Archive for the ‘US militarization in Central America’ Category

The Honduran Shipwreck: Hillary Clinton’s Coup Turns 7

  • U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton removed a key passage from the paperback edition of her autobiography "Hard Choices" about her role in the 2009 military coup in Honduras.

    U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton removed a key passage from the paperback edition of her autobiography “Hard Choices” about her role in the 2009 military coup in Honduras. | Photo: Reuters

Published 27 June 2016
In the aftermath of the coup, Honduras’ homicide rate has soared along with other forms of violence.

I recently contributed a chapter titled “Hillary Does Honduras” to a collection of essays edited by Liza Featherstone: “False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton.”

While preparing the essay last year, I discovered that a key passage from the hardcover edition of Clinton’s autobiography had been struck from the paperback version. In the original, the current U.S. presidential hopeful outlines her contributions to Honduran politics in the aftermath of the June 28, 2009, coup against that country’s president at the time, Manuel Zelaya.

In her capacity as secretary of state under Barack Obama, Clinton tells us, she and various colleagues in the region jointly “strategized on a plan to restore order in Honduras [following Zelaya’s ouster] and ensure that free and fair elections could be held quickly and legitimately, which would render the question of Zelaya moot and give the Honduran people a chance to choose their own future.”

The problem with the ostensibly democratic pursuit of free and fair elections and Honduran choices is, of course, that it is categorically anti-democratic — not to mention illegal — to forcibly “render moot” a democratically-elected leader.

Zelaya’s great offense, for which he had incurred the wrath of the Honduran right wing and its devoted support group in the United States, had been to allow the Central American country to drift slightly to the left — i.e. away from its established position as the “U.S.S. Honduras,” as it was endearingly called during the Cold War.

Among his many treasonous acts, Zelaya raised the urban and rural monthly minimum wages to $290 and $213, respectively, and demonstrated an unprecedented willingness to ask communities affected by pernicious foreign corporate mining practices how they felt about the arrangement.

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US Pushes Militarization and Neoliberalism in Central America

Obviously, the coup orchestrators couldn’t come right out and argue that it was a bad thing for poor people to be a bit less poor, or for folks living in mining areas to suffer fewer persistent skin rashes and spontaneous abortions. So they concocted a whole existential scenario in which the diabolical Zelaya — in cahoots with Fidel Castro, Hugo Chávez, and all other malevolent forces of the universe — was working to bring Honduras to Communist ruin by installing himself in power for eternity.

Lest anyone thought they were making things up, the coup-mongers offered tangible proof of Zelaya’s nefarious designs: he had dared to suggest a non-binding public opinion survey, scheduled for June 28, 2009, in which Honduran citizens were to be asked to register their opinions regarding the possibility of installing an extra ballot box at upcoming elections. The purpose of this ballot box, in turn, would be to gauge public interest in convening a constituent assembly to tweak the national constitution, which had until then enshrined the oligarchic elite’s stranglehold on the country.

As the pro-coup argument went, the singular purpose of the whole charade was to violate Honduran democracy and rewrite the constitution to eliminate the prohibition on presidents serving more than one term. Somehow, the fact that the extra ballot box would be installed at elections in which Zelaya was already ineligible to run was not deemed to be relevant information.

Instead of the proposed survey, June 28 thus played host to the expatriation to Costa Rica of a pajama-clad Zelaya, courtesy of the Honduran military. Clearly, public opinion surveys and ballot boxes are not the stuff of democracy — but militarized pajama-kidnappings are.

Following the coup, I spent four months in Honduras, primarily in the capital of Tegucigalpa. Day after day, masses of people marched peacefully in the streets demanding a return of the elected leader; Honduran security forces were decidedly less peaceful, and subjected crowds to tear gas, water cannons loaded with pepper spray, and more lethal projectiles.

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Meanwhile, Clinton & Co. scurried around behind the scenes rendering the Zelaya question moot. Fresh elections were eventually held under the illegitimate and abusive coup regime, meaning that they were fundamentally neither “free” nor “fair.”

And it’s been a nonstop party ever since. In the aftermath of the coup, Honduras’ homicide rate has soared along with other forms of violence. As the Guardian’s Nina Lakhani recently noted in an article on the March assassination of Honduran human rights and environmental activist Berta Cáceres, whose name reportedly appeared on a hitlist belonging to U.S.-trained Honduran special forces:

“Human rights groups have condemned US support for Honduran security forces amid mounting evidence implicating police and military in systematic abuses. In April, activists warned Congress that death squads were targeting opposition activists, much like they did during the ‘dirty war’ in the 1980s.”

In other words, the U.S.S. Honduras is going strong, despite what amounts to SOS signals emanating from a significant chunk of the population. Rest assured that the current obsessively rightwing regime won’t be rendered moot anytime soon.

As I note in my “False Choices” chapter, legend has it that the name “Honduras” derives from Christopher Columbus’ expression of relief, in 1502, at averting a nautical demise off the coast of Central America. “Gracias a Dios que hemos salido de estas honduras,” Columbus is said to have exclaimed. “Thank god we’ve gotten out of these depths.”

More than half a millennium later, Honduras has sunk to new depths, thanks in no small part to the post-coup machinations of another imperial emissary — this one by the name of Hillary Clinton.

On the coup’s seventh anniversary, as Clinton does her best to expunge her role from the record, one would like nothing more than to see her own ship sink.

Belén Fernández is the author of “The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work,” published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin magazine

State Department spokesperson John Kirby on Wednesday repeatedly denied that the government of Honduras kills its own citizens, saying more than a dozen times that he has not heard “credible evidence” of “deaths ordered by the military.”

His comments came in the wake of a high-profile assassination of Honduran native-rights activist Berta Cáceres in March, and a report in the Guardian that a high-level deserter from the Honduran army said he is “100 percent certain that Berta Cáceres was killed by the [Honduran] army.”Berta Cáceres86 -poster

The deserter explained that Cáceres’s name and picture appeared on a kill list including “dozens of social and environmental activists,” which had been distributed to two elite, U.S.-trained units.

Since Honduras’s right-wing regime seized power in a coup in 2009, media and human rights organizations have compiled overwhelming evidence of Honduran military and police violence.

Kirby said he was aware of “media reports alleging the existence of a Honduran activist hit list,” but noted that “at this time, there’s no specific, credible allegations of gross violations of human rights that exists in this or any other case involving the security forces that receive U.S. government assistance.”

Kirby’s comments were even at odds with the State Department’s own human rights reports on Honduras, which for the last two years have referred to “unlawful and arbitrary killings and other criminal activities by members of the security forces.”

The U.S. maintains a very close relationship with Honduran military. Since a military coup deposed leftist President Manuel Zelaya in 2009, the United States has provided nearly $200 million in military aid to the Central American nation. The U.S. also maintains a network of at least seven military bases in Honduras, which house a permanent force of more than 600 special operations troops. In February, the Wall Street Journal published a video showing American forces teaching Honduran forces how to conduct night raids.

In 2009, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton played a central role in legitimizing the new coup regime. While President Obama initially called Zelaya’s ouster “illegal” and said it would set a “terrible precedent,” Clinton refused to call it a military coup, and aid continued to flow. She also pushed for a sham election to “render the question of Zelaya moot,” according to Clinton’s memoir – which was later scrubbed of references to Honduras during her presidential campaign.

Officially linking U.S.-backed Honduran forces with human rights violation would trigger legally-required reductions in aid – in addition to putting the State Department in the uncomfortable position of criticizing a client state, and casting doubt on Clinton’s wisdom in backing the coup.

After The Intercept asked Kirby to respond to the report that the U.S. trained Cáceres’s killers, he repeatedly denied the existence of “specific, credible allegations.”

After other reporters joined in the questioning, Kirby expressed frustration that he had repeat that there was “no credible evidence” of state murders more than a dozen times. “The reason you’re being asked to repeat it is because it’s kind of hard to believe,” said Associated Press diplomatic correspondent Matt Lee.

Watch the video:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jv-nuwvs0aM

Kirby also refused to outline the steps the U.S. was taking to follow up on the allegation. He insisted that the State Department took the report “seriously,” but admitted that he was “unaware” of any meetings between the Department and Honduran activists, and that the department had not followed up with The Guardian.

CNN’s Elise Labott asked: “Have you been looking for evidence or you’re just waiting for it to fall into your lap, in which case you would launch an investigation?” Kirby insisted it was the former.

The murder of Cáceres – a renowned environmental and native rights activist – drew international condemnation and prompted a U.N.-supported investigation. Cáceres won the prestigious Goldman Prize in 2015 for overcoming death threats and organizing opposition to the Agua Zarca dam – stopping the internationally bankrolled hydroelectric project that threatened the land and livelihood of the native Lenca people.

Since 2009, Honduras has seen a sharp rise in political violence. By 2012, Honduran security forces had assassinated more than 300 people, including 34 opposition leaders and 13 journalists, according to Honduran human rights organizations. In the lead up to the 2013 elections, 18 candidates from Zelaya’s party were murdered.

The A.P. reported in 2013 that in Honduras’s largest two cities, there were more than 200 “formal complaints about death squad style killings” over the previous three years. Reports included the killing of people at military checkpoints, and even police assassination of a top anti-drug government official.

In 2014, more than 100 members of Congress signed a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, raising concerns about “death-squad style killings by Honduran police” and urging him to abide by the Foreign Assistance Act, which prohibits aid to any military unit guilty of “gross violations of human rights.”

In the wake of Cáceres’s murder, Honduran human rights activists have traveled to D.C. to brief lawmakers about the security situation. At a congressional briefing in April, Bertha Oliva, founder of the Committee of Relatives of the Disappeared in Honduras, told lawmakers that “it’s like going back to the past” and that “there are death squads in Honduras.” Oliva compared the situation to the 1980s, when the Reagan administration funded, armed, and trained death squads which disappeared, tortured, and killed hundreds of citizens.

At the briefing on Wednesday, the A.P.’s Lee asked Kirby how much responsibility the U.S. would share if it were true that it had trained Honduran government death squads.

“We absolutely have a responsibility to … hold them to account for those human rights abuses, and we do do that,” said Kirby. “Are we going to blame ourselves for the specific human rights violations of another human being in that regard? That’s a pretty difficult connection to make.”

While the State Department turns a blind eye to the Honduran government’s human rights record, Congress may restrict military aid on its own. Under appropriations laws, Congress can withhold 50 percent of its Honduras aid budgeted for the State Department. Last week, Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., also introduced the Berta Caceres Human Rights in Honduras Act, which would cut off all military and police aid until the government’s human rights record improves.

Dana Frank, a history professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a widely published expert on Honduras, called Kirby’s remarks “mindboggling.”

“What State is saying sounds exactly like the Reagan Administration, when the State Department denied vast horrors committed by Honduran security forces for years, only to be later exposed for having known all about them and suppressed the evidence,” said Frank. “This denial of any evidence is a scary and newly aggressive counterattack.”

Berta’ Mother: The Honduran State is Responsible for this Crime

Public Letter from Austra Bertha Flores López.

Austra Bertha Flores López mother of Berta Caceres

As you know, I am the mother of Bertha Isabel Cáceres Flores, assassinated on March 2nd of this year. A month has gone by since this abominable and cowardly crime took place. I write this public letter despite the pain it causes me, in order to reach as many people as possible with these messages:

1. I want to express my deepest thanks to all of the people, social movement organizations, human rights organizations, representatives of indigenous and afro-descendant peoples, women’s organizations, representatives of different churches, diplomats, teachers’ organizations, youth organizations, LGBT organizations, environmentalist organizations, members of the media, in summary, to all of those who have shown solidarity during this tremendously difficult time that I have had to live through as a result of this violent crime. The same is true, of course, for my grand daughters and my grandson, who had their mother stolen from them in the most horrendous way imaginable, along with all of the other family members who have suffered this irreparable loss.
I have painstakingly served my people as a midwife, a mayor, a governor and a congresswoman, roles which allowed me to push for the approval of ILO Convention 169, for the defense of women, of children and of human rights in general. At 83 years of age this crime has hit me hard and I am only able to stay strong thanks to the steadfast solidarity that I have received from you. I want to tell you that I hope not to leave this world before achieving justice for my daughter Bertita, who has given her life for our mother earth, for the rights of indigenous and black peoples, for women and for the rivers. For this reason I ask you to please continue to vigorously support me so that we may achieve justice and end impunity in a country so beaten down by the oppressors’ political violence against those who work to build a more just and humane society. I reiterate to you my appreciation, and ask that we make our cries for justice even louder, since that is the only way we can end the impunity that has surrounded this crime. You all can decide on the way to do this, whether through a prayer, a poster, a march, a drawing on a wall, or a non-violent but powerful action. Our sisters and brothers have demonstrated enormous creativity. Keep it up, so that a world without violence can one day be possible.

2. Secondly, I write to you to say that it is the Honduran state that is responsible for this crime, for the following reasons: The Honduran state was under obligation to comply with the protective measures ordered to secure my daughter’s life, yet the state did not fulfill these international commitments. It was the Honduran state that approved the concessions of our natural resources, including the Gualcarque River, a river that is part of the Lenca territory, without the required prior, free, and informed community consultation, despite knowing that it is required to do so under an international agreement approved by the Honduran state. That agreement is the Untied Nations International Labor Organization Convention 169, which mentions the right to consultation. The violation of this convention has generated tremendous conflict, leading to bloodshet in the communities, assassination of indigenous leaders and environmentalists.
The Honduran state criminalized my daughter by leveraging state institutions to mount several cases against her for the crime of carrying out her work in defense of our natural resources and the rights of indigenous and black peoples in Honduras. The Honduran state has taken it upon itself to defend the private interests of extractive companies, to such an extent that when my daughter, as general coordinator of COPINH, led a march this past February, she was insulted, vilified and threatened by people linked to DESA’s interests in front of the police and the army, whose response was to repress her and the Lena people that were mobilizing, going so far as to seize the buses that were transporting them.
The Honduran state contaminated the crime scene instead of preserving and investigating it. It has been a month already and despite national and international pressure, the state has been unable to capture the material or intellectual authors of this crime that has brought grief to our family and our people.
After the coup d’état lists of people to be targeted by death squads for assassination circulated. The first person on those lists was Bertha Isabel.
I know that nobody can bring my daughter back to life, but that will not stop my determination to fight with all of my strength so that Bertita’s assassination does not remain in impunity. That means fighting for the Honduran state to allow an independent commission to investigate this painful assassination and to cancel all of the concessions of natural resources that have been handed out in clear violation of ILO Convention 169, particularly the concessions along the Gualcarque River, for which my daughter struggled and continues to struggle from wherever she may be. It means the Honduran government must commit to not allow any more crimes against the women and men who defend human rights. That Honduras allow our family to participate in the investigation. That the Honduran state cease the criminalization of COPINH and the social movement organizations.
I would like for UNESCO to designate the Gualcarque River as part of humanity’s cultural and natural heritage.

I also want to use this opportunity to express how happy I am that Gustavo Castro, a dear friend and another victim of this crime, has been able to return to his country.
I close by asking that all of our people in Honduras and all of the peoples of the world take up the struggle in defense of life and mother earth. Towards that end, I leave you with the words of my daughter: “WAKE UP HUMANITY, THERE’S NO TIME LEFT.”
With conviction, appreciation and solidarity, sincerely,
Austra Bertha Flores López

For Hondurans it does not really matter whether the Democratic or Republican Party wins. The USA government has always maintained close ties with the arm forces and the corporate and political elite groups; and that is why they have turned this country into a huge United States military base. On our grounds we have 13 United States military bases. US was behind the coup back in 2009 which harmed us in evry way. One thing is the people of the United States; however, its government is a totally different story.

Hillary Clinton’s Real Scandal Is Honduras, Not Benghazi

Saturday, 26 July 2014 11:09 By Emily Schwartz Greco, OtherWords | Op-Ed

2014 726 hil swHilary Clinton speaking at a Rally in North Carolina, May 2, 2008. (Photo: Keith Kissel / Flickr)Is it too soon to predict who will be the next president of the United States?

Without officially declaring her intention to run again, Hillary Clinton has cornered Democratic frontrunner status. Given the weak and crowded Republican field, that makes her the presumptive next occupant of a prestigious office lacking – as comedian Jon Stewart observes – any corners.

Clinton’s apparent unbeatability this time around helps explain the right-wing hysteria over the Benghazi tragedy. The conspiracy theories about the attack that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya amount to a desperate effort to discredit the Democratic Party’s strong centrist candidate. It’s no surprise that this ploy isn’t making a dent on her popularity.

What beats me is why more Democrats aren’t deeply troubled by the legacy of Clinton’s foreign policy blunder in Honduras.

Maybe you’ve forgotten what happened in that small country in the first year of the Obama administration — more on that in a moment. But surely you’ve noticed the ugly wave of xenophobia greeting a growing number of Central American child refugees arriving on our southern border.

Some of President Barack Obama’s supporters are trying to blame this immigration crisis on the Bush administration because of an anti-trafficking law George W. signed in 2008 specifically written to protect Central American children that preceded an uptick in their arrivals. But which country is the top source of kids crossing the border? Honduras, home to the world’s highest murder rate, Latin America’s worst economic inequality, and a repressive U.S.-backed government.

When Honduran military forces allied with rightist lawmakers ousted democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya in 2009, then-Secretary of State Clinton sided with the armed forces and fought global pressure to reinstate him.

Washington wields great influence over Honduras, thanks to the numerous military bases built with U.S. funds where training and joint military and anti-drug operations take place. Since the coup, nearly $350 million in U.S. assistance, including more than $50 million in military aid has poured into the country.

That’s a lot of investment in a nation where the police, the military, and private security forces are killing people with alarming frequency and impunity, according to Human Rights Watch.

In short, desperate Honduran children are seeking refuge from a human rights nightmare that would cast a dark cloud over Clinton’s presidential bid right now if the media were paying any attention.

That wouldn’t give Republicans a big advantage, of course. Until they stop alienating a majority of female voters and communities of color, I find it hard to see the party of Mitt Romney and John McCain winning the White House.

Given the Democratic Party’s demographic edge, progressives have nothing to lose by seizing on the GOP field’s weakness and pressing for a viable alternative to another Clinton administration. Senator Elizabeth Warren could prove a contender. Unfortunately, the consumer-rights firebrand and Massachusetts Democrat lacks any foreign policy experience.

And foreign policy is no afterthought these days. Israel – the recipient of $3.1 billion a year in U.S. military aid – is waging a ground war in Gaza, and the stakes in the Russia-Ukraine conflict just grew following the downing of that Malaysia Airlines jet. Plus, Iraq is growing more violent and unstable once more. On all these issues, Clinton is more hawkish than most of the Democratic base.

But other Democrats with a wide range of liberal credentials and foreign policy expertise are signaling some interest in running, especially if Clinton ultimately sits out the race.

Even if Clinton does win in 2016, a serious progressive primary challenge could help shape her presidency. As more and more Honduran kids cross our border in search of a safe haven, voters should take a good look at her track record at the State Department and reconsider the inevitability of another Clinton administration.

 

 

 

 

 

The U.S. Re-militarization of Central America and Mexico

by Alexander Main

https://nacla.org/article/us-re-militarization-central-america-and-mexico

 

2661 Honduran paratroopers with U.S. Special Forces soldiers during a “static line jump” (UNASOC News Service / Creative Commons)

During his brief visit to Costa Rica in May 2013, President Obama appeared eager to downplay the U.S. regional security agenda, emphasizing instead trade relations, energy cooperation, and youth programs. “So much of the focus ends up being on security,” he complained during a joint press conference with his Costa Rican counterpart Laura Chinchilla. “But we also have to recognize that problems like narco-trafficking arise in part when a country is vulnerable because of poverty, because of institutions that are not working for the people, because young people don’t see a brighter future ahead.” Asked by a journalist about the potential use of U.S. warships to counter drug-trafficking, Obama was adamant: “I’m not interested in militarizing the struggle against drug trafficking.”

Human rights organizations from Central America, Mexico, and the United States see the administration’s regional security policy very differently. In a letter sent to Obama and the region’s other presidents last year, over 145 civil society organizations called out U.S. policies that “promote militarization to address organized crime.” These policies, the letter states, have only resulted in a “dramatic surge in violent crime, often reportedly perpetrated by security forces themselves. Human rights abuses against our families and communities are, in many cases, directly attributable to failed and counterproductive security policies that have militarized our societies in the name of the ‘war on drugs.’”

The latest round in the ramping up of U.S. security assistance to Mexico and Central America began during President George W. Bush’s second term in office. Funding allocated to the region’s police and military forces climbed steadily upward to levels unseen since the U.S.-backed “dirty wars” of the 1980s. As narco-trafficking operations shifted increasingly from the Caribbean to the Central American corridor, the United States worked with regional governments to stage a heavily militarized war on drugs in an area that had yet to fully recover from nearly two decades of war.

In 2008 the Bush Administration launched the Mérida Initiative, a cooperation agreement that provides training, equipment, and intelligence to Mexican and Central American security forces. A key model for these agreements is Plan Colombia, an $8 billion program launched in 1999 that saw the mass deployment of military troops and militarized police forces to both interdict illegal drugs and counter left-wing guerrilla groups. Plan Colombia is frequently touted as a glowing success by U.S. officials who point to statistics indicating that drug production and violence has dropped while rebel groups’ size and territorial reach have significantly receded. Human rights groups, however, have documented the program’s widespread “collateral damage,” which includes the forced displacement of an estimated 5.7 million Colombians, thousands of extrajudicial killings, and continued attacks and killings targeting community activists, labor leaders, and journalists.

Under President Obama, the U.S. government has renewed and expanded Mérida and, in 2011, created the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI). From 2008 to 2013, these programs have received over $2 billion and $574 million respectively, according to a 2014 report by the Igarapé Institute. Though administration spokespeople emphasize investments made in judicial reform and drug prevention programs, most funds have been spent on supporting increasingly warlike drug interdiction and law enforcement.

The surge in U.S. security assistance has coincided with a notable regional increase in the militarization of law enforcement activities. Starting in 2007, former President Felipe Calderón of Mexico began deploying tens of thousands of troops as part of his government’s crackdown on drugs and organized crime. In El Salvador troops were deployed in the streets in 2009 and their presence was increased in 2011. In 2011 and 2012 Salvadoran president Mauricio Funes appointed active and inactive military officers to top security posts, breaking with the tradition since the country’s 1992 peace accords of keeping these posts in civilian hands. In Guatemala, meanwhile, over 21,000 army troops have taken up policing missions, often far outnumbering the number of police personnel in the areas where they are deployed. According to the Center for International Policy (CIP) approximately 40% of Guatemala’s security-related posts have been filled by former military officers, since former army chief Otto Perez Molina’s 2012 ascension to the presidency.

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U.S. security funding to Honduras was briefly suspended following the June 2009 military coup. But by the following year the United States had resumed funding at a higher rate than before the coup, even though the Center for Justice and International Law noted that “high-ranking Army officers or former members of the Army against whom complaints were brought for their participation in the coup d’état, are occupying executive positions in government offices.” In November 2011 the Honduran government began sending military patrols into the streets to fight common crime, and in August 2013 a new Military Police for Public Order was created, tasked with cracking down on gang activity. Military involvement in policing duties had been prohibited under the Honduran constitution, but in January 2014 the country’s legislature amended the constitution to permit a military police force.

Though the U.S. government has remained silent regarding military involvement in law enforcement activities, the steady increase of U.S. assistance to national armed forces has, if anything, been an indicator of tacit U.S. support. But the U.S. role in militarization of national police forces has been direct as well. In 2011 and 2012, the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Foreign-deployed Advisory Support Team (FAST)—which had previously carried out military-style missions in Afghanistan—set up camp in Honduras to train a local counternarcotics police unit and help plan and execute drug interdiction operations in the Mosquitia, a remote region in eastern Honduras that has recently become a hub for the transit of drug shipments northward.

Supported by U.S. helicopters mounted with high caliber machine guns, these operations were nearly indistinguishable from military missions, and locals routinely referred to the DEA and Honduran police agents as “soldados” (soldiers). According to The New York Times, five “commando style squads” of FAST teams have been deployed across Central America to train and support local counternarcotics units.

In July 2013, the Honduran government created a new “elite” police unit called the Intelligence Troop and Special Security Group, or TIGRES (Spanish for “tigers”). The unit, which human rights groups contend is military in nature, has been deployed in tandem with the new military police force and has received training in military combat tactics from both U.S. and Colombian Special Forces units.

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Outside of Honduras, Colombian military and police trainers are now active throughout the region as well. Eager to help export the “successful” Plan Colombia model, the United States has funded training programs carried out by Colombian security forces in Mexico, Central America, and beyond. In 2012, President Obama and Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos announced a joint multi-million dollar Action Plan on Regional Security Cooperation that draws on “Colombia’s established and expanding expertise and capacity for countering transnational organized crime…and shared U.S. responsibility to address the demand for illicit narcotics,” according to a State Department release.

2660 A Honduran paratrooper and U.S. Special Forces soldier shake hands (UNASOC News Service / Creative Commons)

Human rights groups such as the Fellowship for Reconciliation (see Lindsay-Poland, this issue) note that many members of Colombia’s police and military forces are—like many of their Mexican and Central American counterparts—implicated in extrajudicial killings and human rights abuses. Transnational crime organizations are believed to have permeated a large number of the region’s police and military units as well.

The U.S. government presents the increased support to Mexico and Central America’s security forces as a necessary response to the alarming rise in drug-trafficking activity which has, in turn, fueled violent crime. But has U.S. policy borne positive results? The question is complicated because the United States and its partners have failed to publicly establish clear metrics to assess counternarcotics efforts. One of the few measures used by the U.S. Congress is “the pace of equipment deliveries and training opportunities” according to a Congressional Research Service Report, though this information says nothing about the effectiveness and impact of aid. U.S. officials highlight statistics showing that there is less cocaine available in the U.S. today than in the years prior to the Mérida Initiative, but it appears likely that this trend is counterbalanced by the increased availability and popularity of other drugs like heroin.

What is certain is that the surge in U.S. security assistance has been accompanied by a dramatic spike in violent crime in several countries. Homicide rates have skyrocketed in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, the countries that have received the bulk of CARSI funding. Today those countries—often referred to as the Northern Triangle—comprise one of the most violent regions on earth. In Mexico, meanwhile, Human Rights Watch estimates that around 80,000 people have died in drug-related killings since 2006. Drug violence has also led to the displacement of over 200,000 Mexicans, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center.

U.S. officials have suggested that the epidemic of violence in the region actually indicates the effectiveness of the war on drugs. The head of the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, William Brownfield, recently told the Associated Press that “the bloodshed tends to occur and increase when these trafficking organizations…come under some degree of pressure.” This theory doesn’t seem to be supported by any concrete evidence, and appears to disregard the fact that many of those killed have no links to drug trafficking.

The chilling reality is that the majority of U.S. security assistance flowing to Mexico and Central America is going to police and military forces that only two decades earlier were engaged in horrifying acts of killing and torture against political opponents and indigenous communities. With few exceptions, security forces across Central America have undergone no serious reform since the 1980s, and the state agents responsible for past human rights violations have not been brought to justice for even the most egregious crimes, such as the massacre of entire villages. Today, the region’s judicial institutions—particularly in Mexico and the Northern Triangle—remain deeply corrupt and inefficient, and only a tiny proportion of crimes involving security forces are successfully investigated and prosecuted.

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The U.S. government has been reluctant to acknowledge the growing number of extrajudicial killings and human rights abuses reportedly perpetrated by members of state security forces receiving U.S. support. In 2011, Human Rights Watch presented evidence of Mexican security forces’ involvement in “more than 170 cases of torture, 39 “disappearances,” and 24 extrajudicial killings since 2006.” And these incidents are likely only a drop in the bucket. From 2007 to April 2011 Mexico’s Federal Prosecutor’s Office opened 1,615 investigations into alleged military crimes against civilians, but not a single one of these investigations resulted in a prosecution.

As documented in an in-depth report by Rights Action and the Center for Economic and Policy Research, and by journalist Kaelyn Forde in NACLA’s Fall 2013 issue, on May 11, 2012, a drug interdiction operation involving Honduran police and DEA FAST team agents flew into the tiny municipality of Ahuas and opened fire on a passenger boat, resulting in the killing of four indigenous villagers, none of whom were known to have links to drug trafficking. To this day, the families of the victims of the Ahuas killings await justice and compensation from the Honduran and U.S. governments. And in a number of documented instances across Central America, attacks by security forces have targeted civil society groups engaged in peaceful protests or other forms of non-violent opposition. In Guatemala troops have killed indigenous protestors demonstrating against the government’s economic reforms. Honduran military and police units are accused of killing dozens of land rights advocates in the Bajo Aguán valley close to the Atlantic coast, and a peaceful demonstrator protesting a hydroelectric project further west in the Rio Blanco Valley.

Killings and attacks against women, human rights defenders, lawyers, journalists, LGBT activists, union leaders, and political opposition leaders have risen sharply. In Honduras, many occur in death squad fashion, with individuals kidnapped by masked men in unmarked vehicles, shot and left by the roadside, sometimes with evidence of torture. Given the tactics, many suspect the involvement of security forces, but those responsible are almost never brought to justice.

Citing these widespread abuses, human rights groups and many members of Congress have pushed back against the U.S. security spending frenzy. In 2012, 94 members of the U.S. House of Representatives demanded the complete suspension of police and military assistance to Honduras. Congressional appropriators have conditioned portions of security aid to Mexico and Honduras pending State Department certification of governments’ compliance with human rights and accountability provisions. They have also maintained a long-standing ban on foreign military funding and training of Guatemalan army units in appropriations funneled through the State Department.

But the Obama administration has consistently certified Mexico and Honduras as compliant with human rights conditions in spite of, in the case of Honduras, public objections from over 20 U.S. senators. The ban on some security assistance to Guatemala is amply compensated by direct Department of Defense support to military units, among them those that reportedly include members of the Kaibiles, Special Forces troops implicated in past massacres.

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Recently, the United States began channeling more sophisticated and insidious forms of support to the region’s security forces. Through CARSI, the U.S. government has equipped police institutions with surveillance technology and encouraged widespread wiretapping activity. The overt intention may be to improve local law enforcements’ ability to intercept drug traffickers’ calls, but—given the absence of effective judicial accountability—civil society actors legitimately fear that this enhanced surveillance capacity is being directed at them.

Despite the United States’ enormous investment, the State Department’s 2014 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report notes that “approximately 90 percent of illegal drugs from South America destined for the United States are smuggled through the seven Central American countries and Mexican corridor.” Why have billions of dollars been spent on a failed policy that has only generated more violence? And why, in an apparent repetition of the dark days of Central America’s dirty wars, does Washington invest so heavily in strengthening and empowering corrupt security forces with appalling human rights records?

U.S. officials’ unwavering faith in the Colombian militarized model is no doubt part of the reason. But a stubbornly persistent Cold War mindset may also be at play. Based on hours of interviews with State Department officials and Congressional staffers, investigative journalist Hector Silva Avalos recently observed in an Inter-American Dialogue report that the U.S. security agenda in the Northern Triangle is driven in part by the perceived threat of the growing regional power of the Venezuelan government. A new “anti-American narrative,” he argues, has replaced the prior communist threat in the eyes of key policy makers.

Avalos’s findings echo a 2007 U.S. strategy memorandum—part of the WikiLeaks trove of diplomatic cables—on the “Southern Cone Perspective on Countering Chávez and Reasserting U.S. Leadership.” Though the memo focuses on policy toward the Southern Cone, its message would no doubt resonate among U.S. Central America policy makers. “We should continue to strengthen ties to those military leaders in the region who share our concern over [late Venezuelan president Hugo] Chávez,” stated the memorandum

The U.S. government’s failed and destructive regional anti-drug policy now faces a swelling movement of resistance from Central American leaders and grassroots movements alike. Governments are debating alternative policies that include potential decriminalization of drug possession and use.

Human rights groups and social movements are increasingly united in decrying the use of army troops and militarized police in repressing popular movements and defending corporations in their efforts to wrest resource-rich lands from communities. The priority, they believe, is building strong, transparent judicial institutions to address human rights crimes and ensure accountability. To eradicate the scourge of violent crime, investment is needed, not in military equipment and police and military training, but in equitable and sustainable economic development that addresses the basic needs of the poor.

 


 

Alexander Main is the Senior Associate for International Policy at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), with a focus on U.S. foreign policy toward Latin America and the Caribbean.