Archive for the ‘corruption in Honduras’ Category

This disturbing post by Juan Antonio Mejia Guerra, respected educator and human rights defender, speaks to the brutality of the ruling classes.  In the Aguan, a valley under siege, large landowners with their military accomplices would like to force out the peasant populations that eek out a subsistence living off the land. The rich, who already own vast territories, want more land to expand their plantations of the African Palm, which is used in the extraction of palm oil. The African Palm is ecologically destructive, it ruins the soil but in the meanwhile it is lucrative for big business. Juan Antonio protests the senseless murder of this young 13 year old boy, shot in the back at close range.  No official notice is given. Just a general message to the peasant community who must live in constant fear.  (the translation is mine)

WE LOVE YOU, PRECIOUS CHILD OF YOUR PEOPLE!

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Leodan Mancilla Lara. 13 years old. Young student in grade 8. Child of a farming family in Rigores. Crushed in the African palm plantation. Who are your killers? The army, the police, the private guards; but it does not matter, they are all the same thing in the Aguán. Who are guilty? The Facusé clan and their entourage of lawyers and engineers who helped them to illegitimately confiscate the peasant lands, or the corrupt officials of the cooperatives and peasant companies that were allowed to buy land, or the wicked Callejas that with his Agricultural Law paved the way for this carnage that has already caused more than 200 peasants to be murdered throughout the country. Among the circles of the powerful there is an urgent need to eradicate the peasants. They do not wait for them to become adults, they now kill off the children. Leodan: your martyr’s blood together with the blood of Isis Obed, Pedro Magdiel and Soad Nicolle will be revindicated when the country walks on the path of democracy, justice and equality.

“A desalambrar”, to be free someday!

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‘We lost a great leader’: Berta Cáceres still inspires as murder case takes fresh twist

As friends and followers of the late Honduran activist continue her battle for indigenous land rights, their cause has been boosted by a damning legal report

Berta Cáceres is remembered at a ceremony in Rio Blanco, the area she fought to protect from a mining development before she was murdered
Berta Cáceres is remembered at a ceremony in Rio Blanco, the area she fought to protect from a mining development before she was murdered. Photograph: Mel Mencos/Nobel Women Initiative

María Santos Domínguez heard about the death of her good friend Berta Cáceres on the radio. She had just given birth to her youngest daughter, so she wasn’t with Cáceres the week she was murdered.

“It was a double blow because we were very close, we worked together in the communities,” said Santos Domínguez, a coordinator for the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras (Copinh), the organisation Cáceres co-founded 24 years ago to stop the state selling off the country’s ancestral lands to multinational companies.

“It was a personal blow, and we knew we had lost a great leader – a leader who had been recognised internationally.”

Cáceres, who won the Goldman environmental prize for her work with Copinh, was gunned down in her home in the early hours of 3 March 2016. She had led the protest against the construction of the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam in Río Blanco, western Honduras. Gustavo Castro Soto, a Mexican environmental activist, was injured in the attack.

Eight men have been charged with the murder of Cáceres, who was under state protection at the time after receiving numerous death threats. Two of the accused worked at the company leading the construction of the dam, Desarrollos Energéticos SA.

Cáceres’ family and supporters have always suspected the involvement of state officials in her killing. Last year, a Guardian investigation revealed the existence of leaked court documents linking the planning of the murder to military intelligence specialists connected with the country’s US–trained special forces.

Armed guards patrol land in Honduras
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The former security head of Desarrollos Energéticos SA is one of seven people arrested for the killing of Berta Cáceres. Photograph: Giles Clarke/Getty Images

Earlier this month, a report published by an expert group of lawyers concluded that senior managers in the company allegedly had a hand in her murder. The company has always denied any involvement. In response to the report, it said the company had never been involved in any violence and that information in the report had been taken out of context and “does not reflect reality”. The report was intended to create problems in the run up to the country’s elections later this month, it added.

An independent group set up to investigate corruption in Honduras under the auspices of the Organisation of American States is scrutinising allegations of corruption in the award of contracts for the dam project.

Since Cáceres’ death, Domínguez, 43, has joined other members of the Lenca indigenous community for regular meetings among the oak trees of the lush, mountainous region of Río Blanco. Together, they say prayers and light candles in memory of their lost friend. It is also where they gather to find strength for the twin challenge of fighting the dam project and striving to ensure Cáceres’ killers are brought to justice.

While years of protests have brought construction to a halt, and resulted in funders discontinuing their support, the licence for the dam on the sacred Gualcarque river has not been withdrawn. The warehouses that stand empty along the road offer an ominous reminder that the project remains alive.

Santos Domínguez helped set up a road blockade when trucks were first spotted trundling along the narrow, winding lanes of Río Blanco towards the planned site for the dam on 1 April 2013. The community has said it was not consulted – a legal requirement – before the company was granted the licence.

“We saw the machinery coming in the distance. We’d said we didn’t allow it to come in the community, but they wanted to build a dam so didn’t listen,” she said. “I was not afraid, I was angry. I thought, ‘This is my land and my home.’”

The Gualcarque river, downstream from the Agua Zarca dam
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Gualcarque river, downstream from Agua Zarca dam. Photograph: Giles Clarke/Getty Images

But Santos Domínguez paid a high price for her actions. In the violence that followed when the police arrived to break up the protest, her brother was killed. She lost a finger and sustained cuts to her head from a machete. Her husband lost an eye. She is now wanted by the police and had to flee her home for a time for fear of being arrested – or made to disappear. She says harassment has got worse since Cáceres was murdered. She has had to keep her children off school after they had rocks thrown at them – by people “who know I was in Copinh” – while walking to class.

Rosalina Domínguez Madrid, who is in charge of Copinh’s finances, has also experienced harassment since Cáceres’ death. “People have been asking for me by name. Unknown people, but we are assuming it’s people paid by the company,” she said.

“There have been a lot of threats, and the life of one of my sons has been threatened. [It] must be people coming for me, to do the same thing to me as they did to Berta. When I go somewhere I don’t tell people where I’m going. I travel underground. I don’t really feel safe.”

Domínguez Madrid said that Cáceres’ death threw the international spotlight on the battle for land rights in Honduras – the deadliest place to be an environmental activist, according to the organisation Global Witness. More than 120 activists have been murdered for trying to protect the land or environment since the country’s 2009 coup. Copinh member Tomás García was murdered just months before Cáceres, and most attacks have gone unpunished.

Days after her death, Berta Cáceres was honoured at a religious ceremony on the Gualcarque river
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Days after her death, Berta Cáceres was honoured at a ceremony on the Gualcarque river. Photograph: Orlando Sierra/AFP/Getty Images

Over the past eight years, the government has received a flurry of licence applications for hydroelectric, mining and agribusinesses projects. At the same time, there has been a crackdown on human rights.

Many more activists say they have been threatened with violence, or have faced intimidation and even sexual assault by police, members of the military or those paid to keep activists out of the way. Women, who have been at the centre of the protests in Río Blanco, face the added threats of abuse from their own families and communities, as machismo culture often relegates women to the sole role of homemaker.

Last month two Nobel peace laureates – Tawakkol Karman and Shirin Ebadi – visited Río Blanco to offer their support to the community and add their voices to the calls for justice for Cáceres.

Beside an altar of flowers and photos of Cáceres, Karman, who won the Nobel prize in 2011 for her peace-building work in Yemen, told the crowd of women, men and children of all ages: “We are here to support all those who are struggling to defend human rights … Berta was a victim of those who didn’t respect those rights. We want to see justice brought to all those responsible for her murder. Those criminals must face the justice system and they should be in jail.”

Ebadi added: “My message to the world from here is they have murdered an activist who struggled to protect the environment, and there has not been justice in her case.”

Santos Domínguez knows that peace for the Lenca in Río Blanco will not come until those who authorised Cáceres’ murder are behind bars and the land rights for her people are recognised.

“Because we are poor they think we don’t know anything … But they are wrong because we are organised and we can protect ourselves from them,” she said.

“They murdered Berta and they thought that, with her dead, we would not continue – but we showed them we can.”

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.

Environmentalists in Honduras, “neither ignorant nor anti-development”

Bertha Zúñiga Cáceres, in April 2017, in Brussels, where she met with representatives dealing with business and human rights from European institutions (Commission and Council, buildings in the background), and representatives of the Belgian Foreign Ministry.

Bertha Zúñiga Cáceres, the new general coordinator of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras (COPINH), a position held by her mother, Berta Cáceres, until she was murdered on 3 March 2016, tells Equal Times that the indigenous people of this Central American country have development proposals for foreign investment funds that are prepared to listen to them. As well as being viable, they are proposals that respect the environment and human rights.

The activist carries the struggle to defend the environment and the underprivileged in her genes (her mother was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize and her grandmother, Austra Berta Flores, was the mayor of La Esperanza, governor of Intibucá and deputy in the National Congress, to mention just two from a long line of examples). She is currently campaigning against projects backed by the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI), under which blatant human rights violations are being perpetrated with impunity.

Honduras is the deadliest country in the world for environmental defenders, according to a report by Global Witness. As many as 101 environmentalists were assassinated between 2010 and 2014. Many others suffered threats and intimidation, which have virtually become part of everyday life for activists.

“The climate of defencelessness affects everyone,” she insists, going on to explain how the attacks against her personally have escalated in recent times. In addition to the ongoing stigmatisation, harassment and repression, on 30 June of this year, she was the victim of an armed attack and an attempt on her life, despite the fact that observers from around the world are keeping a close eye on the situation.

Zúñiga Cáceres is keeping up the fight to ensure those who perpetrated and ordered her mother’s assassination are identified and brought to justice, in a country where impunity is the norm.

What stage has been reached in the investigation into the murder of Berta Cáceres? Do you think it could set a legal precedent for other lower profile cases in Honduras – given that your mother is an emblematic figure and the international community is following the case very closely?

That is the idea, to set a legal precedent in a country where there is no justice. The problem is that this doesn’t seem feasible in Honduras, not so far at least. You have to remember that Honduras has an impunity rate of 96 per cent, which is what makes killing people so easy.

The idea is to strengthen the legal and judicial institutions in the country, so that they become an example, but the truth is that there is no political will and when there is no political will, it’s difficult to imagine that this can be achieved. Internally, we are pressing ahead with litigation, as private parties, with the support of many people in Honduras and beyond. We know that there is a great deal of international observation… But we feel disappointed. And worried, because no sentence has been pronounced [against the eight people remanded, to date], and this could be dragged on for a year, two years… until the international pressure dies down – which is the only concern of the institutions in Honduras – and then there will be no investigation into who was behind the crime.

Following the murder of Cáceres, Leónidas Rosa Bautista, the Honduran ambassador to the OAS, announced a battery of measures to tackle the human rights abuses, such as the creation of a human rights observatory and a commission with human rights defenders to promote protection measures, etc. How do you view this response?

The mechanism to protect human rights defenders was a response to the pressure from the international community and the conditions placed on funding in areas such as a military aid, etc. But in reality, it’s just an exercise to clean up the Honduran government’s image, because nothing has actually changed since the murder. We continue to be as defenceless as ever. Moreover, in the case of the COPINH in particular, the national campaigns on the radio and TV criminalising and stigmatising us have grown fiercer, and the government of Honduras is doing absolutely nothing.

Honduras has a lot of laws, you could almost say it has more than it needs, but the problem is that they are not respected. The protection mechanism and such initiatives designed to ensure respect for the communities’ rights and to protect lives are a good thing, but the problem is that there is no trust, because information is leaked and there is corruption. People are afraid of giving their data a to mechanism when we know it could end up in the hands of the state security service, which is involved in a lot of the intelligence work and the persecution of the kind suffered by my mother.

Honduras has the world’s highest murder rate for environmental defenders, per capita, according to the Global Witness report. It is rich in the natural resources exploited in a variety of industries, but it is not the only country of Latin America, or the world, with this profile. What makes Honduras so deadly?

Honduras is a relatively small country for Latin America, with more than 30 per cent of its territory held in the form of concessions by extractive industry firms and clean and dirty energy producers of all kinds. The state exists to protect the interests of private business, the governments and public officials; not to safeguard the basic rights of indigenous communities.

What is clearly reflected in the Global Witness report is the collusion between the government, private business, the military and foreign money. Honduras is a country that depends almost entirely on outside financial support – which is also why the messages from Europe weigh so heavily on it.

Since the coup d’état in Honduras [ousting Manuel Zelaya in 2009], let’s say, we have been experiencing the same phenomenon as in other Latin American countries, only that here it has been much more fast-moving and aggressive. The mutation of states linked to organised crime and corruption facilitates the climate of impunity, under which people defending the land are killed.

We know that what is in dispute in the world today are the natural commons, because that is where the energy is going to be taken from, it’s the new business. As a result, those of us who are working to defend ancestral lands – most often indigenous peoples – are faced with a very complicated situation. At the same time as talking about defending human rights, they are promoting energy production and giving incentives to companies linked to the oligarchs in our country. The result is a huge climate of permissiveness, allowing crimes to be committed so that the extractive and energy industry companies can move in, whatever the cost.

Governments all around the world are constantly competing to attract foreign investment to their respective countries. They have to find solutions to growing populations, growing energy demands… What is the main problem you see with the type of investment currently flowing into Honduras and do you offer local alternatives, to be able to manage without it?

Of course indigenous communities in Latin America present proposals that respect life and do not rely on the deadly private business in our countries.

We would never promote private business. Our interest lies in covering our basic needs, and there are many proposals in this sense. I always remind people that my mother was murdered in the midst of an alternative energy workshop at which the Lenca community had gathered to discuss an energy model – developed by the indigenous communities themselves – that would not be linked to private business or investments with no interest in providing energy to the poor.

There is no interest in promoting small projects; it’s a lie. Honduras has a number of national hydropower plants that are operating at 20% of their capacity, and this could be increased, but they limit it, so that they can say, “we need more energy, we need more hydroelectric power plants”.

Honduras is part of a Mesoamerican electric transmission corridor, which is intended to generate energy for big industry, mining, mega-tourism projects and the energy demands of developed countries, which are the ones that need it.

We always say that there could be more North-South exchange initiatives, proposals that respect our rights, that are not underpinned by racist policies – but they continue to view us as stupid, ignorant people that they need to civilise.

There are many interesting proposals being made by indigenous populations to tackle these rights issues, the problem is that they are not allowed to flourish, there are no incentives for that kind of project. That’s not where the so-called development funds are going to be channelled.

For us, part of our work is to clarify the situation, to break with the hypocrisy of making it look like they’re trying to help the least advantaged communities, because it is simply not true. They turn people into administrators of their poverty, and that is not what we are proposing or fighting for, not the COPINH nor other organisations. Our proposal is to take control of our goods, ensuring respect for our ways of interpreting the world and our spiritual beliefs, whatever is necessary.

Do the projects funded by the CABEI respect your interests?

The Central American Bank for Economic Integration is part of the structures of the World Bank. They promote projects that move in, whatever the cost, be it violence or murder, and benefit the oligarchs.

Agua Zarca, [for example] is owned by the Atala family, the most powerful family in Central America. They lobby for the “renewable energy” producers in Honduras, part of the Honduran oligarchy that is reaping the financial benefits of all this. And they speak against organisations that defend the land, because we are affecting their economic earnings. They will not allow it. That is why they murdered Berta Cáceres, for being a hindrance. They don’t want any hindrances for private business in Honduras. They made quite strong statements against her and the COPINH.

In a blog for Equal Times, researcher Karen Hudlet recently suggested a number of measures that companies could take to ensure that they do not act as accomplices to human rights violations, such as human rights impact assessments and regard for the context/environment in which they plan to operate. How feasible do you think this is?

They are interesting ideas, the problem is that in Honduras there is no rule of law.

For us, the problem is that many of the funders are aware that these things are happening in Honduras. In the case of Agua Zarca, my mother communicated directly, on various occasions, with the funders and with the CABEI, to tell them that the project was violating rights, that they could not enter into a contract with companies. They didn’t respond. She wrote again, providing information on the corruption, the hired gunmen – Tomás García had already been murdered [in 2013]. They replied: “Who are you to represent the Lenca indigenous people? You don’t represent them. We have no reason to talk to you.”

There is a racist policy [behind it], so studies can be done, but it doesn’t mean they’re going to pull out their investment. If the investors start doing studies on the guarantees for life and basic rights, they will start to realise what the situation is, and to see that investing is not feasible.

Honduras experiments with charter cities

https://www.economist.com/news/americas/21726121-central-american-country-has-bold-plan-attract-investment-it-not-going

The Central American country has a bold plan to attract investment. It is not going well

ONE sunny Wednesday in Amapala, off the coast of Honduras, 33 working-age men settled themselves on rows of chairs on the main street under a tarpaulin to watch a football game. There was not much traffic to disrupt. The dilapidated town on the island of El Tigre had once been a bustling port, dispatching coffee and other commodities to Europe. Herbert Hoover and Albert Einstein thought the place worth visiting. But the German merchants and shipowners who had managed Amapala’s commerce left after the second world war; in 1979 the port moved to the mainland. The football fans now work intermittently as fishermen, farmers and drivers of three-wheeled mototaxis, most earning less than $2 a day. Some of the peeling pastel-coloured buildings bear signs in English, put up in expectation of a tourism revival that never happened.

Honduras’s government is promising a return to the glory days. In 2013 it announced plans to build a “megaport” in Amapala, along with a customs office and processing plants for exports such as shrimp, textiles and bananas. The money would come from private investors, who would be enticed by the establishment of three “employment and economic development zones” (ZEDEs). More ambitious than typical free-trade zones, these would be independent jurisdictions with their own laws, courts and police. The capital they attract would create jobs and relieve poverty. Rather than fleeing to the United States, Hondurans threatened by the country’s ubiquitous gangs could find security and livelihoods in ZEDEs.

The government has such faith in this idea that in 2013 it passed a law that adds ZEDEs to municipalities and departments as units of the republic. It is considering proposals for 20 ZEDEs across the country and has signed more than ten memorandums of understanding (MoUs) with investors, says Octavio Sánchez, one of the project’s leaders. Some are “ready to go—land bought, maps drawn and capital raised”, he says. The government may announce the first few projects at the end of August. They might be as small as a call centre or cover an entire city.

Sweet dreams are made of ZEDEs

It is easy to see why Honduras might want to create enclaves of safety and efficiency on its territory. It is one of the world’s most violent countries; laws and contracts are spottily enforced; its bureaucracy is a hindrance rather than a help to its citizens; infrastructure is rudimentary and in poor repair (see chart).

The government’s proposal for overcoming these defects draws inspiration from the idea of “charter cities”, new jurisdictions on empty land that bypass weak institutions to attract investment and jobs. Paul Romer, now the World Bank’s chief economist, popularised the idea after noticing that autonomous cities like Hong Kong and Dubai became magnets for investment. In 2010 Mr Sánchez, chief of staff for Porfirio Lobo, Honduras’s president at the time, asked Mr Romer to help set up the first “model cities” after seeing a TED talk that he gave.

Like Dubai’s free-trade zones, ZEDEs are to be “seamlessly integrated into the city”, says Mr Sánchez. But they also hark back to an older model from Honduras’s banana-republic days, when the country in effect turned over swathes of territory to giant firms like the United Fruit Company. “Banana enclaves are an example of the successful functioning of models from other states,” says Ebal Díaz, the secretary of Honduras’s council of ministers.

But the plan to correct the country’s faults one ZEDE at a time is causing alarm. The zones can be created in thinly populated areas without the consent of the locals. Hondurans inside them will lose some rights. Under the law creating ZEDEs, just six of the constitution’s 379 articles must apply within them, points out Fernando García, a lawyer in Tegucigalpa, the capital. These do not include those underwriting such rights as habeas corpus and press freedom.

The project is beset by conflict between foreigners brought in to help monitor it and Honduran officials responsible for putting it into practice, and by strife among the Hondurans themselves. What decisions have been made and who has made them are a mystery to people outside the process, and even to some who are supposedly part of it. Outsiders assume the worst. A recent report by the Carnegie Endowment, a think-tank, calls Honduras “emblematic” of countries in which “corruption is the operating system” of networks formed by government, business and “out-and-out criminals”. The ZEDE saga suggests that such a system will have great difficulty in creating one that is free of its own shortcomings.

The ZEDE plan has its origins in a coup and the complicated politics that ensued. The government of Mr Lobo, who won hastily arranged elections after the army ousted a predecessor in 2009, passed a law creating a forerunner to ZEDEs. After the constitutional court struck down the law, saying it violated Honduran sovereignty, congress dismissed the four justices who had voted against it and amended the constitution to allow passage of the current “model-cities” statute in 2013.

By then Mr Romer had broken with the project (after he realised that the “transparency commission” he was supposed to chair would never in fact exist). But it still has plenty of political support. The current president, Juan Orlando Hernández, who is running for re-election, sees ZEDEs as a vote-winner. He recently posted on Facebook a (perhaps fanciful) map showing how they would transform Honduras into the Americas’ “logistics centre”. A motley group of foreign libertarians, who like the idea of lightly regulated mini-Utopias for enterprise, are still involved. The Inter-American Development Bank has said it may lend $20m to back their development.

Even after seven years of work, the scheme is as vague as it is ambitious. No one outside a small group knows what the first project will be. Agile Solutions, a Brazilian software firm, talks of investing $200m to open a “startup village” in Tegucigalpa, creating 6,000 jobs. Its Honduran boss, Carlos Cruz, sees the zone as a “blank slate”, which the company could use as a laboratory for new approaches to health care, education and tax.

Another candidate to be the first ZEDE is a public-private partnership with Canadian investors to create an “energy district” in Olancho department, where wood would be harvested for fuel. The ZEDE itself would be confined at first to a 1.6 square km (0.6 square mile) patch, which will be occupied by a power station. But it could eventually expand to an area covering 8% of Honduras’s territory and including 380,000 people. HOI, a Christian NGO based in the United States, is to provide health care and education from the outset in this “area of influence”.

After spending millions of dollars on feasibility studies for Amapala, South Korea’s development agency concluded that the area is not ready for a megaport. So the Honduran government decided to start with a tourism project that scoops into several fishing villages on the bay, plus factories and a customs centre nearby. Some proposed ZEDEs are based on “Plan 2020”, a master plan for the country drawn up by McKinsey, a consultancy. It suggests creating 600,000 jobs by attracting vehicle-assembly operations, call centres and other industries from Asia.

Even now, just how ZEDEs will work is a matter of argument among their supporters. The law places effective control in the hands of investors and a “technical secretary” who will administer each zone (and must be a Honduran citizen). They are answerable to an independent “commission for best practices” (CAMP). Civil and criminal cases will be adjudicated by special ZEDE courts, though it is not clear whether each zone will have its own or whether they will join a single parallel system. They could employ foreign judges to hear civil and criminal cases, just as Honduran football teams hire foreign players, suggests Mr Díaz. A “tribunal of individual rights”, guided by international conventions, will protect residents. Its decisions can be appealed to international courts.

But this governance structure is not settled; participants do not agree on what has been decided or even on who is part of it. The original CAMP, appointed by Mr Lobo, had 21 members, including Grover Norquist, an American anti-tax campaigner, Richard Rahn, then of the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington, DC, and Mark Klugmann, a former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan. This body met just once, in March 2015, on the resort island of Roatán.

According to Mr Sánchez and Mr Díaz, it has been pared down to 12 members. Seven are Hondurans from the ruling National Party; the five foreigners include Mr Rahn and Barbara Kolm, an economist with links to Austria’s far-right Freedom Party, but not Mr Klugmann. This group has been meeting secretly in Miami. But power is now exercised by a five-person standing committee led by Ms Kolm, who is the only foreign member.

Mr Klugmann denounces the sidelining of the original CAMP as “illegitimate” and illegal. Arnaldo Castillo, Honduras’s minister of economic development, denies that it has occurred. The argument over which CAMP is in charge is also about principle. Mr Klugmann thinks good governance matters more to investors than cheap labour and light regulation. He wants ZEDEs to perfect their institutional set-up before they start operations. Mr Rahn seems to be losing heart. He was “asked to try to bring in best practices of corporate governance”, he says. But it has been an “uphill struggle”. Although the CAMP is supposed to be independent, Mr Rahn has “the strong impression that there is government interference”.

Mr Sánchez’s Honduran faction seems more eager to sign deals, and more willing to cut corners. One proposal is for a public-private partnership with Conatel, the state-owned telecoms company. Its boss is Mr Díaz, who is also the member of the CAMP authorised to sign MoUs and the head of the agency that registers land titles. Mr Sánchez sees no conflict of interest in this accumulation of roles. “It’s the same government,” he says.

The fuzziness about governance will increase suspicion that ZEDEs are a further way to enrich an entrenched elite and erode the rights of ordinary Hondurans. The National Lawyers Guild, a left-leaning American NGO, fears that the CAMP and the technical secretaries will wield unchallengeable power over ZEDEs and the people who live and work within their boundaries. Once established, ZEDEs can seize land to expand the zones. That may provoke conflict: 90% of Hondurans do not have titles to their homes and scores have died in land disputes in recent years. Hondurans living in areas marked out for ZEDEs have little idea what is in store. “We have never been in the loop,” says Julio Ramírez, Amapala’s bespectacled town clerk.

It is possible that nothing will change in sleepy Amapala. Salvador Nasralla, the leading candidate to unseat Mr Hernández in elections on November 26th, says he would repeal the ZEDE law (though that would require a two-thirds majority in congress). The CAMP chaos may drive away investors. But if they come, the football aficionados of Amapala may learn what it is like to be guinea pigs in a daring economic experiment. Their little island will be in Honduras, but no longer of it.

This article appeared in the The Americas section of the print edition under the headline “A shadowy experiment”

Kaptur statement on threats to human rights defenders in Honduras

TOLEDO — Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur (OH-9) issued the following statement of concern related to the escalation of risk for human rights defenders in Honduras.

“I join the United Nations Assistant Secretary General for Human Rights and my colleagues in Congress in registering grave concern regarding the violent escalation of intimidating threats toward rights defenders in Honduras. Jesuit priest Ismael Moreno, Padre Melo,  the entire team of Radio Progreso and ERIC-SJ, the family of slain environmentalist Berta Caceres, and Berta Oliva, director of  the Committee of the Detained and Disappeared of Honduras are all under threat.

“Statements made by public authorities in Honduras discrediting the work of human rights defenders and journalists put them at risk of physical harm and undermine freedom of speech. These precious advocates for liberty deserve the support and protection of the international community.

“Prior to her brutal murder in 2016, indigenous rights defender, Bertha Cáceres was targeted extensively by similar threats and intimidation. The alarming increase in threats to defenders of human rights in recent weeks underscores our responsibility to support the Bertha Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act, to speak out on behalf of those at risk, and to insist that the government of Honduras respect, affirm, and protect the full exercise of the rights of all its people.”

Kaptur is a lead sponsor of the Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act (HR 1299), which would suspend U.S. funding to the Republic of Honduras for their police and military operations, including funds for equipment and training, until the Honduran government investigates credible reports indicating the police and military are violating citizens’ human rights, prohibit international loans providing for security assistance – from being dispersed unless Honduras makes serious inroads to addressing blatant human rights violations by police and military forces.

 

Jesuits Decry Attacks on Honduran Jesuit Fr. Ismael “Melo” Moreno

Fr. Ismael “Melo” Moreno, SJ
Jesuits Decry Attacks on Honduran Jesuit Fr. Ismael “Melo” Moreno, Prominent Human Rights Activist

August 7, 2017 — On July 31, the feast of St. Ignatius, founder of the Society of Jesus, Latin American Jesuits raised an alarm for one of their brother Jesuits, Fr. Ismael “Melo” Moreno, director of the Honduran Jesuit radio station, Radio Progreso, and the Honduran Jesuit social action center.

An outspoken human rights advocate in a country plagued by government corruption and violence, Fr. Melo has worked for years to promote dialogue while advocating for the marginalized.

Last year when the national university, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Honduras (UNAH), was embroiled in student strikes, Fr. Melo sat at the negotiating table at the request of students. While agreements were reached between the students and the university, this year student strikes and protests continued, and in the aftermath many students have been injured at the hands of university-hired security forces and many more arrested. In addition, the recent murder of the father of a student activist, who was killed after attending the judicial hearing of his son, has created a climate of fear for those exercising their right to protest peacefully.


Fr. Melo at a protest.

On July 19, at a concert held on campus, Fr. Melo joined hundreds of students protesting the treatment of their fellow classmates by university authorities. Retaliating against Fr. Melo for his support of the students, the university’s rector accused the Jesuit of promoting anarchy and generating violence. The university subsequently canceled its contract with ERIC, the Jesuit-run social action center that Fr. Melo leads.

In their statement, the Jesuits of the Central American Province said, “We want to declare that the attacks directed against Fr. Melo are the consequence of working to defend the human rights of all sectors of society. … The defense of human rights … is the horizon that guides the work of the Society of Jesus in Honduras.”

The statement, which was endorsed by the president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the U.S. and the president of the Conference of Provincials for Latin America and the Caribbean, expressed strong support for ERIC-Radio Progreso and Fr. Moreno for maintaining “a spirit of open and flexible dialogue, of reasonable tolerance, and of unwavering struggle for justice.”

Fr. Timothy Kesicki, SJ, president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the U.S., said, “Fr. Melo’s entire life has been devoted to freedom of expression and human rights. It’s egregious that he’s being accused of inciting violence when he’s watched dear friends like environmental activist Berta Cáceres be gunned down for speaking up for the people of Honduras.”

According to U.S. Jesuit Matthew Ippel, the public attack against Fr. Melo by the university rector is a threat and part of a pattern of attack against human rights defenders. “It is embedded in a larger narrative that makes any dissenting voice the enemy. It is deeply alarming that those who advocate for justice, for the defense of the rights of the marginalized and excluded, are being discredited, criminalized and assassinated.”


Matthew Ippel, SJ, with Fr. Melo.

Radio Progreso, an important independent voice in a country where most broadcast outlets are controlled by special interests, serves both rural communities and large cities. In the last several years, two employees of ERIC-Radio Progreso have been murdered and threats have been made against others. In late March of this year, a defamation campaign targeted Fr. Melo and other activists.

According to the Organization of American States, Honduras is one of the most violent countries in the world for human rights defenders.

In 2015, Fr. Melo was honored with the prestigious Rafto Prize for his “defense of freedom of expression in one of the most violent countries in the world.” In accepting the prize, Fr. Melo said, “I believe profoundly in life, and I profoundly believe in human beings and I deeply believe that the good will prevail against any kind of evil and violence.” [Sources: Central American Province of the Society of Jesus, The Jesuit Post]

The Via Crucis of Comayagua

The author’s nephew, Johnny Javier, pictured with his family. Javier was killed Feb. 14, 2012, in a fire at a prison in Comayagua, Honduras. (Photo provided by Mary McCann Sanchez)
The fire that swept through the medium-security prison in Comayagua, Honduras, on the night of Feb. 14, 2012, took the lives of 361 individuals. Devastating flames danced high above the prison walls. Hundreds of prisoners — as well as spouses admitted for a rare conjugal visit — perished in the sudden inferno.I lost my nephew, Johnny Javier, to that fire. The young man was locked in a wing of the jail where toxic smoke invaded, extinguishing any hope of survival. The scene was maliciously unreal. Firefighters arrived 40 minutes after the flames ignited, and first responders reported that guards with keys were nowhere to be found. Johnny and his cellmates died as captives.

An immensely painful personal tragedy? The loss of this young man was that and much, much more. The inability of the Honduran state to protect men held in its custody effectively fueled the incineration of hundreds of human beings. More than half of those imprisoned in Comayagua had never been tried or convicted of a crime, yet the lack of due process had metamorphosed into mass execution by fire.

My nephew’s case, however, had swiftly crossed desks in the court, where it was stamped and sealed and irrevocably filed away. In 2010, when Johnny was a 23-year-old taxi driver, he had fallen victim to a frame-up when an acquaintance asked him to moonlight in a stolen cab. Oblivious of the vehicle’s history, Johnny had accepted, anxious to supplement his scant income of $20 per day.

Soon after, Johnny was rounded up. An attorney appeared at the door of his in-laws’ home, where Johnny lived with his wife, Maribel, and their baby daughter. The lawyer convinced the young mother that a speedy admission of guilt would result in prompt release. Gathering the family’s savings, Maribel paid the lawyer and rushed to the prison where Johnny signed the papers that cost him his freedom.

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Once aware of the travesty, our family sought the services of credible attorneys who attempted to reverse the lethal effects of the unscrupulous lawyer’s advice. The backlogged court, however, had no room for the case. The only out was early release for good behavior.

Johnny stoically accepted his lot. Trusting no one, he worked quietly in the penitentiary garden and sewed uniforms for prison guards.

Those of us who loved Johnny felt the grip of anxiety. Johnny was young and strong, a sure target for gang lords ruling inside and outside the jails. And if he could withstand peer pressure, would he survive the penitentiary itself? We knew prisoners went hungry. I personally had seen how men slept on shelves of cots stacked six high in a prison on the northern coast, where a riot and fire in 2003 left 86 dead.

Nagging questions, not limited to the jail, became part of our lives. Honduras had been hard hit outside the prison walls, too. The legacy of the June 2009 coup in Honduras — the first golpe de estado in Latin America of the century — was one of constricted civil liberties and alarming, unexplained killings of attorneys and journalists. Four judges lost their places at the bench for speaking out.

As Johnny toiled within the prison day after day, pressures mounted outside. Urban centers and rural plazas became home to the weekly protests. Teachers, factory workers, indigenous people, professionals and people of faith protested the systemic failure to deliver justice, inside and outside the jails.

In response, long rows of heavily shielded, helmeted police forces flanked public parks and thoroughfares in relentless shows of force. A young woman died in a protest, choked by tear gas, a precursor to the suffocation that Johnny and others would be subjected to.

The prison complex went up in flames, due to causes never adequately investigated nor explained. The families of 800 inmates awaited news. Which cell blocks burned? Which wings filled with smoke? Who had escaped?

My nephew was declared dead based on cot location. He could be any one of the scores of charred bodies. Our family joined other mourners to travel to the prison and then the capital, seeking his remains. White-jacketed technicians tied rubber sashes on the tiny arm of Johnny’s daughter, and drew blood in pursuit of a DNA match.

The forensic review lagged cruelly. It was Lent in Honduras and the penance was real. Ash Wednesday, Passion Sunday, Good Friday — Easter came and went with no resurrection, no tomb to visit, no body to behold. My husband took to the streets with other mourners, placards in hand, to demand an end to the uncertainty.

Fifty-eight days after the fire, Johnny’s widow was summoned to a morgue in the capital. An officer escorted her to a coffin, nailed shut. “Do not open this box,” he warned her, “you will find only bones.” She leaned heavily on Johnny’s two brothers, standing by her side.

In Honduras, it is common for the bereaved to say good-bye to those they love. Gazing into an open casket is the moment of release, a time when peace might begin to set in. Throughout Central America, tenacious searches for the remains of loved ones, followed by exhumation and forensic discovery, have contributed to processes to uphold fundamental human rights.

In the case of the prisoners, however, the long-overdue delivery of impenetrable vessels of bones and ashes failed to provide closure, to engender trust.

And yet, these families in Honduras achieved modest gains: a partial purge of abusive authority, initial steps in prison reform, and meager economic retribution.

And on the broader scale, other victories emerged. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights upheld the right of free expression of the judges who had voiced opposition to the coup and demanded their restitution. Journalists exposed massive corruption at high government levels, despite backlash and punitive actions in what to this day remains an uphill struggle for the rule of law.

How does such suffering and such conviction speak to the Lenten journey and to the paschal mystery? The Via Crucis of the families required enormous fortitude. Intensely private love and separation by death transcended the realm of the individual into community and nation. Step by step, station by station, the cross passed from men and women present only in our hearts to unintentional communities of families and friends that rose to bear it.

Some years have passed since flames raged through the prison of Comayagua. As Lent begins, I am reminded that the suffering that penetrates this season is real and that sacrifice is more than self-deprivation. Clearly, Honduras is not the only country locked down by institutions too weak to uphold justice. Finding the answer to the age-old question of “Where is the victory?” has much to do with the struggle that we dare to take on and the companions that we will embrace on the journey.

[Mary McCann Sanchez is a teacher and writer with a long history of peacebuilding, social justice and community development work in Latin America and in Chicago.]

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández

A new report suggests that corruption in Honduras is not simply the product of malfeasance by individual actors, but rather comprises an institutionalized system that serves to benefit a tight circle of elites, mirroring other corrupt systems that have been uncovered in Latin America.

The report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, titled “When Corruption is the Operating System: The Case of Honduras,” highlights how a combination of historical factors has paved the way for the current corrupt political economy in the country.

The report’s author, Sarah Chayes, argues that “Honduras offers a prime example of … intertwined, or ‘integrated,’ transnational kleptocratic networks.”

In other words, powerful international business interests as well as criminal organizations with transnational ties have corrupted government institutions at various levels, with little resistance from public officials, who have also benefitted from this graft.

As InSight Crime noted in its investigative series on elites and organized crime in Honduras, the country’s economic history differs from that of most of its neighbors in the sense that “the most powerful economic elites have emerged from the service, banking, media, and telecommunications sectors,” rather than land-based agricultural and industrial sectors.

These “transnational elites,” often descended from Eastern European and Middle Eastern immigrants, have used both their international business ties as well as graft to further their economic interests. Similarly, both the “traditional” land-based elite and the “bureaucratic elite” — consisting primarily of military families and regional politicians — have engaged in corruption in order to maintain their socioeconomic status.

Chayes stresses that the three “spheres” of the kleptocratic system in Honduras — the public sector, the private sector and criminal elements — “retain a degree of autonomy, and are often disrupted by internal rivalry.” But at times, their interests do overlap and there may be a degree of coordination between them.

Echoing the findings of InSight Crime’s investigation, the report states that over “the past decade or so, both the elite public- and private-sector circles have been establishing increasingly close connections with the out-and-out criminal networks that run the narcotics trade as well as other types of smuggling, such as trafficking in people.”

And while the private and public sectors of the kleptocratic network are not identical, they are bound together by what Chayes calls an “elite bargain” that perpetuates corruption.

Chayes says that this dynamic may be intensifying under the administration of President Juan Orlando Hernández, who took office in 2014 and is currently leading the field among contenders in the presidential election scheduled for November.

The report argues that Hernández has made a “strategic effort” to consolidate government power in the executive branch, thereby strenghtening a close-knit network of elites with ties to the public, private and criminal sectors that already wield disproportionate political and economic control.

As one person interviewed for the report put it, “The politicians are at the service of the economic elite.”

Prior to becoming president in 2014, Hernández served as the president of congress, which is in charge of all congressional proceedings. During this time, Chayes claims a “favorable legislative climate” was created by passing laws that benefitted “private sector network members.”

For example, in 2010, the creation of the Commission for the Promotion of Public Private Partnerships essentially funneled “public financing into private contracts via a nontransparent bidding process,” the report found.

Consequently, Chayes explains that this allows the president to “personally direct or approve” public-private projects, including terms and purchase guarantees. And when marginal improvements in oversight were proposed in 2014, officials resisted the measures.

As president of congress and eventually as head of state, Hernández also oversaw several other policy initiatives that bolstered the power of the executive branch while weakening congress, the judiciary and other institutions that could help put a brake on graft.

Hernández has strengthened the role of the military in internal security operations, packed the judiciary with top officials favorable to his pro-business agenda, and instituted a sweeping “secrecy law” that classifies as secret information “likely to produce ‘undesired institutional effects,’ or whose dissemination might be ‘counter to the effective development of state policy or normal functioning of public sector institutions,'” the report states.

According to the report, “The bulk of the actions or inactions of these agencies has served to facilitate or defend revenue maximization for the principal private-sector network members, or has provided siphoning opportunities for public officials.”

InSight Crime Analysis

Sophisticated corruption schemes are nothing new in Latin America, and Honduras is not the only country where widespread graft has had negative consequences for society in terms of political representation, economic opportunity and human rights. However, corruption networks in different countries function in different ways. And understanding these differences is key to formulating effective solutions for rooting out graft.

The picture painted by Chayes’ report suggests that the dynamics of corruption in Honduras are more similar to those observed in Brazil, for example, than those seen in Guatemala.

Former Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina and former Vice President Roxana Baldetti created a “mafia state” system, in which Pérez and Baldetti acted as the bosses, overseeing various corruption schemes and taking a cut of all the graft occurring under their supervision. In Brazil, on the other hand, corruption is not as centralized; rather, it has become a “rule of the game” in business and politics.

The case of Honduras is more similar to that of Brazil in that there is no unified leadership of a grand corruption scheme, but rather a sort of “elite bargain” to play by the rules of a system that encourages and ensures impunity for engaging in graft.

This is perhaps best exemplified by elite resistance to establishing an internationally-backed anti-corruption body in Honduras, which eventually came into being early last year as the Support Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (Misión de Apoyo Contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras – MACCIH). This parallels Brazilian elites’ ongoing attempts to derail sweeping anti-corruption investigations targeting dozens of politicians, including the current president.

The main similarity among all three cases — Honduras, Brazil and Guatemala — is that corruption was used to further concentrate power in the hands of an already powerful elite.

In Honduras, for instance, officials and contractors siphoned massive amounts of money from the national social security system and used some of the booty to fund political campaigns for members of Hernández’s National Party (Partido Nacional) — something the president himself has admitted.

Similarly, in Guatemala, Pérez Molina and Baldetti were elected in 2011 in part thanks to illicit campaign contributions from businesses and individuals that they then paid back once in power by awarding their donors state contracts.

And in Brazil, a portion of bribes and kickbacks related to public works contracts was funneled into political campaigns and vote-buying in Congress, serving to enrich both private business interests as well as government officials on the take, while simultaneously ensuring the perpetuation of corruption.

Chayes says that the model of corruption represented by Honduras — and in certain respects mirrored in Brazil and Guatemala — is not unique to Latin America.

“This corruption model, I would say, is something that applies to some 60 or 70 countries around the world,” Chayes told InSight Crime. “And it works in different ways in each of those countries. However, there are the same kinds of overlaps between the public and private sectors where government institutions are bent to serve network purposes.”

Chayes stresses that moving forward it is important to first recognize today’s corruption as the “intentional operating system of sophisticated and successful networks.”

Today’s corruption is not merely “cash in an envelope,” Chayes argues, but involves powerful, often international networks of corrupt actors “writing the rules governing political and economic activity to their own benefit.”

Meet Miriam Miranda, Honduras

https://nobelwomensinitiative.org/meet-miriam-miranda-honduras/

Photo via Upside Down World
Photo via Upside Down World

“We live almost on the sea, right on the beach. It’s a blessing but recently it’s also become a curse, because of course all those with power want to have a place on the beach. The displacement of communities and the loss of cultures that come with the development of tourism is growing… but the Garífuna women, many of them elders, have incredible strength. They participate in meetings, in actions, tearing down walls that are built on the beach. They’re sustaining the Garífuna youth so that they know who they are, without shame.”

Miriam has dedicated her life to defending the cultural and land rights of the Garífuna people in Honduras. Miriam’s brave, unwavering leadership is currently guiding the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras (OFRANEH).

Miriam was born in Santa Fe, Colon, a small Garífuna village located near Trujillo on the north coast of Honduras. Like many other Garífuna in Honduras, Miriam and her family eventually had to leave their village in order to find work and educational opportunities. As a young adult, Miriam moved to the capital city Tegucigalpa to study at the public university.

Still a student, Miriam immersed herself in social movements that worked closely with women living in poor neighbourhoods on the outskirts of Tegucigalpa. Miriam traveled to these neighbourhoods to listen to the women’s stories and speak to them about their rights. In these conversations, Miriam’s lifework as a feminist took root.

Miriam’s pride as a Garífuna woman lies at the heart of her activism. After years of working alongside mestizo, or mixed indigenous women, Miriam decided to shift her focus to promote the rights of her own people—the Garífuna.

The Garífuna people are descendants of West Africans who escaped the slave trade and found refuge on the island of San Vincente, an island in the Caribbean, in the early 1600’s—where  they intermarried with Carib, Indian and Indigenous peoples. Following expulsion from San Vincente in 1797, the Garífuna people arrived on the coast of Honduras. Approximately 100,000 Garífuna now live in Honduras, but there are also community strongholds on the coasts of Belize, Guatemala and Nicaragua. Garífuna culture is intrinsically linked to the land and access to the sea.

Land reforms in Honduras have disregarded cultural land titles, and have made it easy for foreign tourism and real estate investors to displace Garifuna communities to build hotels and retirement communities. Illegal drug cartels also steal Garífuna land for their operations. The Honduran government has failed to protect Garífuna land titles against foreign interests and, in many cases, has been directly involved in their displacement.

Under Miriam’s leadership, OFRANEH and the Garífuna people have organized to defend their land and their culture. They currently have two cases against the state of Honduras pending at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR). Most recently, the Garífuna succeeded in bringing Canadian investor Randy Jorgensen to trial in Trujillo, Honduras for his mega-tourism project illegally built on Garífuna land.

Miriam’s activism has come at a cost. She faces incredible risk for the work she is doing and has been threatened many times and kidnapped. Miriam and her colleagues are regularly arbitrarily detained and portrayed as criminals in the media. In the face of these threats, Miriam is not backing down from her struggle to ensure the Garífuna people’s land and culture is protected.