By Dan Beeton and Rebecca Watts on December 2, 2016
A recent, widely shared essay in the New York Times glowed about U.S.-funded crime and violence reduction programs in Honduras. The August 14, 2016, article, “How the Most Dangerous Place on Earth Got Safer: Programs funded by the United States are helping transform Honduras. Who says American power is dead?” by Sonia Nazario, profiled members of the Rivera Hernández community in San Pedro Sula. It had, just a few years ago, Nazario writes, “the highest homicide rate in the city,” but this summer the author returned “to find a remarkable reduction in violence, much of it thanks to programs funded by the United States that have helped community leaders tackle crime.”
The article was, in some ways, a feel-good piece. The author profiled several people in Honduras who have struggled with gangs and violence in their communities, but for whom the future appears much more hopeful. The problem is that this is, by definition, anecdotal evidence. While Nazario points out that Honduras no longer has the “highest homicide rate in the world” (which, as Honduran outlet La Prensa has noted, may itself have to do with problematic data keeping by the Honduran authorities), it is widely recognized that violence and organized crime continue in Honduras, and elsewhere in Central America, at unacceptable levels. As has been documented in the media and various human rights reports from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Honduran organizations and the U.S. State Department itself, Honduran troops and police officers are responsible for some of these murders and for other grave human rights abuses as well. “Military police were accused of involvement in at least nine killings, more than 20 cases of torture, and about 30 illegal arrests between 2012 and 2014,” a Reuters investigation found, and at least 24 soldiers were “under investigation in connection with the killings,” Human Rights Watch noted in its World Report for 2016.
In response to pressure from human rights groups, members of the U.S. Congress have sent numerous letters to the Obama administration, asking it to halt funding for Honduran security forces until they clean up their act. Nevertheless, U.S. aid to Honduran police and military units is set to increase significantly. Members of Congress have now introduced legislation that would “suspend United States security assistance with Honduras until such time as human rights violations by Honduran security forces cease and their perpetrators are brought to justice.” The bill is known as the “Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act,” a reference to the prominent Honduran activist who was assassinated in March 2016 in an incident that sparked global outrage. For her part, Nazario opposes the bill, writing in her New York Times piece that “Cutting our support would be a mistake. What we really need to do is double down on the programs that are working and replicate them elsewhere.”
But are these programs working? What do the data tell us about the effectiveness of U.S.-funded anticrime and antiviolence programs in Central America? Such information has been hard to find. The only publicly available, data-based impact assessment of such programs, which are mostly funded through the U.S. government’s Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), was conducted by the Latin American Popular Opinion Project (LAPOP) at Vanderbilt University, with funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Not surprisingly, the LAPOP study concludes: “In several key respects the programs have been a success. Specifically, the outcomes in the treatment communities improved more (or declined less) than they would have if USAID’s programs had not been administered.” Unfortunately, even this may be too rosy a picture.
Our colleagues at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) recently examined LAPOP’s quantitative analysis and found it “cannot support the conclusion that the areas subject to treatment in the CARSI programs showed better results than those areas that were not.” CEPR found significant deficiencies in the LAPOP study, including non-randomness in the selection of treatment versus control areas, as well in how differences in results between treatment and control areas were interpreted. (LAPOP noted in a response to CEPR, that “In the case of Honduras … USAID had already selected the treatment communities by the time we were ready to begin, so random selection was no longer possible.”)
The jury is still out, then, on whether the hundreds of millions the U.S. government is spending on anticrime programs in Central America are actually reducing crime. It would be easier to determine whether such programs are producing results if more information about CARSI was available, but the initiative seems opaque by design. It has been almost impossible for researchers and journalists to uncover the total budgets for the respective countries included in CARSI, let alone line items for different programs.
What we do know is that many of the programs that CARSI is modeled on have been disastrous elsewhere in Latin America. CARSI was originally part of the Mérida Initiative, the George W. Bush administration’s escalation of the War on Drugs in Mexico. In partnership with the administration of former Mexican president Felipe Calderón, the Mérida Initiative led to an explosion in violence: since the launch of the program, over 100,000 people have been killed, and more than 27,000 have been disappeared, both by organized crime and by security forces themselves. Mérida itself was modeled on Plan Colombia. In the wake of Colombia’s own drug war, and (hopefully now ending) civil war, more people have been displaced internally than anywhere else in the world—even Syria. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, internal displacement has been especially high during the Plan Colombia era, as “around 300,000 people are thought to have been newly displaced each year since 2000.” Among Plan Colombia’s atrocities was the fact that Colombian soldiers were incentivized to kill FARC guerrillas, leading some to commit extrajudicial executions by murdering civilians and dressing them up in FARC uniforms. A 2010 Fellowship of Reconciliation report examined data on extrajudicial executions by Colombian military units since 2002, and found that “reported extrajudicial killings increased on average in areas after the United States increased assistance to units in those areas.”
We also know that people are continuing to flee destabilizing levels of violence in Central America, pushing thousands north to Mexico and to the U.S. According to official statistics, between 2014 and 2015, deportations of Central Americans from Mexico jumped from 105,303 to 176,726 (including an increase from 41,661 to 57,823 Hondurans). A report released in September by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) reveals that “2016 may be the year with the highest number of detentions, deportations, and asylum petitions in Mexico”—overwhelmingly of people from Central America’s Northern Triangle.
The programs examined by both LAPOP and Nazario ostensibly focus on community policing, which various analysts say has worked effectively in Nicaragua—a country that conspicuously has not seen a violence-related exodus, unlike its neighbors. But the small, localized community policing efforts Nazario describes in Honduras, where police officers supposedly get to know the people living in the community where they patrol, are also taking place in tandem with broader, national U.S.-funded programs to strengthen “elite” police forces, whose abuses—from extrajudicial executions to kidnappings and rapes— have been well-documented.
Indeed, rather than community policing, increased militarization appears to be the norm in Honduras and across the Northern Triangle countries. As Peter J. Meyer and Clare Ribando Seelke wrote for the Congressional Research Service in December 2015: “The Honduran government has taken a hardline approach to crime, deploying military forces to carry out policing functions. The Salvadoran government is pursuing similar policies after the truce it brokered between criminal gangs broke down. The Guatemalan government has also embraced a larger role for the military in public security.” This is troubling since, as numerous civil society groups in the U.S. and Central America have noted, such militarization of police functions has often led to a “dramatic surge in violent crime, often reportedly perpetrated by security forces themselves.” (See our colleague Alexander Main’s article in the Summer 2014 issue of the NACLA Report on the Americas.)
In Honduras, police militarization has been a cornerstone of the Juan Orlando Hernández administration’s approach to crime and security. Hernández made military police a central component of his 2013 presidential campaign. The U.S. has strongly backed militarized law enforcement as well, with 21 Special Operations Forces missions in Honduras between 2007 and 2014—the most in the western hemisphere. These missions have trained and vetted various police units, including the much-hyped “Tigres” elite policing units. Unfortunately, U.S. influence has not prevented corruption or wrongdoing by these forces. Just months after the Tigres were officially deployed, a number of their officers were involved in stealing $1.3 million USD in a drug bust. More ominously, a Honduran military police whistleblower has come forward with allegations of a “hit list” of human rights defenders and other activists that he claims included the name of Berta Cáceres herself.
If CARSI is intended to break up organized crime networks, in a country where security forces, as well as many other institutions, are corrupt—in ways that often benefit the highest levels of power—as in Honduras, this commitment seems dubious at best. Meanwhile, the Honduran government and the private sector have been attempting to enact a raft of major projects, from dams like the one Berta died opposing to proposed “model cities”—special economic zones where labor protections and a whole series of other rights would not apply. Many projects are envisioned under the rubric of the proposed “Plan for the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle,” which has received $750 million USD in funding from the U.S. Congress. Considering the scope of neoliberal change that the Honduran government, along with the U.S., has been pursuing, would it be surprising that the Honduran government would want a mano dura (heavy-handed) approach to policing in order to better control populations who might oppose these projects? If the intended goal of increasing the capacities of security forces in Honduras is to disrupt organized crime, then why have security forces targeted so many trade unionists, campesinos, environmentalists, human rights defenders, journalists, Garifuna, indigenous groups, and members of the LGBTI communities?
The current U.S. strategy of funding increasingly militarized security forces in Honduras (and elsewhere in Central America) who are known to commit human rights abuses is not acceptable. The State Department recently chose to certify Honduras, allowing access to designated aid funds contingent on the human rights situation. Rather, the State Department should suspend assistance and training to Honduran security forces until Honduras addresses the human rights violations by its police and military, as over 90 Members of Congress, over 220 organizations, and 730 scholars have demanded. Passing the Berta Cáceres bill would be an appropriate way to ensure this. A credible threat to with-hold aid would provide a much-needed incentive for the Honduran government to stem the bloodshed and get serious about cleaning up corruption. Until then, continued U.S. support only “feeds the beast,” as some prominent Honduran figures have put it.