817.00 Bandit Activities/497

The Chargé in Honduras (Higgins) to the Secretary of State

No. 579

Sir: I have the honor to refer to the Legation’s strictly confidential despatch No. 570 of July 22, 1932,75 (Legation file No. 800–N) and to its telegram No. 65 of July 23, 11 A.M., relating to the efforts being made by the Honduran Government toward cooperation with the Nicaraguan Government in combatting banditry, and to submit suggestions as to what further steps can be taken in this direction.

The task, undertaken pursuant to the Department’s confidential instruction No. 305 of July 1, 1932, of getting the Honduran Government to take all measures against the bandits which can be reasonably expected of it at this time has now been successfully terminated. The Collector of Revenue of El Paraíso, the commandant at Danlí, and the sub-commandant of Las Manos, whose reliefs were requested, have all been sent to other posts. General Plata has been a week on the border and should have the organization of his special patrol force well begun. By getting him appointed as commandant of the section of Danlí as well as chief of the special force, even more men have been brought under his direct command than was expected or hoped for. The President stated at first that he could give him only twenty-five men (for the special force). The Danlí garrison doubles this number, and, counting the four border detachments under sub-commandants, provides [Page 932] him with a total of seventy officers and men. Of the use it is desired that he make of his command, General Plata has been given a thorough understanding.

It is not to be anticipated, however, that signal results will appear forthwith. I do not expect that bandit activities in Nicaragua will rapidly decrease in consequence of Plata’s presence in their rear, nor that he will capture large groups of Sandinistas or substantial quantities of arms and ammunition. All the precedents are against it. Moreover it must be borne in mind that the principal result will be entirely inconspicuous and that there will be no means of evaluating it. It consists of all the difficulty and inconvenience that the presence of an active patrol exercising a strict vigilance along the border will cause the bandits in entering Honduras for refuge or recuperation, in bringing booty over for sale, and in procurement of supplies and munitions. This is an important and valuable service, and, notwithstanding its inconspicuousness and the fact that it cannot be accurately appraised, credit for it should be given to the Honduran Government.

Beyond this general service, the tangible results will be slight if one is to judge by the record of the last five years,—since the beginning of Sandinismo. The efforts of the Honduran Government in that time have nevertheless been sizeable. In May, 1927, the month in which Sandino took the field, it declared martial law and put a force of 400 men on the border. In June, 1929, it again declared martial law for thirty days in the frontier departments, and inasmuch as the Marine commander in Nicaragua thought that length of time insufficient, it convoked Congress in extraordinary sessions in order to extend martial law an additional thirty days. This sixty days effort cost the Government one hundred thousand pesos. At all times it has maintained along the border a special expeditionary force to combat bandit activities, varying from forty to one hundred and fifty men, until a year ago when they were moved elsewhere to assist in the suppression of the Ferrera revolt. The Foreign Minister has told me that cooperation with Nicaragua in dealing with the bandits has cost Honduras in five years a half million pesos. Yet at all times the heads of government (Presidents Paz and Mejía) have shown themselves well disposed and ready to cooperate in response to this Legation’s representations.

Still the tangible, calculable results have been certainly insignificant. They total as follows (according to the Legation’s records):

In July, 1928, secret advance permission was obtained from President Paz for the attack delivered by Marine airplanes on Sandino’s encampment a few miles above the mouth of the Patuca river, far within Honduran territory.
In April, 1929, the expeditionary force found and seized a machine [Page 933] gun, 32 rifles and considerable ammunition which the bandits had hidden. At another time it captured a bandit pack train.
During the five years a total of about twenty bandits or their agents have been captured and “reconcentrated” in towns of the interior, from which they have doubtless departed at will.
The Government arrested and imprisoned one Sandinista, by name Sequiera. He was allowed to escape shortly after.
It has refused entry into Honduras, of a few Nicaraguan revolutionists or bandits. The most recent case was Horacio Portocarrero, Sandino’s candidate for President of Nicaragua, who was turned back at Amapala a couple of months ago.

These results are almost pathetic when considered in relation to the effort made and the expense borne, but they are the sum total of tangible accomplishment for five years.

I can think of four reasons for this lack of accomplishment. The first is that the desire for carrying out treaty obligations to Nicaragua and the corresponding interest in an effective frontier control, which is fairly keen in the President, is less in the cabinet officers, still less in their undersecretaries, and diminishes down the scale of the official hierarchy until in the lower grades it disappears altogether. The general average of interest and consciousness of obligation is therefore very small indeed.

The second reason is the physical impossibility of maintaining a really effective control over a frontier as long as that between Honduras and Nicaragua which passes through such extremely difficult terrain.

The third reason is the inadequacy of the means at the disposal of the Honduran Executive. It has no customs or frontier guard service, no police force or constabulary in the frontier districts, and its army, I venture to say, while not the smallest, is the weakest of any independent state in the world. In recent years the latter has been reduced to an unusually low strength, and has been incapable of coping with even small group of bandits and desperadoes within the country to say nothing of preventing their incursions from outside.

For the past three years and a half the Executive and Judiciary have been of opposite parties, have not cooperated, and have thwarted each other whenever possible. The Executive cannot, in consquence, obtain prosecution of Nicaraguan bandits, their agents, and helpers even if it does apprehend them. There is, besides, a lack of laws for the punishment of offenders of this class. Congress has never passed the legislation necessary for the due fulfillment of Article XIV of the General Treaty of Peace and Amity of 1923.

Finally the districts along the Nicaraguan frontier are so thickly peopled with Sandino sympathizers, both Nicaraguans and Hondurans, [Page 934] that hindrances and resistance are presented at every point to efforts to suppress bandit activities.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

There is no remedy for Honduran lack of interest or consciousness of obligation in border cooperation; nor can the physical obstacles thereto, and the inadequacy of means for it be eliminated; but better results can be achieved by the United States and Nicaraguan Governments taking certain measures.

The Nicaraguan Government could and should send a diplomatic mission to Tegucigalpa—there has been none for a year and a half—for the twofold purpose of overcoming the estrangement which has arisen between these two countries and to make representations in border matters in an appropriate form. I believe that it would be preferable for this Legation to make its representations in support of those from a Nicaraguan Legation, rather than in the first instance and solitarily, for it would thereby avoid being placed in the awkward position of making a request on Nicaragua’s behalf for something in the obtaining of which the Nicaraguan Government does not appear to be sincerely interested.

This Legation, if the Department so instructs, can further results by informally keeping in close touch with General Plata in order that it may become immediately aware of any action on the part of the Honduran Government which would vitiate the border control, such as the transfer of Plata, reduction of his force, failure to liquidate payrolls, issuance of orders nullifying his power of action. It could also keep under informal observation, through the Naval Attaché the bandit reconcentrados sent to Tegucigalpa by General Plata to the end that they be kept here. …

There are two more useful measures which can be undertaken by the Legation. (1) Make representations for effective border control to the new government, which takes office February 1, 1933, shortly after its inauguration in order that it will start off “on the right foot”; (2) Endeavor to get passed in the next Congress legislation for making effective Article XIV of the 1923 Treaty. By the last paragraph of this article the contracting governments obligate themselves to present such projects of law to their respective congresses. I cannot find that the Honduran Executive has ever carried out this obligation, but whether or not, it is certain that the Congress has never enacted such legislation. The only thing of the sort which exists is Executive Decree No. 27 of July 19, 1928, which provided for refusal of entry to or expulsion of anyone writing or speaking propaganda designed to organize or foment a revolutionary movement against a recognized Central American Government. The Honduran press bitterly assailed [Page 935] this measure of President Paz, and the Press Association passed a resolution of protest, of which Vincente Mejía Colindres, now President of the Republic, was a signer, stigmatizing it as unconstitutional. However, Froylan Turcios, the principal agent of Sandino in Central America, was successfully dealt with by means of it. Its constitutionality was never questioned in Congress, and it is presumably in force today, as the single legislative measure by which Sandinistas can in any way be prosecuted.

If the foregoing measures suggested are adopted, it is my belief that genuine progress will be made in the suppression of the activities of Nicaraguan bandits in Honduras. There will, however, still be a slight amount of arms and ammunition smuggled across the border, for given its length and difficulties of terrain, it is impossible for the Honduran Government to prevent it entirely. It should be remembered that next to “dope” and diamonds, there is nothing as easy to smuggle as small arms ammunition, and that in the kind of warfare being waged by the bandits in the Segovias a little ammunition goes a long way.

Reports of arms smuggling and of other bandit activities against Nicaragua in Honduras there always will be in profusion. The Legation records since the beginning of Sandino banditry are teeming with them, emanating from Nicaragua: these records also plainly reveal that nine tenths of these reports are either utterly false, or gross exaggerations. … In 1928 Minister Summerlin reported to the Department that “according to reliable information it does not appear that arms and ammunition purchased from any source are reaching Sandino through Honduras except possibly in entirely negligible quantities”. In 1929 in writing to Minister Hanna at Managua in refutation of such reports, Minister Summerlin stated that it was “not true that Honduran officials are fomenting revolutionary acts against Nicaragua”. In 1931 Minister Lay wired the Department that “Geyer returned from Nicaraguan Border states that the reports that Sandino agents are openly recruiting in Danlí and other Honduran towns and that bandit chiefs in conference in Paraíso are without foundation”. In January, 1932, Mr. Lay reported to the Department that “after investigations made by the Naval Attaché here it has been found that many of the reports, emanating from Nicaragua, of the activities of bandit agents in Honduras are very much exaggerated. Naval Attaché reported that for over two years no consignments of ammunition have passed through Danlí . . . . No men are being recruited, nor supplies or ammunition obtained in Danlí for Sandino”, and in May, 1932, he telegraphed the Department “perhaps these reports are circulated [Page 936] by Moncada to support some argument that change of government undesirable while country threatened with attack”.

These reports would appear, therefore, to have a long and consistent record for unreliability and exaggeration.

Respectfully yours,

Lawrence Higgins
  1. Not printed.