Prior to its 2009 coup d’état, five years ago on June 28, Honduras rarely made headlines in the U.S. Since the ouster of President Manuel Zelaya, however, the Central American nation has received a lot of bad press. It is in the spotlight again for the recent surge of unaccompanied Honduran minors crossing U.S. borders. Of the 47,000 children apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol since October, 28 percent, or more than 13,000, came from Honduras. This is a whopping 1,272 percent increase over the number apprehended on the border in 2009.
A source at Honduras’ National Human Rights Commission told the media that at least one person per day comes to the commission hoping to get asylum overseas, due to violence and poverty — both of which are increasingly out of control.
The surge in the number of children fleeing the country says a lot about what has happened in Honduras since the coup. First, the military takeover, which was supported by the Obama administration, broke Honduras’ already weak institutions. Second, with rampant corruption and police impunity, crime has spiraled out of control. Third, state security forces have engaged in a bloody campaign of political and social persecution, killing people who opposed the coup, campesinos, indigenous protesters and others. Journalists are routinely threatened; many are murdered. Honduran generals, politicians and their friends in the media have openly condemned and slandered human rights workers. Authorities have leveled bogus charges at some of Honduras’ most well-known and respected rights defenders and journalists in an effort to discredit them.
Consider the following grim statistics, which have contributed to Honduras’ status as “the murder capital of the world”:
In the wake of the spike in child migration, which the Obama administration calls an “urgent humanitarian situation,” the U.S. government is planning to reward the Honduran authorities’ failure to protect human rights with more money. On June 20 the White House announced $18.5 million additional funding to Honduras under the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI). Honduras is also set to receive an unspecified amount from the $161.5 million in other CARSI funds designated for the region, and another portion of the additional $130 million in ongoing bilateral aid for military cooperation and other purposes.
It is clear that the CARSI model of throwing more money at a failed government is not working. The U.S. has spent more than $800 million on the flagship security initiative since 2008, but drug- and gang-related crimes have only worsened in Central America. This is no surprise to those familiar with Plan Colombia and the Merida Initiative in Mexico (where over 47,000 people were killed in just five years in drug-war-related violence), two initiatives on which CARSI is modeled. Like CARSI, Plan Colombia and Merida take a robust militarized approach to fighting drugs and organized crime; both have been widely criticized.
President Juan Orlando Hernández has made a militarized policing approach the cornerstone of his new administration, even as efforts to reform the police failed and evidence of police death squads emerged last year. The U.S. State Department, which backed the militarized response amid objections from 21 U.S. senators, is now prepared to spend more of U.S. taxpayers’ money to support Hernández’s brutal and repressive regime.
There are alternatives to dumping more money on corrupt security forces that are implicated in politically motivated murders and extrajudicial killings, or in league with the drug traffickers they are supposed to fight. For example, few children have fled Nicaragua, where there isn't the kind of drug violence seen in the CARSI countries. In contrast with Honduras’ militarized public security approach, Nicaragua employs community-policing practices, in which police actually get to know people in the neighborhoods where they’re based, and involve local communities in crime prevention — a model that has been praised by security specialists and experts on Central American gangs.
As more than 100 members of the U.S. Congress wrote in a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry (PDF) last month, the answer to Honduras’ security challenges is not more money for security forces that are linked to human rights abuses. Accountability, an end to impunity and a true restoration of democratic institutions can put Honduras on the path to stability and in turn diminish the factors driving children and others to flee to the U.S. Such reform requires protections for freedom of speech and the press and an end to political persecution and the targeting of minorities. If the U.S. were to make assistance conditional on these demands, it would no doubt help hasten change in Honduras.