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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 182 | Septiembre 1996
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Honduras

The Culture of Mistrust

The crime wave has injected mistrust and suspicion into people’s relatiosnhips. Other forms of mistrust also increase, but the most hopeful is the ever greater mistrust that poor people feel towards the politicians, who promise everything and deliver nothing.

Reflection, Research and Communication Team (ERIC) of Honduras

Guapinol, a remote community in the department of Colón, 400 km. northeast of Tegucigalpa, burst out of anonymity the afternoon of June 25 when a group of people, dressed in civilian clothes but actually police officers, came to the area and began to shoot at some 20 men who had come together to play cards, as they did most afternoons. Among the card players was "Calín," a dangerous criminal famous for assaults, rapes, contract killings and organizing gangs of young criminals.

As the police moved in, Calín managed to toss a grenade, which blew up one of the peasants also among the card players. Two wounded men tried to save their lives by dragging themselves through the fields of the once forgotten community. The police caught up to them and fired two bullets into their heads, indifferent to their pleas and the shock of those watching. All told, five were killed.

The hitherto unknown community of Guapinol thus was thrust into the national news, together with other areas that are being similarly shocked out of their peaceful routines by such acts of violence. Honduran society is becoming overwhelmed by horror.

With criminal violence taking over the country, a new mentality is taking hold among Hondurans. They feel forced to live as prisoners in their own homes, putting as many padlocks as possible on their doors and mistrusting any stranger, and even neighbors. Families with more money invest in virtual fortifications in the search for some semblance of security. "We're living in a civilization where distrust prevails, where suspicion is the key to relationships among people," is how one analyst sees it.

A Suspicious Kidnapping

In July, kidnapping became the major new element in the spiral of violence enveloping the country. The country's wealthiest families are becoming quite anxious about the imminent danger posed by those willing to do whatever it takes to make fast and easy money.

The first victim was a young woman, daughter of a wealthy San Pedro Sula family. Several days after her family paid the ransom, the police captured the kidnappers, who in turn said that army officials were behind the whole thing.

In June, employees of a bank that had been robbed identified police officers as being among the assailants. All these elements tend to confirm the general belief that not only are members of the police and army involved in these criminal activities, but that the structure of the armed forces itself is directly involved.

It was no coincidence that, prior to July, every bank in the country had been robbed save the armed forces' own bank. Suddenly, after police were mentioned as being involved in one of the assaults, an outlying branch of the armed forces' powerful bank was robbed as well. It was so clumsily done that a bank official in the country's northern region ironically remarked that the action was like something out of a bad movie. The comment cost him his post.

In this context of suspicion, aggravated by lack of confidence in the police force's efficiency and honor, businessmen and bankers publicly discussed both the professionalism of the San Pedro kidnapping and its suspiciously speedy resolution. They essentially debated whether the kidnapping was authentic or, in fact, was a desperate act by the police to kill two birds with one stone: both underscore the public's need for an effective police force and silence the businessmen's distrust, coercing public assurances of support.

Whatever the motive, leaders of big business have been anything but silent about the introduction of kidnappings onto the criminal scene. Pressures have been put on the government to guarantee the country's political legal framework, while the business community guarantees the economic one. The businessmen are ready to pay whatever necessary for the state to provide them greater security.

The Roots of the Violence

Until very recently, much of the violence was attributed to the ideological confrontations so characteristic of the Cold War. With that conflict over, the onset of the structural adjustment programs has allowed big business to accumulate more capital than ever before. Only yesterday the number one enemy of the business class was those who threatened "democratic values." Today, the enemy is found not on ideological terrain but on the streets, lurking near their banks, their businesses and even their homes.

The "success" of big business lasted less time than expected. With greater capital came more need for good security systems, because success was founded on a model of exclusion that in its very composition nursed the roots of violence and its own destruction. This is what the crime wave currently buffeting the country is expressing.

Some superficially argue that today's crime is the result of a lack of support for the army and security forces and that the criminals are protected by the various human rights groups in the country. To recover some of their lost credibility, the armed forces in particular have zealously promoted this argument, trying to convince the public that they can insure the protection that citizens are demanding. The hallelujahs for the military led anti crime operations in early July point to a change. In the recent past, soldiers were met with repulsion on the streets of San Pedro Sula; today, they are applauded.

Nonetheless, putting emphasis on resolving crime by resorting to emergency military operations--as the official propaganda has been wont to do--is akin to accepting that the economic crisis can be resolved by asking drug traffickers to help the poor, as one politician in fact suggested. Today's violence expresses the state's lack of seriousness in dealing with the country's fundamental problems, using and abusing the economic logic of "every man for himself." This is the fruit of the impunity and corruption that have characterized the activities of both civilian and military functionaries. It is there and only there that the roots of violence--as well as its possible solution--should be sought.

"Cachurecos" or "Colorados"

The political posters tacked onto the doors of shabby huts proclaim support for either the cachurecos or the colorados. The communities from the departments bordering El Salvador and Guatemala are almost always distinguished by a blue poster, while those who emigrated from the Copán region, Santa Barbara or Cortés prefer the red one. If one asks about a specific candidate or party, one is likely to get this response, sooner or later: it's all just a joke. Nonetheless, these same hungry, sick, landless and jobless Hondurans end up spending the weekend on flatbed trucks, shouting slogans and waving political flags for the party that the big cattle rancher in the area happens to prefer. "I only went to eat what they were going to give me," they say, but with a few shots of liquor under their belts, and as a closing to the Sunday campaign stumping, some end up "offering" their lives in ardent defense of their boss' candidate.

Two Campaign Periods, Different Internal Phases

Perpetual and strident politicking is an ongoing element in Honduras, where the political campaigns ensure a traditional two party system that perpetuates corruption and administrative negligence.

Political campaigns have two major periods, with various internal phases. The first period, which takes up the first two years of a governmental mandate, involves accommodation and the accumulation of forces. The party in power shifts its forces around to get some of its programs underway, while blaming the previous administration for the chaos in which it found the country, and claiming that this chaos is the reason it cannot keep its election promises. The different currents within the ruling party realign themselves as well, seeking power in the executive, legislative and judicial branches, not so much to govern as to prepare for the next campaign.

The currents within the opposition party also undergo an accommodation process, blaming each other for their party's electoral defeat, declaring that time will demonstrate the error the people made in voting, and defending themselves from governmental accusations. The gravest acts of corruption frequently take place in this first period, which is also when the ruling party representatives set the legislative underpinnings-- including changes to the Constitution--to favor certain businesses or to accumulate more power for themselves.

The second period is the political campaign itself, which is divided into two phases:

1. Internal elections within each party to choose candidates for the general elections. This phase in turn has two moments:

* Deal cutting within the different currents, to ready them to take on the other currents. These deals are generally made in the first half of the government's third year. The opposition party sharpens its criticisms against the government. The currents within the ruling party work to distance themselves from those actually holding office so as to protect their images and not get left holding the bag for the miserably and irresponsibly run state. All sorts of arrangements are sought behind closed doors as ministers, legislators, magistrates, judges, mayors and the like all throw themselves full force into proselytizing activities in a given political current to guarantee positions that will translate into quotas of power in a future government.

* Direct confrontation among the different currents in each party is the final leg of the internal elections. This takes place in the second half of the government's third year of office and overshadows the other party since the other currents within each party are the opponents of this moment.

2. The general election campaign. This is the defining element in the last year of the outgoing government. Since all efforts of both parties are directed towards the campaign, the government virtually ceases to exist. The cachureco colorado confrontation arrives at its limits, but without eliminating the deal making between people from the dominant currents of each of the two parties and among members of the currents defeated in the internal elections.

Everyone manuevers to assure maximum quotas of power once the elections are over and thus have enough strength for the upcoming elections. In this final stage the party in power tries to undertake certain demagogic programs in order to recover its image, leaving the costs to the next government. Meanwhile, the opposition party continues working to undermine the ruling party.

Jobs and Promises

Political campaigns in Honduras have turned into an important source of employment. Professionals, doctors, university graduates, teachers, experts from different fields and community leaders all become political activists to assure their existing job during the next presidential term or a new one if they are currently out of work.

People's needs become the main trench of political battles. The teachers' posts, controlled by the legislature, are the issue with respect to school needs. The promise of work in the mayoral administration or in any governmental institution is the promise with respect to unemployment. In the final stage of the campaign roads are repaired, bridges are built, and offices start to go up, only to be left half finished.

After four campaigns with minimal variations on the theme, Honduran elections are finally beginning to generate discontent because of the government's obvious corruption and inefficiency. The last elections saw an abstention rate of about 5%. As long as the reigning bipartisan scheme is not broken, abstentionism will continue to grow as an expression of a silent and maturing opposition that cuts across different sectors of society.

Million dollar Deals

In June, The Washington Post published a report about the new role of the Central American armed forces and their incursion into the world of business in exchange for having their human rights violations overlooked. The article reported that between 1991 and 1995, the Honduran army invested some $50 million in just three of its businesses, and that its other 19 businesses totalled an investment of $280 million. According to the Post, the Honduran army's investments are the largest and most open of all the armies in the region and its Institute of Military Social Welfare (IPM) is one of the three largest consortiums in all of Central America. Among the businesses the military controls are a cement factory, a funeral parlor, a bank, an insurance company and a firm dealing in arms.

The Honduran military's reaction to the publication was violent and defensive. The armed forces spokesperson said it was a case of "tendentious information," calling the article "poorly intentioned and completely out of the reality of Honduras." He added that the armed forces created the IPM, but that it functions like any other social welfare entity in the country, with funds coming from its employees' salaries. He did allow that those running the IPM have been very successful at investing the institute's money in profitable enterprises.

The armed forces' director of political plans called the article false from any point of view, since the Honduran officers are dedicated to their constitutional mission of defending the country's sovereignty. He said that it is not true that they negotiated the turning over of government enterprises that the military had managed for decades in exchange for leaving the doors open to do business with them freely. "That," he said, "could not happen in a country where a noticeable moral revolution is underway. Civilian power would simply not permit it."

The Ghost of the 80s

On June 26, the ghost of the 1980s reappeared before a military already on the defensive and with renewed forces. A judge in the southern city of Choluteca ordered the arrest of 14 officers accused of the illegal detention and murder of a Nicaraguan and a Honduran in 1982 because they were suspected of being "subversives." The arrest order was added to that issued by the Tegucigalpa tribunals on October 17, as a result of which three high level army officers are now fugitives, accused of illegally arresting, torturing and assassinating six university students, also in 1982.

Despite the official discourse, the armed forces still have extraordinary influence over governmental activities. Their pressures led to a Supreme Court decision on July 16 to imprison the fugitive officials on their bases, in the event that they turn themselves in or are captured, even though Honduras' Constitution clearly establishes that there are no privileged classes and that all prisoners should go to common prisons. Since July, the armed forces began to prepare special cells on the military bases to house the officers should they decide to give themselves up.

When Colonel Abén Claros-- the only one of the 14 accused by the Choluteca tribunal to show up for the July 18 trial--came to court, he was quite shocked to end up in a common prison. The Choluteca judge made the ruling, valiantly arguing that the Constitution holds more weight than any agreement made by authorities.

Committee for Human Rights (CODEH) President Dr. Ramón Custodio, agreeing with the judge, said that the Supreme Court decision is not a law and that "the bases of the Armed Forces General Command are not retention centers or prisons. He added that "if they want to guarantee the security of the sentenced military officers, they can establish separate places within the penal centers as defined by law, but that decision would correspond to the Ministry of Government and Justice."

Custodio took advantage of the legal conflict sparked by the Supreme Court decision to point out that there are three categories of prisoners in Honduras: those who are actually sentenced (no more than 10% of the total population); those who are still undergoing the legal process or are being preventively detained while awaiting sentence; and the large number of prisoners who have been imprisoned for years with no legal process ever having begun.

The great majority of prisoners have no special privileges. And many don't even have legal proceedings underway, as established by the Constitution, which recognizes the rights of all citizens under Honduran law.

The World of Impunity

The process of trying the military began over a year ago, when the Public Ministry's Office of the Human Rights Attorney General took seriously the task of weakening the officers' wall of impunity. Nobody doubts the seriousness of these legal authorities in their attempt to get to the truth and judge the military men responsible for the death and disappearance of so many Hondurans during the dirty war. But the controversial Supreme Court decision to back the high level officials, even going against the Constitution to do so, clearly revealed the falsity of the Liberal government's much ballyhooed "moral revolution" or any real subordination of the military to civilian society.

Top army officers argued that the officers accused of human rights violations received orders that were based on the need to protect the country from the threat of international subversion and that the military should thus protect its members facing prison sentences by all means possible.

A Crossroads for the Military

One sector of officers is angry with the high command for caving into the civilian institutions. Their argument is based on these officers' strong opposition to what they call the "argolla," which bound the hands of the former army chief General Discua Elvir as well as his loyal successor General Mario Hung Pachecho. These contradictions inside the army touched off the attempted "barracks coup" reported by the media during the last week of July.

Although the coup was actively and passively denied with the tired argument of the officers' "granite unity," it is known that there is deep discontent inside the military institution. The comment by officers that led it accuses the "argolla" in the power of officers to manage businesses as they wish and the fact that the command ranks are closed to young officers. This younger generation of officers has suffered the brunt of the "modernization" and army budget reduction.

The crisis that currently defines the Honduran armed forces is evident. It is found not only in a loss of power, but also in a dislocation from the new spheres of open power after the end of the Cold War, as an important part of the army sees it. A number of officers are getting higher levels of university professionalization and trying to make sure that the IPM, together with the businesses managed out of it, become one of the most flourishing enterprises in the country and the region.

The Honduran officers are before the crossroads of their history: either they bring their structures into line with the new logic of power in Central America and the world, or else they undertake to maintain their longstanding status of impunity that has given them so many advantages in the past, but that is today forcing them into a corner, wearing them out and could even lead some of them to prison.

Opening Their Eyes

Bad news abounds in Honduras, and at first glance it would appear that no other reality exists than that of the political campaign, criminal violence and institutional corruption. The dynamics of life, are present as well, however.

While the politicians' loudspeakers blasted away one Sunday at the end of May, dozens of communities in one of the mountains that surround the Aguán Valley in Honduras' Caribbean region were organizing to walk many kilometers, following their decision to oblige their municipal government to come to an agreement to satisfy their demands for roads, teachers for their children, medical attention and other urgent necessities.

These communities are made up of families that migrated from various departments of the country, overwhelmed by the lack of land. They took refuge in the mountains after finding no land in the valleys. Within a few years they turned into the main suppliers of corn and beans from Aguán Valley. Finally, in November 1993, after the rains caused the slippage of hills, the death of hundreds of people and the disappearance of entire villages, the public authorities "discovered" these communities. They arrived in helicopters to verify the disasters, but once the emergency was over, they departed without a trace, abandoning the communities to oblivion again.

These families say that during the last campaign the candidates came to promise solutions to all their problems. But, as had happened in the emergency, they acted like the authorities, disap pearing and only leaving the echo of promises sworn and not fulfilled.

The peaceful march of at least a dozen communities from these northern Honduran hills is a sign that the traditional system of the political campaigns is breaking up. All their lives the hill people have been cachureco or colorado. Some have even distinguished themselves as political fanatics. Now the march is dotted with anti politicking slogans. Some candidates come to offer them water; others come with bits of food. But the people's position is unshakable: accept neither the presence nor any offering from the political hacks.

"We're now opening our eyes," said one of the organizers of a Christian community in one of the 12 hillside villages. After many years, they are beginning to discover that they can only aspire to getting ahead, to climbing out of their poverty, if they unite with other poor.

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