Honduran: I mined Nicaragua harbors for CIA
BY ALFONSO CHARDY
A former Honduran military officer recently arrested in the United
States for alleged human rights atrocities denies that he killed or tortured
people. But he admits he
helped to mine the harbors of Nicaragua during the 1980s Contra war as part of a covert operation with the CIA and then-White House national security aide Oliver North.
In the first interview with a human rights abuse suspect since the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service began detaining alleged persecutors last year, Nelson de Jesús Vallejo says his arrest June 26 amounts to a betrayal on the part of the U.S. government.
``It's a sad turn of events,'' said the former Honduran air force officer from jail in Fort Lauderdale. ``I helped the CIA and Oliver North in a very sensitive operation and this is how this country pays me back. I am being abandoned and betrayed because of a change in policy.''
Vallejo's case may prove to be a textbook example of how the United States recruited foreign operatives during Cold War-era covert actions in Central America and how these agents later used U.S.-supplied visas to enter this country and stay illegally.
Vallejo said the Honduran air force's personnel office procured
his U.S. tourist visa in the 1980s and placed it on his passport, a document
he used in 1991 to flee
Honduras and illegally immigrate to the United States.
His alleged involvement in the harbor mining project has nothing to do with his troubles with the INS. During his initial claim for amnesty in the United States, Vallejo told federal authorities he had been involved in death squads.
Vallejo's case follows the pattern of dozens of other abuse suspects found living in the United States -- many of whom entered with tourist visas provided by unwitting U.S. consuls abroad or by U.S. officials who wanted to extricate a valuable agent or source from his home country.
Vallejo says he does not know exactly how he got the visa, but visas were given to key Honduran military personnel who were assisting the CIA and the Pentagon during the contra war.
In the 1980s, Honduras served as a base for CIA operations against Nicaragua, which included contra rebel attacks and the mining of the harbors. To protect U.S. assets in Honduras, such as contra rebel bases and military installations, the CIA helped train Honduran military officers.
The CIA declined to comment and North did not return four phone calls to his office in Washington, D.C.
In his 1991 book Under Fire: An American Story, North does not mention a trip to Honduras to participate in or observe the mining operation, although he writes about the goal to disrupt the Nicaraguan economy by making it ``difficult for the Sandinistas to receive oil and other supplies necessary to keep their enormous army in the field.''
In the interview Wednesday, Vallejo said that in 1984 the air force sent him and several other Honduran air force officers to a Honduran island near the Nicaraguan border from where the CIA launched the harbor-mining operation. Vallejo said several CIA officers and North were there to observe the start of the operation. At the time, North was in charge of Central American affairs in President Ronald Reagan's White House National Security Council.
``We were there for three days while operatives who were mercenaries from other countries placed the mines at the approaches to the harbors using speedboats,'' Vallejo said. ``We were there to provide security and transportation for North and other American officials assigned to oversee the operation.''
Vallejo said that he and North never talked or met formally, but that his bosses at the Honduran air force had alerted him and other Honduran personnel assigned to the mission that North was there.
Disclosure of the CIA's harbor-mining project sparked a political
storm in Washington that led to the cut-off of military funds for the contras
and set the stage for the
Iran-contra scandal in which North was accused of diverting profits to the contras from U.S. arms sales to Iran.
Vallejo is one of 29 suspected of abuse detained in Florida since last year under the INS' ``persecutor'' program. Of the 29, at least six suspects have been deported and a few others have been released on bond while their cases are pending, according to INS officials in Miami.
The rest, some accused of murder and torture, remain in detention.
Vallejo said that though he was involved in sensitive operations
with the CIA such as the Nicaraguan harbor mining project, he never participated
in abductions or
But when he was first arrested in Miami, Justice Department sources said Vallejo admitted to participating in Honduran death squad activity in which he had shot and killed at least four leftist guerrillas.
He now says he made those stories up to bolster his claim for political asylum.
``It was a lie,'' Vallejo said. ``It was a mistake to make up the story, but I had been told by other people that this would help my case.''
Vallejo also said INS officials told him they believe he has been in contact in Miami with another former Honduran military officer, Juan Evangelista López Grijalba, who is being sought for human rights violations. López Grijalba was a key member of Battalion 3-16, the CIA-trained unit allegedly responsible for the deaths of 184 Honduran leftists.
Vallejo denied knowing López Grijalba and said that if INS deports him to Honduras he will probably be jailed, tortured or killed.