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Honduras: Our Continuing Catastrophe




According to Honduras’ Committee of Families of Disappeared Prisoners (COFADEH), at least 34 opposition politicians and more than 300 others have been killed since the military coup in June 2009 which removed the elected president Manuel Zelaya. 43 peasants in the Aguán Valley have died at the hands of police, military and the security guards of millionaire land-owner Miguel Facussé.

Honduras has become a human rights disaster. The country now has the world’s highest murder rate. And impunity for political violence is the norm.

For all this, the United States deserves a good deal of the blame.

I was pleased to see the New York Times recently publish a hard-hitting op-ed by Dana Frank that makes this case. Lest anyone in this country think that things in Honduras have settled into a peaceable, post-coup normality, Frank describes the post-June 2009 chain of events—a coup that the United States didn’t stop, a fraudulent election that it accepted—[that] has now allowed corruption to mushroom.

The judicial system hardly functions. Impunity reigns.

At least 34 members of the opposition have disappeared or been killed, and more than 300 people have been killed by state security forces since the coup, according to the leading human rights organization Cofadeh. At least 13 journalists have been killed since [President Porfirio] Lobo took office, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The police in Tegucigalpa, the capital, are believed to have killed the son of Julieta Castellanos, the rector of the country’s biggest university, along with a friend of his, on Oct. 22, 2011. Top police officials quickly admitted their suspects were police officers, but failed to immediately detain them. When prominent figures came forward to charge that the police are riddled with death squads and drug traffickers, the most famous accuser was a former police commissioner, Alfredo Landaverde. He was assassinated on Dec. 7. Only now has the government begun to make significant arrests of police officers.

State-sponsored repression continues. According to Cofadeh, at least 43 campesino activists participating in land struggles in the Aguán Valley have been killed in the past two and a half years at the hands of the police, the military and the private security army of Miguel Facussé. Mr. Facussé is mentioned in United States Embassy cables made public by WikiLeaks as the richest man in the country, a big supporter of the post-coup regime and owner of land used to transfer cocaine.

This past Tuesday, a comical response to Frank’s piece appeared at Foreign Policy, written by former Bush administration official José Cárdenas. It was humorous in that it included an understated disclaimer at the end. Cárdenas wrote, “Full disclosure: In July 2009, I helped to advise a Honduran business delegation that came to Washington during their presidential crisis to defend Manuel Zelaya’s removal from power.”

Not surprisingly, given his qualifications, Cárdenas frames Honduras’s current problems as solely the product of drug trafficking, and he encourages the United States to recognize that “Honduras’s war on drugs is ours too.”

Frank did a good job preemptively responding to this notion. She wrote, “Much of the press in the United States has attributed this violence solely to drug trafficking and gangs. But the coup was what threw open the doors to a huge increase in drug trafficking and violence, and it unleashed a continuing wave of state-sponsored repression.”

Backing up Frank’s point, Human Rights Watch notes in its World Report 2012: Honduras that the country failed in 2011 to hold accountable those responsible for human rights violations under the de facto government that took power after the 2009 military coup….Violence and threats against journalists, human rights defenders, political activists, and transgender people continued. Those responsible for these abuses are rarely held to account.

Whether or not you recognize political violence as part of the problem (Cárdenas neglects to mention it) goes far in determining your view of appropriate policy remedies. Cárdenas recommends working closely with the Honduran government and supporting its military with continued aid. Frank, in contrast, quotes the rector whose son was murdered: “Stop feeding the beast,” Julieta Castellanos says. “She, like other human rights advocates, insists that the Lobo government cannot reform itself,” Frank adds.

Cárdenas complains that Lobo is not a strong enough anti-drug leader. Yet, in a final sad statement, he reveals that his model of an appropriately serious drug warrior is Colombia’s former president Álvaro Uribe. Of course, Colombia is an excellent case of a country in which political violence and the drug trade have long gone hand in hand. On that topic, Human Rights Watch’s Daniel Wilkinson, writing in the New York Review of Books, offers a recommended read on the not-pretty connections between Uribe and narco-trafficking paramilitaries. Armed right-wing groups, Wilkinson reports, continue to kill trade unionists and, increasingly, leaders of displaced communities seeking to reclaim their lands. These groups no longer present themselves as a national counterinsurgency movement, but they do continue to traffic illegal drugs and terrorize civilians the way the AUC [the paramilitary group that Uribe’s government ostensibly disbanded] once did. They are the legacy of Uribe’s approach to “justice and peace.”

If this is the model for Honduras, the country is sure to remain a Washington-abetted human rights catastrophe for a long time to come.

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