Above Photo: A man carries his belongings on his shoulder as the second caravan of migrants leaves Esquipulas, Guatemala on October 21 in hopes of reaching the United States. Photo credit: Jeff Abbott
I remember sitting across the table from my friend Pavel in a coffee shop in the Honduran capital Tegucigalpa in 2014. The conversation was casual and frank, as it often is, when talking to Hondurans about the imminent possibility of death. ‘The worst thing is that I know I could die in the dumbest way. It’ll happen while I’m leaving the grocery store, walking out of a coffee shop, or driving to band practice.’
Pavel was a well-known musician and activist. His rock band had played an important role in denouncing the 2009 military coup in Honduras and reaching popular audiences about themes of poverty and structural inequality. Following a series of unidentified attacks against family members and band-mates, he was convinced that the government could, and would likely, have him killed at any time.
‘The other day I was talking to a friend of mine from elementary school who was in a special elite unit in the military for a while,’ he said with a nervous smile. ‘I asked him, “if they wanted to come into my home and kill me, is there any way I could prevent it?” “No,” he told me. “None?” I asked. “But I’m talking like I have two dogs and gate and an alarm system, and…” “No, if they want to do it, there’s nothing you can do,”’ his friend had assured him.
That conversation marked the beginning of my field research in Honduras as a doctoral candidate in anthropology. During my fieldwork, which went on for close to two years, I would have countless conversations like this with Honduran men and women contemplating the possibility of their own deaths, or worse, of their family members. Pavel was lucky. He eventually fled Honduras and received political asylum in Europe, but not before suffering serious mental health issues that led to repeated institutionalisations during the time I knew him. The post-coup crisis had given him ‘nervios’ (nervousness, or anxiety) which was sometimes visible in his shaky hands and fidgety body as he talked about hoping to one day see a change in the city and country that he loved so much.
‘Everyone here is like a ticking time bomb,’ another friend in Tegucigalpa often told me. ‘We are all suffering psychologically but we don’t say anything. The things we experience every day, there is no escape from it.’ These words reverberate through my head as I read the news today. ‘There is no escape from it.’
Assassinations and death threats
As I read the news, I’m also reminded of the moment I learned why my friend Victor slept in a hammock in front of his house. It was 3 March 2016 and I was in the southern region of Honduras, on a peninsula called Zacate Grande, studying land dispossession in rural communities. I had been woken up at 7am to the news that the Honduran social leader Berta Cáceres had been assassinated inside her home the night before. As the sleepy fishing village of La Pintadillera hummed gently with its morning activities, Victor left his radio streaming the news from Radio Progresso, as he did every morning, listening this time with solemn silence. ‘Bertita’ had been a beloved ally in the struggle for land in the entire peninsula of Zacate Grande, and had helped establish their community radio station, La Voz de Zacate Grande, years previously.
Victor’s wife Gloria choked back tears over breakfast as her six-year-old daughter listened in. ‘I will never forget the day we celebrated the first anniversary of the radio. Berta was here. She drove us back from Playa Grande.’ That day, Gloria said, the military stopped a group of local musicians on their way home from the festivities and detained them, beating some. Word of the attack made it back to Playa Grande. ‘I was so scared to go back but it was late and my kids had to sleep,’ she told me. ‘Berta said “let’s go” and she drove. When we encountered the military on the road, Berta said “Get those kids on the floor in case they start shooting at us.” I was panicking, thinking, “Oh my god, what if they shoot my child?” but Berta knew what to do. She saved our lives.’
‘We will keep doing this work, but we know they can kill us at any moment,’ Victor told me the morning of Berta’s death. Then he asked me if I knew why he slept outside at night.
I had noticed before that Victor, a man facing death threats for his involvement in a community association dedicated in part to combating land grabbing and the privatisation of local beaches by the country’s economic elite, had taken to sleeping in front of his house. I had assumed it was an act of defiance. Certainly, it was cooler to sleep in the fresh air and perhaps Victor was sending a message to his adversaries that he was not afraid.
‘Look at how they killed Berta in her home,’ he told me. ‘You know that I sleep in a bed with my wife and kids. Imagine if they came in looking for me and found us all there. Imagine if they came in shooting, and…’ His voice trailed off before he could continue.
Forced to flee
As I write these words I am visiting another friend who was forced to flee from Honduras’ northern coast to France in February. Fabia had spent a large portion of her adult life working in the coastal maquilas – textile factories – and had established a women’s organisation to confront abuses endured by women at work and home. Fabia worked for years to create opportunities for women and youth, and to help them escape violent situations with romantic partners, gangs and drug cartels. The violence had made her town of Puerto Cortés unliveable.
More and more youth were being forcibly conscripted into gangs, and femicide was through the roof. Months before she fled, heavily armed, masked men raided Fabia’s office in broad daylight threatening to kill her and her co-workers if they didn’t shut up shop. When the threats persisted and unmarked vehicles began to circle her home, she finally left with her daughter. On arriving in France, she nearly collapsed from the stress. ‘I woke up one day and couldn’t move my legs, I couldn’t stand up,’ she told me. Years of persecution in Honduras had taken a toll on her body and manifested in acute kidney failure, for which she spent weeks in the hospital.
Victims of violence
There are too many such stories. And while people like Pavel, Berta, Victor and Fabia face political persecution, the victims of the violence of the political system include a majority of Hondurans. Honduran small business owners must pay a weekly ‘war tax’ – an extortion from organised crime in league with the national police – or be killed, forcing many out of business. And all Hondurans (but especially the poor) face rampant generalised crime and violence. In 2011, Honduras had the highest homicide rate in the world, according to the UN. The lines between organised crime, state security forces and the government have increasingly blurred in recent years, leaving Hondurans vulnerable to a myriad of violent actors with no possibility of protection from the state.
When I see news cycles about masses of Honduran migrants coming to the US, I think about the two main things I want the world to know about this situation. I want people to understand how much violence – structural, psychological and physical – is endured by Hondurans before they even reach the US-Mexico border. And I want people to understand how we got here, and the US role in producing the unliveable conditions from which Hondurans are fleeing.
The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben puts forward a concept called ‘bare life’ that refers to a state of being in which one is stripped of all legal and political rights. According to Agamben, bare life is produced when a sovereign power enacts a state of exception over a certain population or at a certain point in time. His work focuses on Nazi concentration camps as the ultimate expression of ‘exception’ and ‘bare life’, producing a context in which virtually anything can happen. However, Agamben challenges us to think of ‘the camp’ more broadly as any space in which ‘power confronts nothing but pure life, without any mediation’. In many ways, Honduras is one of these spaces.
Hondurans have been living in an effective state of emergency since constitutional order was abruptly overthrown with the military coup in 2009. Arbitrary arrests, violent repression against protesters and targeted assassinations ensued under the interim military government in the months following the coup. While leaders throughout Latin America, as well as the UN general assembly, vehemently demanded ousted president Zelaya be reinstated, Hillary Clinton in her role as secretary of state worked behind scenes alongside various US lobbyists to legitimise the coup government. The elections that took place under martial law just months after the coup were widely boycotted, with most western governments refusing to recognise the results until US diplomatic pressure eventually turned the tide.
This was also a time when Hondurans were organising for a constituent assembly that they intended to be an important step in building a popular democracy representative of a broad spectrum of Honduran society. While the post-coup resistance movement fought to build an inclusive democracy, the post-coup regimes worked to dismantle the public institutions of the country. The results were devastating. Entrenched impunity spread corruption throughout the state, effectively making it the ‘operating system’ of a Honduran kleptocracy in cahoots with narco and transnational capital networks. Homicides jumped 50 per cent from 2008-2011. By 2016, the year Cáceres was murdered along with five other members of her organisation, Honduras had been declared the most dangerous country in the world for environmental and land activists.
Dismantling the safety net
During this time, the regimes of Porfirio Lobo and Juan Orlando Hernández systematically dismantled the social safety net through ferocious neoliberal austerity policies that defunded healthcare, hospitals and education. The labour code was reformed to provide maximum worker flexibility to the manufacturing sector, overturning the 40-hour week and further exposing Honduran workers to unsafe and unhealthy working conditions. Unemployment and underemployment grew. The power to turn public assets over to private contractors through public-private partnerships was placed in the hands of the president and an un-elected presidential agency. From 2010-2012, the extreme poverty rate increased by 26.3 per cent. Today Honduras has become the most unequal country in Latin America.
In post-coup Honduras, the notion of citizenship has been reduced to a paradigm of citizen security – with security defined only in the negative. With violence ballooning, the human need to not be killed became the primary premise of intervention between the government and the governed at the same time that funds for healthcare, education, pensions and all other forms of public investment to improve citizens’ lives were slashed – and, in many cases, directly pilfered by the ruling party.
Militarisation of everyday spaces, under the guise of reducing crime, has been bolstered by increasing US military aid, the same aid Trump has threatened to cut off to the central American region. Direct US military to Honduras totals at least $114 million since 2009, with additional funds coming through the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI). CARSI now constitutes roughly half of the $750 million Alliance for Prosperity aid package for the northern triangle region (Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador). So-called securitisation in Honduras has meant the creation, with funding and training from the US, of new military hybrid forces, such as the Military Police of Public Order, and the elite investigative/counter-insurgency police unit called the TIGRES that has been deployed against the population.
The governance model of the Hernández administration has been to manage the population through their need for basic survival, their bare life, with a government handout programme, Vida Mejor (Better Life). The programme constructs bare-bones houses and offers cash or food handouts to select populations. Instead of securing land tenure rights for Honduras’ rural poor, promoting development based in food sovereignty and security, or safeguarding wages, Vida Mejor supplies meagre relief in exchange for political gains. It is a direct mediation between power and bare life, a population reduced to its basic biological needs for survival. The administration offers the possibility of employment to Hondurans in exchange for usurping their political rights as citizens through the development of ‘special economic development and employment zones’ (ZEDEs). In these zones, Hondurans could lose democratic local government at any time, finding themselves instead under the direct jurisdiction of private investors.
In November and December 2017, the violence that had been relegated since the post-coup period to the invisible spaces of late-night home raids, isolated rural areas and selective assassinations was once again made visible on the national arena. Juan Orlando Hernández had run an illegal bid for re-election – strictly prohibited in the Honduran constitution. On the day of elections, as the opposition coalition showed what many analysts declared an irreversible lead, the electoral tribunal’s software abruptly malfunctioned, prompting a multi-day shutdown of the ballot counting.
When counting resumed, Hernández had somehow taken a lead, defying the laws of probability.
The tribunal delayed over a month in formally announcing Hernández as the winner, despite the inability of the OAS observation mission to validate the electoral results. The US, joined by Mexico, Colombia, and Spain, propped up Hernández’s victory and undermined the opposition’s call for a recount. In the meantime, Hernández’s government suspended constitutional rights, instated a state of emergency and imposed a national curfew to combat the mass protests that ensued.
Like Victor on his porch, videos from Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula showed Hondurans laying their lives bare before a state that would kill them. In opposition to the fraudulent elections, Hondurans staged road blockades and other actions despite violent repression by state security forces, who beat them and attacked them with tear gas and rubber and live bullets. One such video shows Hernández’s military police shooting live bullets at Honduran youth for participating in a cacerolazo (in a response to the imposed curfew, people banged on pots either in street marches or from inside their homes to voice their opposition). Another video shows an unarmed family yelling at and shoving heavily armed soldiers who have raided their home.
The human rights organisation COFADEH reports that at least 30 Hondurans, mostly youth, were killed by the state’s military police forces in the month after the election. The TIGRES carried out some of the raids that contributed to the imprisonment of over 40 political prisoners.
On the road
Now we are seeing images of Hondurans in their thousands on the open road, migrating to the US. Most are traveling with a single backpack. They are jumping bridges to trudge through rivers when blocked by state security forces. They are barrelling through military blockades and checkpoints. Parents shield their children from tear gas. They are not protected by the governments of Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, or the US (although Guatemalan and Mexican citizens have shown tremendous solidarity and kindness to the members of the caravan throughout their journey thus far). Honduran refugees are protected by nothing but their own numbers.
While Hondurans have been fleeing to the US in record numbers since 2009, the migrant experience has so far been one of isolation, invisibility, and powerlessness. In their thousands and out in the open, their migration has become a spectacle of vulnerability that is impossible to ignore. In the process of protecting themselves, Hondurans are essentially laying their bare life bare, for all to see, in hopes of reclaiming their collective right to live.