Honduras is burning. Why should we care?

By Jennifer Burgos*
7 December 2017
Foreign Policy Journal

Honduras is undergoing its second coup in eight years, but most Americans are unaware, much less of the US’s role in undermining democracy there.

If you live in the United States, you would have to be forgiven for not realizing that a constitutional crisis is happening within a two-and-a-half-hour plane ride from Miami. Between the fly-by-night Republican tax plan, Michael Flynn’s plea deal, and a string of new shocking (but some not all that surprising) sexual assault revelations, it’s easy to miss that the small country of Honduras is undergoing its second coup in eight years.

A slow-burning and achingly painful week has passed since the Honduran presidential elections on November 26, 2017, and still no winner has been declared. Yet we’re watching in real time as an election is being stolen directly from the hands of the Honduran people. This isn’t the first time this has happened in Honduras. In fact, the U.S. helped to usher in and legitimize a military coup that happened in November of 2009. Since then, a succession of right-leaning U.S.-friendly presidents have come to power through questionable means. The last election in 2013 saw Juan Orlando Hernández named, who since then has slowly consolidated power and crippled the independence of already-fragile democratic institutions in a bid to set up a win today.

Why does this crisis require some of our already-stretched-thin rage?


According to the Pew Research Center, “In fiscal 2016, the apprehensions of Central Americans at the border exceeded that of Mexicans for the second time on record.” But the drop in Mexican immigrants has been offset by the sharp rise in those from Central America – and specifically Honduras. The situation first became desperate when, in 2014, “more than 68,000 unaccompanied children under 18 were arrested at the southwestern border during the 2014 fiscal year.” That year was labeled a humanitarian crisis and bore out as a culmination of the post-coup years that saw violence and impunity surge in Honduras, earning them the moniker “murder capital of the world.”

The U.S. has intended to stem the flow of immigrants by pressuring and financing Mexico to detain immigrants there, long before they ever come close to making it to the U.S. border. This has brought about a slew of new human rights concerns. And yet, in spite of this, they keep coming. While it’s difficult to get accurate immigration numbers from Mexico, all signs show an unending flow of migration. This kind of tactic of mitigating immigration through other countries does not tackle the base problem – the violence, corruption, impunity and poverty that is driving people to risk life, limb and assault during a perilous journey north. When the United States supports governments with a proven track record of corruption, misuse of foreign aid money, repression of its own people, and cooperation with drug gangs we are supporting the cycle of violence that leaves families with no choice but to flee.

Fiscal policy

Since 2010, the year following the coup, U.S. security aid more than quadrupled from $5.1 million annually to $22.5 million in 2015. Honduras militarized their police force and created the TIGRES (which translates roughly to Intelligence and Special Security Response Groups Units), who trained under the U.S. Special Forces. At the culmination of their training in 2015, U.S. Col. Christopher Riga said, “I can never say enough words to tell you how proud I am of you…and the work we will do together for a secure and stable Honduras.” Originally trained to be an arm of the U.S. in fighting terrorists and drug traffickers, the TIGRES have been sighted this past week outside the presidential palace protecting incumbent president Juan Orlando Hernández and his supporters from protesters calling for free and fair elections. But the TIGRES are only one piece. U.S. financial support for Central American forces will reach the highest amount in a decade.

Berta Cáceres, an internationally renowned activist for Honduran indigenous rights and winner of the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize, called the presence of the TIGRES “repressive.” She was gunned down in her home on March 3, 2016 and her daughter continues to call for an investigation into the presence of the TIGRES and the masterminds behind her mother’s planned assassination. The Berta Caceres Human Rights in Honduras Act was introduced in June of 2016 to the U.S. House Financial Services to prohibit “funds from being made available to Honduras for the police and military.” It makes several requirements before funding can be resumed, two of which are that the government of Honduras has “prosecuted members of the military and police for human rights violations” and “brought to trial and obtained verdicts against those who ordered and carried out the attacks on…Berta Caceres…and over 100 small-farmer activists” The bill has sat idle since it was introduced.

At the end of 2015, alongside the continued increase in U.S. security aid, the respective governments of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala designed the Alliance for Prosperity Plan (APP) with the United States as its core financial backer. The idea behind it was to deter the flow of migrants from the Northern Triangle countries by tackling crime, unemployment and lack of educational opportunities. Nearly half those funds were allocated towards a program known as the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI).

CARSI has been around since about 2008 but has found a new home under the APP. For a time, the only publicly available assessment looking into the efficacy of CARSI was Vanderbilt’s Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP) published in 2014. It’s worth noting that LAPOP receives funding in large part by USAID, the organization charged with designing and implementing the programs under CARSI. LAPOP’s overall findings were that “the programs have been a success. Specifically, the outcomes in the treatment communities improved more (or declined less) than they would have if USAID’s programs had not been administered.” But the study was heavily questioned by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), who performed their own study of the techniques and rigor used by LAPOP. CEPR concluded that, “Put simply, there is no data that supports the claims of State Department officials or USAID that the interventions being implemented in Honduras, or in the Northern Triangle in general, are having a positive (or any) effect.” There were multiple back-and-forth responses, with CEPR getting the last word.

Not long after LAPOP published their original study, the Wilson Center came out with their own review of CARSI programs in Honduras and Guatemala. While they said that some Honduran programs showed promise, particularly in the Bajo Aguan region, they also “identify areas of considerable weakness for CARSI programs…Overall, the studies find that CARSI does not reflect an integrated strategy for addressing the critical security threats in Central America and thus has had a negligible impact on the factors driving the increased Central American migration since 2011.” Nevertheless, the U.S. Congress passed an unprecedented $750 million dollar aid package for fiscal year 2016 ($1 billion was requested). The sum is “as much as the U.S. gave the entire region via CARSI between 2008 and 2014.” Of the total $750 million, $348.5 million was earmarked for CARSI.

Questions remain about how such a massive sum of money is being used. Beneficiaries of CARSI cite a lack of funding and dependence on volunteer coordinators – reportedly running Zumba classes out of a gym they built to help pay for their centers. With still no mechanisms for measurement and analytics in place and a government notorious for the misappropriation of funds, it’s necessary to rethink how this money is being used, or if it will once again “become an opportunity for U.S. companies to further exploit the region.”

Just two days after the fraught Honduran election, on November 28, 2017, the U.S. State Department gave the green light on the release of millions of dollars of funding to Honduras, saying that they have met their obligations with respect to human rights and fighting corruption.

Democratic principles

“Presidential re-election is prohibited by the Honduran Constitution. In fact, the document goes so far as to require the immediate termination of a sitting president who dares to advocate a change to the ban,” writes Jan Schakowsky, U.S. Representative for Illinois’s 9th congressional district, in an op-ed for The New York Times on November 23, 2017. That could be the first line in a book that spanned backwards from today to look at the history of U.S. intervention and virtual ownership of Honduras – from William Walker and his colonization attempts in the mid-1800s; to Sam Zemurray, the United Fruit Company and the first coining of the term “Banana Republic” in the 20th century; to the 2009 military coup ushered in and legitimized by the United States.

Heavy-handed, conspicuous intervention has been fairly consistent in Honduras’ modern history and that of Latin America – with many dictators and their henchmen having been funneled through the U.S. Army School of the Americas. And while the country’s own politicians were willing to piecemeal its land and institutions to the highest bidder, the ever-present hunger of U.S. private and governmental interests meant Honduras never stood a chance.

As a curfew comes down on Honduras and the constitutional rights of the Honduran people are being suspended, at least eight people have died (including a 19-year-old girl) with countless others injured or detained by Honduran security forces that the U.S. has helped, at least in part, to fund, arm and train. Honduras ranks 123 of 176 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index and it remains one of the poorest countries in Latin America. And yet the country has an oversized presence on U.S. politics and is entrusted with the distribution of a substantial financial aid package.

No matter what side of the immigration or fiscal debate, Honduras’ importance cannot be overstated. Everyone benefits from a safe, secure and prosperous Northern Triangle. It’s the responsibility of American citizens to put pressure on their government from spending tax dollars to support a corrupt government on its way to becoming a dictatorship in order to stem the cycle of immigration and violence.

The same reasons that the chaos in Honduras has barely broken through the inundated U.S. news cycle as of late are the reasons that the role of the United States in Honduras and around the globe needs to be reconsidered. Americans cannot honestly fight for their democracy at home while helping to tear it down in other countries.

*Jennifer Burgos is a Media Relations Specialist with a focus on Latin American press outreach. She obtained a B.A. from Boston College in English and Hispanic Studies. She has been a coordinator for Friends of Mekele Blind School (FMBS) since 2012. FMBS provides better learning opportunities and living conditions for roughly 100 blind students in Mekele, Ethiopia. She resides in Massachusetts.