Soldiers in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Reuters/Edgard Garrido
In some ways, it was just one more bloody episode in a blood-soaked country. In the early hours of the morning on May 11, a group of indigenous people traveling by canoe on a river in the northeast Mosquitia region of Honduras came under helicopter fire. When the shooting was over, at least four persons lay dead, including, by some accounts, two pregnant women. In Honduras, such grisly violence is no longer out of the ordinary. But what this incident threw into stark relief was the powerful role the United States is playing in a Honduran war.
US officials maintain that the Drug Enforcement Administration commandos on board the helicopters did not fire their weapons that morning; Honduran policemen pulled the triggers. But no one disputes that US forces were heavily involved in the raid, and that the helicopters were owned by the US State Department.
The United States has, in fact, been quietly escalating its military presence in Honduras, pouring police and military funding into the regime of President Porfirio Lobo in the name of fighting drugs. The DEA is using counterinsurgency methods developed in Iraq against drug traffickers in Honduras, deploying squads of commandos with US military Special Forces backgrounds to work closely with the Honduran police and military. The US ambassador to Honduras, Lisa Kubiske, recently said, “We have an opportunity now, because the military is no longer at war in Iraq. Using the military funding that won’t be spent, we should be able to have resources to be able to work here.”
Missing from the official story—never mentioned by US officials, and left out of mainstream news coverage—is that the US government’s ally in this campaign, the Lobo regime, is the illegitimate progeny of the military coup that deposed democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya on June 28, 2009. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at first criticized the coup government, led initially by Roberto Micheletti, but then legitimated it. After almost all the opposition candidates (as well as international observers) boycotted the post-coup election that brought Lobo to power, heads of state throughout the region refused to recognize his presidency; but the United States hailed him for “restoring democracy” and promoting “national reconciliation.” The State Department and Clinton continue to repeat both fictions, as did President Obama when he welcomed Lobo to the White House in October.
Meanwhile, US officials blame drug trafficking for almost all the country’s problems. “It may be gratifying to attribute Honduras’s problems to generals with sunglasses or to rigged elections,” former US ambassador to Honduras James Creagan insisted in a February 5 letter to the New York Times. “But it is not true. This is not the 1970s with Central American coups, contras and revolutionaries.” Rather, he asserted, the violence in Honduras “is caused by drugs, gangs and corruption…all driven by the market for coca leaf products.”
Only in the post-coup context, however, can we understand the very real crisis of drug trafficking in Honduras. A vicious drug culture already existed before the coup, along with gangs and corrupt officials. But the thoroughgoing criminality of the coup regime opened the door for it to flourish on an unprecedented scale. Drug trafficking is now embedded in the state itself—from the cop in the neighborhood all the way up to the very top of the government, according to high-level sources. Prominent critics and even government officials, including Marlon Pascua, the defense minister, talk of “narco-judges” who block prosecutions and “narco-congressmen” who run cartels. Alfredo Landaverde, a former congressman and police commissioner in charge of drug investigations, declared that one out of every ten members of Congress is a drug trafficker and that he had evidence proving “major national and political figures” were involved in drug trafficking. He was assassinated on December 7.
Far more than criminal gangs in the streets and drug traffickers acting independently, it is the Honduran state itself that has made Honduras, according to the Associated Press, “among the most dangerous places on earth.”
The administration argues that it is helping Honduras clean up its police by providing additional funding for “training.” But as former President Zelaya underscored in a conversation with me on May Day, “The police are the drug traffickers. If you fund the police, you’re funding the drug traffickers.”
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When Lobo took office in January 2010, he reappointed to top positions the same military figures (sunglasses and all) who had managed the coup, including its leader, Gen. Romeo Vásquez Velásquez, as head of Hondutel, the state-owned telephone company. Last summer, Manuel Enrique Cáceres, a high-ranking minister in the cabinet of Micheletti’s post-coup government, was made director of the aviation authority.
The coup, in turn, unleashed a wave of violence by state security forces that continues unabated. On October 22, an enormous scandal broke when the Tegucigalpa police killed the son of Julieta Castellanos, rector of the country’s largest university and a member of the government’s Truth Commission, along with a friend of his. Top law enforcement officials admitted that the police were responsible for the killings but allowed the suspects to disappear, precipitating an enormous crisis of legitimacy, as prominent figures such as Landaverde stepped forward throughout the autumn to denounce the massive police corruption. The police department, they charged, is riddled with death squads and drug traffickers up to the very highest levels.
“It’s scarier to meet up with five police officers on the streets than five gang members,” former Police Commissioner María Luisa Borjas declared in November. According to the Committee of Families of the Detained and Disappeared of Honduras (Cofadeh), more than 10,000 official complaints have been filed about abuses by the police and military since the coup, none of which have been addressed. Marvin Ponce, vice president of Congress, has charged that 40 percent of the Honduran police are involved in organized crime. The sheer viciousness of the police was laid bare on Valentine’s Day, when the worst prison fire in modern history claimed the lives of 361 prisoners in Comayagua in part because their guards—regular police officers—refused to allow firefighters to enter for thirty minutes.
Reform efforts have been promised by the Lobo administration and Congress, but they have gone nowhere. A top-level commission fell apart and a new one doesn’t yet function. Key figures involved in the “cleanup” include Eduardo Villanueva, one of Micheletti’s top ministers following the coup, and Héctor Ivan Mejía, the current police spokesman, who as chief of police in San Pedro Sula issued the order on September 15, 2010, to tear-gas a peaceful demonstration by the opposition, including a high school marching band.
In response to calls by human rights groups that non-Hondurans oversee the cleanup, Lobo on April 24 appointed to a new commission Gen. Aquiles Blu Rodriguez, himself accused of obstruction of justice and drug-related charges in Chile. The Honduran government admitted on May 1 that only eighteen cases against police officers had gone forward.
Unable to purge itself, the government has instead responded to the security crisis with even greater repression. Cofadeh and the Center for Justice and International Law have raised alarms over recent measures “that presumably are trying to combat criminality but that are restrictive of the human rights of the population,” including a law allowing wiretapping with few restrictions and another permitting inspection of the bank records of nonprofits. (The Honduran Congress is also considering the most repressive contraception law in the world, making it a crime to distribute the morning-after pill, even to rape victims.) On March 20 an “emergency” measure allowing the military to take on ordinary police duties, such as patrolling the streets, was extended for three months. Lobo has said he wants to make this measure permanent, in direct violation of the fire wall between the police and the military enshrined in the Honduran Constitution.
The Honduran military is corrupt, too. On November 1, 2010, an airplane used in drug trafficking was “robbed” from a military base in San Pedro Sula. According to La Tribuna, a right-wing newspaper, at least nineteen members of the army were complicit, including top- and intermediate-ranked officers. In August 2011, 300 automatic rifles and 300,000 bullets disappeared from a warehouse of the army’s elite Cobras unit. Despite this record of corruption, a new decree permits the military to accept no-bid contracts—a green light for even more corruption.
Most dangerous of all, since the coup, the government has attacked the opposition relentlessly and mercilessly. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights reports “serious incidents of violence and repression” against demonstrations. At least twenty-two journalists and media workers have been killed since the coup, according to Reporters Without Borders; most of them were critics of the government. On May 16, the body of well-known radio reporter Alfredo Villatoro was found, dressed in a police uniform, a week after he was abducted. On May 7, Erick Martinez, a beloved journalist, LGBTI and resistance activist, and candidate for Congress with LIBRE, the opposition party, was found dead, strangled, by the side of the road. The AFL-CIO also reports “numerous murders, attacks and threats since 2009 aimed at trade unionists for their labor or political activities.”
Those who dare to document this are at tremendous risk. The United Nations reported in February that “human rights defenders continue to suffer extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, torture and ill treatment, death threats, attacks, harassment, and stigmatization.” On February 22, for example, a paramilitary group called the CAM, linked to death squads during the 1980s, sent a text message to Dina Meza, press officer and co-founder of Cofadeh, that read: “We are going to burn your pussy with lime until you scream and later the whole squad is going to enjoy [you].” In late April, the same paramilitary group began sending death threats to two women, one British, the other French, who serve as “accompaniment” to protect those who have been threatened. Even when the government does promise protection, it’s rarely delivered, and victims are sometimes guarded by the very same police from whom they need to be protected.
Campesino activists have paid the highest price. In the lower Aguán Valley, at least 46 campesinos struggling over land rights have been killed since the coup, most of them allegedly by a combination of police, military and the private army of Miguel Facussé, the richest, most powerful man in the country and a key backer of the coup. The perpetrators enjoy near-complete impunity. On June 24, 2011, for example, seventy-five policemen destroyed the entire campesino community of Rigores, burning down more than 100 houses and bulldozing three churches and a seven-room schoolhouse; not one has been charged. At least ten security guards and others have died in the conflict as well. In an e-mailed response to questions for this article, Facussé admitted that in one incident four campesinos were killed in what he described as a “gun battle” with his security guards.
Overall, a Honduran man, woman or child is killed every seventy-four minutes. According to the UN, in 2011, the country had the highest murder rate in the world. Some of these killings are the kind that happen in a bar fight or domestic disagreement, when someone pulls out a gun or machete because they know nothing will happen to them in the dysfunctional Honduran judicial system. In February, the UN found “pervasive impunity” in Honduras. According to Human Rights Watch, women and LGBTI people have been particularly targeted for murder, including by police. In this free-for-all, gangs control whole neighborhoods in the capital, where they charge taxes on businesses and vehicles.
What difference does a coup make? Add up the rampant corruption of the Honduran state, the crime it unleashed and perpetrates, and its ruthless repression of the opposition, and it’s impossible to blame the crisis merely on drug trafficking and gangs; nor can organized crime and drug trafficking be separated from the criminal regime of Porfirio Lobo and the Honduran oligarchs.
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Honduras’ President Porfirio Lobo waves in Cartagena, Colombia, April 14, 2012. Reuters/Ricardo Moraes
The propriety of a US alliance with such a brutal and undemocratic government is finally being challenged in Washington. On November 28, Howard Berman, the top-ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, sent a letter to Secretary Clinton asking whether the United States was in fact arming a dangerous regime. Ninety-four members of the House, including many in the Democratic leadership, signed a March 9 letter sponsored by Representative Jan Schakowsky calling for the suspension of police and military aid, especially in light of the situation in the Aguán Valley. On March 5, seven senators signed a letter sponsored by Barbara Mikulski expressing concern over “the increasing number of human rights violations” in Honduras.
Congress didn’t just suddenly grow a spine by itself, of course. Activists in the Honduras Solidarity Network and their allies have hammered away for almost three years to build support at the grassroots level and translate it into power in Washington—and Honduras (full disclosure: I am a member). In response, the State Department has acknowledged the human rights issues and the security crisis but has yet to firmly denounce the Lobo administration for its repression and corruption. In response to urgent queries from US human rights activists concerned about death squad activities, the embassy replied that it had communicated its concern to the Lobo administration but had not requested an investigation into the CAM specifically, saying that, “unfortunately, the capacity of Honduran law enforcement authorities to conduct effective investigations is limited. The United States government is assisting them to improve this capacity.”
This idea that the Honduran government needs US help to fix itself—which critics regard as naïve at best, given the Lobo administration’s manifest unwillingness to reform itself—is how US officials justify support for the Lobo regime. Vice President Joe Biden flew to Honduras on March 6, promising that “the United States is absolutely committed to continuing to work with Honduras to win this battle against the narcotraffickers.” Biden promised increased military and police funds under the Central American Regional Security Initiative, to the tune of $107 million. Obama’s proposed budget for 2013 more than doubles key police and military funds to Honduras.
Biden’s visit came amid a growing chorus of criticism of US drug policy throughout the region. Presidents Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia and Otto Pérez Molina of Guatemala have openly called for the legalization of drugs, repudiating what they charge are ineffective US-driven military solutions.
What’s driving the administration’s aggressive policy? The United States has long regarded Honduras, its most captive client state in Latin America, as strategically important. As in the 1980s, when Honduras served as the US base for the contra war against Nicaragua, the country is the regional hub for US military operations in Central America. It received more than $50 million in Pentagon contracts last year, including $24 million to make the barracks at the Soto Cano Air Base permanent for the first time since 1954. Soto Cano has great strategic significance as the only US air base between the United States and South America. Sixty-two percent of all Defense Department funds for Central America in 2011 went to Honduras.
Moreover, US corporate interests in Honduras are enormous, including mining and hydroelectric investments, Dole’s and Chiquita’s expansive banana operations (employing 11,000 people), and apparel, auto parts and other manufacturers that employ more than 110,000, including 3,000 at a Lear Corporation factory in San Pedro Sula that makes electrical distribution systems.
The military coup made possible what Hondurans call the “second coup”: the deeper economic agenda of transnational investors and Honduran elites, now given almost free rein to use the state as they choose. At the top of their list is privatization of basic state functions. Laws are moving through Congress privatizing the country’s electrical systems, water systems and ports. In an overt attack on Honduras’s powerful and militant teachers unions, Congress in March 2011 passed a law opening the door to privatization of the entire country’s schools.
Labor rights are under intense assault as part of this economic agenda. In November 2010 a law went into effect encouraging employers to convert permanent, full-time jobs into part-time and temporary employment—under which workers will no longer be eligible for healthcare and will lose the right to organize a union. A complaint to the US Labor Department filed by the AFL-CIO under the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) this past March documents a sea of systematic violations of the most basic labor rights since the coup, including the firing of hundreds of workers for attempting to organize unions, failure of employers to pay the minimum wage and failure to pay workers altogether. Honduran workers “have seen little meaningful enforcement of their labor rights, as national labor laws are ineffective and violated with impunity,” the filing concludes.
Perhaps most extreme is a new “Model Cities” law, passed in July, which allows for autonomous economic zones in which the Honduran Constitution, legal code and most basic democratic governance structures won’t apply, and where transnational investors will be free to invent their own entire society.
Within the State Department, the policy train is being driven by Bush-era experts on Latin America, still in power, working hand in glove with the Cuban-American right, whose leaders have celebrated the Honduran coup as a successful pushback against the democratically elected left and center-left governments that have come to power all over Latin America in the past fifteen years. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, echoing their arguments, attacked Obama in December for allegedly supporting Zelaya during the coup: “When Honduras wanted to toss out their pro-Marxist president, our president stood with him.”
The ultimate responsibility, though, lies with President Obama and Secretary Clinton, who are using Honduras to reassert US power in the hemisphere.
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Hondurans living under the US gun have denounced the increased militarization. In a scathing article in response to Biden’s visit titled “Obedience,” Cofadeh declared: “The drug war is only a pretext for a greater military occupation by the United States and to block the wave of political change driven by the national resistance.”
After enduring three years of repression, though, the people who make up the resistance wave are deeply exhausted. Nonetheless, they continue to pour into the streets—something that requires great courage, since the marches are often met with tear gas and beatings. In the last week of March alone, bus drivers, taxi drivers, lesbians and gays, electrical workers, teachers and students all demonstrated. Earlier in the month employees occupied the famous Mayan ruins at Copán, protesting a new law giving municipalities control over historical artifacts in their jurisdictions.
All the diverse elements that came together after the coup to form the Frente Nacional de Resistencia Popular (FNRP) are still present, although the exhilarating coalition of the first two years after the coup is now in some ways disarticulated. These groups include the indigenous movement, the Garifuna Afro-indigenous people, and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people’s movement, as well as Feminists in Resistance, Lawyers in Resistance, Judges in Resistance, and pretty much anything else in Resistance—all backed up by an extraordinary alternative media culture. Zelaya was allowed to return in May 2011; his wife, Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, is the presumed presidential candidate of LIBRE, a new political party founded by the FNRP. On May Day, hundreds of thousands filled the streets in marches organized by LIBRE and all three labor federations.
The resistance, moreover, still thrives in Honduran popular culture. To give just one delightful example: by tradition, Hondurans on New Year’s Eve construct and then ritually burn figurines representing the bad things that have happened to them in the previous year. The first year after the coup, dolls representing Micheletti, the dictator, were all over the place; last year it was Lobo. This year, protesters audaciously constructed a life-sized cardboard police car with two stuffed cloth bodies in the back representing the rector’s murdered son and his friend. Another group built a tank with Lobo and the head of the corrupt state-owned electrical company popping out on top. Honduran newspapers displayed photos of the figures all over the country.
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For the Honduran people and their allies in the United States and beyond, the path forward is as tough as it gets. There are no easy solutions. Human rights defenders, from Cofadeh to the UN to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, have all called on the Honduran government to implement immediate measures guaranteeing the most basic rights. These include the following demands: stop repressing the opposition with tear gas, wiretapping, harassment and extrajudicial killings. Enforce the law, including labor rights. Clean up the prisons. Purge the judiciary, the police and the military of known criminals. Enact real agrarian reform.
But who will do that when President Lobo and the Honduran Congress, themselves allegedly interlocked with the drug trade and organized crime, clearly lack the ability and political will to do so—and the United States supports them? Hondurans in the opposition underscore that the only way forward is a complete reconstitution of the Honduran state from below, through a democratically composed constitutional convention, like those successfully undertaken in other Latin American countries in recent years.
In the interim, Cofadeh and prominent voices in Honduran civil society are calling loudly for a suspension of US and other countries’ aid to the Honduran military and police. “Stop feeding the beast,” as Rector Julieta Castellanos famously demanded in November.
Alas, we’re in the 1980s all over again, when the United States under President Ronald Reagan favored right-wing governments over democracy movements in Latin America. The implications of the Honduran coup’s success are ominous. As Tirza Flores Lanza—a former appeals court magistrate in San Pedro Sula, who was fired with four other judges and magistrates for opposing the coup—put it: “The coup d’état in Honduras destroyed the incipient democracy that, with great effort, we were constructing, and revived the specter of military dictatorships that are now once again ready to pounce throughout Latin America.”
Dana Frank’s article, "Honduras: Which Side is the US On?", included a portion of a statement from Miguel Facussé, owner of Grupo Dinant. Here is Facussé’s complete response to a question about what role his security guards played in a November 15, 2010 incident at the El Tumbador farm in which five campesinos were killed:
"The group [of campesinos] informed the security guards on site, who were employees of a third-party provider, that they would open fire on the guards and other workers present if they did not abandon their posts and allowed them to seize the land within five minutes. Many of the campesinos, armed with illegal weapons, including AK-47s, opened fire on the guards and workers, who were forced to defend themselves. Unfortunately, four campesinos were killed in the gun battle, while a fifth one was found the following day near the plantation. While all the victims were shot with AK-47s, none of the guards were carrying such weapons, as they only carry revolvers and shot guns."
Contrary to Facussé’s claims, two witnesses have testified to human rights observers that the campesinos were unarmed and that Grupo Dinant security guards used AK-47s to ambush and kill the campesinos; one testified that an M-60 was used as well. According to a fact-finding mission report by FoodFirst Information and Action Network (FIAN), among other groups, the Honduran government did not release ballistic reports for the arms confiscated from the security guards. No investigation or prosecution of the killings was concluded by Honduran authorities.