A country-laboratory for Washington’s security policies
The investigation that led to the arrest of Berta Caceres’ actual killers
is just one more proof that the United States is governing in Honduras.
Everything that happens in the country should be seen from that perspective...
and also from the perspective of Juan Orlando Hernández’s reelection project.
The deterioration of Honduran institutional structures is why Washington
decided to turn this country into a laboratory for its security policies,
while Hernández’s excessive ambition takes us towards a regime
that is increasingly authoritarian, repressive and militarized.
Ismael Moreno, SJ
Two months after Berta Cáceres’ assassination, which deeply moved Honduras and the rest of the world, the Public Ministry put out warrants for the arrest of several people accused of participating in the crime. US Ambassador James D. Nealon was the first to praise the government for its successful investigation. It wasn’t until afterwards that President Juan Orlando Hernández patted himself on the back, claiming the merits of this achievement against impunity.
The Public Ministry linked five men to the crime committed on March 3. On May 2 it ordered the arrest of four of them, who were quickly indicted and locked up in a prison close to the capital.
Sergio Rodríguez Orellana, an employee of Desarrollo Energetico S.A. (DESA), the company responsible for the Agua Zarca hydroelectric plant Berta was fighting against, made arrangements with Douglas Bustillo, a retired Army lieutenant who was second-in-command of DESA’s private security and had already threatened Berta back in 2013. Bustillo hired the services of Mariano Díaz Chávez, an active major in the Army in the process of being promoted to lieutenant colonel and also an instructor for the Military Police for Public Order. Díaz Chávez, who ran a network of hired killers linked to drug trafficking, was in charge of hiring the twin hitmen Edilson and Emerson Duarte. Emerson wasn’t arrested until a few days after his brother, when the murder weapon was found in his possession.
These detentions revealed how involved the Honduran armed forces are in organized crime and hired killings.
According to reports pulled from phone taps, about US$44,000 were invested in this criminal operation, divided among the five men involved. Who paid this sum? What’s the relationship between the DEAS employee and the company’s manager? And even higher up, between the manager and DESA’s owners and stockholders, who are top-level executives of supermarkets, banks and other companies, the elite who run the country’s economy and commerce? How high up did the US government decide to go with this investigation, as its own people conducted investigations parallel to Honduras’ Public Ministry?
They are all pieces of US policy
The weeks preceding the capture of Berta Caceres’ killers were marked by revealing news affecting the National Police. The media unexpectedly led with abundant coverage of the involvement of high-level police officers in two assassinations that happened years ago: that of the anti-drug office’s director, Arístides González, in December 2009, and the adviser to the anti-drug struggle, Alfredo Landaverde, exactly two years later.
Without giving the names of the officers involved, the news first came out on April 4 in El Heraldo, a Tegucigalpa newspaper that leads the government’s media operations. The same information came out 11 days later, with names, in The New York Times. In a nondescript way, the national media mentioned the resignation of powerful politician Arturo Corrales Álvarez’s as foreign affairs minister the previous day. During those same days they announced the definitive installation of the Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH), a body answering to the Organization of American States.
All the names appearing in the Times article are pieces of the same policy that has turned Honduras into a laboratory for Washington’s security policies in recent years.
The police and drug trafficking
The information about the high-ranking police officers’ participation in the murder of the two men involved in the struggle against drug trafficking caused a reañ commotion. Many deduced from it that death squads organized by the highest police ranks and acting on the plans and orders of drug barons in Honduras had also executed other prosecutors, middle-ranking police officers, investigators and other state officials.
According to the information, most of the national police chiefs in the last decade have acted as pieces of the criminal structures linked to drug trafficking. In their own defense, those implicated fingered former security minister and current National Party leader Oscar Álvarez as the person who gave their names to link them to crimes in which he, as minister, together with his then-deputy minister and now mayor of San Pedro Sula, were directly responsible.
Why this resignation?
In this tense environment, what’s behind Corrales Alvarez’s resignation? Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández and his closest collaborators are keeping the answer to themselves. The reason for their silence is surely that his departure from his post coincided with a statement in The New York Times that the security ministers of all the most recent presidential terms knew perfectly well about the killing of the officials in the anti-drug fight but didn’t act. And as it happens, Corrales Álvarez was security minister before he was appointed to Foreign Affairs. While in the Security Department he had systematized information about the fight against organized crime and from his position launched a campaign that led to the capture of the main drug barons and their extradition to the United States.
No background provided either in the powerful corporate mass media or in the alternative media archives would lead one to think Corrales Alvarez had any participation in the fingering and later capture of the police chiefs linked to the killing of the two officials in the anti-drug fight. Amongst speculations and conjectures, President Hernández limited himself to stating that Corrales Álvarez was moving on to take an advisory position in his government.
For at least 15 years, he was the architect of all dialogues where conflicts were ironed out and bridges were proposed on roads that seemed not to lead to any exit. He was the man ready with the magic wand with whom all actors who seemed inflexible in public would negotiate under the table. He also has been the first man the US government contacts when making decisions about Honduras.
While the reasons for his resignation were kept in the dark surrounding the President’s closed circle, the MACCIH was officially being set up and a Special Commission was being created to purge the National Police.
Governed from Washington
Even though the capture of Berta Caceres’ killers and the disclosure of information confirming the direct connection of high-ranking police officials to organized crime is positive news, we need to look at these facts from other angles. Do they express diligence and competence by the Public Ministry and the government to face impunity? Or do they express the will of the US government, which is increasingly present in the country’s politics to tidy up Honduras’ deteriorated institutional structures?
Little of what has been happening in the Honduran scene over the past five years can be understood without taking into account that almost all of it responds to decisions made in Washington. From the arrest and extradition of businessmen, mobsters and politicians linked to drug-trafficking and money laundering, to the installation of the MACCIH and the creation of the Special Commission to Purge the National Police, everything is intimately linked to the White House’s security policies in Central America. Honduras today is a laboratory-country, the only country in Latin America governed directly from Washington.
A country of extraditable people
Honduras is a country of people subject
to extraditions to the United States, a practice within the laboratory to warn other countries and other drug lords that Washington could replicate what is happening here in other places if they don’t take heed. These extraditions are also happening because Washington has decided to subordinate Honduran legislation to US legislation given the extreme deterioration of our country’s institutional structures. Washington’s distrust in the Honduran State’s legal instruments, especially those of its judicial system, is expressed in the recent extraditions of Hondurans to the United States. The US government sees Honduras as a disaster of such magnitude that it recognizes the crisis will not be solved by “consultancies” or financing the capacity-building of public institutions, and much less by letting Honduran officials act autonomously in anything having to do with investigations of organized crime or running the judicial system. Washington is clear that it needs to send in its own people to take the reins in these decisions.
Berta’s assassination proved it
Berta Caceres’ assassination, no doubt emblematic though hardly unique, and the events since then, offer proof that the United States is directly intervening in our country.
On March 4, the day after the crime, the US ambassador showed up at the house of Berta’s mother, where the wake was being held, and with her permission joined in the mourning. This gesture, as everyone grasped, would have consequences. The ambassador was telling Honduran society and its government that the United States would take on investigation of this crime as its mission and would commit to presenting results that would defy the reigning impunity. The material killers were apprehended two months later in clear contrast with the lame processes carried out by Honduran justice, with their slow, dubious and discouraging results.
envío learned that two parallel investigations were being conducted, one by the Public Ministry and one directed by the US, of which nothing was leaked either to the government or to Berta’s oen family. It is yet to be seen what the Public Ministry and judges will do, how the trials will be conducted, and what the sentences will be. Above all, it remains to be seen whether the investigation will go as far as the crime’s masterminds.
yet backs the government
Despite Washington’s distrust of the political actors who have always been its allies in Hondurast, it isn’t breaking with them because it has no alternative ones. This explains its commitment to investigate Berta’s murder, even if it later gave all the credit to the Hernández government. It’s how Washington can justifies the support it still gives the President.
Washington is pressuring the Honduran government to pursue crime transparently, investigate corruption cases and confront the most known cases of impunity. It’s pressuring it to improve its transparency in the use of public resources and be accountable with the bilateral US aid.
And it’s even leaking information to media critical of the government to force it to be accountable by feeling watched. However, it keeps supporting the very government it is pressuring. To justify that support to the international community, it needs to clean up Honduras’ public administration.
Washington’s greatest interest is to maintain the government’s stability. Bringing justice to the Berta Cáceres case helps achieve that; so does backing and advising the MACCIH to pressure the government to move forward in the fight against corruption and impunity. The recently installed MACCIH received $5.2 million from the US government so it could get started working “without any contretemps.”
“We won’t let any pig
run off with a corn cob”
Another angle from which to look at the capture of Berta Cáceres’ killers and the purging of the National Police is Juan Orlando Hernández’s reelection campaign. Everything that happens up to November 2017, the country’s next general elections, must be seen through the prism of the President’s ambition for power, which he never hid during his four years at the head of the National Congress or his two-and-a-half years so far as President?
To make sure he has all the reins in his hands, the President has taken total control over the three branches of State and the offices of the attorney general, national human rights commissioner and comptroller general, as well as the Supreme Court of Audits, the Supreme Electoral Court, the National Registry of People, the Honduran Institute of Access to Public Information and an important part of the Armed Forces’ Joint Chiefs of Staff. He also created, to later control, the Military Police of Public Order. And it must also be mentioned that he has significant control over the decisions made by political opposition parties.
The electoral process will officially start in September of this year. But anticipating that date by three months, Hernández and his team of unconditional followers just launched an expressive and rather vulgar campaign slogan: “Aquí no dejaremos ir chancho con mazorca” (We won’t let any pig run off with a corn cob). It is a warning that they are prepared to waylay any kind of surprise that could impede JOH’s reelection.
Zelaya is the best ally
In this context, as hard as it may be to believe, Hernández and his closest circle found the best ally outside of their ranks in Manuel Zelaya. They are drawn together by their mutual desire to be reelected. And even though they have different ways of reading the national reality and different discourses, and raise banners of different colors, their boundless ambition to be President forever is similar. Hernández, proposing extractivism and model cities from the extreme right, and Zelaya, proposing to re-establish the country from the “left” opposition, maintain a polarization that is attractive to the electorate. Who has a chance of winning and who stands to lose? The answer goes without saying. Even if Zelaya were to pull the most votes, Hernández has anticipated everything and won’t allow “any pig a corn cob.”
If anyone has any doubts, the factor that guarantees Juan Orlando Hernández’s victory in the reelection match between these two politicians is Washington, ready to prevent any correlation of forces that could favor Zelaya.
Zelaya has Washington’s veto
The mere thought of Mel Zelaya’s possible win causes angst in Washington because it brings back recent ghosts the US wasn’t able to control. He’s seen as a serious reversal of its regional security policy, which is based on cleaning out the main drug-dealing mobsters, preventing violence and building social and political walls that can contain Central American migration, such as those proposed by the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle.
Mel Zelaya was vetoed in Washington and he and his followers don’t have the capacity to successfully counteract that. Juan Orlando Hernández knows the “gringos” won’t accept Zelaya’s triumph and is counting on it. He also knows Zelaya’s ambitions because they’re similar to his and he’s playing with them.
An unbeatable competitor
Zelaya has renowned leadership in
an important sector of the Honduran opposition and an intelligent political practice. He believes his leadership has the greatest political pull among the national leaders and that’s surely true. He intuits that given the ingrained national polarization he’ll get the highest percentage of votes by combining those who follow his strong-boss style with an appeal to the population unhappy with the nation’s deterioration.
His political intelligence brings him this far. But the correlation of forces doesn’t favor him. Juan Orlando Hernández has a strong vote very close to or equal to what Zelaya could get, but also has several other advantages. He has the whole country’s institutional structures under his control. He has all the money he wants to buy the votes of a ragged population with very low educational levels. And most importantly he has the US government’s backing, and therefore that of the European governments. All this makes him an unbeatable competitor.
Where will this deterioration
and JOH’s ambition take us?
What Juan Orlando Hernández doesn’t have—no matter how hard he tries—is a way to slow down the systemic deterioration and structural instability in which Honduran society is immersed. And just as the phenomenon of the indignant torches arose one day in May 2015 without anyone foreseeing it, least of all him, so could new unexpected situations arise and put an end to his ambition for power.
The country’s structural instability combined with his excessive ambition could take us down two paths. One is towards the consolidation of an authoritarian regime based on repression and a militarization that will instill fear in society. The other is towards social explosions not controlled by the formal opposition that could either provoke greater chaos or feed alternatives that raise the awareness of the social leaders, allowing them to channel those who are unhappy onto an organized course.
The closure of Globo TV
So far, the trend we see is towards the consolidation of an authoritarian project led by the political, business and military extreme Right with a strong fundamentalist religious foundation. Heading in that direction, a new incident that happened in May was the closing of Globo TV, which along with Radio Globo represents the most critical anti-government voice seen and heard in the capital. Owned by an old Liberal businessman who migrated into the ranks of Zelaya’s LIBRE party due to his loyalty to its leader and directed by controversial reporter David Romero, the television station was closed down by the government, justifying its measure by claiming the lack of compliance to some administrative norms.
Both international conventions signed by the State and Honduras’ own Constitution put the right to freedom of expression above administrative error. Ignoring this principle, the television station was closed and the threat of closure hovers over Radio Globo.
Other media that don’t echo the official discourse have received indirect threats. Legal and technical norms are being examined with a magnifying-glass in the search for excuses to cancel frequencies and permits. Observers see it as a clear sign of a trend for the near future: the closure of spaces of freedom, control over the opposition, strengthening of the media wall and stronger alliances among politicians, business and the military elite in an accelerated drift towards an extreme rightwing political, military and economic model.
What model is Honduras heading for?
We’re headed towards an authoritarian government with high doses of personalism and a strong military component, increasingly intolerant of criticism that will only tolerate a controlled and co-opted opposition and will criminalize and discredit opposition it can’t control.
Towards a government that represents the interests of transnational corporations, especially those of extractivist industries, assembly plants for re-export and those dedicated to telecommunications, tourism, commerce and finances, allied with the Honduran business elite as junior associates.
Towards a government with considerable investment in social assistance programs aimed at the poorest population for proselytizing purposes and to substitute public policies that would decrease the inequalities and generate economic, social and educational opportunities.
Towards a government defended by a very well organized publicity apparatus that controls the media through official publicity and discredits criticizing media.
Towards a government founded on a religiosity that subjects itself to an authority as a divine design and, based on a providential conception, resigns itself to reality without any determination to transform it. Such a government would count on the backing of most of the main religious leaders, who are either committed to the model or simply remain silent in the face of corruption, impunity and the violation of human rights.
A time of authoritarian democracies
…or an opportunity?
A project like this fits well with the continental and global trends. The emergence of forces from the extreme right in politics and economy would support it. The changes taking place in South America, the Trump phenomenon and all that it reveals, as well as the lame results
of “democracy” in Mexico and Central America all fit well into this “laboratory” Honduras has become over these last seven years since the coup. It is a laboratory from which what we tend to call “authoritarian democracies” have emerged.
Even though Honduran society is in turmoil and there are hotbeds of unrest and frustration all over the country, there are no signs that this effervescence will feed transforming trends in the short term. However, there are the medium and long terms. The different sectors of the social and political movement that over the past seven years has expressed itself against the negative dynamism set up by the coup and against neoliberal politics through the Indignant Torches Movement now has the opportunity to stop the consolidation of an extreme right dictatorship by starting this effort with internal processes of reflection, debate, proposal building and the articulation of common issues and interests.
The current moment presents Honduras’ social movement with important challenges. Even though moments of notable movement have happened during the years since the coup, like the Resistance against the coup itself and later the March of the Torches, neither strength nor articulation nor the capacity for joint proposals characterize today’s movement. It offers the movement an opportunity to redefine its strategies, critically evaluate its actions over the last 15 years, debate the trends that are opening up and design medium-term proposals with alliances to be established and a course to follow.
What Berta left us
Berta Cáceres’ murder demonstrated the reserves the social movement still has, but also showed its profound weaknesses. She revealed how far a growing awareness has reached in a broad sector of the society of the poor around caring for the environment, defending common goods and Nature, resistance in the territories and the strength of community. She especially displayd the human wealth of the ethnic communities, in particular the Lencas, Garífunas and Tolupáns.
These issues are mobilizing the call for greater articulation and the construction of grassroots, social, communal and political proposals from very diverse sectors, both rural and urban, and from the grassroots as well as from professionals, academics, politicians and intellectuals.
What needs to be faced
The objectives for which Berta gave her life impacted the consciousness of thousands of people in Honduras, moving them to ask themselves what to do in response to this bloodshed. However, this impact doesn’t produce short-term changes. The conflicts and distrust within the social movement remain intact, just as they were before her cruel death.
It’s known to all that internal divisions also existed within the nucleus of Berta’s own primary family, accentuated in 2013 and 2014, and decreasing in 2015. Individuals and organizations with a great ability to see the speck in their brother’s eye and not the beam in their own exacerbated these divisions and the contradictory ways of understanding the work and struggle, which were mixed with personal attitudes.
The crime has made way for joint proposals by nationally linked entities that can only be launched if the weaknesses, prejudices and discrediting characteristic of many organizations and the social movement’s leadership are acknowledged.
The internal enemy
The growing awareness that defends common goods, identifies the damage of the extractivist model and characterizes the current regime as a “dictatorship of the extreme Right,” together with the increasing support from international solidarity, are tools enough to counteract the “subjective conditions” that hinder the articulation and construction of a social grassroots proposal that represents the dreams, interests and struggles of the different Honduran social sectors. They are enough to promote a mobilization within organizations that will lead them to debate the subjective ghosts eating away at both them and the best known leaders of the social movement.
In the country’s current circumstances, the external enemy—the neoliberal extractivist model, embedded in the extreme Rights’ project of authoritarian and military personalism—is no more powerful or destructive than the internal enemy within the organizations and their leaders, expressing distrust, stigmas, apathy, disparagement, dependence on resources from cooperation agencies, the absence of mysticism and voluntary work to avoid risks... Once this internal enemy is established within the social organizations
it can overshadow the true enemy and even make it disappear from the radar.
When this happens, the organizations and their leaders attack each other and hunker down to destroy one another. This happened in El Salvador in 1975, when the poet Roque Dalton was summarily tried, accused of being an infiltrated CIA agent and executed by his own people. It happened in 1983, when Comandante Ana María was murdered by a leader of her organization, accused of betraying the political that same that leader was imposing. Both cases resulted in the loss of the life of two people deeply committed to their country’s social transformation for no greater reason than that they proposed debates to question the official line. Less known cases also occurred in Honduras during the eighties.
The fundamental task
The internal enemy has taken up residency among the organizations of the social movement, but has not yet acquired citizenship or displayed all its destructive power. There is, however, plenty of fertile soil for it to feed upon, to grow, become strong and destroy. The fundamental task today is to face this internal enemy. Starting to eradicate it from one’s own house will allow the accumulation of energy to collectively transform our common house.
Ismael Moreno, sj, is the envío correspondent in Honduras.