Archive for the ‘corruption in Honduras’ Category

The Flame of Opposition in Honduras

As Honduras deals with the fallout of political scandals surrounding President Juan Orlando Hernández, ousted former president Manuel Zelaya and his LIBRE party mount their opposition.

September 5, 2019

Military police at a student protest in June (Photo by Seth Berry)

Military police at a student protest in June (Photo by Seth Berry)


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Manuel Zelaya, Honduras’s ousted ex-President, eased into the couch in the headquarters for his LIBRE party and laid out the opposition’s mounting insurrection.

This summer marked 10 years since Zelaya was overthrown in a U.S.-backed military coup. The decade since has transformed Honduras, exacerbating the Central American nation’s preexisting social problems by turning it into one of the poorest, most violent places in the hemisphere. Since the coup, a junta of right-wing, billionaire drug traffickers has slipped into political power—including President Juan Orlando Hernández, who U.S. prosecutors recently accused of complicity in a drug money scheme to illegally fund his 2013 presidential campaign.

“Ever since 2009, when they got rid of me,” Zelaya said, “an authoritarian military regime was installed that centralized power, sacked the [government’s] institutions and indebted the country to remain in power. The regime only represents the interests of transnational corporations. And as long as [Hernández] serves them, the United States is going to continue supporting him, regardless of the accusations.”

On August 9, Zelaya and his left-opposition LIBRE party organized a demonstration in Tegucigalpa’s Parque Central to demand the immediate resignation of Juan Orlando Hernández (or “JOH,” as he’s commonly known).  But the battle LIBRE waged this summer wasn’t only in the streets. It’s also in the National Congress, through a proposed “electoral reform” designed to fix a democracy many believe has been corrupted beyond repair.

“The electoral reform is an instrument for elections,” Zelaya said. “And because the [current] regime refuses to do it, we’re going on in an insurrection, which is a peaceful but active protest, in the streets and the Congress.”

The electoral reform consists of the creation of two main bodies, the Tribunal Electoral Justice and the National Electoral Council. Carrying 44 representatives from each main party, they would oversee the next election cycle. This could potentially augur radical change in the electoral processes in Honduras, as the two proposed bodies would entirely replace the TSE (Tribunal Suprema Electoral, or Supreme Electoral Tribunal), the judicial body which became notorious for legitimizing the fraudulent elections in 2013 and 2017.

For many members of the opposition, the hope for a democratic defeat of JOH is juxtaposed with the cynicism the last 10 years have corrupted Honduran democracy beyond the point of repair.

“The truth is that no state institution is functioning as it should—none. Not even the Congress in which we work. Because it’s corrupted, because narcotraffickers have penetrated the majority of state institutions,” said Lenín Laínez, a congressman for LIBRE. “The legislative insurrection that we’re waging in the national congress is precisely for that.”

Zelaya and LIBRE compose only one part of a wide-ranging, fractured opposition movement though. That opposition remains divided over their post-JOH vision for the country. Opposition leaders like Zelaya have also faced criticisms for being mere manipulators of electoral politics rather than consistent fighters for social justice. Even so, one thing unites the opposition: The country can no longer wait for the 2020 election to get rid of the president.

Ousted president Manuel Zelaya (Photo by Seth Berry)

Ousted president Manuel Zelaya (Photo by Seth Berry)

The Battle Against Privatization

For many Hondurans, the boiling point after ten years of “narco-dictatorship” came with Hernández’s latest proposal for privatizations.

In late April, Hernández announced a sweeping plan to privatize Honduras’s public health and education systems, while the government simultaneously agreed to a $311 million loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Rage accumulated over years of frustration with Hernández’s governance transformed the anger over privatization plans into an all-out demand for the president’s resignation. Health workers took to the streets alongside teachers to protest the proposal, where they were joined by a broad range of students and environmental, LGBTQ+, and Indigenous rights activists. The protests came just years after a $300 million corruption scandal in the dilapidated public health system took thousands to the streets for weeks in 2015 to demand JOH’s resignation. The president admitted millions in embezzled funds benefited his 2013 electoral campaign. Teachers, meanwhile, have long been on the front lines of post-coup resistance, holding the line against creeping privatization.

“This attempt to privatize health and education was received with enormous resistance,” said José Carlos Cárdona, a leader of the human rights group Jóvenes Contra el Fraude and a history professor at the National Autonomous University of Honduras (UNAH).

Cárdona believes that the attempted privatizations came after years of deliberately underfunding hospitals and schools in order to sell the idea that they’d function better if only they were turned into profit machines.

“But the people don’t believe that,” he said. “So all of the doctors declared themselves to be in rebellion against the government.”

Protests soon turned ugly. Night after night, massive crowds of protesters burned tires throughout Tegucigalpa, shouting Fuera JOH! (Get out JOH), and drawing the ire of security forces, who responded by raining down barrages of teargas on them—or occasionally, live bullets. On June 21, President Hernández dispatched the military throughout the country to crack down on protests.  On June 24, the military invaded the UNAH and opened fire on students, injuring eight.

“It was a day you couldn’t forget,” said Dorian Alvarez, a sociology student and activist at the UNAH. “The entire university was protesting, basically. There were several confrontations between the police and students in which the police broke inside. And once they got in, they started shooting the students.”

“I was leaving class when they started shooting at us,” said Wendy García, another student activist at UNAH. “There were completely innocent people who had nothing to do with what was going on outside.”

For poor students such as García, the privatizations would all but preclude them from being able to study. “To be able to study is extremely costly,” she said. “I’m one of the few people from my village who was able to go to the university, but none of us would be able to come if the public university were privatized.”

“Our role now,” said Alvarez, “is to protect the university from the claw of the neoliberal system trying to eat it up.”

Student protests in the name of defending public education against creeping fees and undemocratic university decision-making processes have been bubbling at UNAH for years.

The violent crackdowns on protest weren’t limited to Tegucigalpa. Anabell Melgar, a student activist and member of Frente Nacional de Juventudes en Resistencia (National Front of Youth in Resistance), had been approaching a protest on the afternoon of June 12 in La Esperanza, Intibucá, the mountainous western city where Berta Cáceres, the world-renowned environmentalist, was assassinated. Sensing that teargas would soon be fired at at the protest ahead of her, Melgar stayed back—only to be captured and beaten by four police officers.

“One took me by the hair,” she said. “Another, my arms. Another came with a club, and beat me in the legs. Another had a teargas canister. He set it off, and put it against my face. He burned me; burned my face.”

Student protests in August (Photo by Seth Berry)

Student protests in August (Photo by Seth Berry)

When she was finally able to escape after a senior officer forced the other four to let her go, Melgar got away and hid in a nearby house, where she watched as several hidden patrols of police ambushed a crowd of students as they fled from the initial demonstration, opening fire on them.

“They were able to escape and run,” she said. “But the five patrols caught them afterwards. Not just with teargas. They shot at them with live ammunition.”

Violent crackdowns have become characteristic of the JOH regime. At least 33 were killed by security forces in protests in the weeks of violence following the December 2017 electoral fraud. And many worry as protesters have faced increasingly bloody crackdowns with the creation of special military police units, such as the notorious Policía Militar del Órden Público (Military Police for Public Order, PMOP) in 2013, which was accused of killing protesters in 2017 and 2018. The creation of such special forces—including the U.S.-trained, SWAT-style TIGRES in 2013—exacerbates the human rights situation in a country where the military has patrolled the streets for years and has been accused of death squad activity against anti-government protestors.

“Military policemen are ex-members of the national army. The government created a special course to be able to call them military ‘police,’ and then dispatch them to maintain ‘public order,’” said Mario Argeñal, a leader in COPEMH, Honduras’ largest union, as well as LIBRE. He has been involved in anti-government protests in the 10 years since the coup. “It’s a disguise. It’s the military in the streets. It’s a highly militarized society.”

The Electoral Reform

Honduran democracy, some would say, is already doomed to failure.

But recognizing that doesn’t prevent people like Lenín Laínez, a 24-year-old representative for the LIBRE party, from believing that the best—and the only—way to fight the regime is by working through the corrupted system itself.

Laínez is one of LIBRE’s two diputados for the Intibucá department—the other is Bertha Zúñiga Cáceres, daughter of the murdered environmentalist. He is also the youngest member of Honduras’s National Congress, and speaks glowingly of the electoral reform. He holds faith that the peaceful route of elections and electoral reform can oust JOH. But that faith seems overwhelmed by bitterness over the depth of government corruption. It’s the reason, he says, so many have taken to the streets in often, volcanic displays of anger.

Protests in June (Photo by Seth Berry)

Protests in June (Photo by Seth Berry)

The latest blow came in November and December 2017, when JOH’S conservative Partido Nacionál (National Party) was widely suspected of stealing an election they’d already lost.

For people like Laínez, JOH’s fraudulent 2017 reelection stung particularly deep, not only because a democratic opening was lost, but because it was the latest in a succession of similarly corrupted elections. The opposition alleges JOH already stole the 2013 election from inaugural LIBRE candidate Xiomara Castro, wife of Manuel Zelaya. Salvador Nasrallah, the 2017 candidate for the opposition coalition between LIBRE and other smaller forces, also ran against in 2013 and alleged at the time JOH’s win was illegitimate.

“To participate in an electoral system without transparency is to certify the dictatorship,” said Argeñal of the need for electoral reform.

But he has his doubts about such reform efforts in the first place: He believes that as long as they work within the existing system, they’re still assenting to a regime that has rigged the democracy to its own advantage. For Argeñal, those doubts don’t come from nowhere. Criminal groups with suspected ties to the JOH administration assassinated his brother in 2013 after the electoral fraud took place.

LIBRE has been advocating electoral reform since before the 2017 vote, and European Union election observers have also stressed the need for reforms.

Laínez explained the proposal one evening in Santa Ana, Lainez’s rural home village in the state of Intibucá, watching the moon rise over the nearby mountains of El Salvador. The post-coup regime’s neglect of rural areas is palpable in Santa Ana. Its people are so impoverished that nearly half have left to the U.S. Potholes scar the road so deeply they’re nearly impassable. Now, Salvadoran gangmembers from MS-13—who began crossing the border in 2016 to escape their own government—have occupied several empty houses, killing three villagers in 2018, according to Laínez.

The place is haunted by a revolutionary past: only 10 yards from El Salvador, older residents remember when Salvadoran guerrillas used to pass through the village in the 1980s, ingratiating a mythology of armed struggle into the community. Yet despite revolutionary violence’s perverse allure as a tool for social change, Laínez adamantly rejects the notion of repeating that past.

“Any form of struggle, for us, is good as long as it doesn’t entail violence,” he said. “Any form of struggle. But principally, our objective is to take power through the path of peaceful elections.”

Even so, he’s well aware of the potentially bloody price they’ll have to pay should they fail in that endeavor.

“We’re conscious that if there aren’t electoral reforms, that if the electoral system isn’t cleaned up,” he said, “the next elections will come, and there will be a crisis even uglier than the one we had in 2017. More deaths. More repression.”

On the Verge of Collapse

If fixing Honduran democracy through electoral reform seemed useful after this summer’s protests, it became imperative—or, depending on who you ask, even more futile—after a damning report was released on August 3.

That day, a 44-page document from a U.S. district court seemed to confirm what Hondurans had known intuitively for years: Juan Orlando Hernández had colluded with cartels to illegally secure the 2013 presidential election. No longer could the graffiti scrawled throughout countless Tegucigalpa slums—Fuera, Narco-dictador! (Get out, Narco-dictator!)—be written off as mere hyperbole.

The summer’s second major wave of protests overtook the streets following the revelations, demanding once more that the president resign. And on August 15, 124 out of the 128 seats in the National Congress voted for the “Special Law for the Selection and Appointment of Electoral Authorities and Attributions,” which would stipulate the election of 44 representatives from each party to monitor election processes in 2020. The first major step towards completing a substantial electoral reform, after eight months of deliberations, was completed.

As of August 30, no further progress had yet been made.

“It’s divided between different sectors,” Zelaya said of the opposition to Hernández. “[But] we’re all united in that we want the regime to leave. We want the regime out. We’re telling the regime to get out. Fuera JOH. We’re all united in that 100 percent.”

Student protests (Photo by Héctor Edú)

Student protests (Photo by Héctor Edú)

“We can’t call it a dictatorship per se,” said a UNAH student, who asked to remain anonymous for safety reasons, of JOH’s legacy. “But we can call it an authoritarian government…You can see how this is all boiling to a tipping point—how Juan Orlando created a military police; how he’s giving unprecedented power to the military.”

After a few days, the flurry of international press coverage the revelations died off. Media analyst John McEvoy wrote how, because their government is a client regime carrying out neoliberal policies favorable to U.S. companies, Honduran victims are seen as “unworthy victims” in the eyes of mainstream media, as compared to victims of regimes that don’t heel to U.S. interests, such as those in Venezuela. Press coverage was capped with an article in Foreign Policy, which proclaimed that even JOH’s unlikely ouster or extradition wouldn’t change the entrenched problems exacerbated by the violent, post-coup decade. The headline was as straightforward as it was bleak: “Hondurans have little cause for hope.”

Soon after the revelations, with media attention drifting elsewhere, protests against JOH fizzled out with no changes in government; the country had returned to business as usual. Nancy Pelosi visited Honduras on an August 10 state visit, making statements about governance whose perfunctory mildness—“You cannot have security unless you end corruption,” she said—wildly understated the enormity of the accusations against Hernández. Hernández himself visited the Organization of American States in Washington D.C., where he discussed “good practices and technical support in the fight against illegal drug trafficking.”

For Zelaya, any chance of ousting Hernández depends on the fractured opposition’s ability to develop organizational skills greater than those of Hernández’s ruling National Party. “The political future for Honduras depends on the majority of its people’s capacity for political organization,” he said. “The elites are well-organized. The corruption is well-organized. The narcotraffickers are well-organized.”

But Hondurans are well aware of the implications of failing to oust Hernández. Human rights leader Jose Carlos Cárdona believes that, should nothing change, Honduras is on the precipice of a catastrophe unlike any the country has yet experienced.

“You don’t know how these assholes screwed everything,” he said, only a few yards from where the military police opened fire on students at the UNAH. “The level of extreme poverty in Honduras is at four million people…the country is on the verge of collapse. We’re going to collapse at any time. We just need a little flame. And then everything goes to hell.”


Jared Olson is a Pulitzer Center grantee, writer and freelance journalist whose work focuses on the struggle for justice in Central America. He is currently a senior at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida, studying international relations and journalism. He can be reached at Jolson455@flagler.edu or at jaredolson.org.

Jesuit Community of Honduras speaks out about the situation in the country

 

National Apostolic Council

Institutions of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) of Honduras

 “Blessed are you when people hate you, when they expel you and insult  you, and come to call you delinquents on account of the Son of Man” (Lucas 6, 22).

Given the critical situation and deterioration suffered by the Honduran population and the loss of legitimacy that the various institutions of the State now experience, the apostolic works entrusted to the Jesuits of Honduras, now express our concern:

 

1.- We deplore the serious social and political crisis experienced by the Honduran population as a result of the historic violation of fundamental rights, the deterioration of the rule of law, and as a result of the erratic and corrupt practices of politicians and decision-makers in the public administration. 2.- We stand in solidarity with the victims of systematic repression by the various armed and security forces in their mandate to repress the social protests led by various sectors of the population demanding justice, respect for their fundamental rights that are violated, and to reject the government policies of concessions and privatizations of common goods and public services. This indiscriminate repression has left dozens of people injured and the murder of some citizens, including: Luis Antonio Maldonado; Erick Francisco Peralta and the teenager Eblin Noel Corea. We extend our sympathy in solidarity to their families and our commitment coming from our faith to remain faithful to the search for justice. 3.- We warn, call attention to and denounce the high risk to which the Honduran population are exposed when they take to the streets to exercise their right to peaceful protest when the National Council for Defense and Security, under the command of Mr. Juan Orlando Hernández, authorizes and sends the military and police forces to indiscriminately repress the protests of a population that demands justice, respect for the rule of law and the constitutionality of the country. This was most evident in the violation of university autonomy, when a squadron of the military police broke into the University City facilities, leaving at least four students injured … 4.- There has been a propaganda campaign filled with lies and manipulation to discredit defenders of human and environmental rights. The elaboration of profiles of people identified as leaders of the protests has the intention to criminalizing them and sets the context to justify repressive actions and judicial procedures against these profiled persons. The list of profiles includes Fr. Ismael Moreno (Melo), director of the Reflection, Research and Communication Team and Radio Progreso (ERIC-RP); and Leonel George and Juan López, delegates of the Word of God of the San Isidro Labrador de Tocoa Parish, who are falsely accused of leading an armed gang that confront the  police and other accusations that only seek to discredit their struggle for social justice, and to create conditions that would justify actions against them.

 

5.- We highlight and subscribe to the last message of the Episcopal Conference of Honduras (CEH), based on an analysis, reflection and prayer concerning the roots and consequences of the current crisis in Honduras. Any effort to “correct the path of Honduras” must go through the “rescue of ethical values” and overcome the “moral decadence in which the country is falling.”  The country yearns for a just society in solidarity with just laws, “in accordance with the dignity of the human person and seeking the common good”. The country must be able to dialogue when it has the confidence in the institutionality of the state, with a healthy political ethic and the truth as a search and starting point. It cannot be a society that militarizes security and state institutions.

 

6.- We fully adopt the call of the Episcopal Conference of Honduras (CEH)  “We want to make a call to the whole society so that, from the reality in which each person and each group lives, we consider the need to join the search for ways to solve these problems in Honduras. This can come through accords, agreements, reforms, platforms, a plebiscite or a referendum, or citizens’ initiative laws, etc. Let us become aware that a change is possible to improve this reality and the commitment to achieve it in solidarity.”

 

Consejo Nacional Apostólico

Obras de la Compañía de Jesús en Honduras

 

National Apostolic Council

Institutions of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) of Honduras

 

June 26, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘They put a gun to my head,’ says Honduran mother

 
Elquin Castillo is seen near Casa Betania Santa Martha June 29, 2019, in Salto de Agua, Mexico. (CNS photo/David Agren)

TENOSIQUE, Mexico (CNS) — Maribel — a Garifuna woman from Honduras and mother of six children, ages 6 months to 16 years — only wanted to work.

She baked coconut bread and sold it the streets of San Pedro Sula, Honduras, until a gang started demanding a cut — roughly 20 percent of her earnings. After threats and violence and futile attempts at negotiating with the gang, she fell behind in her payments. Gangsters eventually showed up at her daughter’s school to send a message of intimidation, forcing Maribel and her family to flee the country.

“I was being pursued,” she said from a shelter run by the Franciscans in southern Mexico. “I’m scared they’re going to come looking for me here,” she added, noting that gang members were now threatening her sister in Honduras and asking about her whereabouts.

Maribel’s plight highlights the despair and desperation of many migrants, who flee violence, poverty and, increasingly, drought and the early effects of climate change in Central America.

Mexico has sent members of its National Guard to stop migrants at its southern border, and stories of overcrowding and unsanitary conditions in U.S. and Mexican migration detention centers have surfaced.

U.S. President Donald Trump — who threated Mexico with tariffs on its exports if migration was not stopped — has praised Mexico for its increased enforcement, telling reporters July 1: “Mexico is doing a lot right now. They have almost 20,000 soldiers between the two borders. … And the numbers are way down for the last week.”

But the migrants streaming out of Central America seem undeterred due to deteriorating conditions at home.

Few migrants grasp the geopolitics at play, focusing instead on seeking safety or escaping hunger at home. Staff at shelters in southern Mexico say the flow of migrants has remained high.

At La 72, the shelter in Tenosique, director Ramon Marquez reported receiving more than 10,000 guests so far in 2019, putting them on pace to break the record of 14,300 migrants welcomed in 2013.

Militarization, however, forces migrants to take paths less traveled to avoid police and soldiers, and this puts them more at risk, say shelter directors.

“Migrants don’t come here because they want to. Migrants leave their country because they don’t have any other alternative,” said Franciscan Sister Diana Munoz Alba, a human rights lawyer and a member of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary who works at a migrant shelter in Chiapas. “(There’s) a paradox of risking their lives to save their lives, and this militarization (of Mexico) is not going to stop migration.”

Maribel, whose name was changed for security reasons, fell victim to criminals shortly after crossing into Mexico from Guatemala in late May. Three hooded assailants spotted her and her family walking along a rural road and robbed them of their meager possessions.

“They threw us face down … the kids face down. They were scared, crying,” she recalled.

Maribel said she had never thought much about migrating, despite the difficulties of life in the Atlantida department on the Honduras’ Atlantic Coast — an area populated by Afro-Hondurans, who have been abandoning the country in droves.

“I can’t go back to Honduras. These gangs have people everywhere.”

After her husband suffered a disability in his construction job, Maribel started her own informal business, harvesting coconuts and baking coconut bread in Honduras.

She sold $60 of bread daily, but had to hand over 20 percent daily to the Calle 18 gang. There were other expenses, too, she said, such as the cost of sending her children to school, even though education is supposed to be free for children in Honduras.

In December, the gangs made greater demands, which she refused. As she worked one day, “They put a gun to my head and took all I had,” Maribel said.

She eventually stopped paying. Then the gang came looking for her 16-year-old daughter. Maribel saved her money and left Honduras with her family.

Violence has sent thousands fleeing from Honduras. But observers say other factors are driving migration, including poverty and political factors. Migrants speak of the sorry state of services such as health and education.

“That’s why we’re looking to migrate, because the economy is so bad,” said Elquin Castillo, 26, who left a fishing village with his pregnant wife, infant daughter and 20 relatives in June.

Javier Avila, 30, gave up after drought in southern Honduras wiped out his melon crop for the second consecutive season. He borrowed $82 to rent a small plot for his crop — which was lost — but could not find the funds to sow again in 2019.

“It used to be normal that it rained in the winter, but not any longer,” he said from a migrant shelter.

Maribel expressed similar pessimism over Honduras. She was hoping to receive a document to travel freely through Mexico, though she was uncertain how much longer she would have to wait.

Hondurans Are Still Fighting the US-Supported Dictatorship

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

By James North

JULY 1, 2019

 

Why People Flee Honduras

Immigrants at the U.S.-Mexico border are hoping to leave behind a home devastated by poverty, gangs and crime, and widespread violence against women.

06/07/2019

Honduras

Nichole Sobecki/VII

Hundreds and sometimes thousands at a time, Honduran migrants have joined caravans of Central Americans making their way north through Mexico to seek refuge in the United States. They arrive at the southern border only to face stricter asylum rules from an administration increasingly hostile to their entry. There are a number of reasons people may choose to flee their country, and when they do, it’s not an easy endeavor. Yet, they keep coming because of what they’re hoping to leave behind.

Honduras is one of the poorest countries in Latin America. Two-thirds of its roughly 9 million people live in poverty, according to the World Bank, and in rural areas, 1 in 5 lives in extreme poverty. With a growing population, combined with high underemployment and limited job opportunities because of a largely agricultural economy, many Hondurans seek opportunity elsewhere. And many who stay are dependent on remittances.

Women sit outside their home on the hills overlooking the city of Tegucigalpa.

Women sit outside their home on the hills overlooking the city of Tegucigalpa. | Nichole Sobecki/VII

A family looks out from their home in the impoverished neighborhood of San Pedro Sula.

A family looks out from their home in the impoverished neighborhood of San Pedro Sula. | Nichole Sobecki/VII

Honduras is one of the deadliest countries in the world and has one of the highest impunity rates. According to an analysis by InSight Crime, gang membership and activity have been on the rise in the past two decades, and the associated violence has hit the country’s urban areas the hardest. Extortion by gangs has forced many to flee in search of more security. Moreover, the Honduran police are both understaffed—in the northern district of San Pedro Sula, home to nearly 230,000 people and where well-known gangs like Barrio 18 and MS-13 operate, just 50 police officers watch over its 189 neighborhoods—and plagued by corruption and abuse.

Gang grafitti and policing in Honduras.

Top, the tag for MS-13 is sprayed across a wall in La Rivera Hernandez, one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in San Pedro Sula. Bottom, police officers frisk civilians and check their ID cards on a criminal database outside a pool bar, while others search the facility, in another neighborhood in San Pedro Sula. | Nichole Sobecki/VII

Violence—particularly domestic and sexual violence—in Honduras has taken or forever changed many women’s and girls lives. Gender-based violence is the second-leading cause of death for women of reproductive age. And in a country where emergency contraception and abortion are banned, even for rape victims, survivors of sexual violence have few options if they become pregnant. They can seek to terminate the pregnancy and risk prison time, or they can go through with it and face one of the highest maternal mortality rates in Latin America. As Jill Filipovic reports for Politico Magazine, for Honduran women, economic instability and physical insecurity are intertwined, and both are exacerbated by long-standing patriarchal social norms in the country.

Various women who have been affected by gender-based or sexual violence in Honduras.

Top, Debora Castillo, 17, outside her home in Corazol. Debora lost two children during childbirth. Honduras has an infant mortality rate over three times that of the U.S. Bottom left, Heydi Garcia Giron, 34, with her children, Daniel and Andrea, in their home in Tegucigalpa. Bottom right, Ricsy (a pseudonym), 19, outside her home in Choloma. Heydi and Ricsy are the victims of domestic and sexual violence, respectively. | Nichole Sobecki/VII

The cemetery in Corazol.

The cemetery in Corazol, Honduras. | Nichole Sobecki/VII

Buses ferry workers to and from their jobs at a clothing factory in Choloma, Honduras, one of the most dangerous cities for women in the world.

Buses ferry workers to and from their jobs at a clothing factory in Choloma, one of the most dangerous cities for women in the world. | Nichole Sobecki/VII

Almost 1,000 people gathered at the bus terminal in San Pedro Sula, after news of a new migrant caravan spread in April, one of several from Central America since late last year. The migrants travel the over 3,000-mile distance to the U.S. border in large groups for safety to avoid being robbed, kidnapped or killed by gangs on the way.

Members of a migrant caravan in San Pedro Sula.

A woman and her child rest on the floor with other participants in a migrant caravan leaving Honduras. | Nichole Sobecki/VII

Honduras president, others targets of DEA investigation

Juan Orlando Hernandez
The Associated Press

FILE – In this Sept. 26, 2018, file photo, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez addresses the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly at the United Nations headquarters. Recently unsealed testimony shows that a brother of the Honduran president admitted to U.S. federal agents that he’d accepted presents from violent drug traffickers he’d known for years and once asked Honduran officials about money the government allegedly owed the traffickers. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II, File

U.S. federal court documents show Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández and some of his closest advisers were among the targets of a Drug Enforcement Administration investigation.

A document filed by prosecutors on Tuesday in the Southern District of New York mentions Hernández as part of a group of individuals investigated by the DEA since about 2013 for participating “in large-scale drug-trafficking and money laundering activities relating to the importation of cocaine into the United States”.

Hernández was elected president of Honduras in late 2013.

The document is a July 2015 application to the court to compel Apple, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and AOL to give investigators email header information, but not emails’ content, for a number of accounts. Two of the accounts are believed to be of Hernández, the documents says.

There is no indication charges have been brought against Hernández.

Also included in the request are the email accounts of the president’s sister Hilda Hernández, his adviser Ebal Díaz and his security minister Julián Pacheco Tinoco. Hilda Hernández, who helped manage the finances of the president’s political party and his presidential campaign, died in a December 2015 helicopter crash. The request also named four members of the wealthy and politically-connected Rosenthal family.

Yani Rosenthal, a former national lawmaker and presidential candidate, pleaded guilty in U.S. federal court in 2017 for money laundering for the Cachiros drug trafficking organization.

The new court filing is part of the pre-trial motions in the case of Hernandez’s brother Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernández, who was arrested in 2018 in Miami and accused of scheming for years to bring tons of cocaine into the country. His trial is expected to start in September.

A spokesman for the Southern District of New York said on Thursday the court’s response to the application for email header information is not public information. He declined to comment further.

The document filed Tuesday raises the possibility that the DEA has email data for Honduras’ president and members of his inner circle dating to 2015.

Messages left for Díaz, who is Hernández’s de facto spokesman, were not immediately returned. Pacheco could not be immediately reached, but the government has previously denied allegations against him.

Pacheco has been dogged by allegations of his links to drug traffickers since at least 2017 when a leader of Honduras’ Cachiros cartel testified in another case in New York about his ties to drug traffickers.

Pacheco had served under Hernández’s predecessor, Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo Sosa, as the government’s chief of investigation and intelligence. Lobo’s son Fabio was sentenced to 24 years in a U.S. prison in 2017 for drug trafficking.

In another document filed Tuesday in Tony Hernández’s case, prosecutors said “the charges against the defendant arise out of a long-term investigation of politically connected drug trafficking in Honduras” that began in 2013.

On Thursday, a DEA spokeswoman referred questions asked by The Associated Press to the Southern District of New York.

The U.S. government has been a staunch supporter of Hernández’s government, pouring millions of dollars into security cooperation because Honduras is a key transshipment point for cocaine headed to the U.S. from South America.

Hernández had especially curried favor with Gen. John Kelly who had led the U.S. military’s Southern Command and later became President Donald Trump’s chief of staff. Kelly advocated for continued U.S. support of Hernández’s government, noting their contributions to the war on drugs and progress in combatting corruption.

When Hernández’s already controversial re-election was marred by irregularities in late 2017, the U.S. government congratulated him while the opposition was still contesting the vote count.

With Hondurans filling the ranks of several large migrant caravans during the past year, the U.S. has continued to support Hernández while pressuring his government to stem the immigration flow.

Many Honduran migrants encountered making the journey to the U.S. border during the past year have referenced government corruption among their reasons for leaving. Thousands of doctors and teachers have been marching through the streets of Honduras’ capital for three weeks against presidential decrees they say would lead to massive public sector layoffs. On Thursday, a massive march led to clashes with police who fired tear gas against some protesters’ rocks.

Retired history professor Dana Frank, whose recent book “The Long Honduran Night: Resistance, Terror, and the United States in the Aftermath of the Coup” details the country’s recent political turmoil said the documents confirm the U.S. government has known about drug trafficking activities linked to Hernández for years.

“Why have U.S. officials — from the State Department to the White House to the Southern Command — continued for years now to celebrate, and pour security funding into, a government whose very topmost officials and security figures it has known were drug traffickers?” Frank said. “This evidence underscores the vast hypocrisy of U.S. policy, which backs a known drug trafficker and his police and military cronies, while claiming to do so in the name of fighting crime and drugs.”

Caravans are the new and tragic identity of the poor – Honduras

“It’s worse to stay in Honduras,” said a family of seven traveling in the caravan. “On the road we risk getting assaulted or killed, but in Honduras we’re already condemned to die.” “Blame me, I’m leaving because I can’t stand my life here,” said another woman traveling along the way. But there’s no reason to look for someone to blame. People come together and with just a little encouragement they head out, pushed by winds that blow only North.

Ismael Moreno, SJ

Honduras has become the country of the caravans, a reality not explainable by just one factor. Many years went by of small groups of poor Hondurans silently and constantly exiting through the border until what was small grew huge. Today multitudes of people are just waiting for a little push to set out on the highways that will take them North.

Worldwide news


The first of the large caravans left Honduras on October 13, 2018. Another large one left in December and another on January 15, 2019. Many are asking who’s encouraging Hondurans to leave their country and join the caravans.

The US Embassy’s commercial attaché in Honduras has broadcasted publicity spots promoting the idea that strange agents are manipulating Hondurans to do this in order to makie the Honduran and US governments look bad.

So many pro-caravan factors are being argued that the caravans are now surrounded by an air of “mystery.” But is a “hairy hand” really organizing them? Whether or not that is the case, and whatever power such a hand may have, the caravans are a social phenomenon that has exceeded all predictions, turning them into worldwide news. Migration from Eastern Europe, Syria and parts of Africa were already international news. Now Central America, Honduras in particular, has been added to the agenda of newscasts around the world. Never have we seen in our country so many international media that never before reported on Honduras now coming together to cover an “event of the poor” like the January 2019 caravan. Reporters came from Japan, Russia, Norway, Arab countries… Today Honduras is in the mews because of its poor, but not because of the causes that impoverished them.

The caravans are a phenomenon that has overwhelmed churches, NGOs, in fact all civil society organizations and governments. It’s a growing and uncontrollable phenomenon. Most of the common folk who watch Hondurans go by respond with simple gestures of generous and spontaneous solidarity. At the other extreme, Trump’s government has threatened them with a military response and the Honduran regime tried, unsuccessfully, to create a police barrier at the border between Honduras and Guatemala.

Three hundred people
leave every day


The caravans are a social phenomenon with the improvised leadership of rural and urban impoverished people. It has no more organization than is needed to keep them alive and determined to trudge on until they reach the United States.

In April 2017 there was a smaller caravan of about 800 Central Americans, 75% of them Hondurans. With this new caravan, the unorganized movement increased, with about 300 Hondurans crossing the Aguascalientes border between Honduras and Guatemala daily for several years, even if many got off along the way.

Last October, news sprang up in San Pedro Sula, a city on Honduras’ Atlantic coast, that a caravan of thousands of people was being organized. San Pedro Sula has the international reputation of being one of the most violent cities in the world; researchers and analysts often call it “Ciudad Juaáez of the South.” A group of about 200 Hondurans announced that they would be walking in a caravan towards the US. leaving from the local bus terminal on Saturday October 13.

“It was Bartolo”


At first, that caravan was identified with the name of Bartolo Fuentes, a social leader in the city of El Progreso, who simply said in an interview with local media that he would be joining the caravan for a few days.

Bartolo Fuentes had accompanied the previous caravan of April 2017 as a journalist. As he was also a member of Freedom and Refoundation (LIBRE), the Honduran opposition party founded by Mel Zelaya, Bartolo Fuentes was quickly scapegoated, accused of being the “brains” behind the caravan. In a press conference, the minister of foreign affairs, accompanied by the minister of human rights, said “Bartolo Fuentes is to blame fpr this caravan; claiming he organized and instigated many people to manipulate them and lead them on this dangerous journey.” He called on the Public Ministry to proceed with charges against Fuentes. As tends to happen with things in our country, once the caravan was gone on its way north, Bartolo’s name was soon discarded in favor of other scapegoats more powerful than he.

By the time the caravan crossed into Guatemala at Aguascalientes it had already grown to about 4,000 people. They managed to break through the barrier set up at the border post by both Honduran and Guatemalan police. The caravan continued to expand as it crossed through Guatemalan territory and approached the Mexican border.

“Returnees”


The Honduran regime, surely with financing from the US government, conceived a plan to convince migrants to return to Honduras. Each one was promised immediate help and a package of services later. A few hundred accepted. Those who yielded to the plan were transported back by bus or plane. Witnesses say many of the returnees were National Party activists, serving as bait for the regime’s publicity campaign.

Many more, however, continued the journey, By the end of October, some two weeks after departing, about 10,000 people had made it to the border state of Chiapas in Mexico.

Positive changes are
happening in Mexico


By the time the second wave of caravans started in January 2019, the Mexican political scene had changed. Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s new government had taken office.

Tje discrimination and rejection of the previous government were replaced with welcoming policies of respect for human rights. Humanitarian transit visas were granted to all the migrants. By the end of January, less than two weeks after this caravan’s departure, about 17,000 people, most of them from Honduras, were waiting for their visa.

Who’s really to “blame”?


The caravans and their massive sizes are of special concern to the US government. But not only to it. Many from outside, xaught up in conspiracy theories, also want to interpret this unstoppable reality. Since President Trump has blamed the Democrats from the onset, some believe that adding their voices will buttress his arguments for building his beloved wall on the border with Mexico.

For its part the Honduran government blames its own opposition and organized crime groups for inciting the caravans with destabilizing political aims. These speculations elude reality. The caravans of Honduran and other Central American migrants express the desperation level of people for whom it’s increasingly risky to live in countries that deny them public security and employment and pushes them to live in a permanent state of bare subsistence.

The explosion of
a pressure cooker


The caravans are the explosion of a pressure cooker that the Honduran government, in association with a small business elite and transnational corporations, have been heating up for at least a decade.

Those responsible for this explosion are the governments that have abandoned public social policies, replacing them with public relief programs, while consolidating a development model based on investing in extractive industries and privatizing public assets and services.

More and more people find themselves unable to deal with life in Honduras. Those traveling in the caravans all say the same thing. In the January 2019 caravan, there were dozens of entire families, young and old, all walking.
One family of seven, from parents to grandchildren, said: “It’s worse for us to stay in Honduras. We run a greater risk there than on this journey.” Another family said, “On the road we risk getting assaulted or killed, but in Honduras we’re already condemned to die.” Si, there’s no reason to look for a scapegoat to blame for organizing anything. People come together and with just a little encouragement head on out, pushed by winds that blow only towards the North.

“Blame me!”


The Honduran government is in the hands of a group of politicians who believe public services are a business and the State is their booty. They are people who have ransacked public institutions such as the Honduran Social Security Institute, the health system, the electricity company and many more. Then, after doing so, they cover it up and protect each other through political control over the judicial system.

The individuals and families leaving have been progressively experiencing helplessness and abandonment. Those feelings were reinforced with the November 2017 elections. when Juan Orlando Hernández was reelected in violation of the Constitution, awarded a victory that some 70% of the population believes resulted from a well organized fraud.

People have stopped trusting politicians, the government and big business. The caravans express this distrust, but they express even more the desperation and anguish of people who stopped believing that someday they would find solutions in their own country. They’re taking justice into their own hands…and feet.

In denying this reality, the Honduran and US governments seem to need someone to blame for the crisis. “Blame me,” said a woman in the caravan while being given water from some neighbors in solidarity, “I’m leaving because I no longer can stand this life I live here. I can’t pay my electric bill, and can’t even pay for my own food.”

Those at the top don’t believe
in those at the bottom


Those at the top are always seeking someone to blame for their problems. These elite despise those at the bottom and never give them credit for their initiatives. Given their classism and racism they assume these people can’t think, don’t have the capacity to decide, and are simply influenced by external factors manipulating their decisions. Anything that comes from people who aren’t like them is seen as a threat. And something as massive or unusual as the caravans is seen not only as a threat, but as a crime.

Obviously, the magnitude of the caravan phenomenon also moves different sectors to seek to benefit from them. Opposition sectors in Honduras, perhaps in the US also, try to benefit from the instability produced by such a massive movement. But that doesn’t change the truth of what’s happening, which is that the poor are being moved by their own unbearable daily reality, which is not only one of poverty, but also of violence. “I’m leaving because if I stay my husband will kill me,” said a young woman carrying her eight-month-old baby.

Violence against women is another burden added to their difficult economic situation and lack of public safety.

Shameful individual exoduses
and dignifying caravans


For those who can see, the caravans have shown a bright light on the harsh reality of most of our population. But the caravans are only part of the phenomenon. There are also daily migrations of individuals, families or small groups. Surely as many people leave Honduras individually in a month as do in masse in one day. The daily exoduses over time have been silent, discreet, invisible… even shameful. Now, with the departures happening in large numbers, the caravan has become loud, public, visible…and even dignifying.

This phenomenon has a dose of dignity because it has unveiled the fake discourse of prosperity and safety in our country, making evident the failure of official policies. It has eroded the triumphalism that claims Honduras is improving. It has shown that the social relief programs not only solve nothing, but actually deepen the precarious state of most of society. And it has uncovered that a society that only includes 35% of its population in its formal economy isn’t sustainable.

Hondurans have gained dignity because through the large caravans they can express the massive rejection of a cruel model of social exclusion. It’s not so much that they want an alternate model to capitalism. In fact, the caravans don’t have so much as a hint of being an anti-system movement. It’s more a massive protest against the high levels of exclusion by “Honduran-style” capitalism. People are abandoning the capitalism that abandoned them in their own country and are deciding to seek another capitalism that they believe will offer them jobs and opportunities.

A reality they can’t control


The October 2018 caravan that opened the doors to those that followed startled the political sectors and business elites awake. They were used to having control over everything that happens in the country to avoid undesirable surprises. Experts in dealing with unrest, protests and complaints from the poorer sectors, they were left without explanations when these social sectors pulled up stakes and quietly left.

The elites have forever enjoyed the privileges given them by the State and only react when their large profits are threatened by consistent opposition as is happening in communities where people are organized against extractivist projects and concessions granted to national and transnational companies. That’s why they reacted by killing Berta Cáceres in March of 2016.

Their self-aggrandizement
has taken a big hit


The elites’ self-love has also taken a hit after so long living the good life and justifying the enjoyment of their privileges. The reality of the excluded has ripped off their masks. Doing so wasn’t an intent of the caravans, it was just collateral benefit.

The elites and Juan Orlando Hernández’s regime have invested millions to advertise a country heading down the right path, one whose economy is healthy and whose social programs are making people happy. Then suddenly thousands of citizens appear fleeing the country they’ve been promoting, taking on a huge risk in the search for another country, another economy…Neither the elites nor the regime can react any other way than by accusing the opposition, seeking scapegoats for this media and reality failure.

The American dream


The caravans didn’t only unmask an unjust model. They also revealed traits of the collective self-identity of the part of Honduran society buttressed by the injustice lived and borne by the others.

The first trait is an historical and extreme dependence on the exterior. Seeking outside the country solutions to needs and problems originating within is a mentality that has been accentuated in Honduran society ever since the banana enclave was implanted in our country at the beginning of the 20th century.

The US is the Promised Land as much for these elites as for the migrants, as much for the rich bosses ans for their poor laborers. It’s the authentic “land that brings forth bread” as Honduran poet Rafael Heliodoro Valle once described it. Looking north with expectations and taking on the journey to the US is a dramatic mental routine for a society that has configured its own dream around the “American dream,” wanting to be or at least be like a US citizen, to have their dollars to buy what they buy, earn what they earn… It’s the fantasy they cling to in the face of the nightmare they live in Honduras.

It’s an intra-system avalanche of the dispossessed who continue stubbornly looking up to the North, for what they don’t have in their land. These starving migrants don’t know that their initiative is shaking the system, but even not knowing it, they’re making it happen.

The logic of surviving


A second and contradictory trait of the Honduran collective self-idwentity is the mindset brought about by living trapped in the logic of pure and harsh survival. Barely eking out a few crumbs from the system every day, searching on one’s own, without questioning that system, tends to forge a particular way of thinking and acting and deciding.

Each person individually rummaging for solutions joins others doing the same. They may be traveling together, but aren’t organized. A caravan is a mass of thousands of individuals who only come together to journey along the same route, each of them carrying their own personal project in their knapsack. That route is the only thing that unites them. Each migrant, each family individually draws up its own plans.

This trait of Honduran society’s mentality and behavior, which encloses people within their own problems, is a political disease. Everyone’s searching and rummaging, engrossed in their own world, maybe convinced of the truth of that popular saying that “a lonely ox can lick itself fine” or another that says “everyone only saves their own skin.”

The failure of collective responses


The logic of survival is that everyone seeks to solve things alone, making commitments with anyone who can help move that individual project forward. Beyond that, other people only get in the way; joining together to search for common solutions is only a hindrance. Everybody rants and raves about what’s happening, about the rising prices of fuel, water, and electricity, for example, but when it comes to looking for solutions together…they leave that to others. The massive exodus towards the North reveals how people don’t trust each other, the community, collective or social organization. That mistrust is also expressed by their rejection of organizing.

Paradoxically, collective migration is the failure of a collective response. It is inistead a triumph of individual scavenging. The caravans, however collective they may appear on the outside, are the extreme expression of individual responses to a structural and systemic problem with no solution. In an environment like that, whatever comes from above or outside is accepted and received.

This mentality also explains why people vote for those who crush them when they are in power, and promise them “solidarity” handouts when they are outside. In a society trapped in a hand-to-mouth personal economy, clientelist charity programs are very successful while the structural problems remain intact and the privatization policies and concessions for large corporations deepen. Thus, life continues to get worse and ends up exploding into caravans of desperate people.

The search for caudillos


A third trait of Honduran society’s collective self-identity revealed by the caravans is the repeated option for top-down relationships.

Those who join the caravans walk looking both upward and at the road taking them out of the country. They quit looking at those traveling at their side. This is the result of the “banana republic” syndrome sown by the US, which left many waiting enthralled for the return of the banana companies. In the caravan are thousands who take the same steps and travel the same route, but when they reach the finish line they disperse. They were born into individualism. It’s what they learned and how they were raised And it’s how they’ve suffered and continue suffering.

Social relationships in Honduras are based on rigid verticality. We are taught to depend on those on top. It’s the paradigm of power: the patriarch in the family and the caudillo in politics. The one on top is the one who can solve my problems if I in return offer submission, unconditional loyalty.

The US is the maximum “caudillo” in this collective vision, the total patriarch, Uncle Sam. The option for top-down relationships is bolstered by weakening horizontal relationships, those of equals among equals. The horizontal becomes so faint it’s almost invisible. At most we look at each other to see who’s achieving more from those on top. It’s hard to see each other as equals because everyone is looking for someone they can follow. When they get tired of being deceived, one frequently hears people say; “What we need here is a strong leader who can resolve things, who can tell us what to do.”

Top-down relationships


The top-down mentality has strongly permeated social organizations, community organizations, NGOs and their respective leaderships. And of course it’s enthroned in the political parties, with their illustrious examples of verticality and their inexhaustible source of caudillos.

Vertical mentality is also found in international cooperation. Bilateral relationships tend to be top-down, but even with the best intentions they are inherently unequal power relations based on a dependence by those who receive the resources, usually grassroots organizations, and those who dispense them. This top-down mentality has distanced the NGOs from the people and limited their influence in the promotion of horizontal relationships.

This verticality is even more enthroned in churches, where people find greater justification, because God is after all the Almighty, above everything and everyone. People see God represented in the powerful leaders of the churches. This deified verticality is very far from the promotion of a culture of hospitality among peoples, far from the good Samaritan ministering to those who are traveling, tending to them, listening, healing them and informing them of their rights, the dangers of the journey and the mirages of a dream goal.

The real “axis of evil”
is in Honduras


The “axis of evil” that US politicians speak about so much is not outside of Honduras, it’s inside. It’s made up of alliances between a small group of both oligarchic business elites and political elites entrenched in the State who use public resources as if their own. The country’s politics and its economy are managed through this alliance, as minor partners of transnational capital. This threesome, which excludes most of the population, is the real Honduran government. And it is backed by three other powerful actors: the US embassy, the armed forces and well-known people from organized crime, some public, others in the shadows.

This six-part alliance is Honduras’ Axis of Evil. They are the ones responsible for Hondurans leaving. They are the explanation for why the caravans attract thousands of our fellow citizens.

Ismael Moreno, sj, is the envío correspondent in Honduras.

I pray to my dead daughter, says mother from Honduras

By Vanessa BuschschlüterBBC News, El Progreso
  • 12 March 2019
Edita Maldonado is 71 and lives in a small brick house outside of the Honduran town of El Progreso.
Edita Maldonado holds a picture of her late daughter Rosa
Despite the town’s name, there is little sign of improvement here. Most of its inhabitants live in “colonias”, poor neighbourhoods criss-crossed by dirt roads, large parts of which are controlled by criminal gangs.
Those who have jobs tend to work in nearby “maquiladoras”, foreign-owned factories where local workers spend long shifts sewing clothes for wages that do not even cover their basic needs.
Edita’s daughter, Rosa, was working in one such maquiladora in 1995. She was 25 and trying to save enough money to build a small house for herself. But after she was robbed three times of her wages on her way home from work, she decided to leave.
“We’re leaving because here we’re not getting ahead,” Rosa told her mother before packing up with her partner and her younger brother hoping to reach the United States.
Edita received a letter from the three after they had crossed into Mexico. But there, things went awry. The group was separated after a run-in with Mexican migration officials. Rosa’s partner and her 16-year-old brother managed to continue on their way and made it into the US, settling in Los Angeles.
Out of touch
Rosa was left behind on her own in the southern Mexican town of Tapachula, and after sending one more letter, all communication from her stopped – for a full five years.
During this time, Edita joined the Committee of Families of Disappeared Migrants of El Progreso (Cofamipro). Desperate to find their missing children, the members of Cofamipro were planning to launch a caravan of mothers that would retrace the routes most migrants take north, handing out flyers with photographs of their loved ones on the way.
■   The caravan of mothers looking for their lost children
While organising the first caravan in 2000, Edita received a letter from her daughter. Without saying why she had not been in touch, Rosa wrote that she had settled in Tonalá, in central Mexico, and that she was doing well.
Rosa stayed in Mexico for the next four years with little contact with family. She visited once and sent a handful more letters. From what her mother managed to piece together, her life was much more turbulent than she had at first let on.
Locked up in a brothel
What initially happened in Tapachula is not entirely clear. Rosa told her mother that after being left behind, she was tricked into working in a brothel.
Rosa’s sister, Sandra, has a slightly different story.
She tells me that Rosa was sold into prostitution by her Honduran partner: “When he came back here, he boasted about it in the local bar, I myself heard him say it, he said he’d sold Rosa because he needed money to make it to the US.”
What is clear is that she was held against her will in the brothel. She managed to escape after two weeks by pretending it was her birthday and convincing the guard at the brothel to get her a celebratory bottle of alcohol, which she then shared with him.
With the guard drunk and fast asleep, Rosa and two other women managed to flee from the brothel, which had been withholding their wages as well as keeping them locked up, Rosa told her mother.
image2.jpeg
After her escape she met a Mexican man with whom she settled down.
According to Rosa’s mother, “he was very jealous” and would only let Rosa write the occasional letter home and only allowed her one visit to Honduras, during which he closely watched her.
Sandra takes an even bleaker view of how her sister was treated by her Mexican partner.
“He kept her as a domestic slave, working in his family’s bakery, not as a wife but as his servant.
“He hid her letters while telling Rosa he had posted them and he didn’t even let her answer the phone.”
image3.jpeg
From bad to worse
When Rosa’s partner died, things only got worse. Alone in the home they had shared, she was sexually assaulted by one of his male relatives. Covered in dirt and with her clothes torn, she went to the police to report the crime. Her assailant was eventually jailed, but her actions earned her the enmity of the man’s family.
In 2004, Rosa’s health suddenly deteriorated and Edita finally managed to convince her to come home to Honduras. However, by the time she arrived in El Progreso, Rosa was in such a state of confusion that she no longer recognised her family. She died within two months of coming home. Doctors are unsure about the cause of her death.
“I think of her all the time,” Edita tells me. “I still have some of her clothes. Sometimes I take them out and hold them close, but then I roll them up again and hide them because seeing them makes me cry.”
image4.jpeg
“There are times when I speak to her as if she was coming back some day, I tell her ‘here’s your dress still looking lovely, just waiting for you’.”
Edita says she considers herself lucky: “At least I know where my daughter is buried, so many other people do not know what happened to their missing relatives.”
She knows this only too well because she continues to work for Cofamipro, the organisation searching for missing migrants, but even more so because her own granddaughter is one of those searching for a missing migrant.
Sirly, 20, and her four-year-old son Leonel live with Edita part of the week.
Sirly’s boyfriend, Leonel’s father, decided to emigrate when the child was one year old. He had been struggling to get a steady job, occasionally working as a security guard but when his motorcycle was stolen – his main mode of transport to get to and from work – he decided to leave for the US.
The last contact Sirly had with him was the evening he was going to attempt to cross the US-Mexico border. That was in March 2016.
Sirly fears he was killed by a gang. Central American migrants often fall victim to Mexican cartels that try to forcibly recruit them or use them as drug mules. Those who refuse are often kidnapped or killed.
Sirly has reported him missing and the Mexican authorities have taken DNA samples from his relatives but so far no trace of him has been found.
She is clinging to the hope that he may have been arrested in the US after crossing illegally. Asked why he would not communicate with her or his family, she says he may be trying to protect them.
Sirly has not yet told Leonel that his father his missing. “I just don’t know what to say to him,” she says. “I’m hoping that by the time he is old enough to understand, well, I hope that by that time his Dad will have reappeared.”
Leonel is playing with his two-year-old cousin Yeremi while Sirly’s 23-year-old sister, Greicy, watches over them.
Greicy’s partner, Yeremi’s father, is also absent. He left Greicy three years ago when she was pregnant with the baby.
Unlike her sister, Greicy knows where her son’s father is. He fled abroad after running into trouble with local gangs.
Greicy does not miss her ex-partner, she says. He broke up with her two months into her pregnancy telling her he had “got mixed up in bad things”.
She says he is unlikely to ever return to Honduras. At first, she says, she would call him and speak to him, but he recently broke off all contact and blocked Greicy from his social media accounts.
Greicy has since moved in with a new partner who, she says, “treats Yeremi well” and who she hopes will be a better role model for him than his biological father.
All four women are undeterred in their struggle to carry on.
Edita continues to work for Cofamipro helping other mothers to search for their missing migrant children. Her daughter Sandra has also become an activist, campaigning for migrants’ rights on the US-Mexico border after joining the migrant caravan that left Honduras for the US last year. Sirly is dreaming of doing a nursing course and Greicy of creating a stable home for Yeremi with her new partner.
With Sandra, Greicy, Sirly and the two children all gathered around Edita in her tiny living room, she holds up an old photograph of Rosa, taken before migration ever touched their lives.
“Sometimes when I’m not feeling well, I pray to Rosa and ask her for a cure or to take me to where she is. But look, here I still am,” she tells me while her great-grandchildren, oblivious of their fathers’ fate, carry on playing.

The Indigenous Rights Leader Fighting Back After Her Mother’s Assassination

https://broadly.vice.com/en_us/article/vbwyxj/indigenous-rights-leader-honduras-bertha-zuniga

Honduran environmentalist and activist Berta Cáceres was killed in 2016. Her daughter Bertha Zúniga is picking up her mantle through her work for the indigenous Lenca community.

Bertha Zúniga holding a poster of her mother, Berta Cáceres. Photo courtesy of CADEHO Alemania

Bertha Zúniga never thought she would grow up to help lead a movement that fights for the rights of the Lenca, the biggest indigenous group in Honduras. But the March 2016 assassination of her mother, the renowned activist and indigenous leader Berta Cáceres, inevitably changed the course of Zúniga’s life.

A year before her murder, Cáceres won the prestigious Goldman Prize—known as “the Green Nobel”—for her work with the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH). The organization campaigned against the construction of Agua Zarca, an hydroelectric dam that would divert the Gualcarque River in western Honduras. The project threatened to destroy natural habitats, affect access to water, and potentially displace local Lenca people.

“The Lenca’s use of the river is based on satisfying daily needs that have to do with agriculture, fishing, the use of water for domestic and recreational activities,” Zúniga, 28, says, over the line from La Esperanza, the capital city of Intibucá, Honduras.

But the Gualcarque also holds deep cultural and spiritual value for the Lenca community. They believe that the river is inhabited by sacred spirits—Zúniga describes the indigenous group’s value system and their way of making sense of the world as “cosmovision.”

“We have used this as an argument,” she says, “and businessmen have discredited—even made fun of—the spiritual value of the river.”

Her mother’s dogged campaign against the dam triggered a wave of repression. Desarrollos Energéticos SA (DESA), the company behind the dam construction, even allegedly attempted to bribe Cáceres to stay silent. COPINH campaigners faced continuous harassment and death threats; Zúniga says that four community members were killed and four others nearly died in violent reprisals.

According to Global Witness, at least 123 people taking a stand against dams, mines, logging, and agribusiness were killed between 2010 and 2016 in Honduras. That makes the country the deadliest place in the world for environmental activism.

Bertha Caceres

Berta Cáceres (center) was assassinated in 2016.

Zúniga was completing a Master’s degree in Mexico City when she moved back home after her mother’s death. In November 2018, seven of eight suspects were convicted of the murder, including a former DESA security chief, two former US-trained military officers, and a DESA communities and environment manager.

The trial however, was plagued with irregularities. The decision was deemed “partial justice,” as only the hitmen directly involved with the killing were sentenced. “We remain concerned that the intellectual authors and the financiers of the crime have still not been investigated, prosecuted and sanctioned,” UN experts said in a statement.

All three foreign investors—including Dutch bank FMO, Finnish finance company FinnFund, and the Central American Bank of Economic Integration (CABEI)—have withdrawn from the project, putting the construction project on indefinite hold.

However, DESA owns the concession for 50 years, Zúniga says, meaning the company has the exclusive right to work the land until 2059. “They have not given up and apparently have no intention of abandoning the project altogether.”

DESA did not respond to a request for comment, but has denied any involvement in ordering Cáceres’ killing. It issued this statement in February when DESA CEO Roberto David Castillo was charged with masterminding Cáceres’ murder: “DESA bluntly rejects the accusation against honorable and innocent people, trying to link them with acts that have absolutely no relation to their actions.”

A memorial for Berta Caceres

At a memorial for Berta Caceres.

Growing up as the children of a high-profile activist, Zúniga and her siblings were aware of their mother’s battle from an early age. “It was a demand of hers that we weren’t indifferent to the reality of Honduras, so one way or another we were always involved,” she says.

COPINH was founded by Cáceres in 1993 out of an urgent need to recognize indigenous rights. Over time, its purpose has expanded to fight “a system of multiple oppressions that have different facets,” including sexism and racism, Zúniga says. “If they are not fought integrally, there will be no real freedom for the communities,” she adds.

In May 2017, she assumed the role of COPINH coordinator, acting as a spokesperson and travelling abroad for meetings and conferences. Though she plays a key role in the organization, Zúniga emphasizes its collective nature by using nosotras (the feminine pronoun “we” in Spanish) to talk about her work, which she insists, has more to do with “multiplying [her mother]’s resistance” than being the “heiress” of Cáceres’ legacy.

Tensions around the river can be traced back to the country’s political collapse in 2009. After a coup ousted the democratically-elected president José Manuel Zelaya, Congress issued laws that awarded concessions to hundreds of mining and energy ventures across the country, including projects in Lenca territories. Companies and local governments failed to seek the consent of affected communities—even though this is a requirement by law.

As a result, the country produces more energy than it needs at the expense of the people, Zúniga says. “We have so many hydroelectric centrals [in Honduras], and yet most of the rural population has no access to energy and so they continue to cook with firewood and work it out without electric power.”

Many experts believes that the US, which has a long history of intervention in Honduras, is partly to blame for the climate of human rights abuses and impunity. It took Cáceres’s murder to spark debate in the US over the administration’s investment in the country, including in training security forces meant to protect the population. In June 2016, a former Honduran soldier told Guardian journalist Nina Lakhani that the late activist’s name had been on the hit list of a US-trained military unit. The Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act (HR 5474), which would suspend funding to Honduran security forces, was introduced by Democrat congressperson Hank Johnson in June of 2016, and again in March of 2017.

“We believe in building a national project where development is not that of international corporations.”

Dana Frank, a former history professor at University of California and the author of The Long Honduran Night: Resistance, Terror, and the United States in the Aftermath of the Coup, explained over email: “Most of the [US] military aid remains non-transparent, and continues to flow to security forces with deep links to drug trafficking and established, brutal records of human rights abuses.”

Corruption runs deep in Honduran politics. The brother of Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández was charged with drug trafficking in November, and members of his National Party have been accused of diverting almost $12 million in public funds.

“US ‘development’ aid has not been proven to actually improve economic circumstances, and can support the same elite economic interests that are destroying livelihoods,” Frank explains. President Donald Trump has been a proponent of cutting aid to Honduras—not to end abuse, corruption, and judicial impunity, but because Honduran authorities have failed to stop migrant caravans headed for the US.

Both Frank and Zúniga agree that cutting US aid would send a powerful message to the Honduran people. For the professor, it would mean the US stops legitimating a dictatorial political regime. Zúniga thinks it would provoke real change: “The government, which is very contested in this country, would lose its base and probably be removed from power if it wasn’t for the military protection that it enjoys.”

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Until that happens, COPINH is fighting to imagine a new development model in which humans and nature are viewed as precious in their own right and not “understood as commodities to exploit,” Zúniga adds.

“We believe in building a national project where development is not that of international corporations,” she says, “where development is not centered on money—but rather on life, humanity, and environmental diversity.”