Posts Tagged ‘2009 coup in Honduras’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bertha Caceres

Berta Cáceres (center) was assassinated in 2016.

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

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

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

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

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

A memorial for Berta Caceres

At a memorial for Berta Caceres.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Environmental activist Berta Cáceres was assassinated in 2016, after her decade-long campaign against the construction of a dam in Honduras.

Orlando Sierra/AFP/Getty Images

A Honduran court has convicted seven men of the murder of environmental activist Berta Cáceres, who was assassinated in a home in western Honduras in 2016. Cáceres had been leading opposition to the construction of a dam over the Gualcarque River, and her murder brought renewed attention to the dangers environmentalists face in Central America.

In a telephone interview from Oakland, Calif., Cáceres’ nephew, Silvio Carrillo, spoke with NPR. “Just because there was a conviction, doesn’t mean the justice system works in Honduras. There are still masterminds out there, and there’s no indication that they are going after the masterminds,” Carrillo said.

Judges convicted two former executives of Desa, the company with the concession to build the dam, including Sergio Rodríguez, Desa’s director of environmental and social development, and Douglas Bustillo, the company’s security chief.

A top executive of Desa, Roberto David Castillo, was arrested in March, and will be tried separately.

Robert Amsterdam, international counsel to Desa, told NPR the company’s executives are innocent of the charges against them. “Simply the court had none of the evidence to convict. In respect to Sergio Rodriguez and the references to Desa, they are all without foundation,” Amsterdam said. “Human rights organizations have stampeded the court in Honduras, which is subject to a tremendous amount of political pressure, into rendering a judgment that is flawed.”

“We consider it a fair step towards justice … but still we have some concerns. The process had many flaws,” Marcia Aguiluz Soto, the director for Central America and Mexico at the Center for Justice and International Law, a human rights group that has worked with Cáceres’ family, told NPR. “One of our main concerns is that the masterminds of the assassination are not being judged yet. Basically the tribunal that convicted the seven persons say that they know, and they have proof, that stakeholders and managers of the Desa company planned for the assassination of Berta Cáceres, and paid for it.”

Cáceres, a Lenca woman, had waged a 10-year fight against construction of the dam, which was to be built over water considered sacred by the indigenous Lenca people, who also said the dam would endanger their water resources. She led a campaign which “involved filing legal complaints against the project, organizing community meetings and bringing the case to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission,” according to The New York Times.

In 2015, Cáceres’ won the Goldman Environmental Prize, which is given to grass-roots environmental leaders, and the award gave her work international attention and acclaim.

44-year-old Cáceres was murdered just a year later, when two gunmen broke down the door of the home where she was staying in the town of La Esperanza, which translates to “hope” in Spanish, and shot her six times.

Cáceres’ nephew, Carrillo, says he was dumbfounded by news of her death. “There is just a constant denigration of my family, of the indigenous people in Honduras, and a lack of respect. This is what Berta was fighting for. They deserve the respect that anyone of us do, whether we’re white, brown, black, it doesn’t matter. This is the root of the problem in Honduras, where the wealthy control the power structure, and the impoverished don’t have a voice,” Carrillo said.

According to the organization Global Witness, 14 environmental activists were killed in reprisal for their work in Honduras last year, and more than 120 people have been killed in the country since 2010 for protesting against companies that pollute the environment.

Canada backs profits, not human rights, in Honduras

On Friday Aug. 12, Stephen Harper became the first foreign leader to visit Honduras and meet with President Porfirio Pepe Lobo since the country was readmitted to the Organization of American States (OAS) June 1. This shouldn’t be a point of pride for Canada, however; it reflects a very dangerous and problematic feature of the Conservative government’s foreign policy in Latin America.

Honduras was kicked out of the OAS after the June 28, 2009, military coup that removed from power the democratically elected but moderately left-of-centre president, Manuel Zelaya. The coup was followed immediately by an intense campaign of repression against anti-coup activists waged by the military, police and death squads, echoing the dark days of the Central American dirty wars in the 1980s.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper shakes hands with Honduran President Porfirio Lobo after signing a bilateral free trade agreement. (Aug. 12, 2011)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper shakes hands with Honduran President Porfirio Lobo after signing a bilateral free trade agreement. (Aug. 12, 2011)  (ORLANDO SIERRA / AFP)

Harper’s visit, during which he announced the completion of the Canada-Honduras Free Trade Agreement, is the culmination of the Canadian government’s strenuous efforts to deepen political and economic ties with the post-coup Lobo government following its election on Nov. 28, 2009. The Harper government has been building its relationship with Lobo in spite of international criticism of the ongoing human rights abuses in the impoverished country.

Harper, former minister of state for the Americas Peter Kent and former and current Canadian ambassadors to Honduras have all sung the praises of the Lobo government. They portray it sanguinely as one of national reconciliation and a return to democratic normalcy. But this is nowhere near the truth of what is happening in Honduras. Indeed, as a leading Honduran human rights organization, the Comité de Familiares de Detenidos Desaparecidos en Honduras (Committee of the Family Members of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras, COFADEH) has argued, the human rights situation was actually worse during the first year of the Lobo government than it was immediately following the coup during the dictatorship of Roberto Micheletti.

During Lobo’s first year in power (January 2010-January 2011) there were at least 34 targeted assassinations of activists within the Resistance Front (COFADEH also notes over 300 suspicious deaths of people associated with the resistance), 34 killings of peasant activists involved in land struggles, 10 politically motivated murders of journalists (leading Reporters Without Borders to declare Honduras to be one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists in 2010), and 31 slayings of members of the LGBT community, many of whom were associated with the resistance.

Not surprisingly, anti-coup activists scoff at the idea that the Lobo regime represents the return of democracy. They suggest instead that it represents the consolidation of the coup — with key coup actors, such as military leader Gen. Romeo Vásquez, rewarded with important economic and political positions — under the shallow veneer of democracy. There have been no charges made in any cases of political assassination.

But the veneer is good enough for the Harper government — cover for Canada’s pursuit of its political and economic interests. Despite the repression surrounding Lobo’s election, the refusal of internationally recognized electoral observers to participate in the election, and the failure of the Honduran Congress to ratify the San Jose-Tegucigalpa Accord (a condition for Canadian support for the election, the accord, backed by Canada, would have allowed for the exiled Zelaya to return to the presidency but with his powers dramatically reduced), Canada was one of the first countries to recognize the new government.

Soon after Lobo took power, Kent started lobbying for Honduras’s return to the OAS, while Canadian officials pushed for and received meetings for Canadian investors with Lobo and some of his key cabinet ministers. Behind the scenes, Canadian officials and a mining executive discussed how to promote a new foreign investor-friendly mining law.

Apart from one press release raising concerns about the killings of journalists and Harper’s very terse acknowledgement of human rights problems during his trip (in which he absolved the Lobo government of any responsibility), Canada has said and done little about targeted repression of political activists. Two days before Kent’s February 2010 visit to Honduras, for example, a union activist and resistance member, Julio Fúnez Benítez, was assassinated. Nevertheless, Kent was fulsome in his praise for Lobo, declaring that he “is beginning the process of national reconciliation.”

And toward that end, Lobo established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Unlike other such commissions, however, like that in post-apartheid South Africa or post-civil war Guatemala, Honduras’s commission took place as repression was occurring. Sensing a charade for the benefit of the international community, members of the Resistance Front refused to participate. Unfazed, Canada financed the commission and provided a member, former diplomat Michael Kergin, who happened to be employed by one of Canada’s biggest corporate law firms, Bennett Jones, which just happens to specialize in, among other things, investment law and mining. Predictably, while acknowledging a coup d’état had occurred, the commission blamed Zelaya for breaking the law by disregarding a Supreme Court ruling to cancel a straw poll referendum that asked Hondurans if they wanted to hold another referendum during the November 2009 election. The second referendum would have enabled Hondurans to decide whether or not to replace a constitution written during the days of military dictatorship. Rewriting the constitution remains a very popular idea with many Hondurans.

As intended, Canada’s engagement with post-coup Honduras is reaping benefits for Canadian investors. Lobo has been adopting an aggressive free market plan: rivers have been concessioned for dam-building projects; the state electricity and telecommunications companies will likely be put up for auction; a new mining law is coming; large tracts of Garífuna (Afro-Indigenous) land on the north coast are being illegally sold for tourist development; and the constitution has been amended to allow for the creation of corporate-run city states (the so-called model cities).

Canada is one of the largest foreign investor nations in the country, with over $600 million in investment, according to Ambassador Cameron Mackay. Canadian companies play leading roles in mining, maquilas and tourism, and are central actors in the recent announcement of plans for a tourism-focused model city, the first such city announced.

When I was in Honduras in June, I spoke with activists organizing against Canadian companies in all these industries. They spoke of being displaced from their land, environmental destruction and exploitative working conditions. Some alleged they had received death threats for their opposition to Canadian company practices. Canada, I was told, is acting like a colonial power: supporting a repressive government to facilitate the exploitation of the country’s natural resources and cheap labour. It is unlikely that Harper’s visit and the new trade agreement will change this perception.

The Harper government has already successfully consolidated its political and economic ties with Colombia — a country which annually accounts for approximately two-thirds of trade unionists assassinated worldwide and witnesses severe human rights violations in mining zones. Honduras is the latest target of an increasingly aggressive Canadian foreign policy for the Americas, guided by a very simple but frightening philosophy that places corporate profits and geostrategic interests well above human rights.

Todd Gordon teaches political science at York University and is the author of Imperialist Canada (Arbeiter Ring, 2010). He visited Honduras in June.

Central American migrants—mostly from Honduras—descend from a truck at a temporary shelter in Irapuato, Mexico, on Nov. 11, 2018. Some caravans fleeing violence are now stuck at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Central American migrants—mostly from Honduras—descend from a truck at a temporary shelter in Irapuato, Mexico, on Nov. 11, 2018. Some caravans fleeing violence are now stuck at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Alfredo Estrella—AFP/Getty Images
By Amelia Frank-Vitale

November 23, 2018

At the end of October, I sat with my friend Graciela, counting up all the murders we’d heard about over the last week in her sector of Choloma, a city in Honduras. We thought it was about seven. It turns out, between us, we’d heard of at least 10.

Murders. In one sector. In one week. Four young men, three young women, one bus driver, one older man who worked for the municipality, and one “colgado”—a body hung up as a warning.

This was at the same time the Central American caravan was making headlines in the international press, when people started speculating that mysterious political forces were behind this mass exodus of people from Honduras.

As Graciela—whose own brother was murdered a little over a year ago—and I went back and forth, I thought, This, this is why people leave. And this is what people outside of Honduras seem to not fully understand.

Months earlier, 9-year-old Andres told me about the first time he saw someone killed in front of his eyes, and the second time, and the third time. He talked about the murders he’d seen in a halting way, wishing he could unsee the things he’d witnessed. I told him I’ve actually never seen anyone be killed. His eyes widened, incredulous. That seemed impossible to him: someone my age, a grown adult, never having seen these things. He dreamed about going to the U.S., a place he imagined he might be able to live without seeing any more murders.

I have been living in San Pedro Sula, Honduras’s second-largest city and economic center, since September of 2017. I came to Honduras to research migration and life after deportation for my doctoral degree; I chose San Pedro Sula because it had become famous for being one of the most violent cities in the world, making migration and deportation questions of life and death. While Honduras has made significant strides in reducing its murder rate (from a high of 86.5 per 100,000 people in 2011 to 43.6 in 2017), it is still devastatingly high.

But what I’ve learned is that life here is so much harder than murder statistics could reveal.

One day, around noon, I showed up at Bayron’s house in Villanueva to collect a camera I’d lent him as part of a photography workshop I was running. His mother told me he was still sleeping, and I gently made a joke about him sleeping so late. No no, she told me, he was in line all night long last night. For school.

I didn’t understand at first. She explained that in order for Bayron to register for high school, he had to get in line the night before. Like devoted fans waiting for the box office to open, Bayron and his friends slept in that line, determined to get a spot in the public school this year. If he got there too late to get a spot, he would just have to wait until next year. This is how the public school system works across Honduras.

Bayron’s been deported once already; he left in search of better opportunities, safety, and stability. Back in Honduras, he’d rather be in school but the options before him are few if he cannot get a spot. Like so many, the next best choice might be migrating again.

Darwin, in the Rivera Hernandez sector of the city, also worries about what his son will do next year when it’s time to start high school. Here, the issue i­sn’t whether or not he would get a spot. Darwin’s neighborhood is controlled by one gang; the public high school is in a rival gang’s territory. His son would literally risk his life by going to school. Darwin has thought about sending him to private school, but he sometimes cannot find work for months and his wife, who is in her 40s, can’t get hired anywhere because of her age. They just shook their heads, tears welling up in their eyes, when I asked them what they would do.

Darwin looked up and told me, “Here, it’s a crime to be poor. The police treat us like criminals.” Darwin is careful to never leave home with more than 100 lempiras in his pocket—roughly $5—because he worries constantly that if the police find him with more money on him, they’ll arrest him for extortion. Many of his neighbors are in the “pozo,” Honduras’s maximum security prisons, awaiting trial for the crime of extortion. The apparent proof? Each was found with 300 lempiras on them.

People live on edge in Honduras, never sure when a stray bullet might hit them, whether they will be able to feed their families tomorrow, or if they will end up in jail without having done anything wrong. When word spreads that a caravan is forming, it doesn’t take much for people to join. No one needs to convince them, pay them, or promise them anything.

Even now, as Mexico has met the caravans with repression, protests, and deportation; Honduras has shut down at least one of its border crossings; and Donald Trump has sent troops to the U.S.-Mexico border, people in Honduras talk every day about forming new caravans, ready to walk thousands of miles for a chance, not even for a better life, but just at having a life at all.

Amelia Frank-Vitale is a doctoral candidate in anthropology at the University of Michigan. After working in Mexico from 2010 to 2015, where she focused on the multiple kinds of violence that Central Americans face while in transit, she now works in Honduras, studying how deportees reconfigure their lives and reimagine their futures after being sent back to some of the world’s most violent neighborhoods.

Honduran troops deploy in San Pedro Sula during the inauguration of Juan Orlando Hernández in January. Photo by Kevin Clarke.Honduran troops deploy in San Pedro Sula during the inauguration of Juan Orlando Hernández in January. Photo by Kevin Clarke.

Though thousands of Hondurans left in recent weeks to form the main party of the so-called migrant caravan now making its way to the United States through Mexico, on a typical day hundreds of people leave Honduras, caravan or not. And as those hundreds depart, scores of others are returned after deportation from the United States. Many deportees will try their luck again.

“We are living in calamity, a humanitarian crisis in Honduras,” said Bartolo Fuentes, a well-known Honduran journalist and former member of its Congress, arriving at the Toncontin Airport in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, on Oct. 19 after being detained in Guatemala where he tried to report on the caravan. “Today they left,” he said. “Tomorrow they will leave…. Three hundred people leave Honduras every day.”

U.S. and Honduran officials, he said, prefer that this regular exodus remains “out of sight” or that migrants “die on the way,” their plight unnoticed by the wider world. But “now that they’re going together, it’s a scandal,” Mr. Fuentes said in evident frustration.

“We are living in calamity, a humanitarian crisis in Honduras. Today they left. Tomorrow they will leave…. Three hundred people leave Honduras every day.”

Honduras has endured years of economic and political crises. The November 2017 election results, endorsed by the U.S. government but widely perceived as fraudulent, led to mass protests and dozens of deaths of demonstrators at the hands of security forces and police. The U.N. Office of the High Commission for Human Rights reported that military police and army “used excessive force, including lethal force, to control and disperse protests, leading to the killing and wounding of protesters as well as passers-by.”

According to Joaquin Mejia, a human rights attorney and researcher at the Jesuit Reflection, Research and Communications Team (ERIC-sj) in El Progreso, Honduras, in addition to economic policies that have led to an increase in poverty, the migrant caravan is an expression of frustration with years of structural violence and impunity, corruption and the militarization of Honduran society. High-ranking, active-duty military officers have been implicated in drug and human trafficking and homicide.

Karla Rivas, the coordinator of the Jesuit Migration Network, spoke with America by phone from Queretaro, Mexico, where she was accompanying a separate caravan of mothers who were searching for their children—young migrants who had gone unaccounted for after heading north. “The humanitarian exodus [from Honduras] is the culmination of several crises that have been manifesting themselves over time with the implementation of an unjust economic model.” She called it “an inhumane economic model that is based on extracting [resources] from communities.”

“And if communities say anything,” she added, “they are extracted…too.” By eviction, she explained.

Years of economic policies that have served to further the divide between the rich and the poor in Honduras seem to be at the root of the search for new opportunities in the north. Remittances sent home from Hondurans living in the United States are the foundation of the economy in Honduras and other Central American states. In May 2018, Hondurans sent an all time high of $456.2 million per month to loved ones.

Honduras has “the most unequal distribution of income in Latin America.”

The Center for Economic and Policy Research reports that Honduras has “the most unequal distribution of income in Latin America,” a inequity that has been accelerating since President Manuel Zelaya was deposed in 2009. In the two years after the coup, “over 100 percent of all real income gains went to the wealthiest 10 percent of Hondurans,” according to the report.

The Support Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras, sponsored by the Organization of American States, reports that $450 million is lost to tax evasion and fraud each year. This money deprives the nation of resources “that should be invested in education, health” and other social services, says Mr. Mejia.

Violence is another key driver of immigration from Honduras, which endures one of the world’s highest homicide rates. Much of the violence has been associated with drug trafficking and acts of extortion—criminal gangs can essentially control entire urban communities—but some of the violence results from collusion among gang members, police and security forces, sometimes in acts of intimidation directed at community or environmental activists.

“In the past years, there have been 3,000 cases of femicide,” Mr. Mejia said. “Only 29 have been investigated and only one led to a conviction,” he said. “This high level of impunity is seen over and over again in the murders of lawyers and journalists.”

He points to increased numbers of targeted killings, especially of L.G.B.T. people and youth under 30, since 2013 when Juan Orlando Hernández was first elected to the presidency. Those responsible for protecting the civilian population have sometimes been accused of being the ones who are killing them.

“This high level of impunity is seen over and over again in the murders of lawyers and journalists.”

Mr. Fuentes has become a target in the controversy about the origins of this latest caravan from Central America. Detained after crossing into Guatemala in an effort to report on the migrant caravan, he was moved to Guatemala City by National Police.

Attorney Edy Tabora from the Honduran Committee for Freedom of Expression joined other activists in securing his release. His supporters are concerned that Mr. Fuentes has become a scapegoat for the Hernández and Trump administrations as they press for an end to the Honduran exodus. As an outspoken advocate for democracy and migrants rights, Mr. Fuentes has been repeatedly targeted by the Hernández government.

In a nationally televised broadcast, the Honduran chancellor, Maria Dolores Aguero, dismissed the grassroots aspects of the migrant caravan and alleged that Mr. Fuentes was trying to create political instability in the country. That official line was taken up by Heide Fulton, chargé d’affaires for the U.S. Embassy in Honduras, in a televised message encouraging Hondurans to stay home. “You are being deceived by false promises by leaders with political and criminal intentions,” she said.

On Oct. 31, Mr. Fuentes left Honduras for El Salvador after government officials repeatedly said that he would be charged with human trafficking. In a statement released after his departure, he said that the government “wants to put me behind bars to show the U.S. government its ‘efficiency in fighting irregular migration.’”

On Nov. 5, President Hernández reiterated that the organizers of the caravan should have the law “severely” applied and called on neighboring countries to take action.

Mr. Mejia believes that the militarization of Honduran society has increased as a result of calls for greater public security. ”Funds that should be used for education, health or civilian police [for public security] go to the military,” he said. Honduran “armed forces become involved with a authoritarian solution to social conflicts, and that leads to forced displacement.”

“The United States has a lot to do with this because when we talk about violence and militarization, the United States is [financially] supporting this agenda,” he added. The Alliance for Prosperity Plan, introduced and implemented by the United States, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador in 2014 with the mission of curbing migration from the “Northern Triangle” countries, spends 60 percent of the $750 million budget on security, according to the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.

The Honduran conference of Catholic bishops released a statement on Oct. 25, describing the caravan as “a shocking reality” that reflects ”the current situation in our country, which forces a multitude to leave what little it has, venturing without any certainty for the migration route to the United States, with the desire to reach the promised land, the ‘American dream’, which allows them to solve their economic problems and improve their living conditions, for them and their families and, in many cases, to ensure the long-awaited physical security.”

The bishops urged the Hernández government to respond at home to the crisis suggested by the caravan. “It is the duty of the Honduran State to provide its citizens with the means to satisfy their basic needs,” the bishops said, “such as decent, stable and well-paid work, health, education and housing.”

“When these conditions do not exist,” the bishops said, “people are forced to live in tragedy and many of them hope to undertake a path that leads to development and improvement, finding themselves in the shameful and painful need to leave their families, their friends, their community, their culture, their environment and their land.”

As more than 6,000 people passed through the Mexican state of Chiapas at the end of October, the Human Rights Monitoring and Observation Group in Chiapas reported a heavy presence of Mexican anti-riot police and military, including helicopters, drones and boats, threatening the group of migrants, many of who were exhausted and weak after walking hundreds of miles. The group, which includes representatives from the American Friends Service Committee, Jesuit Refugee Service and Doctors of the World, added, “The militarization of the border does not guarantee the security and integrity of the people, on the contrary it increases [their] risks.”

“The migration route is where entire families are looking for the possibility of a new life,” Ms. Rivas said, “but a large number of the participants on the march are also people simply trying to save their lives.”

Canada’s Deadly Diplomacy and the Plight of Political Prisoners in Honduras

 http://upsidedownworld.org/archives/honduras/canadas-deadly-diplomacy-plight-political-prisoners-honduras/

Honduras

At least 35 people have killed in the political crisis since the Nov. 26 election in Honduras, mostly at the hands of the military police and other state forces. Source: Mark Coplan

Ismael Hernandez was the most recent fatal victim of police and military violence in Honduras. The 40-year-old man was killed Feb. 5 in Choloma, about 200 kilometers north of the country’s capital. According to eyewitnesses and national human rights organizations, Honduran security forces launched tear gas and opened fire with live bullets at protesters, who continue to reject President Juan Orlando Hernandez’s highly questioned re-election.

The same day, hundreds more Hondurans were injured as police cracked down on the university students’ movement protesting as classes resumed at the National Autonomous University of Honduras in Tegucigalpa.

The incidents of state violence in Tegucigalpa and Choloma were far from isolated cases. Participating in an International Emergency Faith Delegation to Honduras in the days leading up Hernandez’ Jan. 26 inauguration, I witnessed first-hand police and military impunity and brutality against Hondurans. Not only those denouncing electoral fraud on the streets experienced repression, but other Hondurans have had their homes filled with tear gas as early as 6:00 a.m. while they were still sleeping. A Honduran I was with joked sadly, “In Honduras, you don’t even have to get out of bed to be targeted with violence by the police.”

In less than a week in Honduras accompanying Radio Progreso, a critical alternative media outlet, I witnessed three illegal detentions, police using the political context of fear and intimidation to loot possessions of value, and the use excessive force. In one instance, more than 200 military and police agents launched more than 50 tear gas canisters at a group of less than 40 people to forcibly disperse the unarmed demonstrators. I was with a former member of Congress whose home was ransacked and family members threatened with guns to their head by uniformed police. I heard testimony from a 35 year old mother of five, who recounted that two days earlier, uniformed military and police agents dragged her husband, Geovany Dias, out of bed in the middle of the night and shot him 40 times. The state agents are accused by locals of being part of a death squad wreaking havoc and killing organized famers nearby. The man hadn’t been part of the demonstrations against Hernandez, but the message from the state security forces that left him on the side of the road for everyone to see was clear: anyone could be next.

This is state-led terrorism in Honduras, and the Canadian government is supporting it. Late on Dec. 22, 2017, the Canadian Embassy in Honduras threw its support behind Hernandez, recognizing his highly contested election win in a tweet. The Honduran president, who ran for a second term in office on the Nov. 26, 2017 ballot despite a constitutional ban on re-election, came out as the victor after three weeks of behind-closed-doors ballet counting and widespread allegations of fraud that prompted hundreds of thousands of Hondurans to take to the streets. In its message, the Canadian Embassy called on the Honduran government, which had already declared a 10-day military curfew and continued violently repressing opposition protesters, to respect human rights and ensure those responsible for the violence were held accountable.

Seven weeks later, Hondurans continue to bear the brunt of heavily militarized government repression, tacitly supported by funding from Canadian taxpayers. Honduras is home to Canada’s largest bilateral development program in Central America, and Ottawa offers significant contributions to strengthen security institutions in the country despite a poor human rights record. Since the election, more than 35 people have been killed, mostly at the hands of state security forces, and hundreds more have been detained. Meanwhile, Canadian companies, mostly in garment manufacturing and mining, have reaped major profits in Honduras since the 2009 U.S. and Canada-backed military coup, thanks in part to a free trade agreement ratified in 2014 and behind-the-scenes political support to ensure favorable changes to the Honduran mining law in 2012.

Amid the deepening crisis, on Jan. 19, Honduran police detained Edwin Espinal, sending him to a maximum security military prison on the eve of a week-long nationwide strike. He faces charges related to arson, property damage and use of homemade explosive material. According to a blog dedicated to the release of Espinal, he is also under investigation for terrorism and criminal association related to damages to the Marriott Hotel during a Jan. 12 protest in Tegucigalpa. Espinal is a recognized human rights and resistance activist who has participated in pro-democracy movements since the 2009 military coup.

Since being incarcerated, except for a brief visit by his lawyers, Espinal has been denied contact with family, journalists and international human rights organizations. The conditions of his detention — and that of the dozens of others illegally detained on trumped up charges — are unknown. Espinal’s partner, a Canadian human rights expert and activist who has spent the better part of the last 10 years working in Honduras, and other supporters have urged the Canadian government to speak out regarding the case. Despite touting strong political and diplomatic ties with Honduras, Canada has failed to act in Espinal’s case — and the cases of others in situations like his — by not condemning the systemic and ongoing human rights crisis in Honduras.

The same day Espinal was incarcerated, the Canadian government issued an alert to Canadians to “Exercise a high degree of caution in Honduras due to violent demonstrations.” In a country where the army and police are armed to the teeth — due in part to Canadian government funding — and have shown little restraint when attacking citizens in the name of protecting elite economic and political interests, it’s time for Canada to condemn the real perpetrators of violence. It’s time to demand the freedom of all political prisoners, like Edwin Espinal, being held without cause by the Honduran government. It’s time to stop quietly supporting a fraudulent government through economic aid, military training and private investment that is allowing the Honduran state to train death squads to act against its people.

Demonstrators hold crosses commemorating the victims of state violence in the wake of the election. Source: Mark Coplan

Ottawa’s response to Honduras’ 2017 election was eerily similar to its response to the 2009 coup d’etat in Honduras, when then-Minister of State Peter Kent called for a peaceful resolution to the “political crisis.” Bob Rae, then-Liberal foreign affairs critic, said that Canada should suspend military aid and training of Honduran soldiers. In the wake of the Nov. 26 election, Canada has similarly called for dialogue, but failed to condemn grave violations of human rights at the hands of Honduran state forces, continuing tacit support for a repressive government.

It’s time for Canada to rectify its dangerous diplomacy toward Honduras and this time, not through a tweet, but through real action that will allow true democracy and freedom of expression in Honduras.

Jackie McVicar has worked accompanying human rights and land defenders and survivors of the Guatemalan genocide for the past 14 years. Recently, she traveled to Honduras as part of an international emergency faith delegation. She currently works with United for Mining Justice and is a member of the Atlantic Region Solidarity Network.

Violence in post-election Honduras could affect U.S. migration patterns, activists say

Claudia Mendoza (left) and Joaquin Mejia (right) were in Washington, D.C. to give an overview of post-election Honduras. (Photo: Esther Y. Lee)

Claudia Mendoza (left) and Joaquin Mejia (right) were in Washington, D.C. to give an overview of post-election Honduras. (Photo: Esther Y. Lee)

WASHINGTON, D.C.– The violent aftermath of the Honduran presidential election — triggered by allegations of electoral fraud — has led to serious human rights abuses, Honduran advocates said Thursday, strongly advising the Trump administration not to deport immigrants back to a country repressed by deadly government security forces.

At an event sponsored by Alianza Americas, a transnational network of immigrant organizations, two Honduran-based speakers shared their on-the-ground perspective of the dangers they have faced after President Juan Orlando Hernández’s reelection. Joaquin Mejia — a lawyer and human rights advocate who works as a commentator at the Jesuit radio station Radio Progreso — expressed concern over the legitimacy of his country’s presidential elections and indicated that his life was at risk for openly criticizing Hernández and the military police. The Honduran constitution has since the 1980s explicitly enforced a one-term presidential limit. Hernández sought to change the constitution to ban term limits. Claudia Mendoza — a freelance journalist who has worked with Univision — also pointed out at the event the “shameful” silence by the Honduran news outlets to suppress news about the brutality at the hands of the country’s military police.

Mejia and Mendoza both noted that violent clashes between opposition supporters and the military police have led to the deaths of dozens of activists, hundreds of injuries, and thousands of detentions. Into January 2018, the Honduran government reportedly used security forces to tamp down protests using tear gas, batons, and live ammunition, according to a Latin American Working Group Education Fund report, brutally stiffing press freedom and imposing curfews in post-electoral Honduras. In the face of mounting violence following Hernández’s reelection, the U.S. embassy accepted the country’s election results, despite misgivings by the Organization of American States (OAS) which called for a presidential election do-over.

Mejia has been advocating for a fair electoral process and said he was “hopeful” that the Honduran youth would turn out for future elections. He also wants the U.S. government to stop deporting people back to a country beset by violence and forced displacement. As of February 9, the U.S. government has deported 2,279 people to Honduras, according to Consular y Migratorio de Honduras (CONMIGHO) data. CONMIGHO receives USAID funding and is affiliated with the Honduran Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores y Cooperación Internacional. Tens of thousands of Honduran Temporary Protected Status (TPS) recipients may also be at risk of deportation if the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) fails to renew their statuses by July 5, 2018.

Many people are driven to flee their homes for another city in Honduras because of ongoing threats and assassinations, as the Latin American Working Group Education Fund graphic below shows.

(Photo by Latin America Working Group Education Fund)
(Photo by Latin America Working Group Education Fund)

Mejia himself has faced a constant barrage of threats because of his stance against the Hernández government.

“From the time I worked at Radio Progreso to when I came here yesterday [on a three-city visit to the United States], I’ve had threats against my family,” Mejia said at the event, his voice going up an emotional lilt before he spoke again. “There is absolute impunity of crimes committed by the police.”

“You can see an increase of the forced displacement of the people because of the violence,” Mejia told ThinkProgress after the event. “Even though officially, there’s been a decrease in the rate of homicides in Honduras, it’s a mistake to see the reduction of violence in Honduras only in the perspective of murdered people because we have to see it in other types of violence like robbery, extortion, and other elements we have to take into account in that kind of violence.”

From the U.S. perspective, Honduras is so dangerous that the U.S. State Department has advised U.S. citizens to “reconsider” travel to the country on account of crime with some areas seeing “increased risk.” The federal government has also advised against traveling to Gracias a Dios, an isolated area where infrastructure is weak. Travelers who go there won’t get help since “U.S. government employees are restricted from traveling to the area.”

JOAQUIN MEJIA WAS IN WASHINGTON, D.C. TO GIVE AN OVERVIEW OF POST-ELECTION HONDURAS. (Photo: Esther Y. Lee)
JOAQUIN MEJIA WAS IN WASHINGTON, D.C. TO GIVE AN OVERVIEW OF POST-ELECTION HONDURAS. (Photo: Esther Y. Lee)

When asked his position on the Trump administration’s efforts to make it very difficult for people to seek humanitarian relief — like asylum or refugee status — on claims of fraudulent interviewees being “coached” to make up lies about Honduras, Mejia shook his head.

“The Trump administration has this theory about immigrants, but at the same time it’s supporting a regime that’s provoking a political situation that is going to provoke an increase in the immigration to the U.S., Spain, Costa Rica, and an increase in asylum and refugee seekers,” Mejia said. The United States has long had an over-sized influence in the country, investing hundreds of millions of dollars in security assistance to help fund elite military and police units, The Guardian reported. As the publication explained, these units have helped push down Honduras’ murder rate, but the country is still one of the most violent places in the world.

“I don’t know what’s happening in the government of the United States, but if they really want to stop immigration, the logical thing is to support democracy in our country,” Mejia added. “But they are supporting a regime that is authoritarian, using the military force to attack those who are opposition and denouncing electoral fraud. This will provoke increased immigration to the United States.”

Mejia fears that mass deportation from the United States would trigger more instability at a time when Honduras has yet to resolve widespread doubts over electoral irregularities.

“Those people deported from United States — what they’re going to face is a very complicated situation – a political crisis and instability,” Mejia said, explaining that there are no programs in place that he knows of that would help resettle deported immigrants. “And I’m sure what they’re going to do is try to go back to the United States. They left the country because that violence and that instability but now they’re going to find the same instability, same violence.”

Beyond the scale of U.S. immigration policies, Mejia and Mendoza have noticed a troubling trend in Honduras that affects every resident. As a journalist Mendoza has observed other press coverage being too favorable towards the Hernández government or has presented no criticism of the brutal oppression. News coverage of the large-scale protests “emphasize property damage and not human life,” she said.

“The press should have been critical, but [their articles] looked like press releases from the government,” she said according to an English translation from an in-ear interpreter present at the event. “La Prensa and El Heraldo are theoretically independent but there is no criticism.”

Mendoza pointed to the death of Kimberly Dayana Fonseca, a 19-year-old who went to look for her brother during anti-government protests and was killed with a bullet to the head on the first night a curfew was put in place in the country. Military police shot live rounds into the crowd, but the prosecutor’s office “tried to blame” her death on a tear gas canister, the Miami Herald reported in January.

“Sadly, the press is taking a lot of the military line,” Mendoza said. “We are in a country where there is no freedom of press… we have one line and it’s the government’s line.”

US policy perpetuates violence in Honduras

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Honduras election supporters

Supporters of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández celebrate as they wait for official presidential election results Nov. 28, 2017, in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. (CNS/Reuters/Edgard Garrido)

Is Honduras “returning to the terror in the 1980s”? That’s what Dr. Luther Castillo told NCR in an interview. Evidence supports his assertion, and today’s terror, just like 30 years ago, has U.S. ties.

Central America was a flashpoint in the Cold War and in the 1970s and 1980s. Honduras was the staging ground for the U.S.-backed covert war against leftists in the region. Honduras was the de facto U.S. military base for Contras fighting the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Inside Honduras, U.S.-trained military units — most especially the notorious Battalion 316 — carried out a campaign of torture, extrajudicial killing, and state-sponsored terror against Honduran civilians.

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Castillo is among Honduran activists now under threat of personal danger because they are calling for new elections, claiming that incumbent President Juan Orlando Hernández and his National Party rigged the Nov. 26 election and then imposed martial law to stifle protests.

All through Election Day and into the next day as ballots were being counted, opposition candidate Salvador Nasralla had a commanding lead. An electoral tribunal magistrate told Reuters Nov. 27, “The technical experts here say that it’s irreversible.”

But then the shenanigans began. The election tribunal, which is controlled by Hernández’s National Party, went mysteriously quiet for 36 hours. Reports of a “computer glitch” spread. When ballot counting resumed, Nasralla’s lead had evaporated. Hernández eventually pulled ahead and was declared the winner.

Calling for a new, clean election, Hondurans protested in the streets, watched over by rows of navy, army and police officers carrying riot shields. The government suspended constitutional rights for 10 days and imposed a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew, arresting anyone, including journalists, who violated it. Before Christmas, squads of police and soldiers cleared blockades set up by protesters in the capital and the countryside. At least 12 people were killed and hundreds more detained at military installations, where they were “brutally beaten,” according to human rights experts at the United Nations and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

The Organization of American States has also called for new elections. In a statement issued Dec. 17 after receiving the results of an independent audit of election results, OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro said it was impossible to determine a winner, given that there was “deliberate human intrusion in the computer system; intentional elimination of digital traces; the impossibility of knowing how many times the system was breached; ballot cases open or without ballot tallies; extreme statistical improbability regarding participation levels.”

“The only possible way for the victor to be the people of Honduras,” he said, “is a new call for general elections.”

Despite all this, the Trump administration recognized Hernández as the winner Dec. 22. Days earlier, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had certified that the Honduran government has been combating corruption and supporting human rights, paving the way for Honduras to receive millions of additional U.S. dollars, including about $17 million for Honduran security forces. The certification ignores cases of government corruption and the assassinations of environmentalists, indigenous leaders and journalists, extensively documented by two major studies last year.

A Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report from May describes Honduras in the center of “transnational kleptocratic networks” and characterizes the Honduran military as “an instrument for the consolidation of power,” used to patrol indigenous communities, suppress protests, curtail the exercise of free speech, and “assume a wide variety of domestic security and policing roles.”

The London-based watchdog organization Global Witness called Honduras the deadliest place on the planet to be a land or environmental activist. The Hernández government never prosecuted the killers of the country’s most prominent activist, Berta Cáceres, who spearheaded efforts to stop the plundering of indigenous lands by hydroelectric, mining and logging interests.

More than 120 activists have been murdered since 2009 when a coup overthrew democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya and ushered in a succession of corrupt right-wing governments that have overseen, according to Global Witness, “shocking levels of violence and intimidation suffered by rural communities.”

In a very real sense, the Obama administration — particularly then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — laid the foundation for Hernández’s victory by turning a blind eye to the toppling of Zelaya, who they thought was too close to Bolivian President Evo Morales, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and other left-leaning Latin American leaders. By refusing to recognize Zelaya’s ouster as a military coup, Clinton kept Honduras on the military aid and training gravy train.

Longtime observers of Central America will know that since the 1980s, nearly 5,000 officers from Honduras have been trained at the U.S. Army’s Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, or WHINSEC, formerly known as the School of the Americas. Graduates of this school hold key positions in the Honduran government and security forces and have been implicated in numerous coups, human rights abuses and suppression of democracy.

Today, the boogeyman of communism that haunted the region in the 1980s is gone, but the institutions and power centers set up in Honduras decades ago remain entrenched, and now environmental activists and indigenous rights leaders are targeted for threatening the political-economic status quo.

“We know it’s the U.S. that runs Honduras,” and it is “co-responsible” for the human rights abuses and fatal shootings following the latest presidential election, says Nasralla — who could very well be the legitimate victor in the presidential election.

By legitimizing a stolen election, ignoring the rare Organization of American States call for new elections and refusing to condemn the post-election crackdown by the (U.S.-trained) military, the U.S. is again perpetrating violence that ultimately hurts its own self-interest, but, more importantly, continues the oppression of Hondurans.

Honduras is currently one of the most violent countries on the planet that is not at war. The violence is carried out by transnational criminal organizations, local drug trafficking groups, gangs and corrupt security forces, among other actors. Violence is the focal point for the international aid organizations, governments and multilaterals providing Honduras with assistance, and it is the central theme of media coverage inside and outside of of the country.

There are good reasons for this focus. Violence disproportionately impacts people in poor and marginal areas and tends to remain concentrated in those communities, closing the circle on a vicious cycle that impoverished nations find hard to break. In addition, violence impedes economic development and disrupts lives across a wide socio-economic spectrum. It can lead to major demographic shifts and crises as large populations move to urban areas or try to migrate to other nations. It can undermine governance and democracy, and it can serve as a justification for repression and hardline security policies that divert resources away from much-needed social and economic programs, thus perpetuating the problem.

Organized crime plays a role in this violence, but it is more like the gasoline than the engine: it provides an already corrupt system with the fuel it needs to run. That corrupt system is the focus of this study on Honduras. Its most visible manifestation is an inept and criminalized police force that a former security minister once called “air traffic control men” for drug flights coming into the country.1 Parts of this police force also work as custodians and assassins for criminal groups; rob drugs and resell them to the underworld; and, for a price, they can attack client’s rivals and disrupt criminal investigations.

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This is one part of a multipart series concerning elites and organized crime. Read full Honduras report (pdf). See other parts of the series here.

But beneath this most obvious form of criminal connection to state officials is a more insidious brand of corruption. This is further from the headlines and much more difficult to tackle since it is embedded in the country’s political, economic and social systems. It operates in a gray area, mixing legal and illegal entities, paper companies and campaign contributions, and sweeping its illicit acts under the rug using co-opted members of the justice system and security forces.

What we are talking about, of course, is the elite connection to organized crime that this investigation exposes. The elites in Honduras are not like those in the rest of the region. The traditional, agro-export and industrial elites who rule in places like Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua are less prominent in Honduras, mostly because of the country’s long history as an enclave economy dominated by multinational companies: the original Banana Republic. Instead, the country’s most powerful economic elites have emerged from the service, banking, media, and telecommunications sectors. They are called transnational elites since many of them are first or second generation immigrants from the Middle East and Eastern Europe and depend on international business dealings to accumulate capital. Traditional, land-based elites are present in Honduras. But they have long been relegated to a second tier, forced to seek power through control of government posts, rather than using financial leverage.

While the ruling elites in Honduras do not share the same origins or economic base as their counterparts elsewhere in the region, they do share their neighbors’ penchant for employing the state for their own ends and systematically impoverishing it. Both the traditional and transnational elites have for years used the military and police to protect their personal land holdings and businesses. They have benefitted from the sale of public companies and lands, and they have enjoyed tax exonerations for their multitude of businesses. They have also pillaged its resources, and, as the government’s importance to the economy has grown, relied on it to generate more capital. Their dependence on the state has opened the way for a third set of what we are calling bureaucratic elites, who have developed a power base of their own because of the government positions they occupy.

Honduras, meanwhile, has become one of the poorest, most unequal and indebted countries in the world. Any attempts to change this system have been met with stern and often unified opposition from elites of all stripes. And attempts to exert more regulatory control over the activities of the elites are smothered before they begin. It is little surprise then that the country offers criminals, large and small, one of the most propitious environments from which to work. On one side, an ineffective justice system and corrupt security forces, long exploited by these elites, opens the way for large criminal groups to operate with impunity. On the other side, an impoverished populace — which sees and understands exactly how elites abuse a broken system — seeks to get its share by working directly with criminals in the illegal and legal enterprises these criminals operate. Crime, as it turns out, is one of the few forms of social mobility.

It is within this gray area that the elites themselves also interact with organized crime. Far from being distant from illegal activities, the elites have long operated in this realm. From dealing in contraband goods and services to buying permission for their illegal dealings and “get-out-of-jail-free cards,” those who do politics or business in Honduras understand that the laws governing the nation of eight million people are but a means to make money. Their connection to the underworld therefore is about societal, commercial and political interactions in the multiple spaces where business and politics happen in Honduras. The result is an organic relationship with organized crime that helps some elites reach the top and others stay there.

Elites in Honduras

HondurasElites

Honduran elites have a peculiar history compared to other elites in the region.2 The country’s economy was built on exports, like its neighbors. Unlike them, however, Honduras’ principal export industries — first mining and then bananas — were almost wholly foreign owned. Local economic elites were enmeshed in cattle and other agro-industrial projects and formed the backbone of the traditional political groupings, the National and Liberal Parties. But a strong, local elite based on the control of land and agro-exports, of the type found in the other countries in the region, did not materialize.

“The root … of Honduran exception was the country’s insertion into the world market and the development of its domestic political apparatus under the aegis not of a national agro-exporting oligarchy, but of US monopoly capital,” writes Rachel Sieder.3

The most famous of these monopolies was United Fruit Company, which Sieder argues “consolidated its hegemony” over local politics in the 1930s and 1940s during a military dictatorship.4 Meanwhile, a smaller more traditional, landed elite shared power — first with these foreign companies and later with foreign settlers who concentrated their efforts on facilitating foreign-owned businesses and controlling the influx of foreign capital.5 These immigrant communities arrived from Europe and the Middle East throughout the 20th century. They have since been dubbed the “transplant” or “transnational” elites (or “Turcos,” a broad-sweeping and quasi-racist reference to their Middle Eastern origins).

These transnational communities established control over what have become the dominant industries in Honduras: the financial and service sectors, telecommunications and media. They also acquired land, competing with and eventually overtaking the traditional elite’s hold on the agrarian economy as it shifted towards non-traditional exports. This traditional elite was largely land-based, depending on activities such as cattle, coffee and cacao to exert its influence. But it never coalesced the way landed elites did in neighboring Guatemala, leaving it largely sidelined, even as US capital slowly exited the country when commodity prices slipped because of increased, worldwide competition. Today, it can be difficult to differentiate between the traditional elites and the transnational elites. Although crossover is more commonly associated with the transnational than the traditional elites, both have diversified their economic portfolios, and both are deeply involved in politics.

What is clear, however, is that Honduras’ top economic groups are run by relatively recent transplants that accumulated capital over the past half-century. The biggest business conglomerates in Honduras carry distinctly foreign names like Facussé, Maalouf and Rosenthal.6 Meanwhile, traditional, landed elites have shifted their focus to controlling government posts and elected offices. Two of the last three presidents come from cattle ranching families, and current President Juan Orlando Hernández is from a coffee family. For both the traditional and transnational elites, their business and political prospects are intertwined with a government that was, for most of its existence, less of an enforcer than an enabler.

Throughout Honduras’ history, the state has been a source of both legal and physical protection for this export economy, the traditional landholding and transnational commercial classes. The public sector was seen, as Hugo Noé Pino notes, as a “concessionary state,” one that “stimulates investment but does not collect taxes.” The government was also a means through which the elites could expand their interests. The political parties represented, for many years, a manifestation of these elite interests.

What came first for the transnational elite — economic or political power — is a matter of some debate. As Noé Pino says, there are two visions of the political-economic nexus at the apex of power in Honduras: 1) that the accumulation of capital was intimately related to the political connections throughout; 2) that the accumulation of capital was what led to these close political connections. Certainly elements of both were at play. And as the country’s traditional exports declined, particularly in the 1970s, and therefore the power of the traditional elites waned, the transnational elites surged to take more direct control of the traditional political parties.

Indeed, the state’s evolution during this period was intimately related to the development of the transnational economic elites. This class tied themselves to the traditional political parties, often making contributions to both parties during elections, ensuring their influence would remain intact whoever won. Noé Pino argues this group created business associations to channel their needs and influence, and that many of its members have been part of the revolving door between government ministries and the private sector that has characterized Honduras for at least the last half century.

For the transnational elites, the state’s role was simple: to create and enforce rules that favor their continued power over key industries and the capital accumulation that accompanies it. Along the way, they managed public discourse as well: they bought newspapers, radio and television stations, and have steered popular sentiments and political messages towards their favored candidates and in support of their modus vivendi. Since the 1970s, the media has largely become an instrument of this elite, and a source of its revenue.7

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The dependence of the elites on the state security forces to protect their enterprises led to the emergence of the military as a political and an economic player. This growth was aided by the United States, which, fearing the rise of communism in the region, began training Honduran officers en masse and supplying greater amounts of aid,8 a process that would accelerate in the 1980s and help transform the institution forever. Members of the armed forces became what we are calling a “bureaucratic elite,” something we will cover in more detail in the first Honduras case study. Some of their offspring are the political and economic elite of Honduras today and the institution is at the center of the changing dynamics of power in the country.

The influx in US aid came as traditional exports continued a steep decline, and the country tried to diversify its economy. At the behest of its largest donor nation, the United States, Honduras expanded its export portfolio, lowered tariffs, sold state-owned businesses, and gave financial incentives for local and foreign investment, mostly in the form of reduced taxes. In the 1990s, as US aid dropped precipitously, multilateral banks filled the void and pushed for further liberalization policies.

The efforts to diversify the economy, however, largely failed. Lacking a solid revenue base, and with a state that was unwilling or unable to extract tax revenue from the traditional and transnational elites, the government relied on outside sources to motor the economy. Loans from multilateral banks and others have since made Honduras a perennial pariah in the global banking community, further hampering economic growth. (In March 2014, Honduras had a $7 billion debt, up from $2.7 billion in 2007.9) And while the central idea was to reduce government’s role in the economy, as GDP sputtered, the state assumed an increasing burden to keep the economy afloat. Since 1980, the percentage of GDP that public administration, defense and other state services represent have gone from 16 percent to 22 percent.10

Despite these broad failures, both the traditional and the transnational elites have found ways to keep making money at the expense of the vast majority of Hondurans. For their part, the transnational elites took advantage of the market liberalization policies that began in the 1980s, and dominate the textile industry as well as tourism and telecommunications. They have become particularly powerful in the service sector, financing and constructing malls, buying into international food franchises and profiting from one of the country’s largest sources of revenue: remittances. Remittances represent some 18-20 percent of the country’s current GDP, powering the internal consumption that drives the service sector’s growth.

table1Honduras-productive-sector

Source: ICEFI 2012

 

There were other new sources of licit and illicit revenue besides remittances, foremost among them are non-traditional agriculture projects such as African palm plantations and proceeds from the trafficking of drugs through the country. Drug trafficking money can itself be considered as a form of remittances, as the illicit capital resulting from this trade enters the Honduran economy, passing through the financial sector and fueling growth in the agro-industrial sector, construction and tourism industries. It is through this financial flow that the elites interact with illicit actors. As we shall discuss in more detail later, all forms of elites can benefit from this illicit economic activity, both directly and indirectly.

Meanwhile, the traditional, landed elite has experienced a resurgence of sorts by re-gaining control of the traditional political parties, capturing the increase in state expenditures and controlling more of the flow of foreign capital via their hold on public offices. Like the transnational elite, this group sees the state as an enabler of business enterprises, although in their case the opportunities frequently come via publicly funded projects. The corruption in this system is endemic, widespread and infused.11 They use these monies to maintain their grip on power, undermining or ignoring the rule of law when it suits them.

The battle for these resources is at the center of many political disputes and, in some ways, shapes the country’s government and political parties. The deal-making around these resources can get messy, as it involves billions of dollars. It is, in the end, seen by the elites as a zero-sum game: those who control the government levers control the spoils in this system; those who are separated from these levers, risk getting marginalized. As the dependence on these government resources increases, so does the need to control the government filters for these resources.

The result of this growing dependence on state resources has been the emergence of the aforementioned bureaucratic elite. As illustrated in our first case study, the beginnings of these elites can be traced to the military rule of the 1960s and 1970s, and the de facto military control that continued through the 1980s. But it is in the last decade that these bureaucratic elites have become a force on their own and in conjunction with members of the traditional elites.

This new hybrid elite’s most prominent representative is President Juan Orlando Hernández himself. Educated in a military school, Hernández has surrounded himself with military officers, including his brother who is a colonel in the army. He has placed military personnel in posts traditionally reserved for civilians, and has centralized control of the security forces and intelligence gathering under the presidency. The hybrid group under Hernández’s control, often referred to as the Colobrí Group, combines military personnel, local politicians and the landed gentry, and works closely with the state at the regional and national levels. Colobrí is Spanish for hummingbird.

The resurgent traditional landed elites and bureaucratic elites have centered their capital growth on the control of government resources, and of key government posts that give access to various income streams. Those who control these posts use them to block other elites’ access to these income streams, and to penalize rivals. Their dependence on these government posts and funds is what drives these elites to create their own political movements or develop factions within larger parties, as well as establish private companies that service the government’s needs.

Obtaining and maintaining these political posts is of the utmost importance, and it is within this context that the darkest alliances occur. The elites must gain public and private backing for their bids for government office. This backing comes via direct financial contributions, media coverage and support, as well as networking, and local political and economic alliances. The candidates constantly jockey for position, and their various suitors are ever-changing. Among them are the powerful actors of the Honduran underworld.

Organized Crime in Honduras

Strong, organized criminal groups in Honduras date back almost 50 years. At their highest levels, they have centered on facilitating the movement of illegal drugs such as marijuana and cocaine from the southern production regions to the northern consumer nations. More recently they have also facilitated the entry of precursor chemicals used to mass-produce synthetic drugs. The money garnered from this trade dwarfs many traditional businesses and has the ability to upset the balance of power on a local, national and even a regional scale.

There are three basic categories of criminal groups present in Honduras. First, there are transnational criminal organizations (TCOs), such as those from Colombia or Mexico, who use the country as a transport bridge and as a storage facility for cocaine that they are moving wholesale to the US or other markets. They tend to operate in small teams. Usually their emissaries seek to ensure that drug loads are secure, that officials are in line and that transactions go as planned. Honduras’ status as a safe haven for TCOs has grown in recent years, making it a good base of operations for increasingly high-level figures in these groups. There have been reports of members of the “board of directors” of the Sinaloa Cartel, for instance, having a base in San Pedro Sula.12

Second, there are local transport groups — or “transportistas” — that operate in Honduras. These are mostly Honduran families or tight business networks from the country that move legal and illegal goods through Honduras. They work closely with wholesale sellers and purchasers, as well as with other transport networks in Central America and elsewhere. They move shipments and can also store them for long periods of time. Neither job is easy. There are numerous rival organizations that steal and resell illegal goods. These include members of the security forces, which very often include the police. The transport groups also have to deal with multiple officials from border to border. However, if done well, transportation can be a highly lucrative venture.

Finally, there are local criminal groups and street gangs operating in Honduras. These groups focus on less lucrative business ventures such as local drug distribution, extortion, kidnapping, and human smuggling. The competition for these criminal markets, in particular for local drug dealing and extortion, is what makes Honduras one of the most violent countries on earth. Gangs routinely eliminate rivals and have internal purges. They also deploy corrupt security officials to attack rival groups. Their territorial control in some areas is absolute, although their interaction with elites is minimal.

The criminal groups that have the most interaction with elites in Honduras are the transportistas and the TCOs. As we shall see in our case studies, these organizations need authorities to help them move illicit goods through a difficult terrain. They interact with security forces to ensure safe passage, and interact with powerful businessmen to launder proceeds and legitimize their illicit capital. Throughout, they establish political contacts, funding candidates for public office in an effort to obtain high-level protection and more business opportunities.

The money garnered from this trade dwarfs that made from many traditional businesses and has the ability to upset the balance of power on a local, national and even a regional scale. This was best illustrated in Latin America during the late 1980s, when Colombia’s infamous trafficking organization, the Medellín Cartel, began kidnapping elites, assassinating judges and policemen, and detonating bombs in public places. However, the roots of this dynamic can be found many years previously when Colombian, and later Central American and Mexican criminal organizations, began to move cocaine and other drugs to the US market.

The pioneer for this transport activity in Honduras was a man named Juan Ramón Matta Ballesteros, the subject of one of our Honduras case studies.13 In the 1970s, when Matta Ballesteros emerged as a prominent trafficker, Honduras already had criminal groups that were involved in this transport business.14 Matta Ballesteros’ distribution network eventually stretched from Colombia through Mexico. His allies in Mexico became known as the Guadalajara Cartel, which would later spawn some of the most important criminal groups in that country: the Sinaloa, Juárez and Tijuana Cartels. His allies in Colombia were members of what would become the Medellín Cartel.

As we shall see, Matta Ballesteros’ Honduran network included members of the military, an institution on the ascent thanks in large part to US aid stemming from the Contra War in neighboring Nicaragua.15 It was during this era that Honduras earned the moniker USS Honduras. A US government document from 1988 described Matta Ballesteros as “a class I DEA violator.”16 His legitimate businesses in Honduras were also growing. By one count, he had coffee, tobacco, spice, dairy and cattle holdings, and founded construction and agro-industrial companies in Honduras.17

In 1985, everything changed when the Guadalajara Cartel, seemingly angered by a US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) operation to seize large tracts of its marijuana crops in Mexico, kidnapped and killed Enrique Camarena, a DEA agent. With Camarena’s death, the United States government began a law-bending quest for justice. Over the next several years, numerous Guadalajara operatives and leaders were arrested and convicted in Mexico. Matta Ballesteros was arrested in Colombia, but with the Medellín Cartel’s help, he escaped and made his way back to Honduras, where he felt protected by his vast network and wealth.

In 1988, capitulating to US concerns about Matta Ballesteros’ increasing influence, the military and US Marshals intercepted him following his morning jog, bundled him up and transported him to the Dominican Republic where US marshals officially arrested and charged him with participating in the murder of Camarena, among other criminal acts. From there, he was taken to the US. Up to 2,000 two of Hondurans, mostly students angered by the move, attacked the US embassy, setting fire to several annex buildings and burning vehicles. At least four of the protesters were killed, and US officials said it took two hours for the Honduran authorities to respond their their call for help.18 Matta Ballesteros was later convicted in a Los Angeles court of kidnapping19 and drug trafficking, and remains in a US federal prison.

Following Matta Ballesteros’ dramatic fall, the country continued to be a bridge for traffickers to move illicit goods.20 The list goes beyond drugs: weapons, money, people, and all types of contraband move in and out of Honduras. A group of Salvadoran smugglers, for instance, moved dairy products from Honduras to El Salvador during the civil war in that country. The so-called “Cartel de los Quesos” (Cheese Cartel) would later be dubbed the “Perrones,” and would develop a drug trafficking network that still stretches from Panama to Guatemala. One of their chief operators, José Natividad Luna Pereira, alias “Chepe Luna,” operated his network from San Pedro Sula where he had close contact with elites until he was assassinated in 2014.21

In the early 2000s, Honduras experienced another surge of drug trafficking activity. At the time, Mexican criminal organizations that had emerged after the demise of the Guadalajara Cartel were establishing more control over the distribution chain, and began using Central America as their primary bridge. Several local transport groups emerged. Among them were Chepe Luna’s in El Salvador and Honduras, José Miguel “Chepe” Handal Pérez’s group in San Pedro Sula, the Valle Valle family in Copán, the Zelaya clan in Atlántida, and the Cachiros organization in Colón.22 The Cachiros are the subject of one of our Honduras case studies. These groups’ main function was moving cocaine through the region, but they also had numerous side businesses such as human smuggling and local drug distribution.

The size of this criminal industry is massive when compared to Honduras’ economy. The US State Department estimates that 95 percent of cocaine transported from South America to the United States moves through the Mexican and Central American corridor; 80 percent of this stops in Central America.23 The price charged for moving this cocaine is normally the difference between the wholesale price where the drugs are received and where they are dropped. In the case of Honduras, this difference in price is somewhere in the range of $2,000 to $2,500 per kilo from the time it enters to the time it leaves the country.24 The price of cocaine varies, of course, but this price difference has remained steady for several years. This means the transport market alone is valued at between $600 million and $750 million per year, or somewhere between 3 and 4 percent of the country’s GDP.25 By our estimates, drug proceeds amount to more than half of those generated by the country’s top export, coffee, does.26

All five groups mentioned above had strong political and economic connections that helped them develop close relationships with the authorities, as described above in the case of Matta Ballesteros and the military. One of them, Handal, was an aspiring congressman before the US Treasury Department added him to its “Kingpin List” in April 2013.27 He denied being involved in drug trafficking before going on the run.28 Handal was captured in March 2015.29

Figure 2: Handal Organizational Chart

US Treasury Handal Organizational Chart

Source: Taken from US Treasury

For his part, Francisco Zelaya Fúnez had various construction companies and had signed a number of public works contracts with the municipality of La Ceiba before he was captured in Mexico in 2013. A newspaper described him as being connected to a “high level official in the previous administration.”30 For their part, the Valle Valle family had strong connections to Alexander Ardón, mayor of a town on the Guatemalan border named El Paraíso. Ardón’s brother, Hugo, ran the central government’s road construction and maintenance fund known as Fondo Vial. The core of the Valle Valle family was captured and extradited to the US in 2014.31

This type of connection between criminals and political actors has become commonplace over the years. In 1987, congressman Félix Cerna Salgado admitted having a close relationship with Matta Ballesteros. In the early 2000s, three congressmen were captured for transporting drugs. In July 2014, Honduran authorities arrested Arnaldo Urbina, the mayor of Yoro, and charged him and numerous others of running a drug trafficking and assassination ring that was responsible for the murder of 137 people and the disappearance of 45 others.32

The criminal organizations’ ability to accumulate capital and wield this economic power to their advantage is largely hidden from view, since Honduran authorities have developed few strong judicial cases against them and there is not a vibrant local media. What’s more, public officials threaten these interests at their own peril. In December 2009, police assassins killed Honduran drug czar Julián Arístides González, and two years later his outspoken one-time advisor, Alfredo Landaverde was gunned down. Investigating detectives quickly determined that the triggermen were police officers operating under orders of top police brass. But the detectives just as quickly buried those investigative reports, and they did not come to light until years later. In April 2013, gunmen assassinated Orlán Chávez, the country’s top money laundering prosecutor.33 The day before his death, Chávez had led a raid on several of aforementioned Chepe Handal’s suspected properties and seized them. Suspicion fell on Handal, but the case remains unresolved.

The economic might of these groups only began to come into view when the United States deemed Handal, and then the Cachiros, as specially designated narcotics traffickers, and placed them on the so-called “Kingpin List.”34 Handal’s business holdings included various auto parts stores, a motorcycle distributor, and a clothing store. A US indictment, issued in the Southern District of Florida, called for him to forfeit $38 million in proceeds from his illicit business dealings.

After authorities began raiding the Cachiros’ properties in September 2013, however, it was clear that Handal was small by comparison. The US Treasury, in its “Kingpin” designation, named five businesses that it said belonged to the organization,35 and officials from both countries estimated the group’s assets were in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

In later part of 2014, US and Honduran authorities also targeted the Valle Valle family organization. That family’s assets, the US Treasury said in an August 2014 “Kingpin” designation, included several coffee plantations and a cattle ranch. The group, the US Treasury declared, was moving upwards of 10 tons of cocaine through Honduras per month. Rough calculations by InSight Crime put the group’s annual earnings near $300 million or about 1.6 percent of Honduras’ GDP.

Figure 3: Valle Family Organizational Chart

US Treasury Valles Organizational Chart

Source: Taken from US Treasury

Perhaps more important than their coffee and cattle holdings was the group’s direct link to Ardón, the mayor of El Paraíso, and to his brother, Hugo.36 Between the two of them, the Ardóns managed dozens of state contracts which facilitated the movement of money between themselves and their legitimate and illegitimate partners. The merry-go-round created by this type of money flow is a critical part of understanding how corruption and crime work in places like Honduras. Money moves from state coffers into licit and illicit businesses whose owners then bankroll the candidates who are financing their projects or facilitating their money laundering activities. In the process, the Honduran public is left out of the loop. The Ardón brothers had the perfect machine to keep this merry-go-round spinning.

But by late 2014, the Honduran government appeared to have them in its sights, making veiled references to the network in the press (calling it the “Cartel de Alex”). The network had created a powerful group that reached the highest echelons of power in Honduras. This, as our case studies illustrate, is the norm in the country rather than the exception, and it is changing the entire complexion of Honduras‘ ruling elite.

*This report was written by Steven Dudley. Dudley, Javier Meléndez — who acted as coordinator for research for this project — along with researchers from the Centro de Investigación y Promoción de los Derechos Humanos (CIPRODEH) and the Asociación para una Sociedad más Justa (ASJ), assisted in the investigation and production of this report. Map by Jorge Mejía Galindo. Graphics by Andrew J Higgens.

Kaptur statement on threats to human rights defenders in Honduras

TOLEDO — Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur (OH-9) issued the following statement of concern related to the escalation of risk for human rights defenders in Honduras.

“I join the United Nations Assistant Secretary General for Human Rights and my colleagues in Congress in registering grave concern regarding the violent escalation of intimidating threats toward rights defenders in Honduras. Jesuit priest Ismael Moreno, Padre Melo,  the entire team of Radio Progreso and ERIC-SJ, the family of slain environmentalist Berta Caceres, and Berta Oliva, director of  the Committee of the Detained and Disappeared of Honduras are all under threat.

“Statements made by public authorities in Honduras discrediting the work of human rights defenders and journalists put them at risk of physical harm and undermine freedom of speech. These precious advocates for liberty deserve the support and protection of the international community.

“Prior to her brutal murder in 2016, indigenous rights defender, Bertha Cáceres was targeted extensively by similar threats and intimidation. The alarming increase in threats to defenders of human rights in recent weeks underscores our responsibility to support the Bertha Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act, to speak out on behalf of those at risk, and to insist that the government of Honduras respect, affirm, and protect the full exercise of the rights of all its people.”

Kaptur is a lead sponsor of the Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act (HR 1299), which would suspend U.S. funding to the Republic of Honduras for their police and military operations, including funds for equipment and training, until the Honduran government investigates credible reports indicating the police and military are violating citizens’ human rights, prohibit international loans providing for security assistance – from being dispersed unless Honduras makes serious inroads to addressing blatant human rights violations by police and military forces.