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world wide wednesdays :: what the hell is wrong in honduras?

it's an honour that nobody wants: being home to the most dangerous city on earth. in fact, honduras is home to two of the top five most violent cities in the world, according to a 2013 survey. this is actually their second consecutive year topping the charts and the incredible violence shows no sign of abating. [the figures for this particular survey did not take into account cities in the middle east.]

the modern history of central america has been bloody, to be sure, but the question remains: what specific factors in honduras have made it so incredibly violent? well, it's a combination of long-standing and newer issues.

honduras has the dubious distinction of being the original "banana republic". writer o. henry [william sydney porter] coined the term while he was holed up in the country trying to avoid charges of embezzlement in the 1890s. sadly, the term was apt, because honduras, only a few decades after gaining their official independence from spain, was independent in name only. in fact, they had new colonial overlords in the form of large fruit companies. three major corporations carved out their own state within a state in the north. they took advantage of the natural resources [particularly bananas], but paid no taxes and controlled their own infrastructure. this often boded well for the areas that they controlled- travel would be easier because of the railroads and highways, education was more accessible because schools were built to serve the fruit company workers in the areas controlled by those companies. however, there was no altruism to their motives. for instance, united fruit [employer of chiquita banana] aggressively opposed government efforts to improve national infrastructure throughout latin america, because improvements would compete with their own highly profitable transit structure. the fruit barons also bought up far more land than they actually needed, in order to prevent hondurans from cultivating it themselves. in order to get their way, the fruit companies exerted massive influence over governments throughout latin america, basically making sure that nothing was done to endanger their interests.

of course, if the government was hesitant about helping out, the fruit companies were backed up by the military power of the united states. american troops were sent to honduras seven times between 1903 and 1925, before covert operations became more commonplace. throughout the twentieth century, honduras was politically unstable, controlled most of the time by a string of military dictators who retarded the expansion of human rights and allowed wealth in the country to be concentrated in the hands of a relatively small group, many of whom were foreigners. that disparity in wealth has never been rectified, and today fifty percent of hondurans continue to live below the poverty line.

in 1954, honduras experienced a liberation of sorts when an president juan manuel galvez introduced reforms to the employment act, limiting hours of work, increasing pay and granting workers the right to unionize for the first time. since galvez had been a lawyer for united fruit before his election, this came as a surprise to the fruit barons. even more surprising was that, when improvements were not implemented, workers from united fruit and standard fruit went on strike, bringing business to a grinding halt for over two months. for the first time, the fruit companies were forced to capitulate and agree to the workers' [and the law's] demands. however, labour's triumph was not a lasting one. by the end of the year, galvez had been deposed by his vice president [who had also been employed by one of the large fruit companies prior to entering politics], julio loza diaz. diaz won the next general election, however the win was deemed "illegitimate" and the military ousted him from office in 1956. and he never overthrew a government again.

[side note :: the general strike of 1954 might never have happened, but for american paranoia about government reform in guatemala, another of the fruit barons' holdings. rabid anti-communist john foster dulles, who was president eisenhower's secretary of state and whose brother allen founded the central intelligence agency [both of whom were very bad men], was convinced that the honduran workers were being used by communists in guatemala, where reformist president jacopo arbenz had been expropriating uncultivated lands from united fruit [with whom both dulles brothers had extensive business connections] and engaging in public works projects [like the building of a national highway] to reduce their dependence on america. during the summer of 1954, the united states engineered a coup that forced arbenz from office, using honduras as a staging ground for the invasion. their focus on arbenz, who was popular and determined, meant that events in honduras unfolded without getting as much attention as they would have otherwise.]

it wasn't until 1979 that the country moved permanently to civilian rule. sort of. between 1978 and the swearing in of democratically elected president roberto suazo in 1982, the country was ruled by a military man named policarpo paz garcia. although he was more of a caretaker, paz served a very important role in shaping his country. he seized power in what has come to be known as the "cocaine coup". it received that notable moniker because paz's sugar daddy was a colombian drug lord by the name of juan matta-ballasteros. juan gave paz all the money and arms he needed to take over the countryand in return, the colombians got to use honduras as a mid-point to move drugs from colombia to the united states. paz took a cut of the colombians' drug business in return for handing over his country as a pied à terre for drug trafficking and the colombians backed him up with protection. when the drug enforcement administration opened up shop in the country in 1981, they were a bit surprised to find that the government was essentially a drug cartel and that everyone was involved.

normally, the americans would have taken issue with that, but they were caught at a particularly delicate moment. they knew paz had supported the murderous somoza regime in nicaragua and that made him a good guy in their books. desperate to keep nicaragua out of the hands of the populist sandinistas, the americans prevailed on paz and his ministers to set them up on a date with ballasteros, who clearly knew a thing or two about mounting a military coup in central america. they made a deal whereby ballasteros could use his airline to fly cocaine into the united states, as long as he agreed to drop off shipments of arms to the nicaraguan contras on the way. this eventually bloomed into the iran-contra affair, a heinous abuse of power that saw the toppling of the american government when it came to light in the late eighties. oh, wait, no it didn't. those guys got re-elected in 1988. because communists have always been coming to eat your children.

[side note :: paz also kick-started a cia-trained force known as "battalion 3-16" which engaged in campaigns of terror, including murder, torture and kidnapping against political dissidents within the country. while honduras may have experienced less upheaval than some of its neighbours, they did not experience any greater freedom. the members of the battalion have never been brought to justice. far from it. many were retained as intelligence advisers in the 1990s and seven of them held important positions in the administration of president manuel zelaya in the early 2000s. when zelaya was ousted by a coup in 2009 [in case you missed the eight nanoseconds of coverage the story received in north america], he claimed that one of those seven had "gotten the band back together" and was operating battalion 3-16 under a new name.]

hidden in among the threads of that story are the roots of modern-day honduran misery:
  • a country with an extensive history of government corruption
  • massive manipulation from outside interests, both governments and corporations
  • a highly inequitable distribution of wealth and resources and a massive part of the population living in extreme poverty
  • governments deeply involved in the drug trade
however, in the last few years, two factors have combined to make the situation acute. first of all, as mentioned above, president manuel zelaya was forced to leave office in a coup d'état. in an attempt to increase participation in the political process by the country's poor, he attempted to stage a referendum that would have allowed his government to amend the constitution. this did not go over well with upper class hondurans or with businesses and... well, coup d'état kind of sums up what happened. the coup was broadly condemned and the united states suspended payments they had been making to honduras to help fight drug trafficking. when that money stopped coming, much of the anti-drug effort stopped as well. [side note :: while the united states joined the chorus of those calling the coup illegal and they did suspend payments, things may not have been quite so cut and dry. a cable to the state department from the american embassy in honduras that was eventually made public by wikileaks was much more equivocal about the situation, basically shrugging off the deposition of an elected leader as a political squabble.]

the second factor is also drug-related. under considerable pressure from their self-created war on drugs, the united states has put significant pressure on the most obvious sources of drug exports to the united states. at first, that meant targeting colombia. more recently, it's meant mexico. those places are still incredibly violent, but as governments have won some minor victories, drug cartels have been pushed north from colombia and south from mexico and many of them are now using honduras as a base of operations.

the net result of these more recent developments, piled onto the mountain of honduran history, is that the tiny country is now more violent than anywhere else in the world outside a war zone. street crime is rampant because of the widespread poverty and general sense of hopelessness. street gangs exact protection money from local businesses and even schools. tourists are a particular target for robberies and assaults. drug violence is frequent between rival gangs and against those who try to stand up to them. journalists who report on the drug trade have been murdered. as a lucrative side business, the drug cartels have started to engage in human trafficking, kidnapping young women and selling them into sexual slavery. supporters of former president zelaya have been killed. farmers have been killed for trying to advocate for more equitable distribution of land [and members of the country's wealthy elite have been implicated in these killings]. it is an ugly, ugly situation.

and it gets worse. in an attempt to stimulate foreign investment, post-zelaya president porfirio lobo and his successor juan hernandez have gone back to the tradition of offering sweet tax deals, protection from land expropriation and freedom to easily move capital in and out of the country to foreign-owned companies. this leaves the tax burden squarely on the shoulders of honduran citizens and small-to-medium sized businesses. frighteningly, honduras seems to be turning backwards, once again allowing a foreign power to operate with impunity within their national borders.

in an interesting post-script, it seems like honduras may be the cassandra of the latin american world. back in the nineteenth century, as former colonies started to declare their independence, honduras was the strongest advocate for a federation of central american states. they believed that the comparatively small and weak countries could only benefit from banding together and it was only after several unsuccessful attempts at establishing a union that honduras became its own republic. with everything that has befallen the country and the region in the intervening decades, one is forced to wonder whether everyone might have been better off listening to honduras to begin with.

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