Archive for the ‘violence in Honduras’ Category

The 10 countries with the highest child homicide rates are all in Latin America and the Caribbean

The 10 countries with the highest child homicide rates are all in Latin America and the Caribbean

Honduras was the most violent country for children under the age of 19 in the region, with a homicide rate of more than 30 children per 100,000 inhabitants — some ten times higher than the global average, according to Save the Children’s 2017 “End of Childhood” report.

Venezuela, El Salvador and Colombia each had child homicide rates of more than 20 per 100,000, while Brazil, Guatemala, Trinidad and Tobago, the Dominican Republic, Panama and Belize all had rates of more than 10 per 100,000.


(Graphic courtesy of Save the Children)

InSight Crime Analysis

The report links the high rates of child homicides in Latin America and the Caribbean to persistently high levels of crime and violence throughout the region over many years. And indeed, child homicide rates appear to more or less correlate with broader regional trends in violence.

El Salvador, Venezuela and Honduras were the region’s most violent countries in 2016, with overall homicide rates of 81.2, 59 and 59, respectively, per 100,000. Save the Children’s report found that these same countries also had the highest rates of child homicides.

In El Salvador, the report found that gang violence was a primary contributor to the high rates of child homicides — a notion that is backed by other evidence. In other countries in the region, however, the dynamics of the relationship between child homicides and crime were different.

Mexico, for example, did not fall within the list of countries with the top ten highest child homicide rates, despite having a presence of strong organized crime groups that has contributed to high levels of overall violence.

SEE ALSO: InDepth Coverage of Homicides

This is likely because Central American gangs are known to aggressively target children for recruitment. Those who do join the gangs face an increased risk to their physical security due to their increased exposure to criminal violence. Those who refuse are often killed.

But this is not the case in Mexico. While street gangs sometimes use children as lookouts, or for extortion and other petty crimes, Mexico‘s most powerful criminal organizations are sophisticated cartels that have not been known to employ children as extensively due to the relative complexity of their criminal activities.

In Colombia, on the other hand, the country’s decades-long armed conflict has involved numerous child soldiers, which has likely contributed to its elevated child homicide rate. Nearly 50 percent of adult combatants of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) were “inducted as minors,” according to a 2012 report on their involvement in the armed conflict.

Berta Cáceres’s name was on Honduran military hitlist, says former soldier

A unit trained by US special forces was ordered to kill the environmental activist who was slain in March, according to an ex-member who now fears for his life

One human rights expert said: ‘This … reinforces calls that the US must withdraw military aid from Honduras where there’s been a bloodbath since the 2009 coup.’
 One human rights expert said: ‘This … reinforces calls that the US must withdraw military aid from Honduras where there’s been a bloodbath since the 2009 coup.’ Photograph: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

 in Mexico City

Berta Cáceres, the murdered environmental campaigner, appeared on a hitlist distributed to US-trained special forces units of the Honduran military months before her death, a former soldier has claimed.

Lists featuring the names and photographs of dozens of social and environmental activists were given to two elite units, with orders to eliminate each target, according to First Sergeant Rodrigo Cruz, 20.

Cruz’s unit commander, a 24-year-old lieutenant, deserted rather than comply with the order. Cruz – who asked to be identified by a pseudonym for fear of reprisal – followed suit, and fled to a neighbouring country. Several other members of the unit have disappeared and are feared dead.

“If I went home, they’d kill me. Ten of my former colleagues are missing. I’m 100% certain that Berta Cáceres was killed by the army,” Cruz told the Guardian.

Cáceres, an indigenous Lenca leader who won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015 for a campaign against the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam, was shot dead in her home in March. Before her murder, she had reported 33 death threats linked to the campaign and had warned international human rights delegates that her name was on a hitlist.

Berta Cáceres campaigned to preserve her people’s environment, threatened by a hydroelectric project.
 Berta Cáceres campaigned to preserve her people’s environment, threatened by a hydroelectric project. Photograph: Tim Russo

According to Cruz, Cáceres’s name appeared on a list given to a military police unit in the Inter-institutional Security Force (Fusina), which last summer received training from 300 US marines and FBI agents.

Five men have been arrested for her murder, including Maj Mariano Díaz Chávez, an active-duty major in the Honduran army. Díaz had previously participated in joint US-Honduran military operations in Iraq, and is reported by local media to be a graduate of the elite Tesón special operations course which is partly taught by US special forcesDiaz was a military police instructor when arrested, but has since been given a dishonourable discharge.

Annie Bird, director of the group Rights and Ecology which documents human rights abuses in Honduras, said: “Cruz’s testimony suggests death squads are targeting political opposition, but the justice system is so broken, and directly controlled by figures implicated in corruption, that there is no one [in Honduras] who can credibly investigate.”

The Guardian interviewed Cruz several times by telephone and video call, and spoke with several people – academics, community leaders and activists – who have interviewed Cruz and confirmed his identity and military background.

Cruz enlisted in the army in December 2014, and after three months of basic training, was transferred to the 7th Battalion of the military police, which was created in 2013 to replace a civilian police force mired in allegations of corruption and abuse.

He completed two gruelling specialist training camps, including the Tesón course, where he received instruction from foreign military advisers including Americans, Colombians and instructors who spoke a foreign language which Cruz could not identify. Last year, the Tesón course became the subject of intense controversy when footage emerged showing a trainee being forced to eat the head of a dog.

During his training, Cruz was hospitalized twice with dehydration, but he completed the course and in October last year, Cruz and 15 other men from his battalion were picked to serve in the Xatruch taskforce – one of two multi-agency forces in Honduras deployed on specialist counter-narcotics and anti-gang operations.

The Xatruch force covers the Caribbean coast, which has become an important way station for drug cartels smuggling cocaine from South America to the US. The second taskforce, Fusina, operates nationwide.

In mid-December, Cruz’s commander gathered his subordinates after a Tuesday evening football match and showed them several sheets of paper with names, photographs, addresses and phone numbers of each target. One list was assigned to their unit; the second to a similar unit in Fusina.

“The lieutenant said he wasn’t willing to go through with the order as the targets were decent people, fighting for their communities. He said the order came from the joint chiefs of staff [and] he was under pressure from the Xatruch commander to comply,” Cruz said.

A few days later, the lieutenant left the base and has not been seen since.

It was not the first time Cruz had seen the lists. A few weeks earlier in Punta Piedra, a town on the Caribbean coast, similar sheets of paper had fallen out of his commander’s vest in the jeep which Cruz drove.

“I only had them in my hand for 20 or 30 seconds but I recognised some faces as leaders from the Bajo Aguán [region]. I didn’t say anything,” Cruz said.

The Bajo Aguán region – where the Xatruch taskforce is based – has been the setting for a string of violent land disputes between powerful palm oil magnates and local farmers. More than 100 people, mainly peasant activists, have been killed, many at the hands of state or private security forces.

Among the names on the hitlist seen by Cruz was that of Juan Galindo, an activist who had fled the region after receiving threats, but was murdered in November 2014 after returning home from exile to visit his sick mother.

Cruz also recognised Johnny Rivas and Vitalino Álvarez, high-profile members of the United Peasant Movement (Muca). Both men were among 123 activists in the Bajo Aguán named by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in 2014 as requiring urgent protective measures.

Peasant activist Vitalino Álvarez: ‘The rumours are I’m now top of that list.’
 Peasant activist Vitalino Álvarez: ‘The rumours are I’m now top of that list.’ Photograph: Orlando Sierra/AFP/Getty Images

Álvarez, 52, who has survived four assassination attempts since 2010, said: “There’s been a systematic strategy to eliminate the most belligerent social leaders. Since they killed Berta, the rumours are I’m now top of that list.”

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.

The US has given Honduras an estimated $200m in police and military aid since 2010 as part of its efforts to stem organised crime and undocumented migration, according to defence and state department figures. In addition, Honduras shares the $750m Alliance for Prosperity fund approved by Congress last year for Central America’s violent Northern Triangle.

Both aid packages include human rights conditions, but neither has been restricted, even though the state department’s most recent human rights report says that “unlawful and arbitrary killings and other criminal activities by members of the security forces” remain one of the country’s most serious problems.

Neither the Honduran defence ministry nor the US state department responded to repeated requests for comment by the Guardian.

After Cruz’s lieutenant deserted in mid-December, the other members of his unit were redeployed separately. Cruz worked for about 10 days with the commander of the Xatruch taskforce.

During this brief deployment, Cruz said he was woken up in the middle of the night to transport black plastic bags to the River Tocoa, in Bajo Aguán, where colleagues emptied out human remains over the bridge.

He also described seeing a “torture room” near a military installation in the town of Bonito Oriental. “I didn’t see anyone but there was fresh blood, a hammer, nails, a chain and pliers in the room.”

Shortly afterwards, Cruz and his colleagues were all sent on extended leave. Now increasingly anxious for his own safety, Cruz fled, crossing the border illegally as his identification documents were still with the army. He is now in hiding and his family have reported that military policemen have questioned their neighbours over his whereabouts.

Lauren Carasik, director of the International Human Rights Clinic at Western New England University, said the US must stop turning a blind eye to the lawlessness.

“This is disturbing smoking-gun evidence which reinforces calls that the US must withdraw military aid from Honduras where there’s been a bloodbath since the 2009 coup.”

Violence in Honduras increased dramatically after a military-backed coup in July 2009 forced President Manuel Zelaya from power. Environmental campaigners bore the brunt of the repression after the new rightwing government licensed hundreds of mega-projects, including mines and hydroelectric dams in environmentally sensitive areas. At least 109 activists were murdered between 2010 and 2015, making Honduras one of the world’s most dangerous countries for environmental defenders.

A growing number of US politicians have expressed concern over the situation.

In August 2015, 21 members of Congress wrote to the secretary of state, John Kerry, raising specific concerns about US support for Fusina, which has repeatedly been accused of human rights violations.

Last week, the Berta Cáceres Human Rights Act in Honduras – which would suspend US security assistance until human rights violations by security forces cease – was introduced to Congress by Representative Hank Johnson.

“We provide millions of dollars in security assistance to Honduras but these same forces have been found to attack and kill environmental, labour and human rights activists like Cáceres without any effective response from the authorities,” said Johnson.

Cáceres’s daughter, Bertita Zúñiga, said Cruz’s testimony strengthened the family’s calls for an independent international investigation to find the intellectual authors.

“This shows us that death squads are operating in the armed forces, which are being used to get rid of people opposing government plans. It shows us that human rights violations are state policy in Honduras.”

Unthinkable violence drives Hondurans north to United States

  • In Mexico July 22, a Central American migrant walks toward “La Bestia,” a cargo train headed for the U.S. border. (Newscom/AFP/Getty Images/Ronaldo Schemidt)

They set out — alone, terrified and at the utter mercy of gangs and criminals — on a treacherous journey for the promised land: a mass exodus of children, some as young as 4.

Most are fleeing their homes in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, and it is un milagro, a miracle, if they ever arrive at the U.S. border.

The migrant trails through Mexico are torturous and fraught with dangers. Most children must not only endure the blazing desert sun, but get through La Arrocera, a lawless region where many have been beaten, robbed or raped. More than a few are murdered.

They are often shaken down by corrupt Mexican police and immigration officers who threaten to deport them unless they pay a bribe. Some are kidnapped and held in groups until relatives pay a ransom.

But if their luck holds — if they escape serious injury and have not been deported or abducted — they might catch a ride on the roof of a freight train that could bring them near the U.S. border.

But the train, known as “La Bestia,” has its own deadly perils, as it passes through areas controlled by drug cartels. Children have fallen off or been thrown off the roof if they couldn’t pay criminals who prey on the easy targets.

If they do make it to the border, they face swimming the Rio Grande. If their families have paid a coyote to get them across the border, their smuggler is likely to also be a drug trafficker. Criminals control the crossings, which are usually the same paths that drug mules use to cross the river.

If they don’t drown, they arrive strangers in a strange land. More than a few of the girls are pregnant from rape. After a 1,500-mile trek through a modern-day heart of darkness, they are greeted with hostility by U.S. Border Patrol agents. More than 60,000 children have been arrested so far this year, many of whom are warehoused in detention centers, where they often languish in a legal limbo.

And yet they keep coming.

A desperate choice

Michelle Brané, director of the Migrant Rights and Justice Program at the Women’s Refugee Commission, has offered an explanation: “While some children may be seeking to reunite with their parents or family in the United States, the motivating factor forcing them from their homes is violence and persecution. The children we spoke with told us they feared they would die if they stayed in their home country, and although they might die during the journey, at least they would have a chance.”

The latest United Nations homicide figures show that these children are fleeing the most violent countries in the world: Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala are three of the top five murder capitals of the world.

Desperate families face a desperate choice: Do they risk having their children remain in their home country, where they have witnessed unthinkable violence and criminal gangs attack or forcibly recruit them? Or do they hand their children and a year’s wages over to smugglers who claim they can get them into los Estados Unidos?

The United Nations has urged the U.S. to treat the children from these three countries as refugees displaced by armed conflict, but politics being what they are, the White House and Congress are engaged in partisan battles and remain deadlocked over both short- and long-term solutions.

President Barack Obama has deported more than 2 million immigrants, a rate greater than that of any other president in history, but Attorney General Eric Holder has defended his record, saying, “The president has been unfairly labeled the deporter-in-chief.”

The National Lawyers Guild has criticized the administration for expediting the deportations of children “fleeing persecution and violence in Central America,” and for continuing to jail “thousands of women and children in hastily erected family detention centers, despite reports of abuse.”

It’s “a wholly inadequate response” and “ignores the root causes of this forced migration,” the guild said, calling on the administration to adhere to its international human rights obligations and provide legal counsel to the children.

To stem the flow from Honduras, the country with the largest number of migrant children, the Obama administration has proposed a plan to consider giving them refugee status once they are screened in their own country.

Meanwhile, House Republicans passed two measures before the summer recess that would speed up deporting children, legislation that a Catholic bishop called “a low point for our country,” and The Wall Street Journal blasted in an editorial. The newspaper took Republicans on for instigating “a screaming match on the floor in full view of the national media” and portraying itself as a “party whose preoccupation is deporting children,” something certain “to alienate many conservatives, never mind minority voters.”

Not about economics

Many Americans wrongly assume that most of these children are economic migrants. Some children no doubt want to escape extreme poverty. About 30 percent of Hondurans, according to the World Bank, live on less than $2 a day. And so-called free trade agreements like CAFTA, which protect corporations and promote sweatshops, have made the poor in these countries even poorer.

But poverty can’t explain the current crisis. Neighboring Nicaragua — the poorest country in Central America — has very few child migrants.

A May 27 Border Patrol report states that while Guatemalan children from rural areas might be seeking economic opportunities, those from Honduras and El Salvador “come from extremely violent regions where they probably perceive the risk of traveling alone to the U.S. preferable to remaining at home.”

Of the top 10 cities children are fleeing, seven are in Honduras, the report shows, with San Pedro Sula being No. 1.

What has been largely missing from the public debate is the elephant in the room: the full extent to which past and current U.S. policies have fostered the dire and violent conditions in these three countries, especially the U.S. training and funding of Latin American militaries.

Add to that the insatiable U.S. demand for illegal drugs and a U.S.-led drug war that has miserably failed, judging from the thriving drug cartels, the ready availability of drugs, the increase in migrants and the exploding homicide rates.

The most salient piece absent from debate on the Honduran refugee crisis is the Obama administration’s failure to act in 2009 after the Honduran military overthrew the democratically elected president, Manuel Zelaya.

The coup was led by Gen. Romeo Orlando Vásquez Velásquez, who twice received training at the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas, now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC). The institution in Fort Benning, Ga., has trained so many coup leaders it was nicknamed the “School of Coups.” Two other Honduran SOA-trained gen-erals — Juan Melgar Castro and Policarpo Paz García — overthrew earlier governments.

In 2009, not only did then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton resist international pressure to reinstate Zelaya, but the administration allowed the training of Honduran officers to continue at the Fort Benning school despite its claims that it had cut military ties to the nation and despite federal law requiring that U.S. military aid and training be suspended when a country undergoes a military coup.

The blowback was almost immediate, as the U.S. disregard for the rule of law wasn’t lost on the coup leaders.

Right after deposing the president, according to a 2014 Human Rights Watch report, “the de facto government suspended key civil liberties, including freedom of the press and assembly. In the ensuing days, security forces responded to generally peaceful demonstrations with excessive force and shut down opposition media outlets, which caused several deaths, scores of injuries, and thousands of arbitrary detentions.”

In 2011, the Honduran Congress enacted a “decree allowing military personnel to carry out public security duties,” the report said. In 2013, it passed another law creating “a military police force with powers to seize control of violent neighborhoods and carry out arrests, among other duties, despite a history of abuse by the military against civilians.”

The bloodshed has gone unabated, with government and private security forces killing people alongside the drug cartels and gangs. A common perception is that gangs and drug cartels cause most of the violence, but human rights advocates say that these elements can’t flourish without the complicity of the police and the military.

The country’s murder rate spiked after the coup, going from 61.3 murders per 100,000 in 2008 to a whopping 90.4 in 2012, according to the latest U.N. figures, making Honduras the murder capital of the world. El Salvador ranks fourth with 41.2 and Guatemala fifth with 39.9.

The Human Rights Watch report concludes that the country “suffers from rampant crime and impunity for human rights abuses. … Perpetrators of killings and other violent crimes are rarely brought to justice.”

Yet, despite the repression and corruption, the U.S. has poured tens of millions of dollars into the country since the coup. And SOA/WHINSEC is still training Honduran officers, although it’s impossible to assess the impact of the ongoing training. That’s because the school has refused to release the names of its graduates ever since it was found in 2003 to have admitted human rights abusers like Salvadoran Col. Francisco del Cid — who had been cited by the 1993 U.N. Truth Commission for commanding a unit that dragged people from their homes and shot them at point blank range.

Children as collateral damage

The Obama administration’s inaction and disregard for the rule of law made Honduran children collateral damage from U.S. policies.

It also reinforced a bitter lesson Hondurans learned in the 1980s, when the Reagan administration pressured its leaders into joining the U.S. war against Nicaragua — a war condemned by the International Court of Justice for “unlawful use of force.”

Washington had assembled a Contra army, comprised largely of Somoza’s former National Guard and led by officers the dictator had sent through the School of the Americas, then based in Panama.

These graduates included Ricardo “Chino” Lau, the counterintelligence chief implicated in the murder of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero; José Benito Bravo Centeno, a Contra commando trainer who murdered POWs; and Armando López, whom another Contra called a bloodthirsty serial killer.

The U.S. pressured Honduran President Roberto Suazo to make Gen. Gustavo Alvarez Martínez, a 1978 SOA graduate, the head of the Honduran armed forces, a favor he returned by aiding and abetting the Contra operation.

Alvarez created Battalion 3-16, a CIA- and SOA-trained Honduran military unit that The Baltimore Sun exposed as a death squad, with former members admitting the people they interrogated were stripped, then shocked by electrical wires clipped to their genitals, often with rubber masks wrapped tightly around their faces to cut off their air supply. Women were routinely raped.

And yet Alvarez was awarded the Legion of Merit by the Reagan administration for encouraging “democratic processes.”

Hondurans not only saw the U.S. honoring a death squad creator, but illegally selling missiles to Iran to finance the Contra war after Congress cut off funding.

The Reagan administration’s point man in the Iran-Contra scandal was ex-Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North, who also tried to recruit Panamanian Gen. Manuel Noriega, a five-time graduate of SOA, to destroy a Nicaraguan airport and an oil refinery.

What’s more, secret manuals were produced during the Reagan administration for the Honduran military, the Contras and the SOA, whose manual advocated torture and assassination and were passed out by U.S. mobile training teams.

No one was ever disciplined for producing or using the materials, another clear message to the militaries of Honduras and other Central American countries that anything goes.

Today, Honduran government death squads are using tactics similar to those used by the death squads of the 1980s: arriving in the middle of the night, masked and in dark unmarked vehicles, to assassinate their victims. A warehouse security camera caught a death squad in action in 2013, executing two students in the back of the head as they lay face-down in the street.

In December 2013, the chief of Honduras’ National Police, Gen. Juan Carlos Bonilla, an SOA graduate known as “el Tigre,” was fired after he was linked to a death squad.

“A death squad government may not be the Obama administration’s first choice for Honduras,” Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, wrote in The Guardian, “but they prefer it to another left government that people might elect if they were able to organize in a free election.”

Even a 2013 U.S. State Department report admitted that there continues to be “widespread impunity” and “unlawful and arbitrary killings by security forces, organized criminal elements, and others.” It also noted that seven journalists were killed and violent deaths of women increased by 246 percent in recent years.

This spring, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández sponsored a controversial military program called “Guardians of the Fatherland” to indoctrinate children as young as 5.

It was criticized as a path to militarization by José Guadalupe Ruelas, director of the children’s shelter Casa Alianza. In May, Honduran military police arrested, beat and dragged him face-down by his feet, according to Amnesty International and the Committee of Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras.

Ruelas had also issued a report detailing “an emerging pattern of organized people with access to expensive vehicles, weapons and equipment, who kidnap, torture and kill poor children and youths, in almost total impunity.”

The bottom line is that the immigration crisis will never be solved as long as the U.S. funds repressive governments and trains their militaries under the pretext of the drug war, said Arturo Viscarra, an immigration lawyer who fled his Salvadoran homeland as a child and serves as the advocacy coordinator for the human rights organization SOA Watch.

“The U.S. has enormous power over Central America and an obligation to fix what it’s broken,” he said.

“When warning George Bush about invading Iraq, Colin Powell cited the Pottery Barn rule that if you break it, you own it.” The same applies to Honduras, Viscarra said — and Guatemala and El Salvador.

[Linda Cooper and James Hodge are the authors of Disturbing the Peace: The Story of Father Roy Bourgeois and the Movement to Close the School of Americas.]