It’s three years since the coup in Honduras that sent President Manuel Zelaya into exile in his pyjamas. Porfirio Lobo, who took over as president in January 2010 following highly questionable elections, is more than halfway through his term. The only grounds for optimism are offered by the resistance movement that sprang up after the coup.
Much that’s wrong with Honduras is illustrated by a recent incident. In the small hours of 11 May, in the remote Moskitia region, there was a drugs bust led by helicopters from the United States Drugs Enforcement Administration. The facts are clouded, but an on-the-ground investigation appears to confirm that sacks of cocaine had been transferred from a small plane to a boat which – spotted by the DEA helicopter – was then abandoned, with the drug-runners escaping into the night. A nearby passenger boat, about to put into the small port of Paptalaya, was mistakenly fired on, and four people were killed and several injured. The DEA personnel prevented people from helping the victims, violently intimidated the local community and did nothing to secure medical assistance for the injured. No drug traffickers were arrested, though 400 kg of cocaine was recovered from the drifting boat. (According to the Honduran police, the four victims were in a boat that fired on the authorities; the DEA says that none of its agents shot at anyone.)
The incident is indicative of four characteristics of Honduras since the coup. The first is drugs. In a suspiciously precise assessment, the DEA says that 79 per cent of cocaine smuggling flights from South America land in Honduras. Drug-running makes money for some of the country’s most powerful people. Miguel Facussé, described by the New York Times as ‘the octogenarian patriarch of one of the handful of families controlling much of Honduras’s economy’, was a strong supporter of the coup. He has been known to the US authorities as a drug-runner since 2004.
Second, violence is widespread. The murder rate in Honduras is four times Mexico’s, and it is now the world’s most dangerous country for journalists, with 23 assassinated since the coup. Four deaths in a remote region, especially in one of the country’s indigenous communities, are unremarkable. Last weekend, DEA agents killed another man in the same area.
Third, the peremptory official investigation into what happened in Moskitia in May is typical. Four months after the Comayagua prison fire in which 360 people died, no one has been charged. Police were implicated in the murder last October of the son of the rector of Honduras’s main university and, last month, of the journalist Alfredo Villatoro (an associate of President Lobo). No one has been charged in those cases either.
Fourth, ordinary people, especially landless peasants or indigenous communities in areas like Moskitia, receive little from the state and have little influence over it. Powerlessness and poverty have fed support for left-wing governments across large parts of Latin America, much to the chagrin of their once-dominant oligarchies. The resistance movement in Honduras has chosen its candidate for the November 2013 election: Xiomara Castro, Zelaya’s wife. She has emerged as a powerful and unifying political personality both in attacking the coup and in challenging the elite of which she used to be a member. But in a country with little respect for the democratic process, and where the United States turns a blind eye to defects that it would quickly point out in Nicaragua or Venezuela, she has a formidable task in turning popular support into electoral success.