Alleged death squad returns to spotlight
BY ALFONSO CHARDY
When the CIA trained Battalion 3-16 in the 1980s, the Honduran
army unit's main mission was to gather intelligence to protect its national
security as U.S. forces
deployed to support rebels fighting the Sandinistas in neighboring Nicaragua.
But today, Battalion 3-16 is remembered as a veritable death squad
-- blamed for the abduction and assassination of at least 184 leftist guerrillas,
sympathizers and other
Though long since disbanded, the group's legacy lives on in a
West Palm Beach federal courtroom and in the stories of men such as Juan
Angel Hernández Lara and
other Honduran officers believed to be hiding in South Florida and elsewhere in the nation.
On Friday, Hernández Lara, 38, pleaded not guilty in West
Palm Beach to charges he returned illegally to the United States after
being deported Jan. 17 over allegations
he participated in the torture of some of the battalion's victims.
His trial later this year may shed more light on the activities
of 3-16 and refocus attention on a legacy from the Cold War: the role the
Reagan Administration might have
played in training the unit's operatives, as well as their subsequent alleged involvement in abductions and assassinations.
The questions have assumed new relevance as the Senate considers
President Bush's nomination of John D. Negroponte as ambassador to the
Negroponte was ambassador in Honduras at the time Battalion 3-16 operated.
He has denied condoning human rights violations, insisting he worked in favor of improving respect for human rights in Honduras.
The now infamous Battalion 3-16 was formed in 1981 by Gen. Gustavo
Alvarez, a former chief of Honduran armed forces. Alvarez first recruited
experts to train Battalion members.
But as the Reagan administration built up an anti-Sandinista rebel force in Honduras, it became interested in 3-16.
Richard Stolz, then CIA deputy director for operations, told Congress
in 1988 the agency trained battalion members in the use of psychological
pressure in interrogation
techniques -- not physical abuse. The testimony was reported in The (Baltimore) Sun, which in 1995 published a series of articles on Battalion 3-16 based on declassified
In 1984, Alvarez was ousted in a barracks coup. After his departure, Battalion 3-16 began to disband and its members left for the United States and Canada.
Alvarez himself spent time in Miami, but he returned to Honduras in 1988. On Jan. 25, 1989, gunmen shot and killed him in Tegucigalpa.
Hernández Lara fled Honduras in 1988. He told the U.S.
Immigration and Naturalization Service before his Jan. 17, 2001, deportation
that he had personally tortured at
least four people who were ultimately murdered.
``He provided details of his actions, which involved kicking,
punching, placing pins under the fingernails and plastic bags on the heads
of four victims who were later killed,''
said an INS statement.
Back in Honduras following his deportation, Hernández Lara
said he made up the torture stories to bolster his asylum claim with the
INS -- though he did admit having
belonged to Battalion 3-16.
Within a week of the deportation, Hernández Lara made his way back to West Palm Beach, where he had lived for 11 years laying bricks and building driveways.
INS agents nabbed him March 28, acting on a tip from South Florida
human rights activist Richard Krieger whose organization -- International
Educational Missions --
advocates detaining and deporting foreign nationals accused of torture or war crimes.
At his bond hearing in federal court two weeks ago, Hernández Lara's attorney said her client returned illegally because he fears being killed in his homeland.
``It's clear he doesn't want to go back to his native country,''
Assistant Federal Public Defender Celeste Higgins told U.S. Magistrate
Linnea Johnson. ``If he returns, his
life would be in danger.''
Johnson denied bond after Assistant U.S. Attorney Rolando García
called Hernández Lara a ``flight risk'' and ``danger to the community.''
García said Hernández Lara was
not only a suspected human rights violator in Honduras but also an illegal alien with a criminal record in the United States. According to García, Hernández Lara's criminal
convictions include a prior deportation in 1988, shoplifting in 1991 and battery on his wife in 1992.
Hernández Lara was the first alleged human rights violator
deported from the United States under a new INS program targeting ``persecutors''
-- people accused of
kidnapping, killing or torturing political foes of regimes abroad. At least 14 other alleged persecutors from Angola, Haiti and Peru have been detained and some have been
deported after Hernández Lara was first arrested in June.
MORE 3-16 MEMBERS
Hernández Lara is the second alleged Battalion 3-16 member
forced to leave the United States. Gen. Luís Alonso Discua, a former
Honduran armed forces chief and
former commander of the unit, left Miami Feb. 28 after the State Department revoked his diplomatic visa.
He had been secretly living in northwest Miami-Dade and managing
an export-import business. The State Department said that was in violation
of his diplomatic visa,
which required he live in the New York area where he was assigned to the Honduran mission to the United Nations.
Discua and Hernández Lara may not be the last 3-16 members
in the country. A former Honduran military officer said at least one other
former member is believed to be
living in South Florida: Col. Juan Evangelista López Grijalva.
López Grijalva was once head of the Honduran secret police
and a key operative. U.S. officials said López Grijalva entered
the United States in the 1980s on a diplomatic
Law enforcement sources said several former members may have sneaked
in from Canada after officials there enacted a law last year providing
for prosecution of human
rights violators. A similar bill was introduced in the U.S. Congress this past week by Reps. Mark Foley, R-Fla., and Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y.
The Anti-Atrocity Alien Deportation Act would amend the Immigration
and Nationality Act making illegal aliens who have committed torture or
war crimes abroad
inadmissible and deportable.
``If you don't do something to show these people they are unworthy
to live in society and be accepted in society, all you're doing is saying
to other potential perpetrators
`It's all right to do it again,' '' said Krieger, a former Nazi hunter. ``The goal is to prevent future atrocities. The message is never again.''
Herald staff researcher Elisabeth Donovan contributed to this report.