Life and Death Squads in the World’s Homicide Capital

In a society ravaged by crime, radical "law-and-order" forces end up being at the root of the problem.

Illustration by Erin Schell

My friend Mariano runs a fruit and vegetable stand on a busy street in Tegucigalpa, not far from the United States embassy. One after­noon in 2011, I stopped by to find that Mariano’s watermelon knife had been stolen by an unkempt pedestrian, who was standing in the middle of a traffic jam threatening motorists with it.

Eventually, all was resolved with the help of a metal baton hidden in a pile of papayas. Assessing the situation afterward, Mariano reasoned that the man was simply under the influence of paint thinner and that there had been no real danger. This was the very same reaction he had had to a recent incident when, sleeping under his stand to deter potential nighttime thefts, he was shot at multiple times by a passerby with mercifully poor aim.

I often wondered if Mariano’s “don’t worry, it’s only paint thinner” attitude was just a defense mechanism for living in the homicide capital of the world, or if specific instances of violence really do feel insignificant in the context of mass disorder.

The June 2009 coup against Manuel Zelaya marked the beginning of the current era of enhanced impunity in Honduras. Shortly afterwards, I traveled to Tegucigalpa for a four-month stay that was also a psychological experiment in coping with a personal-security-free environment. Despite never going outside with anything more than an inconspicuous black plastic bag containing a cheap cell phone and some small change, I was apprehended on multiple occasions and threatened with death unless I produced something of value.

The first encounter ended auspiciously after I suggested to my would-be assailant that we walk to an ATM. Our conversation en route saved me from having to figure out what to do about not having a bank card, although in exchange for not being robbed or killed it was decided that I would adopt the man’s eighteen-month-old son, who was poorly cared for as a result of his mother’s crack habit.

The second mugging ended with my being relieved of five dollars and a decrepit alarm clock, though I was ultimately permitted to keep the clock. This happened down the street from a swarm of soldiers and policemen stationed around the Brazilian embassy, where Zelaya had taken up residence after being smuggled back into the country in September 2009. The duties of state security forces had expanded accordingly and now included not only assaulting citizens opposed to the coup, but also preventing “dual-use items” such as ballpoint pens, toothbrushes, shoelaces, tamales, vitamins, and the Bible from entering the embassy.

The most harrowing event took place one night when I awoke to discover that a man had gotten into my second-story pension room after cutting away the screen and removing the glass window slats. My strategic response was to scream maniacally, run into the hall in my underwear, and abstain from sleep for another two years.

Of course, my privileged ability to extricate myself at will from Honduras meant that I wasn’t forced to permanently adapt to the reality there. The normalization of violence in that society — which became particularly evident when Honduran friends phoned me to report, for example, witnessing groups of schoolchildren step nonchalantly around a fresh cadaver — is aided by media dissemination of gruesome homicide photographs, a practice that also serves the morbid entertainment and fear maintenance industries.

In her book Working Hard, Drinking Hard: On Violence and Survival in Honduras, anthropologist Adrienne Pine recounts an evening in a family home in 2002:

[Ten-year old] Miguelito came in and sat down. “You know that girl who they showed on TV who was killed last night?” he said. His tone would have been no different had he been telling me about the results of a soccer match or the weather. “She was from right down the street. That happened here.” “Right here?” I asked him. “Did you know her?” “Yeah, I knew her. She was ten years old. The other was three. They killed them both.” “Who killed them?” I asked. “Some guys. People are always killing around here. Because of the gangs.” He then saw my camera and, giggling, posed for a picture with our smaller neighbor.

Crucially, the deaths of the two girls in this case are attributed to “el carro asesino”, described by Pine as “a sort of ethnic (read: social class) cleanser” and the heir to public terror techniques cultivated during the 1980s, heyday of the elite right-wing death squad Battalion 3-16 and its benefactor John D. Negroponte, US ambassador to Honduras.

In a 2002 report on Honduras to the fifty-ninth session of the Commission on Human Rights, United Nations Special Rapporteur Asma Jahangir called attention to the strategic mentality of social cleansing as espoused by politicians, business leaders, and journalists “who deliberately incite public sentiment against street children.” Her conclusion: “In the end, every child with a tattoo and street child is stigmatized as a criminal who is creating an unfriendly climate for investment and tourism in the country.”

By pinning the blame for Honduras’ violence on gangs, leaders have obscured the state’s role in creating a climate where extrajudicial police execution of tattooed people and other alleged potential gang members is relatively common. Also obscured is the state’s role in overseeing the socioeconomic deprivation that boosts gang membership.

In a country ruled by a ten-family oligarchy, where a president was recently overthrown for raising the monthly minimum wage to $290 in certain sectors and attempting to hold a referendum to rewrite a constitution that sanctifies elite interests, it’s unsurprising that some citizens turn to alternate support networks.

As is the case globally, an effective way to get people to support government policies that fundamentally endanger them and their families is to trot out a menace in need of vanquishing. In Honduras, the gang menace and now the narco-menace have proved sufficiently reliable, though the military did briefly revive the communist menace to discredit Zelaya.

In the section of her book on former Honduran President Ricardo Maduro’s zero-tolerance policy on crime — inspired by none other than Rudy Giuliani — Pine analyzes government exploitation of violence and fear:

[T]he language of war resonates with many poor people . . . who tend to forget that they themselves will be the victims of a war on crime. . . . Poor people are more afraid of their own neighbors than of the repressive neoliberal state and industry, despite the fact that they are often themselves labeled criminals by virtue of class and geography.

True to form, my friend Mariano the fruit vendor endorsed the initial appointment of Oscar Alvarez, Maduro’s security minister and a proponent of extrajudicial killings, to the same post in Pepe Lobo’s administration. (Lobo was elected in illegitimate elections held under the post-Zelaya coup regime). A symbol of continuity in more ways than one, Alvarez is the nephew of the late General Gustavo Alvarez Martínez, School of the Americas attendee and Battalion 3-16 commander.

According to Mariano, who acknowledged the collateral damage that inevitably attended street-cleaning operations, a no-nonsense approach was nonetheless necessary to combat “delinquents.” But there aren’t any structural constraints in place to protect Mariano — who lives in an impoverished neighborhood whenever he’s not sleeping under his fruit stand — from posthumous conversion into a suspected gang member were he to be a victim of police violence himself.

During my own time in Honduras, I started looking for safety in one of the very causes of my insecurity. In the aftermath of the intruder’s appearance in my room, I would catch myself attempting to coordinate my outdoor movements with those of military and police deployments — except, obviously, when they were firing tear gas, water-cannon-propelled pepper spray, and other items at peaceful anti-coup protesters.

A decade after Jahangir’s report mentioning the allegedly detrimental impact on investment and tourism of the ugly surplus of street children in Honduras, the coup has paved the way for the establishment of aseptic neoliberal enclaves called “special development regions” or charter cities. These city-states will be severed from Honduran territory without the consultation of the nation’s citizens and will be unaccountable to Honduran law, governed instead by foreign corporate interests. Extricated from the violent trauma of Honduras proper and from any pretenses to democracy, capital will thus be free to flourish in fulfillment of Lobo’s pledge: “Honduras is open for business.”

A bit of additional trauma is probably required to get the ball rolling, perhaps involving the forced displacement of Afro-indigenous communities living in supposedly uninhabited zones. The 2012 DEA-assisted murder of four Afro-indigenous civilian canoe passengers — including a pregnant woman and a fourteen-year-old boy — in the Mosquitia region underscores the danger of increased US militarization of the country under the guise of fighting narcotrafficking. A review of past US-Honduran partnerships such as the Contra War–era alliance between the CIA and top Honduran drug lord Juan Ramón Matta Ballesteros further calls into question US qualifications for such projects.

The charter city concept, hailed as a visionary solution to poverty, has meanwhile been greeted with such euphoria — at the New York Times, the Economist, the Wall Street Journal, and Foreign Policy magazine — that one might forget the whole sweatshop phenomenon and the fact that Honduras has already functioned as a free-market oasis for quite some time.

Expanding on the utility of violence to the neoliberal adventure in the country, Pine emphasizes that structural adjustment programs have amounted to an assault on the population’s security, ensuring corporate enrichment at the expense of public education, healthcare, and government oversight. “At the same time,” she argues, “people have been distracted by the extremely high levels of violent crime, often carried out by agents of the state and private industry. Thus, many call for a different kind of security than that offered by education and healthcare.”

Following the 2009 coup, agents of the state and private industry have had their hands full in areas like the Bajo Aguán in northeastern Honduras, where peasant farmers in pursuit of land rights have encroached on the personal lebensraum of the country’s wealthiest man, biofuels magnate Miguel Facussé. The task of countering this assault on prosperity and development has fallen to the armed forces — endowed with various forms of US support — and paramilitary actors, who assassinate and otherwise terrorize farmers and their supporters.

One hundred people have reportedly been eliminated since January 2010. To top it off, an October 2011 dispatch in the Nation by UC Santa Cruz professor Dana Frank raises this red flag:

New Wikileaks cables now reveal that the US embassy in Honduras — and therefore the State Department — has known since 2004 that Miguel Facussé is a cocaine importer. US “drug war” funds and training, in other words, are being used to support a known drug trafficker’s war against campesinos.

What Honduras really needs, of course, is a war on poverty aimed at eliminating rather than criminalizing deprivation. It needs a war on the crimes that are committed in the name of wars on crime. But, in the meantime, paint thinner is a handy palliative.