U.S. Honduras policy under fire

One hundred and eight members of Congress submitted a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry last Wednesday urging the administration to take action on the ongoing human rights crisis in Honduras. The House letter is worth a full read and highlights a handful of the shocking violations that have become characteristic of Honduras’s ruling government and security forces since the 2009 military coup.

Embedded in the crime statistics that make Honduras the murder capital of the world is a pattern of widespread and systematic violence that is both politically and economically motivated and is critical to understanding how Honduran state and paramilitary forces are targeting certain sectors of society.

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Security forces have been implicated in rising numbers of attacks and murders of journalists, political opposition, lawyers, and LGBTQ, labor, land rights, and environmental activists. The U.S. government, however, has also played a significant role in the crisis and must correct its course in the region. The Obama administration was first to recognize and legitimize the post-coup government, and its continued support for regimes that came to and sustain power through brute force and suspect elections compounds the problem. Moreover, some of the very militarization that is censured in the House letter is partially a byproduct of U.S. influence.  

Besides sending millions of dollars in military aid, over the past several years, the U.S. built three military bases in Honduras, and our own agents have been implicated in grave human rights violations. In addition to helping bolster the post-coup regimes, the U.S. has incurred its own direct responsibility for human rights violations in Honduras as part of the broader U.S. “Drug War.” May 11 was the two-year anniversary of one consequence of that policy— a massacre in Ahuas, where four innocent civilians were shot dead and four more seriously injured in an apparently botched drug interdiction mission launched from a nearby U.S. forward operating base. While traveling on a local river by boat, the victims were riddled with high-caliber bullets: at least one of the deceased was pregnant, another left six orphaned children, and two were youths of 14 and 21. Following the assault, agents detained, abused and prevented local villagers from rescuing loved ones. It was a joint operation involving Honduran police, but also  U.S. State Department helicopters, a Homeland Security surveillance plane, and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents, who were part of a commando-style unit based on a model developed in the mid-2000s in Afghanistan.

Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), who was an early signer of the House letter, also led the charge for another congressional demand: a thorough and credible investigation into the killings in Ahuas and the United States’ role, and a review of the negative impacts of counternarcotic operations on Afro-indigenous communities in the region. Recently, Rep. Johnson penned an Op-Ed on the anniversary, urging accountability and further transparency around the U.S. role in the massacre.

We need to carefully watch how the Obama administration responds to Congress’ concerns and monitor whether they deliver on material changes in their policies. Implementation  of the Leahy law and the current Appropriations Bill conditions, which include requirements around much-needed assistance for victims of counternarcotic operations like those in Ahuas, must be both vigorous and executed in good faith. To do this, all the relevant government agencies must commit to overhauling the larger strategy around Honduras. U.S. officials have openly exploited loopholes in the Leahy law, which prohibits U.S. aid to foreign units who commit human rights abuses with impunity. Gen. John Kelly, Commander of U.S. Southern Command, however, stated at a congressional hearing in April, that in lieu of sending U.S. troops to aid the Honduran forces – because he is barred from doing so due to credible reports of those forces having committed gross human rights violations – they are instead sending in Colombian counterparts as proxy trainers to provide support. 

Popular movements in Honduras continue to fight for their human rights despite brutal repression. They have their work cut out for them, and it will be an uphill battle to restore the rule of law and obtain justice amidst the prevailing culture of impunity. Here in the U.S., the least we can do is stop adding fuel to the fire and ensure accountability for our own government’s violations in Honduras. It is time for State to heed Congress’ repeated calls for action. Until then, we must keep pressing our government to move beyond lip service on the issues, to truly take a stand in support of fundamental human rights and suspend aid for the militarized regimes that again and again trample on these basic rights.

Downs's work at the Center for Constitutional Rights focuses on challenging persecution of human rights defenders and activists, government abuse of power post-9/11, and militarization in the Americas.

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