In June 2009, Manuel Zelaya was ousted from the Honduran presidency by a military coup that simultaneously shattered 27 years of uninterrupted democratic governance and unleashed a wave of state-sponsored repression and violence.
Now boasting the highest per capita homicide rate in the world, Honduras has descended into what the New York Times described as “a human rights and security abyss” that is “in good part the [US] State Department’s making”. While there is no concrete evidence to suggest that Washington was directly involved in Zelaya’s overthrow, the State Department refused to condemn the coup, or to cut aid to the Honduran government beyond what was literally legally required by the US constitution.
In the immediate aftermath of the coup, a grassroots resistance movement, the National Resistance Front [Frente Nacional de Resistencia Popular – FNRP], began to mobilise under the leadership of Zelaya’s wife, Xiomara Castro. In 2011, the Liberty and Refoundation Party [Partido Libertad y Refundacion – LIBRE] emerged as the political wing of the FNRP and, on June 16 of this year, Xiomara Castro was officially chosen as their presidential candidate for the 2013 election scheduled to take place on November 24.
These elections will be the first since the coup in which the resistance movement will take part. Xiomara Castro has been the consistent front-runner in the polls for the past nine months, although some recent polls show the ruling National Party [Partido Nacional] candidate Juan Orlando Hernandez with a marginal lead – some critics, however, have pointed out an apparent right-wing bias within some of the polling organisations operating in Honduras.
Honduras’ current president – Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo Sosa – of the right-wing National Party was inaugurated after winning an election held in November 2009, which most opposition candidates boycotted and to which the European Union, the Carter Centre and the Organisation of American States refused to send election observers. Almost alone in volunteering to legitimise the electoral process with international observation were the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI), two of the four core institutions of the National Endowment for Democracy, a US government-funded organisation whose unsavoury record in democratic meddling I documented in a previous article.
The IRI was implicated in supporting the failed 2002 coup attempt against the late Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and suspicions have been raised regarding the organisation’s possible involvement in Zelaya’s ousting.
Despite the fact that most of the international community regarded the November 2009 election as a veiled attempt to legitimise the coup, the United States stood practically alone in recognising Lobo’s victory and immediately reinstated aid that had been suspended due to US constitutional constraints. Since Lobo’s inauguration, the US has played an important role in legitimising and economically supporting his government.
From their initiation, the FNRP and the LIBRE Party have been faced with a violent crackdown from the Honduran state and police. According to a recent report by Rights Action, 18 LIBRE candidates and immediate family members were murdered and 15 were subjected to armed attacks between May 2012 and October 19, 2013. The report states:
“LIBRE party (Libertad y Refundacion Party) pre-candidates, candidates, their families and campaign leaders have suffered more killings and armed attacks than all other political parties combined. The disproportionate number of killings of LIBRE candidates seems a clear indication that many of the killings have been politically motivated.”
On October 24 this year, just one month before the scheduled November elections, the bullet-riddled body of Manuel Murillo Varela was found in Tegucigalpa. Murillo was a member of the LIBRE Party and a freelance cameraman who had worked with various officials, including President Manuel Zelaya, before the coup. Murillo had testified to the Committee of Relatives of the Disappeared in Honduras and the Commission for Truth and Reconciliation that policemen seeking video footage he shot of FNRP protests in the aftermath of the 2009 coup had threatened to kill his family. In February 2010, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights had even provided Murillo with protective measures after policemen dressed in civilian clothes kidnapped him and a colleague and tortured them for 24 hours in a clandestine prison.
Killing the freedom of press
Since the 2009 coup, Honduras has become one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist, with an alarming increase in the targeted assassination of dissenting media critics with near total impunity. There was a public outcry in May 2012 when one of the country’s most popular radio journalists, Angel Alfredo Villatoro, was found dead on a sidewalk, shot twice in the head, dressed in the uniform of a special operations police unit and with a red handkerchief covering his face.
“Lethal violence against the press and the endless cycle of impunity is compromising democracy in Honduras,” said Carlos Lauria, senior programme coordinator for the Americas with the Committee to Protect Journalists, after the dismembered and burned body of Honduran radio journalist Anibal Barrow was found on the riverbank of a lagoon near the city of San Pedro Sula in July. Both men had been critical of Zelaya’s ousting and Barrow’s radio station – Radio Globo – had already been the target of serious attacks after reporting critically on the aftermath of the coup.
A military-police state
The Associated Press reported that, in the past three years, prosecutors have received as many as 150 formal complaints about death squad killings by Honduran state police. In May, Juan Carlos “El Tigre” Bonilla was appointed director general of the national police force, despite being under investigation for running death squads a decade earlier. This led to a wave of criticism towards the Obama administration’s continued funding of the Honduran police and security forces in apparent violation of the Leahy law.
In June, US Senator Ben Cardin and 20 of his colleagues sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry stating that “we must ensure that US funds are not enabling rampant human rights violations, including by members of the Honduran security forces that seem to rely on a system of impunity”. In response, Washington declared that aid going directly to Bonilla or those working below him would be cut, but according to Bonilla himself, there are no units within the Honduran police force that are beyond his supervision.
Writing in the Guardian, Mark Weisbrot argues that the Obama administration’s policy towards Honduras is “reminiscent of President Reagan’s death squad governments in Central America”.
Despite this controversy, in August, the Honduran National Congress sidestepped the constitutional separation of armed forces and civilian policing and signed into law the Military Police for Public Order (La Policia Militar de Orden Publico). Also in August, the Congress illegally named a new attorney general for a five-year term, which gives Hernandez and the ruling National Party control over both the Honduran electoral machinery and the military. The new military police hybrid, rushed into deployment in October, just one month before the November elections, was justified in terms of the war on organised crime. Honduras’ La Prensa reported, however, that these soldiers were not only receiving training in regular crime prevention but also specific instruction on “how to disband takeovers of the streets and sidewalks, and violent demonstrations”.
Some argue that this new deployment is a voter-pleasing move by the National Party to demonstrate Hernandez’s ability to maintain security in one of the world’s most crime-ravaged countries. Given Honduras’ recent history, the military’s record of violence against dissent and the fact that the military constitutionally oversees the balloting process, these advancements should raise serious concern. What will happen during and after the election remains to be seen, but this level of intimidation and political violence in the streets of Honduras is certainly not conducive to a free and fair democratic process.
Jenny O’Connor is a graduate student at Oxford University specialising in political sociology and democracy in Latin America.