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Throughout the 1980s, Honduras was the linchpin in the U.S.’ Central American policy, serving as Washington’s “unsinkable aircraft carrier” for covert Contra missions against Sandinista Nicaragua and providing a base for U.S. military trainers and secret intelligence operations. Since that era, however, Honduras has struggled to remain on Washington’s political radar by various self-serving strategies, including, for a brief period, its opera bouffe military support for the war in Iraq, as well as sponsoring this year’s United Nations, condemnation of Cuba’s human rights record and volunteering to participate in the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Haiti (only to delay the deployment of its troops due to the country’s financial strains).
Honduran sponsorship of the 2004 U.N. human rights commission’s vote to condemn Havana for its imprisonment of 75 dissidents (the figure has since been reduced) clearly stems from Maduro’s desire to stay in Washington’s good graces. It has been a tradition for more than a century for the country’s presidents to be servitors of Washington (with the notable exception of the distinguished patriot Ramon Villeda Morales, who ruled from 1957-1963), making Honduras the hemisphere’s preeminent banana republic. Similarly, by backing the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Haiti, by assigning its troops there, as well as by politically backing the unpopular U.S.-installed and heavily compromised Haitian interim prime minister, Gerard Latortue. Honduras created a good deal of good will with the Bush administration. The Honduran military’s symbolic deployment of 368 troops to Iraq in 2003 also reflects Tegucigalpa’s willingness to sacrifice resources in order to obtain the multiple rewards coming from being a prime ally of Washington. Due to the efforts of President Maduro to win the administration’s gratitude, Maduro has successfully achieved another of his primary aspirations: toning down any U.S. criticism of Honduras’ glaring human rights record.
A Faulty Reform
Washington was not tardy in displaying its gratitude-In a September 2004 report, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) boasted of “unprecedented judicial reform” in Honduras, claiming that country’s new penal code, which was fully implemented in 2002 and which it fully supports, is “laying the groundwork for greater respect for the rule of law and improved functioning of the judicial system.” But this assessment is little more than pure fantasy since the new code has done next to nothing to combat the impunity that exists for those who committed violent crimes during the dark years of the 1980s, as well as their death-squads today. Additionally, while other judicial reforms implemented under the guidance of USAID were the first of their kind to be seen in Honduras, structural flaws in recently implemented anti-crime programs such as the Mano Dura (hard fist) anti-gang campaign and the 2001 Police and Social Order Law, actually have encouraged police abuse and restrictions on freedom of association. In their support of judicial reform in Honduras, U.S. authorities have ignored numerous reports from human rights groups that, despite some recent improvements to the Honduran judicial system, extra-judicial killings of children have been on the rise since 1998.
In a recent interview with COHA, Mark Ungar, a Research Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, commented, “The combination of a vague law and the lack of accountability on the part of the police has led to the worsening of human rights situation [in Honduras].” Through his research on judicial reform in Honduras, Ungar has observed that while the new code is positive in its conception, the anti-gang laws have been harmful to the constitutional rights of citizens, and “give police too much leeway in its exercise of power-specifically to discriminate against youth.” He also pointed out that the provision of the new penal code that requires more evidence, makes it harder to obtain a conviction and leads police to take the application of punishment in their own hands, unchecked.
Although clearly not the intention of the new penal requirements, it is likely that these vitiating factors, coupled with poor training, the lack of professionalism and a surfeit of weapons in the country, have enabled police and private death squads (made up mostly of retired police officers committed to “social cleansing”) to detain and even summarily execute children based solely on the bases of having tattoos or being homeless. There are no current statistics available on the number of children murdered by police, but government officials speculate that 20 percent of the fatalities affecting minors in the past five years can be blamed on police or private security forces who conduct regular “street sweeps” looking for potential gang members, who largely consist of vagrant youth.
According to Amnesty International, between 2000 and 2002 there was an “unprecedented increase” of extra-judicial executions of children, with the number of murders rising by over 100 percent in these three years. This appalling trend has not ceased-between February and September of 2004 alone, 700 youths were murdered. Such “unprecedented” violence reflected in the increased killings of children, leaves USAID-supported reforms looking more than a little suspect.
“Zero-Tolerance” Policies Bankrupting Human Rights
The increase in the murders of youths can be partially attributed to the structure of the “Mano Dura” policy. Introduced in 2001, the anti-gang law was based on the “zero-tolerance” policy that helped New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani clean up the streets of the notoriously crime-ridden city. But less-publicized collateral results of Giuliani’s policy were racial profiling and an increase in illegal actions by police. In 1995, civilian complaints of police brutality rose by 61.9 percent. Furthermore, complaints of abuse of authority and illegal searches went up 86.2 and 135 percent, respectively. The fact that 75 percent of these complaints of New Yorkers came from ethnic minorities indicates a high level of racial profiling under “zero-tolerance” laws. However, these results were passed over when the “zero-tolerance” policy was implemented.
In 2001, Maduro told the Associated Press, “I saw how it worked in New York, and I liked how it worked.” In a later interview, he commented that the policy had helped his government to crack down on gang violence: “Instead of taking the long route of accumulating proof of types of crimes committed, we opted to make it illegal to belong to gangs.” But his critics say that Maduro’s policy actually has resulted in an increase of violence, although the government apparently could not care less about the population that it affects-homeless youth and gang members.
Furthermore, under the 2001 Police and Social Order Law, Honduran police are allowed to detain gang members and vagrants without a warrant. Largely as a result of arrests under this law, it is currently estimated that 90 percent of prison inmates have not been convicted of any crime. Forty percent of the inmates at the San Pedro Sula prison were arrested and detained as a result of Mano Dura gang laws, and in May, a fire in that structure killed 106 of them. The fire was allegedly set by prison guards in the cellblock in which Mara Salvatrucha gang members were housed, but after further investigation by a national commission and the FBI, nearly seven months later, there have been no convictions.
Human Rights Protectors Targeted
Upon his election, Maduro created the Inter-institutional Commission of Human Rights, the function of which was not so much to protect the citizens of Honduras from abuses, but to defend the state against embarrassing accusations of such abuses, particularly from international groups. Antagonism towards human rights groups was further demonstrated in the continual rejection of valid criticism by foreign organizations’ of several of the administration’s more controversies policies. In addition, Honduran human rights defenders and activists for indigenous causes within the country have been unfairly targeted by police and private civilian anti-crime operations.
On January 8, 2003, CONPINH (the Civic Council of Indigenous and Popular Organizations) activists Marcelino and Leonardo Miranda were arrested by National Police officers and armed civilians, tortured in front of relatives and forced to confess to unknown charges. They were later accused with illegal seizure of land, battery and the 2001 murder of Juan Reyes Gómez. In addition, Leonardo was charged with “attack against the State of Honduras.” Although all but the murder charges were eventually dropped, the brothers were sentenced to 25 years in prison on December 16, 2003. According to Amnesty International (AI), ten witnesses testified that the Miranda brothers were not present at the scene of the murder, but their statements were ignored, while the tales told by the prosecution’s witnesses were accepted in their entirety.
Even the fight to exonerate the Miranda brothers should be considered not without its dangers. In a report on the protection of human rights defenders released on November 18, 2004, A.I. expressed its continued concern for all activists in Honduras, and issued a finding that the Miranda brothers should be considered political prisoners because they did not receive a fair trial and were apparently arrested for political reasons. This case is just one example of the government’s determination to purge the country of those who insist on critiquing its human rights record.
Washington Turns a Blind Eye
Although judicial reform in Honduras initially resulted in decreased crime, the long-term effect has been an increase in overall violence. The new penal code may have strengthened the courts, but these putative improvements have done almost nothing to convict the murderers of hundreds if not several thousands of children, or identify those responsible for setting fire to the San Pedro Sula facility.
USAID support of judicial reforms in Honduras remains crucial, but such reform is counterproductive when it results in an increase of violence and police brutality. Experts say that new steps have to be taken in order to examine the root of the war on youth, but this will not happen if the government refuses to admit that there is anything wrong. Those who back the laws are responsible for assuring that the nature of the justice being doled out under their watch is both fair and deserved, and the U.S. must be prepared to criticize vigorously the current situation in Honduras in order to positively affect change. One can only hope that the $2,229,000 U.S. dollars provided by USAID for fiscal year 2005 towards judicial reform efforts there will be used for genuine community police training, and not for the further entrenchment of an already unaccountable law-and-order force, which is basically out of control.
A Call for Consistency in U.S. Policy
Criticizing Honduras for sponsoring the UN Human Rights commission finding that condemns the arrests of 75 Cuban dissidents (some were later released), Havana accused Tegucigalpa of giving in to U.S. pressures. The Castro régime also could have pointed out the Honduras itself has thousands of inmates crowding its prison system who have never been convicted of a crime, thus inviting comparison with Cuba. In not criticizing Honduras as vigorously as it does Cuba, the U.S. greatly weakens its claim that the condemnation of the Castro’s regime is solely due to the country’s poor human rights record. Political favoritism and double standards aside, Washington should take a step back to take in a panoramic view of Honduras in order to achieve a truly integrated and germane policy, if its criticisms of human rights practices elsewhere in Latin America are to be taken seriously.
Gena Goodman-Campbell is a Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.