Burning the dregs of Honduran society

The fire that killed more than 300 prisoners in Honduras wasn't an accident entirely without blame.

    Prisoners in Honduras have been subject to several massacres and incinerations over the years [Al Jazeera]
    Prisoners in Honduras have been subject to several massacres and incinerations over the years [Al Jazeera]

    La Paz, Bolivia - On February 14, over 350 inmates at La Granja penitentiary in Comayagua, Honduras perished in a fire - the latest in a series of obstacles to existence among the Honduran prison population, which has over the years been subjected to various incinerations and massacres as well as to floodwaters from Hurricane Mitch.

    On February 17, the prominent Honduran newspaper El Heraldo, mouthpiece of the elite and champion of the 2009 coup d'état against President Manuel Zelaya, announced that there were innumerable hypotheses as to the origins of the blaze, among them conspiracy theories and material worthy of "crime novels". After reviewing such possibilities as that the "delinquents" had set the fire to facilitate a prison break or to register their distaste with a new law permitting the extradition of persons affiliated with organised crime, the author of the article observed:

    "Meanwhile, extremist persons have dared to accuse the government of being behind events like Comayagua, with the aim of 'eliminating' 'undesirable' gang members. This group of people is referring to [the circumstances of] two prison fires in 2003 and 2004". [quotation marks in original]

    Such is the fascinating art of Honduran journalism, which permits its purveyors to - in the very same paragraph - acknowledge the state's role in previous fire-based elimination efforts while condemning as "extremist" anyone who might detect continuity in government aims.

     Honduras jail visit exposes poor conditions

    Among said extremists is Maria Luisa Borjas, former chief of internal affairs for the Honduran police force, who personally confirmed to me that approximately 3,000 young people were extrajudicially eliminated during the administration of President Ricardo Maduro (2002-06) via a broad application of the term "gang member".

    Oscar Alvarez, Maduro's Security Minister, was invited to reprise his security role in the illegitimate post-coup government of Pepe Lobo. By this time, the "undesirable" category in Honduras had expanded to include anyone concerned that military coups were not democratic.

    As the indefatigable Dana Frank noted in a recent piece for The Nation:

    "Over 300 people have been killed by state security forces since President Lobo came to power… At least forty-three campesino activists have been killed by police, members of the military, and private security guards."

    American University anthropologist Dr. Adrienne Pine has meanwhile stressed that it was Lobo himself who, as President of the Congress in 2003, promoted the Anti-Gang law criminalising things like the possession of tattoos and resulting in the severe overcrowding of prisons.

    US fights fire with flashlights

    The prevailing view in Honduras regarding the dispensability of certain segments of the country's human population was nicely summed up in the first comment appearing below the Heraldo article on the Comayagua fire, submitted by someone identified as "wwwwwwwwwwwwwwww".

    The submitter expressed disgust that there was any public dismay whatsoever over the mass incineration of the "dregs of society", and exhorted readers to instead celebrate the resulting reduction in the number of domestic "assassins" and "delinquents".

    As notoriously extremist media outlets like msnbc.com have pointed out, however, the majority of the Comayagua inmates were not entitled to such descriptions:

    "Most of the prisoners burned alive by a fire at the Comayagua prison in Honduras that claimed 358 lives had never been charged or convicted, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press. More than half of the 856 inmates… were either awaiting trial or being held as suspected gang members, according to a report sent by the Honduran government this month to the United Nations. ...

    "Prisoners only needed to bear a simple tattoo to be incarcerated under the strict Honduran anti-gang laws, the report said. The U.N. condemns the practice as a violation of international law".

    Other kinds of violations of international law have also occurred in the vicinity of Comayagua. For example, the US waged its covert contra war against Nicaragua in the 1980s from what is now known as Soto Cano Air Base, located 15 minutes away from the jail. Despite being currently equipped with vast firefighting capabilities and personnel, US forces at Soto Cano did not manage to traverse the short distance required to aid in extinguishing the recent fire - though Joint Task Force Bravo did manage to send flashlights, Glowsticks, and other items immensely useful in situations characterised by large blazes.

    Who benefits?

    "The violence currently plaguing Central America is due in no small part to the legacy of US-directed regional militarisation."

    Adrienne Pine has reported on Israel's effort, in the midst of the Comayagua tragedy, to profit from the incarceration business by trying to sell Honduras a fire-proof prison.

    The demonisation of various strata of the Honduran populace as violent, godless beasts - a portrayal reinforced by the media's predilection for gruesome homicide photographs - meanwhile directly benefits contemporary US policy in the region, which includes the costly expansion of Soto Cano and the militarisation of the Honduran police force.

    Of course, as Christian Parenti points out in his latest book Tropic of Chaos, the violence currently plaguing Central America is due in no small part to the legacy of US-directed regional militarisation.

    And, as Dana Frank notes in an op-ed inexplicably published by The New York Times despite its utter truthfulness, the skyrocketing levels of violence and impunity in post-coup Honduras have much to do with the US refusal to cut off military and police aid even in the face of grave human rights abuses. The list of abuses has now been fortified thanks to police detention for half an hour of firefighters endeavoring to enter the Comayagua prison, and to police administration of bullets and tear gas to inmates' family members gathered outside the complex.

    As for additional excuses for militarisation provided by the war on drugs, it is worth recalling that, during the contra war, SETCO - the airline belonging to Honduran drug lord Juan Ramon Matta Ballesteros - was known as the "CIA airline" and was used to transport both contra supplies and cocaine. The surge in drug trafficking in Honduras in the aftermath of the coup meanwhile suggests that narcotraffickers are just as impressed with the Lobo regime's "democratic" achievements as are Barack Obama and the US State Department.

    The violence vaccine

    I was incidentally making notes for this article in a writing tablet for schoolchildren that I bought at a supermarket in Tegucigalpa in 2009. At the back of the notebook is a page with measurement conversions and helpful slogans such as "Education is a vaccine against violence".

    A version of this philosophy was expressed to me last year by Gustavo Blanco, director of the state-owned Radio Honduras, who declared that the anti-coup National Popular Resistance Front (FNRP) was composed largely of violent thugs and uneducated poor people who didn't even understand why they were against the coup.

    This pronouncement happened to occur in the context of a discussion about the March death of 59-year-old Honduran teacher Ilse Velasquez, whose employment in the pedagogical field had curiously not averted her violent demise at a peaceful protest against the privatisation of public education in Honduras and the post-coup government confiscation of teacher pension funds.

    According to Blanco, it was Velasquez' own fault that she was struck in the face by a police-fired tear gas canister and then promptly run over and killed by a press vehicle, as she should have realised that her percentage of body fat was not compatible with street protests.

    It seems to me that, when the Honduran government interprets "education" to mean acceptance of the notion that the lives of citizens who are poor, tattooed, or employed in the teaching profession are entirely expendable, the result is not a vaccine against violence but rather an anesthetic administered to distract from the societal destructiveness of state violence.

    Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, released by Verso in Nov. 2011. She is an editor at PULSE Media, and her articles have appeared in the London Review of Books blog, CounterPunch, Guernica Magazine, and many other publications.

    Follow her on Twitter: @MariaBelen_Fdez

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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