Nearly a decade ago, a keen observer of Honduras produced a damning analysis of the country. “In a very real sense, Honduras is a captured state,” he began. “Elite manipulation of the public sector, particularly the weak legal system, has turned it into a tool to protect the powerful,” and “voters choose mainly between the two major entrenched political parties, both beholden to the interests of individuals from the same economic elite.” The situation required a “strategy that will give people the means to influence public policy,” the report concluded.
Its author was James Williard, the U.S. chargé d’affaires in Honduras in 2005. In the following years, Manuel Zelaya, the Honduran president from 2006-2009, formulated a strategy like the one Williard mentioned. The country’s rulers reacted by toppling Zelaya in June 2009, manipulating the feeble legal system to justify his overthrow. Washington feigned outrage, but then recognized the marred November 2009 national election, its 2013 follow-up—and heaped supplies on the military. About “half of all U.S. arms exports for the entire Western Hemisphere” went to Honduras in 2011, Martha Mendoza disclosed, referring to the $1.3 billion in military electronics that “neither the State Department nor the Pentagon” would explain.
Zelaya had planned to conduct a poll the day of the coup, to see whether the public desired a referendum on constitutional reform that November. “Critics said it was part of an illegal attempt by Mr. Zelaya to defy the Constitution’s limit of a single four-year term for the president,” New York Times reporter Elisabeth Malkin wrote immediately after the ouster.
That was the official line. But U.S. Ambassador Hugo Llorens had a different take. “The fact is we have no hard intelligence suggesting any consideration”—let alone effort—“by Zelaya or any members of his government to usurp democracy and suspend constitutional rule,” he wrote five days before the coup. Zelaya’s “public support” then was somewhere “in the 55 percent range,” with the poll’s as high as 75%. These figures signaled the nightmare. “Zelaya and his allies advocate radical reform of the political system and replacement of ‘representative democracy’ with a ‘participatory’ version modeled on President Correa’s model in Ecuador,” Llorens panicked.
He need not have. Repression crushed the hope of reform, and today’s Honduras recalls its 1980s death-squad heyday. The Constitution Zelaya allegedly violated dates from that era, and “contained perverse elements such as military autonomy from civilian control,” Michelle M. Taylor-Robinson explains, adding that “during the 1980s the military chief negotiated defense policy directly with the U.S. government and then informed the Honduran president of what was decided.”
General Gustavo Álvarez Martínez helmed the army until 1984. “Trained in Argentina, as he rose to power he openly declared to U.S. Ambassador Binns that he admired the Argentine methods used during the murderous Dirty Wars there and planned to use the same techniques in Honduras,” Jennifer Harbury notes. Álvarez wasn’t kidding. He proceeded to form Battalion 316, whose members the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies trained. One of its targets was union leader German Pérez Alemán. Battalion hit men forced him into a car on a busy street near Tegucigalpa’s airport, then killed him with torture. Journalist Oscar Reyes was another victim. “He was strung up naked and beaten ‘like a piñata,’” Harbury writes, while his wife, Gloria, “was given electrical shocks to the genitals that damaged her internal organs.”
Reagan dealt with Álvarez by awarding him the Legion of Merit in 1983. Now a new generation continues the Battalion’s work. “In the ’80s we had armed forces that were excessively empowered. Today Honduras is extremely similar,” activist Bertha Oliva stated, emphasizing that “the presence of the U.S. in the country was extremely significant” then, and is now. “Military personnel now control state institutions that in the 1990s were taken from them,” added Héctor Becerra, Director of the Honduran Committee for Free Expression.
One example is the Public Order Military Police (PMOP, in Spanish), first deployed weeks before the 2013 election. That October 10, it “raided the home of Marco Antonio Rodriguez, Vice President of SITRAPANI (National Child Welfare Agency Workers’ Union),” then “broke down the doors” of seasoned activist Edwin Robelo Espinal’s home a few weeks later, human rights group PROAH reported. Several legislators opposed the law creating the PMOP. A top Honduran human rights official declared it unconstitutional. But not only was its champion, ex-Congressman Juan Orlando Hernández, allowed to retain his position—he’s now president.
And “since taking office in January 2014 [he] has presided over several deployments of soldiers and expanded the PMOP,” the Security Assistance Monitor points out. PROAH reviews some case studies in citizen security, like one “where the police have been complicit in the kidnapping and torture of two fishermen, and another where soldiers were directly responsible for the torture of two miners.” A former police agent, in a sworn statement, described other experiments in sadism “that implicate top level commanders of the national security forces,” according to TeleSUR. A “woman was taken to a security house in the exclusive Trejo neighborhood, interrogated for 48 hours, hanged and disappeared,” for example. The agent also recounted how his team had abducted three gang members, who “were tortured and killed. They were then decapitated and their bodies appeared in different parts of the city. A different head was placed on each body to make it more difficult to identify the person killed.”
International policy expert Alexander Main writes that U.S. support for Honduran militarization has been not only “tacit”—seen in “the steady increase of U.S. assistance to national armed forces” since the coup—but also “direct.” A DEA Foreign-deployed Advisory Support Team (FAST), for example, “set up camp in Honduras to train a local counternarcotics police unit” from 2011-2012. U.S. and Colombian Special Forces later instructed “a new ‘elite’ police unit called the Intelligence Troop and Special Security Group” (TIGRES, in Spanish). When $1.3 million vanished in a drug raid last year, evidence emerged implicating dozens of TIGRES members. It seems the training paid off.
We can say the same of U.S. efforts to shape Honduran society. The “military simply did not exist in any institutionalized form” there for much of the 20th century, Kirk Bowman observes. This situation changed after the U.S. and Honduran governments signed a Bilateral Treaty of Military Assistance in May 1954. We see the outcomes today. The journalists gunned down by passing assassins, the poor farmers stalked and murdered for defending their land—this is as much a part of Obama’s Latin America legacy as his celebrated Cuba thaw.
Nick Alexandrov lives in Washington, DC. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.