Archive for the ‘corruption in Honduras’ Category

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”
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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.

A hidden cost of corruption: environmental devastation

 June 16 at 2:22 PM
Sarah Chayes is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the author of “Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security.”

In Honduras, corruption is leading to the devastation of the Patuca River and communities on its banks. (Eve Chayes Lyman)

Krausirpi, Honudras

The Patuca River is a long, shining serpentine — achingly beautiful — that travels through the last great swath of pristine rain forest in Central America. On the map, the region is a fat green stripe, indicating two national parks end to end. But the water, as I trail my fingers in the warm bath, is tawny brown. It is carrying way too much sediment: acres of dirt washed down by the deforestation that’s making way for cattle ranches along the supposedly protected banks, and tons more dumped by construction on a massive hydroelectric dam a day’s voyage upstream.

Both are existential threats to this place and its people. And both are products of the pervasive and sophisticated corruption that characterizes the Honduran government.

I have spent a decade living through and researching how corruption has helped fuel some of the world’s most significant security crises — from the expansion of violent extremism to revolutions and their bloody aftermaths. Last year, I began wondering if similar links exist between corruption and another grave threat: environmental devastation. It didn’t take long to find them.

Corruption, in this context, should not be understood as merely the opportunistic lapses of an underpaid game warden or a customs agent who looks the other way in exchange for an envelope. Rather, in Honduras and more than 60 other countries worldwide, senior officials, key business leaders and out-and-out criminals weave themselves into sophisticated networks for the purpose of maximizing personal gains. Natural resources are a principal source of the cash these kleptocrats capture.

One of the most lucrative is oil. Nigeria’s national oil company, to pick an egregious example, could not account for nearly $20 billion in revenue from 2012 and 2013 alone. A byproduct of such looting — and the predatory attitudes it engenders — is the oil-soaked Niger Delta. The once-vibrant web of winding creeks and inlets is black with sludge, its mangroves gone, grasses and palm trees reduced to tar-smeared stumps. People who once navigated their slender-bowed boats and swam, fished and gathered shellfish there now find an oily sheen in their well water. They suffer skin and lung ailments.

Royal Dutch Shell admits to more than 1,800 spills there in the past decade. In January 2015, Shell agreed to pay $84 million to settle a lawsuit about just two of these. Meanwhile, according to Amnesty International, Nigeria’s National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency continues to certify visibly filthy areas as clean.

his pattern is consistent across the corrupt countries I have studied: Agencies charged with protecting the environment are rendered functionally inoperative — budgets are slashed, staff is short or demotivated, equipment goes missing. Predatory extraction of natural resources for personal gain requires lax enforcement of whatever regulations exist. In Nigeria’s case, the predators aren’t just the huge oil multinationals, whose behavior may be encouraged by the ambiguous nature of many of their dealings with officials they know are corrupt, but also host-country operators and outright thieves, who often work in partnership with government institutions. When they see the magnitude of the theft at the top of the pyramid, they consider themselves entitled.

In countries that lack hydrocarbons, other natural resources substitute. The investigative charity Global Witness has documented the Cambodian ruling clique’s control of an illegal logging syndicate that is stripping that country of its tropical forest.

The United States obviously does not fall into the same category as Nigeria or Cambodia when it comes to corruption. Still, certain trends should alarm Americans. Consider West Virginia, where, in 2004, the chief executive of Massey Energy smeared a judge and bankrolled the campaign of a previously unknown judicial rival, who, once elected, ruled favorably on cases affecting the coal company — including at least one the company had lost in a jury trial. Judge Brent Benjamin argued that there was no basis for presuming that the $3 million Massey spent on his campaign might affect his impartiality.

This is the same Massey executive who was sentenced to a year in prison for conspiring to violate mine safety rules in a 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners. Over the years, Massey has taken advantage of the lax enforcement guaranteed by the coal industry’s hold over West Virginia politics, not just to repeatedly ignore health and safety requirements, but also to decapitate forested mountains and routinely dump rubble, slurry and wastewater into the state’s rivers.

Another conduit for corruption: dams. Brazil’s sprawling corruption scandal has implicated several mega-dams in the Amazon. One of them, Belo Monte, would displace at least 20,000 people and extinguish some of the world’s most diverse habitats, in some areas flooding and in others drying up hundreds of square miles of rain forest and croplands, according to studies by International Rivers and others. It would produce more greenhouse gases than an equivalent fossil fuel plant, for at least 20 years. One executive in the construction consortium was sentenced to a 19-year prison term for corruption and money laundering, and the consortium is under investigation for allegedly paying millions in bribes to Brazil’s beleaguered then-ruling party to secure the concession.

Oxford University research published in 2014 indicates that most such dams worldwide will not recoup the cost of their construction, let alone improve standards of living for local populations. Such “white elephants” may not even be meant to serve their stated purposes. Rather, in the words of James Robinson and Ragnar Torvik, authors of an earlier study on large infrastructure projects in developing countries, “it is the very inefficiency of such projects that makes them . . . appealing” as vehicles for channeling money into the hands of a ruling coterie.


The construction site of the Patuca III dam, which is designed to generate 105 megawatts of power. There are currently no plans for it to supply electricity to the communities along the river whose lives will be impacted. (Eve Chayes Lyman)

Honduras’s Patuca III dam is just such a project. According to lawyer and veteran environmental activist Mauricio Torres, the river probably cannot build up sufficient pressure to generate the intended 104 megawatts: The water is too shallow and the topography too flat. A 2008 government-sponsored environmental impact assessment was “so weak,” according to a 2012 letter from the Inter-American Development Bank to the Honduran government, “that we could not even envision starting to study [Tegucigalpa’s request for project funding] seriously.”

Mario Vallejo, a specialist in environmental law, is not surprised by such meaningless environmental oversight. He says it’s the norm in Honduras. “There’s an evaluation process that must happen before construction on such projects can begin,” Vallejo explains. “But typically, work starts before the study is even completed. Developers get a license in a single day. It’s called temporary, but it won’t be revoked. And the impact assessments, when they’re completed, accommodate what the constructors want.”

When the IDB declined to finance Patuca III, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China stepped in with a loan. The Chinese engineering firm Sinohydro is racing to complete work by next spring, but the contract has raised eyebrows, even in kleptocratic Honduras. The somewhat independent Honduran National Anti-Corruption Council is investigating several officials at the national electricity agency for the alleged embezzlement of more than $4 million from the construction of the barracks that house Sinohydro’s technicians and laborers.

Among the failings the IDB’s assessment identified, the Honduran government neither adequately consulted with nor compensated affected communities. On a trip to the area last summer, two Honduran naturalists; my sister, artist and photographer Eve Lyman; and I amply confirmed that finding. Villagers told us they signed for government distributions of rice, for example, and those signatures were later used by the state electricity company as evidence that they approved of the dam.

According to media reports and numerous interviews, a 2015 protest against the project in Tegucigalpa was defused when the largest landowners — many of them wealthy absentee landlords — were paid off.

“The rich got a higher price for their land than we did,” said a farmer we met on the road, riding a mare with a chestnut foal trotting behind. “They asked us and we said no. This earth doesn’t have a price. But the rich said yes, and we’re backed into a corner.”

Late last year, when the second installment of promised compensation payments failed to materialize, landowners protested again, temporarily interrupting work on the project.

Every single person we interviewed along the river, above and below the dam site, detested the very idea of Patuca III. “It’s a barbarism to nature,” said a man who ran a small lunch counter by the worksite. “And the people living according to their ancestral traditions will be the worst affected.”


Children play near a small hydroelectric dam in the la Paz region of Honduras. The electricity produced powers three indigenous communities, and each family in the area sent a representative to supply the labor. The communities now own and maintain it. The dam allows a portion of the river to flow, thus not harming the ecosystem. (Eve Chayes Lyman)

To talk to them, the indigenous Tawahka and Miskito peoples who live downstream of the dam, we took to the river in one of the long wooden boats, “pipantes,” that are the only mode of transport along the sinuous, silver artery. “This river is the road for all these communities,” said Gil Cardones in Krautara, the first Tawahka village we visited. “Already the water’s so low it’s hard to navigate in winter.”

According to the IDB’s and other studies, changes in the river’s flow also threaten several species of migrating fish, as well as lizards, crocodiles and turtles. “Now our people are having to abandon fishing,” a young teacher told us at a community meeting in the largest Tawahka village, Krausirpi. “We are losing this whole part of our life and culture. The fish and turtles will go extinct.”

Until recently, the Tawahkas hunted and foraged and fished and interspersed crops with untouched ground and overgrown fallow, preserving this last uninterrupted stretch of rain forest. Patuca III will accelerate its destruction.

For mile after mile upstream of this village, we had seen it: trees hacked off with machetes, the splintered stumps jutting skyward. The tropical wood isn’t even salvaged. “They make boards to build their camps and burn the rest,” said a man who’d asked for a ride in our boat. “It’s too expensive to transport.” Lime-green, deathly silent grass takes over where once stood a vibrant, multi-story forest filled with countless varieties of trees, vines, air plants, orchids, a riot of birdsong and hundreds of endangered species.

Another hitchhiker helped us understand how even apparently petty local corruption contributes to the devastation. As she grew comfortable with us, she began excoriating the mayor who presides over that stretch of river. Government-funded small-scale development projects, such as village clean-ups, used to provide a trickle of cash that residents need to buy amenities, pay for boat rides to larger towns a few times a year or to purchase medicine, she said, enabling them to retain their lands in an area bereft of public services or access to local markets where they could sell crops.

But under Mayor Walter Bertran Gonzales, the cash-for-work stopped.

“He gets 25,000 lempiras (about $1,100) in public funding to spend on this project, 25,000 for that project, but he carries it off on his shoulder,” a farmer in the village of Bilalmo had told us the previous day. Newspaper reports echo the corruption allegations. As the projects dried up, depriving villagers of the meager wages they earned from making small repairs to public facilities, cleaning up their communities or other such efforts, residents turned to the only recourse they had: selling their land.

“In just the past year, almost all my neighbors have sold their land,” the hitchhiker told my sister. “People have no other way to get money.” The buyers “bring in outsiders to clear it and plant pasture for cows.” Several people displaced from this area are known to have fled north to the United States.

According to some who dared talk about it, many of the buyers are narco-traffickers or their proxies. In the article “Drug Policy as Conservation Policy: Narco-Deforestation ,” Kendra McSweeney and her co-authors note the “close correlation between the timing and location of forest loss and drug transit .” Buying and “improving” land by converting tropical forest into ranches is a good way to launder money. With two dozen villages about to be submerged or badly affected by this dam, and the pockets of wealthy absentee landlords suddenly flush with compensation, the hunger for land will only intensify.

But all of these transactions our passengers described are illegal. Under the 1999 decree that established territories downstream of the dam as a national park, its lands are either inalienable public patrimony or the collective property of indigenous peoples, and only inhabitants present when the decree was enacted may live there. The prosecutor’s office has pleaded lack of resources to investigate complaints, says Erik Nielsen, one of the authors of the narco-deforestation article, so the “sales” proceed unchecked.

Such pretexts are to be expected in a country that is almost a textbook case of the systemic corruption I have been studying. Economic activity is dominated by less than a dozen families. Congress, operating out of a dilapidated 1950s building, has passed law after law lavishing incentives on their businesses, and helping President Juan Orlando Hernández consolidate power and shroud government activities in secrecy.

Environmental activists — in the world’s deadliest country for them — have documented systematic bias on the part of the legal system, including persistent police harassment and false accusations leading to lengthy and expensive proceedings or unjust convictions. In the case of Berta Caceres, a locally beloved and internationally celebrated campaigner who was assassinated last year, the preposterous initial police suggestions that a botched robbery or a “crime of passion” had taken place, and the rush to investigate Caceres’s fellow activists, fit the pattern.

After intense international pressure, the former vice minister of environment is in jail pending trial for illegally issuing the permit for the dam Caceres was protesting. If the allegations are accurate, it would be another example of the Environment Ministry’s rubber-stamping that experts and practitioners describe.

Given Chinese President Xi Jinping’s high-profile anti-corruption campaign, Chinese businesses are beginning to think differently about corporate social responsibility in cases like this. In fact, in 2013, Sinohydro pulled out of the project Caceres died protesting.

Patuca III is far worse, yet Sinohyrdo continues work on it.

And it’s not as though its construction will improve ordinary Hondurans’ lives, even if it does generate electricity. With the country losing nearly a third of its power through poorly maintained transmission systems, the explicit objective is to sell electricity to neighboring countries, according to Giovanni Ayestas, head of social relations at UEPER, the government agency managing Patuca III. And thus generate a cash flow ripe for capture.

Stepping ashore as we nosed our boat onto the bank below her village, our hitchhiker summed up what we had been hearing for days: “That dam will kill us.”

It won’t leave the rest of us untouched, either. Irreplaceable environmental treasures such as the Patuca River and its surrounding national park belong to us all, not just a handful of kleptocrats. Only persistent public pressure can reliably protect the wild lands that are everyone’s birthright — whether they lie in national monuments west of the Rockies or in Appalachia or along the Patuca River.

schayes@ceip.org

“They captured me for defending our collective rights.”

Inside the efforts of Honduras’s Garifuna people to protect their ancestral lands from tourism development

Photos by Mónica González Islas

 http://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/they-captured-me-for-defending-our-collective-rights
 

 

  • Medelin David Hernandez near the community of Guadalupe. OFRANEH members say that the land there was illegally sold to international developers.

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  • Derick Garcia works to make bricks for the community of Guadalupe. When OFRANEH members reoccupy their ancestral lands, they often build homes out of adobe.

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  • The Indura Beach and Golf Resort, one of several tourism developments on the Honduran coast that Garifuna members say have occupied their ancestral lands.

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  • Carlos Castillo, an OFRANEH member, has fought against what he says is the Indura Beach and Golf Resort’s illegal appropriation of Garifuna lands.

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  • Medelin David Hernandez, one of the cofounders of the Garifuna community of Guadalupe.

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  • Miriam Miranda, president of the Afro-Honduran organization OFRANEH, at a rally in the Honduran capital marking the one-year anniversary of the assassination of indigenous environmental leader Berta Cáceres.

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  • Juliana Flores, an OFRANEH member, works the land in the Garifuna community of Vallecito.

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  • A woman named Gabriela in the communal kitchen at the Garifuna community of Vallecito.

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  •  A woman in the Garifuna community of Guadalupe.

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  • A woman named Rosa works to clear the land for the construction of a home in the Garifuna community of Guadalupe.

Last February, I traveled to Honduras with photographer Mónica González Islas to report on the murder of indigenous environmental leader Berta Cáceres for Sierra. Before going to Intibucá—the territory of the indigenous Lenca people, where Cáceres’s organization, the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), is based—Mónica and I traveled along the Honduran Atlantic coast visiting COPINH’s closest ally in its many years of struggle, the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras, or OFRANEH.

OFRANEH began in 1978 as a grassroots group struggling against racism in the banana industry. It has since grown into an organization that continues to battle racism while also defending the cultural, spiritual, and territorial rights of Honduras’s Afro-Indigenous communities. The Garifuna descend from Africans who escaped from slave traders in the Caribbean and then formed alliances with the region’s indigenous societies. In Honduras, there are at least 46 Garifuna communities in four departments along the Atlantic coast. There are also Garifuna communities in Belize, Guatemala, and Nicaragua.

Like many indigenous peoples across Central America and Mexico, a large number of Garifuna migrated to cities in Honduras and the United States looking for work in the 1980s and 1990s. In the wake of this out-migration, foreign, mostly Canadian, businesspeople began to purchase Garifuna lands along Honduras’s Caribbean coast and to set up various tourist enterprises—vacation homes, cruise-ship ports, luxury resorts, and restaurants. Many of those purchases were illegal. The Garifuna’s ancestral claim to the lands stretches back at least 200 years, and their legal claim to the lands dates to the communal land titles granted to them in 1901.

In recent years, under OFRANEH’s guidance, the Garifuna have been challenging the land sales in court, arguing that the titles used to sell parcels of land were falsified. At the same time, the Garifuna have engaged in direct action to reclaim their lands. OFRANEH has helped organize land reoccupations during which Garifuna families build adobe homes by hand and replant fields to re-establish their claims to the land. These largely subsistence communities stand in sharp contrast to the cruise-ship terminals, expensive hotels, and restaurants that serve international tourists.

The Garifuna’s struggle to secure their land rights has led to repression. Garifuna communities are routinely subject to police raids during which community members are sometimes arrested and charged with trespassing. Often the police and other armed men act with violence; OFRANEH members have been beaten and kidnapped.

An attempt to secure land rights to a property near the town of Guadalupe, in the department of Colon, offers a glimpse into the difficulties the Garifuna face in trying to reclaim their territories.

In the predawn hours of October 12, 2016, some 20 young men and women entered an unoccupied parcel of land adjacent to a small vacation-home enclave of eight houses that is owned by a Canadian company called Alta Vista. The group had already consulted with OFRANEH’s lawyers to begin the legal work of securing the land title; in the meantime, they would try to recuperate the abandoned property themselves.

When they arrived, around 4:30 A.M., no one was on the property, which was overgrown with weeds. Some people began working in the dark with machetes to open up the land. Others performed spiritual ceremonies to honor their ancestors. “The spiritual part of the struggle” is incredibly important, Medeline David, an OFRANEH activist, said. David was born in Guadalupe, but then left the area to study in the city of San Pedro Sula. She returned to Guadalupe in 2015 after graduating from university because city life left her “anxious and depressed.” She told me, “We took the initiative to recuperate this land, which lies within the ancestral titles of our community.”

David told me that women from Guadalupe used the contested property from about 2003 to 2009 as a rest and relaxation area. After two men were murdered on the nearby beach, women in the community were afraid to spend time there. Garifuna community members hired a local man to look after the property, but the custodian then sold the land (illegally, according to OFRANEH attorneys) to a Canadian investor in 2010 with forged land titles drawn up with a local judge.

“The first days here were hard,” David said. “There was nowhere to sleep at night. The first weeks were all hard work. But the system excludes us as young Garifuna so we are building our own communities with our own resources.”

It took less than a month for the authorities to attempt to push the Garifuna off the land. On November 10, at around 4:50 P.M., some of the land-rights activists were at the site looking for firewood when one of them got a call warning that the police were on their way. “We didn’t worry, because the police had come by several times,” David said. On that day, however, “they came on the land as if they were going to capture Chapo Guzmán [the notorious Mexican drug trafficker].” The police entered the property with their faces masked and their rifles aimed at David and the other OFRANEH members.

“They grabbed me,” David said, “and Antoin [her young son] screamed. That scream set me off and I struggled. The police started clubbing people. It took three of them to handcuff me. They took four of us to jail. But I never lost hope. I never got scared. I’m not a criminal; I’m not a narco.”

Three OFRANEH members were released after a few minutes, but David was held in custody for 24 hours. The police accused her of trespassing. “Imagine that,” she said, “trespassing. How am I going to trespass in my own community if I’m from here? They didn’t capture me for drug trafficking or any other criminal activity. They captured me for defending our collective rights.”

Mónica and I visited several other OFRANEH land recuperation sites. Speaking with OFRANEH members, we routinely heard anger about the sharp inequities between the posh tourism development and their own struggles to survive.

“Those boats that come here, they don’t benefit us,” Carmen Álvarez told me as we stood on a Garifuna-claimed beach on the outskirts of the coastal town of Trujillo. In May 2012, Álvarez was one of some 500 Garifuna who occupied the site and fought in court to restore the community’s formal title.

“Their cruise-ship docks out in the ocean—speedboats pick up the tourists and take them to a bus that takes them around the center of Trujillo and then to Banana Coast, and they stay there,” Álvarez said. “None of that benefits the Garifuna peoples at all. In no way. If someone has a restaurant near the beach, they benefit more from local or national tourism than from international tourism. Randy bought three restaurants on the beach. The whole network is only for him. This whole region has the same problem.”

The Randy she’s talking about is Randy Jorgensen, a Canadian businessman who made millions selling pornography before moving to Honduras and buying large parcels of land—illegally according to OFRANEH—on the Atlantic coast. My attempts to contact Jorgensen were unsuccessful. In an interview with a reporter from the China Global Television Network, however, Jorgensen said that the Garifuna were “foreigners, immigrants in Honduras” and that buying their land was perfectly legal because it “benefits” the Garifuna. When the reporter pushed him on OFRANEH’s claims, Jorgensen said, “If you are on a witch hunt, you need to go someplace else and look for a witch. Are we done now?”

“Before Randy showed up, international tourists used to come and enjoy the beach, but with Randy that doesn’t happen anymore,” Álvarez said. “Randy came here about 20 or so years ago. And about 10 years ago he started buying up land. They said it would benefit us, bring development. There is no benefit for us. All he does is create private property.”

“The titles to these lands are ancestral titles,” she continued. “The lands belong to us as Garifuna peoples. Sadly, we lost a lot of land, and we are struggling to recuperate it. I was arrested in 2014 for fighting for this land. Since we know they are our lands, we keep fighting. And we’ve recuperated this land here. We won this battle. Last year, they came twice to try and kick us off the land. . . . We didn’t let that happen.”

“You used to be able to walk the entire length of this beach. Not anymore,” Álvarez said. If you walk to Banana Coast, Banana Beach, that is private property. You can’t walk on the beach there. There are guards with huge dogs patrolling there. They want to dispossess us. They’re trying to force us off. If we grow weak, they’ll stay here. But if we stay strong, they’ll be the ones to leave.”

At one land encampment literally across the road from Jorgensen’s Banana Beach Resort, two brothers, Noel and Nilfor Flores, showed us around the Wani Leé recuperation camp, speaking with excitement about the coconut, banana, and mango trees they have planted, the many varieties of chilies as well as yucca, beans, avocado, and sweet potatoes.

“The struggle is hard,” Noel Flores told me after hours working in the communal orchards. “The investors are coming at us hard, and the government supports them. They are trying to take away our future and our children and grandchildren’s future.”

Since reclaiming this property, the Flores brothers and another 60 people have built their homes by hand and worked the land. Last September, police stormed the land site and burned seven cabins.

“Our lives were in danger that day,” Noel Flores said. “They came in here violently and started burning the cabins without asking us a single question, without asking whether or not there were women and children inside the cabins.”

“We know that this land is ours,” Noel Flores continued as we walked around. “All the documents saying that these people are buying land, they are false. And they’re suing us now. They flipped the whole thing and are suing us now. They should be suing the government for lying to them. But they’re suing the community of Sante Fe because we’re claiming our land back.”

The Garifuna’s strategy of using people-powered nonviolent direct action to reclaim their lands has been guided by OFRANEH’s charismatic leader, Miriam Miranda. Born in the Honduran coastal community of Sante Fe, Miranda was raised in a banana work camp where her father had migrated. She then went to university in Tegucigalpa. “While studying, I got involved in social movements and I never graduated,” she told me, remembering her 1980s-era student activism against the U.S. military’s cold war presence in Honduras, which was used as a base to support the Contra rebels in Nicaragua’s civil war. Miranda then started working with a women’s organization in the poorer neighborhoods of Tegucigalpa. “It made a major impact on me to see the way that women lived in those barrios. With one bucket of water, they would have to do all the day’s work: cooking, dishes, laundry.” The machismo was heavy there. “I would give women copies of a magazine we published and the women would have to hide it from their husbands,” she said.

Miranda emphasized to me that OFRANEH’s advocacy is cultural and spiritual as much as it is political and legal. The efforts to recuperate illegally appropriated lands are just one piece of a larger struggle that includes reclaiming—and being proud of—the Garifuna’s unique history. OFRANEH promotes instruction in the Garifuna language— a Arawakan language that also includes words from English, Spanish, and French—as well as activities such as traditional drumming. ““We need to strengthen our identity,” she said. “We are an Afro-Indigenous mixture. The state denies our indigeneity, and migration puts our indigeneity at risk. People who do not know their identity are more manageable.”

The movement is also grounded in feminist ideals. “The Garifuna are matrilineal peoples,” she said, emphasizing OFRANEH’s work with women and youth. “Women are leading many of the processes of struggle.”

Since the 2009 coup that removed from office president Manuel Zelaya, OFRANEH’s advocacy has had to grow to challenge the expansion of extractive industries like logging and mining. “They treat Honduras like some kind of private plantation,” she said, referring to multinational corporations that are conducting operations there. But the organization remains focused on reclaiming the Garifuna’s ancestral lands. “We don’t believe in projects; we believe in processes,” she said. “You have to defend what you are. That is terrible. It shouldn’t be like that.”

Such resistance has been dangerous for Miranda, just as it has been dangerous for OFRANEH’s rank-and-file members. In July 2014, Miranda and other Garifuna were abducted by heavily armed men as they traveled to visit an OFRANEH community where a few years prior drug traffickers had built an illegal airstrip. OFRANEH had demanded that the airstrip be destroyed and had traveled out to make sure it had been when they were abducted. Quick action by local community members—along with swift national and international condemnation of the kidnapping—forced the release of Miranda and her colleagues.

Given the political violence and impunity that pervades Honduras, I asked Miranda about what steps she and OFRANEH have taken to protect themselves. She told me, “Protection must be collective. There is no individual protection. The struggles have their roots, their reasons for being, and they must be supported. Otherwise, you can’t protect a single person.”

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.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Elites and Organized Crime

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.

SEE ALSO: Honduras Elites and Organized Crime

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.”