Much of the violence driving thousands of unaccompanied children from Honduras to the U.S. can be traced to the past decades of U.S. military and economic interference in Honduras, including ex-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s support for a 2009 coup, Adrienne Pine tells Dennis J Bernstein.
By Dennis J Bernstein
A flood of Central American children seeking safety in the United States has created a political and humanitarian crisis for border states and left President Barack Obama lecturing the parents not to send their children off on these long dangerous journeys as he requests $3.7 billion in emergency spending to step up border security and speed up deportations.
But the crisis has a long back story, including the U.S. militarization of Central America in the 1980s and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s support for an anti-democratic coup in Honduras in 2009 which ousted a populist president and increased the exploitation of the population.
Adrienne Pine, an American University anthropology professor, explained this harsh reality in an interview with Dennis J Bernstein of Pacifica’s “Flashpoints” program. Pine is the author of Working Hard, Drinking Hard: on Violence and Survival in Honduras.
DB: We are hearing a lot that the kids are coming, many from Honduras, from a very violent situation. Maybe you could just give us a little background … your thoughts in the context of knowing so much about Honduras, and being there so much in this last year.
AP: Well, indeed Honduras is generally recognized as the most violent country in the world and that’s in the homicide rate, over 90 per 100,000. Which just to give you an idea, country number two is in the 60’s. So it’s well above and beyond. The risk of being murdered is far higher than any other place in the world right now. But that only tells a partial story, of course.
The most important part of the context to understand why not only the homicide rate, but the rate of so many other forms of violence is so high, is to understand the coup that happened in 2009. A coup that was carried out by military forces trained at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia. And which was, in effect, supported by the United States which refused to follow the unanimous decision of the OAS [Organization of American States] at the time, to not recognize the usurping government, and instead negotiated with it and has continued through all of these years to send massive amounts of military aid, military and police aid, to a government that, in effect, has militarized the country and is murdering and terrorizing its citizens, both through this militarization and direct violence and through the more indirect violence, if you can call it, of neoliberal policy, which for many people isn’t indirect at all.
It includes the usurping of lands, indigenous peoples’ lands, of campesinos’ or peasant farmers’ lands. It includes the destruction of any notion of sovereignty and Honduran peoples’ control of their land, of their water, of their sub-soil rights, and of their government itself. So there are conditions of extreme violence in Honduras. You will hear politicians saying “Well, this is all the fault of the gangs.”
But the reasons why there is so much violence has to do with these bigger structural forces. Of course, the gangs are very dangerous but if young kids had work opportunities and had a chance to live a decent life, these gangs wouldn’t be threatening people in the way that they are.
DB: Talk a little bit about the situation on the ground in terms of the social setting, the level of poverty, the way in which all this violence unfolds.
AP: Well, it’s hard to explain. I’ve just come back from a year of living in Honduras. I was there teaching at the National University, and you live a constant embodied state of terror in Honduras. And, it’s hard to exaggerate it. Because everybody is always afraid.
I’m perhaps the only person I know who has lived a significant period of time in Honduras and has never been assaulted. So I’m very lucky, in that sense. But everybody, every Honduran I know has been violently assaulted at one point or another. And by that I mean with a gun, and it’s happened in front of me in several occasions, as well.
So it’s something that you become used to and expect. And just a month ago I walked by a man who had been killed in a targeted assassination, ten minutes earlier, and was lying there on the ground. So this sort of violence is day to day, and then even, more immediately for anybody who owns a small business right now, there’s what is called war taxes. Which is basically bribery from local gangs who, in many cases, are affiliated with the police, and also bribery on the part of the police basically. “You pay us this money” — like protection money “and we won’t kill you.” And they will kill people if they don’t pay the money.
In one neighborhood, for example, Flora del Campo, in the past few week, three taxi drivers were killed for not paying their war taxes. Bus drivers pay phenomenal amounts of money. What generally happens is that businesses end up closing because they are not able to afford their war taxes and their business costs.
The environment on the ground is one in which there are very few businesses open, except in malls. So you are seeing an extreme privatization, and sort of closing off of public spaces, because they have become so dangerous. Complicity between the police and the military police, which was set up by the current president who won in extremely fragile elections last year he set up a new military police force and re-militarized the country — and the gangs that are involved in all of this business. Perhaps the most powerful actors in the country are the drug traffickers who also happen to be very deeply involved in the financial sector and in the government.
So it’s a situation on the ground of day-to-day embodied terror. And all the United States seems to want to do — or rather what the State Department seems to want to do — is pour more money into a military apparatus that is terrorizing people, and defending the neoliberal vultures who are really stealing Honduran land and Honduran young peoples’ possibilities for a future and for survival.
DB: It sounded like this to me that President Barack Obama and various officials of this administration are sort of lecturing the parents of Central America and of Honduras, telling them that they need to keep their children home. That they will be in danger and they will be deported. It’s almost as if these parents don’t love their children, and they just want to let them go. Do you want to talk to the life of the child and why a parent might let go or somehow try and get their kid out of there?
AP: I think it’s really cynical that governments, both Honduran and the U.S., have been blaming the parents for this situation because Honduran parents love their children as much as parents anywhere do, which is to say a whole lot. And if they are desperate enough to agree to let their kids go — and in many cases, kids decide to go on their own — it’s not that the parents send them. But if the parents agree to let their kids go, it’s because their life is at risk in Honduras. And by their calculation, their life will be at less risk even with the massive dangers, in particular, on what they call the death train through Mexico, to the northern border of Mexico, the southern border of the United States.
That’s a calculation and I think honestly it’s a realistic calculation because the homicide rate in Honduras is 90 per 100,000, as I mentioned, but for children it’s much higher. Children are the bulk, say between I think, 14 and 23, so young people have a much higher rate of homicide, of death by homicide than the general population
DB: Why is that? How do they die?
AP: It didn’t begin with the coup, it’s important to mention that a lot of these processes are ongoing, but that they really sped up with the coup. So back in 2002 and 2003, at the beginning of the Presidency of Ricardo Maduro, who was a big supporter of the coup in 2009, Maduro brought in Rudy Giuliani to consult for his campaign and to bring in a zero tolerance policy and also change the laws to create an anti-gang law.
This was Pepe Lobo, who was the president before the current president, so after the coup. Pepe Lobo in 2003, when he was president of the congress, passed this anti-gang law which was modeled on anti-loitering laws in the U.S. which basically criminalized – in the U.S. – criminalized black people, people of color in general, when they are not working. This law did the same thing. It criminalized people without having to ever commit a crime. So if they had a tattoo, if they were in a neighborhood where they were associating with gang members, which in many neighborhoods, it’s impossible not to associate with gang members because they control the whole neighborhood, they were considered criminal.
So that redefinition has held. So many people are criminalized by identity. And in Honduras where there’s a context of complete impunity, complete and total impunity for violent crime, especially against people who are labeled as criminals. It has been okay, since the early 2000s and even prior to 1998, 1999, it’s been okay to kill off young people. There’s very little consequence for this. I’ve analyzed it as a sort of social cleansing program. And in fact, that’s what it is referred to in common language. It’s referred to as the cleaning of the streets.
So, young people, because they are idle in the sense that there are absolutely no jobs for them to obtain, in particular, young boys and men, since the labor sector has been feminized with the sweat shop industry that employs more women, young people who aren’t working are seen as gang members. And so regardless of whether they actually are, or whether they have committed a crime, it is seen as justifiable to kill them. And so there are death squads that are running. And there is plenty of evidence, over more than a decade, that these death squads are police who are either undercover, or working off hours, or people who are working for some of the private security companies, many of which are run by the same leaders of the death squads from the 1980s, the Battalion 3-16.
So we’ve got a situation where there’s, in effect, what could be understood as a genocidal policy. I think it’s important to qualify that. Obviously, this isn’t a genocide in the way that many people are used to thinking about it. But a policy of social cleansing by an identity category that is, in effect, supported by the state and which makes it impossible for people in this identify category, young, poor men, to survive. And young, poor women are similarly threatened, although their homicide levels are not as high.
One thing that I think is curious to mention that I have found through my field work…I’ve been carrying out field work at the national teaching hospital, Hospital Escuela in Tegucigalpa, is that it’s been noted that among child migrants from Honduras which has the highest number of migrants coming to the United States right now, of child migrants, there’s a higher proportion of boys than girls, but still more girls than from other countries.
But it seems like in inverse proportions girls in Honduras are now killing themselves, or attempting to kill themselves. The doctors and nurses at the Hospital Escuela have told me, and have shown me, intake numbers to back this up. But there’s been a huge spike in suicide attempts among girls from age 9 to 14, in the past two or three years. And so kids are trying to escape their reality, and the dangers that they live, on the day-to-day basis thanks to the U.S. support for this coup and the militarization of the country, through whatever means they can, and that means migration or in some cases tragically death, killing themselves.
DB: And it’s not like people haven’t tried various legal ways to get out of the country, to save their children. There are many attempts at political asylum, based on the violence you’re describing.
AP: That’s true, Dennis, and it’s an interesting thing to be involved in. I, for over ten years I’ve been getting requests from lawyers, to serve as an expert witness, and I’ve worked on dozens and dozens of these cases. But something I have noted is indeed in the past two years, since the coup, but in particular in the past two and a half years there’s been a huge spike in requests. I’m getting, sometimes, two or three requests a week from lawyers, and obviously it’s not a volume I can take on. It’s somebody with a full-time job, and there aren’t that many other people who are doing this kind of work.
But what I see is that the volume of requests are going up, not just for things that are obviously directly related to the coup, but also for the requests having to do with gang violence, having to do with domestic violence. What it shows to me is that the general precariousness of the day-to-day life in Honduras, and the increase in impunity following the coup, in a country where impunity already reigned, has meant that everybody is at greater risk. If you have a situation like domestic violence which you might have been able to find shelter from in Honduras, prior to the coup, it’s simply impossible to be protected today because of that generalized violence, and the generalized impunity.
It’s a really complicated thing to be doing asylums cases because part of what asylum functions to do is to tell ourselves and the United States a narrative that we are a country that respects human rights, whereas this country Honduras or other offending countries are countries that don’t respect human rights. And, therefore we are protecting these people from the human rights violation, and the sort of cultural flaws of these other countries.
When in reality, what I’ve seen over the past 17 years that I’ve been working in Honduras is that if it weren’t for the massive militarization, the military occupation of Honduras by the United States, where there is by the count of my colleague, David Vine, whose writing a book on military bases, there is over 14 bases and installations in Honduras, U.S. bases and installations. And if it weren’t for our support for a murderous, military and police services in Honduras most of these human rights abuses, that are causing people to flee from the country, would not be happening. And people would not be having to flee from Honduras.
So asylum is an important tool, but it is also a really complicated one because these people aren’t fleeing to the United States because the United States is a protector of human rights. The United States is the cause of the violence that so many of these people are suffering, or one of the primary actors.
DB: What are the chances of an average Honduran, ten year old, say, to sort of make it through, and graduate and go study with you at the university?
AP: I saw a graffiti about this the other day. It’s less than 20 percent of students ever make it to the university. Far less than that, I think it’s around 13, but I don’t have the exact percentage there. But in Honduras, the national public university, which has historically been autonomous, that’s in its name, The National Autonomous University of Honduras, which has been the most important and most prestigious university, is rapidly being privatized in various ways.
And also, there’s a growth of private universities that goes along with a sort of neoliberalization of the whole educational sector, which was one of the major impulses of the coup in 2010, a year after coup, one of the most important achievements of the then President Lobo administration, who won in fraudulent elections in 2009, that were funded and supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, and the [U.S.] State Department.
One of his major achievements was destroying the teachers union, which was the most important defender of public education in Honduras. And, in doing that, they’ve managed to help destroy public education, and increase the possibility for profits for the owners of private schools, many of whom were strong supporters and central actors within the coup.
So it has become more and more difficult for Hondurans to get an education. Honduras is an extremely poor country. And it’s also an extremely divided, between rich and poor, so that over 70 percent live under the poverty level in Honduras. And the majority of Hondurans don’t get through high school. And I don’t remember exactly what it is that most Hondurans get to. I think it’s something like third or fourth grade.
DB: Third or fourth grade.
AP: And there’s almost no point in getting educated because there are no jobs. That’s really the crux of the matter. Even if kids want to better themselves by getting an education. And they fight, and struggle and they work full-time and sacrifice and their parents sacrifice and they get that university degree, there are just no jobs available. And their only chance is to flee, for so many of them. And that’s what is behind this.
DB: One final grand political question, it takes us back to the coup, but it also takes us forward to the next election. The leading candidate as far as I understand at this point is Hillary Clinton, the former Secretary of State. Did she play a role in terms of Honduras, in terms of supporting the coup that has apparently led to so much suffering in Honduras? How would you talk about her role in the U.S?
AP: Hillary Clinton was probably the most important actor in supporting the coup in Honduras. In part, perhaps, one would assume because one of her best friends from law school, Lanny Davis, who had actually run her campaign for a while, her presidential campaign against Obama, was hired immediately following the coup by the most powerful business group in the country, that supported the coup, as the representative for the Micheletti coup government in Washington.
In that capacity he was able to organize hearings in Congress through his friend, Eliot Engel, who at the time was the head of the congressional committee for Western Hemisphere Affairs, and he was able to directly have Hillary Clinton’s ear. And, what that meant was that whereas the initial signals from the White House, from Obama were that yes indeed this was a coup and that this was illegal, and that the coup administration wouldn’t be recognized.
Hillary Clinton was able to veto that position, in effect, and alongside her friend, Lanny Davis, and the State Department took a couple of months to even admit that a coup had happened. But they made this, theretofore unknown differentiation saying that this had not been a military coup, it had just been a regular coup. It’s a difference that didn’t make much sense. The military, in effect, had carried out the coup.
DB: Well, if there ever was a distinction without a difference, it was that.
AP: Hillary Clinton played a huge role in propping up the coup administration. And it was the State Department that went against the Organization of American States, which actually has had a positive impact hemisphere-wide in that it provoked the creation of CELAC [Community of Latin American and Caribbean States] which is the new, sort of parallel organization of OAS that excludes the U.S. and Canada because they have had such a negative impact within the OAS, of really pushing back against the progressive governments in the region, that want to have a different kind of relationship with the north, and not just be in the sort of ongoing imperialism.
But the State Department ensured that the coup administration would remain in place through negotiations that they imposed, against the OAS’ wish, and through continuing to provide aid and continuing to recognize the coup administration. And so if it weren’t for Hillary Clinton, basically, there wouldn’t be this refugee crisis from Honduras at the level that it is today. And Hondurans would be living a very different reality, from the tragic one they are living right now.
DB: I guess you don’t see any end in the near future. It’s not going to work, I guess, you wouldn’t believe for Obama and the administration to lecture the parents of Central America that they shouldn’t let their kids go, right? More to come.
AP: It’s incredibly offensive that that’s the analysis they’re taking, it’s a culture of poverty, discourse that is meant to take all the blame away from the people who really deserve it, which are the governments who are carrying out this violence against families who are trying their best to stay together, and stay alive.
DB: You mentioned that the drug trade is integrated with the economy. And that also there are lots of U.S. military bases there. Does not the U.S. and the military know about the trafficking operations that are being interwoven with the financial community?
AP: Oh sure, the U.S. knows about them. And from time to time the U.S. Treasury Department will sanction one of the drug kingpins, as they call them. Like they did with the Los Cachiros organization and another group last year. And it tends to be the kingpins who have fallen out of their favor, for some reason or another. But I think the U.S. has a good sense of who are the real players in drug trafficking in Honduras as everybody does. Historically, the United States’ military and the CIA have been directly involved in drug trafficking in the region. And there’s plenty of evidence for that. Peter Dale Scott has written about that, for example, in the early 90’s and 80’s. And, of course, with the Iran-Contra affair, that was a big part of that. And the Honduran military is deeply involved in the drug trade, as well.
So, the drug war has never seemed to many to be an honest excuse for the massive military presence in Honduras. Many people consider what’s going on with the militarization of the regions like the Mosquitia as well as the north coast, is that those are incredibly resource rich regions that are being opened up for oil exploration, and they are being used for hydro-electric projects. This is all being carried out by international companies, British companies, Chinese companies, U.S. companies.
And, so, in effect, what many people have theorized, and there’s a recent article by Kendra McSweeney about this, is that really the military is terrorizing the population, and clearing these lands, helping with land grabs to remove the indigenous, and other people who live on these lands in order to pave the way for a complete exploitation of the water, land and sub-soil resources of those regions. And, I would have to agree with that analysis.
Dennis J Bernstein is a host of “Flashpoints” on the Pacifica radio network and the author of Special Ed: Voices from a Hidden Classroom.