Do you have leads on electoral fraud in Honduras, or on the yet-to-be-prosecuted Berta Cáceres case? Send here using this key:
B9DD 50A4 26CF AE1F B33E A9BB 707E 9F1F 59D9 2806
On March 2, 2016, armed men murdered human rights defender Berta Isabel
Cáceres Flores, and shot Mexican environmental activist Gustavo Castro Soto
in the town of La Esperanza, Department of Intibucá, Honduras. Their relatives
and the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras
(COPINH) immediately requested an independent investigation due to concerns
that Honduran authorities would not identify the intellectual authors of the
The relatives of Berta Cáceres and COPINH made this request before the
Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the United Nations
and many other national and international actors. Nevertheless, they were disregarded
by the Honduran State.
In light of this inaction, the family and COPINH together with the Wide
Movement for Dignity and Justice (MADJ), the Center for Justice and International
Law (CEJIL) and other national and international organizations, insisted on an
investigation by a group of independent experts. As a result, in November 2016,
the International Advisory Group of Experts (GAIPE) was created and its members
are Dan Saxon, Roxanna Altholz, Miguel Ángel Urbina, Jorge Molano and
GAIPE has conducted four on-site visits to Honduras; interviewed more than
thirty individuals, analyzed different reports by international human rights organizations;
and reviewed ten criminal cases resulting from COPINH complaints
as well as legal actions filed due to a lack of prior, free and informed consultation
related to the Agua Zarca Project. Furthermore, GAIPE has had partial access to
the evidence of the criminal investigation of Berta Isabel Cáceres’ murder and the
attempted assassination of Gustavo Castro.
Spanish version/Version en español
“He may be an S.O.B., but he’s our S.O.B.” That quip — of uncertain origin, but often traced to Franklin D. Roosevelt about Nicaragua’s ruthless dictator Anastasio Somoza — became a shorthand excuse for dubious American foreign policies during the 1930s and the Cold War. It touched policy in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and particularly Latin America. It backfired often — notably in Central America, Cuba, Vietnam and Iran — but was never fully abandoned.
Now it appears that the State Department has given the strategy new life. In Honduras, President Juan Orlando Hernández, having twisted his country’s laws to allow himself to seek re-election and having presided over a vote count so suspicious that his opponents and international observers called for a new election, has now officially been pronounced the winner by the country’s discredited electoral commission. That allows him to achieve his second, unlawful, term after all.
To all of which, the administration in Washington has turned a blind eye.
Why? Perhaps the Trump administration, like the Obama administration before it, believes Mr. Hernández to be good for Honduras and American interests there. A Honduran military base houses hundreds of United States military personnel. Maybe that outweighs a list of authoritarian actions that Mr. Hernández and his government minister, Arturo Corrales, have committed for years to keep themselves in power.
The list is long: widely documented corruption, illegal changes to the Constitution, documented ties to drug traffickers, attacks on a free press, criminalization of peaceful protests, repeated violations of human rights by security forces, one of the highest crime rates in the world, manipulation of homicide statistics that affect Honduras’s access to United States aid and a permissive attitude toward political assassinations.
Full disclosure here: That last outrage — assassination — is a very personal matter for me. Its best-known victim was my aunt, Berta Cáceres. She had become a thorn in the side of Honduras’s business elite as she helped organize an indigenous population to oppose a government-sanctioned appropriation of their land to build a dam without the indigenous group’s agreement. That appropriation violated a treaty signed by the Honduran government in 2011, as well as a United Nations treaty that protects the right of consultation for indigenous peoples. Two years ago, my aunt was murdered for her efforts. President Hernández’s administration has yet to punish the top conspirators who ordered the killing, although they have been identified in part by a group of international legal experts carrying out an independent investigation on behalf of my family.
And now he clings to power when he should be stepping down.
At one point on election night, Mr. Hernández was losing by 5 percent of the vote with almost 60 percent of the total polling places counted, and Honduras’s electoral commission declared the lead mathematically insurmountable. In a festival-like atmosphere, thousands of people filled streets all over Honduras to celebrate. It seemed that for once, a small Central American nation would manage to dismiss an authoritarian leader in a peaceful election.
Confusion reigned; President Hernández told CNN that the count hadn’t stopped, that it had only slowed down. But the commission’s president himself said the updates had stopped — because “the server was overloaded.”
At that point, it was clear something was amiss. Statements came flooding in from governments around the world, and some members of the United States Congress expressed outrage at the irregularities. Even some staunch American allies of Mr. Hernández who had helped support his government with millions of dollars in American foreign aid — Representative Norma Torres, a California Democrat, and Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican, among them — called for unequivocal transparency from the election commission.
The American Embassy, on the other hand, kept fairly quiet. Heide B. Fulton, the chargé d’affaires, currently the highest-ranking American diplomat in Honduras, asked the Honduran people to be calm. This played right into Mr. Hernández’s hands; he declared a state of emergency and imposed martial law, securing for himself a wide berth to use Honduras’s American-trained security forces to repress opposition.
With help from Mr. Corrales, and from the Washington-based public relations company Keybridge Communications, Mr. Hernández blamed ensuing violence on the opposition, even though the security forces had fired live rounds and killed more than a dozen people taking part in peaceful demonstrations.
Indeed, the protests were peaceful enough to inspire a backlash among some members of the security apparatus; in an elite unit known as the Cobras, some refused to repress protesters and ultimately joined in the demonstrations. Mr. Hernández and his security minister, Julian Pacheco, who reportedly has strong ties to drug trafficking, quickly fired those who rebelled and gave the rest raises. They are now on the job, repressing Hondurans.
On Nov. 28, two days after the election became enmeshed in confusion, the State Department certified that Honduras had made progress in protecting human rights and attacking corruption. This allows for the release of millions of dollars in United States assistance to the Hernández government. Again there were eruptions from some members of Congress, calling out the State Department for appearing to provide Mr. Hernández with a blank check.
Since then, Ms. Fulton has assisted Mr. Hernández by appearing with David Matamoros, the election commission’s leader and a confidant of Mr. Hernández, at a commission facility — seemingly legitimizing the problem-plagued process as it continued its slow count for another three weeks until Sunday, when it announced the inevitable: victory for Mr. Hernández.
The story here isn’t the machinations President Hernández and his henchmen have used in this election. It’s the acceptance of those machinations by the State Department and the American Embassy in enabling Mr. Hernández to stay in power.
This is the tyrannical regime that killed my aunt because she stood up for the rights of Honduran people — rights that include the most fundamental one we in the United States enjoy, the right to choose our elected leaders and hold them accountable.
That is what voters in Honduras were trying to do on Nov. 26. They voted and rejected Mr. Hernández, his cronies and some 80 years of destructive United States policy: the policy that arms and trains Honduran security forces who commit human rights abuses against their own people; the policy that accepts knowingly flawed crime statistics to help Honduras secure American assistance; and the policy that allows corrupt strongmen to enrich themselves and those around them.
The Trump administration has focused on how to stop refugees from Central America from becoming immigrants to the United States. Indeed, a recent Pew Research report shows that the number of Hondurans fleeing their country each year to the north is rising. So Americans need to ask ourselves: Isn’t it time to stop enabling dictators like Juan Orlando Hernández?
It’s clear that his misrule is what Hondurans have been running from. Yes, dictators are by definition S.O.B.s. But any president who thinks this one is “ours” is a fool.
Silvio Carrillo is a freelance film and news producer based in California whose work has included coverage for CNN, Al Jazeera English and The South China Morning Post.
Those of us who care about Central America have watched the election for Honduras’ next president with increasing alarm. It has been more than a week since November 26, when the people of Honduras cast their votes. Since then, repeated delays and suspicious behavior – which suggests either incompetence or fraud – by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) that has been tallying the ballots, has incited large public demonstrations.
Late last week, the government of President Juan Orlando Hernandez suspended constitutional rights and imposed a ten-day, 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew. Several protesters, including a 19-year-old girl, have reportedly been shot and killed by Honduran troops, and hundreds more have been arrested. Salvador Nasralla, the main opposition candidate, called for a new election and reportedly urged the Honduran police and military to disobey orders of their commanders to fire on demonstrators.
Even before the Honduran people went to the polls the prospects for a free, fair and peaceful election faced many challenges. The most obvious point of contention is that President Hernandez is seeking a second term, since until recently the Honduran Constitution had been interpreted to limit presidents to a single four-year term.
Ironically, in 2009 former President Manuel Zelaya was forced from power by a coalition of military officers, business owners, and conservative politicians including Hernandez, after Zelaya sought to extend his own rule by proposing a popular referendum on the issue of presidential re-election.
Zelaya’s ouster was initially labeled a coup by the U.S. State Department, but it was not long before the United States accepted the result and resumed sending economic and military aid to the government of President Porfirio Lobo. During the next three years the influx of illicit drugs and the incidence of violence, including assassinations of journalists and other civil society leaders, increased dramatically, and Honduras became among the most violent countries in the world.
After Hernandez became president of the National Congress, he and his National Party replaced the Supreme Court with justices intended to support their political agenda. And in 2013, Hernandez was declared President of Honduras after an election fraught with reports of vote buying and threats and assassinations of political opponents.
Two years later, the Supreme Court ruled that he could run for a second term – paving the way for last week’s election. Just eight years after former President Zelaya was pushed out for proposing that the Honduran people vote on the question of a second term, President Hernandez had consolidated his control by replacing the justices of the Supreme Court, appointing the TSE, maintaining a majority in the Congress, and using the State media to drown out his critics. It was widely predicted that he would coast to victory.
But President Hernandez’ government, in addition to becoming increasingly autocratic, has been dogged by accusations of pervasive corruption.
For these reasons, and because of the opaque and bizarre conduct of the TSE during the vote tallying process, it is perhaps not surprising that the situation has deteriorated to the point of becoming a national crisis of confidence in the integrity of Honduras’ democracy.
Contrary to past practice, the TSE did not issue early results until the day after the polls closed. At that time it announced that with 57 percent of the vote counted, Mr. Nasralla, a former TV sports journalist, was leading by 5 percentage points. This indicated the possibility of an historic upset, and while based on past practice the final count was expected the next day, the process of tallying the votes dragged on behind closed doors with no further announcements.
While Nasralla and his supporters celebrated and the third-placed candidate, Luis Zelaya of the Liberal party, conceded, President Hernandez and his allies in the press insisted that he would come out on top once the rural votes were counted.
The TSE also said the rural vote count was delayed, and on Wednesday, after a long silence, the TSE indicated that Nasralla’s lead had started to shrink. But the press reported that no technical reason was apparent to explain the delay as the results from all polling stations were reportedly transmitted electronically as soon as the polls closed.
As time dragged on, suspicions of fraud escalated among Nasralla’s supporters, and last Wednesday afternoon the TSE said its computer system had inexplicably ceased functioning for five hours. Then on Wednesday night the TSE reported that President Hernandez was ahead by several thousand votes, which triggered protests by Nasralla’s supporters, some of them reportedly throwing rocks and lighting fires, who were met by troops firing tear gas and live bullets.
According to press reports, the opposition is questioning ballots from 5,300 polling places and has called for a recount of ballots from three rural departments. But this morning, after only a partial recount, the TSE announced its final tally in favor of President Hernandez by just 1.49 percent, a gap of 52,333 votes.
The process has been so lacking in transparency, so fraught with irregularities and inexplicable delays, and coupled with reports of excessive force by the Honduran police and military against peaceful protesters, it is increasingly obvious that the TSE’s announcement only made a bad situation worse. There is too much suspicion of fraud, and too much distrust.
On Saturday, I asked the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa three simple but important questions about the delays, the TSE’s tally of the votes, and the reports of shootings of protesters. It is Monday night and I have yet to receive answers. This lack of responsiveness by our government in such a time of crisis is troubling, and I hope it is not a new standard.
Earlier this evening, the OAS issued a statement that “the tight margin of the results, and the irregularities, errors and systemic problems that have surrounded this election do not allow the Mission to hold certainty about the results.” There are also reports that increasing numbers of Honduran police officers are refusing orders to use force against the protesters.
The importance of this election, which will determine who leads Honduras for the next four years, cannot be overstated. This is especially so because of the way it came about in the first place. There was already resentment toward President Hernandez for the double standard of participating in the coup against Zelaya, and then orchestrating his own path to re-election. As one Honduran was quoted saying, they “are reliving the entire crisis from the coup of 2009, and the majority of people don’t really like that because it brings back some ugly memories.”
President Hernandez and Mr. Nasralla offer significantly different approaches to tackling the country’s problems. Given the debacle of the past week and the growing popular outcry, it is apparent that establishing the credibility of the electoral process and the integrity of Honduras’ democracy requires either recounting the contested ballots from each of the 5,300 polling places in the presence of representatives of the political parties, representatives of civil society, and international observers; or holding a new election.
In the meantime, it is the responsibility of the Honduran government – particularly the police and the military – to respect and defend the right of the Honduran people to freely and peacefully express their opinions.
Honduras faces a defining moment in its modern history. How the government resolves this crisis will determine the path of the country for the foreseeable future. It will also determine the extent of validity and support the next government receives from the United States, because only a credible election, accepted widely by the Honduran people as free and fair, coupled with a demonstrable commitment to transparency, to freedom of expression and association, and to the rule of law, will justify that validity and support.
David Carle: 202-224-3693
HONDURAN PRESIDENT JUAN Orlando Hernández, using the specter of rampant crime and the drug trade, won extensive support from the American government to build up highly trained state security forces. Now, those same forces are repressing democracy.
The post-election situation in Honduras continues to deteriorate as Hernández, a conservative leader and stalwart U.S. ally in Central America, has disputed the result of last week’s vote while working to crack down on protests sweeping the nation.
Initial results showed Salvador Nasralla, an ex-sportscaster chosen by an alliance of left-wing political parties as their candidate, leading the vote count after the November 26 presidential election. The lead was substantial enough that a magistrate on the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, or TSE, estimated victory by Nasralla, characterizing his lead as “irreversible.”
The next day the TSE announced that Hernández was closing the gap. Then it suddenly stopped publicizing the tally, alleging that its electronic system went down, prompting criticism from European Union election observers. Police and military flooded the streets in the hours of silence that followed. On Wednesday, the announcement that Hernández had overtaken Nasralla in the vote count was met with disbelief. In the words of Salvadoran journalist Carlos Dada, “There are only two possibilities: Either the TSE is of Olympic incompetence or it’s committing fraud.”
The turn of events led to chaos on the streets, and Hernández instituted a military-imposed curfew across the nation on Friday. At least one protester has been killed and scores of others have been injured and arrested in violent clashes with police.
For human rights observers, the curfew and delay of an official recount are steps to produce an inevitable Hernández victory, regardless of the vote tally.
“The delay has only served to fuel claims of mass fraud, confusion, and deep suspicion,” said Karen Spring, a human rights activist with the Honduras Solidarity Network. The demonstrators “went into the street because they know that being calm means allowing a cover-up to happen and what many call a dictator to illegally stay in power,” she added.
Several observers on the ground told The Intercept that they have seen elite military police from the TIGRES and Cobras units alongside the Honduran National Police involved in clashes with protesters in the capital, Tegucigalpa, and around the country. The three forces are increasingly coordinated as the violence soars, they say.
On the evening of Wednesday November 29, the three forces launched tear gas against an estimated 1,000 people who were gathered to wait for results outside the building where the TSE tabulated. Among the demonstrators was former Police Commissioner María Luisa Borjas, who wrote in an email statement to a group of journalists that the people gathered included many children and the elderly, along with opposition candidate Nasralla and his pregnant wife.
An American human rights observer also present said that when the coalition of police forces attacked the crowd, the gathering was peaceful. “People were singing and had a giant Honduran flag, they were running up and down the street. It was beautiful actually. People were angry — it was loud — but it was peaceful,” the observer, who asked for anonymity given the increasingly dangerous situation, told The Intercept in a phone interview.
On Friday evening, as police cleared demonstrators from the streets of the La Kennedy neighborhood of Tegucigalpa, officers adorned with visible TIGRES insignia were spotted by Spring. The TIGRES were accompanied by Cobras and Honduran National Police, or PNH, according to another human rights observer from the U.S., who also asked not to be named out of fear for her safety.
On Saturday night, Borjas received multiple emergency calls from the Cabañas neighborhood of San Pedro Sula, a city in northern Honduras. People were being forced out of their houses and into the streets when Honduran law enforcement, including the PNH, launched tear gas canisters into their homes. Police attacked because the neighbors had begun a “cacerolazo,” a common form of protest in Latin America, banging pots and pans when state repression makes anything else impossible. Upon forcing people out of their homes, the PNH arrested them, Borjas said. “This is happening as we speak,” she told The Intercept in a phone interview Saturday night, adding that the TIGRES and Cobras maintain a strong presence on the streets, especially around the building where the votes are being tallied.
THE PNH AND elite military police units are among the beneficiaries of generous security-related foreign aid earmarked for Honduras by the U.S. government. Figures compiled by the Security Assistance Monitor show that Honduras has received nearly $114 million in security support since 2009.
The PNH receives extensive training by various branches of the U.S. government. The exact substance of U.S. training for foreign security forces is notoriously difficult to ascertain, but some light has been shed by new data provided by the Departments of State, Defense, Justice, and Homeland Security at the request of Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., and shared with The Intercept by John Lindsay-Poland, a Latin America expert who participated in making the request.
In 2015, for instance, the data shows that members of the PNH received courses titled “Advanced Close Quarter Combat,” “Tactical Safety and Survival,” “Communication and Electronic Intelligence,” among others, and received donations, including Toyota trucks and computers. “Multiple Honduran Military and Law Enforcement Units” also received trainings on “Special Forces Advanced Military Operations in Urban Terrain,” “Reconnaissance and Surveillance,” and other themes. “This will support [U.S. Southern Command] Theater Engagement strategy and will improve partner national [counternarcotics] units’ abilities to conduct unilateral and combined [counternarcotics] missions,” reads the text describing the purpose and objective of those courses, as reported by the Defense Department and U.S. Southern Command.
Courses listed for the year 2016 were similar. The instructors of the courses both years included federal agencies like the DEA, FBI, and the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, along with other agencies such as the Chicago police force. The data does not include additional detail about course curriculum or identifying information of trainers or trainees.
Since the elections, the Honduran government has made no effort to conceal the role of the two elite military police units. In the run-up to the election, Secretary of Security Julián Pacheco Tinoco announced that TIGRES and Cobra forces would be among the 16,000 police officers deployed to monitor the election.
The Comando de Operaciones Especiales, or Cobras, are riot police trained by U.S. SWAT teams. The Tropa de Inteligencia de Respuesta Especial de Seguridad, or TIGRES, were formed to fight urban violence and organized crime in 2014 by Hernández as he took office promising to bring down the world’s highest peacetime murder rate.
The TIGRES are paid a higher salary than traditional Honduran police, and they have also benefited from close coordination with multiple U.S. military bases in Honduras. A video obtained by the Wall Street Journal shows Green Beret units training with the TIGRES in the mountains of Honduras.
The militarized units, known to operate at night with uniforms that disguise officers’ faces, have featured widely in Hernández’s political campaigns as the president has championed his war on crime.
The TIGRES in particular are said to have been used to harass political opponents and simply rob the cartels they are designed to rein in. Shortly after the formation of the unit, TIGRES officers assigned to work with the U.S. Embassy on counternarcotics operations stole $1.3 million from cocaine traffickers targeted in a raid.
Most controversially, there have been allegations that TIGRES were involved in the harassment of Berta Cáceres, an internationally known and respected human rights and environmental activist who was assassinated last year.
Before her death, Cáceres, an outspoken critic of the Hernández administration, warned that commandos from the TIGRES had occupied her rural community, where Cáceres had led a protest movement against a planned hydroelectric dam. In a recording made just one month before her killing, she explicitly named the TIGRES, calling commandos from the force a “hostile and aggressive presence.”
There have been attempts to stem U.S. aid to Honduras since the environmentalist’s killing, either through enforcing existing statutes, such as the so-called Leahy Law, barring foreign aid to regimes with repeated human rights violations, or passing new legislation. In the House of Representatives, 68 Democrats have sponsored H.R. 1299, the Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act, to make Honduran foreign aid contingent on anti-corruption measures and a halt to the killing of journalists and activists in the country.
“The Honduran security forces are using our taxpayer dollars to repress peaceful demonstrations against stolen elections.”
The Republican majority in Congress has not scheduled a hearing for the bill, making its prospects unlikely. Now, Cáceres’s nephew Silvio Carrillo, who lives in the United States, tells The Intercept, “The Honduran security forces are using our taxpayer dollars to repress peaceful demonstrations against stolen elections. We are giving Juan Orlando Hernández money so he can get away with murder.”
The build-up of military police forces, ostensibly to combat the drug trade, comes as the Hernández administration faces increasing attention for its own role in drug cartels.
In March, Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga, the former leader of the Cachiros cartel, told a federal courtroom in New York that he had met with Hernández’s brother to steer government contracts to a company used to launder cartel money.
The revelation was made during the case of Fabio Lobo, who pleaded guilty for attempting to smuggle several tons of cocaine from Honduras to the United States. Lobo is the politically connected son of Porfirio Lobo Sosa, Hernández’s predecessor and ally in the right-wing National Party. Lobo was elected in 2009 following the coup d’etat that swept the left-wing President Manuel Zelaya out of office.
A separate and equally stunning revelation was made last year in a courtroom in South Florida, during a case involving two nephews of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro prosecuted for drug trafficking, as researcher Jake Johnston recently reported for The Intercept.
During the trial, José Santos Peña, a Mexican drug trafficker-turned-informant, confided that he had met with Pacheco, Hernández’s chief of security and head of the TIGRES forces, to discuss plans to move cocaine from Colombia through Honduras to the United States. Santos said he was introduced to Pacheco by Fabio Lobo.
Johnston notes that despite the disclosures, “Pacheco remains a close U.S. ally, whose ties to the US military span decades.” Now, Johnston adds, “Pacheco is overseeing the same security forces that are repressing election protesters in the streets.”
Additionally, two 2017 reports, one from Global Witness and the other from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, uncovered damning evidence of systematic corruption, especially as concerns the National Party, to which Hernández belongs.
The increasing scrutiny, as well as the cascading corruption scandal involving millions of dollars stolen from the Honduran social security program in part to fund campaigns for the National Party, has prompted a bonanza of D.C. lobbying by the Honduran government.
Since 2014, Honduras has retained four lobbying firms to reach out to lawmakers, members of the Trump administration, and the American media.
Records show that one lobbyist, Gus K. West, has reached out to Florida’s Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and Democratic Rep. Ted Deutch, among others on Capitol Hill, to tout Honduran efforts to combat crime and wrote to the New York Times on the assassination of Cáceres. Another lobbying shop on government retainer, Keybridge Communications, has boosted Hernández’s re-election effort, sending press releases to U.S. media boasting about the president’s commitment to confronting corruption and the integrity of the presidential election.
In a December 1 statement distributed by Keybridge, the government of Honduras said that it is “deeply sad that violence has erupted on the streets of Honduras and that our nation’s democratic institutions have come under attack ” — violence it goes on to blame on ousted President Mel Zelaya for “inciting” Nasralla’s supporters to engage in violence.
Hernández has also traveled to Washington to meet with U.S. President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, both of whom warmly welcomed the leader. He is also close to White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, who referred to the president this year as a “great guy” and a “good friend.”
Cultivating powerful friends in Washington has worked so far, as Hernández has weathered criticism over his handling of the Cáceres slaying, the social security scandal, and his administration’s reported ties to drug traffickers.
The crackdown by security forces only further impresses the need to reconsider their U.S. funding, experts say. “U.S.-funded police and military are engaged in violent repression of Honduran protesters, using munitions marked as made in the USA,” said Dana Frank, a history professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
“For years, members of Congress have called for an immediate suspension of police and military aid to Honduras, because of ongoing human rights abuses like this, committed with impunity,” said Frank. “Now those forces are being used to repress the basic right of the Honduran people to protest. The Honduran elections offer a chance to declare which side the U.S. is on: democratic processes and the rule of law or the ongoing dance with a dangerous dictator, further consolidating his power.”
THE HONDURAN MINISTER of security, who was intimately involved in solidifying the 2009 coup, is tied up in drug trafficking, according to testimony from a Mexican drug-trafficker-turned-DEA-informant in U.S. court.
In November 2016, as the world’s attention was fixated on the surprise election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, two nephews of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro were found guilty on drug trafficking charges. The conviction was another feather in the cap of U.S. prosecutors who have been targeting the Venezuelan government with corruption and drug trafficking investigations.
But in the South Florida courtroom, the testimony of José Santos Peña also implicated Julián Pacheco Tinoco, a former Honduran military official with long ties to the U.S. security apparatus.
A U.S. prosecutor asked the informant about a meeting in Honduras he had participated in a few years earlier. The purpose of the meeting with Honduras’s current security minister and then-head of military intelligence Pacheco Tinoco was “so that he could give me help to receive shipments from Colombia to Honduras,” the informant told the court.
“What type of shipments?” the prosecutor asked.
“Cocaine,” the informant clarified.
According to the prosecution, one of the defendants in the case had deleted from his Samsung phone chat records and contact information bearing Pacheco’s name. But the allegation that the top security official of one of the United States’s closest regional allies was involved in drug trafficking was treated as a non-event in Washington; not a single major media story mentioned the Drug Enforcement Agency informant’s testimony.
In March 2017, this time in a New York courtroom, Pacheco’s name would once again come up. More details of his and other Honduran government officials’ alleged involvement in drug trafficking were revealed.
Today, Pacheco remains the minister of security, in charge of the entire Honduran national police force. With hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. assistance pouring into Honduras’s security forces, Pacheco is one of the most important players in the country’s security and counternarcotics cooperation with the United States.
In an emailed statement, Tim Rieser, foreign policy aide to Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said the senator is concerned with the allegations but that more facts are needed. Leahy “believes the State Department should be looking at this carefully because the Security Minister needs to be someone of unimpeachable integrity,” Rieser wrote.
With future funding for Honduras threatened by some members of Congress — including Leahy — Pacheco was in Washington, D.C., earlier this month. It wasn’t the first time he had made a trip to protect the U.S.-Honduran relationship.
PACHECO’S CONNECTION WITH the United States dates back decades. As a 21-year-old cadet, Pacheco traveled to the U.S. military’s School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia. In September 1979, he graduated from a course on counterinsurgency tactics.
With the election of Ronald Reagan the following year, Honduras took on new prominence as a U.S. ally and a staging ground for covert American support for the contra right-wing insurgency in Nicaragua. U.S. security aid to the country skyrocketed, as did allegations that the Honduran military was involved in drug trafficking and dozens of activist disappearances. U.S. diplomats largely looked the other way.
In the spring of 1986, at the height of U.S. Cold War efforts in Central America, Pacheco was once again at the School of the Americas. This time, having been promoted to lieutenant, Pacheco graduated from a course in psychological operations.
After the Berlin Wall fell, the Pentagon changed tack in Central America and began focusing more on the war on drugs.
In April 1988, the most notorious Honduran trafficker at the time, Juan Ramón Matta Ballesteros, was arrested and sent to the United States. As a key interlocutor between the Medellín Cartel in Colombia and Mexican traffickers, Ballesteros had compromised the highest levels of the Honduran military and government. He had also been a U.S. ally and owned a CIA-linked airline that had funneled weapons to the Nicaraguan contras – while sending drugs north.
Honduras’s constitution barred extradition, but working with rogue elements in the Honduran military, U.S. Marshal agents facilitated the capture of Matta Ballesteros. He was brought to the Dominican Republic, where he was officially turned over to U.S. authorities. The Honduran military officers who participated in the rendition were eventually criminally charged in their home country.
The following year, the United States invaded Panama, turning on another erstwhile ally involved in drug trafficking, Gen. Manuel Noriega. Noriega himself was head of military intelligence before becoming president and had been “our man in Panama,” receiving regular CIA payments for decades. Anyone – no matter their criminal record – could be a U.S. ally. That is, until they weren’t.
In Honduras, shifting U.S. priorities, a decrease in funding, and the arrest of Matta Ballesteros pushed the military into the background — at least for a little while. In June 2009, a military coup d’état ousted left-leaning elected president, Manuel Zelaya, who was dropped off in Costa Rica in his pajamas.
With relations tested, and the U.S. having temporarily suspending security assistance, then-Col. Pacheco Tinoco was sent to Washington, D.C. by the head of the Honduran armed forces. His mission was to convince the United States that the military acted properly, that there was no coup.
He met with senior State Department officials at the Old Ebbitt Grill near the White House and with congressional offices on Capitol Hill. He also met with a retired U.S. general who headed the Pentagon’s Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies and allegedly helped facilitate meetings for Pacheco.
A continued relationship was a geostrategic interest of both militaries.
Later that summer, when Zelaya snuck back into Honduras and took refuge at the Brazilian embassy, U.S. diplomats intervened to ensure it was Pacheco who acted as “the key point of contact.”
Zelaya was not restored to office. In November of that year, the U.S. ended up backing controversial elections that were boycotted by opposition groups and considered illegitimate by most of the region’s governments. With the election, the coup was consolidated, as was the Honduran military’s return to political prominence. The declared winner of the election was Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo of the National Party, which had strong, historic ties to the nation’s military. Pacheco was named director of military intelligence.
The most prominent coup leaders from within the military were removed, and “in general,” wrote the U.S. ambassador, “respected officers have been promoted to positions of importance.” The shakeup would allow “the U.S. to begin to initiate a careful process of reengagement with the Honduran military,” the ambassador wrote to a host of intelligence agencies and other government agencies in Washington.
SINCE THEN, MORE and more evidence has emerged linking senior Honduran officials to drug trafficking. In 2015, Pepe Lobo’s son, Fabio, was arrested in Haiti and quickly sent to the United States. To take down Fabio, U.S. prosecutors again relied on the work of Santos Peña, the Mexican DEA informant. More importantly, in late 2013 Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga, the infamous leader of Honduran criminal organization Cachiros, quietly reached out to the DEA and began cooperating.
In early March 2017, Maradiaga took the stand during Fabio’s ongoing trial. He told the court that he had given bribes to Pepe Lobo during his 2009 presidential campaign. He also described a meeting with Pepe, Fabio, and others at the president’s residence.
“[Pepe Lobo] said not to worry,” Maradiaga testified, “that if anything were to happen that we should talk to Juan Gómez, that Juan Gómez in turn would talk to [Fabio Lobo], and then [Fabio Lobo] would get in touch with General Pacheco Tinoco.”
Before his assassination in 2015, Gómez was governor of Colón, a rural Honduran department at the heart of the Cachiros’s drug trafficking enterprise. During the mid-2000s, when the enterprise began to boom, Pacheco led a military battalion stationed there. He and Gómez met nearly every week. The day of one of their meetings, Fabio called Pacheco from his father’s house and told him he would come by later that day, according to Maradiaga.
Maradiaga and Fabio became close. Maradiaga told prosecutors that he considered Fabio a member of the Cachiros. In the fall of 2013, just before beginning his cooperation with the DEA, Maradiaga told Fabio of an incoming shipment of more than 1,000 kilograms of cocaine. “I knew that having him with me, everything would go well and I felt better supported if I was with the president’s son,” he testified. With his security detail of military police officers, Fabio drove to Tocoa, in Colón, to meet the shipment.
Maradiaga claims to have paid Fabio $50,000. “He asked me whether I could pay him a little bit more because he needed to give him — give more money to the boss, and I knew who that was,” Maradiaga testified. The boss was “General Pacheco,” he said.
In June 2014, Fabio and Maradiaga met at a body shop in San Pedro Sula, Honduras’s second city. A white Hummer was in the shop, and Maradiaga suggested that this would be a perfect gift for one of their friends in the police. Fabio allegedly called Pacheco and sent him a photo of the car.
It was just weeks later when Fabio and the Mexican DEA informant visited Pacheco.The meeting was recorded. “We wanted to come here with something illegal. You know?” the informant began, after exchanging pleasantries, “Of course, we just want your, your authorization and consent.”
“What type of work?” Pacheco asked.
“Um, we want to come here with merchandise, with drugs.”
The minister of security, a licensed attorney, did not fall for the absurdly obvious ruse. “No, it’s not much,” Fabio tried to reassure him. Pacheco excused himself and exited the room.
Less than six months later, the recently elected Juan Orlando Hernández, also of the National Party, named Pacheco as security minister. He was the first active-duty military officer to be named to the post. At the request of the U.S. Embassy, and following a strong outcry by human rights groups, Pacheco retired from the military.
Pacheco categorically rejected the “ill-intentioned” and “unfounded” allegations when Maradiaga’s testimony went public. The drug trafficker was attempting to secure favorable treatment from the United States and undermine the Honduran government’s efforts to crack down on criminal activity, Pacheco said.
In September, Fabio Lobo was sentenced to 24 years in prison. “I want to apologize to the government of the United States,” he said, “and especially to my father, who has nothing to do with this.” Now, it may be the current Honduran president, controversially standing for re-election on November 26, whose family is in legal trouble.
Maradiaga has turned over to the DEA a recorded conversation he had with Honduran lawmaker Tony Hernández, the brother of President Juan Orlando Hernández. According to Maradiaga’s testimony, the two discussed funneling government monies to a Cachiro-controlled front company in return for bribes.
Last month, the allegations reached the president himself. The New York Times reported that Maradiaga had given U.S. authorities another recording from 2013 in which a drug trafficker said he “made a $250,000 payment intended for Juan Orlando Hernández.” A Hernández representative denied the charges to the Times, and in what was either an incredibly honest or naive response to a local paper, the president’s chief of staff said:
If we’re going to look at how organized crime has permeated society in general and funneled money, placed deputies, placed judges, various offices, within the attorney general’s office and everywhere, hold on to your seats, because we’re talking about all colors here.
The takeover of the Honduran government hasn’t stopped the United States from continuing its support for Honduras. Earlier this year, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly referred to Hernández as a “great guy” and a “good friend.” Kelly was the head of the Pentagon’s Latin American subsidiary U.S. Southern Command under the Obama administration. Hernández told the press that relations were now “probably better than ever.”
Eager to try to improve its international image, the Honduran government has initiated a police reform process with financial support from the United States and other international donors. At least 14 drug trafficking suspects have recently been extradited to the United States.
But the Honduran government appears to be selective regarding which individuals involved in drug trafficking should be handed to U.S. authorities. Last month, it was reported that Ramón Matta Waldurraga had turned himself over to the DEA in August. He is the son of Ballesteros, the Honduran trafficker rendered to the U.S. in 1988.
Pacheco told the press that the government had no arrest warrant or extradition request for Matta Waldurraga, though the U.S. later unsealed a 2014 indictment on money laundering and drug trafficking charges. Like his father before him, Waldurraga’s testimony threatens to implicate military and political actors across Honduras.
And so the Honduran government remains on the defensive.
ON MARCH 3, 2016, world-renowned environmental activist Berta Cáceres was assassinated. A number of suspects have been arrested, including at least one U.S.-trained member of the Honduran military. But more than a year later, those who laid the groundwork remain free.
Cáceres was general coordinator of the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, or COPINH. With Cáceres at its head, COPINH had led the struggle against a large hydroelectric project in rural Honduras. The company, COPINH has argued, failed to consult with the local population as required by Honduran law.
The concession for the dam was awarded under the post-coup government in 2010. The company building the dam, DESA, counts some of Honduras’s richest and most powerful as investors.
Blocked from accessing the vast majority of the criminal file, and in the absence of an independent investigation, relatives of Cáceres arranged for a group of international human rights lawyers to conduct their own. The report from the International Advisory Group of Experts was released on October 31 in Tegucigalpa.
The team analyzed many gigabytes of data drawn from cellphones and computers of some of those involved, though it was still just a small portion of the full case file. Still, the report found WhatsApp messages suggesting a well-orchestrated conspiracy to assassinate Cáceres that had lasted many months. The Honduran government had been sitting on the evidence for more than a year.
The authors of the report presented their findings to members of Congress in Washington, D.C., in early November.
“There is now little doubt about the identities of at least some of the intellectual authors who conceived of and paid for the assassination of Berta Cáceres,” Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, noted in a statement submitted to the congressional record. Yet, he added, “the Public Ministry has failed to act on this evidence, perhaps because it implicates DESA executives with ties to officials in the Honduran Government.”
The lack of accountability and unwillingness of the Honduran government to properly investigate the crime has put continued U.S. assistance “in jeopardy,” he said.
At the time of the assassination, Pacheco was security minister. Two weeks after the report was released, more recent WhatsApp messages were leaked. They are allegedly from Pacheco. (Pacheco didn’t respond to a request for comment from The Intercept.)
In the leaked messages, Pacheco complained about protective measures that have been decreed for members of COPINH and the cost to the government, though the vast majority have yet to be implemented. Pacheco referred to those whose lives have been threatened as a “mountain of moochers that take shelter behind the human rights banner.”
“This undermines peace and tranquility,” he continued, “this undermines national and international investment.”
In the coming weeks, the State Department is expected to let congressional appropriators know whether it considers that Honduras has complied with certain anticorruption and drug trafficking obligations attached to the majority of U.S. assistance to the country.
But back in early November, before the WhatsApp messages — and at the same time as Cáceres’s family was presenting its findings — Pacheco was also in Washington.
Together with members of the police reform commission, Pacheco held high-level meetings with State Department staff and key congressional offices. On November 2, the delegation participated in a public event at the partially congressionally funded Woodrow Wilson Center, housed in the Ronald Reagan Building in downtown Washington.
At the very end of the two-hour event, an attendee, Christiam Sánchez, confronted Pacheco over his alleged role in drug trafficking. Pacheco “should be presenting his resignation and making himself available to authorities that are part of the investigation,” Sánchez said to the packed room. “How can you continue to be a part of the police reform process?” he asked Pacheco.
“I was serving the son of the ex-president,” Pacheco said about meeting with the now-jailed Fabio and the Mexican DEA informant, “and if I had to, I would do that again.”
“If I were a ‘narco’ like Christiam is saying,” he told the crowd, “I would not be seated here.”
MEXICO CITY — It was just before midnight when two men kicked in the door to Berta Cáceres’s house in the small Honduran mountain town of La Esperanza. Moving past the kitchen, one of them opened the door to her bedroom and fired six shots. She died moments later.
In a country where the fight to protect land rights provokes violent retaliation, the murder in March 2016 of another environmental defender might simply have receded into a grim tally of regrettable losses.
But Ms. Cáceres, 44, had won international acclaim for leading her indigenous Lenca community against a dam planned on their land. Her prominence transformed her killing into an emblematic crime — and turned the investigation that followed into a challenge to the entrenched impunity of the powerful in Honduras.
Now, 20 months after the killing, a team of five international lawyers has warned that the people who ordered it may never face justice.
The evidence, the lawyers said, points to a plot against Ms. Cáceres that was months in the making and reached up to senior executives of Desarrollos Energéticos, known as Desa, the Honduran company holding the dam concession.
“The existing proof is conclusive regarding the participation of numerous state agents, high-ranking executives and employees of Desa in the planning, execution and cover-up of the assassination,” the lawyers wrote.
Desa has repeatedly denied any involvement in Ms. Cáceres’ death or any connection to “acts of violence and intimidation.”
Eight suspects are in custody, including Sergio Rodríguez Orellana, the social and environment manager for the company, and Douglas Geovanny Bustillo, a retired Honduran Army lieutenant who was Desa’s director of security until mid-2015.
“What the public ministry has yet to do is indict the people who hired Bustillo to plan the operation,” said Miguel Ángel Urbina Martínez, one of the lawyers reviewing the case at the request of Ms. Cáceres’s family. The lawyers’ report, which The New York Times has obtained, will be released Tuesday.
The government’s investigation, by an elite unit in the Honduran attorney general’s office, remains open, although the lawyers’ group said there was no sign that it had progressed beyond the eight suspects.
Two American advisers, a retired homicide detective and a former federal prosecutor, have been working with Honduran authorities since the first days of the inquiry, part of an effort by the United States Embassy to pushthe government of President Juan Orlando Hernández to solve high-profile criminal cases.
Many of those cases involve powerful groups that critics say operate beyond the law. “The great challenge for Honduras is to dismantle these parallel forces,” said Mr. Urbina, a criminal justice expert from Guatemala and an adviser on judicial reform.
To prepare the report, Mr. Urbina’s group examined some 40,000 pages of text messages, which were retrieved by Honduran government investigators from three cellphones, one seized at Desa’s offices and two used by Mr. Rodríguez and Mr. Bustillo.
The messages, according to the report, show that the two men remained in frequent contact with three high-ranking Desa executives as they tracked the movements of Ms. Cáceres and other members of her organization, the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, known as Copinh.
The conversations reveal, the lawyers said, that the orders to threaten Copinh and sabotage its protests came from Desa executives who were exercising control over security forces in the area, issuing instructions and paying for police units’ food, lodging and radio equipment.
“There was this criminal structure comprised of company executives and employees, state agents and criminal gangs that used violence, threats and intimidation,” said Roxanna Altholz, the associate director of the Human Rights Law Clinic at the University of California, Berkeley, and a member of the lawyers’ group.
The other members of the legal team are a former war crimes prosecutor, Dan Saxon, and two Colombian prosecutors who have tried human rights cases, Jorge E. Molano Rodríguez and Liliana María Uribe Tirado. They have been working on the case for a year, traveling to Honduras to conduct interviews and review case material.
“This damning report corroborates what many have suspected — that the investigation of Berta Caceres’ murder has been plagued by incompetence, attempts to stonewall and deflect blame to protect those who conceived of and paid for this plot, and a glaring lack of political will. The Public Ministry needs to fully disclose, without further delay, all testimony and electronic and ballistics evidence to the Caceres family’s legal representatives and defendants’ lawyers, as required by law. The Ministry also needs to ensure that every piece of evidence is properly safeguarded, and to follow the evidence wherever it leads to arrest those responsible.
“It is shameful that despite intense domestic and international pressure, this horrific case has languished, while those responsible have sought to derail it. And there are hundreds of other Honduran social activists and journalists who have been similarly threatened and killed, whose cases have not even prompted investigations.
“Any hope that the Honduran Government may have of continued U.S. assistance under the Alliance for Prosperity Plan will hinge, in part, on the outcome of the Caceres case, acceptance of the legitimate role of civil society and the independent press, and top-to-bottom reform of the judicial system.”
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Activists in Honduras could soon face up to 20 years in prison for simply marching in the streets after Congress passed an article of the new Criminal Code last week that opposition lawmakers claim criminalizes social protest as a form of “terrorism.”
Opposition lawmaker Rasel Tomé of the left-wing Libre party told AFP that the move marked an assault on civic and political freedoms. “A mobilization for the defense of Indigenous people, labor, political and environmental rights cannot be characterized as crimes of terrorism,” he argued. “That’s why we voted against (the article).”
Human rights defenders have raised alarm over the proposed reform, arguing that the sweeping definition of “terrorism” in the bill leaves activists and social leaders vulnerable to harsh criminalization and violence at the hands of military and police forces.
“This project seeks to anticipate – to suffocate at times and above all anticipate – possible popular overflows.”
Article 590 of the new Criminal Code defines “terrorist associations” as groups with the aim of “gravely subverting the constitutional order or provoking a state of terror in the population or part of it.” Critics were particularly concerned by the section of the article that states that a group can be considered terrorist association “even if its established purpose is a lawful one” and the fact that judges will have discretion to determine what fits the definition of terrorism.
The article, passed with 42 votes in favor, 33 against, and one abstention, goes on to establish “prison sentences of 15 to 20 years” and a fine as punishment for the “managers, promoters or financiers” of such “terrorist” organizations.
Social movements suffer brutal legacy of U.S.-backed coup
Eugenio Sosa, sociologist and professor at the National Autonomous University of Honduras, characterized Article 590 as a continuation of a trajectory beginning with the 2009 U.S.-backed coup that has escalated toward more violent means of clamping down on civil society.
“After the experience of the (post-coup) resistance movement, citizens of different sectors in Honduras have been permanently mobilized for multiple issues linked to human rights, natural resources, land, (and) university students’ rights,” Sosa, author of the book “Dinámica de la protesta social en Honduras,” told Upside Down World in a phone interview. “This project seeks to anticipate – to suffocate at times and above all anticipate – possible popular overflows … in the face of a general public that is very jaded by impunity, corruption, and very severe social inequality.”
Amid the immediate shock and confusion of the June 28, 2009, ouster of former Liberal Party President Manuel Zelaya, social movements consolidated a broad-based resistance movement in the streets to in an attempt to rollback the coup and halt the grave human rights abuses accompanying the military takeover. The unprecedented National Front of Popular Resistance also demanded deeper transformation of the country’s young and fragile democracy through a National Constituent Assembly to rewrite the 1982 Constitution.
But the crackdown on the popular uprising was bloody, and according to a December 2009 report from the Inter-American Commission for Human rights, included deaths, declaring martial law, criminalizing dissent, arbitrary detention, militarization, and a host of other grave violations of human and political rights.
The human rights situation continued to deteriorate after the coup with targeted assassinations, forced disappearances, and torture as state terror rained down on human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers, LGBTI activists, Indigenous and campesino leaders, and others. According to Global Witness, Honduras is the most dangerous country in the world for environmental defenders, with more than 120 killed since 2010, while the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights documented murders of 28 journalists between 2010 and 2015.
And this was all before protesters could be legally classified as terrorists.
Institutionalizing criminalization of dissent
Leader of the grassroots movement Ofraneh, representing the country’s Afro-Indigenous Garifuna communities, Miriam Miranda – who has suffered threats, attacks, violent arbitrary detention, and other harassment as a result of her outspoken criticism of neoliberal privatization and land grabbing in Honduras – told Upside Down World that Article 590 is the latest in a series of “legislative blows” to freedom of expression and the right to protest that have reached new heights this year with the Criminal Code reforms.
“The current government administration has done everything possible to restrict dissent as part of the re-election strategy laid out by the Juan Orlando Hernández regime,” she said, referring the president’s bid for a second term in office, a move that many have condemned as unconstitutional. She also noted that mainstream media has played a role in downplaying the extent of public outcry and protest in the country.
Miranda added that the “recomposition of political forces” since 2009 has paved the way for the “approval of countless neoliberal and undemocratic laws,” while systematic disappearance and assassinations of government detractors has been largely overshadowed by high levels of everyday violence, fueled by the generalized lawlessness brought on by the coup.
The murder of iconic resistance leader and Indigenous environmental activist Berta Cáceres in March 2016 – after she had suffered numerous assassination attempts, harassment, and threats of physical and sexual violence as a top target on a military hit list – is one emblematic case in an unchecked human rights and impunity crisis.
Many fear the assault on dissident voices in the deadliest country in the world for environmental defenders and one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists will only get worse with Article 590.
An earlier version of Article 590 targeted social protest as terrorism even more explicitly, including in the definition of terrorist associations those that “seriously alter the public peace.” After facing widespread opposition, the controversial clause was scrapped in the final version of Article 590 that was just approved, but critics are highly concerned that the inclusion of groups with both legal and illegal aims in the definition of terrorism leaves the potential for interpretation dangerously broad.
The article, together with the other reforms in the new Criminal Code, are expected to take effect next year. But not without a fight.
Libre’s Tomé told Upside Down World he has put forward a motion to reconsider the article, calling for removal of the clause that drags organizations with established “lawful” purposes into the definition of terrorist groups. He said he hopes Liberal lawmakers will back the effort, but claimed that the party’s position on the issue has been “volatile.”
Tomé and his colleagues already successfully removed from the new Criminal Code a controversial reform that had been approved earlier this year. Article 335-B, also referred to as the “Gag Law,” targeted journalists with four to eight years in jail for the crime of “apology, exaltation or justification” of terrorism. The reform drew criticism from the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights and United Nations human rights office, which argued that the ambiguity of the article threatened to restrict freedom of expression, while Honduras’ public prosecutor’s office symbolically declared the reform unconstitutional.
Congress voted earlier this month to repeal Article 335-B, though it will remain in force until the new Criminal Code takes effect. But whether Libre will be successful in winning an overhaul of Article 590 will depend on its ability to organize a unified opposition within Congress.
Tenuous opposition fumbles in Congress
An article in Honduran media outlet El Pulso the day after the vote on Article 590 argued that despite being critical of the move to criminalize social protest and blaming lawmakers of President Juan Orlando Hernández’s National Party for pushing through the reform, members of the opposition in Congress enabled it to go through by showing up to allow Congress to reach quorum without staying to vote against the controversial reform.
El Pulso’s Oscar Estrada noted that the session began with 107 of 129 members of Congress present, but many Libre and Liberal Party members later abandoned the room, “leaving the National Party to approve the polemical article by a simple majority.”
“Honduras faces a dispute between neoliberal and authoritarian projects and the search for more popular projects from the citizens, social movements, and some opposition politicians.”
The votes in favor overwhelmingly came from President Juan Orlando Hernández’ ranks, with just two Liberal Party lawmakers siding with 40 National Party lawmakers to approve the article. On the opposing side, 11 Libre lawmakers were joined by 16 Liberal Party members and six other lawmakers in rejecting the measure. Libre’s 28 seats together with the Liberal Party’s 31 seats outnumber the National Party’s 52 members of Congress.
“If the opposition lawmakers had stayed in the session to which they gave quorum, the article wouldn’t have passed,” wrote Estrada.
But Sosa argued that the framing in recent years of the Liberal Party, historically part of the country’s ruling elite, as an opposition force in the post-coup era is uncomfortable at best, and could create unrealistic expectations for how lawmakers may vote in Congress.
“I don’t know what to expect from a more than 100-year-old ruling party in Honduras, responsible for everything that is happening, above all the coup,” he said, arguing that even though the numbers add up for Libre and the Liberal Party to join forces as an opposition bloc, it is largely “self-damaging to see the opposition in this way” since the Liberal Party is “part of the same oligarchic group” as the National Party.
Factions of the Liberal Party – together with the Supreme Court, Congress, and the military – conspired to carry out the coup against Zelaya, a wealthy rancher, after he made modest progressive reforms during his term in office, most controversially calling for a non-binding poll on whether to hold a referendum in the 2009 election on convening a Constituent Assembly to rewrite the Constitution.
When asked by Upside Down World about the opposition’s attendance at the session, Libre’s Tomé did not clarify why so many members of Congress were not present for the vote. “Each lawmaker answers for his or her actions,” he said. “I cannot assume the reasons of other members of Congress (for not being present), it is their responsibility to explain their reasons.”
With Libre positioning itself as the legitimate opposition force in Congress by leading the effort to block repressive reforms to the Criminal Code, the upcoming Nov. 26 elections are a key opportunity. Gaining political power could mean preventing a further rollback of rights and finally fighting for the deeper political transformation that was at stake when elites and the military, backed by the U.S. State Department, executed the 2009 coup.
As Sosa put it, “Honduras faces a dispute between neoliberal and authoritarian projects and the search for more popular projects from the citizens, social movements, and some opposition politicians.”
Activists hold a vigil in memory of slain Honduran Indigenous leader Berta Cáceres at the doors of the Organization of American States. Source: Creative Commons / Flickr–CIDH Daniel Cima
But eight years after constitutional crisis, the road to rebuilding the country’s fragile democracy is still fraught with challenges.
President Juan Orlando Hernández, who beat Libre’s candidate Xiomara Castro in the 2013 election amid widespread cries of electoral fraud, is running for a second term – a move that critics have slammed as unconstitutional and that has become the hallmark of right-wing hypocrisy and political amnesia in the country less than a decade after coup-perpetrators justified Zelaya’s ouster by falsely claiming he was attempting to seek re-election.
And two months ahead of the election, an opposition coalition between Libre, the Anti-Corruption Party, and the Innovation Party and United Social Democracy alliance (PINU-SD) – united under the banner “Opposition alliance against the dictatorship” and represented by candidate Salvador Nasralla – has warned of a concerted government fraud plot to rig the election and promise a more thoroughly-planned and technologically-supported repeat of the contested 2013 race. Criminalizing protesters as terrorists in the new Criminal Code could help shield Hernández from a popular uprising in case of fraud.
But the land activists, human rights defenders, environmental warriors, and other dissident voices putting their bodies on the line to defend their rights and resources have already lost too many to the struggle since the last election. Social movements are increasingly in the crosshairs, and they can’t afford another opposition loss.