Honduras’ very own war on terror

The state uses propaganda to justify eliminating civil rights because of the threat of ‘terrorism’.

Manuel Zelaya
John Negroponte was the US ambassador to Honduras, a country that was known as the ‘USS Honduras’ [GALLO/GETTY]

A few months after the 2009 coup d’etat against Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, I was approached on the street in Tegucigalpa by a man who threatened to kill me unless I produced an economic incentive sufficient to halt my demise. I suggested that we walk to an ATM and postponed the issue of my lack of an ATM card to an indefinite future point.

Fortunately, by the time we reached the nearest gas station, my companion had finished a bottle of aguardiente and our conversation had taken an unexpected course. Thanking me for the stroll, he requested that I adopt his 18-month-old son in order to spare the child his girlfriend’s crack cocaine habit.

The brief but tragic death of Popeye’s

From the gas station I procured a ride back in the direction of my pension with a female university student in an SUV and designer sunglasses, whose analysis of what had just transpired was that 80 percent of Hondurans were thugs. By coincidence, her calculations also revealed that 80 percent of Hondurans were poor and that this was why the recently-expatriated Zelaya was so popular, which did not alter her view that Honduran democracy had in fact been upheld by his forcible expulsion from the country.

The expulsion was orchestrated once Zelaya had shown himself to be incompatible with everything from the regional neoliberal project  to the elite Opus Dei sect’s obsession with banning the morning-after pill. The president’s transgressions had included raising the minimum wage in certain sectors and paying slightly more attention than previous leaders to the complaints of poor communities tired of the effects of international mining endeavors on their skin and reproductive abilities. The last straw was Zelaya’s attempt to poll the citizenry as to whether the national constitution– which hails from the era in which the country was affectionately referred to as the “USS Honduras” and is skewed in the interest of approximately ten families who dominate the economy – should be revised.

Although the university student and I had started out discussing a pseudo-assault by a seemingly apolitical imbiber of aguardiente, the event had now metamorphosed into a lesson on why persons who wanted to avoid being attacked by thugs from the anti-coup National Front of Popular Resistance (FNRP) should avoid walking outside with fake designer sunglasses. When I suggested that the nonviolent resistance movement might indeed be overwhelmingly nonviolent, the girl turned to me with incredulous eyes and the suspicion that I did not watch the news: “Didn’t you see what they did to Popeye’s?”

Pronounced po-PEI-ei in its indigenous version, one of the Tegucigalpa branches of the American fast food establishment had been set on fire in August following a month and a half of brutal military and police repression of peaceful anti-coup protest marches. The symbolism of the act was rendered all the more apparent by the Honduran establishment media’s horrified response to the attack on private property and corporate iconography – horror that was never replicated when the victims of violence were human protesters.

When Honduran teenager Isis Obed Murillo was shot in the head by the military at Toncontin airport on July 5, for example, the staff of the prominent Honduran daily La Prensa took it upon themselves to excise Murillo’s blood from an image via the Photoshop program in order to suggest that he had fainted rather than died. The same month, secondary school teacher Roger Vallejo was blamed in the mainstream press for his own shooting death by police, which was said to have occurred because he had “abandoned his classroom” in order to protest the political situation.

Aside from the disfigurement of Popeye’s, the Resistance was assigned a heap of additional infractions by my companion in the SUV, such that by the time we parted ways anyone opposed to the coup was now not only a thug but also a corrupt homicidal narcotrafficker and simultaneous worshiper of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Satan. The sermon might have provided a greater degree of amusement had it not been an abridged transcript of news reports.

God thwarts Vasquez’ retirement

The frenetic campaign to link Zelaya to every potentially unfavorable global trend has produced a fairly uninterrupted trajectory of journalistic disgrace. On the occasion of Zelaya’s spontaneous reappearance in Tegucigalpa in September 2009, where he was hosted at the Brazilian Embassy for over four months before being re-expatriated (and then re-repatriated this past May), Channel 10 CEO Rodrigo Wong Arévalo alerted viewers to the possibility that Zelaya’s male companions were sleeping in each other’s arms on the embassy floor.

In November 2009, in the midst of preparations for illegitimate elections, media outlets reported that an explosive device had been launched from an aircraft in the direction of the warehouse where election materials were being stored. It was eventually conceded that the aircraft in question had been a TACA Airlines flight arriving as scheduled from Guatemala and that it had not launched any such device. Maintaining that an explosion had nonetheless taken place, police shifted the blame to a rocket-propelled grenade, and suggested that the army of Nicaragua was the only entity to possess this obscure weapon. Honduran anti-coup protesters meanwhile continue to be accused of Nicaraguan, Cuban, Venezuelan and other nationalities as a means of discrediting the Resistance as a mere product of foreign infiltration.

As for Zelaya’s alleged affection for the drug trade, a front-page El Heraldo headline in October 2009 proclaimed the discovery of a “narco-plane cemetery” in the Mosquitia region. The article was accompanied by a photograph of what appeared to be a patch of dirt, grass, and household light bulbs, with the following caption: “The area has also been used as a secret landing strip. Here is the evidence.”

Of course, the ability to locate in any Honduran landscape the need for an amplified war on drugs conveniently excuses increased US militarization of Honduras, another outcome of the coup. It bears mentioning, however, that US effectiveness in fighting civilization’s wars has been called into question not only by the Honduran military’s claim to have halted the expansion of chavismo to the very heart of the US by removing Zelaya from office, but also by the fact that the most prominent drug trafficker in Honduran history, Juan Ramon Matta, was a business ally of the CIA in the 1980s.

Other post-coup functions of the complicit media have included highlighting the symbiosis between God, coup-mongers, and capitalism as a convenient antidote to the Chavez-Satan alliance. Illegal interim president Roberto Micheletti, baptized the “first national hero of the twenty-first century” by the Honduran National Industrial Association, was ceded ample news space in which to expound on his religious beliefs, such as that Chavez requires enlightenment by God and that the application of graffiti to the “walls of private and state-owned establishments and the walls of churches” constitutes “a great sin.”

Military chief Romeo Vasquez’ impeccable spiritual credentials were unveiled in an August 2009 edition of the La Tribuna newspaper’s weekly magazine, where he revealed that prior to overthrowing Zelaya he had been on the verge of retirement to a quiet family life but that God had devised other plans for him. In my own interview with Vasquez, he also brought up the theme of graffiti, and surmised that its proliferation on local walls indicated that there was “too much liberty” in Honduras.

Pinochet was a radical leftist

Ludicrous “news” items discrediting and vilifying wide strata of the Honduran populace would meanwhile naturally stand a better chance of being exposed as such were they not corroborated by a chorus in Washington. The chorus comprises congressional coup cheerleaders such as Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whose stance on excessive and continuing human rights violations in the aftermath of the coup is that they have not jeopardized the country’s return to democracy.

Other northern allies include The Wall Street Journal editorial board’s aspiring paramilitary Mary O’Grady, whose investigative techniques include inventing pro-Cuban sympathies for U.S. Ambassador to Honduras Hugo Llorens and saddling Zelaya supporters with ties to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)—the same tactic she employs to incite violence against Colombian peace communities.

Roger Noriega of Iran-Contra ignominy, currently a Washington lobbyist and visiting fellow at the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute, can meanwhile be depended upon to expose links between even the most rightwing Latin Americans and the communist menace. Honduran President Pepe Lobo is the current target of Noriega’s machinations, according to which the rightist Lobo maintains a “secret pact” with Chavez that is beneficial to everyone from the Mexican Sinaloa cartel to Hezbollah.

The objective of the O’Grady-Noriega approach, which occurs in tandem with the hysterics of the Honduran extreme right, is to realign the spectrum of political discourse so that anything less than rightist extremism can be denounced as leftist extremism. If such trends continue, we may soon learn that Pinochet was a closet Allende or that former Argentine dictator Jorge Rafael Videla should have been dropped from an airplane to extinguish his socialist orientation.

As for the general role of the USestablishment media in burying human rights abuses in the interest of political expediency, Edward S. Herman and David Peterson have thoroughly documented wild discrepancies in media coverage of recent violence in Honduras and Iran. In a 2010 report, Herman and Peterson compared coverage over a 12-month period of the death of Iranian opposition demonstrator Neda Agha-Soltan, shot by Iranian government security forces, and the deaths of 24 anti-coup Honduran citizens, murdered in various ways by post-coup Honduran government security forces or by death squads. They found that, “[b]y a ratio of 35-to-1, newspapers showed more interest in the death of this single young woman than they did in the deaths of all 24 Honduran protestors, journalists, social organizers and human rights advocates taken together.”

Another Honduran non-celebrity

On March 18, 2011, schoolteacher Ilse Velasquez became the latest Honduran not to become an international media sweetheart in death. Fifty-nine years old, she was the sister of a teacher and father of three who was disappeared in 1981 by Battalion 3-16, a CIA-trained elite death squad whose reliance on torture, executions, and forced disappearances as a means of suppressing leftist political tendencies in the country was charitably excised from human rights reports at the behest of then-US Ambassador to Honduras John D. Negroponte.

Velasquez was struck in the head by a tear gas canister fired by police at a demonstration against the privatization of public education. As journalist Jesse Freeston points out, Lobo’s 2010 visit to New Orleans produced enthusiasm for the possibility that a similar charter school system might be implemented in Honduras in order to break the Honduran teachers’ union, a pillar of the Resistance. The IMF has responded favorably.

After being hit by the tear gas canister, Velasquez fell to the ground and amidst the chaos of police repression was run over by a press vehicle, which unsurprisingly enabled the state to deny any responsibility for the termination of her life. Following the incident, El Heraldo obediently produced an article suggesting that counterfeit dollars arriving from Venezuela were financing Nicaraguan-infiltrated teacher protests. Somewhat more surprising was the subsequent assessment of the Honduran teachers’ movement by Human Rights and Labor Attache for the US Embassy in Honduras, Jeremy D. Spector, who determined that there were “thugs” among the educators of the nation. Spector’s choice of vocabulary was particularly intriguing given that the very same embassy’s Deputy Mission Chief Simon Henshaw had used the very same word to describe the post-Zelaya coup regime at an August 2009 meeting.

A few days prior to Zelaya’s definitive repatriation in May, I visited Gustavo Blanco, director of the state-owned Radio Honduras, at his Tegucigalpa office. Parroting Spector’s analysis of the thuggish teachers, Blanco informed me that Velasquez was to blame for her own expiration because she was “fat” and should have understood that her body type was incompatible with street protests. With an unfortunate lack of irony, he referred to the Honduran police force as angelitos and assured me that the FNRP was pleased when the “little angels” killed people because it signified an accumulation of “martyrs for the cause.”

This sort of rationale on the part of the nation’s media bosses indicates that Israel’s recent promise of security assistance to Honduras may be facilitated by what is evidently a common priority: blaming the victims of state violence for their own violent obliteration. Incidentally, Honduras has already inherited Israeli security know-how in the form of demobilized Colombian paramilitaries, remobilized on behalf of elite Honduran interests in the aftermath of the coup. The late Carlos Castano, father of modern Colombian paramilitarism, acknowledged copying the paramilitary concept from the Israelis after training in Israel in 1983. Needless to say, Honduran Security Minister Oscar Alvarez prefers to focus on the Venezuelo-Nicaraguan variety of foreign infiltration.

When in doubt, start a war on terror

Despite the alleged thug monopoly over the Honduran Resistance, no notable instances of violence occurred at the massive May 28 gathering at Toncontin airport to mark the end of Zelaya’s exile. Participants had arrived from all corners of the nation and many had spent the previous night outside at the mercy of a torrential downpour. That the repeated postponement of Zelaya’s arrival and the asphyxiating concentration of bodies under the sun did not disturb the tranquility of the crowd presumably had something to do with the lack of military and police presence in the area.

Fortunately, a new Anti-terrorist Law may soon make it easier for the Honduran government to deal with thugs who disguise themselves as peaceful. The measure was presented to the Congress by Oscar Alvarez and approved last November, approximately two days after the paramilitary murder of five farmers in northern Honduras whose existence infringed on the personal lebensraum of one of the country’s wealthiest businessmen. Speaking to Democracy Now!, American University anthropologist Dr. Adrienne Pine described the law as essentially redefining “terrorist” as “somebody who opposes the state” and as “paving the way to criminalize dissent, to criminalize resistance, to criminalize the right to freedom of speech and freedom of assembly in Honduras.”

In her book Working Hard, Drinking Hard: On Violence and Survival in Honduras, Pine observes that the Honduran Anti-gang Law of 2003—passed during Alvarez’ first bout as Security Minister under Ricardo Maduro—”represent[ed] a continuation of the way vagrancy laws have been used throughout colonial and postcolonial Latin American history to control, regulate, and discipline native peoples and the poor.”

The Anti-terrorist Law constitutes the next notch on the same continuum. In speculating about its potential legacy, it may be instructive to consider the consequences of the Anti-gang Law and Maduro’s war on crime, which as Pine notes “led to increasing gang militarization in a war of escalation, thus creating a real version of the monstrous creature that had formerly been largely a product of colonialist imagination.”

Belén Fernández is a coeditor at Pulsemedia.org. Her new book, The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work will be released by Verso in November 2011.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.