Honduras

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By GILBERTO LOPES*

The drama of a country beset by poverty, drug trafficking and emigration

“Like a Netflix series,” said Alessandra Bueso, a journalist at the Honduran study center CESPAD [Center for Democracy Studies], when talking about the state of corruption and the infiltration of drug trafficking in Honduras. Juan Antonio Hernández, “Tony”, a former congressman and brother of President Juan Orlando Hernández, was sentenced to life in prison in the United States for drug trafficking last March, and the president is at risk of being extradited for the same reason when he leaves the country. charge to stand trial in the United States.

“Tony Hernández, a former member of the Honduran Assembly, was arrested and convicted of trading tons of cocaine with traffickers from seven countries. The prosecutor also accused him of ordering at least two murders of drug traffickers, said Jacobo García, correspondent for the Spanish daily. El País in Mexico and Central America.

In March, there was another trial against a Honduran drug trafficker in the Court for the Southern District of New York. It was Geovanny Fuentes. The prosecution alleged at the time that both Tony and his brother, President Juan Orlando Hernández, were associates of the accused drug trafficker.

For prosecutor Jacob Gutwillig, “drug trafficker Geovanny Fuentes operated a huge cocaine distribution business thanks to violence and his connections with the police, the army and the political class, including the current president of Honduras”. “He is the man who ran the drug trade for Juan Orlando, who took bribes with drug money from the Los Cachiros; he is the man who sent cocaine with his initials on it,” said US Attorney Michael Lockard.

For the prosecution, Honduras has become a “narco-state”. “The accused was a fundamental part of the Honduran narco-state,” said a representative of the Federal Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York. In one of those meetings, according to prosecutors, Hernández had declared his intention to “stick drugs through the nostrils of the gringos”, said the journalist from the ElPaís in his note on the judgment.

In that investigation, prosecutors said they had evidence that the president received millions of dollars in bribes from drug dealers in exchange for protection, including from Mexican drug lord El Chapo Guzmán. Geovanny Fuentes' sentence should be announced in January by Judge Kevin Castel, the same person who sentenced Tony Hernandez to life in prison.

Previously, the son of former President of Honduras Porfirio Lobo (2010-2014), Fabio Lobo, was sentenced in New York in 2017 to 24 years in prison for trafficking 1,4 tons of cocaine into the United States. Liberal Party presidential candidate Yani Rosenthal, a prominent businessman who came a distant third in the elections, was also sentenced to 36 months in prison in the United States and fined $2010 million for money laundering. Rosenthal, who was a congressman in the 14-2009 period after the 2017 coup d'état, pleaded guilty to the charges in a New York court in July XNUMX. Nasry Asfura, candidate of the National Party - the same as the president and the most important of the country – is also under investigation for alleged embezzlement when he was mayor of Tegucigalpa.

 

uncomfortable

Lobo and Hernández were the two presidents elected after the overthrow of Manuel Zelaya in June 2009, with the support of Washington and the so-called “international community”. The cases, especially that of President Hernández's brother, received media attention, as was inevitable, but their political dimension was greatly reduced if we think, for example, of what would have happened if a brother of the president of Cuba, or of Venezuela, had been convicted of crimes like these.

This political opportunism that prevails in a region where conservative political groups are easily formed against governments of the opposite line, but close their eyes when major problems occur in governments of similar line, preventing them from being faced with the necessary political force. There is, for example, nothing similar to the “Grupo de Lima” – a conservative group created to support the opposition in Venezuela, now almost extinct – against drug trafficking.

In her work on the infiltration of drug trafficking in the Honduran government, Alessandra Bueso cites the analyst of the Crisis Group for Central America Tiziano Breda, for whom “the prosecution's accusations bother the country's main strategic partner: the United States”. In fact, according to the New York prosecution, the Honduran government's involvement in drug trafficking is evident. What could bother Washington, according to Breda, is that the United States “possibly” have some idea that an allied government promotes drug trafficking. For Bueso, Honduras is attractive for drug trafficking activities not only because it is located “on a geographic route that facilitates the passage of drugs”, but also due to “institutional weakness and the deliberate absence of security forces, especially in the regions that have become drug trafficking corridors”.

In an analysis of the prospects for the elections to be held on November 28 in Honduras, the Crisis Group responded to the question about the importance of these elections, noting that “the humanitarian crisis and instability have dominated Honduras since the 2009 coup, which shook its political world”. A contested new election "could trigger post-election unrest and fuel the outflow of migrants and asylum seekers in Mexico and the United States," they warned. The comfortable victory of opponent Xiomara Castro may have helped to avoid further excesses.

 

Not just drug trafficking

"Return to the left or not," said the correspondent of the BBC Mundo Gerardo Lissardy, referring to last Sunday's elections, “the country's challenges are clear. One of them is the economy. In 2016, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Honduras was 21,7 billion dollars, according to the World Bank, and reached 25 billion in 2019. But in 2020 it dropped to 23,8 billion dollars, affected by the pandemic and two hurricanes. In July, the Central Bank of Honduras (BCH) estimated growth between 3,2% and 5,2% for this year and growth in a similar range for the next.

But the key to the functioning of the Honduran economy is remittances. The BCH estimated that foreign investment would be around $605 million this year, but remittances from its immigrants, mostly from the United States, were estimated at nearly $8,7 billion, about a third of the country's GDP.

In Honduras, 55% of the population lives below the poverty line of 5,5 dollars a day (165 dollars a month); the unemployment rate last year was 11% and the underemployment rate was almost 71%. As of September 2021, an estimated 3,3 million Hondurans – one-third of the population – face acute food insecurity.

 

The most important outburst

The coup d'état of June 28, 2009 gave rise to a mass social protest, politically diverse and socially inclusive, “the most important in the country's modern history”, according to Gustavo Irías, executive director of CESPAD. The economic project promoted by the ruling elite after the 2009 coup was the traditional one, that of “agribusiness, maquiladoras, financial services and communications,” said Irías.

But the project’s driving force was “the privatization of public and common goods, through public-private partnerships and the generous state concession of public goods (road infrastructure, ports, airports and electricity) and natural resources (rivers, sea, land and the forest)”. After the coup, the “relationship with the State was more than essential to ensure these benefits”, supported by the “repressive force of the military and the police in the implementation of the brutal strategy of accumulation by territorial dispossession in the agrarian communities, Indigenous Peoples and Afro-descendants”. The culmination of this extractive project – stressed Irías – “was the Law on Employment and Development Zones (ZEDES)”.

Last June, 32 entities formed an organization to fight against these special regimes that, in Irías' opinion, threaten to hand over sovereignty and national territory to foreign hands, with the justification of creating jobs. The protests will aim at repealing decree 120-2013 that created the ZEDES, with four centers now installed: on the island of Roatán; in the community of Satuyé, in La Ceiba; in Choloma, and another in the municipality of San Marcos de Colón, in Choluteca.

 

We will try again

In such circumstances, there is no way to deter immigrants who are simply looking for a way to survive. Last January we spoke with Juan Galdames, from the Department of Santa Bárbara, in the south of the industrial capital of Honduras, San Pedro Sula. He was staying at the Casa del Migrante in El Petén, Guatemala, and was on his way to the United States. We spoke on the phone and he told me his story. “The situation in Honduras has not been easy for years. Governments are in bad shape, only they are getting rich. They are not on the side of the poor people. They only see their own benefit. There are no jobs, and if there are jobs, they don't grant labor rights, nothing. Salaries are very low, they do not recognize a labor right”, he told me. “What I have in mind is to enter the United States one day. That's what we all have in mind. We will try another time. As many times as necessary!

In the fiscal year that ended last September, Hondurans made up nearly half of the 701.049 Central Americans detained along the southwestern border of the United States, according to figures from the Customs and Protection its Borders of that country, recalled Gerardo Lissardy.

In a special collaboration for CESPAD, Helen Montoya analyzed “The responsibility of the United States in creating a migratory phenomenon that today they cannot contain”. US relations with Central America have been conditioned to the “protection of its economic, political and military interests”, for which “it has had the support of corrupt elites”, willing to support interventionist policies, said Montoya.

After a decade of conflict in the region in the 80s, peace agreements were negotiated. But with the end of the civil wars, “poverty, inequality and lack of opportunities increased, giving rise to the first waves of migration to the United States”, making this issue the main point of the US agenda in the region for several years now.

Quoting Elizabeth Oglesby, a professor at the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Arizona, Montoya reminds us that "too often we don't consider how the United States helped create the situation from which many of these people are fleeing." In 2014, Central America experienced a migratory wave, mostly made up of minors. It is estimated that at least 70.000 children traveled to the United States unaccompanied.

The US Congress responded by approving aid of 750 million dollars, and the Barack Obama administration created the Alliance Plan for the Prosperity of the Northern Triangle (which includes Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras), without having contributed in any way to resolve the problem.

In October and November 2018, Montoya said, thousands of people formed “migrant caravans” that traveled to the United States in groups, on foot. “In early 2019, three new waves came out (the sixth, seventh and eighth) and, in early 2021, a ninth”. It is estimated that 17.000 people were part of these caravans. In his opinion, the reelection of Juan Orlando Hernández “created a profound political and social instability that had a decisive influence” on the beginning of the migrant caravans from the national territory to the United States.

Then-President Donald Trump took this as an affront and cut funding to the Northern Triangle. According to him, the governments of these countries were not doing anything to stop this flow of people. More recently, Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, referring to Vice President Kamala Harris's visit to the region, said: “…the United States has spent decades contributing to regime change and destabilization in Latin America. We can't burn down someone's house and then blame them for running away..."

 

electoral triumph

Xiomara Castro, wife of deposed President Manuel Zelaya, won the November 28 presidential elections with around 52% of the vote. The final composition of the 128-member Congress was not yet known. According to preliminary data, the Libre party would be the first force in Congress, with 51 deputies, 21 more than in the previous mandate. The National Party, which had 61, would go to 40, followed by the Liberal Party, with 21, and the Salvador Party of Honduras, of Salvador Nasralla, first vice-president of Zelaya's list, with 14 deputies.

Of the municipalities, Libre won two of the most important, Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, among others, although the National Party continues to control nearly half of local governments. Castro proposes a refoundation of the country, with the convening of a Constituent Assembly and the reform of several laws approved by the current government.

*Gilberto Lopes is a journalist, PhD in Society and Cultural Studies from the Universidad de Costa Rica (UCR). author of Political crisis of the modern world (Uruk).

Translation: Fernando Lima das Neves.

 

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