Will elections in Honduras be a step forward or another step backward?

Will elections in Honduras be a step forward or another step backward?
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In June 2009, the left leaning president of Honduras was wrenched from his home by military troops and bundled onto a plane to Costa Rica. Following the classic playbook of Latin American coups, state security forces brutally repressed pro-democracy demonstrations and shut down independent media. In the months that followed, dozens of activists opposing the coup regime were killed.

This Sunday, Honduras will be holding its third presidential election since the coup. At first glance, it might appear that the country, which spiraled into deeper violence, corruption and poverty following the coup, is returning to some semblance of normality. The United States government has poured tens of millions of dollars of security and development aid into Honduras. On the surface, the investment might seem to be paying off.


President Juan Orlando Hernández, who is running for a second term, claims that his government’s statistics show that the homicide rate in Honduras has dipped down to pre-coup levels. A few weeks ago his minister of security, retired general Julián Pacheco, was in Washington extolling the achievements of the American backed police reform commission in Honduras. He claims that 4,400 members of the notoriously corrupt police force have been purged.

But beneath this veneer of hopeful progress and unsubstantiated claims lies a deepening nightmare. Whatever the homicide rate may be, and many consider the government’s numbers to be dubious, Honduras remains among the most dangerous countries for those who dare challenge power. In the years since the coup, hundreds of activists have been murdered while police and authorities have largely failed to act.

The world began noticing something was profoundly amiss in Honduras when, in early 2016, the renowned indigenous leader Berta Cáceres, who had opposed a dam project on Lenca indigenous lands, was shot dead. Under international pressure, including from outraged members of Congress, the Honduran government then promised an exemplary investigation. A few months later, the attorney general’s office announced the arrest of a number of suspects allegedly implicated in the murder, including American trained former and current members of the military.

But who, many wondered, was behind the killing? A group of recognized international legal experts conducted their own independent investigation and recently published evidence indicating that the murder had been ordered by top executives of Desarrollos Energéticos, the company undertaking the dam. The Honduran office of attorney general is in possession of this evidence but has failed to act.

The investigation showed that a far reaching criminal structure involving Desarrollos Energéticos executives and shareholders, including at least one member of the powerful Atala Zablah family, as well as private and state security agents and public officials, carried out a campaign of sabotage and killings to try to eliminate opposition to the dam project.

The central plank of President Hernández’s platform is security. But security for whom? Under Hernández’s watch, state security forces, widely reported to be infiltrated by criminal networks, have become increasingly militarized. In 2013, he supported the creation of a military police force that now numbers over 3,000. In 2014, he created the Tigres militarized police units, which receive American training.

These and other security forces are frequently deployed in areas with mining, agricultural, industrial, hydroelectric and tourism enterprises that displace and negatively impact poor indigenous and Afro-Honduran communities. There, as human rights groups have reported, they often act in tandem with private security agents to terrorize communities into submission through targeted killings and attacks.

Heading the Honduran security apparatus is retired general Julián Pacheco, who is implicated in drug trafficking, according to the testimony of a Drug Enforcement Administration informant. The police purges which Pacheco directs have not been verified by independent observers. Of the 4,400 supposedly “purged,” at least two-thirds were merely laid off for reasons of “restructuring,” as the commission itself has recognized.

Whatever remains of the rosy veneer of progress and hope peels away entirely on closer examination of Hernández’s bid for reelection, which is illegal under Honduras’s constitution. Thanks to the ruling of a supreme court illegally stacked by Hernández and the ruling National Party in late 2012, the constitution’s ban on reelection was ignored in the name of “human rights.” The only recourse for Honduran citizens has been to take to the streets, which tens of thousands have done, to no avail.

Similarly, in 2015, massive protests rocked Honduras when it was discovered that funds linked to a major corruption scheme ended up in Hernández’s 2013 campaign account. The State Department and Organization of American States swept in and mediated a political solution that excluded major opposition groups.

Indeed, Hernández owes a lot to the United States, which has provided steady financial and political support, while turning a blind eye to an abysmal human rights situation and increasingly authoritarian and unconstitutional regime. Current White House chief of staff John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE, when still head of the Department of Homeland Security, referred to Hernández as a “great guy and a good friend.”

The United States government, keen to maintaining allies in charge of a country hosting major American military assets, in particular the Soto Cano military base, has shown little regard for justice and progress in Honduras. Regardless of the results of Sunday’s elections, and there are legitimate fears of fraud, members of Congress need to step up to ensure that no American funds are used to buttress institutional actors involved in human rights crimes, corruption and attacks on democracy.

Alexander Main is a senior associate for international policy at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a think tank based in Washington.

This article originally and incorrectly referred to the Atala family, and has been corrected to refer to the Atala Zablah family. No members of the Atala Faraj family were involved in the killing of a Honduran land rights activist, the Desarrollos Energéticos company, or the dam project mentioned here.