, in January of this year in the northwestern city of San Pedro Sula. In July, Reyes said, the unit was secretly holding prisoner a student activist named Roger Gonzalez who disappeared in Honduras in April.
Reyes said men he knew as Battalion 316 agents tried to murder him in August in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa, after he refused to join the unit. He said the battalion had executed at least eight soldiers since 1982, including four of its own members, in addition to many civilian victims.
"Did the sun come up this morning? Does Battalion 316 still exist? Both are equally true," Reyes said.
Reyes said he was never a member of the battalion but cooperated with it and knew many of its members in San Pedro Sula, where he served as chief of the police motorcycle corps in the early 1980s and later provided security for public officials. Reyes was part of the security contingent for President Reagan's visit in 1982. He left Honduras Aug. 10 for the United States, where he has applied for political asylum, and now lives in Maryland.
Some accusations Reyes made in interviews in Miami and Washington are based on conversations he says he had with members of Battalion 316 rather than firsthand experience, and he reports some incidents for which no other witnesses are available. But many details of his overall account coincide with testimony from several defectors of the battalion.
One, former Army sergeant Florencio Caballero, testified publicly in a major case before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, in Costa Rica. In July, the court found the government of Honduras responsible for the disappearance of a student in 1981.
Much is already known about Battalion 316 from Florencio Caballero (who is no relation to Reyes), from former Honduran military officers, and from a surviving kidnap victim, Ines Murillo. It was created as a secret military intelligence unit in 1982 by Gen. Gustavo Alvarez Martinez, then the armed forces' top commander. In the following two years, as part of a campaign to prevent any leftist insurgency from taking root in Honduras, the battalion is believed to have carried out about 120 killings.
Overall, the numbers of death squad killings in Honduras were dwarfed by the thousands of killings in neighboring El Salvador and Guatemala. But throughout a decade of conflict in Central America, Honduras has remained essentially at peace.
Alvarez's ouster in 1984 brought "a near-total end" to the death-squad actions, according to the human rights monitoring group Americas Watch. After 1984, Honduras' Human Rights Defense Committee, an independent group, reported scattered "suspicious" deaths but had no evidence linking them to Battalion 316. By 1985, the armed forces had reduced leftist guerrillas to an isolated handful. But the allegations raised against Battalion 316 remained unresolved. They were never investigated in Honduras; no soldier was ever punished.
Last January, Honduras' chief of military intelligence, Col. Roberto Nunez Montes, told the human rights court that Battalion 316 had been "permanently recessed" in September 1987. A U.S. official familiar with policy on Honduras recently seconded this version. He said, "316 no longer exists. In mid-1987 it was dissolved and its functions were divided among other units."
Responding to Reyes' allegations, the Honduran armed forces' spokesman, Col. Manuel Enrique Suarez Benavides, said the name 316 was dropped two years ago because of the negative publicity surrounding it. But he said the functions of the battalion as a unit "responsible for gathering intelligence to be used in combat" are still carried out in a number of military brigades.
Reyes said that in practice little has changed. Officers and agents he long knew to be members of Battalion 316 continue to operate from secret offices, one in a cream-colored building behind the 105th Brigade headquarters in San Pedro Sula, Honduras' second-largest city, and another near a soccer field up a dirt road about half a mile from the 1st Battalion garrison in Tegucigalpa.
Reyes said he last visited the office in San Pedro in mid-July, caught a glimpse there of a pale youth, handcuffed and blindfolded, and was told by a sergeant on duty that the prisoner was Roger Gonzalez. Gonzalez disappeared in Tegucigalpa during a police sweep in which about a dozen Hondurans were arrested after the burning of the U.S. Consulate there April 7 -- by a mob protesting the arrest and extradition of Juan Ramon Matta Ballesteros, a Honduran accused of drug trafficking.
Honduran police first acknowledged, then denied Gonzalez was in their custody.
Reyes said he knew the officers of Battalion 316 well because, as a member of Alvarez's security guard, he was present at a secret 1982 ceremony in the northern town of La Lima honoring its creation. One officer there, Capt. Rafael Canales Nunez, offered to pay Reyes the equivalent of $300 a month, a substantial sum in Honduras, to remain on call to do chores for the battalion. Reyes said he received the monthly payments for four years, until 1986.
During that time he was called four times to ride out on his police motorcycle to stop vehicles for Battalion 316 agents. In January 1982, Reyes said he stopped a leftist named Herminio Deras in San Pedro Sula and turned him over to several plainclothesmen led by Lt. Marco Tulio Regalado. Deras was executed in the street moments later, Reyes said. Another couple Reyes detained for Regalado, who is a relative of armed forces commander-in-chief Gen. Humberto Regalado Hernandez, disappeared, Reyes said.
Regalado testified last January before the human rights court in Costa Rica that he had no knowledge of Battalion 316 and had never participated in any arrest.
Reyes claimed that he recognized Regalado as one of two men who fired on him with pistols from a motorcycle on a Tegucigalpa street Aug. 9.
In July 1984, a sergeant named Manuel Santos came under his commanders' suspicion, Reyes said, adding that he was at the battalion's headquarters when two agents, Lt. Mario Quinones and Sgt. Jaime Rosales, left on a motorcycle to assassinate Santos. Shortly afterward, Santos was shot in front of his home in San Pedro Sula, Reyes said.
In October 1985, a motorcycle team of Rosales and another gunman murdered sergeant Constantino Garcia, after he had withdrawn from the unit, Reyes said. Garcia's brother, a former corporal, was killed several months later after publicly accusing Battalion 316 of the death of his brother.
Battalion member Sgt. Manuel Perdomo died in mid-1987 during an interrogation under torture by agents of the battalion and police detectives, Reyes said. His commanders were said to have suspected Perdomo had been in touch with a human rights group.
According to Reyes, another Battalion member, Sgt. Jose Barrera, was held prisoner for more than a month in late 1986 in the police detectives' headquarters in San Pedro Sula and tortured. He was finally freed and fled Honduras.
"They went after those men because they were low ranking . . . a battalion that kills its own members, who won't it kill? If they hadn't done that I would never have talked," Reyes said.
In the battalion's early years, Alvarez purchased four motorcycles for the units' agents in San Pedro Sula, Reyes said. They formed motorcycle hit squads, with one driver and one gunman. One of the motorcycles was used in an attack Jan. 14, 1988, in which Pavon, a leader of the Human Rights Defense Committee, and Moises Landaverde, a friend of Pavon's in San Pedro Sula, were killed, Reyes said. Pavon was to testify a few days later before the human rights court.