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  Number 180 | Julio 1996
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Honduras

The Middle Classes: Violent and Organized

Ramiro Martínez and Ricardo Falla

In other countries the stereotypical view that Honduras, just like the aircraft carriers used for US intervention in Central America, is insignificant and passive, with no defined personality. The image is even more pronounced when Honduras is held up to its revolutionary neighbors, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala.

Careful examination shows that this image is false. There is a vigorous cultural dynamism (using culture in its broadest sense) and a force--today centered in the country's middle sectors--that is moving the nation towards radical changes. We don't know when it will end, and for now we're only getting spattering with its blood.

Family Massacres

In April and May, family massacres were the typical example of a new mode of violence. We are writing at a moment when the stupor, fear and desolation that death leaves in its wake still clouds the atmosphere of Buenos Aires, a small village near El Progreso-- the fourth largest city in Honduras. In this village nestled on the slopes of the mountains lining the Sula Valley on Honduras' northern coast, a terrible massacre took the lives of seven people from one single family at the end of May.

It was not an exceptional cases. Two other massacres occurred recently, crimes that could aptly be termed genocide because small children were involved and whole families were on the verge of disappearing. The first, at the end of March, was reported in the village of Yaruca, near La Ceiba, in which six deaths were reported. The second was in another village near Comayagua at the end of April, where seven people were killed.

In these kinds of crimes, the assassins are equipped with war weapons and operate in organized groups of up to 10 people. They move around in pick?up trucks with smoked glass and work at the behest of their intellectual authors--who are medium?size producers, cattle ranchers or merchants, or heads of car?theft rings and probably, though this is still not entirely clear, of drug trafficking rings as well. The massacres have all taken place in small rural villages near important cities.

New and Old Frameworks

Traditionally, massacres have been carried out as vendettas with the goal of resolving disputes over economic and political control in a given municipality. These well?known vendettas, always linked to one of the two traditional Honduran political parties, have sometimes reached notorious heights. One example is the confrontation between two cattle?ranching and coffee? growing families in Olancho: the Turcios and Najera families. After causing more than 40 deaths over a 10?year period, these families recently signed a peace accord in the presence of political, military and religious authorities from the zone.

Although the conflicts between the new bands is rooted in this traditional framework, it also goes beyond it. Today, the massacring spills over not only into control of local and rural resources--coffee buying in the zone, for example--but also into control over national and international resources, through cattle rustling and vehicle theft.

The new framework is comparable to the traditional vendetta because it is much like a series of individual murders, reciprocal and movivated by blood, but these conflicts have more recent causes and are both more accelerated and cumulative. The level of action jumps rapidly within the logic of crushing my adversary before he gets me, and the blows must be so decisive as to disarticulate an enemy band and force the survivors to flee, sometimes even out of the country.

The Buenos Aires massacre had an impact on the entire country, especially in the northern areas. The media is still following up on the assassins, pressuring both the Department of Criminal Investigation and the police. Clues link the brains behind this massacre to the much talked? about and as yet unsolved murder a year ago of Lieutenant Gustavo Domínguez, regional INTERPOL head. His death was attributed to the car theft rings operating in cahoots with the military in the municipality of La Entrada, Copán, which borders Guatemala. Although the material authors of the Buenos Aires massacre have been caught, it will be far harder to bring the intellectual authors to justice. That would mean ripping out a very embedded root of criminal relationships.


Bank Robbers and Car Thieves

The pages of Honduran newspapers are also full of another type of violence: assaults on businesses, especially banks, located in areas where a lot of money changes hands, for example the assembly plant zones on the northern coast. San Pedro Sula is the city with the highest rate of assaults--more than 15 reported between March and May alone. They were carried out by bands, not of poor people but of an emerging middle class that, in the midst of the country's severe economic crisis, is seeking its piece of Honduras' pie of wealth through activities that could broadly be termed "informal." These bands operate in cars or pick?up trucks, are heavily armed and are made up of agile and apparently well?trained young men.

Their operations indicate that they have a great deal of information and carry out their acts only after careful planning. It is also clear that police officers are among their leaders.

Another ongoing mode of violence is car theft. According to recent statements by the director of the Department of Criminal Investigation, 10 cars are stolen each day in Honduras. There are car theft rings with scant capacity which rob vehicles from the 80s, dismantling them to sell for parts. Then there are more agile bands that steal luxury vehicles to sell in other Central American countries after they have removed the serial numbers and obtained falsified registration documents. One Honduran, allegedly the head of the car theft ring in La Entrada, Copán, was arrested in Guatemala at the end of May. The man, a.k.a "Mama Licha," is said to be the one who planned the assassination of the INTERPOL officer.

All these bands--the ones carrying out the massacres, robbing banks and stealing cars--owe their existence to the virtual arsenals of arms left in Honduras once the internal conflicts in neighboring countries came to an end, most particularly after the disarming of the contra forces. The bands are all undoubtedly related, although the exact nature of the links is unclear. In any case, they are clearly an expression of the underside of the middle class.

Poor Gangs

There is also violence by the poor in the cities, where people--also poor--live in terror of street altercations or break?ins. Many different types of groups operate in the neighborhoods: some headed by an experienced adult, well?armed, known by and knowledgeable of the police, with links to the US and both feared and respected in the neighborhood; others formed exclusively of minors who roam through the night looking for a bicycle and are dangerous because of their members' lack of social criteria. At the same time, the latter are easily dismantled as a result of social pressure.

The underworlds are interconnected and the most powerful serve as models for the weakest. Thus a subculture is formed, known by some as a subculture "of death," but very much "of life" from the gangs' viewpoint. It is in opposition to the community's formal, legal and open world, but also related to it by tacit agreements of mutual protection. As nobody dares speak out against them publicly, these gangs are difficult to legally disarticulate. When this relationship is ruptured for some reason, the gangs can operate against the community as a whole, as happened in a poor Tegucigalpa neighborhood in May, when gang members took over a school to pressure for the release of their leader, taken into police custody a week earlier.

On the Drug Route

It is not clear how all these forms of violence are linked to drug trafficking. This lack of clarity is not helped by the fact that the National Anti?Drug Office (DNA) does not pursue the crimes, but only "the body of the crime"--cocaine, primarily--in order to get information regarding the larger networks. Another element is that the DNA does not tend to give out information about the networks, rather offering information exclusively about the seizure, which it uses to argue in favor of its "efficiency."

According to the DEA and the International Bureau of Drug Trafficking Affairs (INMB), Colombia is currently the world's largest cocaine producer, the US is the largest consumer and Guatemala the largest intermediary, with between 60 and 80 metric tons annually passing through that country on the way to Mexico.

So far in 1996, the facts demonstrate that Honduras is connected to this larger network and that, in addition, Honduran territory is being used independently of Guatemala. As of April three metric tons of cocaine had been seized, making clear that there are three main routes. The land route crosses the Nicaraguan?Honduran border at Guasaule en route to El Salvador. The air route uses major airlines on their flights to Miami; and the sea route travels along the coastline of the Mosquitia, using boats that likely never touch Guatemalan territory, but rather go further north, as indicated by the fact that two tons of the cocaine was seized in international Caribbean waters. It thus seems that the maritime route, which is independent of Guatemala, is the one handling the greatest quantity of drugs.

The value of the seized cocaine is about $90 million. Although this is not, as in other countries, of direct benefit to the state--for example, in terms of debt forgiveness in exchange for the seized substances--the movement through the country of the drugs, confiscated or not, benefits the groups that before, during and after the drug's passage share out the money to those who facilitate the transport of the drugs, ranging from lawyers and military officers to transportation workers, customs officials, etc.. This does not even take into account the small?scale drug vendors, who work with between 2 and 10 kg. of cocaine.

Money Laundering

The secretary of the National Assembly's Commission to Fight Drug Trafficking declared that 30 businessman from San Pedro Sula and La Ceiba are currently being investigated on money laundering charges. Some of them, newly rich men with no business history in Honduras, are building a commercial complex in Guatemala. Others, according to the National Assembly representative, are buying goods at exaggerated prices in Honduras.

They cannot be taken to court for money laundering, because the Honduran Criminal Code does not classify this as a crime. This favors the growth of the "informal businesses" of the middle classes to the point where they form a center able to compete with the country's traditional moneyed classes, whose wealth is based on "formal" business dealings.

The DNA's success contrasts with the police failure in the fight against different forms of crime. Thus the police, including the DNA, are accused of being the light on the street and darkness in the house, as they focus almost exclusively on the anti?drug fight, leaving public safety on the back burner.

The majority of the police budget is earmarked for the DNA. The ten dogs trained to detect drugs that cost the police nearly half a million dollars are one example.

The DNA is currently part of the police (FUSEP: Public Security Force), though an Anti?Drug Office should exist within the Public Ministry, created last year, but it is not yet functioning. It is expected that the DNA director will be named at the beginning of June and that the headquarters will be moved to the Public Ministry. Above this is a National Anti?Drug Commission, made up of the President, public ministers and others. The police (FUSEP) should also pass from military to civilian control.

The main reason for the DNA's relatively intense activity corresponds to US interests. But, in addition, the dominant Honduran classes who don't control this business appear interested in limiting the power of emergent groups that could challenge their economic and political hegemony over the country.

With the opening of the political campaign, the drug trafficking issue is once again on the table, since the penetration of drug capital into politics is increasingly frequent in Central America. It would thus not be unusual for some Honduran candidates to fall into the trap of spending funds they don't possess in exchange for future services once they're in power. This is possible because the current electoral law does not establish regulations regarding the origin and amount of money earmarked for demonstrations, rallies and publicity campaigns.


Leading Adversary: Abstentionism

In mid?March, President Reina gave the sign within his Liberal Party (PL) for the campaign to start, thus ending the "treaty" that those same Liberals had extended to him, opening the way to those forces within the party that oppose the ones that brought him to power. The Liberals' activity also sparked the National Party (PN), thus shifting the national dynamic.

Although the general elections are still a long way off (November 1997), the primary candidates are already making noise. The first steps have also been taken to prepare for the December 1 internal elections within the country's two traditional parties. That date is the clearest mark on the horizon in terms of its role in more clearly defining the electoral competition.

In Honduras, bipartisanship is deeply rooted in the consciousness of the people; it is said that, even in the womb, babies are either red (PL) or blue (PN). The Virgin of Suyapa, patron saint of Honduras, is clothed in both colors to keep all her children happy. The two traditional minority parties--the Christian Democratic Party of Honduras (PDCH) and the Innovation and Social Democratic Unity Party (PINU) have never garnered much strength. The two traditional parties have no categorical adversaries, but recently a formidable opponent-- abstentionism--has reappeared on the scene. That opponent defeated them in 1993, when a million registered voters chose not to go to the polls, while 860,000 voted for the PL and 670,000 cast their votes for the PN.

At the political level, there is a contradiction between the formal and informal worlds. The latter is not represented by the structures--either political or economic--and it threatens to explode at any time.

While the parties offer no programs with grassroots credibility, the popular organizations, the communities represented by patronages, the constellation of unemployed activists, and many other sectors have been attentive to the political space that is opening, however, since the middle of March. They are looking to obtain their own slice, or at least a crumb, of the pie to thus resolve their immediate and personal problems.

Because it is not in power, the National Party has had to move up its internal elections, which has made it a much hotter topic. At the beginning of May, its internal movements presented slates of registered candidates for the presidential, legislative and mayoral offices elected in the December 1 primary.

The party has wanted to give signs of internal democracy by following this brand new process. Nonetheless, at the end of May, the party's Central Committee-- presided over by Oswaldo Ramos Soto, presidential candidate in 1993 and primary candidate this year--eliminated five of the internal movements. This sparked strong protests from their leaders, who held the party's inner circle responsible for a future electoral disaster.

Deborah DeMoss

One presidential aspirant among those eliminated was retired Colonel Hector René Fonseca. His wife is Deborah DeMoss, a US millionaire who for years worked as a top aide to Senator Jesse Helms. Indignant at this move, DeMoss publicly threatened to denounce the PN Central Committee to her "contacts" on the US Senate. This in turn provoked sharp criticism from many sides; people are feeling that she'd be out of control as first lady, given this behavior as the wife of a mere candidate.

The corrupt and anti? democratic PN leaders were astute in setting this trap for one of the most dangerous primary candidates (given his influence and power). Although exclusion may not be the best tactic and must still be reviewed by the National Elections Tribunal, it did provoke the lady to fall flat in her imperialist declarations, insulting both Nationalists and Liberals and causing laughter up in the cheap seats.

The current political campaign is playing heavily with the image of women. The PN's other four candidates include Nora de Melgar, former mayor of Tegucigalpa and widow--like Violeta Chamorro--of an important national figure, though one with a history quite distinct from that of Pedro Joaquín Chamorro. Her husband, General Melgar Castro, was a putschist military man. Just like Chamorro, Melgar dresses in white in all her posters, against a blue background, the colors of the Honduran flag. She attempts to radiate an aura of peace and reconciliation in an air?brushed photo that does not correspond to the hardness of her features when she takes the stage. Her campaign highlights the machismo of her political advisers.

Liberal Candidates

The Liberal Party has two key primary candidates--current Congress president Carlos Flores Facussé, and Jaime Rosenthal Oliva, owner of the daily paper Tiempo. Flores Facussé has yet to officially announce his candidacy and is taking advantage of his post to win allegiances by promulgating laws such as one that has exempted anyone earning less than 50,000 lempiras annually from paying income tax and another creating a 500 million?lempira production fund to stimulate non?peasant agricultural production.

Rosenthal has already begun to campaign, and is particularly active on the northern coast. He has spent a lot of energy criticizing Reina's Liberal administration from the pages of his newspaper, hoping to thus distance himself from Reina and save himself from the eroding popularity that the Liberals have suffered with the mounting economic crisis.

President Reina has yet to publicly declare his support for any of the four Liberal candidates, and will probably not do so until December 1. What is clear is that he is not supporting Rosenthal.

Three Strike Waves

If the impoverished majorities expect little from the politicians in terms of solving the national problems they suffer from, not much more is hoped for from the grassroots organizations

Three strong strike waves against the state?patron, particularly the Ministry of Treasury, have affected a total of some 70,000 middle?sector workers in recent months. At the beginning of April, some 28,000 public employees went on strike. After that, 40,000 teachers went on strike through the end of April. And, finally, 1,500 Social Service doctors who are not part of the civil service structure struck in mid?May.

As negotiations continued, the President himself ended up playing a role. The only goal of these struggles was a wage increase. Most of the negotiations ended with a 20% wage hike, not great when held up against a 29% annual inflation rate.

During this same period, the Congress passed the Tax Equity and Employment Incentives Law, which exempted those gaining more than 50,000 lempiras a year from income taxes. With this exemption--up from 20,000 lempiras a year--those above the prior ceiling were clear beneficiaries, but the most poorly paid did not benefit. One example is primary teachers. Before the strike, a primary teacher earned 1,459 lempiras monthly, and with the 20% increase, would see that jump to 1,750 (US$160). In other words, primary teachers received virtually no relief with the exoneration, as their annual salary is about 21,000 lempiras.

The principal mechanisms the state workers used in their struggle have been strikes and work stoppages in public institutions, especially hospitals, health centers and schools. Since strikes are illegal within the civil service framework, they held "informational assemblies." Teachers, however, opted for street demonstrations in the main cities, even entering the legislature. No violence linked to these conflicts was reported.

It was clear how the struggle in the health sector directly hurt the poor, who were typically sent back home without receiving attention in the centers or hospitals. Public opinion criticized the health workers, particularly the doctors, characterizing them as insensitive to pain, accustomed to the deaths of patients and very ambitious in terms of salary (most doctors have two jobs and thus two incomes).

Better Organized

The emerging middle strata, especially state employees, are better organized than the poorer classes and, faced with the crisis have been able to achieve an adjustment by depriving the poor of services (e.g. the hospital strikes) to the detriment of the social budget. For example, to increase doctors' take?home pay, the social service institution cut into the maternity and disease budget and reduced their taxes (a total of 15 million lempiras). Since these middle strata can't cut into the growing piece of the national pie in the hands of the rich, they end up taking from the poor.

Although primary teachers receive a low wage, they are not at the same level as the poor, who--at best--receive the minimum wage, equivalent to US$54 monthly. This minimum wage was set on March 1 by executive decree, in an attempt to defuse the workers' growing explosiveness.

The leadership of these organizations immediately protested the hike, calling it insufficient and threatening a general strike with the goal of an across?the?board wage readjustment. To date, however, the government has managed to keep the leaders tied up. They demonstrate their weakness by not dealing directly with capital and making the state the interlocutor, since the state is not ultimately responsible for the wages of private sector workers.

Struggles of the Poor

In contrast to the wave of activity by the middle?class state workers, independent workers and peasants--those hardest hit by the crisis--have led few struggles. Of those that have taken place, some are symbolic and have received much media attention. These include the mid?March land invasion by peasants in Guaymas, an area still drenched with the blood of their brothers from last year; the fourth pilgrimage of the Lenca Indians to the capital to demand that the government fulfill its earlier promises; and the mid?May takeover of the La Lima mayor's office, near the San Pedro Sula airport, by peasants formerly attached to the Tacamiche hacienda.

Behind these groups in struggle are regional organizations (the Lencas); the most combative regional expressions of a stagnant national organization (the Guaymas); or, in the Tacamiche case, a temporary alliance built on solidarity among many groups that are conscious of being a symbol upon which many eyes in the nation and the world are trained. All these groups are potentially dangerous and the state has responded rapidly to try to get them off its back, in some cases promoting negotiations with private enterprise. In this way, the state functions as a shock absorber for private enterprise, even subsidizing with its funds some of the demands made by those putting on the most pressure, even though it does so at the expense of the majority.

Standard Fruit's union showed itself to be more combative, more symbolic, more national (though still local) and somewhat less interested in money than the three above groups. In mid?May, Standard Fruit workers along the Aguán river called a strike that was joined not just by the local group of workers, but by the entire union. The strike affected La Ceiba, where the company's offices are, and Puerto Castilla, stopping not only the harvest of fruit, but also the transfer of containers and shipping in general.

The banana workers' unions are powerful and it would take only one of them to light the spark that would touch off a general strike. The conflict was resolved after four days, given the US company's sense of urgency to halt its million?dollar losses. But their dynamic, like that of the state workers based primarily on wage demands, impeded solidarity.

There have also been minor rural movements, news of which appear on the inside pages of newspapers. They include peasants who invaded cattle grazing land in Ocotepeque and struggles by the Yojoa sugar mill workers in Río Lindo, Cortés.

The fact that peasants have headed up so few land takeovers in these months of preparation for planting and the weakness of their organizations are both noteworthy. Either the peasantry is seeking new and spontaneous solutions to the country's agrarian problem, including migrating into the shrinking agricultural frontier, emigrating to the US or cultivating marijuana; or it is adhering to imposed solutions such as sustainable agriculture, sponsored by the NGOs in the western zone of the country. Or perhaps they are simply resigned to their suffering. The February eviction in Tacamiche would seem to clearly have the effect of an exemplary punishment, communicating the message to the peasantry that land takeovers are not successful solutions.

If the wall the peasants are up against were propeling them towards the cities, there would surely be urban land takeovers. But this doesn't seem to be the case. There have only been minor movements along these lines, such as the mid?March invasion of Las Delicias workers in La Ceiba (for the sixth time) or the mid?April demonstration in Tegucigalpa demanding the legalization of lands.

Also unusual are the demonstrations against the increasing cost of living. Aside from the ritualized marches on May 1st, where the leaders denounced the state for its neoliberal policies with stereotypical speeches, there have been hardly any other demonstrations, other than the pots and pans march organized by the Consumer Protection Committee of Honduras and protests in one area of Tegucigalpa against electricity rates.
Gasoline prices are going up, transportation costs are rising, bread and eggs cost more, but "the enemy" responsible for these price increases remains invisible and its force would appear to be unstoppable. Any organized response has to date been weak.

Poor Against Poor

In the face of this weakness, the aggressiveness of the middle strata in what can be called collective struggles similar to those carried out by the popular sectors is notable. Local landowners in Ocotepeque took over the road there; basic grain producers organized in PROGRANO threatened in mid? April to take over roads in the north to get the government to give them credit and fertilizer; and the coffee growers in Santa Barbara took over a western road in mid?April, demanding more ongoing attention from the government. As in the case of the state employees, the middle sectors are rising up against the state or directly against the poor.

The violence among the poor themselves--especially in the cities--is linked to their absence in collective struggles. According to the police, there were 2,185 homicides in 1995. With the common adversary hardening or becoming invisible, conflicts erupt more frequently among the poor, desperate routes become more prevalent and a general attitude of not valuing life sets in.

If to this panorama, we add the example of violence by the middle strata, which are relatively successful in appropriating resources by informal methods, we can predict that the breeding ground for the aggressiveness of the dispossessed masses' violence will grow. There will be more theft, more shootings, more alcohol, more drugs...a whole cultural package of the underside of poverty.

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