Adam Isacson

Still trying to understand Latin America, my own country, and why so few consequences are intended. These views are not necessarily my employer’s.


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Some tall coca bushes in Honduras

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.

Why does Honduras have a military in 2021?

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.

The hyper-politicized Honduran military

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’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.

Leticia Salomón (from Criterio).

…”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.

If I were a more cynical person…

…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.

A story of what’s at stake in social movement struggle that goes well beyond Honduras

A review of Who Killed Berta Caceres by Nina Lakhani (Verso, 2020). Listen to my WOLA podcast with the author.

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.

WOLA Podcast: “If they can kill Berta Cáceres, they can kill anybody”: Nina Lakhani on the Danger to Social Leaders

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).

The book is out today. Pick up a copy, listen above or by downloading the .mp3 file, and read my review.

Here’s the text from WOLA’s podcast website:

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.”

Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple PodcastsSpotifyiHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

Government reports relevant to Latin America obtained in April

  • 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)
  • 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)
  • 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)

What it takes to answer a simple question about U.S. military aid

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.

Why what’s happening in Honduras matters

State Department briefing: QUESTION: Honduras, please. MS NAUERT: Yes. QUESTION: Thank you. You guys haven’t really said much since the certification, and 14 people have been killed, and the violence continues, the elections results still not calculated. But your charge has been appearing in public with the government’s side and seems to have, in the eyes of many, taken the government’s side. Do you have anything to say about that? And you’re willing to criticize Bolivia, Cuba, Venezuela, but not Juan Orlando Hernandez, who’s been a good ally of the White House. MS NAUERT: Yeah, I -- QUESTION: There’s a lot of question about why you’ve not been more vocal about what’s going on in Honduras. MS NAUERT: I can tell you – well, first let me say I’m not aware of our charge’s schedule. So I don’t know and I can’t confirm if he had the -- QUESTION: She. MS NAUERT: -- she, pardon me; thank you – if she had the meetings or showed up at certain places that you mention. It’s obviously a post-election situation there. We know that monitors have covered it. The election observers are still evaluating that situation. So I think until we know more about the results of all that, we’re just going to refrain from commenting on it. QUESTION: Not about the violence or anything? MS NAUERT: Well, any time that there is violence from any side, we would always encourage people to not act violently. We would call for peaceful demonstrations, if people were to demonstrate; that is an area that is a huge concern of ours. But 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?

What is even happening here?

(1,436 words, 5 minute 44 second reading time)

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 issued strong statements cautioning 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.

U.S.-Aided Units in Honduras

As a likely election theft proceeds in Honduras, the country’s security forces are playing a central role in putting down protest. Since the U.S. government has closely supported the Honduran military and police since the cold war, we need to know whether U.S.-aided units are backing authoritarian behavior and abusing protesters’ rights.

Here is a list of security-force units that we know have received U.S. assistance since 2015.

Units in red have been actively confronting protesters demanding a fair and transparent vote count, according to media reports and communications with sources inside Honduras. (Others may be equally involved, but information hasn’t confirmed it.) Source documents for the recipient unit list are linked at the bottom of this post.

Update 12:00 December 5: media are reporting that the U.S.-aided TIGRES and COBRAS units are refusing to participate in further suppression of protest. While I don’t know whether this is a nationwide phenomenon or how long it will last, for now I’m switching those units from red to black in the list below.

Recipients of U.S. Assistance

  • Honduran National Police
    • National Police Special Forces (TIGRES)
    • National Police Special Operations Command (COBRAS)
    • National Police NAGU (National Anti-Gang Unit)
    • National Police Tactical Special Operations Group (GOET)
    • National Police Transnational Criminal Investigative Unit (TCIU)
    • National Police Intelligence Unit (SERCAA)
    • Special Investigations Unit (SIU)
    • Distrito Policial 6-1
    • Chamelcon, Cortés Unit
    • Unidad Metropolitana Prevención (UMEP-5)
    • Policía Preventiva (UMEP-6)
    • Policía Preventiva (UMEP-7)
    • Dirección Nacional de Policia Preventiva, San Pedro Sula Unit
  • Honduran Navy
    • Naval Special Forces (FEN)
  • Honduran Air Force
  • Public Ministry Technical Criminal Investigative Agency (ATIC)

Not Recipients of U.S. Assistance

  • Military Public Order Police
  • Honduran National Interagency Security Force (FUSINA) —though some units assigned to FUSINA are in the above “aid recipients” list
  • Special Units for Jungle and Night Operations (TESON)

 An April 2017 Defense Department response to a congressional inquiry reads, “No support provided has been provided to Military Police for the Public Order (PMOP), Special Units for Jungle and Night Operations (Teson). No support has been provided to Honduran National Interagency Security Force (FUSINA). FUSINA may request support from any unit within the Honduran Military, National Police, Attorney General’s office, and other investigative and law enforcement agencies. Therefore, any unit within the Honduran Military could feasibly be called upon to participate in FUSINA.”

Source Documents

Honduras went zero-for-100 in 2016

“The number of inbound flights to Honduras allegedly trafficking cocaine dropped 30 percent between 2015 and 2016, according to estimates from the United States government,” reads a letter to the New York Times editor, published yesterday, from the Honduran Presidency’s minister and adviser for strategy and communication.

But what happens when flights or boats suspected of bringing drugs to Honduras do make landfall? The news isn’t good.

Here’s the State Department’s March 2017 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report. Boldface is mine:

The Honduran military, however, made few improvements in 2016 to increase overall capabilities to degrade and disrupt illicit trafficking. In the domain of maritime interdiction, no interdictions were recorded despite 100 actionable events supported by U.S. authorities. Many factors contribute to the low success rate in suppressing international narcotics trafficking off the Honduran coast.… Corruption further impedes progress, as trafficking organizations have infiltrated some military units in active drug corridors such as the Gracias a Dios Department and along the northern Caribbean coast.

Carson Ulrich doesn’t get it

In Monday’s New York Times, near the end of a piece about a notorious 2012 DEA-involved shooting incident in Honduras, this gem appears (boldface is mine):

Carson Ulrich, who served as deputy for the FAST team missions at the time of the Ahuas shooting, stands by the D.E.A.’s assertions that the passenger boat was searching for the drugs and had fired on the antidrug team.

Mr. Ulrich argued that the now-disbanded FAST program was “desperately” needed to “bring the rule of law to an area governed by the cartels.” The government inspectors general investigators were biased, Mr. Ulrich contended. “They are slandering heroes. I dare anyone to pick up a rifle and do what these American agents did.”

It’s a relief to say that Mr. Ulrich is no longer serving as a U.S. government employee. Nobody who would say this in a public forum should have any business governing America.

Accusing the authors of a scrupulously documented 400-page joint inspectors’ general report of “slander” is bad enough.

Hiding behind the now very tired “how dare you question heroes who put lives on the line unlike you” dodge is even worse.

But still worse is how badly Mr. Ulrich just doesn’t get why the Ahuás incident matters. It’s not the incident itself, it’s what happened before it, and especially what happened afterward.

Nobody accuses the DEA agents and the Honduran forces involved in the Ahuás massacre of malice. (Carelessness, yes, as the IGs’ report revealed bad gaps in training, coordination, and procedures. But not malice.) It was 4:00 AM, pitch dark. An agent and two Honduran cops were on a seized boat full of cocaine with a busted engine, floating down a river, poised to confront any traffickers aiming to re-take the seized drugs.

In the dark, the boat collided with another boat that turned out to be transporting civilians (it’s hot there and people sometimes travel before sunrise). Evidence seems to indicate that these civilian passengers didn’t fire, but Honduran forces accompanying the DEA team did. Four passengers died.

Mistakes happen. What shouldn’t happen is years of stubborn denial and insistence on a story that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. What shouldn’t happen is hobbling that scrutiny by withholding information from Congress and even the U.S. ambassador. What shouldn’t happen is stonewalling and slow-walking independent government investigations. What shouldn’t happen is doing almost nothing to honor and make real reparations to the incident’s victims.

The Ahuás incident itself wasn’t the problem. The problem was what happened before, as Operation Anvil was being thrown together over some key officials’ misgivings and objections. The problem was what happened afterward, as the agency “circled the wagons” and refused to own up to the fact that something went badly wrong.

Prior combat experience could help an investigator understand how things went so badly in pre-dawn hours on a river in Honduras more than five years ago. But you don’t need to have “picked up a rifle” to object strongly to how DEA handled this awful incident’s “before” and “after.” Mr. Carson Ulrich, private citizen, misses the point entirely.

Some troubling/horrifying excerpts from the Honduras IG report

It’s taken me 2 1/2 months, as it was one task among many. But I’ve now given a close read to all 400 pages of the report on DEA activities in Honduras that the State and Justice Departments’ inspectors-general put out on May 24. It discusses three incidents in 2012 involving an elite DEA team assigned to interdict drug traffickers in rural Honduras, an effort called “Operation Anvil.” In all three there was loss of life. In the worst incident, four innocent civilians were killed, including two pregnant women.

Mistakes happen in tense situations, and the right thing to do is admit them, take care of the victims, and figure out how to keep something like that from happening again. Yet the report details a shameful, pathetic pattern in the DEA’s and State Department’s efforts to get to the bottom of what happened, to keep Congress and the U.S. ambassador informed, and to attend to the victims.

So much of this report rewards a close read. But here are some quotes that stood out to me, in the order they appear. Highlighting is mine.

Honduras was OK with active-duty Guatemalan Air Force pilots running law-enforcement missions over its territory

To carry out interdictions, Operation Anvil included the temporary relocation to Honduras of [redacted] INL helicopters stationed in Guatemala, which were flown by U.S. contractor pilots employed by DynCorp International (DynCorp) and co-pilots from the Guatemalan Air Force. (Page 9)

“Not if.”

According to the Country Attaché and the Assistant Regional Director, Ambassador [Lisa] Kubiske and her representatives were privy to discussions concerning the security concerns implicit in the planned drug interdiction missions. The Assistant Regional Director told us that the Ambassador would often state, “If there’s a shooting…,” and DEA officials would interrupt her and state, “[N]ot if. There will be several fatalities here. There will be shootings.” (Page 16)

Top diplomat would not have approved Operation Anvil

John Feeley, who was the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary (PDAS) for Western Hemisphere Affairs (WHA), told us that he did not become involved in Operation Anvil until shortly before the May 11 shooting incident took place. However, he said that based on his experience in other countries, he would not have approved the concept of operations for Operation Anvil had he been the Chief of Mission because the risk of an officer losing his life was too great. (Page 16)

Herding and controlling the “Hondos”

The initial drafts contained a provision near the end of the order stating that the Honduran TRT [National Police Tactical Response Team] would be the “supported command,” that arrests and seizures would be conducted in accordance with local law, and that FAST [DEA Foreign-Deployed Advisory and Support Team] would provide an advisory role to the Honduran TRT. During this early drafting phase, the FAST Team Leader told FAST and INL officials that “[e]ach FAST Agent will be assigned X number of Hondo’s to herd/control.” (Page 18)

State/INL runs a foreign assistance program—the largest military-police aid program active in Latin America. It’s not supposed to be paying for a DEA operation.

[A]n INL [State Department Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs] attorney raised concerns with INL officials that the language in the CONOPS [Concept of Operations for Operation Anvil] reflected an operation that could not be supported with INL funds: “…It has been the Department’s long-standing policy not to provide operational support with foreign assistance funds, but if we are going to provide it, we need to be clear that the support is for Honduras law enforcement. INL is not authorized to be DEA’s air taxi, and host nation involvement must be real and not simply a fig leaf.” (Page 18–19)

DEA officials responsible for Central America opposed these operations, but were overruled by DEA leadership in Washington

The [DEA] Assistant Regional Director [for North and Central America] told the OIGs [Office of Inspector General] that she and RD [Regional Director Joseph] Evans recommended against Operation Anvil and the use of FAST. She said that interdictions are very difficult and dangerous, and she did not believe the planned interdiction effort was going to improve the situation in Honduras. She said she believed the focus instead should have been on training Honduran prosecutors and professionalizing the police force. (Page 20)

“That’s just not the way it’s going to happen.”

The [DEA] Assistant Regional Director told the OIGs that RD [Regional Director Joseph] Evans had raised his and her concerns about the operation with DEA Headquarters, and they were effectively overruled. In addition, she said that she thought the notion of DEA leading from behind, as stated in the Ambassador’s e­ mail, was unrealistic. She said that in the event of violent confrontations with the DTOs [drug trafficking organizations], which she expected, the idea that armed DEA agents would wait for the Hondurans to take the lead was not practical. “That’s just not the way it’s going to happen.” (Page 24)

They didn’t. Speak. Spanish.

During Operation Anvil, there were approximately [redacted] FAST personnel on each interdiction mission, plus at least one medic. The Bravo and Delta Team Leaders told us that they were both conversant, but not fluent, in Spanish. With respect to their team members, it appears that none of the Bravo and Delta Team members were fluent in Spanish, but half of the Bravo team members and only one Delta team member were conversant to different degrees. (Page 25)

No training on use-of-force, but…

Training materials and other documents provided to the OIGs do not indicate that FAST and the TRT provided training or instruction to the other on their respective deadly force policies. The OIGs were provided with a FAST training PowerPoint slideshow the FAST agents viewed prior to leaving for Honduras. The slideshow did not include a description of the Honduran use of force policy; however, it did include a slide describing the sexually transmitted diseases prevalent in Honduras. (Page 30)

They knew that they had probably wounded or killed people. But they didn’t bother to help them. (This might be the most monstrous revelation in the report.)

[T]he facts in this chapter demonstrate that no effort was made, or even considered, to search for and render aid to the people who may have been injured. We found that at a minimum the FAST members on Helicopter [redacted] who witnessed the encounter on the river knew or should have known that there would be individuals injured. We found no evidence that Honduran authorities were contacted by FAST or TRT during or immediately following the interdiction to render aid to any injured. This was a flaw in both the planning and the execution of the operation, regardless of whether the officers believed at the time that the people in the passenger boat may have been innocent bystanders or suspected targets of the operation. (Page 80)

The U.S. Ambassador was stonewalled by DEA and State/INL.

The SID [State Department Diplomatic Security Special Investigations Division] Agent told us that the Ambassador looked to SID to investigate these incidents because “she asked DEA for information. Get nothing. She asked INL for information. Get nothing. So she asked that we look into it and give her … what transpired.” (Page 217)

“Brownfield was not happy about the initial findings because of their potential to create problems for INL.”

According to notes taken at the meeting, AS [Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs William] Brownfield inquired as to why DEA was not cooperating with the [State Department Diplomatic Security, or DS] investigation and stated that he felt that DS was as much to blame for the impasse as DEA. According to the DS participants in the meeting, AS Brownfield was not happy about the initial findings because of their potential to create problems for INL. They also told the OIGs that Brownfield expressed his opinion that DS should not be involved in the investigation at all and that he compared the dispute to a juvenile competition. (Page 229)

Congratulations to both agencies’ inspectors-general for a courageous, thorough report.

WOLA Podcast: The Central America Monitor

Congress appropriated $750 million in aid for Central America for 2016, and $655 million more for 2017. What’s in these aid packages? Which countries are getting what? What do U.S.-funded programs propose to do? Are they achieving their goals?

Next Wednesday (May 17) my colleague Adriana Beltrán, who runs WOLA’s Citizen Security program will join some partners from the region to launch the “Central America Monitor,” an effort to answer these questions.

This looks like a very cool project, collecting a lot of data both to document aid and to try to measure its results in the region. I talk to her about it here.

WOLA Podcast: Looking for Glimmers of Hope in Honduras

Here’s a conversation with Sarah Kinosian, a WOLA program officer who works with me on our Defense Oversight work. Sarah is just back from a weeklong research visit to Honduras. We discuss arms trafficking, police reform, gangs, drug trafficking, migration, U.S. assistance, and Honduras’s own reform efforts, looking for evidence that anything is “working.”

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