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  Number 384 | Julio 2013
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Our country needs a truce, and not just with gangs

The unilateral truce announced in May by Honduras’ two most violent gangs has been received with official silence, social skepticism and even calls for revenge. These gangs have taken the first step, but they’re not the only ones generating violence. Other sources of violence—other «gangs»— ought to follow the example and declare a truce. In fact, Honduras needs many truces.

Ismael Moreno, SJ

Four years after the coup that overthrew President Mel Zalaya, Honduras has more red alerts than ever. While the government tries to deny that we are the country with the most violent deaths on the planet, cadavers with signs of cruelty, kidnappings and murders of journalists, extortion and panic continue to be the theme one hears in many sectors of society. In one city on the northern coast a taxi collective displays the notice “Fare has increased two lempiras due to gasoline and other circumstances.”

The “other circumstances” need no explanation because everyone knows it refers to the extortions to which a majority of the people—especially those from the working and middle classes—are subjected.

Non-stop violence

While the police and Army deployed a major operation in search of the whereabouts of television journalist Anibal Barrow, kidnapped on June 24, little attention has focused on the bodies of seven young people found during that search. Four of these cadavers were found shoved into a luxury vehicle near a San Pedro Sula shopping mall.

Each day more families leave one neighborhood for another, one city for another, fleeing the extortions always accompanied by death threats, which are usually carried out in full. One man told envío he was being extorted by a group that started by demanding $550 three months ago, then demanded the same amount each of these two succeeding months. He’s a middle class professional who’s paying debts with his salary. His eyes teared up when, looking blankly because he has no hope, he said, “At night I only hope my wife is asleep when I go to the living room to cry.”

The gang truce

The fact that we are in an election year seems to be stirring things up even more than before. With everything so up in the air, roles seem to be reversed. Politicians and the major businessmen who control power are shielding themselves behind their usual intransigence to cut off any proposal for change while the leaders of the Mara Salvatrucha, known as MS, and Mara Barrio 18—gangs considered the chief instigators of crimes, delinquency and citizen insecurity for the past 15 years—proposed a negotiated truce with the government security institutions. This would have been unimaginable only a little while ago.

El Salvador provided a crucial precedent in April 2012, when the same gangs in that country declared a truce to which the reduction in murders from 14 to 5.5 a day was attributed. While the diversity of criminal actors in Honduras makes the success of a truce here less likely, the announcement in the context of acutely intensifying conflicts and intolerances counters the belief that the maras—synonymous with particularly violent gangs—don’t understand dialogue.

They’re asking for a chance

The leaders of both of these gangs are currently in prison. From there they used Monsignor Romulo Emiliani, the auxiliary bishop of San Pedro Sula, on May 28 as a mediator to publicly announce a unilateral truce in the use of extortion and crime.

The gang leaders were very clear: the truce was a firm decision that would be implemented with strict discipline. Thereupon, they asked forgiveness from God, society and the authorities, claiming that their decision is only a first step in the process that will lead to a final end to their criminal actions.

They said they wanted to be rehabilitated and become part of society as citizens and workers so their children might have the chance to grow up and become educated like “regular people.” They asked for the opportunity to show their ability as human beings committed to their families, with a desire for self-improvement, as lovers of life and putting their faith in God, insisting that they still carry these values in their hearts even though they have been toughened by discrimination and crime.

But the violence didn’t decrease

The gangs’ decision was met with many doubts and even suspicion. It is a normal and even logical response to such an unusual proposal, given that society only expects violent actions from them and has thus generally stigmatized them.

The media is well versed in stirring up doubts, and has long argued that redemption is possible for anyone except gang members. Many negative comments about the truce appeared in several media following its announcement. This revelation of the vengeful and destructive predisposition hidden in important sectors of society illustrated a paradox: the “bad” ask for forgiveness, and the “good” demand physical elimination. “Let them die! Wipe out these dogs!” one hears. But those saying this are not seeing the violence brewing outside the gangs.

Others waited for the crime and insecurity in the streets to go away as if by magic. But days and weeks went by and the insecurity and crime rates didn’t drop, despite official reports. In fact, they have actually risen according to some rational indices such as the cost of public transportation in some northern coast cities. The transportation companies say the cost has spiked due to a drastic increase in the “war tax.”

The violent “others”

Unlike the truce declared in El Salvador, the announcement by the imprisoned Honduran gang leaders has not had the desired effect. Rather it has opened serious doubts about two very different issues: the authority of those leaders on the one hand and the gangs’ responsibility for the spiral of crime and violence hammering the country on the other.

The leaders of both gangs have said that they want to show society that other groups are responsible for much of the crime attributed to the gangs. There is also real evidence of sectors interested in boycotting any dialogue between gang members and the government so that the official violence remains anonymous or camouflaged by gang violence.

If the violence and crime rate continues to rise after the declared truce by the gangs, it will indicate the existence of other dispersed covert powers with the autonomy to make decisions and act. It’s clear that, while the two big gangs control wide territories and the main cities, other smaller gangs with their own structures and lines of control are connected to political power and drug trafficking, exerting authority over specific territories and institutions. These are freewheeling powers, not coordinated nationally, that are tied to the drug cartels operating in a wide corridor from Colombia to the US, passing through Honduras, and control our country through territorial “bands” and groups. Given this, the major gangs can only reduce crime by very limited percentages because most of the violence is committed by other, more powerful and deadly groups.

A national truce

If the gang leaders’ announcement can’t significantly reduce crime by itself, it could at least open a debate about the truce needed by the country as a whole, one that takes into account all the present day criminality and violence.

A starting point for this truce would be that each sector possessing a quota of power commit to stop what it has been doing the past three decades. The gang leaders took the first step, perhaps unsure that they could accomplish what they promised but showing a desire to renounce the criminal activities they’ve engaged in the last 15 years. The power sectors that spoke through the corporate media demanded that the gang leaders be sincere and keep their word. It would be more important for them to demand that other sectors fulfill their own commitments promises and that each power sector ask itself if it is ready to stop its own criminal activity. This would be a first step in the walk together towards a general “truce” that would go a long way towards changing citizen insecurity into citizen peace.

What does it mean to initiate a truce? The gang leaders have already shown us: that those whose actions generate violence and crime stop and renounce their actions so there can be a frank dialogue with the government and society.

For a truce to become generalized, the majority of politicians would have to give up their behavior that is at odds with transparency and public service ethics and be open to dialoguing with society. Do politicians involved in corrupt public acts dare recognize that they are corrupt? Will they ask forgiveness for the errors they have committed since the political transition started in 1982?

A truce in the agro-export business

A general truce must involve all sectors, including, for example, the agro-export companies that cultivate African palm and sugar cane. Dozens of murders have taken place in the regions where those exporters have their vast plantations, due to their fierce desire to take over even more lands that aren’t legitimately theirs or aren’t ruled by the agriculture legislation. Fulfilling that violent desire means that blood will continue to flow in Bajo Aguán and Sula Valley and that many peasants, by need and the siege of foreign interests, will continue to engage in land seizures. Only a general truce would offer the opportunity to dialogue honestly and sincerely to find ways to resolve these serious conflicts. There is no question that the country’s agricultural situation is a focal point of sharp conflict in which a truce is urgently needed.

A truce in the dam construction

A general truce must also involve those interested in building hydroelectric dams. The Inter-American Development Bank provided funds to national capitalists associated with Asian ones to build a hydroelectric dam over the Río Gualcarque in the northern part of the department of Intibucá. Some 10 indigenous communities of the Lenca people, members of the Civic Council of Grassroots and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, declared themselves in resistance to impede the building of the dam. The community leaders maintain that they aren’t against the dam per se, since it will generate clean energy. What they oppose is that it’s being built with no input from their communities and is controlled by businesses that have profited from dirty energy for years, bringing only misery to native communities.

The State’s response to this resistance has been violent. The police and military cordoned off the communities, which only increased the tension in the already volatile western part of Honduras, stoking a conflict that threatens to lead to bloodshed. A truce in the construction of this dam would be an important step to both open new spaces for dialogue and find appropriate ways out of the conflict.

A truce in the mining industry

Yet another focal point of sharp conflict is in the multicultural northern department of Atlántida, on the Caribbean coast. Several communities, supported by the Catholic parish of the town of Arizona, have declared themselves in a struggle to defend their natural resources, currently threatened by mining companies that plan to extract iron oxide. The most aggressive of the businessman is the son-in-law of Miguel Facussé, one of the emblematic Honduran businessmen, noted for his participation in controversial investment projects and unscrupulous and savage defense of his companies.

The mine owners, conspiring with the Tela and Arizona municipal authorities, carried out joint operations with army and police support to terrorize the population and tried to bribe leaders and communities backed by environment and natural resource authorities. The situation has become extreme, with death threats against the parish priest and various community leaders. This is an arena in which a truce must come first from the mining interests. Instead of insisting on exploiting the mineral wealth to the detriment of community interests, they should begin dialoguing with the community residents and take the initiative in innovative uses of the natural resources in harmony with nature, respecting community rights, benefitting the local people and producing a fair income for the national treasury.

A third focal point of conflict is centered in the area of Locomapa in the mountains in the eastern portion of the department of Yoro, ancestral territory of the Tolupan indigenous peoples. A Canadian mining company began exploiting the various minerals, among them gold, silver and antimony, ten years ago. The link between this company and local businessmen has joined this conflict provoked by the mining company with older and more sensitive confrontations over timber exploitation between the Tolupans and the logging companies and saw mills in the area. The connections and consequences of this ongoing multifaceted conflict in Locomapa are not just strictly economic or legal. If not stopped, they could extend even to the Sula Valley and affect the area of Guaymas on the Guaymon River, whose waters carry cyanide and other chemicals used for open pit mining in the Locomapa mountains.

Establishing a truce there that breaks the model imposed until now by the mining and timber industries would stop some of the bloodshed and create an opportunity for dialogue between the Tolupans and environmental organizations that would allow the companies, native peoples and other community members to find a joint solution to the conflicts that are increasingly impoverishing the indigenous population every day.

A truce in the educational system

A truce is also needed in the national public educational system. The leaders of the teachers’ unions and many of their rank-and-file disagree with the decisions made by the education minister, which on more than one occasion were even rescinded by Honduras’ Supreme Court. This push and pull is turning public education into a battleground rather than what should be the most important arena for the flowering of national development.

The prevailing tension between the government and the teachers on all levels of the public sector make it impossible
to build a qualitatively and quantitatively authentic project that corrects the present deficiencies in the system. The tensions and the deficiencies alike are connected to the corruption that runs up and down the entire educational sector.

A growing conflict in public education has worsened in the last three decades. Both the teachers’ unions and the government officials have taken to the trenches looking always for the greatest benefit for their own cause without considering the improvement of education as the main motive for any decision they make. A truce in public education would provide an opportunity to halt the corruption and collusion among many teachers’ union leaders and Education Ministry officials and engage in constructive dialogue to hammer out a strategic public policy proposal on national education.

A truce in the media

Since the beginning of the year various signs have pointed to the possibility of a truce to interrupt the logic currently undermining the State’s institutionality.

One such sign was the media bill that originated in the executive branch and was supported by various sectors of civil society. Although there were warnings of risk and manipulation from the beginning, this initiative began to break up the iron-fisted control by a few wealthy families over the radio airwaves and the millions of dollars in tax exonerations and other privileges they enjoyed. These families led a boycott against the proposed law using their political influence in the government and the weight they still have in society.

They mainly justified their boycott of the bill by characterizing it as a “muzzle law” that went against freedom of expression and could imply a threat to other public liberties. In this paradox the owners of the radio and television monopolies, which constitutionally belong to the Honduran State, suddenly became the defenders of freedom of expression and other public liberties they themselves have never wanted to respect. The height of cynicism and hypocrisy came when, to avoid appearing too rigid in their negotiations with the government, they proposed a special “truce” they called “a media pact,” but it was tailored to the needs and interests of the powerful families that own big media. Powered by petty interests, it appears more a proposal to morally regulate the content of media programs than an agreement to move toward equalizing the distribution of national airspace. As a result, the upshot of all the debate about the media and state regulation has been to stir up feelings about the lack of national consensus, yet again revealing the iimpunity, corruption and social inequality, and the weakness of institutions that bow to the country’s most powerful.

An encouraging sign

A second positive sign of a genuine truce in midst of the violence and crime is the proposal for unity in the fight against impunity made by Julieta Castellanos, president of Honduras’ National Autonomous University. She questions the prevailing situation in the institutions of justice and proposes substantive changes in how they operate.

The fight against impunity arose due to the justice system’s ineffectiveness in dealing with victims. The dynamism of this struggle today generates controversy, arguments and debates that reveal the rottenness of a justice system trapped in the claws of corruption, collusion, negligence and human right violations.

One consequence of the first steps in the fight against impunity is a shake-up in the National Police and the Public Ministry. Police officers and officials affected by removals, firings and threats of investigation and legal charges due to the changes already initiated sought revenge. Despite it all, however, the fight against impunity has pushed forward this year, albeit in a context highly controlled by both traditional and new interests that are extremely vulnerable to media manipulations and jolts like the 2009 coup against President Mel Zelaya.

The emergence of the Alliance for Peace and Justice and the Coalition against Impunity, formed by local organizations of victims, show an ability to be a factor for social cohesion, especially among political and social sectors seeking to attain important transformations of the State and society. The consciousness that is starting to develop in diverse areas of civil society—enthused by the ideal of moving towards justice while fighting impunity—is marking a new path that differs from the political and social polarization prevalent after the 2009 coup. The struggle against impunity is a wedge that is putting pressure on the rotten structures of the institutions of justice.

Lobo in the eye of the storm

The State is intervening in its own institutionality. This has been its main survival strategy of both the current government and the majority of bipartite governments since the 1982 transition from military rule. They knew perfectly well that survival literally means “living with limited means.”

With such weakened state institutions, Honduras is now experiencing a situation similar to what happens when a hurricane razes homes and families resist the ensuing rains with houses made of cardboard roofs and walls of corroded sheet metal, boards, nails and bit of plastic left behind by the floods. That’s what the Porfirio Lobo Sosa government looks like as it reaches the end of his term. Everywhere the rented institutionality—including its very reason to be—has broken down. The only goal now is to make it to the end of his term at whatever cost.

Honduras accepted precariousness as a form of government. President Lobo sees the water rushing by and the storm whipping around and hides as though resigned to a permanent crisis with no horizon in sight. The dark thunder clouds from past and present hide the dramatic reality, which cries out for the clarity of good government right now. So President Lobo will finish his time in office governing outside of state institutionality.

A government of commissions
and sub-commissions

At least eleven oversight commissions and sub-commissions have been appointed to public institutions in the three and a half years of Lobo’s administration. They have followed dozens of other legal structures and executive and legislative decrees in an attempt to make believe that Lobo can govern the state apparatus. The improvisations and the number of special commissions and petitions are attempts to confront the conflicts breaking out all over. But all they are doing is showing the extent of the institutional crisis riddling the State. The precariousness reveals not only that state institutionality is breaking down but also that it has lost its own identity and any understanding of its purposes. If the public institutions were to fully perform the functions for which they were created, all problems and conflicts could be resolved in the framework of already existing institutionality. The majority of them, however, not only find themselves in a weakened state due to their own officials’ incompetence, but have also succumbed to the arbitrary and capricious laws of the strongest and most powerful.

Today we are living a time of oversight commissions and sub-commissions with a government that governs by executive decree and laws that are reformed and re-reformed by the National Congress. This intensifies the perception that life and citizens’ rights are at permanent risk.

These are emergency times

The crisis in public security and in the institutions of justice is clear evidence of this defenselessness that will grow as long as the government keeps responding to more crisis and conflict with more commissions and special petitions as the only way to cover up a formally collapsed government that not even President Lobo himself believes in.

The crisis and the conflicts have gone way beyond the ability of the President and the State. We live in a permanent state of national emergency where formal institutionality only accomplishes functions incompatible with the rule of law.

The need to find a solution to these conflicts and ongoing crises, however, is leading many civil society organizations to support and even participate in commissions and organizations outside of but parallel to the formal institutions. If the Public Ministry has been an administrative disaster and has been used as a den of corruption for criminal transactions, it’s natural that, in the search for justice and the fight against impunity, the organizations that have come together in the Alliance for Peace and Justice would propose not only the creation of an oversight board for the Public Ministry but also candidates to sit on it, advocating that the Alliance itself be in charge of evaluating the ministry. In fact, they have already succeeded in getting both the attorney general and his deputy to resign.

Despite this and other similar efforts, these extraordinary measures will obviously not resolve the underlying problem that creates the conflicts that end in new crises, which is the precariousness or total absence of State institutionality. Hence, the most important work doesn’t involve substituting extraordinary measures for the normal functioning of the State but rather recovering and reinstituting a functionality that can genuinely legitimate the already existing state institutions.

Do politicians even
get what a truce is?

A truce among political parties in the current electoral process would help reduce the confrontation and polarization that is today more acrimonious than ever. However, to judge by what we see every day, the very peculiar and damaging way the electoral campaign leading up to the general elections in November is being conducted gives no sign that politicians are thinking about a truce among the parties to help restore public health. On the contrary, it is developing in a hostile, dog-eat-dog environment similar to what we went through in last November’s internal primary elections.

The fraud and irregularities that occurred in those elections confirmed that both the old and new political parties and the electoral procedure are the problem, and not the solution the profound national crisis cries out for.

The electoral carnival

This is the first time in the three decades since these electoral processes began, even with their now customary vices, that different segments of society are seriously asking themselves if elections will indeed take place at the end of this year. The emergence of this doubt is in itself worrying because where there’s smoke there’s usually fire…

This doubt coincides with the data gathered from the most objective opinion surveys, which warn of an electoral process plagued by irregularities, dishonesty and behavior that verges on criminal. The parties and their political bosses are demonstrating they have learned nothing from the distant or recent past. They continue to use tricks against the tricks they themselves invented previously just to keep clinging to power with no interest in whether their actions are legitimate or not. All that matters to them are their own calculations of what’s good for them. With respect to everything else, they have their lawmaker lawyers who at the right time will tweak the legislation to fit these calculations.

In these circumstances the electoral carnival continues at its own pace with no truce or even so much as a brief pause along the path to reflect on the enormous damage this is doing to democracy and the ethics that should prevail in all political activity for the common good.

Meanwhile the gangs wait

The announcement by the gang leaders of a unilateral truce in their criminal actions, for example, was met by silence or by the rash and even violent vindictive opinions of certain sectors. Not one single powerful key player took the hint from this example; much less has anyone answered with any other proposal that matches the gravity of what today’s circumstances demand.

Official silence and social skepticism are the only answers the gang spokespeople received. They are still waiting for a government response.

Ismael Moreno, sj, is envío’s correspondent in Honduras.

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