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 problem