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The Complexities of US Security Aid to Honduras: A Response to Sonia Nazario

The Honduras International Team recently had a letter to the editor published in the LA Times in response to a Sonia Nazario op-ed about US-funded anti-violence initiatives and their role in reducing migration. We do think, given the 150-word limit, we got the main thrust of our point across, but wanted to expand a bit on our views on Nazario’s article. We recently toured some of the USAID and INL-funded projects in San Pedro Sula that she refers to, and of course as we say in our letter, we think there’s a lot unsaid in her piece that needs to be part of the conversation.

To begin with, we fully acknowledge Nazario’s bonafides on Honduran migration. Enrique’s Journey, her Pulitzer Prize-winning series from 2002, has been hugely influential in framing the debate and understanding of the Central American refugee crisis. Alongside work like Óscar Martínez’s The Beast, it sheds important light on the utter human rights atrocity that is the migrant trail, an issue that has, of course, gained new urgency since the election of Donald Trump. Her new piece correctly criticizes the militarized approach to border security and, even if it does fall back on the tired and problematic Great Wall of China metaphor (Central American migrants are not an invading force.) We are in large agreement with her criticisms of the wall and militarization, although we think those things being “a foolish waste of money” is an entirely secondary concern to their being essentially inhumane.

But as we say in our letter, there is far too much unsaid in her op-ed. Our support for the Berta Cáceres Act comes from the unanimous calls of our partners all over the country whose experience with US-funded security forces has been abject brutality, widespread and systematic abuses of human rights, and targeted violence against indigenous activists, environmentalists, journalists, human rights defenders, and rural communities. Hundreds of activists have been murdered in the last several years, and Honduran security forces have in many of these cases been complicit in these assassinations, and in the worst cases been themselves the perpetrators. Surely Nazario is aware of this. Her omission of even passing mention of the broad agreement among Honduran civil society that US security aid needs to be cut, also from her similarly themed piece for the New York Times last year, needs and deserves correction.

Taking the position, as the US Embassy does, that the human rights abuses committed by Honduran security forces are systematic of larger-scale capacity and corruption problems but can be resolved through greater US engagement, is taking a position that Witness for Peace strongly disagrees with. But not even acknowledging those human rights abuses strikes us as something altogether more insidious.

Much of Nazario’s op-ed focuses on US-funded violence reduction programs in San Pedro Sula. We visited those programs in April, and found many of the same things she did. We went to a school that sits exactly on the border of the territories of rival maras in Chamelecón, a notoriously violent and poor neighborhood. (The school is about half a block away from the site of the infamous and unthinkably brutal bus massacre in 2004.) That school, which was nearly forced to close in 2012 because of the severity of the violence, has become a central stage for the provision of things like medical services to the community, and an essential meeting ground for anti-gang and anti-violence initiatives.

We visited UMEP-6, a police station where a completely understaffed and overworked cadre of Policía Nacional are trying to implement a program of community policing that emphasizes engagement over militarized policing tactics. We also met with the leaders of a project that provides job training and placement to at-risk youth, others who run a community center in Rivera Hernández that offers after-school programs and pro-social activities for kids, and a team of social workers providing in-home counseling to the youth considered most at-risk to join gangs.

There is no question at all in our minds that anyone serious about human rights in Honduras has to acknowledge the severity of the gang and violence problems in San Pedro Sula, as well as in Tegucigalpa, Choloma, La Ceiba, and other cities. San Pedro Sula has dropped to the third most violent in the world this year (Tegucigalpa is sixth and Choloma is tenth), partly due to an actual decrease in murders and partly due to a controversial change in the way the murder rate is calculated in Honduras. (Among other things, certain types of violent deaths are no longer counted, like when the body goes unidentified or the killing unreported. Our partners at the Center for Women’s Rights have done excellent work on this – in the first year of the new metrics, they counted just among the murders reported in the newspaper more than the official total.)

Most of the people we met who are getting USAID and INL funding for their programs are deeply passionate, committed, and capable, and struck us as genuinely dedicated to solving the problems in their communities using approaches that are very much in line with Witness for Peace’s core values of non-violence and a commitment to justice.

But with absolute respect for the people doing that work in those neighborhoods, we disagree with Nazario that there’s strong evidence that those programs are working. It’s certainly possible that they could be, and we believe in the ability of the folks we met to accomplish amazing things in violence prevention, but the reality is it’s too soon to tell. It’s far too simplistic to credit these programs in San Pedro Sula with cutting the number of migrants arriving at the US border in half, particularly in just under two years. There are way too many variables at play. But this same incomplete approach to information is present throughout the article, which gives US policy credit for cutting the murder rate at precisely the same time that the metric changed, as well as faulting the Bracero program and the 1986 amnesty program for not stopping the flow of migrants, as though things were so black-and-white.

Moreover, as we mentioned in our letter to the editor, shortly after our visit to UMEP-6, two officers at their partner precinct in UMEP-7 were under investigation for accepting guns and money as bribes. The general position of the US Embassy on that incident is that it shows the system is working – corrupt cops are being caught, investigated, and punished. Of course, they say, the efforts to change an institutional culture of corruption and violence will take time, and there will be meanwhile occasional incidents like this. But the response is reason for optimism.

We consider all of this to be varying degrees of reasonable, but we also note the critical ways that even the Embassy’s analysis declines to jump to the same conclusions Nazario does. She does say that the efforts in Rivera Hernández are “riddled with problems,” and this could be one of the ones she meant, but by not digging into what those problems are (not just ongoing corruption as in the UMEP-7 case, but active participation by various Honduran security forces in assassinations, torture, and violent repression) again obscures a fundamental truth about US security aid.

What makes it worse is that she frames opposition to that aid as coming only from the Trump wing of American politics. As we have lamented before, the US public is largely unaware of the situation in Honduras for a variety of reasons. Many well-meaning progressives and potential allies will be learning about US aid to Honduras for the first time through Nazario’s work, which comes with the caché of a Pulitzer Prize-winner. That those folks will be getting this highly distorted version of US security aid in Honduras, coupled with the assertion that it needs to be saved from the hands of the Trump Administration, has the potential to be extremely damaging.

A very puzzling aspect of Nazario’s piece is her criticism, almost as an aside, of US aid to Mexico to stop the flow of migration. The Witness for Peace International Team in Mexico has done outstanding work on the Mérida Initiative, which goes unmentioned by Nazario, but is crucial to contextualizing militarization initiatives in Mexico. You can read their fact sheet, updated in February, here.You can also read a comprehensive take on the horrors Central American migrants face as a consequence of the U.S. financed Southern Border Plan in this excellent piece by The Guardian’s Nina Lakhani.

It should surely come as no surprise to Nazario, then, that US aid to Honduras is responsible for similar human rights abuses. She gives passing mention to the role that mass deportations have played in the rise of violence in Honduras and other Northern Triangle countries, but does not connect the dots between US security aid and forced migration. (Those dots are best connected in a recent documentary made by Jennifer Ávila for WfP partners ERIC and Radio Progreso, which we highly encourage you to watch here.)  If US security aid is preventing violence and, by extension, some outward flow of migration (and we repeat, this is not a sure thing), it’s also contributing to state violence that is itself a cause of outward migration. Again, it’s unconscionable for this to be omitted.

We emphasize, in closing, that Nazario is mostly right about the Trump migration policy, and we join her in her opposition. We even reluctantly share some of her optimism about the violence prevention projects that we visited in San Pedro Sula. But we are deeply vexed by her pattern of omitting the full context of US security aid to Honduras, and her unrestrained enthusiasm for programs that are complicated and problematic at the very best, and directly contribute to human rights violations at the very worst. It is our view, in the end, that supporting security forces that are responsible for gross violations of human rights is morally inexcusable. It’s why we continue to support the Berta Cáceres Act, and it’s why we continue to insist that US policy be based on respect for the inherent dignity and rights of all people, and not on the best ways to save money when it comes to keeping Central American refugees and migrants from reaching our borders.

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The work Witness for Peace is doing in Honduras, as well as in its program sites in Mexico, Cuba, and Colombia, is more essential now than ever. As a grassroots organization, we rely on support from our compañeras y compañeros to continue doing the work we do. For us to be on the ground in Honduras, seeing with our own eyes the impacts of US policy here, is critical to our mission of supporting our partners, providing analysis that counters the dangerous arguments being put forth about the US role in Honduras, and promoting a more just, peaceful, and sustainable Honduras. Please consider becoming a sustaining donor to Witness for Peace. Please join us on one of our upcoming delegations. Every little bit counts, and we quite literally can’t do this work without you.


Bryan & Ryan

We’d like to profusely thank the Witness for Peace Mexico team, Saraí Jiménez and Laura Krasovitzky, for their help on this article.


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