Ten Days in Honduras

John Perry

Ten days in Honduras: a TV reporter and a cameraman, a radio reporter, a trade union leader, the head of an indigenous community fighting forest destruction, two transsexual activists, two bodyguards of the director of the agrarian reform institute and a lawyer were all murdered. The daily political killings are rarely investigated. Even if they lead to arrests, there is a backlog of 93,000 criminal cases awaiting trial.

Assassinations are carried out with impunity, but the ruling oligarchs die peacefully in their beds. Miguel Facussé, who called himself ‘the most powerful man in Honduras’, died last week aged 90. He once admitted on television that he arranged the killing of five peasant leaders opposed to his aggressive acquisition of land for palm-oil plantations. He said in 2012 that he had reasons to kill a human rights lawyer shot at a wedding, though denied he was responsible. When a reporter who had been investigating his land grabs was kidnapped and tortured, he said that she had been warned. His connections with political murder and drug-smuggling were never investigated, despite an independent submission to the International Criminal Court.

Facussé was one of the people behind the military coup that saw the reformist president Manuel Zelaya ejected from the country in his pyjamas six years ago. The coup was justified by the claim that he was planning to snatch a second term in office. The charge is repeated in Hillary Clinton’s Hard Choices, where she admits plotting to ‘render the question of Zelaya moot’ by helping to rush through elections whose result the US immediately recognised. The latest dubious election, in 2013, was won by the National Party's Juan Orlando Hernández. JOH was president of Congress in 2012 when it sacked and replaced four Supreme Court judges. Earlier this year they gave him the constitutional change that was supposedly thwarted when Zelaya was ousted: the right to stand again for president in 2017.

But investigations into his last election campaign may yet thwart his next one. David Romero, the director of radio and TV Globo, said in May that he had evidence that JOH financed his campaign with funds embezzled from the Honduran Institute for Social Security by a series of front companies, which later handed over cheques (Romero says he has copies) to the National Party. Five Globo journalists have been murdered since the coup. Romero says he has recordings of meetings at the president’s house with the companies who laundered the money, presumably to be released if anything happens to him.

The timing of the scandal could hardly be worse for JOH. His unpopular law to privatise the social insurance fund has recently gone through congress. It reduces state payments to the fund as well as the benefits received by public sector workers, outsources the provision of health services and pensions to the private sector, and stops subsidising medicines. It coincides with the near-collapse of the public health service: a lack of medicines, dialysis machines, X-ray plates and other supplies has led to the deaths of up to 3000 people. The middle classes have started protesting, alongside the working-class protests that began after the coup. Huge early evening processions of marchers with torches are taking place; hunger strikers outside the presidential palace are calling for JOH’s resignation.

He says that he knew nothing about the embezzlement but is determined to root out the culprits. The chief suspect turns out to be one of his rivals, Ricardo Alvarez, then president of the National Party. According to JOH, while some of the marchers are naturally (like him) angry at the misuse of public funds, others want to focus the blame on him so that the real villains escape. They are not marching against corruption, he says, but are opposed to his fight against organised crime. Furthermore, he points out, the opposition is getting help from Venezuela.

JOH has been in Washington portraying himself as a fighter not only against drug crime but against world hunger. In Tegucigalpa, the US ambassador says JOH's proposals to tackle corruption are interesting and worth deep study. Meanwhile, the US pushes ahead with Joe Biden’s billion-dollar plan for Central America, which will boost Honduran military spending and provide JOH’s government with huge amounts of additional aid.