The State Department recently announced that it would withhold assistance including $1.3 million in foreign military assistance and another $1.7 million in peace and security funding from Honduran law enforcement units directly supervised by their new national police chief, Juan Carlos Bonilla, until the U.S. can investigate allegations that he ran a death squad a decade ago. This decision in many ways represents the first victory of a long campaign by human rights and faith-based organizations to change U.S. policy toward the Honduran government. The following article was published in the September-October 2012 NewsNotes.
In the early morning of June 28, 2009, members of the Honduran military removed then-president Manuel Zelaya from the presidential palace, flew him into exile in Costa Rica, and helped establish the Porfirio Lobo Sosa government. Although the U.S. suspended $31 million in aid to Honduras after the coup, it was quickly reinstated in 2010.
Many human rights and faith-based organizations, including the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns (MOGC), have worked to inform U.S. officials about human rights abuses being perpetrated by members of the Honduran police and military and the total impunity that they receive. MOGC staff and colleagues have met numerous times with many members of the State Department, National Security Council and other key administration officials asking for the U.S. government to assume a stronger stance toward the Honduran government in terms of demanding investigations and, if warranted, prosecutions of government officials involved in human rights abuses.
Despite meetings with administration officials in 2009 and 2010 where MOGC staff and colleagues were able to share evidence of the increasingly violent means being used to put down peaceful protests and the targeting of movement leaders for intimidation, kidnapping, torture and assassination, the State Department continued to support the Lobo regime. In May 2011, while French energy companies and the German government were withdrawing their investments from Honduras due to human rights concerns, the U.S. embassy helped organize and fund the “Honduras is open for business” investment conference that brought hundreds of global corporations to the country to learn of new business opportunities.
Our faith based and human rights coalition switched to educating member of Congress about Honduras and encouraging them to pressure the administration to take a stronger line with the Lobo government.
Thanks to pressure from constituents, a number of legislators organized several “Dear Colleague” letters to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calling for more attention to the human rights situation in Honduras. One letter sent on March 9, 2012, signed by 94 members of Congress, called for all military and police aid to be suspended until the Lobo regime honestly investigates and, if warranted, prosecutes members of the military and police who are involved in human rights abuses.
While it is a positive step to have the Obama administration taking a stronger tack in pressuring Honduras for human rights improvements, the suspension of funding for Bonilla’s troops is likely to be short-lived. While Bonilla is alleged to have been involved in at least three killings or forced disappearances between 1998 and 2002 and another 11 cases with other officers, only one of the allegations led to actual murder charges, and he was acquitted in a 2004 decision. It is possible that the State Department investigation will lack the necessary evidence to prove the charges against Bonilla.
While we can celebrate this initial movement within administration policy toward Honduras with the temporary suspension of funding to one police unit, there is still a long way to go before the government-perpetrated human rights nightmare is ended. In fact, larger sums of money continue to flow to security forces known to be involved in targeting community leaders.
A provision in Congressional Appropriations law requires a U.S. State Department report on human rights in Honduras before 20 percent of military and police aid is released. An August 25 Los Angeles Times op-ed by University of California Santa Cruz history professor Dana Frank indicates that more than $50 million in U.S. security and development aid can now flow to Honduras because the State Department reported that “the Honduran government is implementing policies to ensure freedom of expression, freedom of association (including labor rights) and due process of law, and to ensure that military and police personnel who have violated human rights are being investigated and prosecuted.”
Faith in action: Call your member of Congress through the Capitol switchboard (202-224-3121), thank her/him if s/he signed the letter to Secretary Clinton and encourage her/him to vote to suspend further military or police aid until human rights investigations are diligently carried out and pressure the State Department to do the same.
Find more information on the Latin America Working Group website.