Flor Del Campo (“Flower of the Field”) is one of the most dangerous areas in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa. Many taxi drivers refuse to go there. The murder rate is high, with gangs, military and the police all operating with impunity. I drove past a pool hall where my guide said that young men were routinely murdered. Few cars were on the roads.
We pulled up to a house with a colourful green fence. I was taken there by local activists who wanted me to understand the level of crisis in the country. Some children and a young woman were sitting opposite selling food. I entered the small property with green and white splotchy wallpaper, tin roof, red and white floor, electrical cables hanging across the ceiling, and young and old locals sitting and talking. Juan Hirnandez, a 64-year-old community leader wearing blue jeans and a red polo shirt, spoke the most.
“Life is always on the edge”, he said. “Last Saturday there was a massacre nearby at a local school. Five people were shot, three were people just walking past, and two died. The same day a taxi driver was kidnapped and his dead body dumped nearby.”
“No one in Honduras hasn’t thought about migrating.”
“The country is in economic crisis and many people live on US$1 a day,” he continued. “People need to feed their children and many want to work in construction but there are no jobs so they sell products on the street.”
Hirnandez explained that a so-called “war tax,” an obligatory charge pushed by gangs on local businesses to avoid being attacked or killed, was ubiquitous and made daily life close to impossible. “No one in Honduras hasn’t thought about migrating,” he told me. “People run away from here for two reasons: unemployment and violence.”
The problems experienced by Flor Del Campo are widespread in Honduras. In the last decade—ever since a Washington-backed coup in 2009—the whole country has been consumed by apocalyptic violence. The government claims that the murder rate has declined in the last years, to 42.8 per 100,000 people in 2017, though I was constantly told there that officials lie about these figures and ignore growing violence against women.
Due to insecurity, lack of jobs, and violence fueled by gangs, the drug trade and associated crackdowns, large numbers of citizens are fleeing and heading towards a better life in the US. The exact number of Hondurans fleeing the country is difficult to determine but in September 2018, US Border Patrol agents apprehended more than 41,000 unauthorised migrants, many of whom came from Honduras.
US policies in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have generated waves of poor people who can’t safely prosper in their own countries.
President Trump and his administration demonize these refugees—most recently at a February 11 “Make America Great Again” rally in El Paso, Texas—as economic migrants who bring violence to the US. In fact, it is US policies in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras over the last 40 years that have generated waves of poor men, women and children who can’t safely prosper in their own countries.
Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez was re-elected in a fraudulent election in 2017 but receives full backing from the White House. Protestors and critics are routinely harassed and imprisoned. One Honduran artist expressed the feeling of many locals by burning gunpowder-stuffed puppets of Trump and Honduran President Hernandez on New Year’s Day in Tegucigalpa.
Drug trafficking is a major factor behind the crisis. Although Honduras has been one of the main cocaine smuggling routes from South America to the US in recent years, nations in Central America are increasingly producing the drug on home soil. Corruption is rife: The Honduran political establishment is filled with politicians, police and military who sell and traffic drugs on an industrial scale.
I traveled across the entire country and saw many areas where Colombian and Venezuelan traffickers landed planes on isolated airstrips; cocaine was then transported by local gangs on its way towards the US. Cocaine use is rising across the US at a time when Colombia has never been growing more coca crops. This is also true in other parts of the world: Italian police recently seized two tonnes of cocaine at a Genoa port, destined for Barcelona, that had originated in Honduras.
The Honduran President’s brother, Juan Antonio Hernandez, was recently arrested and charged in Miami for trying to smuggle tons of cocaine into the US. Countless other high-level Honduran officials have been found guilty in US courts on drug offenses, though the vast majority of participants in the drug trade are left unmolested to pursue their activities. Washington has been willing to turn a blind eye to this situation for years, happy to maintain close relations with an authoritarian and compliant nation on its doorstep.
“In the major’s office, we give out caskets for the dead but we’ve run out of them.”
Opposition lawmaker and Libre party member Maria Luisa Borjas, the former head of internal affairs of the Honduran national police who was found guilty in early 2019 of defaming a powerful banker, told me in her office in Tegucigalpa that the country was collapsing under the weight of injustice. “Thirty thousand businesses have closed in Tegucigalpa because of the gang-driven ‘war tax,’” she said. “Gang extortion is a huge problem.”
The country was struggling to cope with the dead bodies, Borjas said. “In the major’s office, we give out caskets for the dead but we’ve run out of them [due to so many murders]. A woman recently came for a casket for her granddaughter who had been killed and soon enough her grandson was murdered. There were no more caskets to give her.”
The humanitarian issues engulfing Honduras are largely ignored in the US media. Although the so-called “migrant caravans,” often numbering in the many thousands, do receive extensive coverage, too few journalists travel to Honduras to report on what people are fleeing. People who consume cocaine in the US rarely consider the source of the substance and the suffering of Colombians, Hondurans and others in the region who work for little pay to produce the white powder.
Thankfully, there’s a growing movement to acknowledge these problems and advocate for fair trade and ethically sourced cocaine (the 2019 Global Drug Survey asked whether consumers would be willing to pay more for an ethical product).
The only reason the Honduran government continues to operate with impunity is because of the vast sums of money given to them by Washington. According to WOLA, the US-based NGO Washington Office on Latin America, the US gave $181,758,000 to Honduras in 2017 for borders and drug control, good governance programs and security.
It’s money that’s entrenching dictatorship in Honduras. Adam Isacson, director for Defense Oversight at WOLA, told me that the Trump administration should not be backing the Honduran government (though he favored civil society support). He would consider endorsing US funding for “small, hyper-vetted units doing drug interdiction or citizen security in the most dangerous neighborhoods and economic projects with some local governments are also OK.”
The existence of an illegal drug market is a key factor in keeping Honduras at the mercy of criminal cartels.
“Honduras is an important cocaine smuggling hub,” Isacson confirmed, “but its importance is about equal to Guatemala. Officials have told me, though I haven’t seen maps or data, that Costa Rica may have seen more maritime [drug] traffic in 2018 than Honduras.”
Map of Honduras via Wikimedia Commons
It’s wrong to blame US drug consumers for the chaos destroying Honduras. Yet the existence of an illegal drug market is a key factor in keeping Honduras at the mercy of criminal cartels.
Nonetheless, it was hard to find anybody in Honduras who supported the regulation and legalization of all drugs; many people I spoke with feared that more locals would consume marijuana, cocaine and other substances. But it’s a policy whose time has surely come.
Aside from the devastating effect of prohibition in Western nations—in terms of bloated and racially determined incarceration rates, and heightened risks to people who use drugs—the deaths and harm experienced by civilians in nations like Honduras and Colombia are proportionately far greater.
I’ve spent the last four years investigating the “war on drugs” in some of the most challenging places on the planet, from the Philippines to Guinea-Bissau in West Africa. What unifies all locations is the misguided and dangerous belief, held by supporters of prohibition, that illicit substances can be stopped or hugely curtailed. The last 45 years of Washington’s drug war have shown the fallacy of this belief.
Washington’s militarization of the drug war has involved Honduras and its neighbors since the 1980s. What the “war on drugs” is really about, too rarely acknowledged in the West, is exploiting land and people in poor nations for the production of crops and goods for Western capital. Honduras has been caught in the middle of this nightmare for too many years.