If it were a narco lab, it would be working

John Perry

On the day he was inaugurated, Joe Biden halted the construction of Trump’s Mexican border wall. A few days earlier, 1500 miles to the south, a new ‘caravan’ of at least eight thousand Honduran migrants had set off northwards, partly in the hope that by the time they tried to cross into Texas, Biden’s promised softening of immigration policy might have taken effect.

Obstacles left by Trump still stand in their way. Agreements he made with Honduras and Guatemala led to police attacking and dispersing the refugees. Scattered groups are still heading towards the Mexican frontier at Chiapas – according to one Trump-era official, ‘now our southern border’ – where they will face Mexican troops. If they eventually reach the Rio Grande, they’ll join 25,000 asylum seekers in camps, waiting to be processed by US border officials. Roberta Jacobson, Biden’s official charged with forming his new ‘secure, managed and humane’ migration policy, has asked them to be patient and pleaded for no new arrivals.

Why do people take these risks? The truth is that Honduras is a failed state and, unless US policy towards it changes radically, many thousands more will head north. Since the military coup in 2009 there have been three corrupt elections. The last, in 2017, which saw Juan Orlando Hernández (JOH) re-elected when he had clearly lost, led to even more repression. Persecution of human rights defenders is unceasing, even after international condemnation of the murder of Berta Cáceres five years ago. Seven were killed in 2020, and four young leaders from Garifuna communities, abducted in a single night seven months ago, are still missing.

Curfews during the Covid-19 pandemic appear to have worsened the day-to-day violence: eleven corpses were found in the street in one week in January; bodies are being chopped up and left wrapped in plastic. Perhaps the most emotive case occurred earlier this month: a doctor and student nurse, who had been working with Covid patients, were arrested for breaching the 9 p.m. curfew. The doctor was freed, but the nurse died in police custody. Protests erupted. Five people were arrested, tortured by the police and forced to confess to crimes they didn’t commit.

In November, two hurricanes hit a country totally unprepared for them, destroying 6000 homes and seriously damaging 85,000 more. By December, JOH was touring financial institutions in Washington looking for money. He collected more than $3 billion in aid for hurricane victims, despite well-publicised corruption in the disbursement of funds donated earlier to tackle Covid-19. Shortly after his visit, federal prosecutors in New York –who a year ago established that JOH had created a narco-state – filed documents in a new drugs case. After quoting JOH saying he would ‘shove the drugs right up the noses of the gringos’ by flooding the US with cocaine, they accuse him of ‘embezzling aid money provided by the United States through fraudulent non-governmental organisations’. A Honduran narcotics lab, protected by the military on JOH’s orders, had been sending hundreds of kilos of cocaine to Miami every month.

The massive disruption caused by the storms provoked a fresh peak of Covid-19 infections: 1100 new cases on a single day in mid-January, the highest so far. Weakened by corruption and underfunding, the health service is overwhelmed. At least 75 doctors and dozens of nurses have died, many as a result of overcrowded wards and poor equipment. ‘We have to wait until someone dies to give their bed to someone else,’ a doctor said. To fill the gaps, seven mobile hospitals were ordered last March but only two are working properly. The head of the agency which made the $47 million deal, accused of corruption, was sacked. People protested under the banner: ‘If it were a narco lab, it would be working.’

Biden’s immigration policy includes spending $4 billion in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to address the problems that spur migration. It should be obvious, not least from the evidence accumulated by New York prosecutors, that the ruling party in Tegucigalpa is unfit to govern, even if JOH is replaced in elections in November. But the problems go much deeper than that: the whole governing system serves the needs of big business – often North American companies – as it exploits both the land and the workforce, destroying the environment and maintaining the second biggest gap between rich and poor in Latin America. Throwing money at the problems could simply make them worse unless Biden makes the fundamental changes in US policy that both Obama and his secretary of state Hillary Clinton refused to contemplate. Perhaps aware that this won’t be achieved quickly or easily, Biden officials appear to have quietly asked Mexico and its neighbours to continue to deter migrant caravans, even as a new one is said to be forming.

JOH meanwhile faces not only political rejection but possible extradition if the US turns against him. He’s reported to be ‘trying to figure out how to refashion himself from a Trump ally into a Biden one’. He tweeted a photo of himself with Biden in 2015: ‘I hope we can work together,’ he wrote, ‘like in the past.’


  • 17 February 2021 at 1:51am
    bblacky says:
    American policy towards all countries in Latinoamerica has been no better than that of the failed USSR toward its East European and Central Asian satellite states.

    The tragedy continues: as the American economy goes belly-up it will drag down its Central and South American neighbors with it, so tightly are their pitiful economies linked with that of "Tio Sam".

    The Mexicans have a lament, which would apply as well to their Honduran neighbors: "So far from God - so close to the United States of America".

  • 17 February 2021 at 10:45am
    Charles Evans says:
    John, thanks for this informative piece. I'm curious, though - what can the Biden administration do about effectively-failed states in Central and South America? Should the role of the US be to implement regime change? We know how disastrous that policy has been in the past. Throwing money at the problem clearly has the potential to make the problems worse, not better. What other means does the US have, if not physical or financial coercion?

    I don't know the answer to this, and I'd love to hear the suggestions of people more knowledgeable than me!

    • 20 February 2021 at 1:12pm
      freshborn says: @ Charles Evans
      Since the Democrats don't care, it's a moot point. That is the limit of capitalist ideology: if their government lets your donors exploit their resources, you give them a kickback; if their government tries to build a country, subvert, sanction and overthrow them. When the refugees turn up at the border, do whatever loses the fewest votes. If you actually try to develop a country, your opportunities to hoard personal wealth are severely limited.

    • 22 February 2021 at 11:56am
      Charles Evans says: @ freshborn
      If that's your view of the Democrats, then fair enough (are the Republicans any different, I wonder?). I don't buy the premise that the Democrats only care about exploiting Central and South American nations.

      I'm interested by "If you actually try to develop a country, your opportunities to hoard personal wealth are severely limited.". Who does the developing? The country itself? The US? Is it the place of the US to interfere (supportively or destructively) in another nation's attempts to build itself?

      I'll note that plenty of nations which try to develop themselves have had ruling elites who use it as an opportunity for personal enrichment to the detriment of their citizens. They seem to be able to do it quite well without any outside influence from the US!

    • 24 February 2021 at 11:29am
      John Perry says: @ Charles Evans
      Charles, I believe the US's best course of action is to cease interference. Stop military assistance, certainly, and stop one-sided sanctions too, since they invariably hit the poorest. They should also review how their policies of extractivism have drained resources from their poorer neighbours. When signs of popular and progressive change develop, as they did in Honduras before 2009, they shouldn't try to stop it in its tracks. Change will very likely be a slow process, the US should be a benign observer not a vigilant reactionary force protecting its narrow interests. Will that do for starters?

    • 28 February 2021 at 6:10am
      nlowhim says: @ John Perry
      Well said. Stop interfering in negative ways would be the first step. Yet, with Climate Change picking up (and I haven't seen much on this with regard to Central America (CA), but I've heard that it's exacerbating the situation there quite a bit), I sense that an even more proactive hand is needed. This will require putting pressure on our corporations with interests there as well as the elements of the right that we support in CA to allow for more popular reforms. Can this be done? I"m not sure, but we'll have to try.

      The other is drugs. Reforming our own drug laws in a way to deal with the demand for something that provides so many bad actors with so much money and incentive to do bad in that area. But does legalizing it take that all away? With inequality in America still sky high (and people looking to hard drugs as an escape) do we have the political will power to allow drugs to be legalized? How would that look?

      Reading A History of Violence: Living and Dying in CA was pretty eye-opening and I'm not sure how we deal with the likes of MS-13 or the cartels. Perhaps drug demand being curtailed would help.

      I should note I haven't read many contemporary accounts of that area and I'd like some books if people have some to recommend.

    • 2 March 2021 at 5:45pm
      John Perry says: @ nlowhim
      Nelson, your points are good ones. Climate change is seriously affecting what is known as the 'dry corridor' that extends south from Guatemala, through part of Honduras into the north of Nicaragua. On books to read, given that today marks five years after the horrific murder of Berta Caceres, Nina Lakhani's book is highly recommended ('Who Killed Berta Caceres?: Dams, Death Squads, and an Indigenous Defender's Battle for the Planet').

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