Ten years ago today, Honduran security forces kidnapped Manuel “Mel” Zelaya, the democratically elected president of Honduras, and forced him onto a plane to Costa Rica.
Compared to today, relatively few Americans were paying attention to Central America at the time (the “border crisis” that dominates our current news cycles would not be manufactured until years later), and in the months that followed, the Obama administration quietly played a pivotal role in helping the coup-plotters consolidate power.
Since then, the Honduran state has transformed into a narco-kleptocracy, where political and business elites work in tandem with organized criminal groups to oversee a system of self-enrichment predicated on corruption, violence, and impunity.
Most Americans, even those who would prefer that the United States turn migrants and asylum seekers away at the border, intuitively understand why people from Central America flee poverty and violence. There is even bipartisan agreement that the root causes that drive migration ought to be addressed through aid and assistance to Central America.
But within US political discourse, there is a deeper conversation that needs to take place, one in which Americans grapple with the ways in which US government policies, spanning Democratic and Republican administrations, have helped sustain corrupt governments to the detriment of ordinary citizens who want to hold their own governments accountable.
That’s why on this day, as thousands of Hondurans take to the streets to mark the 10th anniversary of the coup and call for President Juan Orlando Hernández to resign, it is worth considering people like Edwin Espinal, a man who once lived in America, and now sits in a maximum-security prison for protesting fraudulent elections in Honduras. Edwin’s life, like so many Hondurans’, has been shaped directly and indirectly by US foreign policy.
In 1998, for example, Hurricane Mitch devastated Honduras, killing over 7,000 people and driving tens of thousands more to seek refuge in the United States. In response, the US government provided hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and granted Hondurans fleeing the aftermath of the storm Temporary Protected Status, allowing them to live and work in the United States.
Edwin was one of the young Hondurans who came to the United States during that time, cutting short his university studies in order to find work in the US so he could send money home to his family. He worked in construction and restoration for the better part of a decade, always in hopes of going back to Honduras when the time was right. In 2008, he decided to return to Honduras, inspired by the reforms taking place under President Mel Zelaya.
As the candidate of the center-right Liberal Party, Zelaya was an unlikely candidate to take a leftward turn, but once in office, he embarked upon an ambitious progressive agenda. Zelaya’s administration faced accusations of corruption and mismanagement of public funds, but his poverty reduction programs and expansion of access to healthcare and education represented a glimmer of hope for many Hondurans who had been on the on the losing end of the privatization and structural adjustment policies of the previous two decades.
Edwin moved back to the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, where he started a transportation business. Then, in 2009, the Honduran military overthrew Zelaya.
Although the Obama administration initially denounced the coup and condemned its plotters, Honduran military officials were able to leverage contacts within the US military establishment to make their case in Washington, while Honduran political and business elites quietly lobbied Republican lawmakers. These efforts eventually succeeded in bringing the US State Department around to the idea that the de facto government installed after the coup should be allowed to hold elections while Zelaya was still in exile.
In her memoir, Hard Choices, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even offered a tacit admission that US policy marginalized Zelaya and helped clear the path for Honduran military and business elites to regain power. “We strategized on a plan to restore order in Honduras and ensure that free and fair elections could be held quickly and legitimately, which would render the question of Zelaya moot and give the Honduran people a chance to choose their own future,” she wrote. This passage, curiously, was removed from the paperback edition of the book as Clinton prepared for her presidential run in 2016.
The coup and subsequent US-backed power grab struck a chord with Edwin. “That really radicalized him. It made him realize the power of the Honduran elite, and the interests that they had in keeping the status quo, and in not allowing reforms that would favor the 60 percent of people that live in poverty in Honduras,” explains Karen Spring, a Canadian human rights activist based in Honduras who is also Edwin’s spouse. “He went to the streets every single day. He lost a lot of the work. He lost a lot of contracts, but he was in the street every day.”
As the new Honduran government began reversing the social gains made under Zelaya and implementing its own International Monetary Fund-approved agenda of privatization and budget cuts, Edwin threw himself into activism. If university students were protesting funding shortages in Tegucigalpa or if indigenous communities and campesino cooperatives were protesting illegal land-grabs by multinational corporations, Edwin was there. When human rights abuses took place, including beatings and murders at the hands of state security forces, Edwin was always among the activists documenting them and compiling details.
His relentless organizing earned him a reputation in civil society circles, but also caught the attention of the government, which began a campaign of harassment and character assassination that would continue for years. Edwin was arbitrarily arrested several times. During one kidnapping, he was taken to a remote warehouse, beaten, and pepper-sprayed at close range. After several hours of torture, his kidnappers dumped him at a police station.
In 2010, Edwin was granted protection by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which requested that the Honduran state “adopt the necessary measures to guarantee the life and personal integrity of the beneficiary.”
Yet the harassment continued, and like so many activists in Honduras, Edwin began receiving anonymous threats over the phone. The constant harassment forced Edwin and his family to leave their home and relocate to a different part of Tegucigalpa.
When the current Honduran President, Juan Orlando Hernández, took office in 2014, he quickly began consolidating power over state institutions, replacing the attorney general and four members of the Supreme Court with National Party partisans.
During that same period, a scandal rocked Honduras when news broke that government officials had embezzled an estimated $330 million from the Honduran Institute of Social Security, leaving the public health system in ruins. Researchers subsequently estimated that close to 3,000 people may have died between 2012 and 2014 as a direct result of the scandal. One of the women who died during that period was Edwin’s mother, who was unable to receive adequate medical treatment from the public hospital.
As investigations into the social security scandal continued, Juan Orlando Hernández publicly admitted that companies responsible for looting state coffers had directly contributed to his presidential campaign. Amidst mass protests and calls for him to resign, Hernández managed to come out of the scandal relatively unscathed despite the fact that the vice president and several high-ranking officials were forced to resign amid a wide range of scandals.
More importantly, the capture of state institutions allowed Hernández to run for a second term in 2017 after his hand-picked Supreme Court chose to overturn the part of the constitutions that places a single-term limit on the president.
During that election, initial voting returns indicated that Juan Orlando Hernandez was likely to lose, until the country’s electoral commission, staffed largely of Hernández appointees, decided to stop broadcasting the results altogether. When reporting of voting results resumed after a 36-hour blackout, Hernández was suddenly, and improbably, in the lead.
Election monitors from the European Union and Organization for American States identified irregularities, and the latter called for new elections, citing “deliberate human intrusions in the computer system,” and clear indications of vote tampering. Yet despite these widespread allegations of fraud and calls for a new vote, the US State Department decided to endorse the outcome.
Through all of this, Edwin remained a mainstay at protests, and in the chaos that followed the most recent elections, he continued organizing. On January 12, 2018, during massive protests in Tegucigalpa, a small group of protestors vandalized the Marriot Hotel, breaking windows and setting fire to furniture in the lobby. Soon after, fliers with pictures of various protestors, including Edwin, began circulating around town. Political activists throughout the country were being arrested and in some cases disappearing, and Spring began to worry that Edwin might be arrested or worse. The next week, he was detained on his way home from a haircut.
During his pretrial hearing, the government unveiled a long list of charges against Edwin, including terrorism and criminal association. Those charges were dropped during a second pretrial hearing after the government failed to provide sufficient evidence, but he was subsequently charged with property damage, arson, and use of homemade explosives.
Edwin’s lawyers maintain that all of these accusations are fabricated. He remains in jail to this day, awaiting trial seventeen months after his arrest.
The horrible truth about the situation in Honduras is that Edwin’s story is only one of many. The organization Human Rights Watch has described Honduras under Juan Orlando Hernández as a place where “impunity for crime and human rights abuses is the norm.” A two-year investigation by watchdog group Global Witness concluded that Honduras is the deadliest country in the world for environmental activists, writing in 2017 that “Nowhere are you more likely to be killed for standing up to companies that grab land and trash the environment than in Honduras.” The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace went so far as to label Honduras a country where “corruption is the operating system,” and “repression is carefully targeted for maximum psychological effect.”
Several members of Hernández’s National Party, including the son of his like-minded predecessor, have been implicated in drug trafficking. In 2017, a leader of the Cachiros, a drug cartel that specialized in transporting Colombian cocaine through Honduras, testified in a New York court that Hernández’s brother was directly involved in their operations. Earlier this month, prosecutors named Hernández himself as a target in a Drug Enforcement Administration investigation that started in 2013.
Yet despite years of widespread corruption, a dismal human rights record, and credible allegations of ties to drug cartels, the US government has continued to publicly assert that Hernández is a valuable partner within the frameworks of security cooperation, anti-corruption, and the war on drugs. Such is the convoluted, often contradictory logic that has guided US policy toward Central America for decades.
There are signs, however, that Hernández may be operating on borrowed time. Over the last two months, Honduras has been rocked by protests led by doctors and teachers unions in opposition to controversial health and education measures that would further privatize both sectors. Just last week, Hernández resorted to calling military units to the streets after some members of the police joined truckers in a strike.
As mass demonstrations proliferate throughout the country, two key questions remain. The first is whether political and economic elites, as well as the Honduran military, will remain loyal to Hernández amid growing calls for his resignation. The second is how far the US government is willing to go in backing him.