Editor’s note: In the last Oro Loma Nomad, the writer, a native of Oro Loma and graduate of Dos Palos High School, told of her Peace Corps assignment to Honduras, along with her husband Bastiaan, and the outbreak of war between Honduras and neighboring El Salvador.
Peace Corps Volunteers in Honduras were caught up in the whirlwind of war in 1969, when El Salvador attacked and invaded Honduras. War stories abound among the volunteers who were there at the time, but none can compare to the story of Bob Lilley, who was captured by the Salvadoran army and imprisoned on suspicion of being a spy.
You may recall from my last column that Lilley had been sending telegrams to the Honduran military, the United Fruit Company, and other entities to send arms to his town. While waiting for the arms, Lilley had the town’s men training with broomsticks.
The U.S. Embassy in Honduras wanted Lilley out of the town he lived in. Peace Corps staff were sent to bring him back to Tegucigalpa. When they reached Corquin, they found Lilley marching in formation with “his” men. Lilley told the Peace Corps staff that the town would soon be supplied with arms. The Peace Corps staff told Lilley he could not stay in the town and that he had to return to Tegucigalpa with them.
Well, besides being a good-natured young man, Lilley had a special talent. He could talk his way into or out of a situation, depending on his objective. During our Peace Corps training, Lilley was told that he was being eliminated from the Peace Corps. Lilley convinced the trainers to allow him to go speak with the Director of the Peace Corps in Honduras. The Director allowed Lilley to stay.
In Corquin, Lilley convinced the staffers to allow him to stay in a city further inland from the border, where he could help organize relief efforts for the Hondurans who were fleeing from the invading army. Lilley did not want to return to Tegucigalpa.
Several days later, the Organization of American States announced a ceasefire which would take place in the town of Nueva Ocotepeque near the border between the two countries.
Lilley wanted to be present at the historic ceasefire ceremony. He and two friends who were Honduran news reporters made their way to Nueva Ocotepeque. Lilley pretended to be a member of the press and, when he could not provide press credentials, the Salvadoran army commander ordered him arrested and taken to prison in El Salvador.
In solitary confinement, Bob learned that he had been tried and convicted of charges of espionage and sentenced in absentia to death. That evening, Bob gave away his wristwatch and boots to the prison guard.
“I didn’t want them taken off my body after I was dead,” he explained to the Salvadoran army general who went to the prison to meet the strange young American man who was to be executed at daybreak.
“Tell me, muchacho, who are you? Why were you at Nueva Ocotepeque? What are you doing in Honduras?” The general peered at Lilley and listened as the young man explained that he was a Peace Corps Volunteer. Lilley described the town where he worked to strengthen the town’s credit cooperative. The general was intrigued by this young American who spoke with passion and admiration for the people of Corquin. Their conversation went on and on, as the general asked questions and Lilley answered excitedly in fluent Spanish.
Finally, around midnight, the general left Lilley’s cell. In doing so, he shook Lilley’s hand and said, “I am glad I came to meet you, Roberto. I will call the American Embassy and tell them we will hand you over to them. I will also tell the Ambassador that we need Volunteers like you in our country!”
In the morning, Lilley was taken to the American Embassy in San Salvador. An embassy staffer called the American Embassy in Tegucigalpa and told them they had Bob Lilley and would be sending him back to Honduras. The American Embassy in Honduras did not want Lilley back in Honduras. “He’s a loose cannon. We don’t want him back. Please put him on a plane to Washington, D.C., where the Peace Corps will terminate his assignment in Honduras.” Lilley was sent to Washington.