Home Page > Impunity in Honduras – Why?

By Gloria Guardia, Vice President of PEN International

A news report in the continent’s leading newspapers on the August 14 2012, appeared to be a repetition of similar reports from Mexico or Colombia: ‘The UN Special Rapporteur for the Protection of Freedom of Expression, Frank La Rue,’ the article read, ‘urges the government of …to investigate and clarify the murder of 22 journalists in the last two years.’ In this case, the difference was that the unpunished crimes against journalists hadn’t taken place in countries where the drug cartels were, obviously and systematically, collaborating with the army and/or police. The murders had taken place in Honduras: a Central American country measuring 112,492 Km2, with a population of barely eight million, and that – according to statistics for the last three years – ‘has the highest murder rate per capita in the world, with 158 murders for every 100,000 inhabitants in San Pedro Sula, 99 murders for every 100,000 inhabitants in the Distrito Central.’ Among the dead, ‘are at least 28 journalists who have been killed since 2007, 14 of them since President Porfirio Lobo took office in January 2010.’ Moreover, according to independent investigations, there is evidence that government employees, including the police and the army, have been implicated in these attacks. Worse still, ‘according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the authorities have systematically failed to investigate these crimes.’

Why Honduras?, we ask ourselves. Why these crimes, why such a level of impunity in this small, Central American country? To find the answer, one needs to know a little geography, a little history; one also needs to be aware of why there are such high levels of poverty in the country, and to know something about the major zones of production, distribution and sale of illegal hard drugs: cocaine, morphine and heroin.

Honduras is a territory geographically located on the path linking Ecuador, Bolivia, Panama and Mexico: countries through which, after the 1970s, the most powerful cartels in Latin America established their routes. Here we are referring to the routes used by illegal organizations for the trafficking of drugs in Mexico and Colombia. These cartels, one should remember, had timidly started to organize themselves in Mexico and the Andean region in the 1970s, and only began to grow in power on the return home – between 1973 and 1974 – of those North American soldiers who had fought in the Vietnam War. Many of these thousands of young men, addicted to hard drugs, were at first the best customers of the producers and distributors of narcotics. It’s well known that the daily consumption of some of these substances dates back to pre-Columbian cultures, but when the demand grew, the planting, production and purification of these raw materials became organized. So too did the sale and distribution of these drugs, and the Colombian cartels were able to displace gangs from the East and Middle East as suppliers to the North American market. The interesting thing here is that this coincided temporally and geographically with what would later become known as ‘the Iran-Contra Scandal’, or ‘Irangate’.

One step at a time however. Several significant elements enabled these fledgling Andean cartels to consolidate themselves. These were: the geographical proximity of the South American region to the United States, which made the transport of drugs to the heart of the North American market easier and cheaper; the ‘narco-dictatorships’ of Omar Torrijos and Manuel Antonio Noriega in Panama, which for 21 years gave carte blanche to the most important cartels of the Andrean region (thanks to the corruption of the Panamanian governments and army, and to the total repression of free expression and the impunity enjoyed by these criminal networks during two decades); and, last but not least, the multi-million dollar support provided by Ronald Reagan’s government, and to some extent George HW Bush’s, to the ‘Contras’- the group of mercenaries that, for almost ten years, made incursions into Nicaraguan territory from camps in Honduras. Their aim was to bring down the government that had emerged out of the Sandinista Revolution, and which had assumed power after the overthrow of the ‘Somocista dictatorship’ in July 1979.

Support from the North American government that led to what is today known as Irangate, consisted of the sale of arms to the Iranian government while it was engaged in the Iran-Iraq War, and the financing, as mentioned, of the armed movement known as the ‘Contras’. Both of these operations – the sale of arms to Iran and the financial assistance provided to the Contras – were prohibited by the United States Senate. But the money was managed through the CIA and also by Oliver North of the US Security Council. The latter managed to evade the ban through a complex system of arms and drugs trades with the Medellín Cartel; the profits from these operations were deposited in Swiss and Panamanian bank accounts.

It’s no mere coincidence that from this period on, Honduras – as a base for counter-revolutionary groups – became the eye of the Central American hurricane. It should be added that during these international operations the Medellín Cartel had begun operating in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, with the aim of facilitating the delivery of cocaine to the United States. According to Iran-Contra documents recently made public by the United States government, the Cartel was supported by the CIA in this activity. Moreover, today we know that the Colombian drug traffickers gave financial support to the Contras in return for certain rewards – including impunity – offered to them by the CIA, and which allowed them to deliver drugs into the United States; we know that the arms arrived punctually to the Contra camps from New Orleans; we also know that this was financed by the sale of drugs in the North American market. In order to carry out this activity, the United States government (through diplomats and former CIA agents) and the Medellín Cartel established an organized structure, building airports and ‘phantom’ ports in Honduras and other neighbouring countries, and creating a drug distribution network in the United States. Meanwhile, in the years that followed, what little freedom of expression there had been in these territories ceased to exist and impunity for crimes against journalists became a daily fact of life. The seed had been sown and the reign of terror enabled it to take root firmly. Judges, the owners of the press, the army, the police and the judicial system (when there was one), were corrupted. Reporting was paid for with one’s life, and this was something that happened the length and breadth of Colombia, Central America and Mexico.

Since the end of the wars in Nicaragua and Central America, nothing has helped to resolve Honduras’s principal problems: extreme poverty (67.8% of the population live below the poverty line); violence and impunity at every level (a product of the lack of civil/constitutional leadership and of the corruption in the army and the police); the dependence on the North American government; and the arrival of the Maras, i.e., the criminal gangs that originally appeared in Los Angeles, and which are now established in the cities of San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa, with connections to the police, the army and the country’s judicial system at every level. These criminal gangs, the majority of whose members were born in the United States of America – sons of fathers who were displaced from Central America due to the violence of the 1980s – have multiplied in recent years. It can be said that they are the product of extreme poverty, of weak or non-existent family units, and of the adoption of the values linked to the narcotraffickers: sowing terror, the silencing of those who denounce them – as in the case of Honduras’s journalists – and the desire for easy money. Today, the Maras of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras work as the narcos’ executioners, or they provide security to the Mexican, and most recently Colombian, Cartels. They are also considered a source of contacts in North America, something particularly useful for the transportation of drugs. The Maras are described as ‘the third generation of narcos, coming from a mafia-style culture.’

The violence and near-total impunity that exists today in Honduras, which so troubles the rest of the world, did not emerge spontaneously. To combat them, as mentioned, one must know a little history and geography; one must be aware of the socio-economic conditions of the country and the degree of corruption that exists in the army, the police and the judicial system; one should also know about the major zones of production, distribution and sale of illegal hard drugs – the source of easy money. In 2012, Mexico and Colombia continue to be the central hubs of the hard drug trade. And their principal market continues to be North American youth.

In order to eradicate impunity, it’s not enough to denounce it. To fight it effectively, one has to be well-informed about its roots.

(translated by Cathal Sheerin)