US and Honduran soldiers at closing ceremonies for joint exercise, 26 June 2012
Dana Frank writes for The Nation:
In some ways, it was just one more bloody episode in a blood-soaked country. In the early hours of the morning on May 11, a group of indigenous people traveling by canoe on a river in the northeast Mosquitia region of Honduras came under helicopter fire. When the shooting was over, at least four persons lay dead, including, by some accounts, two pregnant women. In Honduras, such grisly violence is no longer out of the ordinary. But what this incident threw into stark relief was the powerful role the United States is playing in a Honduran war.
US officials maintain that the Drug Enforcement Administration commandos on board the helicopters did not fire their weapons that morning; Honduran policemen pulled the triggers. But no one disputes that US forces were heavily involved in the raid, and that the helicopters were owned by the US State Department.
The United States has, in fact, been quietly escalating its military presence in Honduras, pouring police and military funding into the regime of President Porfirio Lobo in the name of fighting drugs. The DEA is using counterinsurgency methods developed in Iraq against drug traffickers in Honduras, deploying squads of commandos with US military Special Forces backgrounds to work closely with the Honduran police and military. The US ambassador to Honduras, Lisa Kubiske, recently said, “We have an opportunity now, because the military is no longer at war in Iraq. Using the military funding that won’t be spent, we should be able to have resources to be able to work here.”
Missing from the official story — never mentioned by US officials, and left out of mainstream news coverage — is that the US government’s ally in this campaign, the Lobo regime, is the illegitimate progeny of the military coup that deposed democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya on June 28, 2009. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at first criticized the coup government, led initially by Roberto Micheletti, but then legitimated it. After almost all the opposition candidates (as well as international observers) boycotted the post-coup election that brought Lobo to power, heads of state throughout the region refused to recognize his presidency; but the United States hailed him for “restoring democracy” and promoting “national reconciliation.” The State Department and Clinton continue to repeat both fictions, as did President Obama when he welcomed Lobo to the White House in October.
Meanwhile, US officials blame drug trafficking for almost all the country’s problems. “It may be gratifying to attribute Honduras’s problems to generals with sunglasses or to rigged elections,” former US ambassador to Honduras James Creagan insisted in a February 5 letter to the New York Times. “But it is not true. This is not the 1970s with Central American coups, contras and revolutionaries.” Rather, he asserted, the violence in Honduras “is caused by drugs, gangs and corruption…all driven by the market for coca leaf products.”
Only in the post-coup context, however, can we understand the very real crisis of drug trafficking in Honduras. A vicious drug culture already existed before the coup, along with gangs and corrupt officials. But the thoroughgoing criminality of the coup regime opened the door for it to flourish on an unprecedented scale. Drug trafficking is now embedded in the state itself—from the cop in the neighborhood all the way up to the very top of the government, according to high-level sources. Prominent critics and even government officials, including Marlon Pascua, the defense minister, talk of “narco-judges” who block prosecutions and “narco-congressmen” who run cartels. Alfredo Landaverde, a former congressman and police commissioner in charge of drug investigations, declared that one out of every ten members of Congress is a drug trafficker and that he had evidence proving “major national and political figures” were involved in drug trafficking. He was assassinated on December 7.
Far more than criminal gangs in the streets and drug traffickers acting independently, it is the Honduran state itself that has made Honduras, according to the Associated Press, “among the most dangerous places on earth.”
The administration argues that it is helping Honduras clean up its police by providing additional funding for “training.” But as former President Zelaya underscored in a conversation with me on May Day, “The police are the drug traffickers. If you fund the police, you’re funding the drug traffickers.”
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When Lobo took office in January 2010, he reappointed to top positions the same military figures (sunglasses and all) who had managed the coup, including its leader, Gen. Romeo Vásquez Velásquez, as head of Hondutel, the state-owned telephone company. Last summer, Manuel Enrique Cáceres, a high-ranking minister in the cabinet of Micheletti’s post-coup government, was made director of the aviation authority.
The coup, in turn, unleashed a wave of violence by state security forces that continues unabated. On October 22, an enormous scandal broke when the Tegucigalpa police killed the son of Julieta Castellanos, rector of the country’s largest university and a member of the government’s Truth Commission, along with a friend of his. Top law enforcement officials admitted that the police were responsible for the killings but allowed the suspects to disappear, precipitating an enormous crisis of legitimacy, as prominent figures such as Landaverde stepped forward throughout the autumn to denounce the massive police corruption. The police department, they charged, is riddled with death squads and drug traffickers up to the very highest levels.
“It’s scarier to meet up with five police officers on the streets than five gang members,” former Police Commissioner María Luisa Borjas declared in November. According to the Committee of Families of the Detained and Disappeared of Honduras (Cofadeh), more than 10,000 official complaints have been filed about abuses by the police and military since the coup, none of which have been addressed. Marvin Ponce, vice president of Congress, has charged that 40 percent of the Honduran police are involved in organized crime. The sheer viciousness of the police was laid bare on Valentine’s Day, when the worst prison fire in modern history claimed the lives of 361 prisoners in Comayagua in part because their guards — regular police officers — refused to allow firefighters to enter for thirty minutes.
Reform efforts have been promised by the Lobo administration and Congress, but they have gone nowhere. A top-level commission fell apart and a new one doesn’t yet function. Key figures involved in the “cleanup” include Eduardo Villanueva, one of Micheletti’s top ministers following the coup, and Héctor Ivan Mejía, the current police spokesman, who as chief of police in San Pedro Sula issued the order on September 15, 2010, to tear-gas a peaceful demonstration by the opposition, including a high school marching band.
In response to calls by human rights groups that non-Hondurans oversee the cleanup, Lobo on April 24 appointed to a new commission Gen. Aquiles Blu Rodriguez, himself accused of obstruction of justice and drug-related charges in Chile. The Honduran government admitted on May 1 that only eighteen cases against police officers had gone forward.
Unable to purge itself, the government has instead responded to the security crisis with even greater repression. Cofadeh and the Center for Justice and International Law have raised alarms over recent measures “that presumably are trying to combat criminality but that are restrictive of the human rights of the population,” including a law allowing wiretapping with few restrictions and another permitting inspection of the bank records of nonprofits. (The Honduran Congress is also considering the most repressive contraception law in the world, making it a crime to distribute the morning-after pill, even to rape victims.) On March 20 an “emergency” measure allowing the military to take on ordinary police duties, such as patrolling the streets, was extended for three months. Lobo has said he wants to make this measure permanent, in direct violation of the fire wall between the police and the military enshrined in the Honduran Constitution.
The Honduran military is corrupt, too. On November 1, 2010, an airplane used in drug trafficking was “robbed” from a military base in San Pedro Sula. According to La Tribuna, a right-wing newspaper, at least nineteen members of the army were complicit, including top- and intermediate-ranked officers. In August 2011, 300 automatic rifles and 300,000 bullets disappeared from a warehouse of the army’s elite Cobras unit. Despite this record of corruption, a new decree permits the military to accept no-bid contracts—a green light for even more corruption.
Most dangerous of all, since the coup, the government has attacked the opposition relentlessly and mercilessly. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights reports “serious incidents of violence and repression” against demonstrations. At least twenty-two journalists and media workers have been killed since the coup, according to Reporters Without Borders; most of them were critics of the government. On May 16, the body of well-known radio reporter Alfredo Villatoro was found, dressed in a police uniform, a week after he was abducted. On May 7, Erick Martinez, a beloved journalist, LGBTI and resistance activist, and candidate for Congress with LIBRE, the opposition party, was found dead, strangled, by the side of the road. The AFL-CIO also reports “numerous murders, attacks and threats since 2009 aimed at trade unionists for their labor or political activities.”
Those who dare to document this are at tremendous risk. The United Nations reported in February that “human rights defenders continue to suffer extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, torture and ill treatment, death threats, attacks, harassment, and stigmatization.” On February 22, for example, a paramilitary group called the CAM, linked to death squads during the 1980s, sent a text message to Dina Meza, press officer and co-founder of Cofadeh, that read: “We are going to burn your pussy with lime until you scream and later the whole squad is going to enjoy [you].” In late April, the same paramilitary group began sending death threats to two women, one British, the other French, who serve as “accompaniment” to protect those who have been threatened. Even when the government does promise protection, it’s rarely delivered, and victims are sometimes guarded by the very same police from whom they need to be protected.
Campesino activists have paid the highest price. In the lower Aguán Valley, at least 46 campesinos struggling over land rights have been killed since the coup, most of them allegedly by a combination of police, military and the private army of Miguel Facussé, the richest, most powerful man in the country and a key backer of the coup. The perpetrators enjoy near-complete impunity. On June 24, 2011, for example, seventy-five policemen destroyed the entire campesino community of Rigores, burning down more than 100 houses and bulldozing three churches and a seven-room schoolhouse; not one has been charged. At least ten security guards and others have died in the conflict as well. In an e-mailed response to questions for this article, Facussé admitted that in one incident four campesinos were killed in what he described as a “gun battle” with his security guards.