We approach three young Honduran soldiers who stand outside a military post in Guadalupe Carney, a rural community in Honduras’ Aguan Valley. Two are 19 and one is 20. Dressed in military garb the oldest wears an automatic weapon on his chest. Sporting vests and name-tags and armed only with cameras and notebooks, we cautiously ask for an interview. After exchanging looks, they nod.
“Have you received training from the United States?”
“Yes,” the oldest soldier replies.
“What kind of training?”
“Close combat, counter narcotics… We learn how to combat drug-trafficking. We spend six months in practical training and three months on theory.”
When asked who trained him he hesitates briefly, averts his gaze and timidly lists names of U.S. Captains and Generals.
The United States gave over $9.8 million to the Honduran military and police in 2011 and has budgeted over $8 million for 2012. This aid is part of the Central America Regional Security Initiative, a program designed to stop the flow of drugs to the United States via Central America. Almost half of the illicit drugs that enter the United States pass through Honduras.
We ask the soldier if there is much drug trafficking in Guadalupe Carney. His look implies the obvious. “No.”
“What do you do here if there is no narco-trafficking?” we ask.
“Sometimes the community causes problems. We call the base if they take to the streets or if they invade Miguel Facussé’s land.”
The picture is becoming clearer.
Just moments before, we met with community members of Guadalupe Carney. Beneath a grass-roofed gazebo they told us about death threats, intimidation and assassinations. “We brought our friends and co-workers to this very floor after they were murdered,” they told us.
In 2010, five community members were killed. A mother of five told us she lost her husband only ten days after her last child was born. The men were killed when campesino groups occupied El Tumbador, farm land that borders Guadalupe Carney. Although the land is legally theirs, they explained, it is occupied by a businessman, Miguel Facussé, one of the richest people in Honduras. His private guards shot the five men.
This tragic story is all too common in the Aguan Valley. Conflicts between campesinos and this large landowner end brutally. Forty-five campesinos have been killed in Aguan since the coup d’état in 2009. In response to these conflicts the Honduran government militarized the zone with aid from the U.S.
The young soldiers’ answers to our questions reveal whose side the military is on. Their instructions are to call base when the community “causes problems.” In other parts of the valley, the police have been called in. Families have been evicted from their homes and whole communities have been burned to the ground by the police. U.S. funds for the “War on Drugs” in Central America are supporting a different sinister agenda.
This isn’t the first time Witness for Peace has documented the impact of U.S.-backed militarization in this region. In the 1980s the CIA built military bases in Honduras to arm and train the Nicaraguan Contras to fight against the Sandinista government. Thousands of Witness for Peace delegates traveled to Nicaragua’s war zones to provide accompaniment to communities under threat of Contra attack, bearing witness to the tragic results of U.S. military support.
One of the U.S. military bases used in the 80s was the Regional Center for Military Training. After the facility ended its operations the land was transferred to the Honduran government’s agriculture institution for distribution to campesinos.
Some of these lands reached rural farmers. A portion of it is the community named Guadalupe Carney: the very community where we stood and interviewed the three young soldiers. Other large plots were illegally sold to large business owners. One is Miguel Facussé. He bought land like El Tumbador across the Aguan Valley to expand his palm oil empire. This land produces palm oil for export rather than supporting the livelihood of rural farmers like those in Guadalupe Carney. For over a decade, the Honduran government had been buying back the illegally sold lands to hand out to campesinos, but since the coup d’etat negotiations have stalled.
Campesinos risking their lives occupy land for survival. Meanwhile, young soldiers receive orders to protect the land-holdings of businessmen like Miguel Facussé. And they do so after receiving military training from the U.S.
The land situation has gotten worse since the military coup in 2009 when democratically-elected President, Manuel Zelaya, was overthrown. To appease mounting criticism, the coup regime held what many consider illegitimate elections and Porfirio Lobo Sosa was elected president. The United States led the way to international recognition of the Lobo administration.
Since the coup the human rights crisis has mushroomed: Eighteen journalists have been killed, violence against women and hate crimes against the LGBTI community have risen, Afrodescendent and indigenous populations are under-threat as they struggle to maintain their land and the culture it sustains. In response the U.S. sends military aid.
While the human rights crisis rages the Lobo administration pushes neoliberal policy that benefits multi-national corporations and the U.S. continues to support militarization: $17.8 million for the war on drugs and $50 million for the Soto Cano Air Base (Palmerola Air Base). Used in the 80s to support the Contra war against Nicaragua, the base is now the center for operations for the “War on Drugs” in Central America.
And it looks like this is only the beginning. In early March, Vice-President Joe Biden visited Honduras to discuss the war on drugs with Central American leaders. The next day, the Honduran newspaper La Tribuna quoted Lisa Kubiske, U.S. Ambassador to Honduras, saying, “We have an opportunity now, because we no longer have a war using the military in Iraq. We will no longer be spending on the military there, so there should be resources available to work here.”
As we stood and listened to these timid young soldiers the cycles of U.S. military and economic violence became clear. Our conversation revealed a common-thread that weaves militarization, neoliberalism and rampant human rights violations: The U.S. supports an administration that is favorable to multi-national corporations and a military force that protects corporate interest. The result? The abuse of human rights and loss of safety and security for the Hondurans who suffer from these policies and who dare to speak or act against them.
There is a wave of nonviolent resistance in Honduras lead by those whose rights are under constant threat. Witness for Peace has heard the call from our partners for a long-term presence to accompany them as they seek justice. We will be in Honduras to document the impact of military aid and to pressure our government to stop backing a military that abuses the rights of its citizens.