Esquipulas, Guatemala – US President Donald Trump’s threats against a caravan of thousands of Honduran migrants headed to the United States will not deter people from fleeing the Central American country, activists say, adding they would welcome a cut in US military and security aid to Honduran security forces.
“With regard to the threats of the United States government, I don’t even think people listen to that,” human rights activist Yessica Trinidad told Al Jazeera over the phone.
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“People leaving have no certainty as to whether or not they will arrive. It is like leaping into an abyss, but for them, it is better than living here,” said Trinidad, coordinator of the Honduran Network of Women Human Rights Defenders.
The caravan set out Saturday from northwestern Honduras. More than 2,000 people reached Guatemala Monday after a standoff with Guatemalan police at the border. The caravan, now in waves at different points on the route, continues to grow, with some estimates putting it at more than 5,000.
On Thursday, Trump ramped up his threats against the caravan, tweeting that “in addition to stopping all payments to these countries, which seem to have almost no control over their population, I must, in strongest terms, ask Mexico to stop this onslaught – and if unable to do so I will call up the U.S. Military and CLOSE OUR SOUTHERN BORDER!”
Earlier in the week, he had threatened to cut aid to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador if the caravan wasn’t stopped before it reached the US border.
The warnings came less than a week after the US, Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala met in Washington for the second Conference on Prosperity and Security in Central America. As part of its Strategy for Central America, the US has committed about $2.6bn in aid to Central America for 2015 through 2018.
According to the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), US aid to Honduras totalled more than $181m last year. The category of security, the justice sector, and violence prevention received more funding than any other, without including funding for borders and drug control. Most of the aid is channelled through the Department of State and US Agency for International Development, but there was also $47m via the Department of Defense last year, according to WOLA.
Adam Isacson, director of WOLA’s defence oversight programme, said the number earmarked for this year is likely close to that of 2017. The organisation has not yet been able to obtain country breakdowns of regional security funding but does not expect the final tally will be a big shift from last year.
Isacson said Trump’s comments show he does not understand how aid works.
“Trump’s tweets betray that our president actually thinks that US aid is a big cash transfer to those countries, like we’re just giving them money. And I think a lot of people think that,” he told Al Jazeera over the phone.
“The president’s tweets seem to [suggest] that you’re just turning off a cash spigot and there’s this river of cash flowing to Honduras,” Isacson said.
“But of course not a dime goes to Honduras because of the fear it will be stolen. It’s all in kind. It’s all training or technical services or contractors or equipment for specific things,” he said.
In addressing the caravan on Wednesday, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez said: “Irregular migration has been going on for decades.”
“Since 2014, we decided to deal with structural issues that generate migration. Much has been achieved but we know that there is much for us to continue to do because these are historical problems,” Hernandez said.
Human rights violations
Many human rights activists in Honduras and in the US have expressed concern over the way the Hernandez government has addressed insecurity. They’ve advocated for years for initiatives that would cut, freeze, or condition US security aid to Honduras.
Honduran police and military forces have been involved in serious human rights violations over the years, according to national and international human rights organisations.
General elections last November that resulted in the contentious reelection of president Juan Orlando Hernandez took place amid widespread allegations of election fraud. Security forces killed more than two dozen people during state crackdowns on protests, according to human rights groups.
Trump would be doing Hondurans a favour if he cut off aid to their government, Trinidad said.
“The aid that the US government gives Honduras is invested precisely in the failed security policy,” she said.
Honduran human rights and other civil society organisations have been meeting to sort out how they can best assist in the struggle to safeguard the rights of the people on the move, as hundreds more Honduras continue to attempt to leave the country and join the caravan making its way through Guatemala.
Trinidad’s organisation and other Honduran human rights groups do not consider the exodus to be immigration, she said.
“For us, this is forced displacement. People are fleeing the country. They are fleeing the constant human rights violations but also different kinds of violence,” she said.
Human rights violations are also occurring in the context of the migrant caravan, said Trinidad, highlighting the Honduran police actions to block hundreds of Hondurans from leaving through border crossings with Guatemala and El Salvador in order to make their way up to the first wave of the caravan.
“They cannot keep people in the country by force,” said Trinidad, highlighting the right to freedom of movement, particularly between Honduras and its neighbours.
‘Scapegoating immigrants, refugees’
Honduran human rights groups’ long-standing concerns about the actions of security forces are shared by many in the US, including congressional representatives.
Major points of concern have been a 2009 military coup, a 2012 massacre of four indigenous locals during a DEA-assisted drug raid in the Moskitia region, the 2016 murder of prominent Honduran indigenous and social movement activist Berta Caceres, and the violent crackdown on post-election protests in 2017 and this year.
A proposed bill in US Congress would, if passed, suspend all security aid to Honduras and veto any multilateral loans to the country’s military and police forces. The bill, called the Berta Caceres Human Rights Act, now has 70 House co-sponsors.
“We should have cut off military aid to Honduras a long time ago, but for very different reasons. Their complete disregard for worker rights, indigenous rights, and individual freedoms are unacceptable in an ally of the United States,” House Representative Jan Schakowsky, a co-sponsor of the Berta Caceres Human Rights Act, said Thursday in a statement.
Hondurans are fleeing dire economic conditions and a repressive, anti-democratic president supported by Trump and the State Department, said Schakowsky.
“Instead of admitting some responsibility in creating the violent situation in Honduras, President Trump is yet again scapegoating immigrants and refugees,” she said. “He is painting a picture of this migrant caravan as a threat to our national security instead of the desperate group of refugees that they are.”