A police officer in Tegucigalpa last summer. (Courtesy Reuters)
Honduras is becoming notorious. The country now has the highest murder rate in the world. In 2011, more people were killed per capita in the industrial center of San Pedro Sula than in Mexico’s Ciudad Juárez, where the drug war rages on the U.S. border. It has also become one of the most dangerous places to be a journalist: At least 23 have been killed in the past three years. And according to the World Bank, 60 percent of the population lives in poverty, a statistic outmatched in the Western Hemisphere only by Haiti.
It is not difficult to spot the sources of the problem. A handful of entrenched elite families control the government in Tegucigalpa. They were never completely clean to begin with, but the June 2009 military coup, which toppled democratically elected Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, threw the doors wide open, and the government is now corrupt from top to bottom. The judicial system is broken. According to Marvin Ponce, the vice president of the Honduran Congress, 40 percent of the country’s police are involved in organized crime.
When Roberto Micheletti took over as de facto president, he faced enormous resistance. Micheletti and his successor battered it down with an iron fist. Since early 2010, there have been more than 10,000 complaints of human rights abuses by state security forces, according to the Committee of Families of the Detained and Disappeared of Honduras, the country’s leading human rights group. As chief of police in San Pedro Sula, Hector Ivan Mejía oversaw the tear-gassing of an opposition demonstration on September 15, 2010, when security forces broke into and threatened an opposition radio station; today, he serves as national spokesperson for the Honduran police.
In many ways, Washington is responsible for this dismal turn. From the earliest days of the coup, the United States made poor decisions. The Obama administration was willing to call Zelaya’s ouster a coup, but it refused to ever use the term “military coup,” which would have legally triggered a cutoff of all military and police aid. Instead, U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton legitimated Micheletti as an equal player in negotiations. They never denounced the repression that followed.