362. Telegram From the Embassy in Honduras to the Department of State1

8118. Subj: Support for El Salvador/Honduras Border Observers. Ref: State 337868.2

1. C-Entire text

2. I discussed OAS observer issue (reftel) with FonMin Elvir Sierra Dec 31. He confirmed joint GOH/GOES decision to request six-month extension for OAS observers, pointing out that both governments believe observers are of vital importance to ensure “neutral and unbiased presence” in frontier area. According to Elvir, OAS presence deters Salvadoran insurgent operations in region and, even more important, inhibits extreme leftist propaganda efforts to discredit both governments through false allegations of cooperative military operations and alleged “atrocities” and/or human rights violations. He was unwilling to speculate how long two governments might ultimately wish to retain OAS presence.

3. OAS role—According to Elvir, role envisaged by two governments would require observer presence, through periodic visits, only in disputed areas (Bolsones). Where frontier is defined and agreed upon, two countries will be able to patrol and control their respective areas without presence of OAS. This, he said, would imply a reduction in the number of observers assigned. He was vague as to proposed relationship between observers and security forces of two governments, but I was left with the impression that these would remain basically unchanged (i.e., coordination of movements and frequent communication on a more or less ad hoc basis). He responded in the affirmative when I asked him if the 6 kilometer DMZ remained juridically in effect [Page 895] in the disputed areas, but noted that two governments could agree to change ground rules as regards number of and arms allowed troops patrolling these areas. He has recommended to Chief of Staff that numbers and armament of Honduran troops assigned be increased, and expects this subject to be discussed at next meeting of the General Staffs of the two countries, in mid-January.

4. Assessment of risk to U.S. personnel—OAS observers are currently exposed to some risk, and one which they tell me has increased in past several months. Indeed, their flight patterns frequently take them over “Indian country” on Salvadoran side of frontier: and the helicopter based in Tegucigalpa has been fired on, presumably by Salvadoran insurgents, at least three times. As a result of increased threat, OAS requested Honduran military to issue air crew two Uzi submachine guns in addition to previously carried side arms. This was done several weeks ago. I understand air crew operating out of San Salvador is similarly armed. Most effective way of diminishing risk, of course, is to vary flight patterns and times, avoid areas known to harbor insurgent groups and fly at high altitudes whenever possible. I understand all of these techniques are used as a matter of practice. Clearly, however, reports that insurgents are receiving hand-held anti-aircraft weapons, heavy machine guns and other more sophisticated arms suggest risk is likely to increase, at least in short-term. On the other hand, if new arrangements between Salvadorans and Hondurans, which are still in the process of taking shape, result in greater control of presently uncontrolled frontier areas, risk should diminish. In summary, it seems to me that risk level is related more to type of arms in hands of guerrilla elements than to changes arising from border treaty or anticipated increase in military operations in disputed areas or elsewhere in frontier zone.

5. Recommendation—I urge that USG agree to OAS request for six-month extension of helicopter support mission.3 Given rough, isolated terrain, helicopter offers the only practicable means of transportation for observers. I concur entirely in Elvir’s assessment that it is very much in interest of both El Salvador and Honduras that OAS observers’ mission be continued. Equally, I would argue, it is also in USG interest to have U.S. and other inter-American observers present in frontier area, since they provide a credible basis to deny or disprove extremist propaganda designed to discredit both GOES and GOH and to undermine their efforts to control insurgents. The risk to U.S. personnel, [Page 896] while very real, is acceptable. As one possibly useful measure of the risk, I intend to increase number and frequency of visits to frontier area by U.S. Mission personnel because I believe we must have better information about developments in the region to [garble—consider?] judgements concerning our [garble—political?], developmental and security assistance programs.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D810002–0260. Confidential; Immediate. Sent for information Priority to San Salvador, the Commander in Chief, Southern Command, and the Secretary of Defense.
  2. In telegram 337868 to Tegucigalpa and San Salvador, December 23, the Department discussed a possible OAS request for an extension of the Department of Defense “contract covering provision of helicopter support to OAS military observers in Honduras and El Salvador.” The Department asked the Embassies to report on the “nature of the support mission in light of any new circumstances stemming from just concluded peace treaty between the two countries.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D800608–0021) In telegram 10065 from Lima, October 31, the Embassy reported that the peace treaty between El Salvador and Honduras was signed in Lima on October 31. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D800520–0819) In telegram 7572 from Tegucigalpa, December 3, the Embassy reported that the Honduran Constituent Assembly ratified the peace treaty on November 28. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D800576–1129)
  3. In telegram 11054 to San Salvador and Tegucigalpa, January 15, 1981, the Department informed the Embassies that it had requested the Department of Defense to “continue to supply services of two helicopters, their crews and two observers” through February 15. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D810022–0066)