Pandemic response a partisan war on the people in Honduras

In a country that’s health care system is seriously underfunded and dangerously unprepared for everyday needs, COVID19 presents an unprecedented crisis. Photo by Seth Berry

Street vendors who’ve resisted the stay-at-home order to go out and get food or money have been accosted, detained, and even killed, by military police for being on the streets.

On April 25, three brothers in Omoa, El Paraíso, who make a living selling bread on the street, had decided that, rather than starving in their homes, they would return to work. 

They were targeted by the Military Police for Public Order (PMOP), a force notorious for accusations of participating in death squad-style activities in periods of anti-government protest. The officers brutally beat the brothers, shooting two of them in the melee, killing one and wounding the other.

“They had gone to work, and two military police—who had been looking for trouble in the area for days— began shooting at my older brother out of nowhere, even as he was already on the ground, they just kept shooting,” a sister of one of the brothers told local news outlet Noti Omoa

In protest, local residents set up barricades made of burning tires in the streets of Omoa.

In another case of abuse, at noon on May 15, 34-year-old Noel Velasquez, who sells cell phone chargers and accessories on the street in Danlí, a picturesque town on the border with Nicaragua, was mistaken for a man accused of being a thief and being out street past curfew. 

Velasquez was beaten and arrested by the National Police. His family has no other source of income or way to make money under quarantine, according to Mario Argeñal, a teacher from Danlí. Velasquez remains detained.

In the cities along the country’s northern littoral, and in San Pedro Sula in particular, crowds protesting food shortages and the government’s politically skewed, clientelistic aid relief program have been met with teargas and bullets.

The question on the minds of many, according to Valladares Bustamante, is the following: “Should I go out and get food for my kids—or stay in the house and watch them starve to death?” 

The Central American country registered its first COVID-19 case on March 4, declaring a state of exception on March 16. A national stay-at-home order was decreed on March 28. 

Under the restrictions, people can leave their homes to get food one day a week under a schedule determined by the number on their government issued ID. But in a country where over half the population lives on less than five-and-a-half dollars a day, to not go to work each day can be tantamount to death itself. 

“The people who have to live day-to-day, under the stay at home orders, their suffering, I would say, has literally tripled—especially in terms of food security,” said Lenín Laínez, a congressperson for the opposition LIBRE party in a Whatsapp exchange with Toward Freedom

“The people live day-to-day,” echoed Argeñal, the teacher from Danlí. “They’re going to keep leaving to get food each day, no matter how much teargas they shoot.” 

According to Laínez and Argeñal, there have been dozens of protests and road blockades throughout Honduras in the weeks since the stay-at-home order came down. The protesters are demanding greater equity in providing food to those affected by quarantine. 

In many cases, the National Police or Military Police have repressed these gatherings with teargas, with beatings, and sometimes with live ammunition. 

According to a paper released on May 21 by the Committee for the Family Members of the Detained and the Disappeared (COFADEH), in April alone there’ve been no less than 11,000 arbitrary detentions of protesters, 37 protests have been violently repressed, 137 protesters have been mistreated in prison, and eight people tortured by security forces. 

Beyond sending soldiers and police to repress the population, the government recently unveiled its relief package, named Honduras Solidaria

The 355 million lempira ($14.2 million USD) program allocates funds for emergency food distribution to the local governments of the country’s 293 municipalities. The army has been enlisted to deliver bolsas solidarias— “solidarity baskets” which, according to the Presidential website, include rice, coffee, and beans—to at-risk and impoverished communities. 

The government has been accused of weaponizing this program to secure support for the conservative National Party headed by Orlando Hernández, who is also known as JOH. 

 “Only people who belong to the National Party have been receiving help, and not the general population,” said Orlin Manuel Duarte Landero, a history professor at the National University of Honduras (UNAH). 

“They’re supposed to be giving out supplies for people with few resources,” said Valladares Bustamante, who confirmed that in his neighborhood, food rations are going to National Party members. He says politicians are “using political clientelism in order to ensure votes. They’re making propaganda out of the pandemic.” 

Unfortunately, clientelism isn’t just a feature of pandemic survival for the poorest in the capital. 

“There is a politicization of relief,” according to Argeñal. “They constructed a mechanism of relief packages to support their party.”

In addition to teaching, Argeñal is also a TV host who runs an informational show on the local station Vida TV Danlí. He says he has received dozens of calls to his program over the last several weeks complaining of unequal distribution of resources in the El Paraíso department, skewed towards National Party affiliated communities.  

According to Anabel Melgar, a student activist and member of the National Front of Youth in Resistance in the western state of Intibucá, residents receiving emergency food packets have been asked by authorities to give their ID and phone numbers, with which they’ve been then registered into the National Party. 

“They’re delivering food in exchange for people to become members of the National Party,” said Melgar via Whatsapp voice message.

The National Party has been hounded by protest and widespread accusations of corruption. The most recent election, in 2017, was marked by such deep irregularities that the OAS called for a recount. Violent protests in the election’s wake saw at least 38 protesters killed—by bullets fired at protests and, in many cases, by extrajudicial executions investigators believe were carried out by state security forces.  

This March, US prosecutors said President Hernández colluded with a drug trafficker to secure the 2013 election.  

On April 30, a case by the US Department of Justice against notorious former Police Chief Juan “Tigre” Bonilla implicated the president in drug trafficking. Only five months before, in October 2019, a US district court indicted his brother “Tony” Hernández for using the Honduran military to import weapons and several tons of cocaine into the US through Miami. 

Further reports then emerged that JOH was the beneficiary of a $1 million USD bribe from Mexican drug kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.  

Long a bastion of de facto US-power in Central America—hosting Soto Cano, the region’s largest military base, from which a joint rapid action task force of 500 US troops operate alongside an equal number of local soldiers—Honduras has been driven along a violent trajectory of deepening state militarization in the decade since the 2009 military coup. 

This has been executed under the auspices of the so called “war on drugs” that’s served as a smokescreen for siphoning support to a regime whose security forces have repressed dissent and killed opponents to facilitate exploitation and land grabbing. 

The fact that New York prosecutors implicated the President of Honduras’ immediate family in the drug trade has done little to sour his relations with the US State Department, which funneled millions in weaponry to the regime under both Obama and Trump. 

“That President is working with the United States very closely,” Trump boasted of JOH at a gala for the Israeli American Council National Summit in December. “We’re stopping drugs at a level that has never happened.”

Quarantine hasn’t changed the daily violence involving the country’s two major gangs—MS-13 and Barrio 18— which in many places exist alongside and operate in symbiosis with state security forces. 

Though life has changed drastically for the poor majority under quarantine, for the gangs, “there hasn’t been a change,” according to Diego Aguilar, a researcher who has worked with gangs in San Pedro Sula.

“The carrying out of blatant violence [by gangs] is still continuing within the barrios and colonias,” Aguilar said in an interview from his home in San Pedro Sula.On the other hand, you find the daily violence of security forces in colonias, like Rivera Hernández, which are notorious for being very, very dangerous.”

Author: jared8796

I'm a multi-award-winning writer and independent journalist whose essays and reportage have been published in The Nation, Vice News, the Los Angeles Review of Books, El Faro, and NACLA, among others. As an investigator, my focus is on violence, environmental conflict, political and social struggle in Central America, particularly Honduras. As a writer and essayist, my wider concern is understanding the historical dynamics of social struggle and interrogating fundamental presuppositions concerning humans relation with one another and the planet. I've spent two and a half years as a reporter covering social and environmental strife in Mexico and Central America. In 2018, I was a grantee for the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, for whom I covered the continued existence of the Zapatista movement 25 years following their uprising. Since then, I've reported on MS-13 gang violence; indigenous radios in Guatemala; anti-government resistance in Honduras; and deadly environmental conflicts.

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