Honduras is a failed state and, unless US policy towards it changes radically, many thousands more will head north. Since the military coup in 2009 there have been three corrupt elections. The last, in 2017, which saw Juan Orlando Hernández (JOH) re-elected when he had clearly lost, led to even more repression. Persecution of human rights defenders is unceasing, even after international condemnation of the murder of Berta Cáceres five years ago. Seven were killed in 2020, and four young leaders from Garifuna communities, abducted in a single night seven months ago, are still missing. Curfews during the Covid-19 pandemic appear to have worsened the day-to-day violence: eleven corpses were found in the street in one week in January; bodies are being chopped up and left them wrapped in plastic. Perhaps the most emotive case occurred earlier this month: a doctor and student nurse, who had been working with Covid patients, were arrested for breaching the 9 p.m. curfew. The doctor was freed, but the nurse died in police custody. Protests erupted. Five people were arrested, tortured by the police and forced to confess to crimes they didn’t commit.
Central America’s ‘Mosquito Coast’, the home of the Miskito people, stretches between Honduras and Nicaragua. The border is at a point that juts out into the Caribbean: Columbus called it Cabo Gracias a Dios for the shelter it provided on his last voyage. As the storm that became Hurricane Eta formed above the seas of Venezuela on 30 October, it headed west towards the cape 2000 kilometres away, following the track of Hurricane Edith in 1971, Mitch in 1998 (which killed seven thousand people in Honduras and three thousand in Nicaragua), Felix in 2007, Ida in 2009 and many other lesser cyclones.
Donald Trump said last year that migrant caravans, mainly of Hondurans, were coming to the US from ‘shithole countries’. But now he says that the president of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernández, is doing a ‘fantastic job’. Trump and JOH recently reached an agreement declaring Honduras to be a ‘safe place’ for asylum seekers trying to reach the US. JOH also promised to help the US tackle transnational criminal organisations. He’s well placed to do this. Last November, his brother Tony was arrested in Miami and accused of drug trafficking and possessing illegal weapons. At his trial in New York, which concluded last week, the jury found Tony Hernández guilty. He faces at least 30 years in prison for bringing 200,000 kilos of cocaine into the US between 2004 and 2018, in packets often stamped with his own initials.
A fraudulent election one year ago gave Juan Orlando Hernández a second term as president of Honduras. The protests that followed were violently repressed. By the year's end, 126 demonstrations had been held, leaving 30 people dead, 232 injured and more than 1000 in jail. But on 22 December 2017 the US government congratulated Hernández on his success, referring with no apparent irony to ‘the close election result’ and ignoring a call by the Organisation of American States for a new ballot.
Twenty-four people have been killed by police in demonstrations since the presidential election in Honduras three weeks ago. The centre-left Alliance, headed by Salvador Nasralla, appeared to be the clear winner after 57 per cent of votes had been counted, but a suspiciously dramatic late swing towards the incumbent, Juan Orlando Hernández, gave him a lead of 1.5 per cent when the final count was in. Protests against election fraud sprang up nationwide. Some police units initially refused to take part in repressing them, but they were bought out with pay rises and, allegedly, bribes to top police officers.
A week after apparently losing an election in which he was constitutionally barred from standing, the president of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernández, now seems to have carried out a coup (‘autogolpe’ in Spanish) to keep himself in power.
Since the murder of Berta Cáceres in March 2016, several more community activists have been killed in Honduras. And little progress has been made in solving Cáceres’s murder. Eight people have been arrested, but court hearings have been postponed several times because of the prosecutors’ failure to produce evidence, ignoring the judge’s deadlines. Data collected from phones and computers and in police raids has not been presented in court. The government says the judicial process continues, but has admitted that the crime’s ‘masterminds’ remain untouched.
One year ago, Berta Cáceres was asleep in bed in La Esperanza, Honduras, when gunmen burst into the house and shot her. She died in the arms of Gustavo Castro, a Mexican environmental activist who was injured but pretended to be dead until the murderers had gone. Instead of being treated as a victim, Castro was regarded as a suspect and prevented from leaving the country. Members of the Council of Indigenous Peoples of Honduras (COPINH), which Cáceres led, were also interrogated. Eventually investigators turned their attention to those who had threatened to kill her in the preceding months. Seven arrests were made, but the people who ordered the murder were left untouched. Six weeks ago, Castro filed a petition against the Honduran government for the way it treated him and for its inaction in charging those behind the crime.
According to the campaign group Global Witness, 116 environmental activists were killed in 2014, a fifth more than the year before. Many of them were leaders of indigenous communities defending their land. The most dangerous place for environmental campaigners is Honduras, where 101 were reported killed between 2010 and 2014. The chief activist of the indigenous Lenca community, Berta Cáceres, a campaigner against dams and mining projects, told Global Witness that she led a 'fugitive existence' because of death threats. 'They follow me,' she said. 'They threaten to kill me, to kidnap me, they threaten my family. This is what we face.' She was awarded the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize. Last Thursday she was murdered.
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.
One of the parties contesting Sunday's election in Honduras has seen 18 of its activists murdered in the last 18 months. The LIBRE party’s presidential candidate is Xiomara Castro, the wife of the former president Manuel Zelaya, who was deposed in the military coup of July 2009. Despite the intimidation, LIBRE shows signs of breaking the cronyism of Honduran politics. Since the end of the dictatorship in 1982, the National Party and the Liberals, both products of the traditional oligarchy, have traded the presidency without disrupting the dominance of the 13 families that run the country. (Zelaya was a Liberal; the incumbent, Porfirio Lobo Sosa, is a Nationalist.) The current Liberal candidate is well behind, but the last opinion poll (they are banned in the month before polling day) gave the National Party’s Juan Orlando Hernández a one-point lead over Castro. The oligarchy is clearly rattled.
Earlier this year the WWF announced that Nutella, the chocolate spread, would soon be produced only from sustainable palm oil. This sounds like good news. Millions of hectares of rainforest have been cleared to make way for palm plantations. In Borneo and Sumatra, this could soon mean the extinction of the orangutan. The smog that recently enveloped Singapore was caused by fires used to clear forests.
According to official records, there were 54 murders in Honduras on Christmas Eve. With a violent death every 74 minutes, a rate that more than doubled over Christmas, the country is four times more dangerous than Mexico. In 2012, 7172 murders were recorded. That’s nearly one per thousand inhabitants, by far the highest murder rate in the world.
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 fire at Comayagua on 14 February brings the number of prisoners who have been killed in prison fires in Honduras in the last decade to more than 530. The government’s inaction in the face of repeated prison massacres may well mean that it is found guilty at a hearing of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights on 28 February, concerning a fire in 2004. President Lobo described what happened at Comayagua as a ‘tragedy’; others have called it ‘an accident waiting to happen’. But it is already clear that the authorities were at the very least culpable in allowing prisoners to die unnecessarily, and may well be more deeply implicated.
The government of Honduras, which justified the illegal coup that brought it to power in 2009 on the grounds that it was necessary to protect the constitution, recently amended the constitution to give itself the power to create ‘special development regions’ with their own (yet to be determined) laws. The hope is to build a brand new ‘charter city’ with up to 10 million inhabitants (in a country with a current population of only seven million).
One of the more interesting cables to have been wikileaked so far is the United States’ official assessment of the overthrow of the president of Honduras on 28 June 2009, and whether or not it was a coup. On 25 August State Department officials were still pondering the question. The significance of their decision was that, if Zelaya’s ousting was officially recognised as a ‘coup’, the US government would have had to pull the plug on all aid going to the de facto regime in Tegucigalpa. Hillary Clinton and the rest of the US government very much wanted to avoid having to do that, so they wavered until it no longer mattered. If they had wanted a timely and thorough assessment of the legitimacy or otherwise of Zelaya’s expulsion from office, all they needed to do was to refer to a cable sent by their ambassador. Hugo Llorens sent a cable to the White House and to senior State Department officials (including Clinton) on 24 July, less than a month after the event.
On the night of 14 June, Luis Arturo Mondragón was sitting with his son on the pavement outside his house in the city of El Paraíso in western Honduras. He had often criticised local politicians on his weekly radio programme, the latest edition of which had just been broadcast. He had received several death threats, but disregarded them. At 10 p.m. a car drew up and the driver fired four bullets, killing him instantly. Mondragón was the ninth journalist to be murdered so far this year. Honduras is now officially the most dangerous country in the world in which to work for the press.
Obama fluffed it. That’s the only reasonable conclusion to be drawn from the way the military coup in Honduras has played out over the last few months. Claiming that they still regarded Manuel Zelaya, expelled on 28 June, as the legitimate president, the United States eventually got round to appearing to put pressure on the illegal regime in October. Unfortunately, their action was either so hesitant or so deliberately manipulative that Zelaya lost the best chance he had to return to power. The ostensible justification for the coup was that Zelaya was making unconstitutional moves to run for a second term as president. However, despite the Honduran Congress, Supreme Court and most of the media maintaining this fiction, it was obvious that the real reason was his swing to the left and alliance with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.