HONDURANS worry that their country may be sliding into the bloody culture of violence so prevalent in some neighboring nations. The concern was ignited by three very public political murders last month. They were followed by attacks on the Nicaraguan Embassy and US troops on exercise. No one was hurt in the latter incidents, and the toll is modest compared to that caused by death squads and guerrillas in El Salvador and Guatemala.
But Honduras has become a crucible for Central American tensions. Since the early 1980s, it has hosted a volatile mixture of Nicaraguan contras, Salvadoran rebels, Sandinista spies, United States intelligence agents, mercenaries, and drug traffickers.
The different goals of these groups have little to do with Honduras's internal politics. It is the ``contamination'' from these foreign struggles that is feared.
The only way to avoid the spread of turmoil, analysts say, is by resolving regional conflicts. A key concern has been dealing with the estimated 12,000 US-backed Nicaraguan contra rebels who are camped inside Honduras.
Progress was made on the issue this week, when five Central American Presidents ended their summit Tuesday with an agreement to dismantle the contra bases here. Nicaragua also promised to hold free elections by early next year. A detailed plan for disarming and returning the contras to Nicaragua or other countries is to be drawn up within 90 days.
``There are an awful lot of out-of-work gunfighters here,'' says one diplomat. ``If you could wave a magic wand and send them all home, Honduras could go back to what it was'' - poor but peaceable. ``But it will never go back.'' Like its neighbors, Honduras is desperately poor and economically underdeveloped. But it held relatively free elections in 1982 and 1986. Since then, say analysts, the greatest threat to incipient democracy here is a breakdown in law and order that the still-weak civilian institutions could not cope with. Such an event, sources say, could provoke a return to military rule. The Army is widely acknowledged as the real power behind President Jos'e Azcona Hoyo.
THE victims of last month's assassinations - a contra commander, a drug trafficker's lawyer, and a former Armed Forces chief - point to some of the destabilizing influences of the past eight years. They include:
A left-right political split, that some fear could turn into a cycle of rebel violence and death-squad activity.
The presence of foreign insurgents.
The spread of regional drug trafficking and its related corruption of civic and political life.
On Jan. 25, retired Gen. Gustavo 'Alvarez Mart'inez was killed in an ambush by five or six men. A small leftist rebel group, the Popular Liberation Command or ``Chinchoneros,'' reportedly claimed responsiblity for the killing. The Chinchoneros were almost wiped out in the early 1980s. Their reappearance could spook the military into action, say informed Hondurans, who put the rebels' strength at no more than 100 to 125 members.
'Alvarez was instrumental in securing Honduras as a base for the contras. But more relevant, some sources say, was his supervision of a counterinsurgency campaign against suspected guerrillas. Critics charge that he used death squads that caused ``disappearances'' of about 150 suspected leftists, supporters of Nicaragua, and Salvadoran rebels.
His legacy may have been to set in motion a slow process of violence and revenge. Hours after his death, a right-wing group, the Anticommunist Action Alliance, issued death threats for five liberal political activists. The group's motto: ``For the love of liberty, death to communists!''
'Alvarez's very public murder was preceded Jan. 23 by the killing of Carlos D'iaz Lorenzana, a lawyer for Honduran drug kingpin Juan Ram'on Matta. Mr. Matta's capture and transfer to the United States last April sparked riots in which part of the US Embassy was burned.
And about 10 days before Lorenzana's death, a contra commander - ``Commandante Aureliano'' - was murdered.
The conspiratorial spirit nurtured here in recent years has prompted extensive speculation about a link between the three assassinations. Lorenzana, for example, had told a foreign journalist he intended to testify to the human rights commission here that the Honduran military killed contra Commandante Aureliano.
Even if no link is ever established, tension and suspicion are likely to prevail.
Meanwhile, the US role is seen as a key factor influencing Honduras's future. Honduran and diplomatic observers say US policy has worked at cross purposes. It was under the Reagan administration's urging that the US's closest Central American ally agreed to provide haven for the contras.
But the contra connection, as well as what critics call the unconstitutional ``kidnapping'' and extradition of drug trafficker Matta, has tarnished Washington's image among Hondurans.
``The Americans tend to be heavy-handed here,'' says one observer. ``That does little to strengthen civil institutions.''