By W. T. Whitney Jr.
May 25, 2014
Violence has mounted in Honduras since Juan Orlando Hernández became president on January 27, 2014. U.S. media has generally paid little attention even though – or because – Honduras is a U.S. ally.
On May 4, murderers hit a human rights activist and community leader in San Pedro Sula. On May 12 gunfire wounded a Tegucigalpa councilman who was an opposition activist. The next day armed men killed an agrarian rights activist in Baja Aguan. On May 16, someone shot and killed the popular mayor of Iriona. On May 22 in La Ceiba shots from a passing vehicle killed a taxi driver and two passengers, one a prison guard. Assailants there that day killed a forestry engineer who had reported illegal logging. On May 28 in Copán department, a radio journalist and human rights defender was killed.On May 10, heavily armed men broke into the house in Yoro Department where eight Cuban doctors on a solidarity mission were living. The intruders handcuffed, beat and threatened to kill the physicians.
Honduras has the world’s highest murder rate. It’s a transfer point for drugs heading north. The poverty rate is 60 percent. Social turmoil and violence have been endemic since June 28, 2009 when President Jose Manuel Zelaya was deposed at gunpoint, with U.S. connivance. U.S. ambassador Hugo Lorens knew about preparations. U.S. military and intelligence operatives allegedly communicated with perpetrators beforehand.The plane taking Zelaya to exile in Costa Rica stopped en route at the U.S. Palmerola Air Base.
The National Front for Popular Resistance (FNRP), formed after the coup, resisted the illegal government that followed. FNRP’s new LIBRE political party represents an alternative to the National and Liberal Parties serving the wealthy few. Mildly socialist in orientation, Libre had campaigned for a constituent assembly and social justice. Its presidential candidate Xiomara Castro led in the polls prior to voting in November, 2013. Yet National Party candidate Hernández won by eight percentage points in an election widely regarded as fraudulent.. Killers eliminated 17 LIBRE activists prior to the election.
On May 14 the National Party president of Honduras’ Congress used police to expel all 37 Libre Party congressional deputies. Their sin was to have introduced discussion of agrarian reform, anti-corruption proposals, and the previous government’s model cities – privately governed havens for multi-national corporations. Security forces used tear gas, pepper spray, and batons against both members and their supporters. Television showed police carrying away ex-President Zelaya, now head of the Libre Party’s parliamentary bench.
The incident was as nothing compared with violent turmoil elsewhere. According to a police whistleblower, “Summary executions have increased [while] public security is being totally militarized and the military now controls several institutions civilians should direct.” She diagnosed “a blank check for repression of the political and social opposition, criminalization and prosecution of protest, and violation of human rights.”
Children are vulnerable. The Casa Alianza children’s rights group reported that between January 1 and March 30, 270 persons less than 23 years of age were murdered. That group’s director José Guadalupe Ruelas declared on television on May 5 that, “one million Honduran children are not in school, 330,000 child laborers are being exploited, and every year 8000 children leave the country without an adult, fleeing violence.” Children involved in criminal activities instigated by adults are being “massacred” by heavily armed police, soldiers, and paramilitaries. On May 9, “military police … savagely beat” and detained Ruelas.
Agrarian rights activists are at risk, especially in Baja Aguan where African palm plantations are concentrated and palm oil is processed for export. On May 21, 315 soldiers and police and 40 private security operatives moved into the Trinidad and El Despertar plantations to expel small farmer families. They wounded two occupiers and arrested 14.
For over five years, small farmers have occupied tracts throughout Baja Aguan controlled by a agribusiness impresarios, notably Dinant Corporation owner Miguel Facussé. Between January, 2010 and July 2013, public and private security forces killed 102 small farmers. They were seeking rights to land made available through legislation in the 1980’s and regulations President Zelaya introduced in 2009 before the coup. Zelaya had sought to modify 1992 legislation enabling wealthy Hondurans to take over tracts subject to land reform.
Opinion shapers are under the gun. In a recent report, the Committee for Free Expression indicated that 173 journalists, teachers, judicial personnel, and human rights advocates were assaulted in 2013; 11 were murdered. State security forces carried out half the attacks. Between January 2010 and July 2013, 36 journalists or “social communicators” were killed.
The U.S government has a hand in Honduran affairs. A report from 2013 cites $163 million in U.S. funding over three years for military and police forces in Honduras, ostensibly for drug war purposes. The U.S. military operates three new naval bases; its Palmerola Air Basesupports long distance flights.
A letter in May from Representative Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) to Secretary of State John Kerry takes for granted U.S. influence in Honduras. Signed by 108 U.S. congresspersons, the letter urged the “State Department to use its leverage to urge the Honduran government to protect the fundamental human rights of its citizens, end the use of military forces for law enforcement, investigate and prosecute abuses.” Raising the possibility of complicity with human rights abuses, the letter asked “that you fully enforce the Leahy Law, which prohibits assistance to individuals or units of any foreign military or police body that commit gross human rights abuses with impunity.”
In a challenge to civilian overseers, the U.S. Southern Command, responsible for U.S. military involvement in Honduras, evades that legal requirement. Testifying before a congressional committee on April 29, Southern Command head General John Kelly indicated that U.S. law, particularly the Leahy Law, may at times be inconvenient and for that reason Colombian soldiers are used as stand-ins for U.S. military collaborators in the region. “When we ask them to go somewhere else and train the Mexicans, the Hondurans, the Guatemalans, the Panamanians, they will do it almost without asking … It’s important for them to go,” he explained, “because I’m – at least on the military side – restricted from working with some of these countries because of limitations … based on past sins. And I’ll let it go at that.”
General Kelly may have been thinking of the new “TIGRES” militarized police formation that President Hernández established for “direct combat with transnational organized crime.” U.S. military advisors collaborated with Colombia’s “Jungle School” (Escuela de Selva) to train TIGRES recruits.