Jacobin, September 3, 2014
In the midst of the recent child refugee crisis, Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández and First Lady Ana García Hernández engaged in a diplomatic offensive, traveling to the U.S.-Mexico border to observe the situation first hand, and to Washington, respectively, to engage with policy makers. President Hernández drew attention for his remarks that U.S. drug and immigration policies were in large part to blame for the surge in children and women fleeing his country to head north.
But media outlets, accustomed to ignoring Honduras, largely failed to note that policies that Hernández has championed are contributing to the problem – most notably his support for the 2009 coup d’etat against the democratically-elected government of Manuel Zelaya. As Dana Frank and other academic experts on Honduras have pointed out, this precipitated a collapse in the country’s institutions. Corruption reached new levels; the police and military were able to act with impunity as they used violent repression to crush resistance to the coup. Femicides [PDF] and murders of the LGBT community spiked along with political killings, with the crimes left unpunished and rarely even investigated. Reporters, lawyers, and judges have also been targeted in the years since; police often blame the murders on “personal enmities,” love triangles or inter-personal disputes. Other historically disenfranchised minorities – indigenous and African-descendant communities, and campesinos – struggle against heightened violence and similar impunity, as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have documented. The U.N. has warned that human rights defenders “continue to be vulnerable to the risk of extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, torture and ill-treatment, arbitrary arrest and detention, death threats, attacks,” and other ill-treatment.
Part of the Honduran authorities’ response to gangs and drug cartels has been a shoot first, ask questions later approach. In 2012 and 13, U.S. coverage of the Honduran police was dominated by a series of damning investigations into police death squads by the Associated Press that detailed evidence of extrajudicial killings of gang suspects by police officers. But now, in the current context of the refugee crisis, Honduras’ police forces are made out to be beleaguered heroes attempting to assist U.S. goals by working to stop would-be migrants from leaving Honduras.
Hernández has responded to police corruption by sending out thousands of new military police to patrol city streets. But as some warned shortly after deployment of the military police began ahead of last year’s elections, the new force is serving overt political ends, raiding the homes of labor leaders and of people involved in the resistance movement to the coup. Human rights defenders and others have criticized its poor training and the Hernández administration’s evident lack of concern about the force’s rights violations. In the U.S., a much-needed debate over police militarization has followed the heavy-handed response to protests in Ferguson, Missouri, but military police in Honduras have received too-little scrutiny in the context of the child refugee surge.
Hernández has pushed an array of “business-friendly” policies meant to encourage investment, such as new mining laws. His promotion of the proposed “model cities” (aka Zones for Employment and Economic Development, or ZEDEs) has been so zealous that as president of congress he oversaw the illegal dismissal of four supreme court justices who refused to back “model city” legislation. Afro-Indigenous Garifuna communities now struggle to defend their land from tourism projects and proposed ZEDE development. Some in these communities choose to risk their lives riding “La Bestia” (as the train is infamously known) north to the U.S., as Vice News recently detailed.
Now Hernández wants to throw more gas on the fire: he advocates a “Plan Colombia” for Honduras (a proposal also supported by his hawkish think-tank hosts in Washington). But as my colleague Alexander Main at the Center for Economic and Policy Research has noted, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador (the other countries contributing thousands of refugees) already have such a scheme: the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI). CARSI in fact emerged from the Merida Initiative, the ramped-up war on drug cartels in Mexico that resulted in over 47,000 people killed in just five years, and thousands more missing.
Hernández argues that Merida has succeeded in pushing the drug cartels out of Mexico, south to Central America. This is the “balloon effect” that analysts describe: squeezing one place just means the cartels pop up somewhere else. But it’s Hernández’s militarized solution to drug cartels and a related problem made in the U.S.A.: gangs like the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18, which were formed in the U.S. by earlier generations of migrants who fled U.S.-led military and paramilitary operations in Central America. In the current context of police death squads committing extrajudicial killings of gang suspects in urban areas, and the shootings of innocent villagers in the countryside in counternarcotics operations gone wrong, it is clear what will result from a “Plan Central America” approach.
Much media attention has been paid to the forced gang recruitment that pushes children to flee Honduras, but the economic and social factors that also help swell the ranks have been largely overlooked. It’s an open secret that the post-coup governments of Hernández, and his fellow National Party predecessor, Pepe Lobo, have presided over an economic failure. Gains made by the previous Zelaya government, before the coup, were undone. A trend toward poverty reduction was reversed while inequality increased to become the highest in the region. As Lobo cut social spending, unemployment rose.
There are policies that can be pursued that can diminish the power of Central American drug cartels and gangs, and which would abate some of the “push” factors driving people to flee to the U.S., but they don’t involve the ramped-up military spending championed by certain members of the U.S. Congress. They would promote greater social inclusion, education and economic equality. These would offer the youth of Honduras a future. But these are, unfortunately, many of the policies that the Honduran government has abandoned following the coup.