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The Latest Drug War Success Story

Honduras: the Killings Continue

by NICK ALEXANDROV

Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield succumbed to a fit of honesty earlier this month: “When the drug war turns bloody, he said, the strategy is working,” journalist Martha Mendoza reported.  By Brownfield’s standards, the strategy has been an enormous success.

This is especially true in recent decades for Latin America, where President Clinton undermined the Colombian government’s proposed “policy of investment for social development, reduction of violence and the construction of peace” in the late ’90s.  One can question whether Colombia intended to follow up on its stated aims; Washington never bothered to find out, immediately scrapping “development in favor of military aid,” three scholars write in Drugs and Democracy in Latin America, an invaluable resource.  U.S. officials favored militarization with full awareness “that U.S.-backed Colombian security forces engaged in ‘death squad tactics’” (the National Security Archive), and the results are what one would have predicted: indigenous peoples, Afro-Colombians, unionists, human rights defenders and others “bear the brunt of the human rights consequences of the long-running internal armed conflict” (Amnesty International).

The effects of U.S.-supported efforts in Mexico have been fundamentally similar, with casualty estimates for the last six years ranging from 60,000 to 120,000, and little impact on trafficking—though this doesn’t imply Washington’s policy has failed.  Besides spilling blood, Brownfield explained the U.S. aims chiefly to divert the drug trade to different regions.  In the 1980s, Washington’s crackdown on shipments through Florida shifted smuggling to overland routes crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.  The beefed-up Border Patrol presence there leaves open the most hostile desert stretches, creating a “physical layout” that “promotes the death of migrants” (investigative journalist Óscar Martínez) and—accompanied by militarization throughout Mexico—the transfer of drug routes to Central America, currently the site of escalating U.S. military activity.  Brownfield predicts this “balloon effect” will hit the Caribbean next, which is to say that trafficking will return to what was one of “two main transshipment chains” for cocaine paste by the early 1950s, and the site of well-used “island-hopping wholesale transit routes” in the ’70s, according to historian Paul Gootenberg.  The trade will come full circle, in other words, leaving in its wake a group of repressive states, with thousands upon thousands slaughtered, several million survivors living a nightmare—and Western banks “reaping billions” from Colombia’s cocaine shipments, the Guardian reported last summer.

Honduras is one of the latest countries to experience the terror familiar in Colombia and Mexico.  In late June 2009, the Honduran military, led by two School of the Americas (SOA) graduates, overthrew President Manuel Zelaya.  There were few illusions about the ouster: the Honduran military lawyer who advised the coup plotters—and who was himself an SOA alumnus—admitted Zelaya’s removal was a crime.  The State Department agreed, explaining to New York Times, Washington Post, and other reporters immediately after Zelaya’s expulsion that he remained Honduras’ “constitutional president,” meaning his removal from power was “an attempt at a coup.”  But none of the reporters on the call relayed this assessment to their readers; instead, they hewed closely to the official State Department line that emerged shortly thereafter, when Secretary of State Clinton stated only in-depth study could determine, at some point down the line, what had happened.  A WikiLeaks document reveals U.S. Ambassador Hugo Llorens completed this close analysis about a month later, confirming the initial assumption: it was an illegal coup.  Meanwhile, one U.S. businessman in Honduras exhorted Llorens “to have Washington recognize the new government of [Interim] President Micheletti,” warning that “if Zelaya is allowed to return to power with Chávez supporting him, we see NO future for American investment here[.]”  He need not have panicked: in November 2009, Porfirio Lobo won an election “complete with state violence against dissidents in the run-up to voting, ballot irregularities, and manufactured turnout numbers,” NACLA’s Michael Corcoran observed.  Eighteen months later a conference announced—in English—that the country was “open for business.”  When Lobo visited the White House two years later, the headlines told the story: “Obama hails return of Honduras to democratic fold.”

Lobo’s rise has coincided with the country’s quick descent into a kind of hell.  UN figures indicate Honduras’ per capita murder rate is the world’s highest, and San Pedro Sula—its largest city after Tegucigalpa—recently replaced Ciudad Juárez as the most violent urban area on the planet.  Covenant House just released a report pointing out that over “a third of the roughly 8,000 slayings of children and youth in the past 15 years have taken place since” Lobo took power, and highlighting “a ‘pattern of executions’ in which victims’ bodies bear signs of torture and gunshot wounds to the head and chest.”  Political activists in particular have paid the ultimate price for their work: gay rights advocate Jose “Pepe” Palacios notes that at least 89 members of the LGBT community have been murdered since the coup.  The Aguán Valley’s death toll since December 2009 is about the same, according to land rights activist Rafael Alegría, whose findings are in line with a study Rights Action’s Annie Bird released a few days ago.  Earlier this month, assailants shot to death the campesino activist Santos Jacobo Cartagena as he waited for a bus.  Killers gunned down José Trejo Cabrera a few hours later—much in the same way they murdered his brother Antonio, a human rights lawyer, last September.

Aid flows from Washington as these killings continue, since the strategy is working.  The Defense Department spent over $67 million—triple the 2002 figure—on military contracts in Honduras last year.  The U.S. government is also training members of the Honduran military, as well as funding Joint Task Force-Bravo, a 600-member unit of U.S. military personnel at Soto Cano Air Base.  The money is ostensibly meant to combat “transnational organized crime,” which is how former SOUTHCOM head General Doug Fraser described the threat—apparently a recent concern, given Washington’s support for criminal elements in Honduras in the late ’70s and early ’80s.  That was when the CIA brought in Argentine officers—“dirty war” veterans—to train local interrogators, and Juan Ramón Matta Ballesteros was one of the country’s most influential men.  The DEA knew about Matta’s connections to Mexican drug traffickers, but ignored them in light of the Honduran government’s support for Somoza in his struggle against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.  True, repression targeted Honduran labor unions at the time, but such policies were not enough to sway a human rights champion of Jimmy Carter’s caliber—after all, this was the man who ignored Archbishop Romero’s pleas for Washington to stop aiding the brutal Salvadoran government.  Romero’s assassins killed him in 1980, by which point U.S. aid to Honduras since 1978 had tripled; Carter lifted the ban on arms sales to El Salvador just before leaving office.  The DEA, for its part, opened an office in Tegucigalpa in 1981, only to abandon the charade two years later, shutting its doors even as it was aware “of Matta’s enormous drug business and of the Honduran military’s rampant corruption” (Peter Dale Scott and Jonathan Marshall).

The charade is hardly more convincing today.  Washington’s support for the military and illegitimate coup regime has little to do with “fighting crime,” but does instill the terror necessary to force through unpopular measures.  A prime example is the “model cities” law, which the Honduran congress reapproved a month ago, after the Supreme Court rejected it last fall.  U.S. economist Paul Romer envisioned these privatized metropolitan areas, and his ideas were received enthusiastically by an NPR reporter in the New York Times, and in the Atlantic.  But while Romer frequently mentions Hong Kong in the same breath as his brainchild, hardly anyone has examined the implications of this precedent—apart from NACLA blogger Keane Bhatt, who notes “that Hong Kong was one of the spoils of a drug war.”  It’s worth recalling that the Honduran Supreme Court voted against Romer’s plan because it compromises the country’s sovereignty, a situation calling to mind those in Colombia, Mexico, and other countries where bloodshed has signaled the success of U.S. policy.

Nick Alexandrov lives in Washington, DC.  He can be reached at: nicholas.alexandrov@gmail.com.