ONE OF THE EARLIEST MEMORIES I can recall in the birth of my political consciousness came on a blustery fall night, when I was a sophomore in high school. The exact details remain murky, almost indistinguishable in my memory from the countless weekend nights I spent at my dad’s house in that era. But one variation, looking back now, set that night apart from all the others. Not long after sunset, my dad, his friend and I had sunken into the ripped leather couches set adjacent to the TV, the living room littered with empty cans of beer, unfolded Taco Bell wrappers, the camo hunting equipment and shotguns in their plastic padlocked cases all laid out on the dusty, leather cover of the pool table. As my dad and his friend nursed Bud Lights, we sat back, talked, and watched a riot unfold on CNN.
Ferguson, at over a thousand miles away from us, had never once before figured into my mind. Now it was a lightning rod in the national imagination. Footage of that chaotic night—one of several disturbances that convulsed the Missouri town in the year after Michael Brown was killed, though I regret not remembering which one it was—was being live-streamed onto the TV from a news helicopter circling above town. Panning shots captured scenes of people, far below, running over cars, piling like amoebas into intersections where they brought traffic to a standstill, gathering in crowds that stretched out of sight around the police station. Darren Wilson, the officer who pumped seven bullets into the black boys back, was to be proclaimed innocent. And there were police everywhere: stolid lines of officers in tactical military gear, silhouetted by floodlights against a backdrop of armored vehicles and snipers. The livestream would be intercut with an anchor with a microphone, shuffling crowds of people chanting behind them, assuring that those carrying out peaceful protests constituted the majority. But the footage always returned to the helicopter, to the broken windows and overturned cars and raging flames of incinerated buildings. To the hazy scrim of teargas. Ferguson, an American town, burning.
Photos and investigation by Seth Berry; words by me.
LOCAL PASTOR OMAR GUZMAN convened his nightly vigil on a dirt intersection on a recent evening in Triunfo de la Cruz, a dusty hamlet on Honduras’ windblown Caribbean coast. It was several weeks since the forced disappearance of five black Honduran, or “Garifuna,” men from this community, and local residents have been praying ever since.
Twelve armed men in police uniforms and balaclavas entered the town in the predawn hours of July 19 in unmarked, brand-new pickups, despite a COVID-19 curfew. They abducted the five men at gunpoint. Eyewitnesses reported the assailants wore uniforms of the “DPI,” or the investigative arm of the Honduran National Police, but seemed disorganized and amateur. They forced the men into their trucks and drove off into the night. Nothing has been seen or heard since of either the masked men or their captors.
ARNOVIS, AT TWENTY-TWO, had been content with living a quiet life. He worked the night shift at a turtle hatchery on a remote Salvadoran island. He lived with his family and five year old in the thatched home he grew up in. Ahead of him lay a future that appeared uneventful and peaceful.
But that future became impossible after a perceived slight at a soccer game threw him afoul of MS-13, a violent street gang that’d taken root on the island. “Sos tumba,” gang members warned him on anonymous phone calls—“You’re dead.” Facing imminent death in El Salvador, Arnovis was forced to flee, soon thrusting him into the nightmare that is our global border regime.
In The Dispossessed, John Washington, an activist with No More Deaths–No Mas Muertos, longtime Spanish translator, and journalist, takes Arnovis’s story—his harrowing escapes from El Salvador and repeated rejections for asylum in the US—and uses it breathe feverish life into that nightmarish global border system. By illustrating the life of a man torn apart by asylum, Washington paints a jolting vision of a world of cleaved by global economic apartheid.
“You can’t really wipe out the dreaded drug business for three simple reasons. People need the jobs. The government needs the money. And in the end the police and soldiers all join the business.”
—Charles Bowden, June, 2011 talk at the Commonwealth Club
PICTURE, FOR A MOMENT, the image of a drug trafficker:
His bristling mustache, his shadow-darkened eyes, his demure-looking harem of scantily-clad lovers. Imagine, for a moment, his studded leather boots, and the sharp glint of sunlight off his immaculate gold rings. His expression lies hidden. He contemplates the world from within a blue halo of cigar smoke. If the myths are true, he lives in a sprawling, walled-off mansion, replete with animals and ringed with armed guards. His gunmen can square off with the toughest of militaries, and anyone can be killed when he so desires. No politician lays beyond the temptation of his bribes. The immiseration of entire societies in Latin America is attributable to him, and him alone. He looms above them like a specter: an evil narco-squid whose vast tentacular reach leaves nothing—no person, place, nor institution—uncorrupted.
The above narrative, fanciful, flamboyant, almost cartoonish in nature, can be found on ample display in decades-old cultural industry of drug-themed books, movies, and TV-shows. But that same narrative is reflected with mirror-like precision in sober government discourses justifying drug wars. Despite yielding little asides from increased drug usage and bloodshed of unprecedented scale, Oswaldo Zavala notes with suspicion, governments continue advocating for those wars with that same narrative. With the narrative of the Cartels, the Drug Wars—and vast cultural industry sustained by mythologizing them—continue amassing profits with no end in sight.
NOT LONG BEFORE NOON ON THE DAY he was imprisoned, Francisco Chox, an indigenous GuatemalanTV journalist, was covering a protest in the Sololá department. Three weeks earlier, on May 25th, the government of Alejandro Giammattei dispatched the military to impose a state of emergency over two neighboring municipalities in the department, Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán and Nahualá. Decades-old territorial disputes between the indigenous communities had erupted the previous day, with a clash that left one dead and several wounded. Dozens of people in the area have been killed in armed confrontations in recent years from an intercommunal conflict rooted in economic disparities and inequities in land ownership between the municipalities.
On June 11th, protests over the federal military occupation broke out in the town of Alaska in Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán, the poorer of the two municipalities. The disturbances, according to one report, began after a group residents of Nahualá ascended the hillside towards land disputed with Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán to clean their crops and replace piped water services, a move seen as a provocation by many in the latter community. Catching wind of the protest, Chox—who works for department-wide station Canal Nim, goes by the nickname “Chivo” and, according to multiple interviews, is highly recognizable for wearing indigenous garb—jumped on his motorcycle and headed to Alaska. Once he got to the scene, where a roadblock had been set up on the highway, a group of protesters recognized him as a journalist from Nahualá and promptly zeroed in on him as a target.
BERTA CÁCERES HAD SEEN the signs. She knew, better than most, that her time was running out. But the threats being leveled against Honduras’s most famous land and human rights defender—the venomous messages on WhatsApp, the armed stalkers—had become so regular that, even as the danger escalated late in 2015, her family and friends thought nothing would ever come of them. Any illusions of invincibility were shattered the night of March 2, 2016.
Berta’s assassination marked an ominous new era. As early as 2002, police or military-affiliated death squads in Honduras—resurrecting the tradition of state killings carried out by groups such as Battalion 3-16 in the 1980s—would execute low-level political activists or teenagers accused of gang activity. But Berta was different. She’d been famous on an international scale: waging successful campaigns against powerful dam corporations, traveling the world raising awareness of those struggles, meeting the pope, and winning the Goldman Prize—the “Green Nobel”—for her work. If they could kill her, it meant no one in Honduras was safe.
Her murder added another macabre chapter in the history of Honduras, which in the wake of a 2009 U.S.-backed military coup has become one of the most dangerous countries in the world—especially for human rights defenders.
Invoking the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and reiterating the state’sresponsibility to provide assistance to the poor, Honduras Solidaria, an emergency response plan ordered by President Juan Orlando Hernández’s executive decree on March 28, is intended to help Hondurans at risk of starvation during the COVID-19 shutdown.
On paper, the sweeping emergency relief program, whose stated objective is “supplying food rations in a basic basket to at least 800,000 Honduran families” affected by the pandemic, marshals the Honduran Armed Forces and the National Police to deliver relief to the country’s most vulnerable. The bolsa solidaria, or “solidarity basket” as it is known, brings rice, coffee, sardines, flour, and hygiene products, among other essentials, to those trapped at home while the virus sweeps the country. It mobilizes 355 million lempiras ($14.2 million USD) to provide supplies to those unable to work to earn money for food and supplies. “I thank God, and the President, for remembering us, the poor people,” one woman said of the aid program in a government press release.
But according to many, the ruling conservative party, Partido Nacional, is both targeting delivery to supporters to expand their political base and neglecting communities with majority support for opposing parties. “The bolsas solidarias are arriving only and exclusively to the communities that are already aligned with the Partido Nacional,” Mario Argeñal, a teacher and TV show host in Danlí, told me over WhatsApp, speaking from his rural home in the El Paraíso Department near the Nicaraguan border.
Hundreds of people, many wearing medical masks, brought traffic to a standstill on an outer Tegucigalpa highway to protest the Honduran government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. They’re hungry, they say, demanding food and support.
Military police approach the crowd, assault rifles in hand. In a chaos of shouts, the first rounds are fired. A hail of stones thrown by the protesters come thumping and scudding on the pavement.
One of the officers levels his rifle above the protesters, firing a rapid succession of shots before jumping in the police pickup and stealing down the road. It is unclear if anyone was wounded in the confrontation.
The street battle caught on video in Tegucigalpa on May 8th shows but one face of the US-backed government of Juan Orlando Hernandez’s response to the pandemic. The government is besieged by mounting accusations of corruption and drug trafficking, and the coronavirus has ushered in a rise in hunger, corruption, state violence and repression.
In the countryside, land conflicts simmer, and many activists are worried they’ll soon boil over. Over the past decade, hundreds of peasant activists have been murdered by the Honduran military, sicarios, or state-allied paramilitary groups.
Quarantine has added a macabre new chapter to those conflicts: unable to leave their home while death threats against them continue, activists have become sitting ducks.
This article originally appeared in The Nation magazine
The mine can’t be reached from the gate along the road, which is guarded by soldiers bearing M-16s and a helmeted foreman with a shotgun over his chest.
So if you want to see the sprawling mineral extraction complex being constructed here in Honduras’s lush Bajo Aguán valley, you have to hike past El Guapinol, one of the villages many fear the mine will poison. You ascend a mud-sluiced path of boulders, passing a line of barbed wire to reach a grassy embankment. From there, you can see the excavators, the trucks, the rows of concrete pilings, and the gaping brown hole scraped out of the valley’s verdant floors. The mine, whose conjoining iron oxide processing factory is set to be the largest in Central America, hasn’t been built yet. But blood is already being spilled over it.
“We live in fear every day,” says Reinaldo Domínguez, a resident of El Guapinol, looking out over the construction site in the distance.
WHEN THE ALARM WENT OFF at four in the morning, the world outside was limpid and still.
The backpack, already packed, lay propped against the wall at the far end of the room, a foam mattress pad protruding through it crossways and the boots set beside it with the laces unloosened. Milky prisms of moonlight in slipped through the windblown curtains. Far off, the distant rattling of motorcycles carried with a faint echo over the city.
For a few more seconds—or maybe it was a minute—I contemplated the prospect of going, absorbing stillness of the world outside. And without further ado, I slipped into the boots, threw my pack over my shoulders and went walking down the street, joyful if apprehensive, bound for the highest point in Central America.