We should not work with Honduran police and military until the government defends human rights and holds security forces responsible for their crimes
On 2 March 2016, armed men burst into the home of Berta Cáceres, a prominent environmental and indigenous activist in Honduras, and shot her to death. Earlier that day, the government had rescinded Ms Cáceres’s meager security detail, leaving her unprotected. Of the 33 threats against her, including death threats, none had been investigated. Members of the Honduran military have been implicated in her murder, and requests by the global community for an independent investigation have been ignored.
Until the Honduran government protects human rights and holds its security forces responsible for their crimes, the US should not be working with its police and military. As long as the United States funds Honduran security forces without demanding justice for those threatened, tortured and killed, the US has blood on its hands. It’s time to suspend all police and military aid to Honduras.
Ms Cáceres’s murder fits an ongoing pattern of violence against organizers, activists, and civilians since the 2009 coup deposed Honduras’ democratically elected government. It’s even possible that US-trained forces were involved in her death – one soldier alleges that Berta Cáceres’s name appeared on a hit list distributed to an elite Honduran military police unit that is part of the national interagency security force (Fusina). Fusina was trained last summer by 300 US military and civilian personnel, including Marines and FBI agents.
Despite this dangerous track record, the United States continues to pour money into Honduran security forces. The US has already allocated at least $18m to Honduran police and military for 2016. Barack Obama’s 2017 budget request calls for increased funding for the Honduran police and military. In addition, the Inter-American Development Bank has lent $60m to the Honduran police, with US approval.
The Honduran police are widely documented to be corrupt. In August 2013, a government commission charged with cleaning up the police admitted nearly three-quarters of the police force were “beyond saving”. Human Rights Watch reports: “The use of lethal force by the national police is a chronic problem. Investigations into police abuses are marred by inefficiency and corruption … and impunity is the rule.”
Leaked documents implicate top Honduran police officials in the 2009 and 2011 assassinations of two police investigators, Julian Aristídes Gonzales and Alfredo Landaverde. Those men were investigating the connections between police leaders, drug traffickers, and organized crime.
But even the work of Gonzales and Landaverde may have been directed by the corrupt Honduran government. A New York Times article suggests the Honduran government may have fabricated elements of the police corruption as an excuse to clean up the police by replacing them with the military. President Juan Orlando Hernández’s personal commitment to cleaning up the police is questionable. He reappointed Hétor Iván Mejía, an alleged human rights abuser, as chief of operations for the national police, for example, and has a track record of supporting the coup and underminingthe rule of law on multiple fronts.
This scandal is one of many with the alleged involvement of the Honduran military and police. Over 100 small-farmer activists have been killed in the Aguán Valley since 2009. In July 2013, Tomás García, a peaceful Lenca Indigenous activist was killed. In December 2015, two Afro-Indigenous men were killed as they attempted to push a car out of a sandbank. Despite documented involvement of Honduran security forces, none of these crimes have been properly investigated, and the cases remain in impunity.
President Hernández’s response is misguided. He’s extended the military into domestic policing, in violation of the Honduran constitution. The expanded military police have killed unarmed men passing through checkpoints. They’ve tear gassed and beaten members of opposition party Libre inside the main hall of Congress. They’ve arrested and beaten a prominent advocate for children, Guadalupe Ruelas, after he criticized the government. Creating a military police is clearly not the solution.
The murder of Berta Cáceres illustrates a bleak state of affairs in Honduras. Corruption, impunity and judicial and institutional weaknesses have created a human rights crisis in which no one is safe – not even a world-famous recipient of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize.
Recently, five suspects were arrested in Ms Cáceres’ case – one suspect is a military officer and two others are retired military officers. Given this information, we are deeply concerned about the likely role of the Honduran military in her assassination, including the military chain of command. Our colleague Senator Patrick Leahy observed in the Senate that the Honduran government was “complicit in condoning and encouraging the lawlessness that Ms Caceres and her community faced every day”.
In multiple letters to the secretary of state, stretching back to 2010, we have joined with our colleagues in the House to call for an immediate suspension of security aid to Honduras. Enough is enough – it’s past time to suspend the aid and instruct the US Treasury department to vote no on all loans from multilateral development banks to security forces in Honduras.
The Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act (HR 5474) would suspend those funds – and prohibit international loans providing for security assistance – from being dispersed unless Honduras makes serious inroads to addressing blatant human rights violations by police and military forces.
Once justice is restored and impunity for human rights abuses ends, we’ll reconsider.