U.S. to send aid to Honduras despite ongoing corruption

Women protest in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, March 16, 2016, after a colleague of Berta Cáceres’, Nelson Garcia, was killed in similar circumstances. (AP Photo/Fernando Antonio)

Two weeks after the U.S. State Department announced its approval of a $55 million aid package for Honduras, the Central American country continues to display signs of unbridled impunity and a failing justice system.

The money is part of a $750 million aid package the Obama administration has allocated to Central America’s ‘Northern Triangle’ countries – El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala – in an effort to reduce crime and poverty driving tens of thousands of refugees out of the region. Many have sought asylum in the United States.

For Honduras to receive its share of the aid package for the current budget year, it had to prove to U.S. officials that it was meeting several conditions, including improvements in human rights, law enforcement and justice. The U.S. State Department approved the budget for Honduras on Sept. 30, but officials did not announce the certification until Oct. 14.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the certification did not mean “all is well and good” in Honduras, but that the department has seen “a demonstration of political will by the Honduran government” and that Juan Orlando Hernández’s administration has shown sufficient progress to warrant the aid.

Last week, however, Honduran security forces used excessive force to break up a protest over the mishandling of the Berta Cáceres murder investigation. Cáceres was Honduras’ most prominent environmentalist activist and the former general coordinator of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH). Gunmen broke into her home and killed her in March.

Human rights activists want the government to identify the people behind her killing. Some suspect that state security personnel were involved in the attack, but there is no indication from Honduran authorities that anyone will be named. Government officials have resisted offers of help from outside investigators, even after case files were apparently stolen.

While the mishandling of the Cáceres case has been shocking, impunity in Honduras is nothing new. The justice system fails in more than 90 percent of cases to convict and punish criminals for their crimes, especially when the culprits are in positions of political or economic power.

Part of the problem is that Honduras continually fails to address the complex relationship between the poverty and violence that plague the country. Corruption at high levels of the government and justice system makes it difficult to hold criminals accountable.

This failure to serve justice is pronounced for human rights defenders, even more so for women. Since 2012, the Mesoamerican Women Human Rights Defenders Initiative documented 11 assassinations of such women. In a recent report that examined protection measures and legislation in Honduras, the initiative said that although Honduras has one of the highest rates of violence against human rights defenders in the region, “it’s among those that had the fewest tools to confront it.”

Until the Honduran government puts an end to impunity, nearly 100 members of the U.S. Congress have called for a cutoff of all military and security aid. In an interview with the LA Times, Vermont Sen. Patrick J. Leahy said the State Department’s decision to move forward with the aid package “makes a mockery” of the law.

“Over the past 25 years, the United States has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Honduras, with little to show for it,” said Leahy. “The conditions in our law are intended to prevent a repeat of past failures, when official corruption and impunity were ignored or excused, and to hold the government accountable. Virtuous rhetoric and half-steps are not enough.”

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com