End of a Narcostate?

John Perry

Joe Biden has a Central America problem. Countries that turned reliably neoliberal after the ‘small wars’ of the 1980s have become unwieldy again. After sixteen years of neoliberalism, Nicaraguans returned Daniel Ortega to power in 2007 and re-elected him this month in a vote which Biden dismissed as a ‘pantomime’. In El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, elected in 2019 with Trump’s blessing, has been described as a ‘narcissistic dictator’ by a senior Democrat because of his growing authoritarianism, secret deals with violent gangs, making bitcoin legal tender and fostering links with China. Riding high in opinion polls, he now calls himself ‘the world’s coolest dictator’.

In Honduras, Biden’s problems stem from the period when he was vice-president and the mildly reforming President Zelaya was ousted in a military coup. Neoliberal government was restored, but the corruption and drug-trafficking created a narcostate, led since 2014 by Trump’s confidant Juan Orlando Hernández. When Hondurans voted to end JOH’s mandate in 2017, the US ensured that a rigged result kept him in power.

JOH is finally standing down as Hondurans go the polls again on Sunday. His security in retirement depends on the National Party retaining control so he can avoid extradition to the United States, where his brother has been condemned to life imprisonment for drug-trafficking. The party’s candidate, Nasry ‘Tito’ Asfura, currently the mayor of Tegucigalpa, is under investigation for the alleged embezzlement of $1 million. He is likely to protect JOH if he wins.

He may well lose, however. Until last month, the National Party’s core vote of about 20 per cent looked sufficient to give Tito victory, but two opposition parties have since united. Salvador Nasralla, who should have won the last election, gave way to Xiomara Castro and the last poll put the new alliance on 38 per cent.

Biden would ideally prefer a result that curbs the narcostate, but he’s unlikely to want that to come from a Castro victory. The co-ordinator of her Libre party is her husband, Mel Zelaya, the victim of the 2009 coup. Castro has carefully avoided any impression of radicalism, but while she appears to have won trust among the electorate she is unlikely to have won Biden’s. In a move suggesting heightened US concern, it nominated a full ambassador to Honduras after five years without one.

The election period has already been marked by violence, with the deaths of around thirty congressional or local candidates, mainly from opposition parties. The perpetrators are unlikely to face the law. In the case of Honduras’s most notorious political murder, the killing of Berta Cáceres in 2016, only one of those who commissioned the crime has been convicted and he has still not been sentenced. Cáceres’s daughter Olivia Zúniga, a Libre congresswoman standing in the election, was almost murdered in October when four men broke into her house and tried to strangle her. Fewer than 3 per cent of Hondurans are said to recognise the country as a ‘full democracy’.

Hundreds of fake Twitter accounts have spread authentic-looking lies about Castro; fake opinion polls appear alongside real ones; 300,000 voters still don’t have the identity cards they will need at polling stations; police seized a ‘Molotov cocktail’ factory run by gangs planning to disrupt the voting; a shoot-out during a Liberal Party rally left at least one person dead; a presidential candidate hostile to JOH was arrested along with his wife and mother-in-law; Asfura received a ‘climate positive’ award COP26 in Glasgow despite being closely associated with deforestation and attacks on environmentalists.

In the year since Biden was elected president, the number of people apprehended at the Mexican border has reached a record high of 1.7 million. A fifth of them came from Honduras. The narcostate is also a failed state. It failed to deal with the pandemic and has Central America’s highest Covid death rate. It failed to respond to two major hurricanes last year, with many people still left homeless. Seven in ten households live in poverty despite $20 billion supposedly being devoted to tackling the problem since the last election (after publishing the poverty figures, the national statistics institute hurriedly deleted them).

Even conservative media in Honduras are now proclaiming Castro’s likely victory, but many people still expect another rigged election. That could lead to massive demonstrations which, as in 2017 when at least 24 people died, would be violently repressed. Biden would have a compliant partner in Asfura but he would still be running a narcostate. And many more Hondurans would head for the Rio Grande.


  • 27 November 2021 at 12:42pm
    Delaide says:
    The Cold War is over, why would Biden be so keen to keep Honduras ‘compliant’? Especially so when poor governance by the party in power has created such problems for him at the border, not to mention the narcotics.

    • 27 November 2021 at 1:08pm
      John Perry says: @ Delaide
      Just because US policy makes no sense, that's no guarantee they won't pursue it, unfortunately. They are sanctioning the country in the region most committed to social development (Nicaragua), regardless of the likely consequences for migration northwards.

    • 27 November 2021 at 4:09pm
      Quebec Scot says: @ Delaide
      I find this question really intriguing. In the mid-eighties I was talking to the late Robert Gilpin before some seminar at Princeton with various State dept cognoscenti. He said something like "watch these guys talk about the Soviets, they're quite calm. When they talk about Cuba they'll foam at the mouth" the general idea being that for the Caribbean and central America it's 'we own these people, how dare they...'. Naive to think this could be a trope of U.S. foreign policy perhaps, but it's not Cold War dependent.

    • 27 November 2021 at 4:57pm
      John Perry says: @ Quebec Scot
      Yes you're right but there is a variant at play: hostility to Russia and China. So Xiomara Castro has pledged to strengthen links with China, as has Bukele. Nicaragua has strengthened links with Russia, which (unlike the US) has supplied it with ample quantities of vaccine. Admiral Faller, head of US Southern Command, told Congress in March that Nicaragua “maintains close ties with Moscow” allowing it to “subjugate the Nicaraguan government and counter U.S. regional goals.”

    • 28 November 2021 at 1:19pm
      Delaide says: @ John Perry
      Great powers in ancient times demanded tributes from vassal states. Perhaps then US feels that those lesser countries in its geographic sphere owe it, if not monetary tribute, recognition of the US’s economic and military power? A turn towards Russia or China might therefore be seen as a mark of disrespect that diminishes America’s sense of its greatness. Not to be tolerated.

    • 29 November 2021 at 6:53am
      nlowhim says: @ Delaide
      It would be a horrible world if the reigning super power were to conduct business on such trivial things akin to gangsterism, even when it ends up hurting itself. And yet all the evidence points to that. Really sad, tbf.

    • 29 November 2021 at 4:14pm
      John Perry says: @ nlowhim
      Mario Vargas LLosa's new novel, Harsh Times, gives a good sense of how the US viewed the countries in its geographic sphere, and to a great extent still does:

  • 29 November 2021 at 3:19am
    John Perry says:
    The first results from the election, with just 16% of votes counted, give Xiomara Castro a commanding lead with 53% of votes (8.00pm local time on Sunday). Tito Asfura has 34%. Exit polls confirm the lead. It is going to be very difficult for the authorities to manipulate a National Party win when the gap is so large.

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