Archive for the ‘American Embassy in Honduras’ Category

10 years after the coup in Honduras, the US must reevaluate its policy

 
 
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Ten years ago, on June 28, 2009, a general trained at the U.S. Army School of the Americas arrived with troops at the home of the president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, and forced him at gunpoint onto a plane bound for Costa Rica. An interim president was appointed by his political opponents who was quickly legitimized by United States.

The United States has continued to support successive administrations in Honduras, even though elections have been biased by vote buying, fraud, and assassinations. The United States sends the Honduran military and police aid even though these security forces have been ordered to beat and shoot non-violent protesters and there are credible allegations of death squads formed to assassinate journalists and citizens working for social change. One of these citizens was the well-known environmental activist Berta Cáceres. No one is held accountable for these crimes.

The 10 years since the coup have resulted in increasing poverty, privatization of social goods keeping services out of the reach of the poor, violence from both drug cartels and state security forces against Honduran citizens, human and civil rights violations, corruption, and a dramatic increase of refugee migration fleeing the country, many to the United States. Almost 70 percent of Hondurans live in poverty, and Honduras now has the most uneven wealth distribution in Latin America. A narco-government has been consolidated around President Juan Orlando Hernández, who has appointed a national police chief and national security chief with cartel ties. The president himself and his sister have been investigated by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency for large-scale drug trafficking and money laundering, and his brother and other officials involved in the coup have been jailed in the U.S. awaiting trial for the same charges. Still, U.S. government support for the Hernández administration continues.

Since late April, widespread and ongoing protests by doctors, nurses, and teachers against the privatization of education and medical services have been taking place in Honduras. President Hernández has ordered his security forces to attack the protestors; some have refused to do so. Does the United States really want to continue to support a leader such as this?

Under the circumstances, it is shameful that our government continues to send aid to this corrupt and illegally-elected government in Honduras. The security aid in particular is being used to lift up a dictatorial president who abuses power and implicates our country in the human rights abuses of his regime. It is high time for my colleagues in the House to co-sponsor H.R. 1945, the Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act, which would cut off U.S. aid to the Honduran military and police until such time as their human rights violations cease and impunity ends for the crimes they have committed.

Schakowsky represents Illinois 9th District and is a member of Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission.

Hondurans Are Still Fighting the US-Supported Dictatorship

Ten years after the coup, they have become the largest single Central American nationality in the refugee caravans fleeing north.

By James North

JULY 1, 2019

 

Berta Cáceres: seven men convicted of murdering Honduran environmentalist

  • Indigenous campaigner Cáceres, 44, was shot dead in 2016
  • Four also guilty of attempted murder of Mexican activist
The former manager of Desa Sergio Rodríguez, right, and the seven other people accused of killing the Honduran environmental leader Berta Cáceres, wait to hear their sentence at a courtroom in Tegucigalpa.
The former manager of Desa Sergio Rodríguez, right, and the seven other people accused of killing the Honduran environmental leader Berta Cáceres, wait to hear their sentence. Photograph: Orlando Sierra/AFP/Getty Images

Seven men have been found guilty of conspiring to murder the Honduran indigenous environmentalist Berta Isabel Cáceres. An eighth defendant, Emerson Duarte Meza, was cleared and freed on Thursday.

Cáceres, a winner of the Goldman prize for environmental defenders, was shot dead on 2 March 2016 – two days before her 45th birthday – after a long battle to stop construction of an internationally financed hydroelectric dam on the Gualcarque river, which the Lenca people consider sacred.

Seven men were convicted of murder by a court in Tegucigalpa on Thursday: Sergio Ramón Rodríguez, the communities and environment manager for Desa, the company building the dam; Douglas Geovanny Bustillo, the former Desa security chief; Mariano Díaz Chávez, a former US-trained special forces major who served in the army with Bustillo; Henry Javier Hernández, a former special forces sergeant who served with Díaz; Edwin Rapalo; Edilson Duarte Meza; and Oscar Torres.

Gustavo Castro, a Mexican environmentalist, was shot in the same attack but survived by playing dead. Hernández, Rapalo, Edilson Duarte and Torres were found guilty of the attempted murder of Castro. The other three defendants were found not guilty of that crime. In closing arguments, several defence teams had argued that the attack on Castro amounted only to assault as his injuries were not life-threatening.

Berta Cáceres was killed two days before her 45th birthday.

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Berta Cáceres was killed two days before her 45th birthday. Photograph: Tim Russo/AP

Cáceres, the coordinator of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (Copinh) was best known for her defence of indigenous territory and natural resources, but was also a respected political analyst, women’s rights defender and anti-capitalist campaigner.

Her murder became a litmus test for a country where corruption and impunity reign – and for a justice system which has received millions of US and European dollars of international aid.

But the criminal case has been plagued by allegations of negligence, secrecy and bias.

The crime scene was contaminated before the forensic team arrived, and none of the bloody footprints left behind were identified. Two police officers have been charged with falsifying evidence in the case, which they deny. In October 2016, the original case file was stolen from a judge’s car after an apparent carjacking.

Thursday’s verdict is unlikely to satisfy Cáceres’s family, colleagues and international legal observers who have frequently decried the narrow scope and secrecy surrounding the official investigation.

In a highly contentious decision, lawyers representing the family and Castro were expelled from proceedings shortly before the trial started after calling for the judges to be recused for bias and abuse of authority.

Over the course of the five-week trial, much of the evidence presented to the three judges was documentary, and admitted without being read in court, making it difficult to evaluate the strength of the case against each defendant.

At one point, the trial was suspended for several days, but the court was reconvened a day early without informing the press, international observers, diplomatic representatives or the victims. Key phone data was presented to a virtually empty public gallery. Video transmission was banned in this case.

I was an American missionary in Honduras. I witnessed firsthand the violence they endure.


In this Nov. 2, 2018 photo, 3-year-old Brithani Lizeth Cardona Orellana, bottom right center, stands with her 5-year-old sister Janeisy Nicolle and brother 9-year-old brother Kenner Alberto, flanked by their aunt and uncle at their home in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)

There is an armed security guard at every Dunkin’ Donuts in Honduras. When you enter a pharmacy, the guard with a shotgun slung across his chest will considerately hold your pistol while you wait for your prescription to be filled. On holidays, there are no official fireworks, only a handful of illegal firecrackers and gunshots exploding in the night air. On Christmas Eve, New Year’s, Independence Day, in every barrio across the country, shots echo in the dark like a posse galloping out of town in an old Western.

Five years ago, I left the States to volunteer alongside other Americans and Nicaraguans at a children’s home on the northern coast of Honduras that served orphans and kids who could no longer live with their families due to extreme poverty, abuse or both. We learned firsthand that paradise and hell are next-door neighbors, and you can hear the gunshots at night from both places.

I first had a gun pointed at me while waiting for a cab before dawn in the wealthiest neighborhood of San Pedro Sula, the industrial center of the country and, at the time, the “murder capital” of the world. The security guard saw me standing outside the seminary where I had spent the night as a guest. He climbed down from his turret on the street corner and approached me with a machete in one hand and a raised revolver in the other.

“What are you doing here?” He squinted at me, blinking back sleep.

“I’m just waiting for a taxi. I’m headed to the airport,” I said.

“Then why would you be waiting here on the street?” he asked. “Nothing good happens here this time of night.” Surrounding us were houses that were mansions even by U.S. standards. I wanted to go back inside the seminary, but the 15-foot-high gate had slid closed behind me, and I could not open it again without waking up all the priests, nuns and seminarians inside.

“I can go wait on another block,” I offered. “My cab is just five minutes away.”

“No!” he responded firmly. “You wait right there. Don’t move. Just wait.”

When my taxi finally did arrive, he holstered his gun and offered an apology, but I did not stick around long enough to acknowledge it.

•••

Before I moved to Honduras, I visited the country. For a week, I helped lead a group of high school students from all of the Catholic schools in the Diocese of Dallas who wanted to offer some manual labor and supplies to our “sister diocese.” In the shadow of a massive green mountain, we worked to rebuild and paint a crowded school where Luis, our local guide, and his wife were teachers. Luis was the closest thing the small village had to a mayor. He ran the school, helped settle disputes, led the community Bible study and Sunday service, and as one of the only residents with a car, also provided ambulance service.

One morning he greeted us with bags under his bloodshot eyes. He had taken a neighbor who had stomach pains to the hospital in the middle of the night—more than an hour’s drive each way, around to the other side of the mountain. He returned in time for breakfast and prayers and to greet us in the morning at the school.

Luis and his wife stood out as towering examples of what was possible even amid extreme poverty. With determination and a good heart, one could be a pillar of the community—a community worth staying for. I once asked Luis if many of the young men in his village would eventually leave for the United States. “All of them,” he told me. There was no shame in his voice; it was simply a fact. When I asked if he had ever thought of making the journey, he shook his head. He had a wife and young son, a good job, a community where he was making a difference; he could not imagine leaving.

Years later, when I moved to a town just on the other side of that mountain, I jumped on the bus to visit Luis and his family. He was thrilled to see me again but cautioned me not to take the bus next time. “It was not safe” is all he would say.

During my two years in Honduras, I learned to love those kids at our children’s home like they were my own. Our goal was to prepare them for healthy and productive lives in Honduras, despite the brutal and heartbreaking childhood they had suffered. If we could only offer them enough love and stability and peace in the midst of the tempest around them and behind them in their past, they might have a fighting chance, we believed.

Yet violence does not issue warnings, and it will not take into consideration sincerely held beliefs. I had just returned from teaching my English class for the day when I learned that one of our volunteers and our executive director, who was visiting from the States, had been attacked on the beach next to our property. Maybe 200 yards from the house, our sanctuary, they had been held with machetes to their necks, and the volunteer, one of my best friends, was raped. “We know where you are from,” their attackers had said when they let them go. “Tell anyone and we come back and kill you and all the children.”

After going to the hospital and giving her testimony to the police, my beloved friend spent the night surrounded by the rest of us on the floor, several of us with machetes by our sides and all of us unable to sleep. In the morning, she was evacuated out of the country, and the rest of us were offered the option by our board of directors to leave as well. Suddenly the cursed choice to flee this country that so many of our Honduran neighbors had been forced to make became my own. The men responsible had still not been caught, and our already limited community of volunteers was quickly dwindling as many admitted they no longer felt safe enough to continue working. The next day the rest of us left as well.

•••

A few years later I reached out to Luis via WhatsApp. It turned out he and his family had snuck away from their small town in the middle of the night. A local gang had demanded he pay for “protection,” and when Luis refused, they threatened to kill him and his family. They fled to a larger city, but he and his wife were unable to find any work as teachers and were still fearful the gang would eventually find them. He asked if I could help him claim asylum in the United States.

I got in touch with a few immigration lawyers, who told me Luis would have to make it to the Mexico-U.S. border and apply for asylum there. But even if he got that far, I had to tell Luis, it was very unlikely his family would be granted asylum. Luis was heartbroken. He needed to protect his family, he said, and the best way he could do that was to leave and provide some kind of living for them. Maybe you and I could get married, if only on paper, he offered sincerely. He was right that such a union was now legal here in the United States, I explained, but I could not just marry him to get him citizenship. Despite the absurdity of the suggestion, I struggled to type out my response, knowing my decision was a matter of life and death.

I still receive messages from Luis every few weeks begging me for help, though to be honest, I no longer have the courage to open them. Constant reminders that I am helpless simply became too much. I know ignoring him is wrong. I know it is my privilege to be able to log off of the violence of Honduras and pretend I do not live in the country that created Luis’s desperation, which is also the country that could help to fix it.

For all I know, Luis may be part of the infamous caravan, waiting on the other side of the southern border to claim asylum. It is the type of thing a real friend should know. It is important to know who these people are and that what they are doing is legal. There is no way for them to claim asylum from within their country of origin. Implying that those who peacefully present themselves at ports of entry have broken any American laws is simply not truthful.

When I first met Luis, I assumed that in Honduras it was possible to get an education, work and become financially stable enough that you would never need to leave. But the image in my head of the “virtuous Honduran” proved an illusion when even Luis was forced to flee from the unyielding violence and poverty of Central America. If we want to end the cycle of families fleeing in the night for our border, it is necessary to learn why their nights became so terrifying to begin with.

The weapons that plague their streets came from us. The corruption that infests their governments is a direct result of the coups and instability our country has consistently directed or condoned for over a century. Before Banana Republic was a chic clothing store, it was a dismissive term for a country made entirely dependent on a more powerful economy outside its borders. It was merely an updated version of colonialism, and the original victim was Honduras.

Poverty and violence, the causes of these caravans, are diseases we infected these countries with. Getting mad at the migrants is like the conquistadors and white frontiersmen wondering why the Native Americans they found were always getting so sick.

Those of us who live north of the Mexican border have to learn just how intertwined our lands are and why our neighbors to the south still hear gunshots at night. I have fled from one side to the other myself and watched in vain as those I care about try to follow. But being born in paradise is no reason to condemn those still stuck in hell.

Honduran troops deploy in San Pedro Sula during the inauguration of Juan Orlando Hernández in January. Photo by Kevin Clarke.Honduran troops deploy in San Pedro Sula during the inauguration of Juan Orlando Hernández in January. Photo by Kevin Clarke.

Though thousands of Hondurans left in recent weeks to form the main party of the so-called migrant caravan now making its way to the United States through Mexico, on a typical day hundreds of people leave Honduras, caravan or not. And as those hundreds depart, scores of others are returned after deportation from the United States. Many deportees will try their luck again.

“We are living in calamity, a humanitarian crisis in Honduras,” said Bartolo Fuentes, a well-known Honduran journalist and former member of its Congress, arriving at the Toncontin Airport in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, on Oct. 19 after being detained in Guatemala where he tried to report on the caravan. “Today they left,” he said. “Tomorrow they will leave…. Three hundred people leave Honduras every day.”

U.S. and Honduran officials, he said, prefer that this regular exodus remains “out of sight” or that migrants “die on the way,” their plight unnoticed by the wider world. But “now that they’re going together, it’s a scandal,” Mr. Fuentes said in evident frustration.

“We are living in calamity, a humanitarian crisis in Honduras. Today they left. Tomorrow they will leave…. Three hundred people leave Honduras every day.”

Honduras has endured years of economic and political crises. The November 2017 election results, endorsed by the U.S. government but widely perceived as fraudulent, led to mass protests and dozens of deaths of demonstrators at the hands of security forces and police. The U.N. Office of the High Commission for Human Rights reported that military police and army “used excessive force, including lethal force, to control and disperse protests, leading to the killing and wounding of protesters as well as passers-by.”

According to Joaquin Mejia, a human rights attorney and researcher at the Jesuit Reflection, Research and Communications Team (ERIC-sj) in El Progreso, Honduras, in addition to economic policies that have led to an increase in poverty, the migrant caravan is an expression of frustration with years of structural violence and impunity, corruption and the militarization of Honduran society. High-ranking, active-duty military officers have been implicated in drug and human trafficking and homicide.

Karla Rivas, the coordinator of the Jesuit Migration Network, spoke with America by phone from Queretaro, Mexico, where she was accompanying a separate caravan of mothers who were searching for their children—young migrants who had gone unaccounted for after heading north. “The humanitarian exodus [from Honduras] is the culmination of several crises that have been manifesting themselves over time with the implementation of an unjust economic model.” She called it “an inhumane economic model that is based on extracting [resources] from communities.”

“And if communities say anything,” she added, “they are extracted…too.” By eviction, she explained.

Years of economic policies that have served to further the divide between the rich and the poor in Honduras seem to be at the root of the search for new opportunities in the north. Remittances sent home from Hondurans living in the United States are the foundation of the economy in Honduras and other Central American states. In May 2018, Hondurans sent an all time high of $456.2 million per month to loved ones.

Honduras has “the most unequal distribution of income in Latin America.”

The Center for Economic and Policy Research reports that Honduras has “the most unequal distribution of income in Latin America,” a inequity that has been accelerating since President Manuel Zelaya was deposed in 2009. In the two years after the coup, “over 100 percent of all real income gains went to the wealthiest 10 percent of Hondurans,” according to the report.

The Support Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras, sponsored by the Organization of American States, reports that $450 million is lost to tax evasion and fraud each year. This money deprives the nation of resources “that should be invested in education, health” and other social services, says Mr. Mejia.

Violence is another key driver of immigration from Honduras, which endures one of the world’s highest homicide rates. Much of the violence has been associated with drug trafficking and acts of extortion—criminal gangs can essentially control entire urban communities—but some of the violence results from collusion among gang members, police and security forces, sometimes in acts of intimidation directed at community or environmental activists.

“In the past years, there have been 3,000 cases of femicide,” Mr. Mejia said. “Only 29 have been investigated and only one led to a conviction,” he said. “This high level of impunity is seen over and over again in the murders of lawyers and journalists.”

He points to increased numbers of targeted killings, especially of L.G.B.T. people and youth under 30, since 2013 when Juan Orlando Hernández was first elected to the presidency. Those responsible for protecting the civilian population have sometimes been accused of being the ones who are killing them.

“This high level of impunity is seen over and over again in the murders of lawyers and journalists.”

Mr. Fuentes has become a target in the controversy about the origins of this latest caravan from Central America. Detained after crossing into Guatemala in an effort to report on the migrant caravan, he was moved to Guatemala City by National Police.

Attorney Edy Tabora from the Honduran Committee for Freedom of Expression joined other activists in securing his release. His supporters are concerned that Mr. Fuentes has become a scapegoat for the Hernández and Trump administrations as they press for an end to the Honduran exodus. As an outspoken advocate for democracy and migrants rights, Mr. Fuentes has been repeatedly targeted by the Hernández government.

In a nationally televised broadcast, the Honduran chancellor, Maria Dolores Aguero, dismissed the grassroots aspects of the migrant caravan and alleged that Mr. Fuentes was trying to create political instability in the country. That official line was taken up by Heide Fulton, chargé d’affaires for the U.S. Embassy in Honduras, in a televised message encouraging Hondurans to stay home. “You are being deceived by false promises by leaders with political and criminal intentions,” she said.

On Oct. 31, Mr. Fuentes left Honduras for El Salvador after government officials repeatedly said that he would be charged with human trafficking. In a statement released after his departure, he said that the government “wants to put me behind bars to show the U.S. government its ‘efficiency in fighting irregular migration.’”

On Nov. 5, President Hernández reiterated that the organizers of the caravan should have the law “severely” applied and called on neighboring countries to take action.

Mr. Mejia believes that the militarization of Honduran society has increased as a result of calls for greater public security. ”Funds that should be used for education, health or civilian police [for public security] go to the military,” he said. Honduran “armed forces become involved with a authoritarian solution to social conflicts, and that leads to forced displacement.”

“The United States has a lot to do with this because when we talk about violence and militarization, the United States is [financially] supporting this agenda,” he added. The Alliance for Prosperity Plan, introduced and implemented by the United States, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador in 2014 with the mission of curbing migration from the “Northern Triangle” countries, spends 60 percent of the $750 million budget on security, according to the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.

The Honduran conference of Catholic bishops released a statement on Oct. 25, describing the caravan as “a shocking reality” that reflects ”the current situation in our country, which forces a multitude to leave what little it has, venturing without any certainty for the migration route to the United States, with the desire to reach the promised land, the ‘American dream’, which allows them to solve their economic problems and improve their living conditions, for them and their families and, in many cases, to ensure the long-awaited physical security.”

The bishops urged the Hernández government to respond at home to the crisis suggested by the caravan. “It is the duty of the Honduran State to provide its citizens with the means to satisfy their basic needs,” the bishops said, “such as decent, stable and well-paid work, health, education and housing.”

“When these conditions do not exist,” the bishops said, “people are forced to live in tragedy and many of them hope to undertake a path that leads to development and improvement, finding themselves in the shameful and painful need to leave their families, their friends, their community, their culture, their environment and their land.”

As more than 6,000 people passed through the Mexican state of Chiapas at the end of October, the Human Rights Monitoring and Observation Group in Chiapas reported a heavy presence of Mexican anti-riot police and military, including helicopters, drones and boats, threatening the group of migrants, many of who were exhausted and weak after walking hundreds of miles. The group, which includes representatives from the American Friends Service Committee, Jesuit Refugee Service and Doctors of the World, added, “The militarization of the border does not guarantee the security and integrity of the people, on the contrary it increases [their] risks.”

“The migration route is where entire families are looking for the possibility of a new life,” Ms. Rivas said, “but a large number of the participants on the march are also people simply trying to save their lives.”

The caravan: Who is behind it, what internal factors provoke it, how to situate ourselves?

Reflection, Research and Communication Team ERIC – SJ

 

Ismael Moreno Coto, s.j. (Padre Melo)

Saturday, October 27, 2018

 

http://wp.radioprogresohn.net/la-caravana-quienes-la-empujan-que-factores-internos-la-provocan-como-situarnos/

 

Overflow

 

The caravan is a social migratory phenomenon that has overflowed any political and institutional foresight. It is world news. In all the international media, which never have anything to say about Honduras, today they have put it in the “eye of the hurricane” news. It is a phenomenon that has overwhelmed churches, sectors of civil society, NGOs and governments. It is an avalanche that at the beginning of this dramatic period began with a few hundred Hondurans to become an uncountable number, growing and uncontrollable, which is answered with simple gestures of solidarity, generosity and spontaneity on the part of people who see migrants pass by, and even with the highest-level military responses as the Trump administration threatens, and as the Honduran regime continues to unsuccessfully create a police wall on the border between Honduras and Guatemala.

 

 

 

 

Born in the “Juarez City of the South” It is not just a caravan. It is a social phenomenon led by thousands of impoverished rural and urban settlers that manifests itself in large and massive spontaneous and improvised caravans, with no more organization than the one that has taught the basics of survival and the manifest decision to go north to reach the territory of the USA. It’s not the first time. Last year, 2017, in the month of April there was a caravan of about 800 Central Americans, 75% of whom were Hondurans. At the same time, there is a constant movement of some 300 Hondurans who daily seek to cross the border of Aguascalientes, between Honduras and Guatemala, resulting in many of whom are lost on the road. This human and social avalanche exploded like a powerful far-reaching bomb gaining second or third importance news in the city of San Pedro Sula where it all began. San Pedro Sula is known worldwide as one of the most violent, and thus various researchers and analysts often call it the “Juarez City of the South”. It is similar with the boom of the maquilas (sweatshops) that characterize this Mexican city bordering El Paso, Texas, which was promoted in the 1970’s as a response to poverty in Mexico. Juarez City is best known worldwide for other by-products: an endless flood of internal migration, juvenile delinquency, and drug trafficking. What was this news in San Pedro Sula? A group of about 200 Hondurans announced that they were organizing a caravan to migrate north, leaving the bus terminal in San Pedro Sula, on the Honduran Atlantic coast, on Saturday, October 13.

Who was behind it?

In the beginning, the caravan was identified with the name of Bartolo Fuentes, a social and political leader based in the city of El Progreso, who said in an interview to the local media, that he would join the caravan for a few days. Bartolo Fuentes as a journalist accompanied the previous caravan of April 2017. Being also a politician of the LIBRE (Freedom and Refoundation) Party of the Honduran opposition, Bartolo Fuentes quickly became the political “scapegoat”. He was accused of such at a press conference by the government minister of Foreign Affairs while she was accompanied by the Minister of Human Rights. “Bartolo Fuentes is responsible for this caravan, he organized and instigated many people to manipulate them and lead them on this dangerous journey” she said, while calling on the Public Ministry to proceed with charges against the person to whom the regime downloaded all responsibility as a representative of the radical political opposition of Honduras. As with most things, Bartolo’s name was soon discarded and other scapegoats emerged, still more powerful than a mere local and national social and political leader.

By the time the caravan crossed the border at the Aguascalientes crossing to Guatemala it has already swelled to about four thousand people, who managed to topple the fence that police from both Honduras and Guatemala had established at the border post. And it continued to grow in numbers as it crossed Guatemalan territory and approached the Mexican border. The Honduran regime, undoubtedly with financing from the government of the United States, conceived a plan between October 17 and 20 with the purpose of convincing the migrants to return to the country. A few hundred seemed to accept this proposal, many of whom were transported by bus and others by airlift, as each person was promised immediate help and a package of undetermined services. However there are witnesses who revealed that not a few of the returning migrants were in fact activists of the National Party (the Honduran government) who sought to entice the Caravaners, and above all, to provide official publicity for the government. However, from October 23 on and with figures that increased as the days passed, the Caravan grew to almost 10 thousand migrants crossing through the State of Chiapas in the Mexican Republic.

 

   A pressure cooker The Honduran government accuses the opposition and criminal groups for being responsible for the caravans for destabilizing political purposes. The government of the United States added its weight to this accusation going so far as to accuse the Democratic Party of instigating and financing political and criminal groups so that the migrants would invade US territory in order to destabilize the American government. All these accusations have no real basis. The phenomenon of caravans is the expression of the desperation of a population for which it is increasingly risky to live in a country that denies employment, public safety and a life time of permanently gleaning for leftovers. The caravan is the explosion of a pressure cooker that the Honduran government in association with a small business and transnational elite has been stirring for at least a decade. This is the government that abandoned public social policies and replaced them with public handout programs, while consolidating the development model based on investment in the extractive industry and the privatization and concession of public goods and services.

State and corruption understood as business In turn, the public administration is led by a sector of politicians who have understood the State as their private enterprise.  They have plundered public institutions, such as the Honduran Institute of Social Security, the health system in general, and the electric energy corporation, among many others. These politicians protect themselves with political control of the justice system. The population has been progressively experiencing helplessness and abandonment. This experience and feeling was reinforced with the elections of November 2017 when the government was re-elected in violation of the Constitution of the Republic and was awarded a victory that some 70 percent of the population acknowledges was the result of organized fraud. The population no longer has confidence in politicians, the government and the higher levels of private business. The caravans are a phenomenon that expresses the despair and anguish of a people that no longer believes in solutions inside the country. This decision of the people to find their own just solution results in this extreme expression of flight.

 

Everyone looking for someone to blame and take advantage of

The government of Honduras and the government of the United States seem to need someone to hold responsible. This is so because in the end they represent an elitist sector of society that systematically despises populations with low economic resources, and will never give credit to their initiatives. Everything that comes from these lower sectors is understood as a threat, and in many cases like the one that is now observed with migrants, the initiatives are perceived as delinquent or criminal acts. They do not believe or accept the decisions, initiatives and creativity of the people. Theirs is the expression of contempt, discrimination and racism. They assume that the people cannot think are unable to decide on their own. There must be a factor, or some external actor that encourages, that manipulates their decisions. Obviously, the phenomenon of the caravan can serve to benefit the interests of other sectors. There are opposition sectors in Honduras, and perhaps in the United States, which seek to benefit from the instability caused by this migratory movement. Surely, the extreme right of the Trump administration is especially interested in capitalizing on this phenomenon to strengthen the anti-immigrant

Hunger

movement, one of the fundamental policies of his administration. The mid-term elections in the United States are a thermometer to establish whether or not Trump will continue for a second term. Accusing the Democrats of funding the migrations is a convenient argument to empower Trump towards the Republican triumph in the November elections. In turn, opposition political sectors in Honduras have also shown signs of taking advantage of this phenomenon to further weaken the government of Juan Orlando Hernández, who is also interested in using the migrant movement to accuse the opposition of being responsible for causing greater instability to the national government.

From shameful to dignified

The phenomenon of the caravan has brought light to a daily hidden reality. The caravan has been happening every day, and surely in less than a month the number of people who have been leaving is comparable to those who joined the massive exit in a single day. This daily caravan has been silent, dry, discreet, private, invisible and even shameful. But with this explosion it has become a visible, public and even dignifying caravan. This phenomenon has unmasked the false discourse and laid bare the official failure. It has dismantled that triumphalism that has claimed that the country was improving. It has proven that social compensation programs of the regime not only do not solve the problems but deepen the precariousness of the majority of society. It has revealed that a society that allows only 35 percent to participate in the formal economy is unsustainable. The massive caravan is the expression of a massive phenomenon of a model of systemic social exclusion.

Elites and regime, wounded in their self-esteem

Repression – State brutality

The caravan that started on October 13, and that opened the valve for subsequent caravans, suddenly woke up the political sectors and the business elite accustomed to having strict control over everything that happens in the country, and they strive to avoid undesirable surprises, or at least they are experts in capitalizing in their favor the discomforts or skirmishes of protests and claims of the social sectors. The elites have enjoyed the privileges of the State and only react when their infinite profits are hindered by adverse reactions, as is happening with the opposition of communities and organizations to extractive projects and concessions granted by the government to national and transnational companies. This is how it is explained that business elites react with extreme aggression when there are people who hinder their accumulation of wealth, to the point of assassinating their leaders as happened in March 2016 with the murder of Berta Cáceres.

Violence – Death Squads

In the same way, these sectors feel beaten in their self-love when, feeling at ease in their privileges, the reality of the excluded unmasks their lies with a single demonstration. This is what the caravan has done. Just after the elites and the regime of Juan Orlando Hernández have invested millions of dollars in publicizing that the country is on the right track, that the economy is healthy, and that the people are happy with the social programs, then this caravan of thousands of citizens breaks out and creates the alternative news that goes around the world. The shame of the elites is transformed into accusations against the opposition while they conspire to

Poverty – 2/3 live in poverty, half of them in extreme poverty

look for scapegoats, which in the last days of October passed from blaming a specific person, to the radical political opposition, to the Democrats, to the businessman Soros, until finally deciding to blame their denominated “axis of evil” made up of Cuba, Venezuela and Ortega de Nicaragua. It is the answer to the shame that the Honduran elites experience while not accepting the extent that those who unmask them are those sectors that the elites believe do not deserve to be considered equal because they are second, third or fourth category citizens.

 

Characteristics that help interpret this mass exodus

This phenomenon of massive human migration to foreign lands also denotes some features that contribute to understanding what underlies Honduran society:

First factor: extreme dependence on the outside. Looking outside of the country for the answers and solutions to solve needs and problems. This is a mind-set that has been accentuated for more than a century, after the establishment of the banana enclave at the beginning of the twentieth century. Looking northward and taking the road to the United States has been the dramatic reminiscence of a society that shaped its minds and hearts around the “American dream”, wanting to be like an American, with their dollars, hoping to earn dollars to buy things, to be able to spend money as it is spent in the United States. Going to the United States is that deep desire to pursue the love of a capitalism that has not been experienced within the country. It is a spontaneous movement to go in search of the promised land, it is a desperate defense of the country of consumption and of “the land of bread to carry”, as the Honduran poet Rafael Heliodoro Valle once said. It is not a massive anti-system movement. It is an intra-system avalanche of the dispossessed people who continue stubbornly to look up, to the north, for the dream that they have lived as a nightmare in Honduras. These starving migrants do not know that their initiative is shaking the system; what they do is to look in the center of the system for an answer to their needs and problems. As politicians and wealthy elites do in other ways, they always have their eyes and hearts turned northwards towards the United States, in a frank submissive attitude. It is the same attitude as that of the thousands of migrants, only that theirs is from the position of managers, of internal protectors of the interests of the empire.

Second factor: a society trapped in the struggle to survive.

Countries of Greatest Inequality – Honduras #3

In the day to day struggle, everyone is looking after their own selves, everyone and individually scratching crumbs out of the system without questioning it. The mass exodus of Hondurans has no organization other than the mutual protection offered by traveling in a group but still it is just a group of individuals searching for a new life in another country, in the country of the north. The decision to leave the country is not the result of some organization within the poor, but the expression of these individuals seeking in the same way and time the solution to their problems.

 

This trait of the characteristic and behavior of Honduran society, submerges its people in confinement, in the political evil of isolation, which leads to each person being locked into their own search, individually preoccupied in resolving their own individual affairs, under the adage that “the ox licks only itself”[i], or what they say on the roads and streets of our neighborhoods and villages: “Everyone is getting what they can.”[ii]  It is the logic of survival; everyone seeks to find their own solutions and will make commitments with anyone, in order to get ahead. Other people only get in the way, uniting with others to meet and search together seems to hinder their search. Everybody complains about what is happening, about the rising costs of fuel, water, and electric power.

Everyone protests against the government, but when it comes to looking for common solutions, the default is to let others do so. The massive exit to the north reveals that people still do not put trust in others and the community. It is an expressed rejection towards the organization, towards the political parties and towards institutions of any sort. The massive exit is the failure of any kind of public response, and the resounding triumph of an individualistic reaction. The phenomenon of caravans is the extreme expression of the individual seeking to escape from a structural and systemic problem. In such an environment, everything that comes from above and from outside is absorbed, and then even those who have crushed the people still get elected, in exchange for a “charity bag” or some dubious handouts. In a society trapped in the “rebusque”[iii], the charity handout programs have an immediate success, but when the problems remain intact, and the privatization or concessions policies take even more away, the struggle to survive becomes unbearable until ending with explosions like the massive caravans of migrants.

 

Third factor:

Half of the children do not attend school

a society that opts for the vertical relationship in detriment of horizontal relationships.

People look to “go up”, to the north and upwards. The mirage of the migrants is focused upwards and outwards. They stopped looking to their sides, everyone walks, advances with their own steps forward, without seeing who is at their side. It is the syndrome of the “banana republic” seeded by the Americans and leaving them left waiting and enthralled for the return of the white people. There are many, thousands who are taking these same steps, but each one looking out for themselves, the self-interest of the individual. In this individualistic culture they were born, they were schooled in its message, they grew, and they have suffered for it.  And so they seek their escape to the north – individually. Even if they are in a caravan, even if they are thousands. It is a caravan of individual journeys.

 

Honduran relationships are based on looking upwards, on the vertical, depending on those higher up in a relationship where the vertical line is the decisive one. It is the paradigm of power, of the patriarch, of the “caudillo”[iv] in the Honduran case. The caudillo is expected to solve ones’ personal or family problem; the leader who solves  problems in exchange for loyalty. It is the United States, the maximum expression of the caudillos, the father of the caudillos. That vertical line is sustained at the cost of weakening the horizontal line of relationships, the line of equals. The horizontal line is so tenuous that it is almost invisible, as if it does not exist.  At most we see each other, to see who can get more with whom or who are moving upwards, to see who has climbed in the power of those who are in command.

 

This vertical mentality[v] has permeated strongly social organizations, community organizations, NGOs and their leaders. The phenomenon of international cooperation has contributed particularly strongly to this mentality. The relations that are established with special emphasis are bilateral between the donor organism and the beneficiary organization, which in turn accentuates direct and vertical relations with the grassroots organizations. And these, by benefiting from cooperative funding, strengthen relations of dependence with the NGO which in turn, has a vertical dependency with their donor organism.

 

This vertical line is prioritized over the horizontal lines. The relations between the grassroots organizations, the encounters among the different grassroots leaders, are linked by a tenuous horizontal line, because the emphasis is placed in the vertical line, in the upward dependence. Finally, social organizations and NGOs are left alone, with very little impact on the people. When the people turn to force, not only does this exceed the capacity of existing organizations, but the first to be surprised are these same social and popular organizations and their leaderships. These groups have a lot to say and many formulations, but the people are not with them.

 

The axis of evil.

 

Instead of looking for “scapegoats” inside and outside Honduras, the fundamental problem is a Honduras in the hands of some alliances that can be named as the axis of evil. These alliances are made up from a small political elite that has lived embedded in the State and uses its resources as its private property, in collusion with an authentically oligarchic business elite that manages the threads of the entire economy and state investments. They are but a minor partner of the capital of transnational companies. This triple collusion forms the real Honduran government, which is structured around a model of infinite accumulation at the proportional expense of denying opportunities to some six million of the nine million Hondurans that make up the population.

 

These three actors are co-opted by three other powerful actors: the American Embassy based in the capital, the armed bodies led by the high-ranking officers of the Armed Forces, and by public and hidden figures of organized crime. These six allied actors form the real axis of evil, wherein lies the highest share of responsibility of what happens with the almost endless deterioration of Honduran society. In this axis of evil and its development model, based on the accumulation of wealth with the corrupt control and exploitation of natural assets and the privatization of public goods and services, that one begins to find the fundamental answer to the question of “Why are the Hondurans fleeing and why are they forming caravans that attract thousands of Hondurans?”.

 

How to understand our position in reference to the migrants in this phenomenon of caravans?

 

  1. First of all, to accompany the analysis and research, to scrutinize the internal dynamics of the movement and provide elements so that society can have its own criteria, and thus to avoid manipulation by political sectors, the corporate media and officials whose interest is to manipulate and capitalize in their favor this human tragedy. The migrant population has something to tell us, it has in itself a message, searching for external elements within, but the most important actor is the people who emigrate, who are uprooted. Not to listen to them while seeking some forces that push them, is to fall into the same script narrated by Trump and Juan Orlando Hernández. The migrant people have something to say (their own word), their suffering and exclusion gives them the right to be considered sacred, and we have to respect and listen to them.
  2. Accompanying, being close to caravans to listen to their voice and contribute to meeting their immediate and basic needs, is a condition that makes analysis and reflection valid. To accompany does not necessarily require giving material aid. It may be necessary to support with resources, but it can also be a temptation to free ourselves from the helplessness of not knowing how to answer the fundamental questions that arise from their sufferings and anguish.
  3. The coordination between national and Central American, Mexican and continental networks is fundamental since it is a phenomenon that originates in Honduras, but has repercussions and international connotations. No network is in itself sufficient as the reality of the caravan phenomenon can exceed all resources. Isolated or independent efforts make the response more sterile. Effectiveness is increased when responses connect with the greatest number of instances of support.
  4. To denounce and unveil the official discourse of the political manipulation of the caravan. The different international sectors should help to find answers first from Honduras, and from Hondurans, not from the “official spin” of Honduran powers, but from those sectors that have been and are close to the populations from which the Caravans originate. This search for answers must start from a pivotal observation: political responsibility resides fundamentally in the current Honduran regime and in the development model based on investment in extractivism and the privatization of public goods and services, in a system of corruption and impunity. From this denunciation, we Hondurans demand that there be new elections to allow an early return to the constitutional order, and that with a new government a great national dialogue would be convened to formulate the priorities leading to the reversion of the current state of social calamity that has exploded in this massive migration.
  5. A direct pastoral support of consolation, mercy and solidarity with the pain and despair of our people, expressed in communication strategies that link traditional media, such as radio, television and written media, with social networks.

 

[i] “el buey solo se lame” idiom “Independence is greatly appreciated” or “better to trust in oneself than others”

[ii]  “cada quien librando su cacaste” idiom “everyone taking care of their own interests”

[iii]  “rebusque” idiom for “search” for an alternative or a way out

[iv] Caudillo – strongman or dictator

[v] An Adlerian understanding of this “vertical mentality” is characterized by an admiration for those “at the top”, or those aspiring upwards rather than towards others

 

(translation and footnotes by Phil Little)

Honduran Jesuit, delegation plead for end to U.S. military aid

Honduran Jesuit, delegation plead for end to U.S. military aid

Honduran Jesuit Father Ismael Moreno Coto, better known as “Padre Melo,” is seen near the U.S. Capitol in Washington May 17. (Credit: Rhina Guidos/CNS.)

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A group of Hondurans led by a Jesuit priest pleaded with U.S. lawmakers May 17 to stop military aid to the Central American nation and to allow the country’s citizens living under a particular immigration status in the U.S. to remain here until conditions improve in their native country.

“We need you to support them so that they continue living in the United States because their return to our country is dangerous,” said Jesuit Father Ismael Moreno, who traveled with a group of five Hondurans to 10 cities in the United States.

They spoke to groups and organizations hoping to garner support for some 57,000 Hondurans benefiting from the Temporary Protection Status program, which the Trump administration said would end in 2020, but also for a bill named after one of Moreno’s friends, a human rights activist killed in 2016 in Honduras.

Just outside the U.S. Capitol, Georgia Congressman Henry “Hank” Johnson joined Moreno, popularly known as Father Melo, to speak about the Berta Caceres Act, which would cut U.S. military aid to the present government of Honduras led by President Juan Orlando Hernandez.

Estimates put U.S. aid to Honduras targeted for “security” at between $18 million to $22 million in 2015. Many of those gathered have for years questioned whether the U.S. should be giving money to Hernandez and his administration.

Though the constitution in Honduras limited its president to serve a one-time, six-year term, Hernandez sought and snatched a second term late last year and began that second term under a cloud of illegitimacy and calls for his resignation that have never stopped. His critics, who include Moreno, have been threatened, jailed or attacked. Hondurans who oppose Hernandez say U.S. taxpayers are paying for their oppression.

Johnson, a Democrat, said he introduced his bill, named after a slain human rights leader, to stand united with “our brothers and sisters in Honduras who are being oppressed.”

“Their human rights are being denied and trampled upon by a corrupt government that is sponsored by our own government,” he said.

Human rights “don’t mean a thing to this current government in Honduras,” Johnson said. The bill has about 70 co-sponsors and “we will one day get it passed,” he said.

U.S. policies in Honduras, the congressman said, are driving people to migrate north, where Americans are saying they are part of the country’s problems, “but we should stop and think a little more deeply about what we’re doing and what is happening south of our borders as we’re making it untenable for people to continue to live (in Honduras).”

When people are oppressed, they move away from home, Johnson said.

“If we change our policies, we will create a safer and more peaceful environment, but it can’t be for the select few, it has to be for all of us,” he said.

Jose Artiga, executive director of the SHARE Foundation, said the delegation also was calling for an investigation into the killing and imprisonment of those who protested the November 2017 election that kept Hernandez in power.

“We are asking for the freedom of those political prisoners,” he said.

Neery Carillo, the sister of Caceres, the woman after whom the the bill is named, also was present to talk about her sister, her work and legacy.

“My family and I continue living with a heavy heart after three years, two months and 15 days” since she was killed, she said. “My youngest sister, Bertita, was brutally assassinated.”

Caceres, who spoke in favor of the environment, human rights and the rights of the indigenous, was shot dead in her home in March 2016. She had been protesting the building of a dam near an indigenous community. In March, the executive of a hydroelectric company was arrested for playing a part in planning her killing.

Her sister said Caceres’ death can help bring about the quest for justice she so desired but she also blamed the U.S. government for getting in the way of that by “actively ignoring the (Honduran) government’s extensive corruption.”

“Berta’s death cannot be in vain,” Carillo said. “It’s not all about Bertita. It’s about Hondurans, all Central Americans.”

The U.S. must do better to help Central Americans, she said, and they would stop fleeing their countries if it weren’t for the violence and corruption the U.S. government helped to create.

Moreno called for the U.S. to stop supporting “an illegal and illegitimate” president, and help instead to restore democracy.

“We have faith in the struggle of this moment. We have faith in the struggle of the future, and we have faith in the future of an authentic brotherhood between the people of Honduras and the United States,” he said. “Let us support one another, let’s build a bridge now, not build a wall, but a bridge toward justice and peace between Honduras and the United States.”

 https://www.americamagazine.org/politics-society/2018/03/20/activists-go-underground-un-reports-excessive-force-honduras
Aquilina Guerra is released on Feb. 26 after she was charged, fraudulently say supporters, with “storing weapons of war.” Photo by Louis Bockner.

In the months since the widely criticized elections in November, threats and harassment against social and political activists have ramped up in Honduras, according to the U.N. High Commission on Human Rights.

The report, “Human Rights Violations in the Context of the 2017 Honduran Elections,” published on March 12, outlines how the parameters of the state of emergency ordered by President Juan Orlando Hernández in the days following the elections were too broad and imprecise, “leading to massive and indiscriminate arrests, resulting in limiting the right to peaceful assembly and association.”

The report documents cases of extrajudicial murders committed by police, illegal house raids and threats and harassment against journalists and social and political activists since the end of November 2017 within “the context of a political, economic and social crisis inherited since the 2009 military coup.”

The U.N. report confirms what social movement organizers and civil society groups on the ground have been saying for weeks. On Feb. 26, the Center for Justice and International Law and the Coalition Against Impunity in Honduras, made up of 58 civil society organizations, denounced the Hernández government at a hearing before the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights Public in Bogota. They cited widespread “repression and militarization exercised against the Honduran population during the past months.”

In addition, the organizations charged that “the government has implemented other practices to identify and sanction opposition, resulting in house raids, improper searches and the improper use of criminal law to criminalize social protest.” They offered evidence of acts of repression at close to 200 peaceful protests and over 1,200 instances of illegal detention, torture, extrajudicial murder, internally displaced people, threats and intimidations.

The U.N. report documents cases of extrajudicial murders committed by police, illegal house raids and threats and harassment against journalists and social and political activists.

The north coast of Honduras is rich in natural resources sought by powerful mining and other development interests, resisted by local people. A series of violent attacks like those outlined in the U.N. report and at the I.A.C.H.R. have targeted community members who have been organizing to defend their rivers and mountains.

According to the Broad Movement for Dignity and Justice (M.A.D.J.), on Jan. 22, in the days leading up to the inauguration of President Hernández, Ramón Fiallos was targeted and shot by police at a protest in Arizona, Atlantida.

Six hours later, following another protest nearby, Geovany Diaz, a 35-year-old father of five and member of M.A.D.J. was executed by Honduran police who shot him 40 times after dragging him outside of his home at 4 a.m., according to family members who spoke to America on Jan. 26.

“It’s logical to see that the reason for these murders is their struggle,” said a source from the Jesuit Reflection, Research and Communications Team, who has been closely following the cases. Mr. Fiallos was a well-known community leader who was working to protect the Jilamito River from a proposed hydroelectric project. In Pajuiles, where Mr. Diaz lived, the community has spent a year protesting proposed mining and hydroelectric projects.

Luis Garcia, a longtime friend who had worked for years with Mr. Fiallos, saw the violence happen. “Luis knew he could be next,” said Osman Orellana, a community health promoter at the Claret BioHealth Centre in Arizona. “He was in the last roadblock when they murdered Ramón.”

In the weeks after the killing of his friend, Mr. Garcia felt the pressure mount as community leaders across the country were targeted and arbitrarily detained. “He told us that in the last two weeks an unknown car had been circling his house,” said Mr. Orellana. “Different organizations and the parish told him it would be best to leave the country.”

In the past, Mr. Garcia had received death threats for his activism, and he ignored the advice to leave. This time he did not. He left Honduras on Feb. 21—the next day, the national police raided his home.

“The police arrived at my parent’s house at 5:30 a.m. with a search warrant in my father’s name,” said Luis Garcia Jr., in an interview with America on Feb. 25. “But he’s outside of the country because of the same persecution. My mom didn’t leave because we didn’t think she would have anything to worry about.”

In the past, Mr. Garcia had received death threats for his activism, and he ignored the advice to leave. This time he did not.

After they raided the house without finding the elder Garcia, the police took his wife, Aquilina Guerra, into custody in nearby Tela. “They told her that she wasn’t being detained. They were bringing her in for something they had found outside her house,” said her son. “And then they took out the bag.”

Ms. Guerra is a 57-year-old housewife and a former catechist and cook for the Our Lady of Pilar parish in Arizona. She spends most of her days caring for her grandkids and making food for her family. Inside the bag that the police produced, which Ms. Guerra claims to have never seen before, were small cans of gunpowder, a container of gas and some empty soda bottles.

Arriving in Tela, the police alleged that Ms. Guerra was making Molotov cocktails; she was charged with storing weapons of war. The police took her picture in front of the weapons and then distributed it through social media, a common tactic to shame and discredit citizens and one that can have deadly outcomes.

“Luis Garcia is considered a leader of the social movement, and the investigation was directed at him,” said Carlos Reyes Torres, a lawyer who works with the Broad Movement for Dignity and Justice. “Not finding him, they took whomever they could find.”

Mr. Reyes Torres spoke outside the courthouse in Tela on Feb. 26, during Ms. Guerra’s preliminary hearing. “The fact that the public prosecutor is charging her with storing weapons of war shows that state institutions consider us to be at war.”

The day before Ms. Guerra’s preliminary hearing on Feb. 26, parishioners at Our Lady of Pilar Church called out for the local communities to peacefully walk the streets of Tela to demand justice for her and the others whose acts of resistance have been criminalized since November. Outside the jail where she was being held, they celebrated Mass for the more than 200 people who came to show their support.

“The church is called to be prophetic,” said the Rev. Victor Camara, who heads up the social ministry of the Diocese of La Ceiba, during the Mass. “Those who believe are called to denounce injustice, and we are here from the church to show the church will not be silenced. Although some remain silent, we will not. We are conscious. We are in solidarity with Aquilina, her family and the hundreds of brothers and sisters that are being criminalized and who have suffered the murder of loved ones…. May God hear the cries of the Honduran people who have suffered so much.”

The following day, over 100 people gathered outside the courthouse singing, praying and denouncing Ms. Guerra’s arrest. After eight hours of hearings and deliberations, the judge presiding over the case ruled that there was not sufficient evidence to continue the case against Ms. Guerra.

“It makes you want to cry—to see justice being served,” said the Rev. Javier Hernandez, the parish priest at Our Lady of the Pillar Church. “I think the public pressure from those here has strength. Prayers, the Eucharist that we shared yesterday, people asking God for justice. God is listening, listens to his people clamoring for justice for those who have been criminalized.”

“I feel very happy seeing my community here, how I love them and how they love me,” said Ms. Guerra outside the courthouse following her release. “I feel so happy to feel free. I never could have imagined this experience, but God has always been with me. It’s been painful to see my people suffer. This is a political persecution simply for supporting the movement. My husband and I have supported poor, humble people. I never expected this. But thanks to God, I’m free and I’m going home.”

On March 11, the M.A.D.J. charged that military personnel were roaming through the community of Florida, Atlantida, searching for Waldina Santos, a key organizer to mining resistance in the area. Ms. Santos was at both the march and Mass to support Ms. Guerra and helped organize the busloads of people who came to stand outside the courthouse to show their support.

Although many remain detained in Honduras, and others like Ms. Santos are living in fear for what could be next for her and her family, the small victory in Ms. Guerra’s case offers hope to many who feel helpless given the current political situation. “May this not only be for Aquilina but for so many who have been criminalized and who are being persecuted and unjustly jailed,” said Father Hernandez. “May this be a new beginning for peace in Honduras.”

Jackie McVicar

Jackie McVicar has accompanied human rights social movements and land protectors in Central America for more than 10 years.

US policy perpetuates violence in Honduras

CNS-Honduras c.jpg

Honduras election supporters

Supporters of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández celebrate as they wait for official presidential election results Nov. 28, 2017, in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. (CNS/Reuters/Edgard Garrido)

Is Honduras “returning to the terror in the 1980s”? That’s what Dr. Luther Castillo told NCR in an interview. Evidence supports his assertion, and today’s terror, just like 30 years ago, has U.S. ties.

Central America was a flashpoint in the Cold War and in the 1970s and 1980s. Honduras was the staging ground for the U.S.-backed covert war against leftists in the region. Honduras was the de facto U.S. military base for Contras fighting the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Inside Honduras, U.S.-trained military units — most especially the notorious Battalion 316 — carried out a campaign of torture, extrajudicial killing, and state-sponsored terror against Honduran civilians.

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Castillo is among Honduran activists now under threat of personal danger because they are calling for new elections, claiming that incumbent President Juan Orlando Hernández and his National Party rigged the Nov. 26 election and then imposed martial law to stifle protests.

All through Election Day and into the next day as ballots were being counted, opposition candidate Salvador Nasralla had a commanding lead. An electoral tribunal magistrate told Reuters Nov. 27, “The technical experts here say that it’s irreversible.”

But then the shenanigans began. The election tribunal, which is controlled by Hernández’s National Party, went mysteriously quiet for 36 hours. Reports of a “computer glitch” spread. When ballot counting resumed, Nasralla’s lead had evaporated. Hernández eventually pulled ahead and was declared the winner.

Calling for a new, clean election, Hondurans protested in the streets, watched over by rows of navy, army and police officers carrying riot shields. The government suspended constitutional rights for 10 days and imposed a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew, arresting anyone, including journalists, who violated it. Before Christmas, squads of police and soldiers cleared blockades set up by protesters in the capital and the countryside. At least 12 people were killed and hundreds more detained at military installations, where they were “brutally beaten,” according to human rights experts at the United Nations and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

The Organization of American States has also called for new elections. In a statement issued Dec. 17 after receiving the results of an independent audit of election results, OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro said it was impossible to determine a winner, given that there was “deliberate human intrusion in the computer system; intentional elimination of digital traces; the impossibility of knowing how many times the system was breached; ballot cases open or without ballot tallies; extreme statistical improbability regarding participation levels.”

“The only possible way for the victor to be the people of Honduras,” he said, “is a new call for general elections.”

Despite all this, the Trump administration recognized Hernández as the winner Dec. 22. Days earlier, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had certified that the Honduran government has been combating corruption and supporting human rights, paving the way for Honduras to receive millions of additional U.S. dollars, including about $17 million for Honduran security forces. The certification ignores cases of government corruption and the assassinations of environmentalists, indigenous leaders and journalists, extensively documented by two major studies last year.

A Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report from May describes Honduras in the center of “transnational kleptocratic networks” and characterizes the Honduran military as “an instrument for the consolidation of power,” used to patrol indigenous communities, suppress protests, curtail the exercise of free speech, and “assume a wide variety of domestic security and policing roles.”

The London-based watchdog organization Global Witness called Honduras the deadliest place on the planet to be a land or environmental activist. The Hernández government never prosecuted the killers of the country’s most prominent activist, Berta Cáceres, who spearheaded efforts to stop the plundering of indigenous lands by hydroelectric, mining and logging interests.

More than 120 activists have been murdered since 2009 when a coup overthrew democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya and ushered in a succession of corrupt right-wing governments that have overseen, according to Global Witness, “shocking levels of violence and intimidation suffered by rural communities.”

In a very real sense, the Obama administration — particularly then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — laid the foundation for Hernández’s victory by turning a blind eye to the toppling of Zelaya, who they thought was too close to Bolivian President Evo Morales, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and other left-leaning Latin American leaders. By refusing to recognize Zelaya’s ouster as a military coup, Clinton kept Honduras on the military aid and training gravy train.

Longtime observers of Central America will know that since the 1980s, nearly 5,000 officers from Honduras have been trained at the U.S. Army’s Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, or WHINSEC, formerly known as the School of the Americas. Graduates of this school hold key positions in the Honduran government and security forces and have been implicated in numerous coups, human rights abuses and suppression of democracy.

Today, the boogeyman of communism that haunted the region in the 1980s is gone, but the institutions and power centers set up in Honduras decades ago remain entrenched, and now environmental activists and indigenous rights leaders are targeted for threatening the political-economic status quo.

“We know it’s the U.S. that runs Honduras,” and it is “co-responsible” for the human rights abuses and fatal shootings following the latest presidential election, says Nasralla — who could very well be the legitimate victor in the presidential election.

By legitimizing a stolen election, ignoring the rare Organization of American States call for new elections and refusing to condemn the post-election crackdown by the (U.S.-trained) military, the U.S. is again perpetrating violence that ultimately hurts its own self-interest, but, more importantly, continues the oppression of Hondurans.

Honduras is currently one of the most violent countries on the planet that is not at war. The violence is carried out by transnational criminal organizations, local drug trafficking groups, gangs and corrupt security forces, among other actors. Violence is the focal point for the international aid organizations, governments and multilaterals providing Honduras with assistance, and it is the central theme of media coverage inside and outside of of the country.

There are good reasons for this focus. Violence disproportionately impacts people in poor and marginal areas and tends to remain concentrated in those communities, closing the circle on a vicious cycle that impoverished nations find hard to break. In addition, violence impedes economic development and disrupts lives across a wide socio-economic spectrum. It can lead to major demographic shifts and crises as large populations move to urban areas or try to migrate to other nations. It can undermine governance and democracy, and it can serve as a justification for repression and hardline security policies that divert resources away from much-needed social and economic programs, thus perpetuating the problem.

Organized crime plays a role in this violence, but it is more like the gasoline than the engine: it provides an already corrupt system with the fuel it needs to run. That corrupt system is the focus of this study on Honduras. Its most visible manifestation is an inept and criminalized police force that a former security minister once called “air traffic control men” for drug flights coming into the country.1 Parts of this police force also work as custodians and assassins for criminal groups; rob drugs and resell them to the underworld; and, for a price, they can attack client’s rivals and disrupt criminal investigations.

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This is one part of a multipart series concerning elites and organized crime. Read full Honduras report (pdf). See other parts of the series here.

But beneath this most obvious form of criminal connection to state officials is a more insidious brand of corruption. This is further from the headlines and much more difficult to tackle since it is embedded in the country’s political, economic and social systems. It operates in a gray area, mixing legal and illegal entities, paper companies and campaign contributions, and sweeping its illicit acts under the rug using co-opted members of the justice system and security forces.

What we are talking about, of course, is the elite connection to organized crime that this investigation exposes. The elites in Honduras are not like those in the rest of the region. The traditional, agro-export and industrial elites who rule in places like Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua are less prominent in Honduras, mostly because of the country’s long history as an enclave economy dominated by multinational companies: the original Banana Republic. Instead, the country’s most powerful economic elites have emerged from the service, banking, media, and telecommunications sectors. They are called transnational elites since many of them are first or second generation immigrants from the Middle East and Eastern Europe and depend on international business dealings to accumulate capital. Traditional, land-based elites are present in Honduras. But they have long been relegated to a second tier, forced to seek power through control of government posts, rather than using financial leverage.

While the ruling elites in Honduras do not share the same origins or economic base as their counterparts elsewhere in the region, they do share their neighbors’ penchant for employing the state for their own ends and systematically impoverishing it. Both the traditional and transnational elites have for years used the military and police to protect their personal land holdings and businesses. They have benefitted from the sale of public companies and lands, and they have enjoyed tax exonerations for their multitude of businesses. They have also pillaged its resources, and, as the government’s importance to the economy has grown, relied on it to generate more capital. Their dependence on the state has opened the way for a third set of what we are calling bureaucratic elites, who have developed a power base of their own because of the government positions they occupy.

Honduras, meanwhile, has become one of the poorest, most unequal and indebted countries in the world. Any attempts to change this system have been met with stern and often unified opposition from elites of all stripes. And attempts to exert more regulatory control over the activities of the elites are smothered before they begin. It is little surprise then that the country offers criminals, large and small, one of the most propitious environments from which to work. On one side, an ineffective justice system and corrupt security forces, long exploited by these elites, opens the way for large criminal groups to operate with impunity. On the other side, an impoverished populace — which sees and understands exactly how elites abuse a broken system — seeks to get its share by working directly with criminals in the illegal and legal enterprises these criminals operate. Crime, as it turns out, is one of the few forms of social mobility.

It is within this gray area that the elites themselves also interact with organized crime. Far from being distant from illegal activities, the elites have long operated in this realm. From dealing in contraband goods and services to buying permission for their illegal dealings and “get-out-of-jail-free cards,” those who do politics or business in Honduras understand that the laws governing the nation of eight million people are but a means to make money. Their connection to the underworld therefore is about societal, commercial and political interactions in the multiple spaces where business and politics happen in Honduras. The result is an organic relationship with organized crime that helps some elites reach the top and others stay there.

Elites in Honduras

HondurasElites

Honduran elites have a peculiar history compared to other elites in the region.2 The country’s economy was built on exports, like its neighbors. Unlike them, however, Honduras’ principal export industries — first mining and then bananas — were almost wholly foreign owned. Local economic elites were enmeshed in cattle and other agro-industrial projects and formed the backbone of the traditional political groupings, the National and Liberal Parties. But a strong, local elite based on the control of land and agro-exports, of the type found in the other countries in the region, did not materialize.

“The root … of Honduran exception was the country’s insertion into the world market and the development of its domestic political apparatus under the aegis not of a national agro-exporting oligarchy, but of US monopoly capital,” writes Rachel Sieder.3

The most famous of these monopolies was United Fruit Company, which Sieder argues “consolidated its hegemony” over local politics in the 1930s and 1940s during a military dictatorship.4 Meanwhile, a smaller more traditional, landed elite shared power — first with these foreign companies and later with foreign settlers who concentrated their efforts on facilitating foreign-owned businesses and controlling the influx of foreign capital.5 These immigrant communities arrived from Europe and the Middle East throughout the 20th century. They have since been dubbed the “transplant” or “transnational” elites (or “Turcos,” a broad-sweeping and quasi-racist reference to their Middle Eastern origins).

These transnational communities established control over what have become the dominant industries in Honduras: the financial and service sectors, telecommunications and media. They also acquired land, competing with and eventually overtaking the traditional elite’s hold on the agrarian economy as it shifted towards non-traditional exports. This traditional elite was largely land-based, depending on activities such as cattle, coffee and cacao to exert its influence. But it never coalesced the way landed elites did in neighboring Guatemala, leaving it largely sidelined, even as US capital slowly exited the country when commodity prices slipped because of increased, worldwide competition. Today, it can be difficult to differentiate between the traditional elites and the transnational elites. Although crossover is more commonly associated with the transnational than the traditional elites, both have diversified their economic portfolios, and both are deeply involved in politics.

What is clear, however, is that Honduras’ top economic groups are run by relatively recent transplants that accumulated capital over the past half-century. The biggest business conglomerates in Honduras carry distinctly foreign names like Facussé, Maalouf and Rosenthal.6 Meanwhile, traditional, landed elites have shifted their focus to controlling government posts and elected offices. Two of the last three presidents come from cattle ranching families, and current President Juan Orlando Hernández is from a coffee family. For both the traditional and transnational elites, their business and political prospects are intertwined with a government that was, for most of its existence, less of an enforcer than an enabler.

Throughout Honduras’ history, the state has been a source of both legal and physical protection for this export economy, the traditional landholding and transnational commercial classes. The public sector was seen, as Hugo Noé Pino notes, as a “concessionary state,” one that “stimulates investment but does not collect taxes.” The government was also a means through which the elites could expand their interests. The political parties represented, for many years, a manifestation of these elite interests.

What came first for the transnational elite — economic or political power — is a matter of some debate. As Noé Pino says, there are two visions of the political-economic nexus at the apex of power in Honduras: 1) that the accumulation of capital was intimately related to the political connections throughout; 2) that the accumulation of capital was what led to these close political connections. Certainly elements of both were at play. And as the country’s traditional exports declined, particularly in the 1970s, and therefore the power of the traditional elites waned, the transnational elites surged to take more direct control of the traditional political parties.

Indeed, the state’s evolution during this period was intimately related to the development of the transnational economic elites. This class tied themselves to the traditional political parties, often making contributions to both parties during elections, ensuring their influence would remain intact whoever won. Noé Pino argues this group created business associations to channel their needs and influence, and that many of its members have been part of the revolving door between government ministries and the private sector that has characterized Honduras for at least the last half century.

For the transnational elites, the state’s role was simple: to create and enforce rules that favor their continued power over key industries and the capital accumulation that accompanies it. Along the way, they managed public discourse as well: they bought newspapers, radio and television stations, and have steered popular sentiments and political messages towards their favored candidates and in support of their modus vivendi. Since the 1970s, the media has largely become an instrument of this elite, and a source of its revenue.7

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The dependence of the elites on the state security forces to protect their enterprises led to the emergence of the military as a political and an economic player. This growth was aided by the United States, which, fearing the rise of communism in the region, began training Honduran officers en masse and supplying greater amounts of aid,8 a process that would accelerate in the 1980s and help transform the institution forever. Members of the armed forces became what we are calling a “bureaucratic elite,” something we will cover in more detail in the first Honduras case study. Some of their offspring are the political and economic elite of Honduras today and the institution is at the center of the changing dynamics of power in the country.

The influx in US aid came as traditional exports continued a steep decline, and the country tried to diversify its economy. At the behest of its largest donor nation, the United States, Honduras expanded its export portfolio, lowered tariffs, sold state-owned businesses, and gave financial incentives for local and foreign investment, mostly in the form of reduced taxes. In the 1990s, as US aid dropped precipitously, multilateral banks filled the void and pushed for further liberalization policies.

The efforts to diversify the economy, however, largely failed. Lacking a solid revenue base, and with a state that was unwilling or unable to extract tax revenue from the traditional and transnational elites, the government relied on outside sources to motor the economy. Loans from multilateral banks and others have since made Honduras a perennial pariah in the global banking community, further hampering economic growth. (In March 2014, Honduras had a $7 billion debt, up from $2.7 billion in 2007.9) And while the central idea was to reduce government’s role in the economy, as GDP sputtered, the state assumed an increasing burden to keep the economy afloat. Since 1980, the percentage of GDP that public administration, defense and other state services represent have gone from 16 percent to 22 percent.10

Despite these broad failures, both the traditional and the transnational elites have found ways to keep making money at the expense of the vast majority of Hondurans. For their part, the transnational elites took advantage of the market liberalization policies that began in the 1980s, and dominate the textile industry as well as tourism and telecommunications. They have become particularly powerful in the service sector, financing and constructing malls, buying into international food franchises and profiting from one of the country’s largest sources of revenue: remittances. Remittances represent some 18-20 percent of the country’s current GDP, powering the internal consumption that drives the service sector’s growth.

table1Honduras-productive-sector

Source: ICEFI 2012

 

There were other new sources of licit and illicit revenue besides remittances, foremost among them are non-traditional agriculture projects such as African palm plantations and proceeds from the trafficking of drugs through the country. Drug trafficking money can itself be considered as a form of remittances, as the illicit capital resulting from this trade enters the Honduran economy, passing through the financial sector and fueling growth in the agro-industrial sector, construction and tourism industries. It is through this financial flow that the elites interact with illicit actors. As we shall discuss in more detail later, all forms of elites can benefit from this illicit economic activity, both directly and indirectly.

Meanwhile, the traditional, landed elite has experienced a resurgence of sorts by re-gaining control of the traditional political parties, capturing the increase in state expenditures and controlling more of the flow of foreign capital via their hold on public offices. Like the transnational elite, this group sees the state as an enabler of business enterprises, although in their case the opportunities frequently come via publicly funded projects. The corruption in this system is endemic, widespread and infused.11 They use these monies to maintain their grip on power, undermining or ignoring the rule of law when it suits them.

The battle for these resources is at the center of many political disputes and, in some ways, shapes the country’s government and political parties. The deal-making around these resources can get messy, as it involves billions of dollars. It is, in the end, seen by the elites as a zero-sum game: those who control the government levers control the spoils in this system; those who are separated from these levers, risk getting marginalized. As the dependence on these government resources increases, so does the need to control the government filters for these resources.

The result of this growing dependence on state resources has been the emergence of the aforementioned bureaucratic elite. As illustrated in our first case study, the beginnings of these elites can be traced to the military rule of the 1960s and 1970s, and the de facto military control that continued through the 1980s. But it is in the last decade that these bureaucratic elites have become a force on their own and in conjunction with members of the traditional elites.

This new hybrid elite’s most prominent representative is President Juan Orlando Hernández himself. Educated in a military school, Hernández has surrounded himself with military officers, including his brother who is a colonel in the army. He has placed military personnel in posts traditionally reserved for civilians, and has centralized control of the security forces and intelligence gathering under the presidency. The hybrid group under Hernández’s control, often referred to as the Colobrí Group, combines military personnel, local politicians and the landed gentry, and works closely with the state at the regional and national levels. Colobrí is Spanish for hummingbird.

The resurgent traditional landed elites and bureaucratic elites have centered their capital growth on the control of government resources, and of key government posts that give access to various income streams. Those who control these posts use them to block other elites’ access to these income streams, and to penalize rivals. Their dependence on these government posts and funds is what drives these elites to create their own political movements or develop factions within larger parties, as well as establish private companies that service the government’s needs.

Obtaining and maintaining these political posts is of the utmost importance, and it is within this context that the darkest alliances occur. The elites must gain public and private backing for their bids for government office. This backing comes via direct financial contributions, media coverage and support, as well as networking, and local political and economic alliances. The candidates constantly jockey for position, and their various suitors are ever-changing. Among them are the powerful actors of the Honduran underworld.

Organized Crime in Honduras

Strong, organized criminal groups in Honduras date back almost 50 years. At their highest levels, they have centered on facilitating the movement of illegal drugs such as marijuana and cocaine from the southern production regions to the northern consumer nations. More recently they have also facilitated the entry of precursor chemicals used to mass-produce synthetic drugs. The money garnered from this trade dwarfs many traditional businesses and has the ability to upset the balance of power on a local, national and even a regional scale.

There are three basic categories of criminal groups present in Honduras. First, there are transnational criminal organizations (TCOs), such as those from Colombia or Mexico, who use the country as a transport bridge and as a storage facility for cocaine that they are moving wholesale to the US or other markets. They tend to operate in small teams. Usually their emissaries seek to ensure that drug loads are secure, that officials are in line and that transactions go as planned. Honduras’ status as a safe haven for TCOs has grown in recent years, making it a good base of operations for increasingly high-level figures in these groups. There have been reports of members of the “board of directors” of the Sinaloa Cartel, for instance, having a base in San Pedro Sula.12

Second, there are local transport groups — or “transportistas” — that operate in Honduras. These are mostly Honduran families or tight business networks from the country that move legal and illegal goods through Honduras. They work closely with wholesale sellers and purchasers, as well as with other transport networks in Central America and elsewhere. They move shipments and can also store them for long periods of time. Neither job is easy. There are numerous rival organizations that steal and resell illegal goods. These include members of the security forces, which very often include the police. The transport groups also have to deal with multiple officials from border to border. However, if done well, transportation can be a highly lucrative venture.

Finally, there are local criminal groups and street gangs operating in Honduras. These groups focus on less lucrative business ventures such as local drug distribution, extortion, kidnapping, and human smuggling. The competition for these criminal markets, in particular for local drug dealing and extortion, is what makes Honduras one of the most violent countries on earth. Gangs routinely eliminate rivals and have internal purges. They also deploy corrupt security officials to attack rival groups. Their territorial control in some areas is absolute, although their interaction with elites is minimal.

The criminal groups that have the most interaction with elites in Honduras are the transportistas and the TCOs. As we shall see in our case studies, these organizations need authorities to help them move illicit goods through a difficult terrain. They interact with security forces to ensure safe passage, and interact with powerful businessmen to launder proceeds and legitimize their illicit capital. Throughout, they establish political contacts, funding candidates for public office in an effort to obtain high-level protection and more business opportunities.

The money garnered from this trade dwarfs that made from many traditional businesses and has the ability to upset the balance of power on a local, national and even a regional scale. This was best illustrated in Latin America during the late 1980s, when Colombia’s infamous trafficking organization, the Medellín Cartel, began kidnapping elites, assassinating judges and policemen, and detonating bombs in public places. However, the roots of this dynamic can be found many years previously when Colombian, and later Central American and Mexican criminal organizations, began to move cocaine and other drugs to the US market.

The pioneer for this transport activity in Honduras was a man named Juan Ramón Matta Ballesteros, the subject of one of our Honduras case studies.13 In the 1970s, when Matta Ballesteros emerged as a prominent trafficker, Honduras already had criminal groups that were involved in this transport business.14 Matta Ballesteros’ distribution network eventually stretched from Colombia through Mexico. His allies in Mexico became known as the Guadalajara Cartel, which would later spawn some of the most important criminal groups in that country: the Sinaloa, Juárez and Tijuana Cartels. His allies in Colombia were members of what would become the Medellín Cartel.

As we shall see, Matta Ballesteros’ Honduran network included members of the military, an institution on the ascent thanks in large part to US aid stemming from the Contra War in neighboring Nicaragua.15 It was during this era that Honduras earned the moniker USS Honduras. A US government document from 1988 described Matta Ballesteros as “a class I DEA violator.”16 His legitimate businesses in Honduras were also growing. By one count, he had coffee, tobacco, spice, dairy and cattle holdings, and founded construction and agro-industrial companies in Honduras.17

In 1985, everything changed when the Guadalajara Cartel, seemingly angered by a US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) operation to seize large tracts of its marijuana crops in Mexico, kidnapped and killed Enrique Camarena, a DEA agent. With Camarena’s death, the United States government began a law-bending quest for justice. Over the next several years, numerous Guadalajara operatives and leaders were arrested and convicted in Mexico. Matta Ballesteros was arrested in Colombia, but with the Medellín Cartel’s help, he escaped and made his way back to Honduras, where he felt protected by his vast network and wealth.

In 1988, capitulating to US concerns about Matta Ballesteros’ increasing influence, the military and US Marshals intercepted him following his morning jog, bundled him up and transported him to the Dominican Republic where US marshals officially arrested and charged him with participating in the murder of Camarena, among other criminal acts. From there, he was taken to the US. Up to 2,000 two of Hondurans, mostly students angered by the move, attacked the US embassy, setting fire to several annex buildings and burning vehicles. At least four of the protesters were killed, and US officials said it took two hours for the Honduran authorities to respond their their call for help.18 Matta Ballesteros was later convicted in a Los Angeles court of kidnapping19 and drug trafficking, and remains in a US federal prison.

Following Matta Ballesteros’ dramatic fall, the country continued to be a bridge for traffickers to move illicit goods.20 The list goes beyond drugs: weapons, money, people, and all types of contraband move in and out of Honduras. A group of Salvadoran smugglers, for instance, moved dairy products from Honduras to El Salvador during the civil war in that country. The so-called “Cartel de los Quesos” (Cheese Cartel) would later be dubbed the “Perrones,” and would develop a drug trafficking network that still stretches from Panama to Guatemala. One of their chief operators, José Natividad Luna Pereira, alias “Chepe Luna,” operated his network from San Pedro Sula where he had close contact with elites until he was assassinated in 2014.21

In the early 2000s, Honduras experienced another surge of drug trafficking activity. At the time, Mexican criminal organizations that had emerged after the demise of the Guadalajara Cartel were establishing more control over the distribution chain, and began using Central America as their primary bridge. Several local transport groups emerged. Among them were Chepe Luna’s in El Salvador and Honduras, José Miguel “Chepe” Handal Pérez’s group in San Pedro Sula, the Valle Valle family in Copán, the Zelaya clan in Atlántida, and the Cachiros organization in Colón.22 The Cachiros are the subject of one of our Honduras case studies. These groups’ main function was moving cocaine through the region, but they also had numerous side businesses such as human smuggling and local drug distribution.

The size of this criminal industry is massive when compared to Honduras’ economy. The US State Department estimates that 95 percent of cocaine transported from South America to the United States moves through the Mexican and Central American corridor; 80 percent of this stops in Central America.23 The price charged for moving this cocaine is normally the difference between the wholesale price where the drugs are received and where they are dropped. In the case of Honduras, this difference in price is somewhere in the range of $2,000 to $2,500 per kilo from the time it enters to the time it leaves the country.24 The price of cocaine varies, of course, but this price difference has remained steady for several years. This means the transport market alone is valued at between $600 million and $750 million per year, or somewhere between 3 and 4 percent of the country’s GDP.25 By our estimates, drug proceeds amount to more than half of those generated by the country’s top export, coffee, does.26

All five groups mentioned above had strong political and economic connections that helped them develop close relationships with the authorities, as described above in the case of Matta Ballesteros and the military. One of them, Handal, was an aspiring congressman before the US Treasury Department added him to its “Kingpin List” in April 2013.27 He denied being involved in drug trafficking before going on the run.28 Handal was captured in March 2015.29

Figure 2: Handal Organizational Chart

US Treasury Handal Organizational Chart

Source: Taken from US Treasury

For his part, Francisco Zelaya Fúnez had various construction companies and had signed a number of public works contracts with the municipality of La Ceiba before he was captured in Mexico in 2013. A newspaper described him as being connected to a “high level official in the previous administration.”30 For their part, the Valle Valle family had strong connections to Alexander Ardón, mayor of a town on the Guatemalan border named El Paraíso. Ardón’s brother, Hugo, ran the central government’s road construction and maintenance fund known as Fondo Vial. The core of the Valle Valle family was captured and extradited to the US in 2014.31

This type of connection between criminals and political actors has become commonplace over the years. In 1987, congressman Félix Cerna Salgado admitted having a close relationship with Matta Ballesteros. In the early 2000s, three congressmen were captured for transporting drugs. In July 2014, Honduran authorities arrested Arnaldo Urbina, the mayor of Yoro, and charged him and numerous others of running a drug trafficking and assassination ring that was responsible for the murder of 137 people and the disappearance of 45 others.32

The criminal organizations’ ability to accumulate capital and wield this economic power to their advantage is largely hidden from view, since Honduran authorities have developed few strong judicial cases against them and there is not a vibrant local media. What’s more, public officials threaten these interests at their own peril. In December 2009, police assassins killed Honduran drug czar Julián Arístides González, and two years later his outspoken one-time advisor, Alfredo Landaverde was gunned down. Investigating detectives quickly determined that the triggermen were police officers operating under orders of top police brass. But the detectives just as quickly buried those investigative reports, and they did not come to light until years later. In April 2013, gunmen assassinated Orlán Chávez, the country’s top money laundering prosecutor.33 The day before his death, Chávez had led a raid on several of aforementioned Chepe Handal’s suspected properties and seized them. Suspicion fell on Handal, but the case remains unresolved.

The economic might of these groups only began to come into view when the United States deemed Handal, and then the Cachiros, as specially designated narcotics traffickers, and placed them on the so-called “Kingpin List.”34 Handal’s business holdings included various auto parts stores, a motorcycle distributor, and a clothing store. A US indictment, issued in the Southern District of Florida, called for him to forfeit $38 million in proceeds from his illicit business dealings.

After authorities began raiding the Cachiros’ properties in September 2013, however, it was clear that Handal was small by comparison. The US Treasury, in its “Kingpin” designation, named five businesses that it said belonged to the organization,35 and officials from both countries estimated the group’s assets were in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

In later part of 2014, US and Honduran authorities also targeted the Valle Valle family organization. That family’s assets, the US Treasury said in an August 2014 “Kingpin” designation, included several coffee plantations and a cattle ranch. The group, the US Treasury declared, was moving upwards of 10 tons of cocaine through Honduras per month. Rough calculations by InSight Crime put the group’s annual earnings near $300 million or about 1.6 percent of Honduras’ GDP.

Figure 3: Valle Family Organizational Chart

US Treasury Valles Organizational Chart

Source: Taken from US Treasury

Perhaps more important than their coffee and cattle holdings was the group’s direct link to Ardón, the mayor of El Paraíso, and to his brother, Hugo.36 Between the two of them, the Ardóns managed dozens of state contracts which facilitated the movement of money between themselves and their legitimate and illegitimate partners. The merry-go-round created by this type of money flow is a critical part of understanding how corruption and crime work in places like Honduras. Money moves from state coffers into licit and illicit businesses whose owners then bankroll the candidates who are financing their projects or facilitating their money laundering activities. In the process, the Honduran public is left out of the loop. The Ardón brothers had the perfect machine to keep this merry-go-round spinning.

But by late 2014, the Honduran government appeared to have them in its sights, making veiled references to the network in the press (calling it the “Cartel de Alex”). The network had created a powerful group that reached the highest echelons of power in Honduras. This, as our case studies illustrate, is the norm in the country rather than the exception, and it is changing the entire complexion of Honduras‘ ruling elite.

*This report was written by Steven Dudley. Dudley, Javier Meléndez — who acted as coordinator for research for this project — along with researchers from the Centro de Investigación y Promoción de los Derechos Humanos (CIPRODEH) and the Asociación para una Sociedad más Justa (ASJ), assisted in the investigation and production of this report. Map by Jorge Mejía Galindo. Graphics by Andrew J Higgens.