Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-NJ) met with Honduran president Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo on Wednesday as part of a tour through Central America. According to press reports, Menendez characterized the trip, during which the Senator also visited El Salvador and Guatemala, as an opportunity to evaluate regional counter-narcotics and security initiatives that the U.S. is funding at increasing levels through the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI). A Spanish-language press report on the trip quotes Menendez as having said that he intends to “explore the specific points of this funding proposal,” and that he wants to “see what works and what does not.”
The State Department’s 2014 budget proposal, submitted on April 10, requests $161.5 million in funding for CARSI, a $26 million increase from the previous year. The proposal requests $4.5 million in foreign military financing specifically for Honduras, an increase of 450% over the FY2012 total. And Just the Facts, a joint project of nonpartisan groups focused on U.S.-Latin American relations, notes that current budget proposals have total U.S. military and police funding for Honduras in FY2014 at $8.7 million, a 63% increase over 2013 projections. Furthermore, according to a Congressional Research Service report, as of last July the State Department and USAID had planned to allocate a combined $72 million to Honduras in FY2012.
These rising levels of funding for the police and military run counter to the concerns of many lawmakers in Washington around the lack of accountability for U.S. involvement in Honduran security and anti-narcotics operations. It also highlights the seriousness of recent reports that the State Department has been supporting units under the command of National Police Chief Juan Carlos “El Tigre” Bonilla, who allegedly ran death-squads a decade ago, and, more broadly, that the police have been accused of continuing to commit death-squad murders today. In December the National Autonomous University, citing the police’s own reports, announced that police had killed 149 civilians in the previous two years.
It is unclear whether or not Menendez raised these concerns while meeting with President Lobo. But Fox News Latino reports that Menendez praised the head of state for helping stabilize the country after the June 2009 coup. Readers who have followed CEPR’s work will remember that Lobo came to power through elections held by the coup regime under a cloud of political repression, which was why the European Union, the Organization of American States, and the Carter Center refused to send election observers. Since then, members of the opposition party and the LGBT community, land rights activists, lawyers and journalists have been murdered with nearly absolute impunity.
In Guatemala, Menendez met with President Otto Pérez Molina and Minister of Governance Mauricio López Bonilla. López Bonilla was part of the six-officer junta that ruled with Efraín Ríos Montt in 1982-3, while Pérez Molina was a commanding officer in the region where the government carried out a campaign of murder, rape and torture. Ríos Montt now faces charges of genocide and crimes against humanity in a Guatemalan court.
Menendez, meanwhile, is still on the hot seat for having accepted free trips to the Dominican Republic from a major financial backer, Dr. Salomon Melgen. (Menendez has since reimbursed Melgen.) Earlier this year, it was revealed that the senator discouraged U.S. officials from donating port security equipment to the Dominican Republic out of concern that doing so could undermine Melgen’s company’s lucrative contract, though Menendez did not mention the doctor or his company by name. According to federal investigators, Menendez also advocated on Melgen’s behalf to a senior Medicare official regarding the doctor’s reported $8.9 million debt, which he incurred by overbilling the government.
While the Senate Ethics Committee continues to investigate Menendez’s actions, the Washington Post reported on March 14 that a federal grand jury in Miami is also looking into Menendez’s role in advocating for his donor’s financial interests. In response to this news, the New Jersey Star-Ledger’s editorial board said the grand jury investigation undermines “the senator’s credibility and his effectiveness as chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations” and urged him to step down from that post.