November 25, 2017
The Hill, November 25, 2017
In June of 2009, the left-leaning constitutional president of Honduras was wrenched from his home by military troops and bundled onto a plane to Costa Rica. Following the classic playbook of Latin American coups, state security forces brutally repressed pro-democracy demonstrations and shut down independent media outlets. In the months that followed, dozens of activists opposing the coup regime were killed.
This Sunday, Honduras will be holding its third presidential election since the coup. At first glance, it might appear that the tiny Central American nation — which spiraled into deeper violence, corruption and poverty following the coup — is returning to some semblance of normality. Over the last few years the US government has poured tens of millions of dollars of security and development aid into Honduras; on the surface, the investment seems to be paying off.
President Juan Orlando Hernández, who is running for a second term on Sunday, claims that his government’s statistics show that Honduras’ homicide rate — the highest in the world only three years ago — has dipped down to pre-coup levels. A few weeks ago his minister of security, retired general Julián Pacheco Tinoco, was in Washington extolling the achievements of Honduras’ US-backed police reform commission. He claims that 4,400 members of the notoriously corrupt police force have been purged.
But beneath this veneer of hopeful progress and unsubstantiated claims lies a deepening nightmare.
Whatever the homicide rate may be — and many consider the government’s numbers to be dubious — Honduras remains among the most dangerous countries for those who dare challenge power. In the years since the coup, hundreds of activists have been murdered and police and judicial authorities have largely failed to take action. In fact, in many cases it appears that authorities have been complicit in the killings.
The world began to notice that something was profoundly amiss in Honduras when, in early 2016, the renowned indigenous and environmentalist leader Berta Cáceres — who had been supporting the Rio Blanco community’s efforts to oppose a dam project on Lenca indigenous lands — was shot dead. Under international pressure, including from outraged members of the US Congress, the Honduran government promised to undertake a thorough, exemplary investigation. A few months later, the attorney general’s office announced the arrest of a number of suspects allegedly implicated in the murder, including US-trained former and current members of the military.
But who, many wondered, was really behind the killing? A group of widely recognized international legal experts conducted their own independent investigation and, in late October of this year, published evidence indicating that the murder had been ordered and paid for by top executives of Desarrollos Energéticos (DESA), the company undertaking the contentious dam project. The Honduran authorities have been in possession of this evidence but have failed to act.
The evidence examined by the group of experts also showed that a far-reaching criminal structure — involving DESA executives and shareholders (including at least one member of the powerful Atala Zablah family), private and state security agents and public officials — carried out a campaign of sabotage, intimidation, attacks and killings to try to eliminate opposition to the dam project.
The assassination of Berta Cáceres casts a light on how Honduras’ criminal elites deal with dissent and resistance. Since her death, dozens more activists have been killed, including many in the Bajo Aguán region, where human rights defenders believe that paramilitary groups, acting on behalf of powerful landowners, are responsible for numerous killings of small farmers fighting to keep their land.
The central plank of President Hernández’s platform is security. But security for whom?
Under Hernández’s watch, state security forces — widely reported to be infiltrated by organized crime networks — have become increasingly militarized. In 2013, as president of Honduras’ congress, he supported the creation of a military police force that now numbers over 3,000. In 2014, he created the TIGRES militarized police units, which receive US training and whose members have been publicly implicated in corruption.
These new units have been implicated in numerous human rights abuses, many of which have targeted activists. These and other state security forces are frequently deployed in areas, such as Río Blanco and Bajo Aguán, with mining, agro-industrial, hydroelectric and tourism enterprises that displace and negatively impact poor indigenous and Afro-Honduran communities. There, as human rights advocates have reported, they often act in tandem with private security agents to terrorize communities into submission through targeted killings and attacks.
Heading Honduras’ security apparatus is US-trained ex-general Julián Pacheco, who traveled to Washington to defend the 2009 coup and is implicated in drug-trafficking according to the testimony of a US DEA informant. The police purges which Pacheco directs have not been verified by independent observers. Of the 4,400 supposedly “purged,” at least two-thirds were merely laid off for reasons of “restructuring”, as the commission itself has acknowledged.
Whatever remains of the rosy veneer of progress and hope peels away entirely on closer examination of Hernández’s bid for reelection, which is illegal under Honduras’s constitution. Thanks to the ruling of a supreme court illegally stacked by Hernández and the ruling National Party in late 2012, the constitution’s ban on reelection was ignored in the name of “human rights.” With the country’s courts, congress and security forces firmly under Hernández’s control, the only recourse for Honduran citizens has been to take to the streets, which tens of thousands have done, to no avail.
Similarly, in 2015, massive protests rocked Honduras when it was discovered that funds linked to a major corruption scheme had ended up in Hernández’s 2013 campaign account. The US State Department and Organization of American States swept in and mediated a political solution that excluded major opposition groups.
Indeed, Hernández owes a lot to the US, which has provided steady financial and political support, while turning a blind eye to an abysmal human rights situation and an increasingly autocratic and unconstitutional regime. Current Trump chief of staff John Kelly, when still head of the Department of Homeland Security, referred to Hernández as a “great guy and a good friend.” Keen to maintain pro-US allies in charge of a country hosting major US military assets — in particular the Soto Cano air base — the US government has shown little regard for justice and progress in Honduras.
On Sunday, Honduran voters will go to the polls under a dark cloud of expanding authoritarianism and legitimate fears of fraud, linked to the government’s total control of the electoral system. Whatever happens, going forward members of Congress should take action to ensure that US funding no longer serves to buttress Honduran officials and institutions involved in human rights crimes, corruption and attacks on democracy.
Editor’s note: A prior version of this article referred to the “Atala family.” This has been changed to clarify that it is a member of the Atala Zablah family who is among the executives and shareholders of Desarrollos Energéticos, which is pursuing the Agua Zarca dam project.