This talking point about a “95% drop in border migrant encounters from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela” is problematic.
Why? Let’s examine encounters along the migration route, from north to south.
Here’s where the 95% comes from.
US Border Patrol’s apprehensions of these 4 countries’ migrants really did drop steeply from December—after Mexico agreed to accept Title 42 expulsions of these nationalities, and once a “humanitarian parole” option opened up for some of them.
But there’s no 95% drop anywhere else along the migration route, where people fleeing those countries have become stranded.
Since December, Mexico’s encounters with these 4 countries’ migrants are only down 42%.
Since December, Honduras’s encounters with Cuban, Haitian, and Venezuelan migrants are up 10%.
(Nicaraguan citizens don’t need passports to be in Honduras, and thus don’t end up in Honduras’s count of “irregular” or “undocumented” migrants.)
Since December, in Panama’s Darién Gap, migration from Cuba, Haiti, and Venezuela is up 250% (though down 57% from a high in October, before Mexico started accepting expulsions of Venezuelan migrants).
The upshot: migration from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, Venezuela may be down sharply at the US-Mexico border, due to aggressive Title 42 expulsions.
But the expulsions have absolutely not deterred these nations’ citizens from migrating. They’re still fleeing—but they’re stranded.
This is a quick reaction—and discussion of solutions—with my colleagues Maureen Meyer, Joy Olson, and Ana Lucía Verduzco, who were with me over the past few days to witness a mounting humanitarian crisis.
This podcast was recorded in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, where WOLA staff are on a field visit to research migration. Four current and former WOLA staff members—Adam Isacson, Maureen Meyer, Ana Lucia Verduzco, and Joy Olson—visited the Honduras-Nicaragua border region over the April 29-30 weekend.
While there, we saw—and spoke with—migrants who had just entered the country from the south, after a harrowing journey through Panama’s Darién Gap and a hostile reception in Nicaragua. We found:
Hundreds of people, from numerous countries, out in sweltering heat. Many were traveling as families, often with small children.
People waiting to obtain documents that would allow them to take an expensive day-long bus ride onward to Guatemala.
Aid workers—from the Honduran government, humanitarian organizations, and local civil society—doing their best to manage the situation and minimize harm. But struggling to do so with very limited resources.
A Honduran policy that refuses to detain or deport migrants in nearly all cases: a recognition of reality that has reduced the reach of organized crime.
Migrants regarding Honduras as one of the less arduous stretches of the U.S.-bound migrant route. Honduras is in a “sandwich” between harsher policies in Nicaragua and Guatemala.
A wide variety in migrants’ knowledge of what lies ahead, from the dangers of the journey, to the requirements for asylum, to the U.S. government’s confusing and ever-changing policies, pathways, and obstacles, like the “Title 42” expulsion policy that is expected to end on May 11, 2023.
Overall, we can’t help but conclude:
Nobody should have to go through this. What we saw is as severe as one would expect to see from people fleeing an armed conflict. People aren’t fleeing what would be defined as a “conflict”—they are fleeing a 21st century phenomenon of their countries becoming unlivable for a combination of reasons. What we witnessed is the result of governance failures in the region, antiquated migration policies in the United States, and a failure to cooperate and communicate all along the migration route.
Because of this, we’re not going to be able to deter our way out of this. Threatening ever harsher obstacles has failed in the past, it will fail now, and it will carry a terrible human toll.
But until we see fundamental change to U.S. migration policy, and to the conditions forcing people to leave, our communities and the migrants alike will be stuck with a patchwork of partial pathways to legal migration: from asylum to humanitarian parole to partial, inconsistent temporary worker and refugee programs.
Considering the magnitude of the crisis we witnessed at the Honduras-Nicaragua border, today’s measures are all woefully partial, and no substitute for real reform.
Hello from Tegucigalpa. We’re just back from a couple of days in the Honduras-Nicaragua border zone, in the department of El Paraíso. An extraordinary number of migrants are passing through this zone right now, most of them after passing through the Darién Gap and Nicaragua.
After passing through the Darién Gap, Panama, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua, some U.S.-bound migrants get stranded en route as they struggle to raise money to pay bus fares.
At the beginning of this century, Venezuela was one of Latin America’s wealthier countries. Back then, the idea of its citizens using an image of their flag to evoke pity in Honduras—the 2nd or 3rd poorest nation in the hemisphere—would’ve been ludicrous.
I’m flying first thing Wednesday morning for a research trip to Honduras, a country where I have to admit I’ve done little work in recent years. The last time I was there was 2005 or 2006. I look forward to working again in Central America, where I started my career in the 1990s.
I’m sorry, of course, that it’s necessary to do so. Honduras is one of several countries on the route between the Darién Gap and Mexico, a route being transited by something like 1,000 people per day. (Honduras measured an average of 689 “irregular” migrants transiting the country during each of the first 112 days of 2023—mostly from Venezuela, Haiti, and Ecuador—but hundreds more per day probably evaded detection.)
With a few WOLA colleagues, I’ll be in the country’s two largest cities, and in zones along the Nicaraguan and Guatemalan borders. I’ve got a long list of research questions, which will form the backbone of a report I hope to publish as quickly as possible after our return. The outline’s “Roman numerals” so far are:
Migrants transiting Honduras
Honduran migrants returned
Honduran government response
How U.S. government policy shapes what migrants experience
Response of other international actors
I will post photos and impressions (for security reasons, after I leave a region) both here and at my Mastodon account.
I’m grateful to all who have agreed to meet with us in the coming days, and to those who’ve offered me some extremely useful advice as I prepared the trip.
This is the first time in many years that I’ve organized a trip to a place where I don’t already have a lot of relationships with people. In Honduras, I only have a few. But I expect to change that over the next several days.
Addendum added 8pm on April 25: Here’s the nationalities of migrants encountered by authorities in Honduras since January 2022. You can see a notable recent drop in Cuban migrants and increase in Venezuelan migrants. Both are subject to Title 42 expulsion into Mexico, but Venezuelans have become at least somewhat adept at using the “CBP One” app to make appointments for asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border.
In this tweet, Honduras’s armed forces report “identifying and securing” a coca field in the country’s rural far east. These bushes are quite tall: they were planted some time ago. Certainly before the term of President Xiomara Castro began nine months ago in late January.
U.S. Southern Command’s online magazine yesterday ran an interview with the general who heads the Honduran armed forces’ Joint Chiefs of Staff. The article is headlined “Honduran Armed Forces in the Fight Against Crime.”
Gen. Tito Moreno lists the following missions currently occupying his military:
fighting against organized crime
fighting against narcotrafficking
fighting against common crime
aerial drug interdiction and “destruction of clandestine landing areas”
countering illicit activities in border areas
rescuing people in cases of natural disaster
Honduras, a poor and unequal country that Freedom House classifies as “partly free,” maintains a military at no small cost in resources ($280 million in 2017), human rights, and political involvement. But do any of these roles require the maintenance of a military?
fighting against organized crime or narcotrafficking: military tactics only necessary if the country has allowed the situation to deteriorate to the extent to which civilian police are “outgunned”
fighting against common crime: this is the foundational role of a civilian police force, and is not a military role
aerial drug interdiction: could be performed by either an air force or a police air wing
countering illicit activities in border areas: elsewhere, frequently performed by police, civilian border patrols or gendarmes
natural disaster search and rescue: could be performed by a civilian emergency corps, though militaries are often the only institution with inactive assets, like helicopters and personnel, that can be “surged” in a disaster
Notably missing from Gen. Moreno’s list is “defending against external aggression” or “combating internal insurgents.” That makes sense, since Honduras faces no credible scenarios in either category right now.
“The Honduran armed forces are still undergoing a crisis of identity and cannot decide whether their role is to defend territorial sovereignty and integrity, protect the state from real or fictitious threats, or else continue performing law-enforcement duties,” the most cited of Honduran civil-military analysts, Leticia Salomón, wrote in 2012, three years after a coup in which Honduras’s military played a central role. The above list indicates that nothing has changed since then.
Two of Honduras’s neighbors, Costa Rica and Panama (which both have Freedom House scores as high—or higher—than that of the United States), confront these threats with police forces that are better trained and resourced than Honduras’s. While those forces have units that occasionally use heavier weapons, particularly near coasts and borders, they retain their civilian character and are not significant political actors.
The interview at Southcom’s magazine fails to make the case for maintaining a military in a small country like Honduras, with few traditional defense threats and enormous development and democratic deficits.
Here’s the great Leticia Salomón of the Centro de Documentación de Honduras, who has been studying Honduran civil-military relations since the 1980s, excerpted in criterio.hn’s coverage of a conference:
“The 2009 coup d’état opened the door for the military to leave the barracks and invade political space, but the National Party [of President Juan Orlando Hernández] turned the military into an armed wing of the governing party,” said sociologist Leticia Salomón during a forum held Tuesday on the anti-military struggle of Berta Cáceres.
Moreover, President Juan Orlando Hernández “in his legal and illegal presidential terms” turned them into “guardians of a personal political project impregnated with corruption and drug trafficking,” the sociologist also said at the virtual event organized by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation and the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (Copinh) with the participation of analysts from Honduras, Guatemala and the United States.
The military are also “executioners” of a new version of the “old enemy”, as the defenders of territory and resources are seen, who must be “fought, imprisoned or killed.”
Salomón reflected that “it seems that the old positions of the 80’s are always being revived and that they are there hidden, dormant and always ready to come out at any moment to regain space and to try to impose a vision that is extremely harmful and damaging for the country.”
This reconceptualization of the “old enemy” introduces the concept of criminalization, which has three components. The first, the military and police ready to repress; the second, churches and the media ideologizing the conflict “and introducing a Manichean vision” that turns into good and evil those who are fighting for or against the defense of territories and resources; and the third, the use of the justice system against defenders, in which prosecutors and judges play a fundamental role.
These three instances became the executors of “a conservative, repressive, Manichean and anti-democratic political project”, and explain the role of the military who have specific functions, which, in addition, “they carry out with great enthusiasm”, said the sociologist.
…”The great challenge is to identify who, how, and when will begin the dismantling of this political project and its replacement by another that is capable of recovering sovereignty over the territories, reestablishing a rule of law at the service of national interests, restoring respect for life, for the defenders of resources, and for the defenders of defenders,” Leticia Salomón also said in her message.
She considered that it is necessary to rethink a different model of armed forces and police, and to give “a gigantic shake-up to the justice system” to restore confidence and eliminate the feeling of defenselessness “in which we all find ourselves”.
…Finally, the sociologist reflected that Berta’s anti-militarist struggle, and that of all those who have been carrying it out in recent years, should not only be encouraged and remembered, but should be instilled as an urgent and necessary demand for change in Honduras.
…I’d see this headline from the U.S. military’s Honduras-based “Joint Task Force Bravo” component, and think “this should at least make up for a fraction of what corrupt officials in the Hernández government have probably stolen from the Health Ministry’s budget.”
The supplies, valued at approximately $39,000, under the U.S. Southern Command’s Humanitarian Assistance Program, will increase the local clinics ability to care for COVID-19 patients.
I wonder what size fraction of what’s been lost to corruption since March 2020 that $39,000 adds up to, and how much more effective Defense Department humanitarian aid would be if the U.S. government offered more aid and diplomatic pressure to help people in Honduras who are trying to target that corruption.
…I mean, I would wonder that, if I were a more cynical person.
Why did 1 in every 37 citizens of Honduras end up detained at the US-Mexico border in 2019, after fleeing all the way across Mexico? Why did 30,000 more Hondurans petition for asylum in Mexico that same year?
During the 2010s, as a correspondent for The Guardian, Nina Lakhani covered the brutal drivers of this migration out of Central America. Her reporting was essential reading. Now she has published a book, Who Killed Berta Caceres, that digs into the pathology of Honduras: a nation that, while never prosperous nor just, has suffered accelerated rot during the 21st century, under the dominion of a kleptocratic and organized crime-tied—but stolidly U.S.-supported—regime.
Berta Cáceres was a prominent indigenous and environmental leader, winner of the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize. She was murdered in March 2016, in her home in the town of La Esperanza. Her death poignantly anchors Lakhani’s story of a country badly out of control. Though she only talked to her once—an hourlong interview in 2013—Lakhani puts together a vivid biographical portrait of the co-founder of COPINH, the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras. Cáceres was a rarely dynamic individual with great energy and creativity, a natural leader. Who Killed Berta Cáceres makes clear how much Honduras’s vibrant but beleaguered social movements lost upon her death.
In telling Cáceres’s life story, Lakhani is also telling the story of how activism in defense of marginalized people has changed, in Honduras and elsewhere, since the Cold War. The old narrative of class conflict, with radicals opting for violent struggle while elites’ enforcers massacre thousands in the name of “anti-communism,” has faded. Now, social movement work is non-violent, in countries that mostly maintain at least a facade of democracy. People organize around identity—as indigenous communities, as women—more than they do around socioeconomic class, though there is strong overlap. Ethnic and environmental struggles are now paramount, particularly opposition to outside elites’ “projects,” like roads, dams, agribusiness, and mines, that threaten to dispossess people, destroy natural wealth, and shatter longstanding ways of life.
In telling Berta Cáceres’ story, Lakhani explores the strategies to which a group like COPINH recurs in this 21st century context, the extent to which these “work”, and how the organizing and media landscape have changed. Lakhani’s account also places in sharp relief what the threats from those in power have come to look like, and how social leaders are kept off balance by relentless intimidation, attacks, and manipulation of the legal system.
Lakhani cogently discusses the challenges Cáceres faced as a woman leading a Latin American social movement. She faced opprobrium for perceptions of neglecting her children. Meetings were tense. “It was uncomfortable. At times, men stormed out, others insulted her, but this motivated her to do more.”
Everything got worse in Honduras, the book forcefully argues, after Honduras’s 2009 coup, in which business elites and the military deposed a left-leaning elected president. Not enough analysts and policymakers realize what a turning point this was not just for Honduras, but for Latin America. Elected leftists have since been had their terms cut short, with tacit military support, in Paraguay, Brazil, and Bolivia (the latter amid allegations of electoral fraud). After Honduras’s coup came a deluge of land grabs, an acceleration of infrastructure projects like the Agua Zarca dam that Berta Cáceres lost her life trying to oppose. Had the coup and the subsequent orgy of corruption and repression not happened, it’s possible that the flow of migrants from Honduras would be far smaller today.
Lakhani is sharply critical of the United States’ role. The Obama administration, then in its first year, initially opposed the 2009 coup, but quickly lost its resolve. Lakhani puts much of the blame on then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, quoting passages from Clinton’s later book. The blame, of course, is more widely spread: the coup plotters spent lavishly on a lobbying campaign that convinced far-right senators to hold up key diplomatic nominations, a form of pressure that proved effective. U.S. NGOs, unable or unwilling to drop everything else on their agendas, couldn’t match that lobbying effort’s energy. While Clinton is clearly a main character for so quickly acquiescing to the coup, neither her book nor Lakhani’s explores the role of Lanny Davis, the Clinton family friend (he was Bill Clinton’s special counsel during his presidency) whom the coup government hired to lead its Washington lobby campaign.
We meet a lot of dreadful characters in Lakhani’s story, most of them men with past military experience who serve as enforcers for DESA, the company seeking the build the dam that would destroy an entire indigenous community’s way of life. Some of them are defendants when Cáceres’s murder finally goes to court. We also meet paramilitary figures in the Bajo Aguán region near the Caribbean coast, doing the dirty work for large estate owners making land grabs to plant oil palms for biodiesel projects. These men are rough, cruel, and corrupt. They are employed by Honduras’s elite, but they aren’t of the elite. They’re on the make, and have found a rare path to social mobility in Honduras, beyond gang membership and drug trafficking.
Peripheral characters in this book are gangs and narcotraffickers, the “badguys” that get the most focus from U.S. policymakers, think tanks, and Pentagon strategists when they make plans for Honduras. In Who Killed Berta Cáceres, the gangs appear mainly as a symptom of the country’s misrule, and the narcotraffickers overlap so completely with the state and the “legitimate” economy that it’s hard to tell them apart.
In one of the world’s most economically unequal countries, Lakhani presents the elite in a nuanced way. Unlike its Central American neighbors, Honduras didn’t inherit its most powerful families from the colonial period or the 19th century coffee boom. The lack of a singularly murderous elite explains in part why human rights abuses in the country during the Cold War, though shocking, were comparatively modest. Those who run Honduras today arose more recently; many are the descendants of emigrants from Christian Palestine. With some key exceptions, they don’t profit from large-scale agricultural landholdings as much as from capital-intensive projects, collusion with organized crime, and corruption. They tend to have a super-capitalist, almost libertarian mindset—the construction of autonomous Ayn Randian “model cities” keeps getting proposed—which endears them to many U.S. policymakers despite their symbiotic relationship with criminality.
This elite functions in close collaboration with Honduras’s U.S.-backed military. Lakhani profiles some of the specialized units that get deployed in social conflicts like COPINH’s struggle. Her portrait of an institution entirely given over to the country’s elites, at the expense of a vast population with few options other than to migrate, shows how infuriatingly little progress Honduran civil-military relations have made since the 1980s transition to formal democracy. It is particularly galling when one sees U.S. diplomatic and military officials heap praise on top Honduran military leaders.
Who Killed Berta Cáceres especially shines in its discussion of the investigation and trial of Cáceres’s murder. Though the reader may need a “dramatis personae” list to keep track of the various middlemen and thugs involved in the murder plot, Lakhani’s narrative is an unflinching look at how impunity works, in Honduras and in much of Latin America. The process drags on. Key witnesses don’t get called. Evidence pointing to higher-ups goes unexplored. Lakhani has difficulty accessing supposedly public documents.
Lakhani meets nearly all of the crime’s material authors in prison, and concludes that they, for the most part, are just trigger-pullers, mid-level planners, or scapegoats. Most of these individuals get sentenced. But who actually ordered Cáceres’s killing, and who were they benefiting? We still don’t know.
“The judges curtailed evidence which threatened to expose a wider conspiracy and criminal network,” Lakhani writes. In the end, even when an internationally renowned social leader is killed, the crime’s masterminds or “intellectual authors” remain, at least for now, out of reach.
“They tried but couldn’t jail her, so they killed her,” Cáceres’s daughter says. “We know it was [the dam-building company] DESA but the question is, who in DESA? It’s going to be down to us to find out.”
Today, in Honduras, President Juan Orlando Hernández is a paragon of elite impunity. He won re-election in 2017, which used to be unconstitutional: the president’s consideration of the mere possibility of re-election was a pretext behind the 2009 coup. The 2017 election results occurred under very credible allegations of fraud: the OAS couldn’t certify the result. Hernández’s military, including a newly created military police branch, has systematically put down dissent; Honduras is one of the most dangerous places on the planet to be a journalist, a human rights defender, or an environmental activist. The president’s brother, an ex-congressman, is in U.S. prison for narcotrafficking. Even as U.S. Justice Department documents in the case name President Hernández as a co-conspirator, the Trump administration lavishes praise on him as a partner against migration. The State Department said hardly a word when Honduras ejected an OAS anti-corruption mission last year. Meanwhile, the movement of which Berta Cáceres was a key part remains very active, but is under constant threat and is arguably weaker than it was in 2016.
Who Killed Berta Cáceres tells an old story, but updates it for a 21st century context. It’s the story of a leader who makes the ultimate sacrifice after being branded an “internal enemy” for struggling, nonviolently, to defend her people. “If Berta had been killed in the 1980s,” Lakhani writes, “it would have been considered a political murder mandated by state policy. Today, security forces are still deployed to protect foreign and national business interests, but belligerent community leaders are tarnished as anti-development criminals and terrorists, rather than as leftist guerillas.”
It’s not called counter-insurgency anymore—at least not in Honduras—but it’s the same fight, only the battlefield has shifted. Those who fight nonviolently are the heroes here, and that’s why getting at the masterminds of Berta’s killing is so important. Who Killed Berta Cáceres makes apparent that, if one pulls hard enough on that particular thread of the “intellectual authors,” one might just unravel the entire political-criminal apparatus that has overtaken Honduras.
Until that happens, though, the United States, Mexico, and other countries can expect more waves of Honduran migrants. They’ll be fleeing a country that has become unlivable for all who aren’t part of that apparatus.
I’ve always enjoyed talking to Nina Lakhani over the years as she produced excellent reporting from Mexico and Central America for The Guardian. And I enjoyed recording this podcast with her two weeks ago, as she prepared for the release of her book Who Killed Berta Cáceres: Dams, Death Squads, and an Indigenous Defender’s Battle for the Planet (2020, Verso).
Latin America is one of the most dangerous regions in the world to be a human rights defender. In March 2016, Berta Cáceres – a much-admired environmental and indigenous leader from Honduras – was assassinated. Cáceres was a courageous leader, winner of the 2015 Goldman Prize for her efforts to stop dam construction on a river sacred to her Lenca people. But the assassinations of leaders like Berta are rarely investigated or prosecuted all the way to the masterminds. Government, criminal, and economic interests work to silence activists like her.
In this edition of Latin America Today, Nina Lakhani joins Adam Isacson for a discussion on her new book out on June 2, Who Killed Berta Cáceres: Dams, Death Squads, and an Indigenous Defender’s Battle for the Planet (2020, Verso). Lakhani is a veteran journalist whose work has brought to light corruption, state-sponsored violence, and impunity throughout Mexico and Central America. She is currently the Environmental Justice correspondent for The Guardian U.S.
Here, Lakhani talks about why she chose to write about Berta and her lifelong activism, helps us understand the multifaceted Honduran context and why social leaders like Berta are targeted, and provides in-depth analysis of her investigations into Berta’s assassination. The conversation ends with Lakhani’s outlook on how the upcoming U.S. presidential elections may affect accountability on what she calls “impunity on every level.”
Latest edition of a regular CRS overview of Mexican politics and economics, U.S.-Mexican relations, and assistance. Good U.S. aid numbers. Clare Ribando Seelke, Mexico: Background and U.S. Relations (Washington: Congressional Research Service, April 29, 2020) https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/R/R42917.
Latest edition of a regular CRS overview of Honduran politics and bilateral relations with the United States. Peter J. Meyer, Honduras: Background and U.S. Relations (Washington: Congressional Research Service, April 27, 2020) https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/RL/RL34027.
The Government Accountability Office found that Customs and Border Protection wildly overspent on a tent facility to house apprehended migrants during late 2019. U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Management of a Temporary Facility in Texas Raised Concerns about Resources Used (Washington: U.S. Government Accountability Office, April 9, 2020) https://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-20-321R.
This week, two people—a journalist and a congressional staffer—wrote me with variations on the same question:
“How much aid is the United States giving the military and police in Honduras this year?”
Seems like a simple question, but it’s not. Because U.S. government reporting to Congress is so poor, all I can give is a ballpark estimate. That estimate is “about $55 million.”
Here’s how I derive that. And stay with me—this is byzantine:
1. Nearly all security assistance comes from two budgets: the State Department-run Foreign Operations budget, and the Defense Department’s budget. Let’s do the State Department first.
2. For 2018 State Department aid to Honduras, normally we could consult the State Department’s 2019 foreign aid request, issued in February, which gives estimates of what the Department expects to spend on aid in the current year (2018). But this year, this document leaves 2018 blank. The State Department left the current year out because as of February 2018, when the aid request went to press, our dysfunctional Congress still hadn’t passed a budget for 2018. (That didn’t happen until March 23.) The Department couldn’t make an estimate without first knowing how much money Congress was giving it. So this document contains no useful 2018 aid numbers (it’s still a good source, though, for what was spent in 2017). Toss it aside.
3. For most countries, that leaves you with no source for 2018 State Department / Foreign Operations aid numbers. However, Honduras is one of a few countries that Congress cares about so much that it specifies the amounts of aid the State Department should provide. (Other Latin American countries this applies to are Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, and to some extent Costa Rica, Haiti, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Panama.) We can look at the 2018 appropriations law, passed in March, to get Congress’s directions for Honduras.
Well, not exactly the text of the law, which is an 878-page beast cramming together 12 aspects of the federal budget. Instead, you have to look at the narrative “explanatory statement” that Congress included with the bill. That unhelpfully exists as “Book III of the Congressional Record for March 22, 2018.” Go all the way to page H2851 of that document (or search for “Honduras” to save your sanity), and you find this table:
OK, now we’re getting somewhere. The last four programs listed here provide military or police aid, and there’s some mention of Honduras. Let’s go from the bottom upward.
Honduran security forces are getting $4 million this year from the Foreign Military Financing program (FMF). That’s the State Department’s main non-drug military aid program, it mainly pays for weapons and equipment. Under some circumstances, it can also aid police.
Honduran security forces are getting $800,000 this year from the International Military Education and Training program (IMET). That’s the State Department’s main non-drug military training program. Under some circumstances, it can also train police.
That would seem to be it: $4.8 million. But there’s more: a lot more, but we don’t know exactly how much. Here’s where it gets even uglier.
The State Department’s International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement program (INCLE) is the biggest single source of military and police aid to Latin America, and Honduras gets a lot of it. Like FMF and IMET, INCLE can aid and train militaries and police. But it can also pay for non-military/police programs like judicial reform. As you see in the table above, for instance, it contributes $6 million for the CICIG in Guatemala. So only some INCLE aid is military or police aid. The trouble is, we don’t know how much—despite repeated requests for a number. So we have to estimate.
But it’s even worse. See that line for “Central American Regional Security Initiative,” $215 million? That goes to all of Central America, and we don’t know how much goes to each Central American country (except Costa Rica, for which Congress specified $25 million). We have to estimate still further. So let’s try:
Congress added $41 million in earmarks to the $215 million Central American Regional Security Initiative. None of these appear to go to Honduran security forces. Take them away and you get $174 million.
The bulk of that $174 million goes to the three “northern triangle” countries: El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Let’s say, then, that Honduras gets just under one-third of it—perhaps 30 percent, or $52.2 million.
Let’s ballpark further and say two-thirds of that $52.2 million is military and police aid, with the rest going to judicial reform and similar priorities. That would be $34.8 million. Let’s round up and say:
Honduran security forces are getting $35 million this year from the International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement program (INCLE).
Now we’re up to $39.8 million in military and police aid to Honduras from State Department sources. That was awfully messy. But we’re not done yet.
4. Some aid to Honduras also comes from the Defense Department’s budget. The principal source, by far, is the Department’s “Counter-Drug and Counter-Transnational Organized Crime” program, which (after INCLE) is the second-largest source of military and police aid to Latin America. It pays for training, construction, boats, some equipment upgrades, intelligence analysis, and a few other things.
Reporting about how this program gets used is also poor. The Defense Department is not required to report how much it expects to spend in each country during the current year—only what it spent the previous year. So we have to estimate 2018 aid by just repeating the 2017 figure—imprecise, but it’s all we can do.
That requires getting our hands on a Defense Department report to Congress covering last year, which is difficult to obtain. Our Freedom of Information Act request to the Office of the Secretary of Defense for the report covering 2017 has not yet received a response.
Luckily, our colleagues at the Security Assistance Monitor have secured a copy, although they haven’t yet posted a PDF of it (come on guys!). Using that report, their Honduras page shows that Honduras got $13,768,000 in 2017 assistance through “Section 1004 Counter-Drug Assistance” (what the Counter-Drug and Counter-Transnational Organized Crime program used to be called before a 2017 rearrangement of Defense Department security assistance authorities). So let’s repeat that figure for our 2018 estimate, rounding up:
Honduran security forces are getting $14 million this year from the Defense Department Counter-Drug and Counter-Transnational Organized Crime program.
5. That brings us up to $53.8 million. Now, the Defense Department has many other programs with which it could aid Honduras. Most of these don’t get used, though, in Honduras—they’re more focused on the Middle East and NATO. However, Honduras gets some aid to participate in exercises and engagement activities. We don’t know how much, though page 31 of this helpful Congressional Research Service report on Colombia shows that (much larger) country getting about $2 million to $5 million per year from these “other” Defense Department aid sources. For Honduras, let’s estimate something smaller—perhaps just over $1 million.
Honduras is getting just over $1 million this year from other Defense Department aid sources.
OK. Add that rough amount and we get $55 million in military and police aid to Honduras in 2018. A rough estimate, derived through very messy means. But one I feel comfortable enough to use.
This number probably raises more questions than it answers. How much of it is military aid, and how much is police aid? How much is weapons and equipment, and how much is training? What kinds of weapons and equipment? How many are lethal? What units are getting this aid? What skills does the training teach? What parts of the country are getting the most focus? How much training happens on U.S. soil? How much training is performed by Colombian soldiers and police? By private contractors? How do we know that human rights protections are being enforced rigorously?
We have at least partial answers to many of those questions, but for many others we still lack a lot of basic information. Those are subjects for another post, another day. But hopefully this all gives a sense of why the “defense oversight” work we do here at WOLA is so important. And why it’s often so frustrating.
When I was in college in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I was already studying and following the U.S. role in Latin America. Back then, at the sunset of the Cold War and the Reagan presidency, the deal was clear. If you were a dictator in the hemisphere, the United States would support you as long as you were pro-free market and U.S-friendly. There was a period during the Carter administration when that wasn’t as true, but the Reagan years made it truer than ever.
During the years I was in school, that started to become less of an iron law. In 1988, Washington urged Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet to respect the result of the plebiscite that removed him from power. In 1989, U.S. troops kicked out Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega; while no big-stick invasion like this should ever be repeated, it was unusual to see the U.S. government act against a right-wing dictator—a former ally—after he denied an election result. The Clinton administration’s 1994 support for restoring deposed Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was a remarkable shift, as the coup government was more pliant to U.S. business interests than was Aristide.
Pro-U.S. leaders with authoritarian tendencies or bad human rights records still got a pass, to a point (Fujimori in Peru, Uribe in Colombia). But for a good twenty-plus years in Latin America, Washington’s support wasn’t guaranteed.
It’s heartbreaking to see that changing, fast, in our new era of “illiberal democracies” (a category that may now include our own). Once elected, illiberal leaders make populist appeals while undoing institutional checks and balances. It becomes very hard to remove them from office, and after a while the democracy loses even its forms and people lose basic freedoms. We see these tendencies in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Nicaragua (not to mention Turkey, Hungary, or the Philippines), but also among non-leftists like Juan Orlando Hernández in Honduras and candidates like Peru’s Keiko Fujimori and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro.
In June 2009, Colombian President Álvaro Uribe visited Washington. At the time, the ardently pro-U.S. leader was pushing hard to change Colombia’s constitution to allow him to pursue a third term in office, which would have disfigured the country’s democracy. By gently but firmly voicing disapproval at a White House appearance, President Barack Obama dealt a solid blow to Uribe’s aspirations. This was another milestone in the inconsistent, but real, trend of U.S. support for democracy over blind fealty.
It may have been its high-water mark, even: the trend was about to undergo a withering setback. Obama’s exchange with Uribe happened one day after a military-backed coup in Honduras deposed elected president Manuel Zelaya, the biggest single democratic reversal since the 2001 adoption of the OAS Democratic Charter. (Venezuela, too, suffered an unsuccessful coup against President Hugo Chávez in 2002, and a thousand tiny moves by Chávez himself to chip away at democracy. But the Honduran coup was a single, successful blow.)
President Obama opposed that coup for a few months. All U.S. security aid was cut off, though his administration would not trigger a law making the cutoff irreversible by calling it a “military” coup. By October 2009, though, his administration caved, saying it would respect the result of November elections that elected a Zelaya opponent who had backed the coup. This ended pressure for Zelaya’s removal and legitimized an election campaign carried out in a climate of post-coup fear and intimidation. The coup plotters won.
They won, to a significant degree, thanks to a well-funded lobbying campaign in Washington. Coup president Roberto Micheletti’s paid shills found a staunch ally in Senator Jim DeMint (R-South Carolina). The archconservative senator put holds on two of the new administration’s diplomatic nominations, leaving it without an assistant secretary for the Western Hemisphere or an ambassador to Brazil.
By 2016, Jim DeMint was elsewhere: he had left the Senate to become president of the Heritage Foundation, the giant conservative policy research organization that CNN and others called “Trump’s think tank.” The group DeMint headed (he left Heritage this year) drafted many of what would become the Trump administration’s policy proposals. In other words: the small but vocal sector of Washington that openly supported the 2009 Honduras coup is now running U.S. foreign policy.
Because of that, the idea of standing up to pro-U.S. authoritarians was already foundering after Trump’s inauguration. In May, Trump’s secretary of state even made explicit that human rights promotion is now a peripheral mission for U.S. foreign policy. “Those are our values. Those are not our policies,” Rex Tillerson told diplomats.
Right now, this reversal is reverberating through Washington’s tepid response to likely election fraud by a pro-U.S. illiberal leader in Honduras. Here are the facts:
After packing judicial and electoral bodies with supporters, President Juan Orlando Hernández achieved, in 2015, the right to run for re-election. This is what President Manuel Zelaya was deposed in 2009 for attempting. The Obama administration said little or nothing about this. Honduras is a major source of migration to the United States and transshipment point for cocaine—two phenomena that get worsened by political instability—and Hernández was going along with U.S. plans to address those issues.
Initial results of the November 26 election confounded pollsters’ expectations. The election authority, dominated by President Hernández’s party, showed the President losing to center-left challenger Salvador Nasralla by a 5-point margin with 70 percent of the vote counted.
Then, counting mysteriously stopped. In a move reminiscent of the PRI’s theft of Mexico’s 1988 presidential vote, electoral authorities blamed a computer glitch. When the count resumed, President Hernández had taken the lead. Credible media outlets reported evidence of vote-rigging.
OAS and European Union observer missions would not go along with this. They issuedstrongstatementscautioning the electoral tribunal against announcing a result prematurely, citing “irregularities, errors and systemic problems,” refusing to certify the result without a thorough count, and even holding up the possibility of organizing new elections that might be viewed as legitimate.
The U.S. government has lagged far behind this, taking pains to avoid questioning what has happened since the vote. From a decimated State Department (there is no Senate-approved ambassador or assistant secretary for the Western Hemisphere) have come tepid, anodyne, and infrequent statements. Officials have urged calm and called for protesters to avoid violence. They’ve counseled patience with the electoral authorities’ count, and simply encouraged the electoral authority to “address concerns.”
On Wednesday, 17 days after the disputed election, the State Department’s spokeswoman had been given nothing at all to say about Honduras. Not even realizing that U.S. chargé d’affaires Heide Fulton wasn’t a “he,” she told reporters, “In terms of commenting on the elections and the results, we’re just going to hold off until we can get that better figured out. Okay?” Sources in both Honduras and Washington tell me that U.S. diplomats, noting that protests have not been widespread enough to shut down the country, are quietly pushing for a solution that guarantees stability: one that ends the current uncertainty as quickly as possible and cements Hernández’s lead.
It’s shameful to see the U.S. government lagging so far behind the OAS and the European Union in defense of democracy in Latin America. Honduras is a small, poor country of minor strategic importance. But the historical significance is huge. This is a big and sad shift in U.S. policy.
The Trump administration’s silence encourages autocrats and “illiberal democrats” everywhere. The recipe is simple: if you plan to erode democracy, just make some pro-U.S. noises first. The silence also undermines the credibility of any U.S. criticism of adversarial dictatorships like Cuba and Venezuela. Charges of a double standard will stick. It’s easy to brush off criticism from a Washington that picks and chooses which authoritarian behavior to oppose and which to ignore.
When I was in college, this was the accepted reality of U.S. policy toward Latin America. Since then, that reality had crumbled, haltingly giving way to something far better, and contributing to 25 years of increased political freedom in the Americas. It’s really upsetting that the U.S. performance in Honduras this month is taking me all the way back to my college years.