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Updated 12/09/2005

History Repeating: The United States in Honduras and Iraq


The U.S. presence in Iraq today bears striking similarities to its position in Honduras some 20 years ago. Back then the United States was fighting a war against communism instead of terrorism, but the purported aim was the same: protecting national security. And then, as now, the means to achieve that end have involved sidestepping domestic and international law, misinforming Congress, the American people and the world, and committing outright violations of human rights.

In the 1980s, Central America was a hotbed of revolutionary activity. The Marxist Sandinistas of Nicaragua came to power in 1979 after overthrowing that country’s brutal U.S.-backed dictatorship, and guerilla movements in El Salvador and Guatemala were fighting repressive regimes. Honduras, in the geographic center of this region, was of enormous political and military importance to the Reagan administration’s fevered fight against communism. As Honduras transitioned to a civilian government—albeit more so in name alone—after decades of military rule, the U.S. administration touted it as a vital foothold for democracy in the region. It was also the ideal base of operations for the anti-Sandinista Contra forces, and the United States seized the opportunity to use Honduran territory to equip and train these fighters to overthrow the Sandinistas. 

As the United States channeled funding and built up an immense military presence in Honduras, it was imperative that Honduras squelch insurgence and maintain “national security” within its own borders. Honduran security forces became experts at kidnapping, interrogating, torturing and killing suspected subversives—and they learned and practiced their techniques with the help of U.S. Army and CIA instructors. Many were graduates of the Army’s School of the Americas, which gained notoriety for training some of Latin America’s worst dictators and human rights abusers. The United States helped establish and train Honduras’ military intelligence Battalion 3-16, which became notorious for torture and death-squad activities. The CIA also trained the Contras in interrogation techniques at camps in Honduras. By 1989 there reportedly were more than 200 American intelligence agents in Honduras. 

“Human Resource Exploitation” 

In both Honduras and Iraq, “human resource exploitation”—the interrogation of detainees—has played a key and controversial role. Horrific photographs and stories coming out of Iraq testify to the human rights violations U.S. personnel have committed against prisoners at Abu Ghraib and other detention centers. Recently publicized reports and government documents, including reports by the International Committee of the Red Cross, the “Taguba report” and government memos appearing to justify the use of torture in the “war on terror,” confirm that the abuses were routine and systemic, not an aberration. Indeed, for decades U.S. military and intelligence personnel have been practicing and supporting the use of interrogation techniques easily defined as torture by international human rights standards, including the U.N. Convention Against Torture, which the United States has ratified. 

Declassified U.S. Army intelligence and CIA training manuals used in Latin America in the 1980s reveal a long-standing practice of questionable interrogation techniques. Seven Army manuals were publicly released in 1995 after a government investigation into the involvement of U.S intelligence agencies in human rights abuses in Guatemala. According to the investigation report on the manuals, “certain passages appeared to condone (or could have been interpreted to condone) practices such as executions of guerillas, extortion, physical abuse, coercion and false imprisonment." The Department of Defense, under then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney,  reportedly ordered the retrieval of the manuals after a 1991 internal investigation, which found that the manuals contained “objectionable material” and “were compiled without the required doctrinal controls.” However, because the manuals were distributed throughout Latin America, it is doubtful that all were retrieved. 

Two CIA training manuals were declassified in 1997 after the Baltimore Sun threatened to sue the agency for failing to comply with its Freedom of Information Act request. “Human Resource Exploitation Training Manual – 1983,” was used in Latin American countries, including Honduras, from 1982 to 1987. It was based in part on material from the Vietnam-era manual, “KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation – July 1963.”  

The manuals provide examples of the CIA’s psychological “coercive techniques,” which include subjecting detainees to food and sleep deprivation, extremes of temperature and moisture, threats of pain, sensory deprivation through solitary confinement, and self-inflicted pain through prolonged constraint or exertion. These methods, intended to produce stress, anxiety and fear in order to break the will of the subject, often create lasting and crippling  psychological scars. The 1963 manual also describes techniques including hooding detainees and submerging them in water tanks and the use of electroshock treatment and drugs. 

In 1985, in the wake of a scandal over a manual for training Contras in interrogation, the CIA made a superficial attempt to correct the 1983 manual by crossing out or rewriting objectionable material and noting that many of the described psychological techniques were forms of torture. One altered note advises, "While we deplore the use of coercive techniques, we do want to make you aware of them so that you may avoid them." The entire chapter describing the “deplorable” techniques is still legible beneath handwritten changes. 

The ordeal of Inés Murillo, one of only a few survivors of Honduran military detention and interrogation in the 1980s, confirms that “human resource exploitation” techniques were put into action in Honduras and that U.S. intelligence agents were involved. Murillo, a political activist and suspected subversive with ties to left-wing groups, was abducted and held in two clandestine facilities for 78 days in 1983. She was subjected to severe physical torture, including beatings, electroshock, near-suffocation, drugging and sexual abuse. Murillo was also subjected to CIA-style psychological torture, allegedly by Battalion 3-16 officers who had received interrogation training in the United States. She was kept naked, forced to maintain stress positions, threatened with attack dogs, immersed headfirst into tanks of water, and denied food, sleep and bathroom facilities. 

According to testimony by Murillo and two former Battalion 3-16 members who later defected, a CIA officer called “Mr. Mike” made regular visits to the detention facility and was present during one of Murillo’s interrogation sessions. A declassified CIA document later revealed that a CIA temporary duty officer had been dispatched to help in “exploiting her questioning.” A 1988 U.S. government investigation, testimonies of which were later declassified, also revealed that CIA instructors used actual detainees in training Honduran officers in interrogation techniques. Murillo was never charged with a crime while in detention and had no access to legal representation, her family or independent monitors like the International Committee of the Red Cross. During the  months that she was secretly detained, Honduran security forces repeatedly denied that she was in their custody. 

Murillo’s treatment, and the tactics outlined in the U.S. training manuals, mirror those used or authorized for use on detainees from the “war on terror” in Iraq and elsewhere. The infamous image of a hooded Iraqi prisoner forced to stand on a box with wires attached to his body—with the threat of electrocution if he moved—captured the horror that results from the use of such coercive techniques and brought them to the public’s attention once again. According to documents obtained by the Washington Post, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the senior U.S. officer in Iraq, last year approved the use of dogs for intimidation, temperature extremes, reversed sleep patterns, prolonged “stress positions,” bread-and-water diets and sensory deprivation as interrogation methods in Abu Ghraib. Approval of these methods was retracted in May 2004 following the release of the Abu Ghraib prison abuse photographs and the ensuing scandal. 

In February 2004 the Red Cross submitted a report to the U.S. government describing the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners under interrogation by U.S. troops. The report was based on inspections and interviews conducted at detention facilities in Iraq from March to November 2003. Red Cross investigators reported seeing detainees kept "completely naked in totally empty concrete cells and in total darkness." The report says that when they complained to U.S. officials, "the military intelligence officer in charge of the interrogation explained that this practice was 'part of the process.'" 

Iraqi prisoners interviewed described being hooded and beaten, deprived of sleep and food, threatened with execution or reprisals against family members, and subjected to acts of humiliation, prolonged stress positions and exposure to extreme heat. Red Cross officials also reported seeing evidence supporting prisoners’ claims of abuse, including burns and bruises “compatible with repeated whipping or beating.” Although the Red Cross had repeatedly attempted to get U.S. officials to stop the abuses throughout the time period documented in the report, it was not until January 2004 that the U.S. Department of Defense launched an investigation into prisoner abuse. 

U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Antony Taguba’s report of investigations into abuses at Abu Ghraib, internally released March 12, was later leaked to the news media and publicized. It concluded that U.S. soldiers committed “egregious acts and grave breaches of international law.” Many of the acts described in the report—keeping detainees naked, pouring cold water on naked detainees, using military dogs without muzzles to intimidate and frighten, and threatening detainees with loaded guns—hark back to similar abuses of Honduran detainees two decades earlier. The report also found that CIA agents, army intelligence officers and private contractors had asked military police soldiers to “set physical and mental conditions for favorable interrogation of witnesses”­—a violation of Army regulation, which restricts intelligence activity of military police to the passive collection of information. 

Like Ines Murillo and others in Honduras, many Iraqi detainees, especially those deemed to be of “high value,” have been held indefinitely without charges and denied contact with lawyers or their families, in violation of international law. Some prisoners, known as “ghost detainees,” have been held in secret, kept off prison rolls and hidden from Red Cross representatives. Several reports have described the U.S. military moving detainees in order to avoid Red Cross inspectors. An August 2004 Army inquiry reported eight cases of “ghost detainees,” but subsequent Army and Pentagon investigations revealed much higher numbers. Gen. Paul J. Kern testified in September 2004 to the Senate Armed Services Committee that the actual number of hidden Iraqi prisoners “is in the dozens, to perhaps up to 100,” while his colleague, Maj. Gen. George R. Fay believed there were “two dozen or so.” 

The Army and Defense Department investigators were unable to provide concrete evidence or reliable numbers to Congress because of the CIA’s lack of cooperation. According to Gen. Fay, the CIA initially ignored his requests for information and later told him that the requested documents would not be released because the agency was conducting its own investigation. The agency’s capacity for self-investigation, however, is highly suspect. Senators and Congressmen on both sides of the aisle have expressed frustration at the CIA’s evasiveness and obstruction of external oversight. Lawmakers have vowed to conduct further investigations into the matter.  Similar promises were made regarding CIA involvement with Honduran military intelligence units, but action was never taken due to lack of political will. 

Climate of Tolerance 

In both Honduras and Iraq, there are ongoing questions as to what extent abusive acts were officially sanctioned by U.S. policy makers and how much authorities really knew of what was happening on the ground. But one thing is clear: these abuses are the product of a climate of tolerance for any behavior that advances the goals of the U.S. administration. 

The CIA was actively involved in intelligence-gathering in Honduras in the 1980s. According to partially declassified CIA reports, the agency had access to secret jails and knew about prisoner abuse and killings; however, it took no definitive action to end the practice. The U.S. Embassy in Honduras also was aware of abuses taking place, including the illegal detention of Ines Murillo. CIA officers were stationed at the embassy, and the U.S. ambassador at the time, John Negroponte, was in close, regular contact with Gen. Gustavo Alvarez Martinez, the founder of Battalion 3-16. 

Relatives of people abducted by Honduran security forces repeatedly asked the embassy for help in investigating the disappearances of their loved ones. Hundreds of reports describing abductions, disappearances and discoveries of tortured bodies filled the Honduran press. Nevertheless, the embassy staff and other U.S. government officials failed to act decisively against abuses taking place. 

A senior State Department official, speaking of the situation in Honduras in the 1980s, told Cox News Service in 1994: “The green light was kill a commie. Everybody was winking and nodding. This fostered an environment where everyone was tolerating all kinds of things they shouldn’t have. Was it policy? People said no, but you could get away with it.” 

This mentality has prevailed since the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, when the Bush administration began to send the message that in the “war on terror,” previous standards of law no longer applied. A series of internal memos that attempt to revise legal definitions of “torture” tacitly condone committing abusive acts to gain information vital to U.S. interests. These previously confidential memos, which were released in June 2004 because of political pressure resulting from the Abu Ghraib scandal, also discuss approved interrogation techniques and the legal status of prisoners of the war on terror. 

Among the most disquieting is an August 2002 memo from the legal office of the Department of Justice to the White House counsel stating that to be considered torture, physical pain “must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function or even death,” and the perpetrator must have “specific intent” to cause severe pain. Regarding psychological techniques, the memo asserts that the federal torture statue—which criminalizes acts of torture—“does not preclude any and all use of drugs,” only drugs that profoundly disrupt the victim’s personality and alter his perception of himself and the world. In these terms, a detainee, ostensibly, can’t be considered to have been psychologically tortured until he has a psychotic break. Death threats are permissible, according to the memo, as long as they don’t imply an “imminent” threat of death. 

In Iraq, a hazy chain of command and oversight further perpetuated an environment of tolerance for abuses. Military police personnel charged with crimes claim that military intelligence officers ordered them to “soften up” detainees to aid interrogation efforts. Intelligence officers say they were pressured by higher-ranking officers to conduct more interrogations and produce more information. Interrogation specialists from private defense contractors were prevalent in military-intelligence teams and have been implicated in abuses, but because civilian contractors are not under the military’s jurisdiction, it is difficult to hold them accountable for their actions. According to an August 2004 Army investigation report, “confusing and inconsistent interrogation technique policies” led to the belief that illegal interrogation techniques were actually condoned, and that an absence of supervision and oversight allowed the practices to continue. 

A Powerful Embassy 

During the Reagan-era battle against communism, the U.S. Embassy in Honduras was responsible for ensuring not only that the country’s policies and practices were in line with U.S. interests but that Congress and the American people continued to support U.S. policy in Central America. If U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte and his embassy did not engage in an outright cover-up of human rights abuses that were taking place in Honduras, they at least turned a blind eye to the situation. There is also the question of how much the embassy knew—or ignored—regarding the activities of U.S. intelligence personnel and contractors. According to the State Department official quoted by Cox News Service, "There were a lot of freelance artists running around out of control and ambassadors didn't want to hear about it because it complicated their lives." 

In fact, Negroponte and the embassy staff had reason to keep quiet: in order to approve the continued flow of aid to Honduras, which directly supported the Honduran military and indirectly supported the Contras, the U.S. Congress had to be convinced that the human rights situation in Honduras was positive. Federal law requires the State Department to provide annual reports to Congress on human rights practices in countries receiving U.S. foreign assistance, and U.S. embassies provide the bulk of information for these reports. Yet despite clear evidence of state-sponsored abuse, the embassy’s annual human rights reports described a repression-free country that sounded more like Norway, insiders quipped. 

A 1997 CIA inspector general’s report, “Selected Issues Relating to CIA Activities in Honduras in the 1980s,” gives evidence of efforts within the embassy to suppress information. In this declassified but heavily excised document, a source whose name is blacked out describes his work on a U.S. Army intelligence report on the Honduran army’s summary execution of members of a captured band of guerrillas, possibly including an American priest, at the orders of Gen. Alvarez. The source later discovered that his report never had been disseminated. 

The CIA document says the source “believes the Embassy Country Team in Honduras wanted reports on subjects such as this to be benign ‘as to avoid Congress looking over its shoulders’ and to keep Congress satisfied with the ongoing implementation of U.S. policy. [Name excised] also says he believes that the draft 1983 [Army Operational Group] report was ‘suppressed’ by elements within the Embassy … for political reasons. Reporting murders, executions and corruption, says [name excised], would reflect negatively on Honduras and not be beneficial in carrying out U.S. policy.” 

Today Negroponte is serving as “the first U.S. ambassador to a free Iraq,” heading an embassy that had been closed since Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. Negroponte presides over one of the largest U.S. embassies and the largest CIA station in the agency’s history, with nearly 900 American foreign service workers and countless intelligence agents and private contractors. The sheer size of the U.S. mission in Iraq sends the message that despite the installation of a new and “sovereign” Iraqi government, the present occupier wields greater power. 

Furthermore, the Iraq prison abuse scandal raises concerns about the message the Bush administration is sending—to enemies and allies alike—by installing Negroponte in this position. If abuse of Iraqi detainees continues or if new criminal allegations surface, will the embassy in Iraq, under Negroponte’s command, attempt to suppress crucial information, as the embassy in Honduras appears to have done? 

Democracy, American Style? 

Honduras was a country of tremendous importance to U.S. policy and interests in the 1980s, as Iraq is today, and the United States has used Honduran and Iraqi territory as bases from which to wage its battles against communism and terrorism in Central America and the Middle East, respectively. In each case, the United States has touted the country as a foothold for democracy in the region and justified its presence by ostensibly working to foster democratic progress. 

Despite the 1981 election of a civilian president in Honduras, the military was still widely regarded as the country’s governing power and its leader, Gen. Gustavo Alvarez Martinez, the true helmsman. Alvarez, a die-hard anticommunist, was more than willing to work with the United States to stamp out the “communist threat” in the region, and his U.S.-supported military intelligence Battalion 3-16 became a powerful—and deadly—counterinsurgency force. As labor and student group leaders, journalists and others speaking out against the government became targets of counterinsurgency efforts, speech, assembly and other civil liberties were curtailed. 

Iraq’s current transition from dictatorship to civilian government appears similarly corrupted. Shortly after Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi took the reins of the new transitional government on June 28, 2004, he announced new security measures including the right to impose curfews, ban civic groups and public demonstrations, and detain people without judicial orders — powers more appropriate for a police state than a democracy. A week later, he unveiled a new internal intelligence service with the mission of crushing insurgent groups in the country. This agency, the General Security Directorate, is supported by the CIA and will include former members of Saddam Hussein’s brutal security services. 

Allawi, a former CIA asset handpicked by Washington to lead the interim government, is himself accused of brutality. On July 17, 2004, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that days before the U.S. handover of power, Allawi executed six Iraqi prisoners “to send a clear message to the police on how to deal with insurgents.” The report was based on testimony from two separate witnesses. The prime minister’s office denied the witnesses’ accounts, but Ambassador Negroponte’s office refused to clearly deny the allegations. 

Breaking the Cycle 

In a September 17, 2004 statement on Abu Ghraib, the Torture Abolition and Survivor Support Coalition International said, “Far too many of our members have recognized the methods used in those photographs from our own nightmarish experiences in Central America and other regions. We remember all too well the dogs, the cameras, the ‘waterboardings’ and the excruciating positions, and many other acts of brutalization. These techniques have long been practiced and they come from the highest levels of our intelligence networks.” 

Yet the latest Army and Defense Department reports on detainee abuse in Iraq, while acknowledging that abuses were not the actions of a few “rogue agents” or simply the result of lax supervision, fail to fully recognize that these deplorable acts are just the latest chapter in a long history of U.S. intelligence agencies’ promotion of and involvement in human rights abuses.  While the U.S. speaks of promoting freedom and democracy in the world, its actions—military aid, training and guidance, and secret policy making—allow for the perpetuation of repression and abuse. 

In the midst of hazy military and intelligence policies, powerful and controlling embassies, and brutal leaders and henchmen who enjoy U.S. support, it’s no surprise that human rights abuses flourish. That these environments are created or perpetuated by the United States is a grave issue for the American people. Undoubtedly, neither the public nor their elected representatives intend for their military and intelligence personnel to behave in such universally deplored ways. Greater transparency and external oversight are needed to ensure that misguided policy isn’t put into practice—or allowed to be practiced, with a wink and a nod. Congress must keep close watch on our defense and intelligence agencies, and take action when needed. And the American people must seek greater access to government information, encourage aggressive congressional oversight, and support legislators who speak out and take action against human rights atrocities. 

For more information 

“Prisoner Abuse: Patterns From the Past.” The National Security Archive; May 12, 2004 (Includes links to the complete 1963 and 1983 CIA training manuals, and the secret Department of Defense report on the “objectionable” Army manuals) 

“Torture at Abu Ghraib Followed CIA’s Manuals.” Alfred W. McCoy. The Boston Globe; May 14, 2004 

“General Granted Latitude At Prison; Abu Ghraib Used Aggressive Tactics.” R. Jeffrey Smith and  Josh White. The Washington Post; June 12, 2004 

“Article 15-6 Investigation of the 800th Military Police Brigade.” (The “Taguba Report”) 

“Legal Debate Over U.S. Interrogation Policies.” FindLaw (Defense and Justice Department memos released June 22, 2004) 

“The Interrogation Documents: Debating U.S. Policy and Methods.” The National Security Archive; June 24, 2004 

“US Embassy in Iraq a test for diplomacy.” Farah Stockman and Anne Barnard. Boston Globe; June 26, 2004 

General Faces Abu Ghraib Scrutiny.” Tom Bowman. The Baltimore Sun; July 15, 2004 

“Documents helped sow abuse, Army report finds.” R. Jeffrey Smith. Washington Post; Aug. 30, 2004 (Includes links to Army and Defense Department reports, released in August) 

Excerpts from “Selected Issues Relating to CIA Activities in Honduras in the 1980s.” U.S. CIA, Office of the Inspector General; Aug. 27, 1997 (on the National Security Archive Web site) 

“Declassified Army and CIA Manuals Used in Latin America: An Analysis of Their Content.” Lisa Haugaard. Latin America Working Group; Feb. 18, 1997 

“Shadowy CIA Agents Ran Wild in Honduras.” Anne-Marie O’Connor, Cox News Service. The Oregonian; March 13, 1994 

“Iraq Approves Security Law Allowing Martial Rule.” Rajiv Chandrasekaran. Washington Post; July 7, 2004 

“Allawi shot prisoners in cold blood: witnesses.” Paul McGeough in Baghdad. Sydney Morning Herald; July 17, 2004 

“Looking for an Iraq precedent? Try Honduras.” William O’Rourke. Chicago Sun-Times; July 25, 2004 

Web site of the U.S. Embassy in Iraq