72. Memorandum From the Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs (Mann) to the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs (Harriman)1


  • Honduras—Possible Coup


  • Agenda for Special Group (CI) for Friday, February 72

Pressure in Honduras for removal of Ricardo Zùñiga A., Secretary General to Chief of Government Col. Lopez, has grown so rapidly in the past month, that unless he leaves the scene peacefully, there could be a counter-coup within the next two weeks.

Lopez depends completely on Zúñiga who runs the government. Zúñiga, as Lopez’ personal adviser since 1956, has engineered Lopez’ career to the present point in which Lopez hopes to become constitutional president. Lopez will not let Zúñiga go unless forced to by a united demand from the Army.

Today only the last Infantry Battalion and the newly formed Special Tactical Force (each numbering about 600 men and located just outside Tegucigalpa) stand between Lopez and a counter-coup. Lopez personally commands the Special Tactical Force through an executive officer whose support for Zùñiga is increasingly questionable. The commander of the 1st Battalion, Maj. Juan Melgar, is supposedly fanatically loyal to Lopez and has supported Zùñiga. However, Zùñiga secretly came to the United States in the last week of January, and in the last four days there have been reports that Melgar may be weakening in his resistance to pleas from his military colleagues to join them in evicting Zùñiga.

If Zùñiga leaves the government, Lopez would almost certainly be replaced by a civilian-military junta, though if the change were accomplished through a palace coup rather than an open revolt, Lopez might remain as head of the junta.

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Without Zùñiga, Lopez probably would lose some of his presidential ambition, and those persons who oppose a military candidacy would have more influence. Opponents of a Lopez candidacy include a number of military officers as well as the Liberal Party (deposed in last October’s coup) and major elements of the Nationalist Party (principal civilian allies of the present military government). The armed forces will almost certainly take a preconstitutional non-partisan attitude once Lopez is no longer a serious presidential contender.

Although much of the Army’s antagonism toward Zùñiga is a spontaneous response to Zùñiga’s high-handed operations, the Liberal Party, especially Jorge Bueso Arias, has contributed substantially to the plotting. Bueso is very competent, anti-communist, and was Finance Minister under deposed President Villeda Morales.

The leader of the military plotters is Defense Minister, Chief of Air Force, Lt. Col. Armando Escalon. Escalon is very competent and anticommunist, but his was one of the bitterest anti-U.S. voices during the period of non-recognition last fall (October 3 to December 14, 1963).3

The communists would welcome any change away from the present military government, though they are not involved in the present Liberal-Army scheming. The communists have begun to seize control of the MIL, an uncoordinated group of lower-level Liberal terrorists not countenanced by the Liberal leaders. The MIL began to function in December, 1963.

A junta government probably would have much more Liberal participation than does the present government, and thus would receive broader labor and Liberal backing. This would reduce the strength of the MIL. Thus, chances of a peaceful transition to generally accepted civilian representative government in 1965 are much better under a junta, especially if military partisanship declines. The increased civilian participation would improve the efficiency of the transition government as well.

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The anti-Zùñiga forces now believe they have gone too far to quit. As long as Zùñiga stays out of Honduras, there is a good chance that there will be only a palace coup. This would avoid bloodshed or extremism, and would add to the possibility that Lopez and the junta would resolve the conflict by exiling both Escalon and Zùñiga as ambassadors. Many of the military officers who are working against Zùñiga do not like the prospect of having Escalon as the new head of the junta.

If Zùñiga returns to Honduras soon, the plotters probably will resort to open revolt. Whether they win or lose, there will be some bloodshed and new openings for communist subversion. If they win, the United States will be faced with a not-too-friendly Escalon. If they lose, there probably will be a series of jailings and other repressive measures which will force large numbers of Liberal Party members and organized laborers into open alliance with the communists in the MIL.


United States interests are best served by the earliest possible removal of Ricardo Zùñiga from his present influential position in Honduras.
A palace coup is much more to our interest than an open revolt in Honduras.
Therefore, the Honduran situation is most favorable to the United States the longer Zùñiga stays out of Honduras.4

  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, ARA/CEN/H Files, 1964: Lot 67 D 46, POL 1, General Policy. Secret; Noforn. Drafted by Rowell.
  2. Not found.
  3. Villeda Morales on October 3, 1963. The Kennedy administration initially refused to recognize the new government, choosing instead to recall Ambassador Burrows on October 6 for “consultation,” thereby suspending normal diplomatic relations. For documentation on the coup in Honduras and the initial U.S. response, see Foreign Relations, 1961–1963, American Republics, Microfiche Supplement, Honduras. The Johnson administration agreed to recognize the new government on December 14, 1963, but only after receiving “public assurances of respect for civil liberties, freedom of action for political parties, and that international obligations will be fulfilled.” By that time, the Lòpez administration had also announced that elections for a constituent assembly would be held in February 1965. (Department of State Bulletin, December 30, 1963, p. 624) For a detailed account of these events, see Edward M. Martin, Kennedy and Latin America, pp. 125–141.
  4. In a memorandum to Mann, February 4, Collins suggested that the Special Group (CI) consider detaining Zùñiga in the United States “to improve the chances for a peaceful alteration of government in Honduras.” (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, ARA/CEN/H Files, 1964: Lot 67 D 46, General Policy) The minutes of the Special Group meeting have not been found. The Latin American Policy Committee also met to discuss the situation in Honduras, in particular, ways in which to “effect a non-violent transition to representative civilian government.” On February 6 the LAPC approved a plan of action for the remainder of 1964, including the following proposal: “Seek ways to reduce the influence of Ricardo Zùñiga A.” (Airgram CA–7933 to Tegucigalpa, February 10; ibid., Central Files 1964–66, POL 1 LA–US) In a telephone conversation with President Johnson, February 19, Mann mentioned the possibility of a another coup in Honduras; see Document 2.