The video, caught randomly on a warehouse security camera, is chilling. Five young men are walking down a quiet street in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. A big black SUV pulls up, followed by another vehicle. Two masked men with bullet proof vests jump quickly out of the lead car, with AK-47’s raised. The two youths who are closest to the vehicles see that they have no chance of running, so they freeze and put their hands in the air. The other three break into a sprint, with bullets chasing, and the second team of assassins firing. Miraculously, they escape, with one injured – but the two who surrendered are forced to lie face down on the ground. The two students, who were brothers 18 and 20 years old, are quickly murdered in front of the camera with bullets to the back of the head. In less than 40 seconds after their arrival, the assassins are driving away, never to be found.
The high level of professional training and modus operandi of the assassins have ledmany observers to conclude that this was a government operation. The video was posted by the newspaper El Heraldo last month; the murder took place in November of last year. There have been no arrests.
Now the Obama administration is coming under fire for its role in arming and funding murderous Honduran police, in violation of U.S. law. Under the “Leahy Law,” named after Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, the U.S. government is not allowed to fund foreign military units who have committed gross human rights violations with impunity. The Director General of Honduras’ national police force, Juan Carlos Bonilla, is himself implicated in death squad killings; and members of the U.S. Congress have been complaining about it since Bonilla was appointed in May last year. Thanks to some excellent investigative reporting by the Associated Press in the last couple of weeks – showing that all police units are in fact under Bonilla’s command — it has become clearer that U.S. funding of Honduran police is illegal.
Now we will see if the “rule of law” or the “separation of powers” means very much here in the capital of the country that likes to lecture “less developed” countries about these principles.
Why would the Obama administration be so stubborn as to deceive and defy Congress in order to support death squad government in Honduras? To answer this question we have to look at how the current government of Honduras got to power, and how big a role its violent repression of political opposition plays in keeping it there.
The government of Honduran President Pepe Lobo was “elected” after a military coup overthrew the democratically elected government of President Mel Zelaya in June of 2009. Zelaya later told the press that Washington was involved in the coup itself; this is very believable, given the circumstantial evidence. But what we know for sure is that the Obama administration was heavily involved in helping the coup government survive and legitimize itself. Washington supported Lobo’s election in November 2009 against the opposition of almost the entire hemisphere. The Organization of American States and the European Union refused to send observers to an election that most of the world viewed as obviously illegitimate.
The coup unleashed a wave of violence against political dissent that continues to this day. Even the Truth and Reconciliation Commission established by the coup government itself found that it had “undertaken political persecution. . . and that it was responsible for a number of killings committed by state agents and those acting at their behest, in addition to the widespread and violent repression of rights to speech, assembly, association . ..”
This was noted by the Center for Constitutional Rights (New York) and the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights, in a report [PDF] submitted to the International Criminal Court. The CCR/FIDH report also identifies “over 100 killings, most of which are selective, or targeted killings, occurring even after two truth commissions concluded their investigations. …” Their report goes through October 2012.
“The killings are one horrific manifestation of the broader attack which is also characterized by death threats against activists, lawyers, journalists, trade unionists, and campesinos, as well as attempted killings, torture, sexual violence, arbitrary arrests and detentions. The True Commission [the second, independent Truth Commission] described the regime’s “attack” as one of using terror as a means of social control ….”
Which brings us the elections that are scheduled for later this year. There is once again a social democratic party in the race, including people who courageously defended democracy against the military coup of 2009. Its presidential candidate is Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, the wife of the president that Washington worked so hard to get rid of. This party is among the victims of the government’s political repression: in November, LIBRE mayoral candidate Edgardo Adalid Motiño was gunned downafter attending a rally for Xiomara Zelaya.
So there you have it. A death squad government may not be the Obama administration’s first choice for Honduras, but they prefer it to another left government that people might elect if they were able to organize in a free election. The current government belongs to Washington, as does the U.S. military base that the Pentagon would like to keep there indefinitely.
If all that sounds disgusting, and reminiscent of President Reagan’s death squad governments in Central America of the 1980s, it’s because it is both. The question right now is what are members of the U.S. Congress going to do about it?
Mark Weisbrot is an economist and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. He is co-author, with Dean Baker, of Social Security: the Phony Crisis.
This essay originally appeared in The Guardian.