Honduras: A Safe Third Country — For Corrupt Officials

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Date: Nov 04, 2019

Author: Lisa Haugaard

**This blog was originally published on Medium**

A New York jury convicted Tony Hernández, the brother of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, of drug trafficking on October 18, 2019. In the course of the trial, New York prosecutors labeled President Hernández “a co-conspirator,” presented evidence that he had received drug cartel money for his presidential campaign, revealed a web of drug connections to army and police officials, and denounced “state-sponsored drug trafficking.”

The next day, the U.S. Embassy’s highest official appeared at Honduras’ armed forces day parade. A State Department official declared Honduras “a reliable ally.” The Honduran government spliced together ads with former U.S. Southern Command heads praising the Honduran government’s counternarcotics cooperation. And a team of U.S. Department of Homeland Security and State Department officials arrived the next week to hammer out an agreement.

Was the agreement to stop massive corruption in Honduras? Was it to call for a purge of drug trafficking-connected officials? Was it to urge the government to stop repressing protests and jailing human rights and environmental activists?

No. It was to figure out how to implement the agreement establishing Honduras as a “safe third country” so that the Trump Administration can stop Nicaraguans, Haitians, Cubans, and others from trying to claim asylum in the United States.

“How on earth are we a safe third country?” people asked when I visited San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa recently. “It’s laughable.”

Honduras’s almost nonexistent asylum system is not capable of handling thousands of asylum applicants. And how would Honduras care for these asylum seekers? Honduran migrants deported back to the country barely get more services than a bus ticket to a town near their homes. Even more seriously, Honduras, with its still-high murder rate and corrupt security forces, is not safe for many Hondurans, much less refugees.

Instead of addressing the root causes of why tens of thousands of its citizens are fleeing, the Honduran Congress is busy protecting itself. The Congress passed a penal code reform that lowers penalties for major drug trafficking and makes it harder to prosecute corrupt officials by requiring the weak High Court of Auditors to first give the green light.

As public funds flow to corrupt officials, fewer resources are available to provide health, education, and other public services. Citizens cannot turn to a weak justice system and corrupt police and local officials for protection.

Those who organize to defend the rights of their communities risk their lives and liberty. Some members of the Guapinol community, for example, are in pre-trial detention for charges related to organizing against a mine that polluted local water sources. Journalists face threats and beatings by security forces as they are covering protests.

During protests across Honduras following the highly contested November 2017 elections in which Juan Orlando Hernández was reelected, the United Nations identified at least 16 people allegedly killed by government security forces.

Two years later, only two security officers have been indicted for these killings, and none convicted. No new protocol for handling protests has been developed. Excessive use of force by security forces during protests continues.

The Trump Administration announced that it was releasing part of aid held up due to its concern that the Northern Triangle were not doing enough to stop migration. Yet much of this aid will now go towards strengthening Honduras’s borders and the vain hope of improving its asylum system to process asylum seekers from other countries. Programs actually directed at addressing root causes of forced migration, like USAID’s programs to prevent violence, may not be restored.

The U.S. Congress should restore programs to prevent violence, mitigate climate change, and address corruption and poverty. It should insist that the Honduran government renew for four years and in its current form the mandate of the anti-corruption agency MACCIH.

But if the U.S. government really wants to address the reasons why Hondurans continue to flee, it must do more. It must stop this perverse insistence that Honduras is a safe third country — or, indeed, a safe country for many Hondurans. It should provide asylum for Hondurans in need of international protection and provide permanent status for some 60,000 Hondurans with soon-to-be ending Temporary Protected Status in our country. The U.S. government must cease propping up through diplomacy and security assistance the corrupt and repressive administration of Juan Orlando Hernández — and stand with the human rights defenders, journalists, student activists, community leaders and other brave Honduran citizens defending at great risk the rule of law in their country.