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Can U.S. Aid Help Address the Perfect Storm in Honduras?

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Authors: Lisa Haugaard, Sarah Kinosian

In December 2014 the Latin America Working Group Education Fund (LAWGEF) and Center for International Policy (CIP) traveled to Honduras to investigate how the country is responding to the needs of its citizens. This is the seventh post in a series of seven detailing what we found. Read the entire report here.

The Obama Administration announced in January 2015 a $1 billion package of assistance to Central America. Will this assistance help address the “perfect storm” of violence, impunity, corruption, drug violence, and militarization that we saw in Honduras?

It will not solve these problems without a real commitment by the Honduran government to protect its citizens by strengthening the rule of law, ending impunity for human rights abuses, and purging, investigating and prosecuting corrupt and abusive members of the police, army and government. It will not go far without a serious commitment by the government to invest in economic development that is broadly shared, that respects labor rights and communities’ priorities and that helps the most vulnerable.

It is that kind of commitment, rather than putting soldiers on the streets and pursuing economic projects that benefit a narrow sector of society, which will protect Honduran citizens. And it is that kind of commitment that could gradually make it possible for Hondurans not to be forced to brave tremendous dangers to find a better life outside their country.

Following “the surge” in unaccompanied minors from Central America, the Obama Administration was advised by humanitarian and immigration groups to focus on immigration reform and humanitarian aid and development assistance that addresses the root causes of migration—rather than more security assistance and deportations. 

Source: Adam IsacsonTo some extent, the administration really listened. The executive actions on immigration, if fully implemented, can protect and unify millions of immigrant families. This will certainly help Hondurans.

And the makeup of Obama’s proposed $1 billion package for Central America tilts towards development and humanitarian aid. Over half a billion dollars is development assistance, while the rest is a variety of judicial programs, public health, and police assistance.  Strictly military assistance via the State Department budget was not increased for Central America. For the first time, as analyst James Bosworth rightly noted, the White House proposal “doesn’t use the word ‘drug’ once.” That is a step in the right direction.

Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America has an excellent walk through with visuals (see right) of what we do know about the aid. However, details of the package are scarce, leaving more questions than answers. Some of the big questions we have are:

  • Will any of the security assistance promote, directly or indirectly, militarized approaches to policing? How can this be avoided if the Honduran or Guatemalan government’s overall strategy involves militarized policing?
  • Will the U.S. government be willing to insist on real plans for and commitment to police reform, including purging and prosecuting corrupt and abusive elements and ensuring strong external oversight and internal affairs mechanisms, prior to moving forward? Will security assistance continue to be conditioned on human rights improvements?
  • How will the U.S. ensure that security and counternarcotics assistance does not lead to human rights abuses, as happened in the Ahuas and other cases?
  • What kinds of economic development will this aid promote?  Will any of the assistance promote the large-scale extractive, dam or agroindustry projects that have been damaging to communities?
  • How will aid help migrant-sending communities in sustainable ways?
  • How will aid support community-based violence prevention programs?
  • What kind of civil society involvement and consultation is being contemplated?

For U.S. assistance to do more help than harm, it must: be fully consulted with a broad range of civil society; and be conditioned on and accompanied by diplomatic pressure on governments to respect human and labor rights, purge security forces, pursue only community-based, civilian policing, improve justice systems, and protect and respect human rights defenders.

And aid should be more transparent, and evaluated with input from civil society. Lack of transparency and evaluation has been one of the shortcomings of the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI).

Part of this transparency should include public documentation of U.S. funding for Colombian military and police to train Central American security forces. With 1,737 military and police trained in 2013, Honduras is the most eager participant in the program after Mexico. And trainings for both the military and police are increasing each year. However the dollar costs, the programs supporting the training, and documentation are to date unavailable. There is also no apparent monitoring and evaluation system in place to determine the quality, effectiveness, or potential negative consequences of these programs.

Given that members of the Colombian army and police and their Honduran counterparts have been implicated in murder, torture, disappearances and corruption, this lack of oversight is deeply concerning. Also alarming is that Honduras’ police attaché in Bogotá, General Juan Carlos “El Tigre” Bonilla, is facilitating U.S.-funded Colombian trainings of his country’s police forces. This is highly problematic given allegations of Bonilla’s involvement in several murders as a police commander and that he oversaw the Honduran national police when there were multiple claims of police death squad activity.U.S. Bilateral Security Aid to Honduras 08-15

Another concern is Defense Department funding, not part of the $1 billion package. Defense Department funding, which largely funds border security and maritime narcotics interdiction efforts, also seems to be slightly increasing. In FY2013 the countryreceived$3.5 million for counternarcotics programs. In FY 2014, this number rose to $4.6 million. However, it is noticeably down from the $11.2 million allocated to the country for antidrug operations in FY 2012. The Defense Department budget in Honduras includes funding for initiatives like Army South training Honduran units for security on the Guatemalan border, which will expand to the Nicaraguan border next year. However, this year’s increase is nothing compared to the uptick in Development Assistance for Honduras, which would grow from $36.7 million to $157.7 million should Obama’s request be granted. (Above right is a chart of bilateral U.S. security assistance to Honduras 2008-2015. This does not include CARSI assistance, but does include Defense Department assistance. Click to see data of U.S. assistance to Honduras.)

Also included in the Obama Administration’s annual budget request is $120 million for Mexico to beef up security along its southern border. This fits into the larger U.S. strategy of encouraging Mexico to deport migrants before they get to the U.S. border, meaning thousands have been sent home at all hours of the night in terrible conditions. As has happened at the U.S.-Mexico border, tightened security could (and has) just led migrants to cross in more dangerous areas or be subject to greater abuses by corrupt border agents. Despite the welcome executive actions staying deportations for many, deportations continue for those who arrived since January 2010, with planeloads of people being sent back weekly to Honduras, only to face the same situation that pushed them to leave in the first place.   

Ninety percent of Hondurans survive on an average income of under $7 a day. Murders of children aged 17 and under grew more than 77 percent during 2014. Only 25 percent of children finish high school. Ninety-seven percent of all murders go unsolved. This is what has to change. 

Very carefully designed and consulted international aid programs can help. But political will from the Honduran government to protect and respect its citizenry must come first.