Date: Tue, 17 Aug 1999 22:48:52 -0500 (CDT)
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Army Base Surrounded by Talk of Drugs, Torture
By Thelma Mejia, IPS, 16 August 1999
TEGUCIGALPA, Aug 16 (IPS) - The El Aguacate military base is once again in the headlines in Honduras, due to revelations that its airstrip is used for drug trafficking, and that officers forced local farmers to fork out 3,000 dollars to use their own land in the 1980s.
Located in the northeastern department of Olancho, a hinterland twice the size of neighbouring El Salvador where most people are armed and justice is loosely interpreted, the base carries the name of the village where it is located.
Still fearful, local residents talk in hushed tones about one of the most painful periods of the history of this Central American country - the time when the Nicaraguan "contras" set up shop in Honduras.
The role played by the El Aguacate military base during the Cold War has shot into the limelight once again because of a dispute between peasant organisations and army over some 2,000 hectares of land.
The farmers claim the military forced them to sell the land at less than 500 dollars per hectare, and then "lease it" to the tune of 3,000 dollars.
While the legal dispute rages, the press visited the Aguacate military base, where locals showed them rooms allegedly used as torture chambers by the U.S.-financed contras fighting the leftist Sandinista government (1979-90) in Nicaragua, and by the Honduran army.
U.S. priest Guadalupe Carney and guerrilla fighter Jose Maria Reyes Matta were reportedly buried on the site.
The two disappeared in the mid-1980s as they came across the border from Nicaragua, accompanied by a group of Honduran guerrilla fighters who had received training in that country. According to witnesses, Carney and Reyes Matta were intercepted by Honduran army troops and tortured and killed in the El Aguacate base.
Reporters writing with the Tegucigalpa daily 'El Heraldo' visited the base 19 years later, making it past the guards with the help of locals who showed them the alleged torture chambers, clandestine cemeteries, pits where weapons are concealed before being sold illegally and evidence that the airstrip is used to traffic drugs.
In the outback of Olancho, authorities are not surprised by reports of drug trafficking or illegal activity that goes undetected by police.
According to Israel Cruz, a local peasant leader, small planes land at the El Aguacate base every month "carrying packages of white dust guarded by certain military personnel."
Local residents added that a week ago several pits were opened, from which weapons were removed and presumably sold illegally to criminal groups operating in the so-called "corridor of death" in the department of Olancho, and the department of Colon, on the Atlantic coast.
In the El Aguacate base, journalists were shown the cell known as the "Piricuaco", where Carney and Reyes Matta were reportedly tortured.
Parts of Carney's dismembered body were allegedly buried on the grounds of the military base and in the nearby mountains, while another part was taken to the building of the armed forces joint chiefs of staff in the capital.
Prosecutors have discovered traces of human blood in the El Aguacate torture chambers. But the armed forces released an official communique denying responsibility for what occurred there 19 years ago, arguing that the base was "rented" by the United States to train the Nicaraguan contra fighters.
In that era, "we could do nothing, we obeyed orders given by the United States," said armed forces spokesman Danilo Soto Ponce. "I believe that was part of the Cold War, and that the best thing would be to forget these things and not pry into something that could be painful."
But he added that "at no time will we stand in the way of the work of the Public Ministry (office of the public prosecutor). We are a new armed forces, and we will respect the law in everything that concerns the El Aguacate base."
The Honduran armed forces passed to civilian control in January, but not without continued resistance by hard-line sectors in the military. The office of commander-in-chief was eliminated, and control went to a civilian defence minister, who is not an army favourite.
In the Honduran parliament, several deputies have introduced a motion to launch an in-depth probe into what took place in El Aguacate, including the 3,000 dollar fee that the army illegally charged local farmers to lease and cultivate land originally "bought" from them at a bargain price. (END/IPS/tra-so/tm/ag/sw/99)
[c] 1999, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
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