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Honduras: Gangsters’ Paradise

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Nearly five years after the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) first called on the Honduran government to protect Carlos Mejía Orellana, the Radio Progreso marketing manager was found stabbed to death in his home on April 11. “The IACHR and its Office of the Special Rapporteur consider this a particularly serious crime given the precautionary measures granted,” the Commission stated, assuming Mejía really was being guarded. But since the 2009 coup, asking the Honduran state to defend journalists is as effective as entreating a spider to spare a web-ensnared fly.

The coup, which four School of the Americas (SOA) graduates oversaw, toppled elected president Manuel Zelaya, and was “a crime,” as even the military lawyer—another SOA alum—charged with giving the overthrow a veneer of legitimacy couldn’t deny. A pair of marred general elections followed. Journalist Michael Corcoran recognized widespread “state violence against dissidents” and “ballot irregularities” as hallmarks of the first, in November 2009, which Obama later hailed as the return of Honduran democracy. And there was little dispute that the subsequent contest, held last November, was equally flawed. The State Department, for example, admitted “inconsistencies” plagued the vote, the same charge Zelaya himself leveled and an echo of the SOA Watch delegation’s findings, which identified “numerous irregularities and problems during the elections and vote counting process[.]” But while grassroots and governmental observers described the election in similar terms, they drew dramatically different conclusions about its validity. Canadian activist Raul Burbano, for example, acknowledged that “corruption, fraud, violence, murder, and human rights violations” dominated the situation. For Secretary of State Kerry, “the election process was generally transparent, peaceful, and reflected the will of the Honduran people.”

Kerry, to be sure, was referring to the class of “worthy” Hondurans, whose will was indeed reflected in the contest. One might be “a policeman, a lumber magnate, an agro-industrialist, a congressman, a mayor, an owner of a national media outlet, a cattle rancher, a businessman, or a drug trafficker”—all belong to this sector, Radio Progreso director Rev. Ismael Moreno Coto, S.J., known as Padre Melo, points out, adding that these “worthy” Hondurans use the state as a tool to maintain, if not enhance, their power. The results for the rest of the population are what you’d expect. The government no longer pays many of its employees, for example; Peter J. Meyer’s Congressional Research Service report on “Honduran-U.S. Relations,” released last July, cites “misused government funds” and “weak tax collection” as two factors contributing to the current situation, a kind of wage slavery sans wages. Doctors, nurses and educators toil for free throughout the country, and the Center for Economic and Policy Research reported last fall that over 43% of Honduran workers labored full-time in 2012 without receiving the minimum wage. That same year, nearly half of the population was living in extreme poverty—the rate had dropped to 36% under Zelaya—and 13,000 inmates now crowd a prison system designed for 8,000. In San Pedro Sula, the second-largest city after Tegucigalpa, some 5,000 children try not to starve to death while living on the streets; this figure includes 3,000 girls, aged 12-17, who roam the roads as prostitutes.

Confronting this reality—asking fundamental questions, like whose interests dominant Honduran institutions serve—“means living with anxiety, insecurity, suspicion, distrust, demands, warnings, and threats. It also means having to come to grips with the idea of death,” Padre Melo emphasizes, explaining that a reporter in Honduras “only has to publish or disseminate some news that negatively affects the interests [of] a powerful person with money and influence…for the life of that news reporter to be endangered.” Melo was making these points in July 2012, well before Mejía’s recent murder, but when it was already obvious that open season had been declared on Honduran correspondents. It’s likely that “few observers could have foreseen the deluge of threats, attacks, and targeted killings that has swept through Honduras during the last five years,” PEN International noted in January, highlighting “the surge in violence directed against journalists following the ouster of President José Manuel Zelaya in June 2009.” A great deal “of the violence is produced by the state itself, perhaps most significantly by a corrupt police force,” and now over 32 Honduran journalists—the equivalent U.S. figure, as a percentage of the total population, would be well over 1,200—are dead.

These killings are part of a broader Honduran trend, namely what Reporters Without Borders calls “a murder rate comparable to that of a country at war—80 per 100,000 in a population of 7 million.” One crucial battlefield is the Bajo Aguán Valley, where at least 102 peasant farmers were killed between January 2010 and May 2013. The conflict there can be traced back to the ’90s, when a “paradigm promoted by the World Bank” spurred “a massive re-concentration of land in the Aguán into the hands of a few influential elites,” Tanya Kerssen writes in Grabbing Power, her excellent book. These land barons, particularly Dinant Corporation’s Miguel Facussé, thrived as “the Aguán cooperative sector was decimated,” some three-quarters of its land seized, Kerssen concludes. Campesinos, suddenly dispossessed, first sought legal recourse, which failed. They subsequently “protested and occupied disputed land,” Rights Action’s Annie Bird observes in an invaluable study (“Human Rights Violations Attributed to Military Forces in the Bajo Aguán Valley in Honduras,” February 2013), prompting government authorities to review the legitimacy of World Bank-promoted territorial transfer. But the June 2009 coup ended this appraisal, and since then Honduras’ 15th Battalion, Washington-aided “since at least 2008,” has “consistently been identified as initiating acts of violence against campesino movements,” with police forces and Dinant’s security guards getting in on the kills, Bird explains

After Brazil, Honduras is the most dangerous place on the planet for land-rights defenders, according to “Deadly Environment,” a new Global Witness investigation, which notes that “more and more ordinary people are finding themselves on the frontline of the battle to defend their environment from corporate or state abuse, and from unsustainable exploitation.” At least 908 worldwide died in this conflict from 2002-2013, and Washington’s “counterdrug” policies in the region have helped raise the stakes, Dr. Kendra McSweeney’s research suggests. “In Honduras, the level of large-scale deforestation per year more than quadrupled between 2007 and 2011, at the same time as cocaine movements in the country also showed a significant rise,” BBC correspondent Matt McGrath summarizes her findings. “Once you start fighting” the traffickers, McSweeney elaborates, “you scatter them into more remote locales and greater areas become impacted,” as smugglers clear forests to build airstrips and roads, and “worthy” Hondurans in, say, the palm oil and ranching sectors capitalize on booming drug profits.

“Today it’s the same” as it was in the 1980s, Honduran activist Bertha Oliva remarked a year ago, referring to the decade when “the presence of the U.S. in the country was extremely significant,” and “it was clear that political opponents were being eliminated.” Obama’s Honduras policy is Reagan’s redux, in other words. The thousands of child prostitutes and street children, the prisons teeming with inmates, the scores of slaughtered peasants and dozens of murdered journalists—all indicate the type of nation Washington helps build in a region where it’s free to operate unimpeded, revealing which “American values” really drive U.S. foreign policy.

Nick Alexandrov lives in Washington, DC.

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

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