Archive for the ‘corruption in Honduras’ Category

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.”