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US-Trained Honduran Police Get Midievel

Political prisoner Edwin Espinal released.

The Honduran corruption canard keeps the focus on police resources and individuals rather than on the pangs of privatization, and so it is often the line favored by the U.S. State Department.

Tegucigalpa, Honduras –  “It’s sad how the United States is supporting this corrupt government,” Honduran political prisoner Edwin Espinal told MintPress News immediately after his release from prison, where he had spent 19 months.

Edwin’s case — and the medieval violence to which U.S.-trained police in Honduras tried to subject me — perfectly illustrate the often lethal repression that has fueled the migrant crisis. After hours of police hurling stones and tear gas at student protesters last week, young children gathered the aluminum scraps from the ground to sell, underscoring that the poverty brought on by U.S.-backed neoliberal measures has gone hand-in-hand with police violence in fueling the human-rights catastrophe at the heart of the central American exodus.

A week of nationwide action in solidarity with political prisoners ended in elation at a concert on Friday held in the central park, as beloved movement leader Edwin Espinal — unexpectedly released from pre-trial detention earlier in the day — walked unevenly onstage. Espinal, looking like a deer in the headlights, was immediately mobbed by sobbing friends. The resistance band Patechucho Social Club played a rousing version of their song “Rap Rock Reggae Cumbia.”

On Friday, a three-judge panel in a courthouse surrounded by military police officers agreed that Espinal’s 19-month incarceration in a maximum-security prison was illegal, punitive and arbitrary. 

I went with Edwin’s wife, Karen Spring, to pick him up from the prison. In his first interview after his release from prison, Edwin told me:

It’s very clear inside that they started a new force which has been trained by the U.S. government. And they’re really bad people. They treat us so badly… They always beat me up, they always humiliate me.

It is sad how the United States is supporting this corrupt government, which is focused on prosecuting the political opposition rather than on prosecuting corrupt people in the Juan Orlando Hernandez government.”

It is difficult to overstate the importance to Hondurans of Espinal’s conditional release while awaiting trial. Since the murder of his then-girlfriend Wendy Avila from suffocation caused by teargas inhalation in the months following the 2009 U.S.-backed coup, he has been an especially public figure in the Honduran struggle for social justice.

The issue of political prisoners is one of the few causes (along with the demand that the dictator leave power) that fully unites disparate groups on the Honduran left, from hierarchical ballot-focused organizations like former President Mel Zelaya’s Libre Party to the radically horizontal, anti-electoral, indigenous- and Garífuna-led organizations COPINH and OFRANEH. 

Espinal has been a particular target of illegitimately elected U.S.-backed narcodictator Juan Orlando Hernández (JOH), who in November 2013 — well prior to ordering Espinal’s arrest on charges related to protesting JOH’s stolen, illegal 2017 re-election — used his military police force to raid Espinal’s house as a campaign stunt. Espinal’s incarceration — under deplorable, life-threatening conditions, along with other political prisoners Raúl Álvarez, Rommel Herrera, and Gustavo Cáceres (at a separate prison) — sparked an international solidarity movement. 

The week of action in solidarity with political prisoners was organized well in advance of revelations in the Southern District of New York that JOH had been named as the fourth co-conspirator (CC-4) in a drug-trafficking case against his brother, kingpin Tony Hernández. 

Each day of last week’s fast was sponsored by a different organization. As I noted in my article last Thursday in MintPress, I spent Monday with fasters organized by Libre outside the Public Ministry in Tegucigalpa. There I spoke with ousted President Mel Zelaya about his participation in the fast and the outlook for CC-4 (JOH’s new nickname within the resistance movement). I returned to visit the fasters throughout the week.

Following days of parallel marches demanding the end of the dictatorship, which met with heavy repression around the country, the Movement for Health and Education (Plataforma Por la Salud y la Educación) organized Thursday’s Tegucigalpa action in solidarity with political prisoners. I bummed a ride from COPINH leaders to the Public Ministry to find that the rest of their youth-led contingent had already arrived, along with well over a hundred other activists coming from diverse organizations including OFRANEH, the Catholic Church, unions, and of course the Committee for the Freedom of Political Prisoners. UN observers were also on-site.

I was distracted by the products available for sale from resistance-affiliated vendors when in the blink of an eye, protestors occupied the street in front of the Public Ministry — a central thoroughfare. They stayed for an hour or so, singing typically sidesplitting Honduran resistance rhymes. One translated as: “They say Juan Orlando doesn’t have balls, just Coca-Cola bottle caps” (emphasis on the Coca [cocaine] in Coca-cola).

By noon, the crowd dispersed, leaving the fasters to continue their vigil. I headed to the National Autonomous University of Honduras (UNAH) to catch up with several former students of mine at that institution. I taught anthropology there as a Fulbright scholar in 2013 and 2014.

Students stand in solidarity

I had my doubts about whether I’d actually be able to meet them. The previous day at the UNAH, I’d seen a motley crew of police: National Police, U.S.-trained “Tigres” Special Forces, and more. Among their vehicles was an enormous tank labeled “To serve and protect.” 

Students had occupied the university in retaliation against the extreme police violence against their colleagues in San Pedro the night prior. 

The police, in turn, had heavily gassed the university, shooting hundreds of teargas canisters directly through its gates, and — briefly — shooting live rounds. Students would run out, pick up the exploding canisters, and throw them back at police, causing a temporary retreat. After two hours of documenting the attacks, I took refuge in a Circle K across the street with the best tasting air I had ever breathed in my life. 

I chatted with a small group of students who were also waiting out the attacks in our refrigerated refuge. I asked them if the day’s attack was worse than usual. They laughed. “No, it’s like this here every day.”  

Later, a colleague at UNAH told me that the university administration denied permission for professors to cancel classes while the teargas attack was going on. She said had canceled her class, despite potential sanctions including a pay cut. “Who can learn under those conditions?” she wondered to me. 

The joven hustlers of Honduras

When I returned on Thursday, the first person I came across was Jaime, a 10-year-old boy I had met the previous evening after police finished repressing the protest. He was collecting spent teargas canisters to sell as aluminum scrap in his neighborhood.

I felt the same heartbreak with Jaime that I had felt days prior when I ran into a boy, of a similar age, braving tear gas to sell bandanas and bags of vinegar to protesters. I have long been aware of the poverty and repression that has made Honduras unlivable for so many, but to see it so close and personal, with a child as its victim, filled me with conflicting feelings of anguish — for the boy’s future — and anger — at my government’s policies that have created this situation.

He was happy to see me again. And his curious mind was overflowing with the information he shared with me: students had taken over several buildings, and shortly there would be a blockade of the road in front of the main gate, where I was planning to meet my former students. 

Not long after my students showed up, so too did masked protesters with rocks, branches, and cement to blockade the street in front of the campus — another major Tegucigalpa thoroughfare.

It was not long before Jaime ran excitedly back to me, shouting “Look! The police are here! The police are here!” I squinted in the direction he was pointing, but didn’t see anything. But I know that he was right because I could already taste the familiar flavor of teargas — like swallowing a dollop of wasabi and rubbing the leftovers in my eyes. 

My students shouted for us to run inside the gates where we could retreat and take cover.

A full-on battle ensued between masked protesters (at least some of whom later identified themselves as students) and police. The protestors hurled mostly taunts, but also a few rocks while the police threw volley after volley of stones, and new rounds of teargas every few minutes. 

The protests went on anyway. UNAH students have an impressive resistance to the chemical weapon.

Next to me, I noticed a “No Smoking” sign, part of a university-wide clean-air campaign.

As another round of teargas was shot into campus, a student said to me, “That’s [the military/police arsenal] where all the money that this country doesn’t spend on medicine goes.” Several students who had sustained injuries from the rocks police were hurling at them retreated, moaning, as their companions tended to their wounds. A friend, wearing his beige human-rights-defender vest, stood smoking a cigarette while taking a momentary break from his monitoring and assistance work. “Smoking is prohibited here, you know,” I told him. “For your health.”

After a few minutes passed without more gas, I took a closer look. Armed with the bandana I had purchased from a child during another gas-filled moment on Tuesday, I approached the front gate. My human-rights-defender friend was filming there already, so I stood next to him and began livestreaming the attack. Students yelled at the officers that they were being filmed by a “gringa human rights defender.”

Honduran police get medieval

Like the students, I naively assumed my presence would serve as a shield from the worst of the police violence. Instead, the police made me their main target, hurling rocks at me as I held my phone up to record. I retreated to a corner of the wall abutting the main gate, then further behind a tree. But the tree wasn’t wide enough and some of the rocks were larger than a softball and came at me faster than I could duck. 

It was a lethal game of dodgeball.

I was injured twice before I could take better cover behind a wall. There, the police continued to specifically target me as I blindly filmed, simply holding my camera above the wall. It seemed that every time I peeked up, a rock missed my head by inches. On various occasions the police came inside the autonomous university’s gates — a serious violation of Honduran law (perhaps even more so than stoning me).

In a kind of sick contradiction one comes to expect while doing this kind of work in Honduras, the police force that stoned me because they thought I was a human-rights worker actually receives human-rights training from the U.S. State Department Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. 

The police purge that wasn’t

All this comes after the force was supposedly rid of its bad apples, a job led by the State Department-funded Association for a More Just Society (AJS). AJS is an evangelical Christian organization that also organizes national days of prayer for peace and has dedicated an immense amount of effort since the coup to destroying teachers’ unions and public education by blaming and encouraging the criminalization of individual teachers for the structural flaws in the public educational system. 

At the head of this well-greased operation is Omar Rivera, who is known for working closely with both JOH and Washington, serving as an effective civil-society figurehead. AJS is the representative organization for Transparency International in Honduras and, along with the U.S. State Department, has led a well-funded propaganda effort to convince Hondurans and the international community that the nation’s principal problem is “corruption.” 

There’s no doubt that Honduras is impossibly corrupt; it is also clear, however, that that corruption is merely a symptom of a much larger problem that the corporate U.S. media chooses to ignore: the ongoing usurpation of Honduran sovereignty and the prevention of the development of democratic processes by the United States, Canada, and other allied governments and International Finance institutions, and the extractive capitalist interests they serve.

The corruption canard keeps the focus on police resources and individuals rather than on the pangs of privatization, and so it is often the line favored by the State Department.

While the official AJS and State Department narrative on reductions in police violence and corruption has been swallowed hook, line and sinker by sycophantic reporters like Sonia Nazario, the reality on the ground is much more complex. 

The forest is missed for a few trees, and that is by design. Nazario and other stenographers of empire go to great lengths to highlight gang violence and extortion. But the soarings rates of violent crime should surprise no one when the regime itself, backed by the U.S., is basically a cartel.

As Honduras Solidarity Network coordinator Karen Spring, wife of political prisoner Edwin Espinal, and my PhD student Laura (Jung) Gilchrest detailed in separate 2016 articles, the AJS-led Special Commission for the Cleansing and Transformation of Honduran Police is at best a PR scheme. 

At worst it is something far more sinister. It consists of homophobic and misogynstic evangelical pastor Alberto Solorzano; Vilma Morales, the former Supreme Court president who invented constitutional justifications out of thin air to legitimate the 2009 coup against Mel Zelaya and later led “intervention commissions” that supercharged the privatization of the public sector; and finally, Minister of Security Julian Pacheco, who has been investigated by the DEA “since at least in or about 2013” for drug trafficking, according to documents related to the case against the president’s brother. 

With such figures at the helm of the police clean-up effort, the police continue to operate as an organized criminal structure — trafficking drugs, running death squads, shooting live bullets into crowds of protesters, and stoning foreigners and students with impunity.

US speaks softly, empty-handed

With its enormous influence, it is unsurprising that the high-level congressional delegation led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi decided to meet with AJS on Saturday, especially given its status as the State Department’s “civil society” proxy in Honduras.

In that meeting, it is certain that delegates heard the same story about corruption Nazario and others have published. This includes calls to defend the MACCIH, the toothless OAS-affiliated anti-corruption body that has repeatedly gone outside its mandate to evaluate cases of minimal structural importance, while avoiding major instances of corruption. 

The MACCIH has not, for example, presented indictments of the president or his family despite receiving irrefutable documentation (and even open admissions) of their theft of public funds to finance the National Party’s campaigns during the last two presidential elections — both of which also required U.S.-sanctioned electoral fraud and lethal violence to impose their sham results on an unwilling nation. 

The illegally-appointed attorney general and close family friend of JOH must approve any topic the MACCIH chooses to investigate, thus ensuring its structural uselessness. If there is one thing that the MACCIH has done extremely well, it is to demonstrate quite clearly that no meaningful anti-corruption efforts can take place while JOH is still in power. Nonetheless, the Democratic congress members and journalists persist in holding it up as an important tool in restoring legitimacy to the Honduran government.

Hondurans I spoke with over the weekend were cautiously optimistic that the Pelosi delegation would hasten JOH’s departure. But they did not expect much more. Pelosi may have gushed about her “friend” Berta Cáceres in her meeting with the family, but she has thus far refused to sign onto the Berta Cáceres Act, which “would suspend military aid to Honduras until the Honduran government investigates credible allegations of gross human rights violations by their security forces.” Cáceres, an environmental activist and indigenous freedom fighter known around the world, was assassinated by members of a U.S.-trained death squad in 2016.

Meanwhile Representative Norma Torres (D-CA), who tweeted pictures of people holding signs praising her in the delegation’s hotel and of her meeting with members of Cáceres’s family, has not only refused to sign onto the Berta Cáceres Act, but has also propped up the JOH regime and its fictitious “fight against corruption.” And Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), who has in general been a strong ally of the Honduran people and is a co-sponsor of the Berta Cáceres Act, tweeted a celebration of occupying U.S. forces from Massachusetts as his parting message. A fine, patriotic message for constituents, but a kick in the face to the Hondurans resisting the U.S.-sponsored militarization of their society.

Es pa’ fuera que vas?

On Monday, Honduran social networks exploded with rumors when news broke that JOH was on a plane headed to Washington. Hondurans speculated — with overflowing glee — that he was going there to turn himself in to the DEA; that he would be arraigned on drug trafficking charges; that Pelosi and her crew had cut a deal to bring him down. An hour or two after the news began to circulate, the presidential press office tried to quash rumors with a deliciously absurd press release asserting that the trafficker-in-chief has led — since 2010 in Congress and since 2014 in the presidency — a “successful, integrated strategy to combat drug trafficking and organized crime.” 

The official statement claimed that the visit was for JOH and his cabinet to meet with the OAS Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission

But the meeting had appeared neither on the president’s agenda nor on that of the OAS commission. Fueling suspicions, the president posted a photo of himself supposedly going on a jog Tuesday morning. But observers quickly noticed the photo was identical to one JOH had already posted in 2015.

JOH had a similarly performative reunion with OAS Secretary General and MACCIH creator Luis Almagro. In what could either be a Freudian slip or simply unfortunate phrasing, Almagro tweeted that he and JOH discussed “reducing the demand for illicit drugs.” After all, JOH’s brother was the supply guy.

Hondurans residing in the Washington area made sure that the president’s narrative did not go uncontested. They also documented State Department representatives arriving at his hotel, further fueling suspicions that the purpose of the visit was for JOH to receive marching orders from those who put him in power in the first place. On his return, some hypothesized that the real purpose of the trip was to demonstrate to Hondurans hoping the DEA would relieve them that he could enter and leave the United States without getting arrested. 

Honduras may well be at a turning point nonetheless. And if not a turning point, perhaps a boiling point. Some 89 people were confirmed dead in the ongoing nationwide dengue epidemic, which is exacerbated by cuts to healthcare. JOH held a press conference affirming his allegiance to Israel as stronger than ever. And as protests and repression continue nationwide, children — younger than the coup — use the opportunity to collect materials from chemical weapons banned in warfare to help get by while the schools are closed. The only thing that is clear is that Juan Orlando has never had a less legitimate image and now, more than ever, what grasp he on power hangs on D.C.

Feature photo | Riot police run in front of a cloud of tear gas during a protest against Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernandez, in Tegucigalpa, August 6, 2019. Jorge Cabrera | Reuters

Adrienne Pine is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at American University. She is the author of the book Working Hard, Drinking Hard: On Violence and Survival in Honduras

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