TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras -- Six Honduran soldiers were jailed this week for threatening to ship teenagers off to the most wretched army outpost in the country unless they handed over their money, watches and clothes.
The scheme was penny ante, but such press gang episodes are common and they raise questions among Hondurans about the merits of maintaining a large corrupt army. As Central American peace efforts continue and poverty grows, many favor demilitarization as a way to strengthen civilian rule and devote more money to development.
But the army, the most powerful Honduran institution, is resisting all reform efforts.
Critics argue that the military has always been more of a holding company bent on enriching itself rather than a legitimate fighting force.
'The only fight the Honduran army has been involved in is the one over the military budget. It is a focus of corruption and nothing more,' said Gautama Fonseca, a lawyer and newspaper columnist in Tegucigalpa.
The military controls immigration and the police -- key sources of graft -- and runs everything from the telephone company to banks, hotels, farms and a clothing factory. Many army colonels are stock holders with business degrees.
'They say that those who enter the military academy are poor but that you can't find a colonel who isn't rich,' said Ramon Oqueli, a sociology professor at Honduras' national university.
Though hardly combat ready, the military's influence grew in the 1980s. Following the Sandinista revolution in neighboring Nicaragua, the Reagan administration targeted Honduras as a key ally for containing revolutionary movements in Central America.
Since 1981, the United States has poured $492 million in military aid into Honduras. In contrast, Honduras received just $46 million in U.S. military aid for the whole period between 1946 and 1981.
Thousands of U.S. troops were sent to Honduras for training, while 12,000 U.S.-backed Contra guerrillas launched raids against Nicaragua from Honduran base camps. With three different armies operating inside its borders, Honduras' 'banana republic' nickname was often replaced with 'Pentagon republic'.
While civilian governments have nominally run Honduras, the army has remained a power behind the throne. It also earned a nasty reputation for human rights abuses.
More than 140 students, union activists and peasant leaders have been murdered or disappeared in the past decade. The Committee for Human Rights in Honduras blames most cases on the military.
With the emergence of political reforms in the Soviet Union, the Sandinista defeat in the 1990 election -- leading to Contra demobilization -- and the cooling of anti-communist passions, many observers say Honduras should downgrade its military.
Some advocate converting the army into a civilian-run police force.
Threats to Honduran security appear minimal. The country's small guerrilla groups have been generally dormant, while few observers think the war in El Salvador will affect Honduras.
'The people ask, 'If the Sandinistas are no longer such a danger, why do we need such a big army and so much military spending?'' said Victor Meza, a political analyst.
Seventy percent of Honduras' 4.2 million people live in poverty, but Honduras officially spent about $50 million, or 10 percent of its budget last year, on the military. Many think military spending may have been closer to $100 million.
Analysts say the Honduran army is now digging in to protect its economic turf. They say President Rafael Callejas wants to reduce the military's influence but will not risk antagonizng army officers, which could provoke a coup.
'The Honduran army is just about at a minimum level in order to sustain internal order,' Callejas said in a recent interview with United Press International.
Callejas added that military spending was cut by 10 percent last year and said the army may take a larger role in drug control and civilian projects.
One sign of the military's hardened stance was a barracks coup two months ago, when armed forces chief Gen. Arnulfo Cantarero was sacked and replaced by Gen. Luis Alonso Discua.
Meza said Discua, a former head of military intelligence, is considered a 'strongman' who will be more protective than Cantarero of military privileges.
Army officers argue that with 19,000 troops the force is one of the smallest in Central America. It also remains suspicious of the Salvadoran army, a rivalry that dates back to the 100-hour 'Soccer War' of 1969, which began over land and immigration disputes.
Just as it built up Central American armies in the 1980s, the U.S. government now favors reducing their power.
After the December 1989 U.S. invasion, Panama scrapped its army, while Costa Rica has maintained only a police force since 1948. Nicaragua hopes to cut its army to 29,000 troops from 85,000 members in 1989.
The exception is El Salvador, which still receives hefty military aid from the United States to fight an 11-year-old guerrilla insurgency.
Honduras will get $21.8 million in U.S. military aid this year, about the same amount as 1990, but much lower than annual aid levels in the 1980s.
The United States has made no effort however to pull out its 1,200 troops from Soto Cano, a Honduran base formerly known as Palmerola, 40 miles north of the capital. Soto Cano has served as a logistical support site for the Contras, the Honduran army and for U.S. military backing of Salvadoran troops.
Analysts predict the U.S military will probably stay in Honduras until the Salvadoran war winds down. A U.S. official said there are no plans for any changes in the status of U.S. troops based in Honduras.
'When the Honduran government decides our presence is no longer necessary, we will gladly go,' U.S. Ambassador to Honduras Crescencio Arcos said recently.