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Honduras and the US: When Engagement Becomes Complicity

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden traveled to Honduras on March 6 with a double mission: to quell talk of drug legalization and reinforce the U.S.-sponsored drug war in Central America, and to bolster the presidency of Porfirio Lobo.U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden, left, meets with Honduran President Porfirio Lobo. (CNN File

The Honduran government issued a statement that during the one-hour closed-door conversation between Biden and Lobo, the vice president “reiterated the U.S. commitment to intensify aid to the government and people of Honduras, and exalted the efforts undertaken and implemented over the past two years by President Lobo.”

In a March 1 press briefing, U.S. National Security Advisor Tony Blinken cited “the tremendous leadership President Lobo has displayed in advancing national reconciliation and democratic and constitutional order.”

You’d think they were talking about a different country from the one we visited just weeks before on a fact-finding mission on violence against women.

What we found was a nation submerged in violence and lawlessness, a president incapable or unwilling to do much about it, and a justice system in shambles.

Two-Year Slide

The crisis in human rights and governance in Honduras has become apparent to the world and is a fact of daily life within the country. In the two years since Lobo came to power in elections boycotted by the opposition, Honduras catapulted into the top spot in the world for per capita homicides — the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s (UNODC) Global Homicide Survey found an official murder rate of 82 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2010.  There were 120 political assassinations  in the country in 2010-2011. In the region of Bajo Aguan, where peasants are defending their land from large developers, 42 peasants have been murdered, and alongside 18 journalists, 62 members of the LGBT community, and 72 human rights activists have been killed since 2009. The Honduran Center for Women’s Rights reports that femicides have more than doubled and that more than one woman a day was murdered in 2011.

An Inter-American Commission on Human Rights report on the Honduran coup found at least seven deaths, harassment of opposition members, disproportionate use of force by security forces, thousands of illegal detentions, systematic violations of political rights and freedom of expression, sexual violence, and other crimes, with almost no investigation or prosecution.

Despite the fact that security forces perpetrated many of these crimes, the response of the Honduran government — with the support of the United States — has been to beef up military presence. One of the poorest nations in the Western Hemisphere, Honduras increased its military expenditure from $63 million in 2005 to $160 million in 2010. The Lobo government justifies the militarization saying that its own police forces can’t be relied on. He told us in a meeting, “We’re working on cleaning up the police but it’s going to take some years. The corruption is deep.”

The impunity with which common criminals, powerful transnational interests, and elements of the state violate the most basic principles of society with government complicity or indifference derives from the fact that the government itself is erected on the violation of those principles. The crisis in human rights and violence—as deep as it is—is but a symptom of a greater evil. When the 2009 coup was allowed to conserve power and seal itself off from prosecution, it immediately undermined governance, rule of law, and the social compact. Honduras’ constitutional crisis has now become a prolonged social and political crisis.

U.S. responsibility for what happened after the coup is a question that deserves far more analysis and soul-searching. By choosing not to support a return to democratic order and political healing before presidential elections, the United States helped deliver a serious blow to the Honduran political system and society. The United States has a tremendous responsibility for the disastrous situation, and the urgent question is what to do about it.

A Coup for Criminals

The coup d’état on June 28, 2009 was not only a criminal act. It was an act designed to benefit criminals.

When members of the armed forces kidnapped democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya and took him to Costa Rica in his pajamas, they destroyed the the fragile democracy built since the era of military dictatorships. None of the convoluted discussions of what the president had supposedly done to deserve forcible removal changed the fact that the millennium’s first coup d’état had taken place in the Americas. The OAS and every major diplomatic body in the world immediately realized that Honduras had become the symbol and the reality of the world’s new battles for democracy.

What many people don’t know is that the unraveling of the story is more tragic than the coup itself—and holds even greater lessons for global governance.. To make a long story short, the Honduran coup regime incredibly survived international embargos and diplomatic negotiations that in the end only served to extend its grasp on illegitimate power. The disturbing suspicion that the U.S. government, the historic godfather of the region, had given its blessing to the new regime became certainty when the State Department negotiated an agreement that paved the way for coup-sponsored elections without assuring the return of the elected government.

Porfirio Lobo came to power, and a nation pummeled by poverty splintered into an ungoverned free-for-all characterized by political polarization, a surge in crime, and widespread land grabs. Honduras is not a failed state. It’s a violated state. 

Crime—common crime, organized crime, state crime, and corporate crime—has thrived since the coup. Drug trafficking in the country has increased. The most recent U.S. International Narcotics report calculates that 79 percent of cocaine smuggling flights from South America use landing strips in Honduras. Reports that Mexican kingpin El Chapo Guzman and others use Honduras as a hideout surface frequently. Militarization of the country has taken place alongside the spread of organized crime—a phenomenon that should provoke some reflection. But the Honduran and U.S. governments have been too busy promoting the drug war to pay attention to the correlation between militarization and organized crime.

Land grabs to transfer land and resources from small-scale farmers, indigenous peoples, and poor urban residents into the hands of large-scale developers and megaprojects have generated violence throughout the country. Many of the testimonies of violence and sexual abuse that we heard from Honduran women regarded conflicts over land, where the regime actively supports wealthy interests against poor people in illegal land occupations for tourism, mining, and infrastructure projects, such as palm oil magnate Miguel Facusse’s actions in Bajo Aguan.

The lack of investigation and prosecution for crimes — and the evidence that state forces are involved in human rights violations against opposition and “undesirable” sectors — creates a paradise for criminals and a hell for the majority of citizens. 

U.S. Engagement or Complicity?

U.S. responsibility for what happened after the coup is a question that deserves far more analysis and soul-searching. By choosing not to support a return to democratic order and political healing before presidential elections, the United States helped deliver a serious blow to the Honduran political system and society. The United States has a tremendous responsibility for the disastrous situation, and the urgent question is what to do about it.

Biden stressed U.S. programs to vet police and justice officials. When we met with U.S. Ambassador Lisa Kubriskie, she insisted that continuing to fund Honduran security forces would eventually lead to reform by “engaging” with government forces.

But even if that did happen, in the meantime those government forces are murdering, raping, beating, and detaining Hondurans — with U.S. aid.

When does engagement become complicity? Citizen groups and members of the U.S. Congress have come to the conclusion that the line was crossed some time ago. So far, more than 60 members of Congress have signed a letter circulated by Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) to cut off aid to the Honduran military and police, claiming that the funding of these institutions fuels the abuse.

There’s no excuse for spending U.S. taxpayer dollars on security assistance to Honduras as human rights violations pile up. No amount of money poured into these programs will change the systemic corruption and human rights violations until there’s a real political commitment to justice and reconciliation. And that does not appear to exist under the current regime.

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