Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, using the specter of rampant crime and the drug trade, won extensive support from the American government to build up highly trained state security forces. Now, those same forces are repressing democracy.
The post-election situation in Honduras continues to deteriorate as Hernández, a conservative leader and stalwart U.S. ally in Central America, has disputed the result of last week’s vote while working to crack down on protests sweeping the nation.
Initial results showed Salvador Nasralla, an ex-sportscaster chosen by an alliance of left-wing political parties as their candidate, leading the vote count after the November 26 presidential election. The lead was substantial enough that a magistrate on the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, or TSE, estimated victory by Nasralla, characterizing his lead as “irreversible.”
The next day the TSE announced that Hernández was closing the gap. Then it suddenly stopped publicizing the tally, alleging that its electronic system went down, prompting criticism from European Union election observers. Police and military flooded the streets in the hours of silence that followed. On Wednesday, the announcement that Hernández had overtaken Nasralla in the vote count was met with disbelief. In the words of Salvadoran journalist Carlos Dada, “There are only two possibilities: Either the TSE is of Olympic incompetence or it’s committing fraud.”
The turn of events led to chaos on the streets, and Hernández instituted a military-imposed curfew across the nation on Friday. At least one protester has been killed and scores of others have been injured and arrested in violent clashes with police.
For human rights observers, the curfew and delay of an official recount are steps to produce an inevitable Hernández victory, regardless of the vote tally.
“The delay has only served to fuel claims of mass fraud, confusion, and deep suspicion,” said Karen Spring, a human rights activist with the Honduras Solidarity Network. The demonstrators “went into the street because they know that being calm means allowing a cover-up to happen and what many call a dictator to illegally stay in power,” she added.
Several observers on the ground told The Intercept that they have seen elite military police from the TIGRES and Cobras units alongside the Honduran National Police involved in clashes with protesters in the capital, Tegucigalpa, and around the country. The three forces are increasingly coordinated as the violence soars, they say.
On the evening of Wednesday November 29, the three forces launched tear gas against an estimated 1,000 people who were gathered to wait for results outside the building where the TSE tabulated. Among the demonstrators was former Police Commissioner María Luisa Borjas, who wrote in an email statement to a group of journalists that the people gathered included many children and the elderly, along with opposition candidate Nasralla and his pregnant wife.
An American human rights observer also present said that when the coalition of police forces attacked the crowd, the gathering was peaceful. “People were singing and had a giant Honduran flag, they were running up and down the street. It was beautiful actually. People were angry — it was loud — but it was peaceful,” the observer, who asked for anonymity given the increasingly dangerous situation, told The Intercept in a phone interview.
On Friday evening, as police cleared demonstrators from the streets of the La Kennedy neighborhood of Tegucigalpa, officers adorned with visible TIGRES insignia were spotted by Spring. The TIGRES were accompanied by Cobras and Honduran National Police, or PNH, according to another human rights observer from the U.S., who also asked not to be named out of fear for her safety.
On Saturday night, Borjas received multiple emergency calls from the Cabañas neighborhood of San Pedro Sula, a city in northern Honduras. People were being forced out of their houses and into the streets when Honduran law enforcement, including the PNH, launched tear gas canisters into their homes. Police attacked because the neighbors had begun a “cacerolazo,” a common form of protest in Latin America, banging pots and pans when state repression makes anything else impossible. Upon forcing people out of their homes, the PNH arrested them, Borjas said. “This is happening as we speak,” she told The Intercept in a phone interview Saturday night, adding that the TIGRES and Cobras maintain a strong presence on the streets, especially around the building where the votes are being tallied.
The PNH receives extensive training by various branches of the U.S. government. The exact substance of U.S. training for foreign security forces is notoriously difficult to ascertain, but some light has been shed by new data provided by the Departments of State, Defense, Justice, and Homeland Security at the request of Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., and shared with The Intercept by John Lindsay-Poland, a Latin America expert who participated in making the request.
In 2015, for instance, the data shows that members of the PNH received courses titled “Advanced Close Quarter Combat,” “Tactical Safety and Survival,” “Communication and Electronic Intelligence,” among others, and received donations, including Toyota trucks and computers. “Multiple Honduran Military and Law Enforcement Units” also received trainings on “Special Forces Advanced Military Operations in Urban Terrain,” “Reconnaissance and Surveillance,” and other themes. “This will support [U.S. Southern Command] Theater Engagement strategy and will improve partner national [counternarcotics] units’ abilities to conduct unilateral and combined [counternarcotics] missions,” reads the text describing the purpose and objective of those courses, as reported by the Defense Department and U.S. Southern Command.
Courses listed for the year 2016 were similar. The instructors of the courses both years included federal agencies like the DEA, FBI, and the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, along with other agencies such as the Chicago police force. The data does not include additional detail about course curriculum or identifying information of trainers or trainees.
Since the elections, the Honduran government has made no effort to conceal the role of the two elite military police units. In the run-up to the election, Secretary of Security Julián Pacheco Tinoco announced that TIGRES and Cobra forces would be among the 16,000 police officers deployed to monitor the election.
The Comando de Operaciones Especiales, or Cobras, are riot police trained by U.S. SWAT teams. The Tropa de Inteligencia de Respuesta Especial de Seguridad, or TIGRES, were formed to fight urban violence and organized crime in 2014 by Hernández as he took office promising to bring down the world’s highest peacetime murder rate.
The TIGRES are paid a higher salary than traditional Honduran police, and they have also benefited from close coordination with multiple U.S. military bases in Honduras. A video obtained by the Wall Street Journal shows Green Beret units training with the TIGRES in the mountains of Honduras.
The militarized units, known to operate at night with uniforms that disguise officers’ faces, have featured widely in Hernández’s political campaigns as the president has championed his war on crime.
The TIGRES in particular are said to have been used to harass political opponents and simply rob the cartels they are designed to rein in. Shortly after the formation of the unit, TIGRES officers assigned to work with the U.S. Embassy on counternarcotics operations stole $1.3 million from cocaine traffickers targeted in a raid.
Most controversially, there have been allegations that TIGRES were involved in the harassment of Berta Cáceres, an internationally known and respected human rights and environmental activist who was assassinated last year.
Before her death, Cáceres, an outspoken critic of the Hernández administration, warned that commandos from the TIGRES had occupied her rural community, where Cáceres had led a protest movement against a planned hydroelectric dam. In a recording made just one month before her killing, she explicitly named the TIGRES, calling commandos from the force a “hostile and aggressive presence.”
There have been attempts to stem U.S. aid to Honduras since the environmentalist’s killing, either through enforcing existing statutes, such as the so-called Leahy Law, barring aid to military or police units with serious human rights violations, or passing new legislation. In the House of Representatives, 68 Democrats have sponsored H.R. 1299, the Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act, to make Honduran foreign aid contingent on anti-corruption measures and a halt to the killing of journalists and activists in the country.
“The Honduran security forces are using our taxpayer dollars to repress peaceful demonstrations against stolen elections.”
The Republican majority in Congress has not scheduled a hearing for the bill, making its prospects unlikely. Now, Cáceres’s nephew Silvio Carrillo, who lives in the United States, tells The Intercept, “The Honduran security forces are using our taxpayer dollars to repress peaceful demonstrations against stolen elections. We are giving Juan Orlando Hernández money so he can get away with murder.”
The build-up of military police forces, ostensibly to combat the drug trade, comes as the Hernández administration faces increasing attention for its own role in drug cartels.
In March, Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga, the former leader of the Cachiros cartel, told a federal courtroom in New York that he had met with Hernández’s brother to steer government contracts to a company used to launder cartel money.
The revelation was made during the case of Fabio Lobo, who pleaded guilty for attempting to smuggle several tons of cocaine from Honduras to the United States. Lobo is the politically connected son of Porfirio Lobo Sosa, Hernández’s predecessor and ally in the right-wing National Party. Lobo was elected in 2009 following the coup d’etat that swept the left-wing President Manuel Zelaya out of office.
A separate and equally stunning revelation was made last year in a courtroom in South Florida, during a case involving two nephews of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro prosecuted for drug trafficking, as researcher Jake Johnston recently reported for The Intercept.
During the trial, José Santos Peña, a Mexican drug trafficker-turned-informant, confided that he had met with Pacheco, Hernández’s chief of security and head of the TIGRES forces, to discuss plans to move cocaine from Colombia through Honduras to the United States. Santos said he was introduced to Pacheco by Fabio Lobo.
Johnston notes that despite the disclosures, “Pacheco remains a close U.S. ally, whose ties to the US military span decades.” Now, Johnston adds, “Pacheco is overseeing the same security forces that are repressing election protesters in the streets.”
Additionally, two 2017 reports, one from Global Witness and the other from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, uncovered damning evidence of systematic corruption, especially as concerns the National Party, to which Hernández belongs.
The increasing scrutiny, as well as the cascading corruption scandal involving millions of dollars stolen from the Honduran social security program in part to fund campaigns for the National Party, has prompted a bonanza of D.C. lobbying by the Honduran government.
Since 2014, Honduras has retained four lobbying firms to reach out to lawmakers, members of the Trump administration, and the American media.
Records show that one lobbyist, Gus K. West, has reached out to Florida’s Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and Democratic Rep. Ted Deutch, among others on Capitol Hill, to tout Honduran efforts to combat crime and wrote to the New York Times on the assassination of Cáceres. Another lobbying shop on government retainer, Keybridge Communications, has boosted Hernández’s re-election effort, sending press releases to U.S. media boasting about the president’s commitment to confronting corruption and the integrity of the presidential election.
In a December 1 statement distributed by Keybridge, the government of Honduras said that it is “deeply sad that violence has erupted on the streets of Honduras and that our nation’s democratic institutions have come under attack ” — violence it goes on to blame on ousted President Mel Zelaya for “inciting” Nasralla’s supporters to engage in violence.
Hernández has also traveled to Washington to meet with U.S. President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, both of whom warmly welcomed the leader. He is also close to White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, who referred to the president this year as a “great guy” and a “good friend.”
Cultivating powerful friends in Washington has worked so far, as Hernández has weathered criticism over his handling of the Cáceres slaying, the social security scandal, and his administration’s reported ties to drug traffickers.
The crackdown by security forces only further impresses the need to reconsider their U.S. funding, experts say. “U.S.-funded police and military are engaged in violent repression of Honduran protesters, using munitions marked as made in the USA,” said Dana Frank, a history professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
“For years, members of Congress have called for an immediate suspension of police and military aid to Honduras, because of ongoing human rights abuses like this, committed with impunity,” said Frank. “Now those forces are being used to repress the basic right of the Honduran people to protest. The Honduran elections offer a chance to declare which side the U.S. is on: democratic processes and the rule of law or the ongoing dance with a dangerous dictator, further consolidating his power.”
Correction: Dec. 8, 2017, 9:53 a.m.
An earlier version of this piece mischaracterized the restrictions on foreign aid imposed by the Leahy Law. It bars assistance to particular units alleged to have committed a serious human rights violation, not entire regimes.