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Escaping the New Honduras

The child refugee crisis is a product of US-backed policies in Central America.

This summer, amid an ongoing child refugee crisis, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández and First Lady Ana García Hernández traveled to the United States. Their country had descended into violent bedlam, prompting tens of thousands of children to flee. Speaking in Washington, DC before the Chamber of Congress, Hernández asserted that US drug and immigration policies were partially to blame for the surge in children heading north.

While media outlets noted the president’s remarks, they have largely failed to mention that the exodus has been fueled by the very policies Hernández and the US support — most notably the 2009 coup against Manuel Zelaya’s democratically elected government. As Dana Frank and other experts on Honduras have pointed out, this precipitated a collapse in the country’s institutions.

Corruption reached new highs; the police and military were able to act with impunity, using violent repression to crush anti-coup resistance. Femicides, political killings, and murders of those in the LGBT community spiked, yet the crimes went unpunished and were rarely even investigated. Reporterslawyers, and judges have also been targeted in the years since; police often blame the homicides on “personal enmities,” love triangles, or interpersonal disputes.

Other historically disenfranchised minorities — indigenous and African-descendant communities, and campesinos — are enduring heightened violence, as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have documented. In December 2012, the UN warned that human rights defenders “continue to be vulnerable to the risk of extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, torture and ill-treatment, arbitrary arrest and detention, death threats,” and other adverse treatment.

The Honduran authorities’ response to gangs and drug cartels has at least partially been to shoot first and ask questions later. In 2012 and 2013, US coverage of the Honduran police was dominated by a series of damning Associated Press articles detailing the extrajudicial killings of gang suspects by police officers. Yet now, in the current context of the refugee crisis, Honduras’ police forces are made out to be beleaguered heroes attempting to assist the US by preventing would-be migrants from leaving the country.

Hernández has responded to police corruption by sending out thousands of new military police to patrol city streets. But as some warned shortly after deployment of the military police began ahead of last year’s elections, the new force is serving overt political ends, raiding the homes of labor leaders and of people involved in the anti-coup resistance movement. Human rights defenders and others have criticized its poor training and the Hernández administration’s evident lack of concern about the force’s rights violations.

Hernández has also pushed an array of business-friendly policies meant to encourage investment, such as new mining laws. His promotion of the proposed “model cities” has been so zealous that as president of congress he oversaw the illegal dismissal of four supreme court justices who refused to back charter city legislation. Afro-Indigenous Garifuna communities are now struggling to defend their land from tourism projects and plans for development. Some in these communities have chosen to risk their lives riding “La Bestia” (as the infamous train is known) north to the US.

Now Hernández wants to throw more gas on the fire: he advocates a “Plan Colombia” for Honduras (a proposal also supported by his hawkish think-tank hosts in Washington). But as my colleague Alexander Main has noted, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador (the other countries contributing thousands of refugees) already have such a scheme: the Central American Regional Security Initiative. In fact, CARSI emerged from the Merida Initiative, the ramped-up war on Mexican drug cartels that resulted in the deaths of over 47,000 people in just five years.

Merida has succeeded in pushing the drug cartels out of Mexico, but they’ve just migrated south to Central America — a demonstration of the “balloon effect,” in which squeezing one place means the problem pops up somewhere else. Hernández proposes a militarized solution for another US creation: gangs like the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18, which were formed in the US by earlier generations of migrants who fled US-led military and paramilitary operations in Central America.

In the current context of police death squads committing extrajudicial killings of gang suspects in urban areas, and the shootings of innocent villagers in the countryside in counternarcotics operations gone wrong, it is clear what will result from a “Plan Central America” approach. More death, more migration.

Much media attention has been paid to the forced gang recruitment that pushes children to exit Honduras, but the economic and social factors that have helped swell the ranks of gangs have been largely overlooked. It’s an open secret that the post-coup governments of Hernández and fellow National Party predecessor Pepe Lobo have presided over an economic failure. Gains made by the Zelaya government pre-coup have been undone. Child poverty, previously trending downward, has jumped. Inequality has increased and is now the highest in the region. Unemployment has risen after Lobo cut social spending.

There are policies that can diminish the power of Central American drug cartels and gangs and which would abate some of the “push” factors driving people north, but they don’t involve the ramped-up military spending championed by members of Congress. A better, more humane approach would involve poverty reduction, anti-inequality measures, and policies that foster social inclusion.

Honduras, with US support, has been going down a very different path than that since the ouster of Manuel Zelaya.