This summer saw a substantial increase in media coverage of migrants fleeing from Central America to the United States, especially the thousands of unaccompanied minors seeking refuge from extreme violence in the Northern Triangle region, which includes Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
Of the more than 60,000 youth to reach the border since October 2013, a significant percentage are from Honduras, and the country accounts for the largest number of unaccompanied minors under the age of 12.
This is largely due to the fact that Honduras is a brutally violent place, with the world’s highest murder rate of 90.4 homicides per 100,000 people. Honduras has been named the most dangerous country in the world for journalists, gang and drug-related violence are commonplace and the impunity rate rests above 97 percent.
Large-scale privatization schemes and natural resource exploitation have also escalated, but these have only benefitted the handful of families that possess the majority of the country’s concentrated wealth and power. As the country’s natural resources have been opened up to greater exploitation, those who oppose mining, logging and hydroelectric megaprojects in rural regions have learned to live with the constant threat of violent retaliation or even death.
From banana republic to gang battleground
What’s to blame for the spiraling violence and destruction of Honduran social fabric?
Most recently, the 2009 coup d’etat that deposed democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya (a coup that was tacitly supported by the Obama administration) exposed the country to increased waves of violence. Zelaya had proposed a referendum that could have potentially resulted in altering the constitution. This, combined with his left-leaning policies, appeared to be too much for the Honduran right wing, which, with the support of local elites, overthrew his presidency.
But Honduras had been plagued with political, economic and social issues long before 2009. Another coup in the early 1900s — led by the predecessor to the United Fruit Company, and to which the United States turned a blind eye — and the resulting political and economic instability opened an opportunity for multinational corporations to move in, essentially taking over management of the country and its people, the consequences and aftermath of which are still seen today.
Throughout the 20th century, U.S. influence increased as Honduras became a strategic location for U.S. interests in the region. The U.S. presence became even more overt in the 1980s, when the United States aided the Contras in Nicaragua. At the same time, Honduras suffered a quiet political war as the Honduran army stifled political opposition.
The period was characterized by extrajudicial killings, torture, and disappearances carried out by units like the notorious CIA-trained and financed Battalion 3-16. The perpetrators of those crimes have yet to face justice — like most other criminals in Honduras, they have benefitted from the widespread impunity that exists in the country.
Following the 2009 coup, these issues became even more pronounced. Violence, especially against journalists, lawyers and human rights defenders, escalated across the country. Though Honduras has experienced rapid militarization of security forces– supported in large part by U.S. aid, which amounted to $52 million in 2013 alone — gang violence and territorial control have continued to expand, making many residents feel that they have no choice but to flee.
The administrations that have followed the coup – first that of President Roberto Micheletti, then Porfirio Lobo and now current president Juan Orlando Hernández – have made Honduras’ natural resources ripe for the picking, consistently promoting policies that lead to greater exploitation.
In the five years since the coup, the country has increasingly found itself at the mercy of massive privatization efforts and all that they bring, including greater threats to natural resources, small rural communities and those who attempt to stand up to the powerful economic interests behind these new projects.
The ones that stay behind
The mainstream media’s recent take on the situation as simply a “border crisis” is a surface-level analysis that doesn’t even begin to address Honduras’ history as a perpetual colonial state, nor the effects of U.S. foreign policy in the region coupled with economic tactics that have contributed to the crisis.
Nor does it address the problems faced on a daily basis by Hondurans and residents of the other Northern Triangle countries. Those who do not migrate, who stay behind to face unthinkable violence, have not been a part of the story. But among those that remain are resilient human rights defenders who face threats day-in and day-out, threats that would be enough to convince many to join the ranks of those fleeing to the U.S. border.
This article is the first in a four-part series that will attempt to shed some light on the situation in Honduras and what life is like for some of the Hondurans who don’t migrate. The rural communities of Locomapa, Nueva Esperanza, and Zacate Grande in Honduras are each struggling to defend their rightful lands against takeover and destruction by corporations and economic elites. In solidarity with those Hondurans and in an effort to raise awareness about the realities of the current conflict, some of their stories will be shared here.
Erika Piquero was an international human rights accompanier with PROAH in Honduras from March to May 2014. PROAH provides international accompaniment to human rights defenders who find themselves under threat or harassment due to their individual and collective human rights work in an environment of repression and political persecution. For more information about the organization, please see their website.