In Honduras, “We’re Supporting the Axe Murderers”

The United States has long danced with dictators in Central America. US support for Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández is no different.

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez signs US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's guestbook before a meeting in Washington, D.C., on June 18, 2018. State Department / Wikimedia Commons

When, exactly, did I start using the term “axe murderer” all the time? As in, “The President of Honduras is an Axe Murderer.” At first, I was just being flip and only threw it out there every once in a while, in private, to refer in a general sense to the successive governments that took power in Honduras after the coup. “The Honduran government is run by axe murderers,” I’d drop, but only with people who already understood what I meant.

But as Juan Orlando Hernández’s presidential campaign advanced over the course of 2012 and ‘13, I got more specific. I needed some kind of shorthand to try to capture his criminal bulldozing of the rule of law and to convey quite how villainous he was.

In public, I still held back my epithets, instead building my case slowly but clearly from documented evidence — although when he was inaugurated I did call him a “dangerous thug” in the Houston Chronicle. But during meetings in Congress, I was increasingly blindsided by the turnover among aides: every six months I’d meet with a new sea of twenty-six-year-olds who knew nothing about Honduras at all.

Over and over, I’d try to explain in a half-hour meeting quite how bad it was down there and who the US was supporting. Afterwards, describing those meetings, I’d groan to friends, “It’s zero to axe murderers in thirteen minutes.” Casting “axe murderer” out there, I flailed in the gap between the horrors I was tracking in Honduras, on the one hand, and my inability to get other people to understand what I wanted to communicate, on the other.

Despite all the atrocities, though, I never deployed the phrase in print. I’d already gotten letters threatening to sue me for character defamation from Miguel Facussé, whose Dinant Corporation was widely alleged to have murdered campesinos struggling for land rights in the Bajo Aguán Valley. Widely alleged, I am now careful to insert. So, let me clarify: The president of Honduras is an alleged dangerous thug. The president of Honduras is an alleged axe murderer.

Actual axe murderers in Honduras, however, don’t, as rule, use axes. When it comes to that, they are more likely to use machetes.

On March 13, 2012, Fausto Flores Valle, a radio host in the Aguán Valley, was riding along on his bicycle when assassins suddenly killed him with 18 machete blows. On March 5, 2014, a group of people ambushed María Santos Dominguez, an Indigenous activist with COPINH who had been vocally opposing a dam development, and attacked her with machetes, rocks, and sticks. When her son ran up to help, they cut off his right ear and part of his face. On May 4, 2014, Cándido Rodríguez Castillo allegedly raped a thirteen-year-old girl, then killed her, her ten-year-old sister, her seven-year-old brother, and their eighteenth-month-old baby brother, using a machete.

But those stories are about individual acts, in which you can see the axe/machete-wielder. They don’t capture the systemic way in which raw violence is countenanced, encouraged, and committed by the post-coup Honduran government as an institution, and directed especially at social justice activists, land rights defenders, the opposition, and journalists. They don’t capture the judges who let off their vicious drug trafficker allies; they don’t capture the illegally-appointed attorney general transferring out twenty-one prosecutors who had been pursuing high-level cases of organized crime. They don’t capture Hernández and his allies in the Honduran Congress abolishing the Commission for the Review of Public Security in 2013, with a green light from the US Embassy, as the president swept into office.

What’s going on in Honduras — the axe murdering — is collective, then. Yet at the top of that government sits a single individual who, to the best of my knowledge, has never physically killed anyone with an axe or a machete, but who bears enormous responsibility for what’s going on.

When the supposed “crisis” of children at the border hit the media in June 2014, Juan Orlando Hernández’s track record was suddenly a hundred percent latent; he was just Mr. Charm, with his glowing interviews. US senators and members of Congress quoted him like he was a heroic figure fighting the good fight against the drug traffickers, protecting his borders against human smugglers, and caring for the little children with nationalistic love.

I went nuts. “You’d never know the President of Honduras is an [alleged] axe murderer,” I sobbed.

On July 25, 2014, when Barack Obama rewarded Juan Orlando with a meeting at the White House, the two were joined by then-President Otto Pérez Molina of Guatemala, who has been widely implicated in torture and the “scorched earth” mass razing of entire Mayan villages during the 1980s, and Salvador Sánchez Cerén, the new President of El Salvador, a leader of the guerrilla war against the US-supported regime during the 1980s. It read like a joke: “A genocidal torturer, an axe murderer, a former guerrilla comandante, and the leader of the free world walk into a bar….” (Correction: “An alleged genocidal torturer, an alleged axe murderer…”)

Those unaccompanied minors who fled Honduras in the first six months of 2014, like thousands since, were running away from the axe murderers in their woods. What did they find in the northern woods, when they reached the US border? When US government planes, driven by rabid packs of immigrant-haters, deported them back south, into whose arms have they been delivered?

In September 2016, I was finishing dinner with a colleague in a small Italian restaurant in Washington, D.C., when suddenly Secretary of State John Kerry came in and sat down at the table next to us, two feet away. My dinner-mate and I exchanged astonished looks for the next hour, prolonging our meal with a second glass of wine and then dessert. When we got up to leave, she introduced herself to Secretary Kerry and chatted a bit. So I decided I would, too. I said my name, then told Kerry that I worked on Honduras policy. “How are we doing down there?” he queried, amiably. I blurted back matter-of-factly: “We’re supporting the axe murderers.”

I didn’t need thirteen minutes, only four seconds and five words. Then the maitre’d and secret service officers swooped in and whisked us away.

By the time of the 2009 military coup, the days of United Fruit — known popularly as “El Pulpo” (the Octopus) — and its blatant control of Honduran politics and economic affairs were long past (and Hondurans remain offended at the use of “banana republic” to describe their country). But in the long arc of its post-coup policy in Honduras, the United States was more ominously tentacular than ever.

From the immediate legitimation of de facto president Roberto Micheletti within days of the coup, through the invention of Porfirio Lobo’s illegitimate regime as a “government of national reconciliation,” to the perpetual reign of Juan Orlando Hernández, the United States continued to dance with dictators, just as it had for decades in Central America and throughout the hemisphere, twisting, sidestepping, even tripping up its partner deliberately at times, but always locked in a loving embrace, eyes wide open, leading.

Why has the United States so shamefully and shamelessly backed the post-coup Honduran regime? First, for geopolitical reasons: to re-establish and expand US political power in Latin America and push back against the left and center-left governments that were elected beginning in the 1990s, especially in Venezuela. The United States also had its eye on China, Russia, even Iran, and any power that might conceivably assert itself in the region. It still adhered to the Monroe Doctrine, and still considered Latin America its “backyard,” as Secretary Kerry put in 2013, infuriating the region by repeating the long-offensive phrase. Second, the United States’ long-term geopolitical agenda served an underlying commitment to the brutal economic project of transnational corporate capitalism. Finally, the United States Southern Command, enforcing that project at the point of gun, was also an engine that ran of itself, with its own lust for ever-increasing funding and political power, as [John] Kelly’s cynical use of the imaginary Ebola threat from Central America made clear. Drugs, “terrorists” of any sort, however fictitious, poor migrating women and children — all were useful in identifying a “threat” in the region that had to be addressed with military power, in turn deployed against the Honduran opposition and its defenders.

We have no clearly documented smoking gun showing that the United States green-lighted the coup in advance. We do know the Obama Administration did everything in its power to enable to the coup to stabilize. But it’s not just a question of what happened in 2009. The United States had multiple moments when it could have changed course, separated itself from the ongoing coup regime, and allowed other actors to lead Honduras. It could have declared that the 2009 elections were utterly illegitimate and called for Zelaya’s return and new, free, and fair elections under international observation, with civil liberties restored. During the 2013 election season, as it became clear that opposition activists and candidates were being mowed down, and that the National Party would steal the election by every means necessary, it could have intervened on multiple fronts; it didn’t have to declare the elections clean. It could even have chosen to swing its weight behind Xiomara Castro for president. She would have been no great friend of the United States; but neither, presumably, would she have overseen the military takeover of Honduran society or the further decimation of the economy and the Honduran state and of civil liberties. Again, in the 2013-14 election season, the United States could have adhered to its much-vaunted promotion of the rule of law and “good governance” and publicly condemned Juan Orlando Hernández for the criminal act of running for reelection. The United States could have taken a different course at so many points, not just after the coup. Instead, the Obama and then Trump administrations flashed green light after green light after green light.

But there were always powerful constraints against US power and the greed of the Honduran elites and their transnational corporate friends. Journalists throughout the world did heroic work, shedding the light of day on what was happening inside Honduras. The solidarity movement in the United States put formidable pressure on Congress, producing real constraints on the administration’s behavior, if with limited effectiveness. Congressional demands to enforce the Leahy Law did mean that US funding was withheld from multiple units and individuals who had committed human rights abuses—although the money could still flow in from other sources to compensate, and the embassy refused to publicly disclose the cases in which it was, in fact, enforcing the law. Beginning in 2012, conditions placed on funding for Honduras in the State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Acts did mean that certain senators and members in the congressional leadership had new powers to withhold funds — albeit not indefinitely — until certain requirements were met, empowering them to try to influence the Honduran government around specific issues such as the Aguán, attacks against journalists, and Berta Cáceres’ case. Public letters from members and senators continuously objected to broader US policy in Hon-
duras, placing the administration on the defensive and helping keep Honduran human rights activists and journalists alive. Finally, as the list of its co-sponsors continued to grow, the Berta Cáceres Act held out the possibility of a day in the future when Congress might, indeed, suspend the aid by law.

But in the long Honduran night, the ultimate constraint on US imperial power was the Honduran people, who rose up again and again to protest the criminals who ran their government with a US blessing and pocketbook. The National Front of Popular Resistance; campesinos who launched land recuperations; LIBRE and the PAC; the Indignados; years and years of grassoots activism by the women’s, labor, LGBTI movements; Indigenous and Afro-Indigenous people struggling for land and legal rights; journalists who reported on all this and died for it; lawyers who defended them and died for it; prosecutors and judges who went after the criminals and died for it — all continued in the face of pervasive terror to hope for a new Honduran future, and worked to build it from below. They kept dancing, too.

We Hondurans have a choice, wrote the Honduran Jesuit Padre Melo (Ismael Moreno, SJ) in July 2017. Washington “treats Honduras and its people based on its own interests and sees us eternally as its backyard…. Honduras for the Americans and never Honduras for the Hondurans.” There are “only two paths,” he wrote, “either we continue as we have up until now, resigned to being a backyard, or we gamble on the construction of a country with sovereignty and identity, and from within that house build fair and complementary relationships with the United States or any other nation. One can’t travel both paths. One can’t please both God and the devil. We have to choose between God and money.”