On New Year’s Day, unmarked SUVs pursued 21-year-old Honduran activist Wilmer Paredes as he rode home on his motorcycle. When Paredes neared the final bend, he dropped his bike and tried to sprint to safety; unknown assailants gunned him down. No one has been charged in his killing, but state security forces had recently beaten him during a protest of the discredited November 26, 2017, election. Paredes, a youth leader in the Broad Movement for Dignity and Justice, was just one of many victims of the violent post-election crackdown. The recent increase in targeted killings is stoking fears that the government is reconstituting death squads.
Civil-society groups worry that the post-election crisis is pushing the country further into authoritarian rule and compelling a new wave of Hondurans to head north. The data back this up: Migrants from Honduras are experiencing a more than seasonal uptick in apprehensions at the US border, despite the inhospitable climate they know will greet them. Amid the country’s insecurity and instability, the Trump administration announced on May 4 that it was canceling temporary protected status (TPS) for some 57,000 Hondurans who have been allowed to live in the United States since Hurricane Mitch ravaged the country in 1998. The decision also affects more than 50,000 children of TPS holders born in the US. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen focused her determination narrowly on Honduras’s recovery from the environmental disaster, ignoring the country’s current woes. But the program’s protections are far broader, allowing extension when conditions “temporarily prevent the country’s nationals from returning safely, or in certain circumstances, where the country is unable to handle the return of its nationals adequately.” Both circumstances are indisputably applicable here.
A March report by the UN high commissioner for human rights confirmed civil-society groups’ claims of widespread human-rights violations. Even with limited cooperation by the state in providing information, the UN found convincing evidence of extrajudicial killings. The UN said at least 16 people were victims of state security forces, while one of Honduras’s leading human-rights organizations, COFADEH, pegs the total at 22. All of this, the UN concluded, must be viewed “in the context of a political, economic and social crisis, which can be traced back to the 2009 military coup d’état and significant delays to undertake critical institutional, political, economic and social reforms.”
Given the government’s ongoing failure to undertake those reforms, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein expressed alarm: “The already fragile human rights situation in Honduras, which suffers from high levels of violence and insecurity, is likely to deteriorate further unless there is true accountability for human rights violations, and reforms are taken to address the deep political and social polarization in the country.”
Yet there are few signs that any positive structural change is happening. Political, business, and military elites control all institutions of power, including the legislature, judiciary, executive, and electoral authority. These are the same actors who instigated and cemented the 2009 coup that ousted the democratically elected president, Manuel Zelaya. Yet the Obama and Trump administrations continued to stand by their strongmen, and the US has remained a steady partner in the militarized War on Drugs and a proponent of neoliberal economic policies that benefit local elites and transnational businesses.
Historically, Honduran power has been shared between the far-right National Party and the center-right Liberal Party. But Juan Orlando Hernández’s ascent to the presidency in 2013 ushered in an era of consolidated National Party power, accompanied by the abuses that such domination often permits. Given the White House’s brazen indifference toward human rights, Hernández had good reason to feel confident that the Trump administration would avert its gaze from his government’s malfeasance. After ignoring admonitions to reform the electoral system, Hernández presumed he would prevail in the 2017 election and appeared to be caught off guard when the initial returns had his opponent—Salvador Nasralla, head of a newly formed coalition—comfortably ahead. After glaring irregularities soon eroded Nasralla’s lead, protests erupted, which were met with violent repression. Yet two days after the vote, the US State Department “certified that Honduras was meeting human rights conditions, strengthening transparency, and cracking down on corruption,” allowing the release of millions of dollars in aid.
Most of the rest of the international community was initially unconvinced that the election results were legitimate. Even the Electoral Observation Mission of the Organization of American States, long serving as a foreign-policy extension of the United States, issued a report condemning the “low quality” of the electoral process and concluded that it was “impossible to determine the winner with the necessary certainty.” But despite mounting evidence that the election was irretrievably marred by fraud and misconduct, the US continued to provide Hernández with a cloak of legitimacy that all but ensured his hold on power. In 2017, just as it did after the 2009 coup, the US undermined democracy in Honduras.
Conditions remain dire. A reported drop in the homicide rate should be viewed skeptically, based as it is on self-interested and opaque government statistics, but even with those numbers, Honduras has one of the highest murder rates in the world. Gender-, drug-, and gang-based violence is compounded by state-sponsored repression. Journalists and human-rights defenders are under siege; they face attacks, torture, criminalization, smear campaigns, and laws designed to silence dissent. While some political prisoners have been released on bond, others, like activist Edwin Espinal, remain imprisoned in pretrial detention in abysmal conditions. Despite a few high-profile arrests, convictions are rare and impunity remains pervasive. Corruption is the country’s operating system.
Still, Washington continues to whitewash the harms linked to the millions of dollars it provides in security support. US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley tweeted on February 27: “Productive meeting with President Hernandez of Honduras discussing our shared efforts on counter narcotics, gang violence and migration in the region and to the US. We encouraged the government to continue progress on anti-corruption efforts and protecting human rights.” But anti-corruption initiatives are faltering, and this month brought further evidence that the US is subverting, not supporting, human rights. The resistance camp at Pajuiles, which has been objecting to a hydroelectric dam that threatens their water supply, was violently confronted by security forces, some of which were funded, trained, and vetted by the US government.
The country’s social and economic indicators are also discouraging, with inequality and poverty on the rise. According to a December report by the Social Fund of the External Debt and Development of Honduras (FOSDEH), in 2016, 65.7 percent of Honduras’s population lived in poverty, an increase of 3 percent over the prior year. Nearly 4 million people live in extreme poverty, and Honduras has the highest inequality in Latin America. As it does at home, Washington continues to promote free enterprise, privatization, and austerity despite the human suffering those policies inflict.
In its rush to cancel TPS, the Trump administration defied the advice of the diplomatic community most familiar with the situation on the ground. Last year, Chief of Staff John Kelly, who headed the US Southern Command under the Obama administration and was then appointed secretary of DHS by Trump, pressured Elaine Duke, then the acting secretary of DHS, to end TPS for Hondurans. According to The Washington Post, the administration disregarded warnings conveyed through diplomatic cables that ending TPS protections for Central Americans was ill-advised. Those issuing such warnings included James Nealon, DHS international adviser for strategy and planning, who previously served as US ambassador to Honduras from 2014 to 2017 and who, the Post reported, said “that Honduras was in no position to take back tens of thousands of U.S. deportees and their American-born children, who could be targeted for attacks or recruitment by the country’s powerful gangs.” Diplomats to the region also argued that the money sent through remittances helps create local jobs, which in turn relieves some of the economic drivers of migration. (Remittances critical to the economy totaled $4.4 billion last year, a staggering 18 percent of the country’s GDP.) The cables further argue that many TPS recipients too fearful to return to their countries will likely stay in the US, driven into the shadows, and will head north again if they are deported, fueling profitability for smuggling networks.
Compounding the inhumane and counterproductive nature of terminating TPS, Trump’s move may be illegal. Lawyers amended a lawsuit challenging the legality of the program’s termination for Haitians and Salvadorans to add Honduran plaintiffs as well, claiming the decisions to rescind the program for these countries ignore their conditions “and are nothing but a thin and pretextual smokescreen for a racially discriminatory immigration agenda—one that the President has been astonishingly blunt about articulating.”
Meanwhile, as a “migrant caravan” made its way through Mexico to the US border, with more than three-quarters of its participants fleeing from Honduras, Trump’s rhetoric continued to demonize asylum seekers, and demonstrated his willful disregard for domestic and international legal protections for refugees.
Trump’s cruel folly will further fuel, not ease, the cycle of violence, misery, and migration the United States has played a pivotal role in perpetuating. Caught in the crosshairs are desperate migrants seeking the prosperity and security that Trump thinks only white North Americans truly deserve.