Environment

Honduran Indigenous Leader, Berta Cáceres Assassinated

Berta Caceres 2015 Goldman Environmental Award Recipient
2015 Goldman Prize photo of Berta Cáceres in front of COPINH in La Esperanza, Intibucá, Honduras

Last night, assassins gunned down Honduran indigenous leader and environmental activist Berta Cáceres. Her family said that she had been receiving death threats for leading an ongoing struggle against a hydroelectric dams and defending the rights of indigenous communities.In 2015, Berta won the Goldman Prize for her work, and the InterAmerican Commission for Human rights had called on the Honduran government to protect her  in light of recent threats.

This afternoon, the Movement of Victims of Climate Change and Corporations (MOVIAC), of which Voices on the Border is a member, released the following statement:

The Assassination of our Compañera de la Lucha Berta Cáceres Fills Us with Profound Feelings of Sadness and Indignation

More than 100 communities in five countries in Mesoamerica organized as the Movement of Victims Affected by Climate Change and Corporations (MOVIAC), faced with the cowardly assassination of our compañera de la lucha and leader of the Lenca people declare:

Berta Cáceres was a tireless fighter in the defense of human rights of her people, as well as a prominent environmentalist that defended the land of indigenous communities against the voracity of corporations.

We have no doubt that this murder is part of a strategy of repression against environmental activists, carried out on a global scale and motivated by powerful transnational corporations and powerful economic interests in Honduras, that are accustomed to violating human rights and plundering the region with impunity.

Berta’s assassination is not an isolated event, rather one of many in the region. Activists in Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Panama, and Gatemala have been subject to brutal repression and killed for their legitimate struggle to defend their territory against aggressive mining, oil, energy companies, land speculators, and the like.

We declare from Mesoamerica we will be vigilant and demand that this cruel and cowardly murder does not go unpunished.

May Berta Cáceres’ example endure forever as an inexhaustible source of inspiration and indignation for all people, organizations and movements, and that her work serve as an example of the courage, commitment, and determination of struggle with marginalized people of the world.

BERTA CACERES, HASTA LA VICTORIA SIEMPRE

 

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agriculture, Economy, Equality, Food Security

More Neoliberal Economic Policies Will Not Stop Unaccompanied Minors From Seeking Refuge

DSCF0020March 2-3, Vice President Joe Biden was in Guatemala with leaders from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB). Their agenda was to “accelerate the implementation of the Plan for the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle (the Plan).” The meeting came just a month after Vice President Biden announced that the Obama Administration would ask Congress for $1 billion in aid for the region.

The purpose of the Alliance’s Plan, $1 billion fund, and the March meeting is to address the surge of unaccompanied minors leaving the Northern Triangle for the U.S. It’s an important goal. In FY2014, more than 60,000 youth were caught trying to enter the U.S. and government officials expect more than twice that in FY2015.

While the Plan arguably contains some constructive approaches towards decreasing violence, the emphasis is on implementing neoliberal economic policies. The proposal reads more like CAFTA-DR 2.0 or a World Bank structural adjustment plan, than an effort to stem the flow of emigration. The Northern Triangle and U.S. governments are proposing that foreign investment, more integrated economies, and free trade – and a gas pipeline – will provide the jobs and opportunities necessary to keep youth from seeking refuge in the U.S.

Income inequality and violence are the driving forces behind youth seeking refuge in the U.S., but its hard to imagine how more neoliberal economic policies, which many cite as the reason for inequality over the past 25 years, will do anything except ensure the region’s rich will remain so. A skeptic might even argue that the U.S. and Northern Triangle governments are using the “crisis” of violence and emigration in order to implement policies that further their own economic interests.

Increasing Foreign Investment and Investing in Our People

The Alliance Plan and other related documents emphasize that the solution to emigration, violence and inequality has to be economic – attracting foreign investment, unifying regional economies, increasing competitiveness in global markets, and training the workforce. The Plan, which was first published in September 2014, offers four Strategic Lines of Action. The first, and most detailed, is to stimulate the productive sector. The second is to develop opportunities for our people. Of the $1 billion grant from the U.S., $400 million will support these two lines of action.

Stimulating the productive sector means “attracting investment and promoting strategic sectors capable of stimulating growth and creating jobs… we will make more efficient use of our regional platform to reduce energy costs that stifle our industries and the national treasury, overcome infrastructural and logistical problems that curb growth and prevent better use of the regional market, and harmonize our quality standards to put them on par with what the global market requires.”

The Plan identifies four productive sectors: textiles, agro-industry, light manufacturing, and tourism, none of which are new to the Northern Triangle. Textile maquiladoras, sugarcane producers, factories, and tourism have exploited the region’s labor force and natural resources for years. They have created jobs, but ones in which workers are paid a sub-poverty minimum wage and endure a myriad of human rights abuses. Saskia Sassen wrote in 1998, and other since then report that so far the global economy has produced “a growing supply of poorly paid, semi-skilled or unskilled production jobs.” That has not changed in the past 17 years. When unions and workers try to negotiate better wages or working conditions, manufactures and investors simply leave. The environmental impacts of these sectors have been equally devastating, and will get exponentially worse if large-scale tourism, a gas-pipeline, and other industries are allowed to move forward.

While CAFTA-DR pretends to address labor and environment, and the “race to the bottom”, Northern Alliance governments provide detail about the concessions they will give to foreign investors. These include lower energy costs, infrastructure, and “harmonization” of standards, which some believe means an agreement on a very low bottom.

The U.S. and Northern Alliance countries have been implementing neo-liberal economic policies since the early 1990s; the same period that crime and gang violence began to proliferate. Privatization, dollarization, free trade agreements, maquiladoras, Millennium Challenge Corporation grants, Partnership for Growth, Public-Private Partnerships, and more have all been implemented over the past 25 years. The same period that crime and violence has skyrocketed.

As academics (good articles here and here) and campesino leaders in rural El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have articulated for years – globalization and neoliberal economic policies are the reason for the high rates of inequality that has resulted in the high levels of crime and violence, and lack of opportunities that have forced youth to flee. Poverty and inequality are nothing new in the Northern Triangle, but Globalization and neoliberalism is simply the latest tools the elite use to maintain and grow their wealth.

Just this week, El Faro published an article titled “The Neoliberal Trap: Violent Individuals or Violent Situations ” that is based on 2013 study in El Salvador. The authors found that communities that are more isolated from the global community and depend sustenance agriculture were less likely to experience social isolation, gangs, crime and violence. Communities that have a greater market mentality are more socially isolated and prone to crime. The article argues, “The neoliberal reconstruction has renewed and amplified the conditions of alienation. Meanwhile, some elites embrace neoliberal reconstruction as a means of assuring their position in the new “transnational capital class of global capitalism, while a large part of the population is left out and has to fend for themselves.”

Colette Hellenkamp drew a similar conclusion in her piece War and Peace in El Salvador. She concludes, “The wealthy few in [the El Salvador] do whatever is necessary to maintain their riches and quench their thirst for comfort and power. Their status and wealth will not be threatened as long as they ensure that the masses remain uneducated and in chaos.” The crime and violence in El Salvador has certainly caused such chaos that instead of opening small shops and providing services the region’s otherwise hard-working and industrious workforce is leaving en masse.

Academics also point out that proponents of neo-liberal ideologies believe their model is perfect – “everyone benefits, not just some, all.” Those that don’t are referred to as the “underserving poor or the underclass that demonstrate two characteristics – they are underserving and predisposed to unlawful behavior. Proponents argue that free market, neoliberalism is perfect and if people don’t benefit, its not the market’s fault, it’s because people are lazy and prone to violence.

The Northern Alliance Plan is to double down on the neoliberal policies that sustain the same economic inequalities they say they are want to correct. Bur more sub-poverty, minimum wages will only serve to further stratify the economic and social classes.

Albert Einstein said, “We can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.” But that’s what the Northern Triangle Plan seems to want to try and do.

Violence and Security

Instead of focusing on more neoliberal economic policies, the Plan must focus on putting an end to the high rates of crime and violence.

Analysts agree that most of the youth detained on the U.S. border were fleeing violence. A report published by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees found that 58% of the minors interviewed “were forcibly displaced because they suffered or faced harms that indicated a potential or actual need for international protection.” The report identified two sources of violence – “organized armed criminal actors and violence at home.” A report written by Fulbright Fellow Elizabeth Kennedy found, “59 percent of Salvadoran boys and 61 percent of Salvadoran girls list crime, gang threats, or violence as a reason for their emigration. Whereas males most feared assault or death for not joining gangs or interacting with corrupt government officials, females most feared rape or disappearance at the hands of the same groups.” Other reasons for leaving included the lack of economic opportunities and reunification with family members in the U.S. But of those youth, “most referenced crime and violence (the chaos) as the underlying motive for their decision to reunify with family now rather than two years in the past or two years in the future.”

The proposal for decreasing violence in the Northern Triangle is a mixed bag at best. The Plan wants to invest more money into the same heavy-handed, militarized, law enforcement policies that have been failing for 25 years. Alexander Main provides a good critic of these policies in his Truthout article, Will Biden’s Billion-Dollar Plan Help Central America.

But its not all bad. There are some proposals in the Plan that focus on alternative conflict resolution, safe schools, trustworthy community policing, modernizing the justice system, and giving civil society and churches a greater role in prevention and rehabilitation. There are also needed reforms for ensuring better governance and addressing organized crime. One of the more positive ideas is to “improve prison systems, including infrastructure based on prisoner risk profiles, the capacity of prison staffs, and rehabilitation programs, including those focused on juvenile offenders and their prison conditions.”

El Salvador has even proposed an ambitious $2 billion plan that proposes similarly progressive policies for ending violence at the national level. The plan “promises parks, sports facilities, education and training programs for the country’s 50 most violent municipalities, as well as improvements to the worst prisons where the country’s biggest gangs – Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS13) and Calle 18 – have proliferated over the past decade.”

If implemented, these projects could help decrease levels of crime and violence, and calming the chaos that helps maintain high levels of inequality. But if academics and campesino leaders are right, and globalization is the cause of the inequality, these positive steps are unlikely to have any lasting impact. The undeserving poor will still be limited to working sub-poverty wages and have little if any social and economic mobility.

If Not More Neoliberal Economic Policies…

Stemming the flow of emigration is a complex task, and the Northern Triangle and U.S. governments are right to consider a multi-faceted approach that aims to provide economic opportunities, end violence, and address other deficiencies.

Instead of more neoliberal economic policies, the Northern Triangle and U.S. governments, and the IADB should focus their plan on making the region safe from crime and violence. There are very smart, informed civil society leaders who have put forth some very reasonable proposals. The governments should do more to work with them to implement their ideas and proposals on a large scale. The plan articulates some of these ideas, but instead of taking second place to more neoliberalism, they should be at the heart of the proposal.

The solution should include creating economic opportunities, but that does not require foreign investors or selling out the region’s workforce and environment. Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Hondurans are known as hardworking and industrious. Instead of building infrastructure and providing incentives to multinational corporations, the governments should focus those investments on supporting and incentivizing local, small businesses. That does not mean small business loans, but it might mean making it more difficult for international corporations like Walmart to run all the mom-and-pop shops out of business. Family businesses do more than provide jobs; they build neighborhoods and social networks.

Instead of promoting agro-industry and exports, as proposed by the Plan and Partnership for Growth, governments should support communities in their efforts to promote food security and sovereignty. El Salvador’s family seed program, for example is an example of a relatively low cost government action that supports small family farmers that are trying to feed their family and contribute to their local economy. In 2013, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development called for a “rapid and significant shift from conventional, monoculture-based and high-external-input-dependent industrial production towards mosaics of sustainable, regenerative production systems that also considerably improve the productivity of small-scale farmers.”

There are solutions. The only question is motive and whether policy makers are really interested in addressing emigration, violence, and economic inequality, or using the chaos and “crises” as means to further their own economic interests. This month, President Sanchez Cerén and the Legislative Assembly declared March 26 as the National Day of Peace, Life and Justice – a day in which all Salvadorans will unite and demand an end to the violence and chaos. But even this simple idea of bringing people together was too much for the business class. ANEP (El Salvador’s Chamber of Commerce) came out against the Day of Peace, Life, and Justice, argues that celebrating a National Day of Peace would cost El Salvador $56 million in lost economic opportunities. ANEP representatives argue, “the suspension of just one day of work will cost Salvadorans more that 56 million dollars, and could result in the loss of contracts from export businesses, and thus the employment of workers.”

Their position could be one of pure practicality. More likely it is a true reflection of their priorities – money and profits over peace, life, and justice.

Voices Developments

Ciudad Segundo Montes Celebrates 24 Years

One the 18th of November, 1989, the 10,000 people living in the Colomoncagua refugee camp in Honduras began to repatriate to El Salvador (they repatriated in 4 different groups from November 1989 to March 1990). Upon their return, the majority settled in the municipalities of Meanguera and Jocoaitique in Northern Morazán, founding Ciudad Segundo Montes, inspired but the works of Father Segundo Montes, a Jesuit Priest who was assassinated just two days before their return. As late as August 1989, Segundo Montes had been in the camps working with the refugees to negotiate their repatriation, facilitating communication with the United Nations, and Salvadoran and Honduran military.

Last week the Ciudad Segundo Montes commemorated the 24th anniversary of their return. One of the most interesting activities was a conversation about Historical Memory and Youth, an event that allowed the adults to share with local youth their experiences in the refugee camps.

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Santos Chicas, one of the participants said, “many of us that today live in Segundo Montes, we are the children that appear in the videos and photos from the camps. [During the event, Voices staff showed a video clip from the return] Under the weight of military repression and poverty, our infancy was happy because it [the refugee camp] was a model of community life, without prejudice and discrimination of any type.” He added, “in the refugee camps we did not have drugs or liquor, nor mobile phones or Internet, nor continuous electricity, but we did not need these things to be happy.”

Betsy Shepard, a member of Voices’ Board of Directors, echoed Santo’s testimony when she recounted her trips to the refugee camps. “Colomoncagua did not fit the usual image of a grim refugee camp, rather it was seen as a model community in the middle of difficulties, and an example of a society that transformed from a group of illiterate campesinos to a community with new capabilities and the ability to confront the powerful in a creative way. These attributes of the community of refugees were key for their survival.

In actuality, after 24 years of hard work, the advances in the development of the community are visible, according to the majority of the population. The have the best library in all of the eastern region, the best high school in Morazán, and 20% of all youth have finished or are in the process of finishing their university degrees. There is no gang presence in the region and youth dedicate their free time to practice sports, or learn dance, theatre, painting or music. There are childcare facilities as well as community centers where older residents receive meals and other services.

When asked what factors made this level of community development possible,  Santos Chicas gave a very clear and firm response – “the life in the camps showed us the way.”

With the renewed interest in preserving the communities history, we at Voices have begun going through our archives. Poco a poco, we are digitizing the tens of thousands of documents, photographs, posters, and materials that we have from our work in the camps and the early years in Segundo Montes. During last week’s celebration, for example, we showed a video of the November 1989 repatriation that one of our early delegations shot (we’ll post that on the blog after we clean it up a little more). For now, here is a small sample of the thousands of slides  we are scanning in for our friends in Morazán. There is much more to come!!!

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Corruption, Organized Crime

50 kilos of Coke Decommissioned in Honduras

In recent years, El Faro has posted numerous articles and reports that document organized criminal activities, including drug trafficking, in El Salvador. A few days ago they published a detailed account of Istvan Zachary Sánchez and his August 2012 arrest in Honduras for transporting 50 kilograms of cocaine. The story indicates that Istvan is part of the Texis Cartel that operates out of Metapan and controls a trafficking route from Honduras, through El Salvador, and on to Guatemala.

While there are many unknowns about this case, it offers some details about how traffickers operate and how the authorities respond or fail to respond.

Instead of translating the whole El Faro article from Spanish – it’s pretty long – we thought it better to retell an abbreviated version. If you read Spanish and have the time, the original article is worth reading – here’s a link.

Police stopped Istvan while he was driving down a dirt road in rural Choluteca, Honduras, a province nestled between El Salvador to the west, Nicaragua to the east, and the Gulf of Fonseco to the south. When the police pulled him over they asked what he was doing so far off the main highway. He responded that he had been to the city of Choluteca to visit a girlfriend and was headed back to El Salvador. The police didn’t buy it because the Pan-American Highway would have been his most direct route.

They asked Istvan to step out of the 2005 Hyundai Terracan he was driving so they could search him and the car. At that point he handed the police officer an envelope with $600 (the equivalent to 1 ½ months salary for a Honduran police officer) and asked him to just let him get on his way. El Faro points out that there is a lot of corruption within the Honduran police department, but Istvan had the bad luck of getting pulled over by an officer who was not for sale.

They searched the Hyundai and found 50 kilos of cocaine wrapped in clear plastic and brown tape, and tucked into a hole between the trunk and chassis. The load was valued at $600,000 and $1.2 million. The police charged Istvan with trafficking and put him in the Choluteca jail. He has hired a private attorney and is supposed to have his first hearing before the end of October.

Salvadoran security officials had the Hyundai and license plate (P111-483) on their radar for a while. In April 2012 the Salvadoran Center for Police Intelligence drafted a three-page report in which both the car and the license plate were mentioned in relation to drug trafficking and money laundering, and members of the Texis Cartel, an organized crime network based out of Metapan and Texistepeque, Santa Ana. The report was part of a larger file that had been shared with the top levels of government including the Minister of Security and Justice. It discussed Roberto “El Burro” Herrera, José Adán Salazar (aka Chepe Diablo), and a series of vehicles and people used to transport money and drugs. In May 2011, El Faro published a series of reports/articles on the Texis Cartel – definitely worth a read if you haven’t seen them yet (here’s a link).

The April report says, “also, the vehicle license plate P111-483 has been observed in some transactions; the [Hyundai] was observed in agricultural fairs in which the subjects Burro Herrera and Chepe Diablo participated. The same plate was seen with other vehicles crossing the border at Poy [a border crossing near Metapan where the Texis Cartel is allegedly based].” This seems to directly tie the Hyundai that Istvan was driving and the 50 kilos back to the Texis Cartel in Santa Ana.

After the police arrested Istvan, Choluteca prosecutor Manuel Eduardo Díaz sent the case to the Honduran Office Against Organized Crime and Drug Trafficking, which is supposed to investigate drug trafficking. It’s not clear why, but the investigators sent the case back. Manuel Eduardo Díaz, however, decided to prosecute the case on his own. The situation got a little more complicated, and tragic, when last month assassins shot and killed him in downtown Choluteca. Police made arrests but deny any link between the murder and Istvan or the 50 kilos of cocaine.

Police on both sides of the El Salvador/Honduran border claim they are trying to figure out where the drugs were going, where they had come from, who Istvan was working with, and other questions. But so far the Salvadoran and Honduran authorities have yet to get too far or even discuss the case.

After the arrest, Salvadoran Police visited Istvan’s parents who live near the Cuscatlán stadium in San Salvador – he had listed their home as his permanent address. His family didn’t have any information, just a suitcase with some of his personal papers, which revealed that left for the US when he was 14. They also found that the US Drug Enforcement Agency had a file on him related to drug trafficking. Other documents indicated that Istvan had been incarcerated in the US but released in May 2009.

At the same time police were visiting with Istvan’s family in San Salvador they raided the home of Mario David Rodríguez Linares in San Miguel. In October 0211 he bought the 2005 Hyundai that Istvan had used. He sold it in May 2012 but didn’t register the sale with the Vehicle Registration Office so records indicate that he is still the owner. The search turned up a lot of sales records that have opened up the pool of suspects, but when investigators called Linares to come in to make a statement he never came. It still remains unclear how Istvan had possession of the car.

The April 2012 report ties the license plate on the Hyundai (no P111-483) to a business that helps traffick drugs north and money (from drug sales) south. The police have been watching a car lot in Santa Ana owned by Roberto Antonio Escobar Martínez. He allegedly hides money (millions of dollars) in shipments of cars that are headed for Costa Rica. The car lot is on the same block where earlier this year police arrested Jesús Sanabria (former councilman of Metapan) for trying to sell five kilos of cocaine. The report also says, “Roberto Antonio Escobar Martínez is linked criminally with Roberto Antonio Herrera Hernández, alias El Burro.”

Salvadoran prosecutors say they trying to connect all the pieces and identify how Istvan and his 50 kilos of cocaine fit into the drug trafficking/money laundering networks. Prosecutors investigating the case in El Salvador say they have solicited information from their counterparts in Honduras, but officials in Choluteca say that during the months that they’ve had Istvan no Salvadoran has reached out to them.

El Faro’s article is interesting because it provides a glimpse into the world of trafficking in El Salvador. We hear and read that drug trafficking and money laundering are big problems, but this story provides some insight into what this looks like. It demonstrates that trafficking can be as nondescript as a grey Hyundai driving down a back road.

The article also illustrates how hard it is to stop trafficking. Top ranking security officials in El Salvador have reports that detail who is trafficking, who is laundering money, and when and where shipments are arriving. They have details about the cars they use and the police even caught a guy with a 50-kilo shipment. But not much happens. Istvan got unlucky and got pulled over by a cop who wouldn’t take a bribe. But the Honduran agency that is supposed to take drug trafficking cases refused to investigate and the local prosecutor who was investigating was assassinated. The Salvadoran officials who are “investigating” on one side of the border haven’t even gone to interview Istvan or called to get information about his case.

Corruption, El Salvador Government

Three years of Resistence to the Coup in Honduras

This morning, activists gathered outside the Honduran Embassy in San Salvador to protest the third anniversary of the coup d’état that toppled the democratically elected government of Manuel Zelaya in Honduras. In the days, months, and now years since the coup, the Honduran government has violently repressed the resistance movement that opposed the coup, and other human rights activists. The protests in front of the Embassy will continue tomorrow, June 28th, the actual anniversary of the coup.

The 2009 coup’s aftershocks rippled throughout Latin American democracies and continue to influence countries such as El Salvador. Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes had been in office less than a month when the Honduran Military left Zelaya on a runway in Costa Rica. Rightwing extremists in El Salvador used the coup as an opportunity to warn Funes what would happen if he and the FMLN tried to exercise their new power in an extreme manner. Many of Funes’ actions over the past three years indicate that he took their message to heart.

This article will provide an overview of what happened three years ago and the constitutional crisis that led up to the coup. It will then discuss the international community’s response and arguably oversimplified accounting of what happened. The article then provides an overview of the human rights and social justice issues that have plagued Hondurans since the coup, and concludes with a brief discussion about how the coup continues to affect Salvadoran domestic policies.

Events 3 years Ago

On Monday June 29, 2009, the Wall Street Journal reported that early the day before Honduran soldiers surrounded the Presidential Palace and removed then President Zelaya from his room and flew him to Costa Rica. The article quotes Zelaya’s version of the events, which he shared with reporters while still in his pajamas standing at the airport.

“I was awakened by shots, and the yells of my guards, who resisted for about 20 minutes. I came out in my pajamas, I’m still in my pajamas… when [the soldiers] came in, they pointed their guns at me and told me they would shoot if I didn’t put down my cell phone.”

A recent NPR article quotes President Zelaya recalling the coup, “[t]he shooting started around 5:20 a.m. I went downstairs and there were about 250 masked soldiers around my house. All you could see was their eyes.” Speaking about his arrival in Costa Rica, he continued, “they took off, and there I was. The democratically elected President of Honduras, standing in my pajamas in the middle of a runway in Costa Rica.”

With President Zelaya ousted, the Honduran military took to the streets in Tegucigalpa to suppress opposition to the coup. A Foreign Policy in Focus article at the time reported that the police issued warrants for some of Zelaya’s cabinet members and other supporters, forcing them into hiding. The police and military broke up pro-Zelaya demonstrations, killing and injuring numerous people.

The Constitutional Crisis

The coup was organized by the Supreme Court and National Congress, which at the time issued a statement, “the military had acted to defend the law against those who had publicly spoken out and acted against the Constitution’s provisions.”

In the weeks and months before the coup, Honduras was embroiled in a constitutional crisis. President Zelaya had proposed that Hondurans reform their Constitution, which had been in place since 1982. President Zelaya wanted to include a referendum on the November 2009 presidential ballot to initiate the process. After getting pushback, he scheduled a non-binding referendum for June 29, 2009 to determine whether or not Hondurans wanted to have the referendum that November.

Opponents of the constitutional reforms accused President Zelaya of trying to amend the Constitution to allow him to serve a second term as President. In May 2009, Roberto Micheletti, the President of the Congress accused the President of treason pointing out that the Constitution prohibits changing constitutional term-limits by referendum pr plebiscite. The day before the coup, Al Jazeera quoted President Zelaya saying in a speech before Congress, “Congress cannot investigate me, much less remove me or stage a technical coup against me because I am honest, I’m a free president and nobody scares me.”

In a September 2009 interview with Time Magazine, Zelaya said the allegation that he was trying to change the presidential term limit was a “false pretext for a coup.” He explained the reason for reforming the constitution was “to better help the 70% of the population who live in poverty.”

In May 2009, the Attorney General of Honduras recommended that the judicial branch declare Zelaya’s referendum illegal, which it did. President Zelaya, however, went ahead with his plan and on May 29, 2009 ordered the military and police to provide logistical support for the referendum. The Supreme Court responded by ordering the military and police not to support Zelaya or the referendum, and they complied with the Court’s order. On June 24th President Zelaya fired the Military Joint Chief of Staff General Romeo Vasquez and the Defense Minister for their refusal to help with the referendum. The Supreme Court said the firing was illegal and ordered Zelaya to reinstate them, which he did not. The chiefs of the Honduran army, navy, and air force all resigned in protest.

According to Aljazeera, President Zelaya did not have the support of the military but labor leaders, farmers, and civic organizations agreed that the constitution needed to be reformed to improve the lives of the majority.

The referendum was scheduled for June 28th. Before the polls opened, however, the Military stormed the presidential palace, arrested Zelaya and flew him to Costa Rica, and confiscated the referendum materials. The Supreme Court said the Military had executed an arrest warrant they had issued for the President for his non-compliance with the judiciary’s ruling that the referendum was unconstitutional. Similarly, the National Congress passed a decree removing Zelaya from office and replacing him with Roberto Micheletti, who was the President of Congress and next in line to the Presidency. Micheletti served out the remainder of Zelaya’s presidency, which ended on January 27, 2010.

A Gallop poll taken in early July found that 46% of Hondurans opposed the coup while 41% thought it was justified.

The International Response to the Coup

The international community immediately condemned the coup. A Foreign Policy in Focus article at the time reported, “the international reaction was swift and surprisingly united.” A Congressional Research Service report said the United States, European Union, and United Nations condemned the coup and called for Zelaya’s immediate return. “Countries throughout Latin America and Europe withdrew their ambassadors… isolating the de facto regime.” The day of the coup, the Organization of American States issued a statement condemning the coup and calling for the unconditional return of President Zelaya to his constitutional duties.

In 2011, a truth commission concluded what most had been arguing from day one – the coup was illegal. Recognizing that both President Zelaya and the Honduran Congress were responsible for the events that led up to the coup, the commission concluded that Honduras did not have clear procedures to resolve power conflicts, and that the Congress and Supreme Court had overreached their power by ordering his arrest and forcing him into exile. Even if President Zelaya had broken the law, there were other processes in place to check his power. Artile 102 of the Constitution, however, says that authorities may not expropriate any Honduran to another country. But that’s what the military did – they arrested him and dropped him off in Costa Rica, and refused him re-entry.

Though U.S. officials condemned the coup, many in the international community thought the response was insufficient. The day after the coup, The New York Times wrote on July 29, 2009,

“President Obama on Monday strongly condemned the ouster of Honduras’ president as an illegal coup that set a ‘terrible precedent’ for the region,’ as the country’s government defied international calls to return the toppled president to power and clashed with thousands of protesters.

“’We do not want to go back to a dark past,’ Mr. Obama said, in which military coups override elections. ‘We always want to stand with democracy,’ he added.”

In the days and weeks after the coup, the U.S. cut off aid to Honduras and revoked the visas of Honduran officials involved in the coup. But that hasn’t stopped many from accusing the U.S. government of supporting the coup. One Guardian editorial asked, “does the U.S. back the Honduran coup?” while calling President Obama’s statements following the coup “weak and non-committal.” The article compares Obama’s measured response to stronger statements made by Lula de Silva, then President of Brasil, and Cristina Fernandez of Argentina, both of which denounced the coup and called for Zelaya’s return. The U.S. received even more criticism over the past couple of years as they helped Honduras re-enter the OAS.

Similarly, a North American Congress of Latin America (NACLA) article criticized the U.S. media for its “pro-coup bias, inaccuracies, and incomplete coverage.” The NACLA article criticized coverage for incorrectly reporting that Zelaya had been trying to reform the constitution so that he could run for a second term. They also disputed reports by the Wall Street Journal and other publications that a plurality in Honduras supported the coup, when the Gallop poll found the opposite – that 48% opposed the coup and 41% supported it. The NACLA article also alleges that the media under-reported opposition of the coup by members of the U.S. Congress, while giving Congressional support for the coup significant coverage. Finally, the article raises the important point that the U.S. media has failed to cover the human rights abuses and repression under the coup.

NACLA’s point that Zelaya was not trying to run for a second term and that the U.S. media presented a very pro-coup bias is echoed in an August 2009 Foreign Policy in Focus article. The authors summarize,

“the story most U.S. readers are getting about the coup is that Zelaya – an ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez – was deposed because he tried to change the constitution to keep himself in power.”

The article then says this presentation of the coup is “a massive distortion of the facts,” and that

“all Zelaya was trying to do is to put a non-binding referendum on the ballot calling for a constitutional convention, a move that trade unions, indigenous groups, and social activist organizations had long been lobbying for.”

Human Rights and Repression in Post-coup

Repression and human rights abuses against those who opposed the coup and otherwise advocate for social justice have become dramatically worse over the past three years. In July 2009 Amnesty International sent a delegation to investigate reports that the Honduran security forces were aggressively repressing those who opposed the coup. They found that an

“increasingly disproportionate and excessive use of force being used by the police and military to repress legitimate and peaceful protests across the country. Female protesters are particularly vulnerable and some women and girls taking part in the demonstrations are reportedly suffering gender-based violence and abuse at the hands of police officers. At least two protesters have died as a result of gunshot wounds.”

In August 2009, Ester Major from Amnesty International said,

“We’re seeing a deterioration in the whole respect for human rights on the whole situation in Honduras right now. People cannot count on having their rights protected if they go out on the streets. The police are sending a message, and the de facto government are sending a message to people, saying, “If you come out on the streets and peacefully demonstrate, this is what happens. We will arbitrarily detain you. We will beat you.” This is the signal they’re sending out.”

On the one-year anniversary of the coup, Gerardo Torres, who is an independent journalist and member of the National Front of Popular Resistance in Honduras, told Democracy Now “the repression is getting harder.” In May 2011, almost two years after the coup, the Committee of Families of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras reported, “a dramatic increase in the ongoing violent repression of human rights in Honduras.”

In May 2011, Jesse Freeston produced a series of video reports that detail numerous aspects of the government repression of the growing opposition movement. The four-part video series is worth watching and can be found on the Upsidedownworld.org site. The videos detail abuses against rural populations who are advocating for access to land, attacks on teachers unions, and more.

Several people who opposed the coup were forced to flee Honduras and live in other Central American countries. They live in countries such as El Salvador where they are unable to receive refugee status, study, or get jobs.

Similarly, human rights activists report that since the coup an estimated 24 journalists have been killed.  Alfredo Villatoro, for example, was a radio reporter who as abducted and murdered in May 2012. His death came days after the assassination of journalist and gay rights campaigner Erick Martinez.

These political murders and human rights abuses are part of a general trend in Honduras since the coup. In 2009, Honduras’ murder rate was 46 per 100,000 – third highest in the world. In just two years, Honduras became the most violent country in the world, registering over 80 murders per 100,000 people. During that time, drug trafficking and organized crime have flourished, making security the number one issue. Just last month, the Honduran police and U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency in helicopters killed four people, including two pregnant women and a 14-year girl, and injured four others when they fired upon a boat that was taking them to their rural community. The massacre is just the latest example of the violence and insecurity that has swept through Honduras over the past three years.

The Honduran Coup and El Salvador

A few weeks before the military ousted President Zelaya in Honduras, Mauricio Funes was sworn in as President of El Salvador – the first leftist administration to control the executive branch. Military leaders and conservative power brokers use the coup to warn the new administration that they would not tolerate extremist actions.

A NACLA article published in 2009 identifies several military leaders who justified the Honduran coup, arguing that the military did what it needed to do to uphold the constitution, and that similar actions would be justifiable in El Salvador. Former general Mauricio Ernesto Vargas went as far to say that if President Funes were to repeal the amnesty for military officials, he would face an uprising (Benjamín Cuélla, The Honduran Coup: View From El Salvador, NACLA Report on the Americas, p. 38-43, Nov/Dec 2009).

President Funes seems to have heeded their warning, and many of his more extreme actions have erred towards supporting more right-wing positions. And pacifying the Military seems to have been a top priority. Early in his presidency, Funes integrated the military into his security plan, allowing them to patrol “gang-controlled neighborhoods” and previously unmanned border crossings. In January 2012, President Funes went so far as to appoint former military leaders to top positions within the National Police and Ministry of Defense.

Funes even generated his own constitutional crisis last year by signing a law that would have crippled that Constitutional Court. Though the real reason for his going after the Constitutional Court remains somewhat unclear, Funes seems to have been trying to prevent the more progressive judges from striking down the amnesty law that protects former military leaders from being charged for crimes committed during the civil war.

Over the past 20 years, most Latin American countries, including Honduras and El Salvador, have at least tried to maintain a democratic façade, electing presidents and congressional leaders, and functioning under a constitution. Every once in a while events like the Honduran coup, and the more recent coup in Paraguay, demonstrate how thin these facades can be. Funes seems to have understood this well. Though his efforts to keep the military busy and happy have been unpopular, it may ensure that his presidency doesn’t end on a runway in Costa Rica. 

Corruption, El Salvador Government, International Relations, Mauricio Funes, Organized Crime, Partnership for Growth

Decriminalization and the Impact of Drug Trafficking in Central America

Decriminalization, or legalization, of drugs in Central America is a hot topic in El Salvador and Guatemala right now. Last Friday, Inside Story Americas, an Al-Jazeera news program, ran a program on the effects of drug trafficking on Central America, touching on the pros/cons of decriminalization.

The program was in response to comments made last week by Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina, who said he would be open to decriminalizing drugs in an effort to address Guatemala’s security issues. The comments came after a meeting with Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes who also said he is also open to the idea. President Funes stated,

“Our government is open to discussion on any proposal or measure which achieves a reduction in the high levels of consumption in our countries, but particularly (to reduce) the production and trafficking of drugs. As long as the United States does not make any effort to reduce the high levels of (narcotics) consumption, there’s very little we can do in our countries to fight against the cartels, and try to block the production and trade in drugs.”

After returning to El Salvador from his meeting with President Perez Molina, President Funes backtracked a bit, saying that he does not favor decriminalizing drugs.

Saving the discussion about the pros and cons of decriminalization or legalization for another blog post, an interesting point of these recent conversations is the growing emphasis on the failure of the U.S. to curb its demand for drugs. Al Jazeera cited a recent government report that found that 22.6 million Americans used illicit drugs in 2010, nearly 9% of the population. While the number of users dropped from 2.4 million in 2006 to 1.5 million in 2010, the U.S. remains the largest consumer of cocaine in the world.

The Inside Story panelists said the heads of state in Central America, and even Mexico and Colombia who have talked about decriminalization, may be discussing decriminalization in order to pressure the U.S. into taking more actions to decrease demand. Experts from around the world agree that the “war on drugs,” as it has been fought over the past 40 years, has failed. Even President Obama has acknowledged that the U.S. needs to address the demand issue, and treat the issue as a public health problem.

U.S. policies have yet to change, though. In 2011, the National Drug Control Strategy had a budget of $15.5 billion, and the expenditures were roughly the same as in previous years. Approximately 1/3 ($5.6 billion) of the federal budget for the war on drugs was allocated for treatment and prevention – an increase of $0.2 billion from the 2010 budget. The remaining $9.9 billion was allocated for law enforcement, interdiction, and international support, the same as previous years.

In addition to the well-documented affects on Mexico and South America, the U.S. demand for illicit drugs produced in South America and trafficked through Central America and Mexico have very real consequences in Salvadoran communities.

El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala now comprise the most violent region in the world. While police officials blame 90% of the murders on local youth gangs, other government agencies, recently demoted police officials, and civil society organizations believe the violence is the result of international organized criminals who are trafficking drugs, guns, people, and laundering money. They estimate that only 10-20% of El Salvador’s murders are attributable to local gangs. The high murder rates have resulted in such insecurity in El Salvador that the U.S. aid program, Partnership for Growth, indentified it as one of the country’s two primary barriers to economic growth.

Traffickers use border communities, coastal villages, and other regions to move shipments from South American producers to North American markets. But they don’t just use these communities quietly – they often take them over, corrupting local government and police officials, making sure that local citizens and law enforcement do not interfere with their activities.

Along the coast, traffickers use small villages, ports and tourist destinations to refuel the small boats they use to transport drug shipments by sea. They also use these villages to transfer shipments that arrive by boat to cars and trucks, which then continue the journey north via land routes. Traffickers use communities along El Salvador’s borders with Honduras and Guatemala to move shipments without interference from border agents.

The cartels control these towns by putting local government and police officials on their payrolls. In turn these officials arrange for locals to move and provide security for shipments, and make sure that law enforcement agencies do not interfere. The local government and police officials maintain a culture of lawlessness that prevents political opposition and limits civil society.

One of the best examples of how traffickers work in El Salvador is the Texis Cartel, which was exposed in a report put together by El Faro in May 2011 and a companion video produced by the Washington Office on Latin America. The Texis Cartel ran a land route that trafficked drugs and other contraband from Honduras through northern El Salvador and on to Guatemala.

While it remains unclear how decriminalization or legalization would affect Central American communities, experts and even President Obama agree that the long-term solution must include a decrease demand in the U.S. Unfortunately, U.S. officials have yet to shift their priorities, forcing Central and South American governments to discuss other options. And until the U.S. can kick its cocaine problem, the violence will continue and the cartels will continue to control communities throughout the Americas.

U.S. Relations, violence

Peace Corps Pulling Out of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras

The Washington Post reported yesterday that the US Government is suspending training for new Peace Crops volunteers in Guatemala and El Salvador while they “reassess security concerns.” The volunteers currently in place will remain and Peace Corps officials report that they are all safe and accounted for.

A new group of volunteers was to arrive in January 2012, but their training has been cancelled and they are being reassigned to other countries.

The BBC is reporting that the Peace Corps is completely putting out of Honduras, bringing all 158 current volunteers home in January.

According to the Peace Corps website, there are currently 122 Peace Corps volunteers in El Salvador and over 2,186 have served in El Salvador since 1962. Volunteers work in areas of community organization and economic development, rural health and sanitation, sustainable agriculture, agro-forest and environmental education, and youth development.

The reason for the withdrawal is security. The New York Times quoted Kristina Edmunson, a Peace Corps spokeswoman in Washington, who said the move stemmed from “comprehensive safety and security concerns” rather than any specific threat or incident. The Times article, stated, however, that Peace Corps Journals, an online portal for blogs by Peace Corps volunteers, has an entry referring to a volunteer who was shot in the leg during an armed robbery on a bus.

Central America has become the most violent region in the world, and Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala have recently posted the highest murder rates in the world. Part of the reason for the uptick in violence is the increased presence of international organized criminal networks that are trafficking drugs from South American producers to North American markets.