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  Number 217 | Agosto 1999
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Honduras

The Old Man and the Tigers

Reports of a quasi-coup in Honduras circled the world at the end of July. Although that's not exactly what it was, it is nonetheless interesting to examine what does lie behind this incident among Honduran military leaders, referred to derisively by some as “the tigers.”

Ricardo Falla

The official response to the reports was that “there has been no attempted coup. The President has been in control of the situation at all times. Changes have been made, and with them the powers of the President and civil society have been strengthened.” That's not quite the way it was either. What actually happened? How did this crisis come about? And who was actually strengthened?

What's going on?

I was in a meeting on Friday afternoon, July 30, discussing other things, when a friend burst into the room, transistor radio in hand. “Listen, listen! It sounds like something's going on!” All radio and television stations in Honduras were simultaneously broadcasting military music, reminiscent of—at least for those of us old enough to remember—the bygone days of the war with El Salvador, or the infamous periods of coups d'état.

In previous days, news reports had abounded of fights between officers who had graduated from the Military Academy in different classes, referred to as “promotions,” and of insubordination by some top officers toward the minister of defense, aging civilian lawyer and businessman Edgardo Dumas, a.k.a. the “old man.” The first thing that came to mind was that the government was experiencing some serious instability, but we couldn't believe it would have anything to do with a coup, as anachronistic as suicide.

The military music went on for three more hours. Finally it ended and a decree was released announcing a handful of changes in the top brass decided on by President Carlos Roberto Flores in his capacity as commander-in-chief of the armed forces. As it turns out, President Flores had been in an all-day meeting with Dumas, Dumas' deputy minister, the Council of Commanders and various advisers.

More than just a fight among promotions

Unless one first understands what was at stake with the announced chessboard moves, the names involved and the shifts in their posts are meaningless. Basically, there were two factors. The surface one was the perennial power struggle within the Honduran military between promotions, in this case the twelfth and the thirteenth, over appointments. The more underlying one was the fight between the civilian Ministry of Defense and the military Council of Commanders. What that fight represents is a struggle between civilian and military authority, between a new way of organizing the armed forces within the state and the traditional way.

The personnel shifts and the tension preceding them are all part of the process to demilitarize Honduras, which has meant the armed forces' gradual loss of power over civilian government. The previous government of President Reina eliminated mandatory military service and converted the Public Security Forces (the infamous FUSEP), at that time dependent on the armed forces, into the National Civil Police and put it under the new Ministry of Public Security.
Flores' government has carried on this demilitarization process. On January 25 of this year the Congress ratified a constitutional change that strips the armed forces of the autonomy it has enjoyed since the civilian regime of Villeda Morales 40 years ago.
There have also been other important changes. The post of armed forces chief, a military position last held by the powerful traditionalist, General Hung Pacheco, has been abolished, replaced by minister of defense, a civilian position. The 52-member Armed Forces High Council has also been done away with. In its stead is the 6-member Council of Commanders, consisting of the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, his deputy, the Inspector General and the respective commanders of the Army, Navy and Air Force. The immunity privilege for commanders no longer exists. The power to confer military promotions has been transferred from the Congress to the President, who is now also in direct command of the armed forces, leaving the Joint Chiefs of Staff a merely operational body. The head of the Joint Chiefs can make operational changes but no longer has the power to effect administrative changes in the military ranks.

28 officers vs. Hung Pacheco

In December 1998, before the constitutional change ending military autonomy was ratified, General Hung Pacheco, who still headed the armed forces under the old system at that time, appointed the six members of the new Council of Commanders. A group of 28 officers from the twelfth promotion contested his choices, particularly his naming of Colonel Rodolfo Interiano Portillo as commander-in-chief of the Army and Oscar Hernández Chávez as his deputy, for the reason that both were members of the thirteenth promotion.
They argued that with these appointments, Hung Pacheco was effectively marginalizing the power of their promotion and in doing so had violated the principals of hierarchy and seniority, the backbone of the military. They did not accept being subordinated to those who, according to military principles, should be their subordinates and maintained that this indirectly forced officers from their promotion who were eligible for leadership positions to solicit retirement as a point of honor three years before completing the standard 30 years of service. Unwilling to recognize these appointments, the officers saw no alternative but to contest them.

An historic burial

Finally, at the end of January, after the constitutional change, the day came for Hung Pacheco to turn over the ceremonial staff and banner of his now defunct post. As there was no successor to turn them over to, both symbols died right there on the spot, and the formidable post was buried forever. That solemn and historic “burial” turned into a celebration, notably attended by numerous military and civilian state officials.
Edgardo Dumas returned from the United States, where he had occupied the post of ambassador. His swearing in as the first civilian defense minister took place not on military premises, but in the presidential palace. General Roberto Lázarus was appointed his deputy minister. Lázarus had just retired from the military so his heart and mind were still military, even though he was dressed as a civilian. His selection allowed the President to ingratiate himself with retiring officers, and at the same time give the ministry a civilian face.

However positive these events may have seemed to proponents of demilitarization, they did not change Hung Pacheco's appointments. As a result, some of the most militant officers in the twelfth promotion continued to contest them. Deputy Defense Minister Lázarus—not the minister himself—ended up publicly responding that they could either abide by the law or submit their resignations. But abiding by the law meant bowing to those lower on the hierarchy. And submitting their resignations meant abandoning the battlefield, perhaps with the honor of refusing to lower themselves but also with the dishonor of having lost the war forever. They refused to do either.

Law vs. Constitution

Meanwhile, given that the struggle is not merely about two graduating classes, but also about two conceptions of the armed forces' new role, an open contradiction between the Council of Commanders and the Ministry of Defense was also inevitable. The Council tried to recover its lost autonomy using the Constitutional Law of the Armed Forces, which needed to be reformed or completely rewritten to bring it into conformity with the constitutional changes.

Colonel Romero Euceda, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Army chief Interiano Portillo, both representing other officers as well, struck a deal with congressional allies in which they went behind the defense minister's back to present a bill to reform this law. According to their proposal, the head of the Joint Chiefs (read Colonel Euceda) would be awarded the rank of general and accorded special functions, specifically continued control over accounting and military provisions. The minister of defense post would be sidelined to an essentially decorative one.

When “old man” Dumas found out about this maneuver, he publicly denounced the joint chiefs for joining with the legislators to reform the law, and declared that the only legitimate channel for these negotiations was through his ministry. At the same time, he presented a proposal for a whole new law, not just reforms, to concretize the constitutional changes.

Money and arms

The clash over autonomy for the armed forces is not only about honor or ideology. It also has to do with control over money and arms, as became patently clear in early July, with another public battle between the defense minister and the commanders. With the clarity and tenacity of a true believer in the might of the law, Dumas claimed exclusive control over all weapons and their sale by the armed forces. This was his way of attacking La Armería, a lucrative business dedicated to selling arms in Honduras, with reported annual profits somewhere between 20 and 30 million lempiras.

This business has always appeared to belong to the armed forces, but Dumas clarified that it in fact belonged to the Military Social Security Institute (IPM), “an institution that is a separate legal entity. For this reason it falls outside the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Defense and violates Article 292 of the Constitution, which gives the armed forces legal authority over all arms.” His words were machinegun fire aimed at Romero Euceda who, in addition to heading up the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was IPM's president.

In reality, IPM is a cartel of some 20 businesses with almost $100 million in assets, created as a kind of officers' retirement fund. The Office of Public Prosecutor is currently investigating it for alleged administrative irregularities.

Rebellion against “the old man”

After the run-in over La Armería, the final clash between the defense minister and the Council of Commanders occurred in mid-July. With Dumas away in the United States, the Council decided to make a couple of seemingly insignificant personnel transfers. In the commanders' opinion, the changes were legal because the law gives them the right to make operational changes, and they argued that transfers fall under that category, not administration. Deputy Defense Minister Lázarus, filling in for Dumas, approved the transfers, which consisted of moving the armed forces spokesperson over to the Joint Chiefs' department of operations and training and the chief of counterintelligence to its public relations department.

When Minister Dumas returned to Honduras, he ordered the Council of Commanders to annul these changes. In his opinion, it was his job to make or approve them. The Council refused to obey the orders of their superior, violating the well-known military code that orders are issued to be carried out, not questioned.

The President intervenes

It was at this point that the authority of the armed forces commander-in-chief—President Flores—came into the game. He was informed that the three Council members refusing to obey orders were Colonel Romero Euceda, head of the Joint Chiefs; Colonel Puerto Martínez, the Inspector General; and Colonel Interiano Portillo, the Army chief, who was reported to be the most rebellious.

In this tense situation, the President called the July 30 meeting, where he ultimately achieved his goal of establishing his authority—though not without astute and indispensable concessions. From top to bottom, these were the changes within the Council of Commanders that he negotiated in the day-long meeting.

-Colonel Daniel Augusto López Carballo, formerly head of the Presidential Military Staff, replaced Euceda as head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. To comply with military protocol, which dictates that this post must be filled by a member of the Council of Commanders, López Carballo was named Inspector General for five minutes before his new appointment, replacing the rebellious Colonel Puerto Martínez.

-Colonel Julián Arístides Irias is López Carballo's deputy in his new post.

-Colonel Manuel de Jesús Luna Gutiérrez will occupy the Inspector General post, vacated so quickly by López Carballo.

All three of these men are alumnae of the twelfth promotion, and with their naming the promotion finally won the months-long struggle for its rightful place in the top command.

-The commanders of all three branches of the armed forces—Army, Navy and Air Force—remained in their posts.

The result? Two bastions of power

So what has changed apart from the shifting of a lot of confusing names?
The Council of Commanders has been reconstituted in such a way that there are now two clear and relatively balanced bastions of power within it: the twelfth promotion surrounding López Carballo, who has the reputation of being an open-minded man, and the thirteenth promotion, buttressing Interiano Portillo. The first stronghold is supported nationally by the state's civilian structure and internationally by the embassies. The second has the support—albeit neither unlimited nor total—of the Army, the largest branch of the armed forces. Also, López Carballo's predecessor, Euceda Romero, was more loyal to Hung Pacheco than to the President. López Carballo is not only loyal to President Flores but is his close confidant.

The most powerful and renowned of the three branch chiefs is Colonel Interiano Portillo, who is from the thirteenth promotion and considered to be the behind-the-scenes manipulator of both Lázarus and Euceda. While still armed forces chief, General Hung Pacheco had handpicked him to head the Army with the idea that within a year's time Interiano would take over as head of the Joint Chiefs—a rather ambitious and vertiginous leap for a mere mortal. Keeping him on was President Flores' main concession. Was Flores trying to sustain a conciliatory posture or is the colonel's power still such that he did not want to—or could not—discharge him yet? In any case, by appointing López Carballo to head the Joint Chiefs, the President effectively arrested Interiano Portillo's rapid ascent to that post.

The sacrificial lamb of all this maneuvering was Roberto Lázarus, Hung Pacheco's classmate in the academy, who was shoved out of his basically ornamental deputy defense minister's post so that Colonel Euceda Romero could be “promoted” into it to make the changes more palatable. General Lázarus, already retired from the military after 30 years of service, has now been put out to pasture definitively.

All signs suggest that Colonel Euceda will not last long in his new post, however, since, as an active military man, he will have trouble blending in among civilians. As paymaster general of both the Army and the Armed Forces General Command, Euceda was Hung Pacheco's direct subordinate and was devoted to him. He was the only member of the tenth-eleventh promotion that Hung Pacheco trusted and the two are now associates in various businesses. By moving both Euceda and Lázarus, President Flores has greatly diminished the influence that Hung Pacheco wanted to maintain in the Council and the Ministry of Defense. In short, the shadow of the “great tiger” no longer hangs so long over the presidential office.

Just in case…

On July 30, a ceremonious mobilization of soldiers had, from early morning on, encircled the meeting in which these changes were being decided. It was quite out of the ordinary, and turned the area around the presidential palace into a virtual military zone. Then, shortly after 3:00 p.m., with the media still broadcasting military marches, the presidential helicopter landed in the airfield alongside the palace and kept its engine running. Many at first speculated that its mission was to fly the President out of the country, assuming the military had deposed him.

In the days that followed, things became clearer little by little. The presence of the helicopter was the President's own tactic. Had the deposed or transferred officers refused to go along with the changes, Flores would have used it not to flee the country, but to retreat to one of the loyal battalions headquartered close to Tegucigalpa and continue his dismissals from there. Before the meeting, Flores had spoken with the commanders he had personally placed in charge of these strategically placed troops in late 1998, possibly anticipating such changes.

As for the martial music, the President's advisers, aware of the uncertainties surrounding the negotiations, had taken the initiative of hooking up all the media so they could be at the President's exclusive disposition in the event of a military revolt.

Power for civil society?

A momentary crisis has been resolved, but a long road lies ahead in the struggle to convert the Honduran armed forces into an obedient body in the service of Honduran society. President Flores clearly emerged from the crisis strengthened both nationally and internationally, but this does not necessarily mean—as some official declarations would have us believe—that civil society has also been strengthened. The hazard exists that, as military power decreases, the power of civilian state officials will increase, first and foremost that of the President. An invisible, mysterious and contagious disease remains in the air, leaving open the dangerous possibility of the same top-down tactics being employed as now, but in the name of defeating military power: “orders are issued to be carried out, not questioned.” Nothing could be further from the strategic ingredient required for true democracy: a strengthened civil society in relation to the state.

By Ricardo Falla, sj, is director of the Reflection, Research and Communication Team (ERIC) of the Jesuits of Honduras.

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