How the U.S. Sowed the Seeds of Its Border Crisis
One of the first casualties of the 2009 Honduras coup was the 19-year-old son of a pastor, who was shot in the back of the head by U.S.-outfitted snipers.
On July 5 that year, Pastor Jose David Murillo, a well-known environmentalist, attended a rally in Tegucigalpa to welcome home the rightful Honduran president, Manuel “Mel” Zelaya, who planned to repatriate himself. Murillo, his wife and children had come to Toncontín International Airport to meet Zelaya’s plane a week after he was deposed. When the charter plane was denied landing rights, with trucks and a grounded 737 blocking the runway, the celebration turned to protest.
Unbeknownst to Murillo, who had taught his children the value of peaceful resistance in his work against deforestation, Honduran military snipers had taken position on the airport’s roof. Watching the president’s plane return to its embarkation point, the crowd that had come to welcome him—many of whom wore crimson and carried banners that read “Bloque Popular”—began shouting and pushing toward the runway. That’s when the snipers shot live rounds and tear gas at the protesters, who were unarmed. “I stood up in front of the soldiers and cried, ‘What are you doing? Do not attack us.’ We had done nothing to provoke them,” Murillo recalled. In the chaos, he was separated from his sons, including his 19-year-old, Isis Obed Murillo, the youngest of five. An hour later, he got a call from his oldest, who said that Isis had been shot in the back of the head by snipers. Ten minutes later, he was dead. When they identified their son that evening, Murillo’s wife, Sylvia, said they “did not have any words sufficient to our grief.”
It was an eventful and tragic week for Hondurans. Zelaya had been arrested in the early morning hours the Sunday before and whisked out of the country. Like Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz 55 years prior, Zelaya was sent into exile in his pajamas. (Whispering in Zelaya’s ear at the airport, perhaps, had been the ghost of CIA agent Enno Hobbing, who told a Central American official in 1954, “You just aren’t convenient for the requirements of American foreign policy.”)
The day of the coup, a referendum on reforming the Honduran constitution had been scheduled. If approved by voters, a constitutional convention, or constituyente, would have designed a more inclusive constitution. “Zelaya was trying to re-create recent constitutional conventions in Ecuador, Bolivia, and Venezuela that had approved new constitutions expanding democratic rights and the power of Indigenous people, women, small farmers, and others at the bottom,” according to Dana Frank, a history professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz.
Though the right-wing media in Honduras and the U.S. painted it as an attempt to win Zelaya a constitutionally banned second term, the convention wouldn’t have taken place until long after his term was up, Frank writes. In her 2018 book, “The Long Honduran Night: Resistance, Terror and the United States in the Aftermath of the Coup,” Frank tells of being blindsided by the overthrow, especially after it was certified by the Obama administration. Frank was an activist with the labor rights nonprofit USLEAP at the time of the coup. She said that the protests organized by a coalition of groups, what she calls the “resistance,” were what most sustained her and her Honduran friends in the coup’s aftermath, and deaths like those of Isis Obed Murillo were what haunted and motivated her.
The Honduran coup turns 10 this summer, and the list of the dead grows, both inside Honduras and at the U.S. border. The world’s great democracy is debating whether children forcibly separated from their parents and placed in cages with no access to showers, and limited due process, rises to the definition of concentration camps. The white supremacist president lends his words for immigration (“invasion!”) to a mass shooter, and the former vice president points to his role in a failing plan to “save” Central America, alongside a long-failed plan in Colombia, as being among the reasons he should be president. Against this backdrop, Frank’s book is useful for understanding the United States’ role in the tragedy at the border and its origin in Honduras. While one accusatory finger in Frank’s pages points to the distortions of the American right, a few more point back at the previous Democratic administration for enabling the violence that helped send so many Hondurans into flight in the first place.
‘From the Outset Let Us Bring You News of Your Protagonist’
If the U.S. has Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” and Norman Mailer’s “Armies of the Night” among the literary depictions of its political struggles, Honduras has “Prision Verde” (“Green Prison”), by Ramon Amaya-Amador. Born in 1916 of a relationship between a priest and his secret lover, Amaya-Amador wrote his first book as a schoolteacher in Olancho Province. According to one scholar, because he “lacked the self-discipline to conform to small-town ways,” he abandoned the classroom and began working in Honduras’ banana fields in the north. When the industry stalled during the Depression and a “yellow sigatoka” blight, Amaya-Amador joined the Communist Party and launched a political magazine, Alerta. Serialized in his magazine, “Prision Verde” became Amaya-Amador’s—and, in Frank’s words, Honduras’—“most famous novel.”
Frank doesn’t dwell on the book’s importance. But scholar Janet Gold recalls the 1950 novel’s prophetic thrust. “By dramatizing the contrasting situations of local landowners who are convinced … to sell their land and one … who refuses,” Gold writes, Amaya-Amador “creates sympathy for the independent-minded character only to then reveal that government troops in league with the foreign company force him off his land.”
The unhygienic living conditions in the camps, the dangers of working with pesticide-laden fruit, the absence of educational facilities for workers’ children, the government’s corruption and complicity in the exploitation of Honduran citizens are just a few of the injustices … [depicted] in the novel. A leader emerges … to lead a strike … and the leader is killed, but his memory lives on to inspire a glimmer of hope.
Beyond the novel’s litany of exploitation, “Prision Verde” “was uncannily prophetic,” Gold writes, “for on May 2, 1954, some 25,000 United Fruit Co. and 15,000 Standard Fruit Co. workers began a strike that lasted sixty-nine days. Workers from other sectors joined … which finally resulted in official recognition of the right of workers to unionize, the creation of an eight-hour workday, overtime compensation, and paid vacations.”
Using fears of another Hugo Chavez in Honduras, all these and other gains would be targeted after the 2009 coup.
The Waffling Obama Administration
Elected in 2006, Zelaya was moving to the left when he was ousted. He brought Honduras into regional coalitions like Petrocaribe and the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), founded by Cuba and Venezuela in 2004. He was on the verge of signing over land to 300,000 small farmers to grow the country’s working-class base. These moves were beyond the pale, and he was removed because of them.
The interim government of Roberto Micheletti that followed immediately began a program of repression to consolidate and legitimize the coup. But the countercoup, in the form of massive protests, sit-ins and occupations of various offices, was immediate and widespread. A collision was coming. “The terror escalated,” Frank writes; “one by one, activists disappeared or were assassinated.” The message was clear; dissent would not be tolerated. During those first days of the coup, CNN, Radio Progresso and Cholusat SUR were shut down, the government “shut off electricity to neighborhoods where protests were particularly strong. In Olancho, where [ousted President] Zelaya came from”—as had Amaya-Amador—“the military reportedly began breaking into houses and capturing young people, forcing others to flee into the hills.”
On July 11, two weeks after the coup and six days after Isis Obed Murillo was shot, Roger Bados, local union president and anti-coup activist in San Pedro Sula, was shot to death by armed men. That same night, three men boarded a bus in Santa Bárbara, ordered opposition activist Ramon García off the bus and murdered him. A month later, police grabbed 25-year-old Irma Melissa Villanueva from a protest in Choloma, outside San Pedro Sula, and, according to Frank, “took her away to a remote location, where four policemen gang-raped her for hours. ‘Now, bitch, you’re gonna see what happens to you for being where you shouldn’t be,’ they told her.” She told her story three days later. For her courage, she faced a second rape, this time with her family forced to watch. We’ll “see if you report us this time,” her attackers told her.
During the autumn after the coup, Micheletti suspended four articles of the constitution, “restricting freedom of transit, banning public meetings not authorized by security forces, and barring the media from criticizing the government—[while] thirty-five hundred to four thousand people had been illegally detained for peacefully demonstrating.”
On Sept. 26, on the 36th anniversary of the use of the national stadium in Chile to house political prisoners after the U.S.-sponsored coup there, the BBC published a photograph of a Honduran stadium being used to detain more than 600 political prisoners. Wondering what she can do to assist, Frank begins by staying informed. Could the Obama administration, sworn in just five months before the coup, help? “We knew that a coup attempt had been stopped in Bolivia the year before and that in 2002 a coup in Venezuela had been reversed after two days,” she writes. “We could feel how surprisingly strong the Honduran resistance was. We knew that the Organization of American States and dozens of countries throughout Latin America and all over the world had condemned the coup ferociously and called for Zelaya’s immediate restoration.” Barack Obama, after all, was the “Yes, we can!” president. Was he cause for hope?
In fact, the administration waffled. The day of the coup, Obama spoke in general terms about respecting “the rule of law.” The day after, Frank writes, the administration was “willing to call it a coup, but by mid-week the State Department had backed off from demanding Zelaya’s immediate return. … Despite the obviously criminal and illegitimate nature of the regime … the Obama administration began treating de facto President Micheletti as Zelaya’s legitimate diplomatic equal.” Ten days after the coup, “Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the United States had persuaded both sides to negotiations in San Jose, Costa Rica,” thereby “successfully transferring power over the situation onto US-controlled terrain [sic] and away from” the Organization of American States (OAS), a majority of whose members “were adamant that Zelaya had to be returned to full powers.”
Furthermore, “Obama and Clinton pointedly refused to ever use the phrase ‘military coup,’ which would have legally obligated the United States to stop almost all foreign aid to Honduras immediately,” Frank writes. She addresses a question that has hung in the air: Was the U.S. involvement premeditated? “We don’t yet have concrete evidence that the United States promoted the coup or approved it in advance,” Frank acknowledges. “We do know that the plane in which the Honduran military flew Zelaya out of the country stopped to refuel at Soto Cano Air Force Base, a joint US-Honduran base, and we can presume that it would not have done so without US permission.” Is that all? No. “We know that four of the six top generals who oversaw the coup were trained by the United States at the School of the Americas/Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation in Fort Benning, Georgia, and that it is unlikely that they would have perpetrated a coup without U.S. approval.” From The Intercept, Frank reports, we know further that “top Honduran military officials attended a party thrown by the US Embassy’s defense attaché. At nine o’clock that night, Kenneth Rodriguez, the commander of US forces in Honduras, left the party to meet with [Honduran] General Romeo Vazquez Velasquez, then returned to the festivities. The next morning, Vazquez led the coup.”
But Frank appears to miss that the Obama administration admitted to knowing about the coup in advance, claiming it did its best to discourage it. Writing in The Guardian, Mark Weisbrot wonders what that discouragement might have sounded like: “Did administration officials say, ‘You know that we will have to say that we are against such a move if you do it, because everyone else will?’ Or was it more like, ‘Don’t do it, because we will do everything in our power to reverse any such coup’? The administration’s actions since the coup indicate something more like the former, if not worse.”
Media Blockade, North and South
Like some of their U.S. counterparts, many Honduran newspapers “loved the coup,” Frank writes. “They were full of fantastic, alarmist fictions: Zelaya is a drug dealer! The Venezuelan and Nicaraguan armies are amassed at the Honduran border, ready to invade to restore him!” As the U.S. media has done with anti-leftist demonstrations in Venezuela, the Honduran media weighted small gatherings in support of the coup as significant, while ignoring protests denouncing the coup attended continuously by hundreds of thousands of Hondurans. The unabashedly false rose to levels that could almost make Fox News blush. “To its eternal shame,” Frank writes, “[the newspaper] La Prensa even ran a doctored photo of the men at the airport carrying the body of Isis Obed, the young man killed by government snipers, in which the blood streaming down from his head had been airbrushed out.”
While the interests of the elite were voiced over a spectrum of fake news forums, President Micheletti continued to preside over a regime of violent censorship. He confiscated the equipment of broadcast stations that questioned the official narrative of the coup plotters, closing down such stations as Radio Progresso or ordering them off the air, as happened with “three radio stations and television Channel 36.” The opposition called this media blockade the cerco mediatico, and Frank recalls that in the U.S., she initially “ran head-on into our own cerco mediatico.”
Although she estimates that about half of the coup opponents protesting in its aftermath had been opposed to Zelaya during his incumbency, media outlets like The Associated Press reduced the opposition to “Zelaya supporters,” or even (in the case of the AP), “die-hard supporters of ousted President Zelaya,” “implying that the opposition was merely fanatical groupies who should have politely given up long before.” That Zelaya had sought a second term was the right-wing shibboleth that U.S. media would not let die. Frank cites Newsweek for leaping into the future, writing that the magazine “even uncritically quoted Jorge Castaneda of Mexico claiming Zelaya was illegally trying to get a third term,” a nonexistent second term notwithstanding.
Indeed, the dishonesty of The Wall Street Journal’s Mary Anastasia O’Grady, unmentioned by Frank, stands out. With such headlines as “Honduras Defends Its Democracy: Fidel Castro and Hillary Clinton Object” and opening paragraphs that read, “It seems that President Mel Zelaya miscalculated when he tried to emulate the success of his good friend Hugo [Chavez] in reshaping the Honduran Constitution to his liking,” one sees the paralytic wing of establishment media pushing a newly elected Obama—who had other projects on his to-do list—to the right, while the left was mostly silenced. On the reticence of Honduras scholars, Frank writes that “those few academics who did have knowledge of Honduras” seldom “stepped in to challenge the administration’s narrative.” Was this the result of timidity after high emotions surrounding Obama’s election, or of the slow caution with which academics work, or both?
Don’t Be Shy, Madame Secretary
With the president getting hammered by the right-wing media for its gestures toward following the law, and with little support from the already marginalized left, the administration began to stall for elections coming that fall. But given Honduras’ media blackout, its abridgement of the constitution and its war on the opposition, the outcome, Frank and other observers note, was a foregone conclusion. “Ongoing repression of basic civil liberties made a free and fair election clearly impossible,” she writes, “while the very same army that perpetrated the coup controlled the physical ballots. All international bodies—including the United Nations, the Carter Center, and the OAS, with the exception of the U.S. Republican Party and a few delegates from the Democratic Party–refused to observe the process.”
Emerging from one of two right-wing parties that dominated Honduras’ two-party system—it hardly matters which—Porfirio Pepe Lobo assumed the presidency. The signal this sent? That violence and impunity may continue. With the administration looking for an escape from the trap it found itself in, given its legal obligations to oppose the coup, Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon wrote Secretary Clinton to suggest the U.S. merely wash its hands. “As we think about what to say, I would recommend that we not be shy. We should congratulate the Honduran people, we should connect today’s vote to the deep democratic vocation of the Honduran people, and we should call on the community of democratic nations (and especially those of the Americas) to recognize, respect, and respond to this accomplishment of the Honduran people.” This, for a victory that was only as legitimate as the coup that preceded it was illegal? There was nothing shy and everything shameless about it.
More Spaces for Our People?
“High on the list” of Lobo’s spoils, Frank writes, was a radical revanchist economic agenda. Land was a key part of this. Another hard-won advance for Honduran citizens, the Land Reform Law dates to the decade after the 1954 strike, with the result that the years 1973 to 1977 were sometimes dubbed the “Golden Age” of land reform. In fact, 120,000 hectares of land were redistributed to campesinos during those four years. According to one scholar, “Over three decades a total of 409,000 hectares (the equivalent of 12.3% of the agricultural area of Honduras) were handed over to 60,000 peasant families (the equivalent of 13% of the rural population).” But in the post-coup atmosphere, campesinos were murdered, their homes within lands legally redistributed were burned, and thugs forced them out on one or two hours’ notice with the threat of armed violence, although the leadership hoped to overwrite this violent expropriation with a legal screen.
To speed up the theft of these lands on behalf of the market, a scheme was born that Frank calls “so far-fetched it seemed unthinkable.” Spread via a viral TED talks brainstorm, the model or charter cities proposal sought to redraw cities as outside a nation’s usual rule of law or sovereignty—think charter schools for whole urban areas—and into which others could migrate, or “vote with their feet.” The initiative would, in practice, appear to liberate markets from human, labor and civil rights protections won via historic struggles and inscribed into the Honduran constitution or reflected in other laws, such as the Land Reform Law.
The mastermind behind the proposal was Paul Romer, a New York University economist, who argued that cities in the developing world should be allowed to develop, free of regulations, under the watchful eye of an already developed, first-world economy, a Big Brother economic protectorate, if you will. (Romer would later head up the World Bank as chief economist.) On his advisory committee for model cities sat Grover Norquist, the archconservative, no-regulation mastermind behind the Tea Party, out of which Trump’s birther narrative against Obama emerged.
The curtain-raiser came in the spring of 2010, with the “Honduras is Open for Business” conference. Mexican entrepreneur Carlos Slim was slated to talk, as was former President Bill Clinton, who eventually pulled out. “Whether the event generated any actual investments was unclear, but it certainly generated a host of mocking parodies in the solidarity world up North: ‘Honduras, Open for Repression.’ ‘Honduras, Busted Open for Business.’” Frank writes.
A few weeks later, presidents Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia and Chavez of Venezuela announced a deal they had finalized with the Lobo regime, which allowed for Zelaya, who had been holed up in the Brazilian embassy, to return legally to his homeland. “The Cartagena Accord, as it was known, contained three key provisions: first, all criminal charges against Zelaya and his top ministers, still in exile as well, would be annulled. Second, the government of Honduras would commit itself to protecting human rights. Third—and here the plot thickens—a legal path would be made clear for the National Front of Popular Resistance to become a political party.” Also known as the FNRP, this was the coalition of labor, land reform advocates, government opposition and former establishment figures around the ousted Zelaya. Unfortunately, rank-and-file members had recently voted not to enter electoral politics, but rather to work outside the party apparatus; this third provision, then, took members very much by surprise, and threatened a rift in the coalition.
But Zelaya finally came home and Honduras was back in the OAS. When Obama appeared with Lobo in the Oval Office, the U.S. leader proclaimed, “Today begins a new chapter in the relationship between our two countries. In part because of pressure from the international community, but also because of the strong commitment to democracy and leadership by President Lobo, what we’ve been seeing is a restoration of democratic practices and commitment to reconciliation that gives us great hope.” The president’s optimism would prove premature. Lobo responded by noting, “We have affirmed our democratic vocation. We have reaffirmed the road to democracy that we are on and that we will be continuing on. We will be opening even more spaces for our people to be able to express themselves.”
In fact, just a month after the accord, “even more spaces” were closing off to Hondurans, certainly to members, for instance, of the Campesino Movement of Rigores, a town in the northern Aguan Valley where peasants were being brutalized into leaving their homes. During a typical incident on June 24, Frank writes, “the Honduran police and the military destroyed almost the entire campesino community … turning a seven-room schoolhouse, three churches, a community center, and more than a hundred houses into burnt-out rubble in a single afternoon. The nearly 500 residents had an hour’s notice to pull out their belongings, then watched as their homes were torched by security forces and crushed by a bulldozer.” And because no judge was present at the site, the order was illegal.
Nor would these “new spaces” for Honduran self-expression apply at work. In September, the Lobo administration passed the Employment Law, “breaking up full-time jobs and turning them into part-time, temporary employment ineligible for unionization or the government’s system of healthcare and pensions,” Frank writes. In October, members of Operation Xatruch, a military-police task force deployed to aid in fighting crime and resolving the land conflict, “captured, detained without charges, and tortured Walter Nelin Sabillón Yanos,” a campesino land activist. “Sabillón testified … that while … in detention … authorities beat him, repeatedly placed a hood on his head, and … applied electric shock to his hands, abdomen and mouth while interrogating him about the campesino movement,” Frank writes. One of the richest landholders, Miguel Facussé, whose private security guards exchanged police and military uniforms for plain clothes when convenient—all while torturing and killing campesinos—even appeared in a U.S. diplomatic cable, collaborating with drug cartels.
Having posed with the corrupt Lobo at the White House, the Obama administration was on the hook to make this right. But after breaking Honduras’ institutional safety nets, the administration didn’t appear to know how to fix things using the same dynamite with which it had broken them. And yet it wasn’t Obama himself, but one of his former Cabinet members (and the people of Honduras) who would pay the price.
Model City Rollout Interrupted
But first, The New York Times Magazine helped Lobo roll out his plan. In May 2012, Adam Davidson of NPR’s “Planet Money” published a profile with the immodest but honest title, “Who Wants to Buy Honduras?” As Frank points out, the article was accompanied by an “outrageous cartoon that depicted a broad, green jungle, punctuated only by a tiny city in the middle, rising amid construction cranes. A yellow plane flew over the city carrying a banner reading ‘THE NEW HONDURAS, EST 2010.’ In front, a sign poked up out of the jungle reading ‘GOOD HONDURAS,’ with an arrow pointing toward the city, and ‘BAD HONDURAS,’ with an arrow pointing off the page. A second sign read: ‘WELCOME TO THE NEW HONDURAS (DON’T WORRY, IT’S NOT REALLY HONDURAS)’.”
Featuring a short profile of Romer and his big idea, the article admitted that Romer, “who is expected to be chairman [of the area carved out of Honduras], is hoping to build a city that can accommodate 10 million people, which is 2 million more than the current population of Honduras.” Whatever euphemisms about voting with feet or other body parts, the phrase “is expected to be chairman” baldly confessed the anti-democratic tendencies behind the scheme. But Davidson adds that Romer’s “[model] city will have extremely open immigration policies to attract foreign workers from all over. It will also tactically dissuade some from coming. Singapore, Romer said, provides a good (if sometimes overzealous) model. Its strict penalties for things like not flushing a public toilet may make for late-night jokes, but they signal to potential immigrants that it is a great place if you want to work hard and play by the rules.” So before Donald Trump told these citizens that they weren’t good enough to come across the border into the U.S., the Obama administration’s allies told them they weren’t good enough for their own country, not within this Romer’s model city borders, at least. Not if they wanted the freedom to walk and chew gum (or not flush) at the same time.
But two days after the curtain was raised on Machiavellian neo-principalities, a deus ex machina struck, giving citizens in both lands a Hollywood-like visual for the violent mummery at play between Honduras’ elite and their U.S. clients. In the pre-dawn hours of May 15, 2012, Frank recounts, “two State Department helicopters carrying Honduran security forces and US ‘advisors’ from a DEA FAST team shot and killed four Afro-Indigenous Honduran civilians—two of them pregnant—and injured four others.” Claiming falsely that the Drug Enforcement Administration agents had participated only in an advisory role, the State Department distanced itself. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland deferred to an investigation underway by Honduran authorities. Frank calls that investigation, skewed to protect the state murders, “incompetent, corrupt and extremely limited.” To wit, the government of Honduras “used its autopsy report to insist that [one of the women killed] wasn’t in fact pregnant.” State Department staff even showed a selectively edited video to members of Congress that alleged to prove that the victims fired on the agents, telling those who hoped to analyze the video that it was classified. But five years later, a 400-page report by the Office of the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Justice confirmed the victims’ and families’ version. “DEA agents had in fact been in the helicopter yelling at the Honduran forces to ‘FIRE, FIRE,’ on the victims in the boat,” Frank writes. Video segments, in fact, “didn’t show any fire from the victims’ boat at all—but it did show shots from the other boat aimed at the victims. The Inspector General concluded that both the DEA and the State Department had misinformed and misled Congress and the public and then obstructed the subsequent investigation.”
For a while, the U.S. press actually began to pay attention, and Congress wrote memos threatening to withhold funds, which had been key to Frank’s previously fruitless campaigns. Between early 2012 into mid-2014, the Obama administration was largely on the defensive over its post-coup Honduras policy, and rightly so, as Frank and other Honduras watchers published scathing indictments of its failures; the murder rate rose (on its way to the world’s highest), women became increasingly unsafe (with Honduras eventually becoming the world’s most unsafe place for them), police corruption grew rampant, and human rights failed to improved.
To stop the bleeding, Lobo flew to Miami to meet with senior U.S. officials, then Vice President Joe Biden flew to Mexico and Honduras. Mexico and Guatemala wanted to decriminalize cocaine, because the renewed U.S. war on drugs was not working, so Biden had this and the corruption scandal dominating headlines about the region. During his visit, Frank wrote, the administration “sought to adeptly reframe the police corruption scandal, the murder rate statistics, and alarm over human rights abuses by US-funded security forces, all within the rubric of the drug war: police killings were subsumed under a generic ‘security crisis,’ and the ‘security crisis’ was the result of drug trafficking.” The devil was not into the details.
Yes, drug trafficking was a reality, but to put it in context, it helps to recall the degree of corruption that the Obama administration tolerated and sponsored. For example, when Honduras’ supreme court banned the model cities initiative because it invalidated the Honduran constitution (arguably a worse outcome than Zelaya’s protections for poor people), the legislature, under the direction of Juan Orlando Hernandez, illegally fired and replaced four of the justices.
By 2014, when Hernandez assumed the presidency after a highly irregular election, he was in control of the courts (which he had filled with friendly justices), as well as the legislature, in which he’d played a leadership role, and the military and police, which Lobo and the post-coup regime had continuously conflated. Laws were passed shielding the government from accountability. Eighty percent of criminal cases remained in impunity. And the ties between drug traffickers and officials were growing ever more evident. The director of national police, Tiger Bonilla, was leading death squads. For the U.S. to continue working with Bonilla was a violation of the its own Leahy law. But officials made up a Catch 22-style workaround that effectively said, “Even though he was the head of police, we will work only with people in the force who aren’t him, although every single one of them,” as Bonilla told a newspaper interviewer, works for him. The U.S. turned out to be lying about this, as it actually was working directly with Bonilla.
Corruption watchdog Sarah Chayes wrote in a report that under the post-coup regimes in Honduras, “It is no longer possible to think of corruption as just the iniquitous doings of individuals. Corruption is the operating system of sophisticated networks that link together public and private networks and out-and-out criminals—including killers.” Chayes links Honduran emergency migration to corruption enabled by the U.S., and faults U.S. support explicitly. “Urban violence and out-migration … are by-products of the corruption of the very government that enjoys US (and European Union) support to combat those ills.”
With this important caveat, Frank’s elaborately detailed tour turns to the infamous caravans, ghosts of Obama’s policy.
In June 2014, the website Breitbart ran a story with the headline, “Leaked Images Reveal Children Warehoused in Crowded U.S. Cells, Border Patrol Overwhelmed.” The article reprised a U.N. report investigating why Central American children were fleeing their countries, unsupervised by adults. The site followed that story, seemingly motivated by humanitarian concern, with a second titled “8 Reasons to Close the Border Now.” Among those reasons, it alleged “disease,” “threat of terrorism,” “safety of U.S. citizens” and “American culture is under attack.” In other words, more right-wing bullshit. A third Breitbart story came the same day: “More than Half of Central American Immigrants on Welfare.” CBS News and the Los Angeles Times followed suit and, as Frank writes, the media were soon reporting that “fifty-seven thousand undocumented, unaccompanied minors from Central America had swarmed across the border from Mexico,” with more on their way. Frank writes, “Overall, this transformation of the public conversation in the United States about Honduras was stunning, and rapid—it took only around three weeks.” She continues:
In the right-wing version, children were taking advantage of lax border enforcement to invade the country (emphasis mine), posing a national security threat. In the liberal version, gangs and drug traffickers were producing terrifying violence in Honduras, making children flee northward, where they were met with scary conditions within the US border enforcement system.
An election year, 2014 also was a turning point. Throughout the year and into summer, activists had been making modest progress in challenging U.S. funding to a country ruled by illegitimate, irregularly elected or unelected leaders who presided over a system that murdered or jailed journalists, activists and the opposition, and whose anti-corruption measures appeared toothless and designed to appease State Department sponsors without actually challenging the leadership. But now, the story shifted to border crossings, gangs and drugs.
It became a kind of obsession, the story disconnected from the United States’ actual role. Indeed, Frank herself writes about the gangs and drug traffickers. But unlike most of this newly urgent coverage of Honduras, she adds important caveats that contextualize the gangs as having a history and show the hard work that activists, many honest politicians, judges, journalists, teachers and other civil society upstanders had been trying to achieve in a society otherwise wrecked with support from the giant to the North. “But let’s be clear,” she writes, “those gangs and drug traffickers took over a broad swath of daily life in Honduras in part because the elites who ran the government permitted and even profited from it. Who was the gang, in this story? … The judiciary was [now] largely corrupt; the criminal justice system functioned to protect the crooked and the murderous. The police were deeply interwoven with the gangs and drug traffickers.”
Ax Murderers for Allies
In New York Times op-ed titled “A Plan for Central America,” then-Vice President Biden—and now a leading candidate for the Democratic nomination for the 2020 presidential race—helped the administration manage the destruction it had wrought, bait-and-switch-style, by promising three things: first, security (though he alludes to his role in crafting the punitive 1994 Crime Bill as a measure of his skills); second, transparency, though under the leadership the U.S. had championed in the previous six years, transparency was hampered; and third, international investment, though the chaos wrought by the rampant impunity would make it nearly impossible to attract such investments (remember how the model cities plan was boosted by the DEA’s helicopter killings?).
Since lots of money hadn’t worked, the administration threw lots more at Honduras ($1 billion newly pledged). It did so while maintaining its decision to not hamstring the money with any real accountability. It did get the Honduran leadership under Juan Orlando Hernandez to agree to some on-paper anti-corruption measures, with Transparency International’s logo sealing them. But by now it was clear to all but the highest investors that the worse things got on the ground, the more money the U.S. sent.
In its execution, much of the new campaign to pacify Honduras reduced itself to scaring children with billboards promising death if they left the chaos there—where death also lurked—and hired a coyote to pursue life in the North (according to Suketu Mehta, author of “This Land Is Our Land,” eight in 10 Central American women who migrate to the North are raped en route). But a marketing campaign against something worse is not a viable plan to stabilize institutions that U.S. intervention spent 10 years helping corrupt. That’s become the American promise to oppressed peoples: However bad things may get, we can always cloak reality under the guise of a targeted ad campaign that rewrites them to our current needs.
While the funding ballooned, the failure of the rule of law in Honduras got so bad that when Frank happened to see then-Secretary of State John Kerry in a Washington, D.C., restaurant in 2016, she introduced herself and said she was working on Honduras policy. “How are we doing down there?” Kerry asked. “We’re supporting the axe murderers,” she told him and walked off.
The Murder of Berta Cáceres
The altar carved into the rock at La Gruta in La Esperanza was offered for the shelter these caves provided to Hondurans hiding from their enemies. In the courtyard beneath is also where Berta Cáceres, unable to escape hers, was given a final mass before being buried in this coldest of Honduran cities.
Cáceres grew up during the ongoing dirty wars and disappearances in Central America that were largely funded by the United States. In Guatemala, an estimated 200,000 people, mostly indigenous, were killed. In El Salvador, U.S.-fanned counterinsurgency operations contributed to an estimated 70,000 killed between 1980 and 1992. Cáceres’ mother, Austra Bertha Flores, a midwife, sheltered and cared for these refugees. Later serving as mayor, Austra Bertha taught her children the importance of solidarity in defense of the disenfranchised.
In 1993, Cáceres founded the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras; its mission was to better the lives of indigenous Lenca people in the face of illegal logging and regional territorial disputes.
Cáceres’ work against the Agua Zarca dam began in solidarity with the people of Rio Blanco, who told her that construction equipment had appeared, with silence surrounding the question of what it was for. At the time, dams were being planned all over Honduras as a means of amping up the country’s electrical power capacity to fuel a patchwork of new mines. A joint project of Desarollos Energeticos, S.A., (DESA) and Chinese state-owned Sinohydro, the Agua Zarca dam targeted the Gualcarque River, a waterway protected by indigenous rights accords because it is culturally and environmentally crucial to the Lenca.
Using a variety of means to maintain constant pressure—petitions, court actions, international appeals to the rule of law and the rights of the indigenous, plus road blockades denying access to the dam site—the protesters were tireless, and the Chinese investors finally withdrew. Death threats followed. In order to protect Cáceres and honor her important work, she was given a battery of high-level meetings (with the pope, for instance) and such awards as the 2015 Goldman prize, which “honors grassroots environmental heroes”—in Cáceres’ case for “a grassroots campaign that successfully pressured the world’s largest dam builder to pull out of the Agua Zarca Dam,” and which also resulted in a celebration at then-House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s office. But these efforts would prove futile; Cáceres’ last days could only have been a terrifying countdown.
Before her death, Cáceres witnessed colleagues like Rio Blanco community leader Tomas García shot and killed while protesting. Other activists were attacked by machete, discredited, arrested arbitrarily and tortured. A February 2016 attempt on Cáceres’ life was aborted at the last minute but played into suspense over an outcome few could have doubted. A month later, Mexican environmentalist Gustavo Castro visited Cáceres to use her internet access while on a trip to the region. When he learned she was living alone and unprotected, he insisted on staying over. That night, in the pre-dawn hours of March 3—a day before her 45th birthday—assassins entered her house and shot Cáceres and Castro. Having surprised the assassins, whose surveillance had assured that she lived alone, Castro survived the shooting by playing dead. When they left, a fatally wounded Cáceres died in Castro’s arms as they awaited medical assistance.
Authorities initially tried to pin the murder on Castro, launching a whisper campaign suggesting a crime of passion. They detained him as a suspect rather than a victim, illegally suspending his lawyer, and his own government was blocked from protecting his rights. But culpability inevitably pointed back to the military and privatized security teams associated with DESA, members of which had been trained in the United States at Fort Benning, Ga., the former School of the Americas.
In the weeks between La Esperanza’s annual artisans festival and its Holy Week, Cáceres’ final mass took place on the steps beneath La Gruta, dedicated to the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception. The environmentalist’s casket was surrounded by thousands of grief-stricken supporters, many of whom vowed to continue her work, and the first of the ubiquitous photographs of her joyous face were held up by the crowd.
The DESA-tied suspects were eventually convicted. While gratified that there was some closure, her family, speaking through Cáceres’ oldest daughter, Olivia, believed that the verdict represented only partial justice. The Honduran leadership, funded by the United States, should be held accountable too, if not the U.S. itself, she argued. And in a strange way, this would come to pass.
Cáceres’ Voice and the Presidency
By certifying a coup eight years before, Frank argues compellingly, the Obama administration was now stuck with and responsible for the highly corrupt President Hernandez, who presided over the world’s highest per-capita murder rate and the most dangerous country for women. For Democrats, the outcome would turn to a more direct form of fiasco, though one that was far less publicized than that other one, in Iraq. While it would do nothing like propel the presidency of Barack Obama to the shoe-throwing, single-percentage-polling levels of infamy that Iraq offered to President George W. Bush, the Honduras nightmare, as Frank suggests in her title, would nevertheless play into the embarrassing defeat of Obama’s coronated successor. Throughout the spring of 2016, while Clinton was enjoying her superdelegate-, DNC- and media-inflated lead over the newcomer and bankruptcy artist Donald J. Trump, the ghost of Cáceres joined the chorus of progressive and populist murmurings, and whispered directly into the electorate’s ears.
Stories of Clinton’s improper handling of emails and her well-paid Wall Street speeches multiplied and echoed throughout the media. Much of the criticism was overstated. Yet the most haunting voice inveighing against Clinton’s expected succession, like the ghost of Hamlet’s father—forceful and dreamlike—was that of Cáceres. In a 2014 interview that resurfaced after the assassination, Cáceres responds to the justification of Clinton’s Honduras policies in her memoir, “Hard Choices”: “We’re coming out of a coup that we can’t put behind us. We can’t reverse it. It just kept going. And after, there was the issue of the elections. The same Hillary Clinton, in her book, ‘Hard Choices,’ practically said what was going to happen in Honduras. This demonstrates the meddling [note the word choice] of North Americans in our country. The return of the president, Mel Zelaya, became a secondary issue. There were going to be elections in Honduras. And here, she, Clinton, recognized that they didn’t permit Mel Zelaya’s return to the presidency. There were going to be elections. And the international community—officials, the government, the grand majority—accepted this, even though we warned this was going to be very dangerous and that it would permit a barbarity, not only in Honduras but in the rest of the continent. And we’ve been witnesses to this.”
The voice of the murdered environmentalist gave fodder to Clinton’s opponents that lasted from just after Cáceres’ death in March until at least late summer. Headlines in such mainstream and progressive media outlets as The Nation, The Washington Post, Democracy Now! and The Guardian assailed the administration, singling Candidate Clinton out in particular, for U.S. policy in Honduras. Throughout the period when Clinton was solidifying her primary victory against the dovish democratic socialist to her left and heading into the general election, headlines asked, “Did Hillary Clinton stand by as Honduras coup ushered in era of violence?” Another read, “Hillary Clinton needs to answer for her actions in Honduras and Haiti.”
This despite the fact that she had long before handed over the State Department to another robbed Democrat, John Kerry, and the Latin America dossier had been largely given over to the proudly tough-on-crime, gaffe-master Vice President Biden. It’s astounding to read of now- presidential candidate Biden’s touting of his Central America plan alongside his touting of his plan for Colombia, the latter widely seen by commentators of the left, right and center as little more than a cocaine-multiplying boondoggle.
As the 2020 presidential election approaches, Frank’s dizzyingly detailed book should serve as a reminder that, to the ordinary voter, the political center was no longer merely a place of consensus but the site of a particular kind of consensus: where not even the world’s highest murder rate could be worse than a “socalist” who wanted to give away free health care; where archconservatives like Grover Norquist could find common ground with their center-left counterparts in a tax shelter that need not move offshore. Though the ordinary voter had rejected this “center” in 2000, 2004 and 2016, to the elite who rubbed shoulders there it was nevertheless a utopian model city to be achieved at all costs, where none of our paid Wall Street speeches would be taxed, and where—thanks to the barriers keeping ordinary voters out—the splattering blood would not reach our bespoke shoes.WAIT, BEFORE YOU GO…
If you're reading this, you probably already know that non-profit, independent journalism is under threat worldwide. Independent news sites are overshadowed by larger heavily funded mainstream media that inundate us with hype and noise that barely scratch the surface. We believe that our readers deserve to know the full story. Truthdig writers bravely dig beneath the headlines to give you thought-provoking, investigative reporting and analysis that tells you what’s really happening and who’s rolling up their sleeves to do something about it.
Like you, we believe a well-informed public that doesn’t have blind faith in the status quo can help change the world. Your contribution of as little as $5 monthly or $35 annually will make you a groundbreaking member and lays the foundation of our work.