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The world watched in horror last weekend as U.S. border patrol agents opened fire with tear gas on a group of refugees seeking asylum in the United States. This week on Intercepted: Decades of CIA death squads, economic warfare, coups, and support for authoritarian rule played a central role in the exodus of refugees from Central America. Donald Trump is now threatening to shoot the fleeing victims. Honduran professor Suyapa Portillo Villeda analyzes how Washington created the crisis. Jeremy Scahill details the history of John Negroponte and the Contra death squads in Nicaragua and the case of a U.S. Jesuit priest murdered in Honduras during Negroponte’s tenure. The Intercept’s Ryan Devereaux and Melissa del Bosque of the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute talk about the militarization of the border, the prosecution of humanitarian volunteers who help immigrants, and the nativist white supremacists driving U.S. policy. Director Alex Winter talks about his film documenting the hundreds of reporters who produced the Panama Papers — more than 11 million documents showing systematic tax evasion and money laundering by some of the world’s most powerful people.
Cartoon: It was nothing, really, but old Mr. Pietro posing as a doorman sure had us fooled for a while.
Donald J. Trump: Well, will anybody really know? All right. Will anybody really know?
Cartoon: We sure thank you, kids, for unraveling this smuggling mystery for us.
DJT: I don’t, I don’t know, you know, who can really know?
Cartoon: There they are, Sheriff, Mr. Creeps and his partner, Mr. Crawls.
DT: He told me that he had nothing to do with it. I would say maybe five times.
Shaggy: Zoinks! It’s Mr. Carswell, the bank president.
DJT: They have not concluded. Nobody’s concluded. I don’t know if anyone’s going to be able to conclude.
Cartoon: Look at this snapshot. Here’s a clue to end all clues.
DJT: I don’t want to hear the tape. No reason for me to hear the tape.
Cartoon: I’m sure you’ll recognize him. There, look familiar?
DJT: I don’t know. I don’t know.
Cartoon: Dr. Nashib!
DJT: He denies it vehemently.
Cartoon: Mr. Magnus!
DJT: They said he might have done it.
Cartoon: Dr. Jekyl!
DJT: Frankly, if we went by this standard we wouldn’t be able to have anybody as an ally.
Scooby Doo: Well, ‘rooby-dee-doo.
Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted.
JS: I’m Jeremy Scahill coming to you from the offices of The Intercept in New York City and this is episode 75 of Intercepted.
[Clip of U.S. Border Agents shooting tear gas into Tijuana, Mexico.]
The world watched in horror last weekend as U.S. border patrol agents opened fire with tear gas on a group of refugees seeking asylum in the United States. These agents fired rounds across the border, into Mexico. Donald Trump claims that many of these refugees are hardened criminals.
Donald J. Trump: These are hardened criminals. These are tough, tough people and we have hardened criminals coming in. People are coming over from Honduras. They have like five thousand people, Honduras and Guatemala, El Salvador. And some of these people are hard criminals, hardened criminals, not good people.
JS: But as with many things Trump spits out of his mouth, he offered no facts to back it up. He just uses the most powerful podium in the world, that of the American president to slander masses of suffering people looking for refuge. But here’s a fact: among the targets of this assault by U.S. forces were women and children, many of whom fled Honduras.
Across the American news media, these refugees are simply referred to as migrants or the caravan. Rarely do we get any context of why they’re risking their lives and the lives of their children to flee Honduras. And part of why we don’t hear that context is because to really tell this story you need to talk about the U.S. dirty wars in Central America in the 1980s. You need to talk about the impact of neoliberal economic policies. You need to talk about the catastrophe of climate change caused by the U.S. and other major world powers. You need to know history.
Archival Newsreel: The United States has intervened with military forces 12 times in Latin America in this century. Many of these invasions were led by Brigadier General Smedley Butler. In his memoirs “1933,” he says: “I helped make Mexico safe for American Oil interests. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place. For the National City Bank, boys to collect revenue in. I helped pacify Nicaragua for the international banking House of Brown Brothers. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for the American sugar interests. I helped make Honduras right for American fruit companies.”
JS: If you know this history, particularly in Honduras, then you know that what we are seeing now is a situation where the U.S. set a house on fire, and as the flames have raged, the U.S. is standing against the people trying to flee the fire that Washington set to their home. When you cut through all the propaganda, the generalizations, the lies, that is what we’re witnessing now — the United States is trying to stop innocent people from fleeing a raging fire that the U.S. itself started.
Ronald Reagan: My fellow Americans, I must speak to you tonight about a mounting danger in Central America that threatens the security of the United States.
JS: Throughout the 1980s, the Reagan Administration waged a series of dirty wars throughout Central America, in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras. After the leftist Sandinistas took power in Nicaragua, the U.S. began a program to support a death squad known as the Contras. Neighboring Honduras, which was technically a newly Democratic state was in reality ruled by a right-wing military junta. The forces under the command of General Gustavo Alvarez operated a notorious CIA-backed death squad in Honduras. It was known as Battalion 316. Thousands of people were killed during this period in the name of fighting communism.
Sgt. Kevin Andersen: You can’t have communists run free all over the place doing what they want to do. What happens if the United States gets attacked by communists or we leave it open to be attacked by communist? What happens then?
JS: That U.S. soldier was part of military exercises in the 1980s in Honduras, right near the Nicaraguan border. Honduras was the staging ground for U.S. support for the Contras and the point man for the Reagan administration was Ambassador John Negroponte. Negroponte cut his teeth working for Henry Kissinger during the Vietnam War. As ambassador to Honduras, from 1981 to 1985, Negroponte presided over the second largest Embassy in Latin America at the time and the largest CIA station in the world.
From that post, Negroponte not only coordinated Washington’s covert support for the Contra death squads and the Honduran junta, but he also covered up the crimes of its murderous Battalion 316.
During Negroponte’s tenure in Honduras, U.S. officials who worked under him said that the State Department human rights reports on the country were drafted to read more like Norway’s than anything reflecting the actual reality in Honduras. Negroponte’s predecessor in that country, Ambassador Jack R. Binns told the New York Times that Negroponte had discouraged reporting to Washington of abductions, torture, and killings by notorious Honduran military units saying “I think Negroponte was complicit in abuses. I think he tried to put a lid on reporting abuses and I think he was untruthful to Congress about those activities.”
Sen. Paul Sabrana: Were you aware of this, of the existence of this battalion when you were down there as ambassador?
John Negroponte: Senator, as I responded in a written question with regard to the so-called Battalion 316, my first awareness of the existence of the battalion by that name, and we can get into this because I’m not trying to be fancy with my use of words here now, but my first –
JS: Negroponte was asked about the death squad in front of the Senate in 2001 during his confirmation hearing for U.N. Ambassador.
JN: But I asked the CIA about Battalion 316 and was given a memorandum by the agency at that time which advised me that that battalion was created in the beginning of 1984, either late 1983 or the beginning of 1984, which is well into my tenure in Honduras. And that to the best of the agency’s knowledge at that time, no, there had been no substantiation of any human rights, systemic human rights violations being carried out by that unit.
JS: John Negroponte would later serve in the George W. Bush administration running operations in Iraq that came to be known as the Salvador Option. Despite Negroponte’s bloody history, Hillary Clinton bragged about receiving his endorsement when she ran for president in 2016.
Fox News Anchor Gregg Jarrett: John Negroponte, a former veteran diplomat who served under three Republican administrations as well as the Clinton administration has endorsed Hillary Clinton for president.
Negroponte wrote this about Hillary Clinton – we’ll put it up on the screen – “She will bring to the presidency the skill, experience, and wisdom that is needed in a president and commander-in-chief. Having myself served in numerous diplomatic and national security positions starting in 1960, I am convinced Secretary Clinton has the leadership qualities that far and away qualify her best to be our next president.”
JS: Among the crimes committed by U.S.-backed Honduran forces during Negroponte’s tenure was the murder of a U.S. Jesuit priest named Father James Guadalupe Carney. Father Carney was a liberation theology revolutionary who spent 18 years living with the campesinos and the poor of Honduras. The U.S.-backed forces waged a smear campaign against Father Carney, who was a World War II veteran, claiming that he was a communist.
James Guadalupe Carney: The most basic need a man has to fulfill is food and of course, when a valley like this could produce enough food, they say, for all Central America, is producing vegetable oil for Castle Cooke Company, I mean, that’s [a] terrible crime. It’s a sin and that’s why we Christians nowadays in Latin America, we want to change that. We rebel against that. Even if they call us commoners, even if they kill us, we have to try to do something about it.
JS: In 1983, Father Carney was murdered by a U.S.-backed death squad. We still do not know the truth of what happened to him, but there are many sources who say he was captured alive, tortured, and then thrown from a helicopter into the jungle. Here is Democratic Senator Tom Harkin speaking on the Senate floor opposing Negroponte’s nomination as Bush’s U.N. Ambassador in 2001.
Tom Harkin: Mr. Negroponte showed a callous disregard for human rights abuses throughout his tenure as U.S. ambassador to Honduras between 1981 and 1985. During which time I traveled to Honduras, and in fact went out to one of the Contra camps with the Ambassador at that time and quite frankly, in my conversations at that time in Honduras and with the later revelations of what was going on with Battalion 316 that was supervised and basically trained by our CIA and our military personnel, when a lot of these things came to light it became clear to me that during my trip there, that I was misled and quite frankly, not given the correct information that I sought.
Secondly, I believe that Mr. Negroponte knowingly misinformed the U.S. State Department about gross human rights violations in Honduras and throughout Central America during the height of the so-called Contra War in Central America in the 1980s. That action, in turn, resulted in the Congress being misled as to the scope and nature of gross human rights violations that were being committed by the Contras and by the Honduran military and in particular, Battalion 316 in the Honduran military. In a letter to The Economist in 1982, then Ambassador Negroponte wrote and I quote: “It is simply untrue that death squads have made appearances in Honduras.” Yet from 1981 to 1984 over 150 people disappeared, including one American priest Father James Carney whose body has never been recovered.
JS: Father Carney’s death is one of thousands that have gone unsolved in Honduras and the overwhelming majority of those victims were Hondurans. Hundreds more were disappeared never to be seen again alive or dead. That country has never recovered from these dirty wars and what the U.S. did in Honduras. Just as the worst of the bloodshed was letting up a decade later, U.S. neoliberal economic policy further ravaged the country and made it one huge maquiladora for major corporations.
AP News Archive: The president of Honduras says he’s the victim of a coup. He says he was brutally kidnapped by soldiers. Manuel Zelaya spoke Sunday from Costa Rica. Zelaya was detained shortly before voting was to begin on a constitutional referendum. Tanks and armored personnel carriers rolled through the streets. Army trucks carrying hundreds of soldiers equipped with metal riot shields surrounded the Presidential Palace in the capital’s center. President Barack Obama is calling for all sides in Honduras to respect democracy and the rule of law. It’s not immediately clear who is running the government.
JS: During the Obama Administration, a military coup overthrew the democratically-elected leftist government of Manuel Zelaya, and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton supported that coup, even bragging that she had devised a way to resolve the crisis that would ensure that the elected president would never return to his post. As she campaigned for president in 2016, Clinton continued to defend her position on Honduras including under questioning from journalist Juan Gonzalez of Democracy Now.
Hillary Clinton: Now, I didn’t like the way it looked or the way they did it, but they had a very strong argument that they had followed the Constitution and the legal precedents. And as you know, they really undercut their argument by spiriting him out of the country in his pajamas, where they sent, you know, the military to, you know, take them out of his bed and get them out of the country. So, this was – this began as a very mixed and difficult situation. So, our assessment was, we will just make the situation worse by punishing the Honduran people if we declare a coup and we immediately have to stop all aid for the people, but we should slow walk and try to stop anything that the government could take advantage of, without calling it a coup.
JS: I bring this up because we need to understand that this situation was not just created by Trump. It was created by more than a quarter century of U.S. policy. You could say it goes back even further than that. Trump is basically the thug who has now stepped in late in the game, continued decades of brutal, murderous, inhumane U.S. policy and is now punishing its victims even further.
Reporter: How did you feel when you saw the images of the women and children running from the tear gas?
DJT: You know, I do say, why are they there? I mean, I have to start off – first of all, the tear gas is a minor form of the tear gas itself. It’s very safe. The ones that were suffering through a certain extent were the people that were putting it out there.
JS: Today Honduras is governed by a U.S.-backed undemocratic leader. Crime and corruption are rampant. Gangs run murderous operations and poverty is widespread.
Remember all of this history when you listen to Donald Trump’s racist and xenophobic rhetoric. Remember that the U.S. played a central role over the course of decades in creating the conditions that have caused these desperate people – these families with their children to flee. Remember this as you watch women and children gassed by U.S. forces. History matters. Context matters.
Today we’re going to dig deep into this history with a Honduran professor who has spent her life documenting the role of the U.S. in Honduras. But first, we’re going to get the latest from the U.S.-Mexico border from two reporters who have spent extensive time reporting there.
I’m joined now by my colleague at The Intercept, Ryan Devereaux. He’s been on the Homeland Security beat for the duration of the Trump presidency and has spent a lot of time recently in the front-line State of Arizona. And we’re also joined by Melissa del Bosque. She is a Lannan reporting fellow with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute. She’s written about the U.S.-Mexico border since 1998. Her latest piece is for The Intercept. It’s called The Occupation: In South Texas, Border Residents Struggle to Cope with The Latest Military Surge. Ryan, Melissa, welcome to Intercepted.
Melissa del Bosque: Oh, thanks for having me.
Ryan Devereaux: Thanks for having me.
JS: Melissa, let’s start with you. You’ve been reporting on the border for years. And now under Trump, we’re seeing this very intense visible militarization of the operations along the border. You have Trump saying that the U.S. military is authorized to use lethal force against people, throwing rocks.
DJT: Because they’re throwing rocks viciously and violently. You saw that three days ago, really hurting the military. We’re not going to put up with that. They want to throw rocks at our military, our military fights back. We’re going to consider it, and I tell them, consider it a rifle.
JS: Describe what you’ve seen as you’ve been reporting from Texas and elsewhere during this crisis.
MDB: What I’m seeing is a lot of manufactured crisis, right. A lot of you know, build up, razor wire being laid along the river, the Rio Grande which is the Texas border with Mexico, a lot of troops. They’ve started this base camp, Donna, in the town of Donna on the Texas border with you know, tents and thousands of soldiers. Lots of helicopters flying around. It feels very tense. But also, there’s nothing happening, you know, I mean, Trump would like to see nothing more than some sort of horrible conflict.
JS: Give the context for what happened in Tijuana, Mexico where you had U.S. border patrol officers firing tear gas into this crowd of Central American asylum-seekers.
MDB: Border patrol has been doing that for a long time. They’ve also shot into Mexico and actually killed people in Mexico. They’ve done that at least 10 or 12 times over the last decade and nobody has been prosecuted for that. There was just a trial, actually, for a border patrol agent who shot a man in Mexico, a boy actually, a teenager and he just got off on that. You know, them firing tear gas and pepper spray into a crowd I mean, it’s happened before. It’s not unusual for border patrol to do something like that and they always use rock-throwing as an excuse, you know. Well, they threw rocks at us so we had to use, well they call it “less than lethal force.”
Border Patrol Chief: Our agents were being assaulted. A large group rushed the area and they were throwing rocks and bottles at my men and women, putting them in harm’s way as well as other members of the caravan.
JS: Ryan, you’ve been traveling back and forth to Arizona for the better part of the last year, these past several months, and I want to ask you about some of the reporting that you’ve done specifically about potential criminal charges being brought against people who are trying to help migrants – giving them water, shelter, etcetera.
But first, you really have carved out a beat where you are covering the further militarization of Homeland Security operations in the United States and also looking at who is influencing the Trump administration on its border policy and its position on ICE. So, talk about that bigger picture of what’s happening with Homeland Security and ICE relative to the border under the Trump administration.
RD: The way that I sort of look at this and everything that we’re experiencing right now, is sort of a trajectory that began – you can draw the line wherever you want to – but you know, a really instructive place to start is sort of the mid-90s, the Clinton administration, the development of a strategy for border enforcement that involved collaboration between the border patrol and the Pentagon called Prevention Through Deterrence where the idea was to move migration flows away from cities – build up sort of security infrastructure around border cities — and then move migration flows into the desert. The thinking being that people won’t cross the desert and if they do, they’ll die and that will send a message.
The creation of Prevention Through Deterrence was – it was sort of the foundation of what we’re talking about now. You have that married with criminalization of immigration crimes, right. So, immigration offenses make up the larger share of the federal docket than anything else that’s been a development over the last decade and a half or so. So, you have in the desert, migrants crossing, dying. You have in the courts along the border [a] hyper-punitive system. Then after 9/11, you have a lot of these border security agencies get this sort of national security boost, right? So, you see Department of Homeland Security agencies, like the border patrol, like ICE, really adopting a mentality of warriors on the front line and they get the kind of funding that comes with that, right. You have Customs and Border Protection, the agency that oversees ICE, you know, receiving more funding than you know, all of the major federal law enforcement agencies FBI, DEA combined and a mentality that “We are warriors guarding the wall,” right.
And I say that you know, non-ironically because the border patrol has a union, and the border patrol union has a podcast. And that podcast for a long time, they actually featured John Snow from Game of Thrones talking about being a warrior on the wall.
Jon Snow: I am the sword in the darkness. I’m the watcher on the walls. I am the shield that guards the realms of men.
Announcer: Broadcasting live from the southern border, this is the Green Line.
DJT: This is Donald Trump and you listening to the Green Line.
Host: Thank you, President-elect Trump. Thank you to all our listeners out there. We are going to make podcasting great again.
RD: And for those who aren’t, Game of Thrones fans, you know, the wall is a defense against the undead army that is threatening to destroy Westeros, right. So, it is an idea that we are these elite guards guarding against a horde, an invasion. And that idea — a horde, an invasion of people is something that we’re hearing constantly now from the Trump administration. That didn’t come out of nowhere. For the last, you know, several decades, there’s been a nativist right in Washington D.C. that really operates through a handful of prominent think tanks. Influential and powerful think tanks that were all sort of, founded by this white nationalist, eugenicist publisher named John Tanton.
So, yes, it’s people like Steven Miller. Obviously, everybody knows about Miller but there’s a whole sort of network of people who have been agitating for years to take what is already a really intense system for, you know, chasing, capturing, detaining, and deporting folks into overdrive.
JS: Ryan, you also have been focusing on a story that hasn’t gotten nearly the attention that I think a lot of us believe it deserves. How this administration is seeking to prosecute humanitarian volunteers who are – including potentially on felony charges – who are trying to prevent deaths of people who cross the border as migrants. Talk about this effort by the Trump Justice Department to go after people who are trying to prevent deaths in the desert, or in rural areas when people are crossing over and trying to get elsewhere in the United States.
RD: Southern Arizona’s sort of been ground zero for migrant deaths for years, and years, and years as a result of Prevention Through Deterrence, which I mentioned earlier. And in response to that, there’s this community — a really deep community — that kind of began in the 80s with the sanctuary movement when religious leaders were moving hundreds of refugees from Reagan’s dirty wars in Central America into the United States. When people start dying in the desert as a result of Prevention Through Deterrence, this community sort of, formed that was built around the idea of putting water in the desert for migrants who are crossing, providing medical aid to people who are crossing. The idea being that no matter – no matter what your immigration status, no matter if you’re carrying a backpack full of marijuana, no matter what, you don’t deserve a death sentence in a desert.
And for years, these groups, particularly, No More Deaths which is sort of, the most well-known of these organizations, has had back and forth run-ins with the state under the Trump administration. Particularly under, now former-Attorney General Jeff sessions, the government has been cracking down on these groups with the real heavy hand. So, in January of 2017, No More Deaths released a report that documented the border patrols destruction of thousands of gallons of water in the desert that No More Deaths had put out. Hours later that day, one of No More Deaths long-standing volunteers who had sort of lead an effort to search for bodies in one of the most remote areas in Arizona was arrested. He was found at a sort of, nerve center for humanitarian aid work in the desert along with two undocumented men. He was charged with two counts of harboring and later, a conspiracy charge was added – federal crimes, felonies. He faces a maximum of 20 years in prison.
So, Scott Warren’s case, this volunteer facing these felony charges, is one of several cases involving humanitarian aid volunteers in southern Arizona. He’s one of nine volunteers who are also facing charges for leaving water on federal lands for migrants. Some of his fellow volunteers, they’re all facing a year in prison for what the government has termed littering. You talk to people who are really involved in dealing with the humanitarian crisis on the border in southern Arizona, dealing with migrant deaths, they’re critical. They find bodies. They provide water to people who are on the verge of death.
I was out there in August of this year with one of these immigrant-lead search and recovery groups. It was 120 degrees out. These guys were combing through the mountains trying to find the remains of a young man who had went missing years ago. They don’t get paid money to do this work. They’re responding to a crisis that the government created and now what we’re seeing is the Department of Justice attacking them with the full force of the law. Trials are supposed to begin at the beginning of the next year.
I think it’ll be really critical for folks to pay attention to what happens here because what we’re seeing is the administration with ICE deporting lots, and lots of folks from the interior of the country now who have been living in the United States for years. We’re already seeing these folks trying to get back to the lives that they’ve built here. They’re going to be trying to cross a border that maybe they cross 20 years ago that was a lot different. It’s much, much more securitized now. The chances that deaths are going to increase is high.
JS: Yeah, and I would also recommend that people watch the 2014 film “Who is Dayani Cristal?” by director Marc Silver where you have the actor Gael Garcia Bernal retracing the steps of one man whose body was found dead in the Arizona desert.
Who is Dayani Cristal? (2014): At the time that Dayani Cristal came in, we were knee-deep in border-crosser deaths at that point in time already. With a body found in the desert, we work closely with the consulate try and determine identification. If they’re Mexican nationals, from Guatemala, from Honduras.
RD: And I just I want to add something on that because it brings to mind, one of the main protagonists in that film works at an organization called Colibri that does a lot of work repatriating the remains of migrants. And Colibri also has been targeted in this area, or at least felt the effects of this crackdown in southern Arizona, with a senior border patrol agent literally telling one of the co-founders of the organization after a No More Deaths camp was raided, that they messed with the wrong guy and we’re coming for them now. So, it’s being felt across the board in the humanitarian aid community in Arizona.
JS: Melissa, you’ve covered the border under both the Obama administration and now the Trump administration. You’ve been doing this work for a long time. Can you explain for people what are the most significant changes that you’ve seen in U.S. policy from Obama to Trump?
MDB: You know, of all these terrible policies that were going on during the first term of Obama’s presidency with ICE, you know, going in and deporting people. I mean, they called him Deporter-in-Chief and it was true. I mean he’s – more people have been deported under Obama than Trump. Of course, Trump’s only, you know, this is his first term. But you know, because of that grassroots movement and all the pushing back and all the lawsuits that were filed and women, Obama’s second term was better for immigrants in the border.
We saw you know prosecutorial discretion that ICE had so they didn’t have to you know, they were only going to deport people who had criminal records. People were not being prosecuted for helping people in the desert, you know by putting out water and so forth, and you know Dreamers were allowed to stay and study. So, there were a lot of real gains that were made, and the sad thing is when Trump came into office it seems like so much of that was lost, all of that organizing and all of that work. I mean, the organizations are still there. They’re still they’re still fighting but there’s just so much to fight against now.
And there’s so much chaos and so much changing from day to day and then you know, you see something like the zero-tolerance policy, which is a very extreme form of Prevention Through Deterrence where they’re just physically separating families at the border which you know, we were all horrified by it. At least under Obama, you felt like you could appeal to him and his administration for some sort of justice or some sort of mercy, but you don’t have that sense at all under this administration.
And even in my in my reporting, it’s very different now when I go to interview people who are undocumented or the level of fear I’ve never seen before. And under Obama, when I was doing stories, people had hope they thought “Well, I want to get my message out. I want people to know about what my life is like as an undocumented person. I’ve lived here for 30 years. All my kids are U.S. citizens.” There was some hope that there would be some change. That there would be some immigration reform but now there’s just like no hope you know people are like, “Why should I even talk to you? It’s not going to do any good and all I do is risk some authority finding out that I’m here.” So, the level of fear is just pretty astronomical.
JS: Ryan, on November 9th, Trump signed this presidential proclamation banning migrants from seeking asylum, or officially applying for asylum outside of official ports of entry. And you know, across the board, legal experts on this are saying that it, you know, basically violates the Immigration and Nationality Act. Now, there’s a legal fight there as there has been with the Forced Separation Policy. But what is the significance of Trump changing that or seeking to change that policy for people seeking asylum?
RD: I look at that decision sort of, in the context of this broader assault on asylum as a means of protection for vulnerable populations attempting to come to the United States that we’ve seen playing out from day one. This administration sort of, with this collection of nativist influencers has poked holes or attempted to poke holes in asylum all over the place. I mean, it’s really been remarkable and striking. You talk to immigration attorneys who have been doing this work for a long time, and they’ll point out some tweaks, some small tweak, that would go unnoticed by the general public that is having huge impacts, you know, in actually being able to provide protections for folks who are coming here, attempting to exercise their right under domestic and international law for protection.
I think that you can then look at that attack on asylum in an even broader context which is how the Trump administration is part of this rise of sort of far-right authoritarian governments that we’re seeing around the world. I think it’s important to keep in mind that as a country, we’re not alone here. Criminalizing humanitarian aid work, politicizing fear of migrants wiping out, you know, a dominant white Western culture, we’ve seen that all over the place. Across the world, it’s resonating. It’s being weaponized. So, we’re not alone. So, I think that it’s just important to keep that in mind when we’re talking about all of these issues.
JS: What should people be looking at in the coming weeks and months n the Border?
MDB: It’s going to be interesting to see what happens. I mean, right now, you know, they’re sending more soldiers to the California-Mexico border. And then, we have a new Mexican president coming in on December 1st. So, that’s going to be very interesting to with the new president in Mexico, and the decisions he’s going to make about whether they’re going to hold asylum seekers in Mexico while they wait to, you know, make a claim to the United States. I don’t really see that working. I don’t know how that’s going to work. So yeah, things are going to – are really going to change I think in the next week when we see the new president come in in Mexico, and just see what kind of decision they can come to between the two countries about what they’re going to do.
JS: And Ryan, finally, a lot of people, including liberals and others, say, “Oh, well, you know, General Mattis is a, you know, a very respected military general with a storied career. He’s one of the adults in the room.” But let’s be real here. If you go back and look at General Mattis’ career, he has been involved as the commander in several mass killing operations, including of large numbers of civilians, including civilians who were fleeing the scene of violence in their home countries. I’m referring specifically to Iraq. And I’m concerned, you know. When we hear pundits say “These are professional soldiers in the U.S. military, they would never open fire on civilians.” The entire story of the U.S. military is riddled with stories of firing on civilians and killing civilians. I actually think you have this lethal cocktail of a known killer, including of civilians like Mattis, a racist xenophobic administration that has been infiltrated intentionally by nativist right-wingers. I really do fear that we could see not just the dribble of killing here, killing there, but that we could actually see a massacre. And I think there are people within the Trump world that would want that.
RD: Yeah, a lot of folks, I think, want to look at what happened there in the run-up to the midterms, the deployment of the troops and say, you know, “That was just a political stunt.” And true, it was a political stunt, but it was also more than that. The President of the United States managed to elevate a white nationalist narrative about an invasion of brown people coming into the United States, then mobilized thousands of active service members in an operation that was called Faithful Patriot without much interference.
The same administration that rammed through a policy of forcibly separating thousands of children from their parents, and then just sort of throwing them into the black hole of the system. My point is I don’t think we’ve seen the sort of limit on what they are willing to try, and we’ve also seen them manage to quickly push through really sweeping and extreme actions on the border in the name of what they call border security. So, yeah, I think that there is real reason to be concerned about all of these things coming to a head in the coming weeks and months.
JS: Ryan Devereaux, thanks very much for joining us.
RD: Thanks for having me.
JS: Melissa del Bosque, thank you very much for your excellent work and for joining us here on Intercepted.
MDB: Sure. Thanks for having me.
JS: Ryan Devereaux is a reporter for The Intercept. Make sure to check out all of his reporting on the war against immigrants at theintercept.com. And Melissa del Bosque – she is a Lannan reporting fellow with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute. Her latest piece for the intercept is called The Occupation.
For more on the history and context of why so many Hondurans are fleeing their country and seeking asylum in the U.S. and elsewhere, I’m joined now by Suyapa Portillo Villeda. She is associate professor of Chicanx and Latinx Transnational Studies at Pitzer College in California. She’s originally from Honduras and continues to work and research in that country. Suyapa, welcome to Intercepted.
Supaya Portillo Villeda: Thanks for having me.
JS: I want to begin – when this group of people that are seeking to apply for asylum in the United States are talked about in the broader news media, they’re generally referred to as the caravan or the migrants. But in fact, many of them, the majority of them are fleeing Honduras. Why are they leaving Honduras?
SPV: Well, people are leaving Honduras for a lot of reasons. I think one reason is sort of the historical foreign policy of the U.S. in Honduras, right. For over 50 years, the U.S. has been sort of manipulating and engaging in Central America at different levels, right, military, diplomatic. And one clear example is the 2009 coup.
VOA News 2009: This is how the street looked earlier in the week as police clashed with hundreds of protesters angered by the military overthrow of President Manuel Zelaya. Mr. Zelaya was rousted out of his bedroom in the Presidential Palace by Honduran soldiers and sent into exile on orders of the country’s Supreme Court. The court says it took the action because the president wanted to amend laws to guarantee him another term. But Mr. Zelaya told the U.N. that he was promoting change within Honduras. Change that he says is opposed by the Honduran elite.
SPV: That coup has generated so much instability both politically, economic. When you have a weak militaristic government, like Juan Orlando’s government, you are also going to have a strong narco-state. And post the coup d’etat, over 900 concessions were heard and granted by the Honduran government to outside powers, you know, China, Canada, the U.S. and companies in those countries funded by sort of, IMF and World Bank, right.
So, local elite are able to get these loans from international banks in Europe in the U.S. and then collude with companies to build things like, you know, hydroelectric dams or mining the arable land that people would use for subsistence farming, for instance. They’re being displaced from this land or the rivers are being contaminated. So, people are fleeing for that reason, right. The other reason that most people don’t think of, or maybe they forgot is sort of, the neoliberal era of the 90s. Most people look at that era and think of Hurricane Mitch as the reason why people come and that is one reason, right. There was such weak infrastructure in the country that it devastated, you know, most of San Pedro Sula, the western part of Honduras, and the southern part of Honduras.
British Pathé Archive: In late October 1998, a tropical storm in the southwest Caribbean suddenly intensified into one of the strongest hurricanes this century. It hovered over Honduras for 4 days. In just 12 hours, it dumped two feet of rain. Honduras had borne the brunt of the storm with at least 7,000 dead and 600,000 homeless.
SPV: But in reality, we’re looking at 20 years after NAFTA, and free trade agreements are just failing most people at this point, right. People have to migrate because they’re not making ends meet. If you’re a young woman you start working in a maquila from age 15. By age 30, 35, that’s it. There’s no more work for you because that’s when ailments start to happen. That’s where sort of occupational health and hazards pop up, right, as women get older. Women end up needing to migrate and many times have you know, four or five children to feed.
These women are having to bring their kids. If they leave their kids, they can leave them with an aunt or with a grandparent, and sometimes with a neighbor but then a host of all kinds of things can happen to them, right, from sexual abuse to like, they may not be getting the money that the parents are sending. So, instead of putting the kids through this separation, many times women make the choice to bring them with them.
JS: As you well know if you go back even further into the 1980s, when John Negroponte was the U.S. Ambassador to Honduras, Honduras was a major staging ground for the U.S.-backed Contra death squads in Nicaragua. You also had the Honduran paramilitary/military death squad Battalion 316 that was murderous. And you had the United States State Department whitewashing the human rights situation in Honduras itself when John Negroponte was running the U.S. operations there.
Archive Narrator: It was an impressive show of force as U.S. paratroopers filled they skies over central Honduras. The 800 infantrymen hit the ground running fully aware of the circumstances that brought them here and deadly serious about carrying out their mission.
Soldier: I’m here to train. I’m here to do what they told me to do.
Announcer: And that is the practice of maneuvers of war. The troops are pumped up, proud to carry out their Commander-in-Chief’s orders.
Solider: Four horsemen forever and so is Ronald Reagan.
JS: Talk about how the dirty wars in Central America, and in Honduras, and the U.S. presence there in the 1980s created some of the conditions that we now see causing or continuing to support this notion that people feel like they need to flee.
SPV: Honduras has been used as sort of an airport for [the] U.S. State Department, for military. Honduras has one of the largest air [bases] in the region, Soto Cano Air Base, and part of it is its geopolitical location, right? Honduras is one hour from Cuba by plane, immediately next to Nicaragua and El Salvador which in the 80s were had active guerillas, right, and were fighting and winning, right? So, Nicaragua won in 1979 and was able to take power. And this is important geopolitically for the United States to sort of you know, at this point, during the Reagan years was the Red Scare, right. And the fear that communism was going to spread throughout the region, that they were connected with the Soviet Union or Cuba, but also this emerging drug war. And so, Honduras is, what many people say like, this backyard right, for the United States, where they can sort of bring, and deposit, and train people. There’s regions in Honduras where revolutionary leaders from Nicaragua or El Salvador were tortured or even from Honduras. There’s about 2,000 students were disappeared during the period and often times like you said, covered up. Honduras has always been sort of the U.S. lackeys, right. I’m not talking about the Honduran people. I’m talking about Honduran government and Honduran poor leaders, right.
What happens in Honduras is that from 1962 to 1980 there were military leaders passed on leadership throughout that region. Elections didn’t happen, and it was sort of a pacted [sic] process until 1980. The candidate that most people wanted to win wasn’t Roberto Suazo Cordova, was actually Modesto Rodas Alvarado who was a progressive candidate. He was a liberal party member and he mysteriously dies. It’s unclear how he died. Some people say he was poisoned. Some people say it was healthcare and then Suazo Cordova emerges as someone that’s going to be a lackey to the U.S. Embassy and the U.S. State Department.
Ronald Reagan: Honduras is a good and valued friend and partner of the United States. President Suazo’s leadership has returned Honduras to democracy and his government has embarked on a prompt and courageous effort to return the country to economic health.
SPV: Under his watch, 2,000 students were killed many, many more had to flee the country into Mexico and other places to be exiled and most of the guerrilla movements that were formed in Honduras were basically squashed, right, through both surveillance and also covert operations as well as, just random violence. So, growing up in Honduras during this period in the 70s, a period of dictatorship, you know, I remember transit between cities was really difficult. So, you would go from one city to another and it was a two-hour drive that would take four to six hours because military stopped you, the police stopped you, the military police stopped you, right.
So, you had to get off the bus and everybody was searched. And so, we’re seeing that era sort of return now to Honduras. So, particularly post the second election of Juan Orlando Hernández which was fraudulent, right. We’re all clear that he didn’t win these elections, but that they were rigged, people started to protest.
SPV: And they weren’t just Libre party members, the opposition party. They were multiple parties who were opposing what they were seeing happening back in November of 2017. And they were received with live bullets and this is sort of a return to the 1980s, right. We hadn’t seen for example, the military police in the streets as they are now since the 1980s and we hadn’t seen live bullets be sprayed onto peaceful protesters.
[Protests and gunshot sounds.]
SPV: I think for this generation of people that are protesting, right, the generation of the coup d’etat, the people whose consciousness grew out of the coup d’etat, it’s absolutely shocking what’s happening, right. I was able to actually be in Honduras for the past eight months and I was able to witness some of these casings that were left by the police, right, excessive tear gassing. So, now young people who are engaged in sort of the civil process of voting, who feel betrayed by what happened in November of 2017, are now fleeing for their lives because the police is hunting them down, entering their homes, throwing tear gas inside their homes, throwing them in jail one or two years without really like, posting charges, right. People are waiting one or two years in jail trying to figure out what they’re being charged with. There’s complete chaos. And I think Juan Orlando Hernández has sort of demonstrated that he doesn’t have a handle on what’s going on. There’s complete in-governability in Honduras at this point, just rampant corruption and people are fleeing that.
So, what happens when all of that is going on in the government and people are protesting? What happens is people can’t work, right? The majority of the population, about 70% of Hondurans live in poverty. About 60% live in extreme poverty, mostly in the countryside. And so, if there’s complete mayhem in the country, the economy is not growing because of all of the militarism and the coup has generated just complete chaos. People are not able to survive.
JS: Of course, I’m sure you’re aware, Hillary Clinton just recently said the following quote: “I think Europe needs to get a handle on migration because that is what lit the flame.” And she went on and said, “We’re not going to be able to continue providing refuge and support,” talking about Angela Merkel of Germany, “because if we don’t deal with the migration issue it will continue to roil the body politic.”
So, you have that statement from Hillary Clinton, and then it was echoed by John Kerry, who also was a Secretary of State under Obama, and you have everyone acting horrified, and I think rightly so at the way that Trump has been talking about this issue. Now talking about maybe permanently closing the border, deploying the U.S. military, having forces that are firing tear gas at women and children. But let’s talk real here for a moment. The beginning of this part of the story of Honduras really began with the U.S. support for the coup against Manuel Zelaya. Talk about Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama, and their roles, both public positions and privately what we know about their actions in supporting the coup that took place in 2009 and radically destabilized Honduras.
SPV: Well, you know President Obama had every opportunity to deal with migration “before the flame was lit.” Barack Obama campaigned on immigration reform and giving some amnesty to the community, and people responded by voting him in. So, he had every opportunity for eight years to change the course of what was going to happen with over 11 million people who are undocumented. Many of them are Hondurans, you know. So that’s one problem — he became actually what people now referred to as the Deporter-in-Chief. He deported more people than any other president in history, he chose to “deport criminals,” but that’s not what we saw on the ground.
In fact, the people that were being deported were not criminals at all. They were actually people that had a deportation order, for instance, may not have shown up to a meeting. They weren’t necessarily people with criminal offenses. They also started to criminalize immigrants, right. So, for example, crossing the border is a misdemeanor. Crossing the border is an actual crime in the books — in the penal code. If people cross a second time, then they’re committing a felony and they have to sort of pay for that crime and then face deportation court. So, when they go to deportation court after being categorized a felon clearly, those are criminals. Do you see the loophole here? So, people that are not necessarily criminals, that are in good standing in society, that are good citizens, but may not have understood how the paperwork functioned or may not have understood that crossing the border after being deported was going to land them in this situation, all of a sudden are in this situation. So, President Obama had every opportunity.
You know, part of the discussion with what’s happening in Central America is that Manuel Zelaya was engaging with Hugo Chavez and with Fidel Castro — at the time they were both still alive — and trying to get Honduras entered into the Bolivarian Project for the Americas, right, which was sort of an alternative to the free trade agreements, and a way in which Honduras could sort of emerge from this darkness that it’s in economically and politically. So, I think that that was threatening, not necessarily to the U.S. State Department at first, but to the elite in Honduras, right, who have allegiances to the United States more than their own country.
So, they saw this as dangerous for them. And I think that when they felt their pockets being touched by this that was problematic. Also, during this period, all the Latin American countries were pushing for Cuba to be admitted into the OAS. And I think that that meeting happened in Honduras where Hillary Clinton was present, and everybody was pressuring for Cuba to enter the Organization of American States, and that became sort of an important moment, right. I believe that that meeting so angered Hillary Clinton that she definitely six months later let Honduras know that staging was inappropriate.
Why? Because in Honduras the U.S. State Department has been able to do whatever they want. Honduras has been their backyard. They’ve been able to manage leaders, to put leaders, to put down strikes. Everything you can think of has happened in Honduras, including the training of officials for the Bay of Pigs, the training of the military that invaded Guatemala in 1954 to depose Árbenz Guzmán, the interrogation of revolutionary leaders, the disappearance, the torture, the training of the Contra revolutionaries in the 1980s. I mean, the U.S. has been able to do whatever they want in Honduras and all of a sudden, when Honduras enters The Bolivarian Project for the Americas, Honduran leaders are pausing.
JS: I think it’s also important to point out that in 2014, I believe it was Hillary Clinton wrote a review for the Washington Post of the book by infamous war criminal, Henry Kissinger, who also is a close friend of Hillary Clinton — and Republicans and Democrats alike, the elite — but she writes this glowing hagiography to Henry Kissinger in The Washington Post. And then defends her actions in the aftermath of the coup in Honduras saying that she had had a plan with other diplomats in the region around Honduras on how to “restore order” in the country that would render illegitimate the question of whether Zelaya should return to power. I mean, I just think it’s extremely telling that she finally admits this, albeit with milquetoast language in an article for The Washington Post praising Henry Kissinger.
SPV: And if people remember Henry Kissinger, the orchestrator of Operation Condor in South America, thousands and thousands of young people, college students disappeared, labor organizers, women, revolutionary leaders, and possibly has been engaged throughout not just the Americas but the world in wars, right, in bringing down communism. And this very elusive communism, right? It’s unclear what they mean by communism. Who are these people? Because the people that I’ve been interviewing on the ground for my own research are working class people who really just want to make decent wages, who want to have a union so that they have say on their medical care, who want to engage their society by voting and if their vote is not respected, they want to be able to protest. And you know, for demanding and protecting their lands, right, not letting any corporation come in and you know, destroy the rivers and natural resources. These are actually, you know, working people who need to have justice and who need to have basic survival.
So, I mean one thing I haven’t mentioned is sort of the “War on Drugs”. The DEA, in 2011, the DEA shot and killed two pregnant women in La Mosquitia which is a region close to Nicaragua. DEA Agents from the United States. These are U.S. citizens thought that they were narco-traffickers and killed them and to this day those families haven’t found any justice. These people have not been brought to trial, right. So, the U.S. is able to exist in Honduras almost with unparalleled power, right? They’re able to decide who’s president, who dies, who lives. And so, that’s why it’s so ironic to see their comments now on this migrant refugee caravan, which we Central American scholars do call refugees because they are actually fleeing a failed state. They’re being persecuted. Yes, there’s narco-traffickers. Yes, there’s narcomenudeo. There [are] gang members, you know, but they exist within a failed state and that’s why they’re thriving there.
I think what’s interesting about Hillary Clinton is one, nobody wanted Trump, right. But I think for Central Americans, they also didn’t want Hillary because they saw right through her, right. She was going to be more interested in Latin America, be sort of the new era-Kissinger, if you will, be engaged in her idea of democracy, which is not participatory democracy, which doesn’t incorporate young people, and which clearly doesn’t even care about immigrants. In fact, I think when she was campaigning, she actually said that kids in 2014 should be deported.
Hillary Clinton: Just because your child gets across the border, that doesn’t mean the child gets to stay. So, we don’t want to send a message that is contrary to our laws or will encourage more children to make that dangerous journey.
SPV: And I think for Central American voters, and for Latino voters, that was really a wrong move for her.
JS: I wanted to ask you about Trump sending U.S. military forces to the border. And if you have the larger group of people make it to the border, your concerns about what could happen.
SPV: First of all, we’re not going to stop this migration of refugees. I think that that is sort of poor analysis from the State Department on this issue. We’re not going to stop it until we deal with the root causes of this migration, which is all that we’ve been talking about, right? You know, they’re engaging in the covert activities that are actually displacing people and supporting corporations which are displacing people. So, people are not going to stop coming just because the U.S. President or the Vice President sends a tweet about it.
The other thing is that I actually am surprised that the Mexicans have allowed for the U.S. military to be there. You know, let’s look back at 1848, right. Let’s look back at the ways in which the U.S. has infringed on Mexico’s sovereignty. What I see here is an infringement on Mexico’s sovereignty. The fact that riot police from the U.S. shot into Mexican territory that’s a sovereignty issue right there. And any president of any country needs to address that and they’ve had an opportunity to address. So, I think Enrique Peña Nieto right now hasn’t been able to address it because he’s on his way out. For the new president AMLO (Andrés Manuel López Obrador) who takes over December 1st, this is going to be a key defining moment of his presidency. This is what history has put in front of him. Is he going to comply? Is he going to concede? Is he going to stand up? And what is that going to look like?
And lastly, you know, tear gassing unarmed women and children, youth is just deplorable. It’s first of all, a violation of international rights under the Refugee Convention of 1961. People have a right to ask for asylum. This is not something that’s up for grabs. I think that we’ve seen sort of the ignorance of the Trump administration over, and over, and over. This is a big oversight. This is an international oversight. We are beholden to these international conventions, and we must allow and review these asylum policies at the very least, right? So, if people come to our borders and seek asylum, they have a right to do that. They have a right to do that in any country at any time.
The other thing is that to see these people as refugees, we have to get international recognition for the genocide that happened in Central America in the 1980s, right? So, Guatemalans should be refugees because 200,000 Guatemalans were killed since 1954, and throughout the period of the 1980s. Many of them, the majority were Mayan, of Mayan descent. 80,000 murdered in El Salvador, over 20,000 in Nicaragua in that prolonged war of the 1980s. 2,000 murders of students in Honduras and you know, we can go down the list of what’s happening since the coup d’etat, right? We’ve seen over 500 murders of people including leaders like Berta Caceres, right, you know, who ran for president.
These are the conditions in which they’re migrating, and they should be considered refugees for this, but it doesn’t make sense for the United States to consider them refugees because it would implicate itself in the murders of the 1980s and the 1990s and currently in Honduras. So, this is political and I think that they’re perceiving Central American women and children as weak — as people that don’t have power, as people that can be manipulated. So, this is why I think international organizations need to step in. People are not going to stop coming just because you tell them not to come. People come as a direct response to hunger, to violence, to corruption, to being displaced from their land. We really need work on refugee laws and utilizing these international conventions.
JS: Well, we’re going to leave it there. Professor Suyapa Portillo Villeda, thank you very much for joining us.
SPV: Thank you.
JS: Suyapa Portillo Villeda is originally from Honduras. She is associate professor of Chicanx and Latinx Transnational Studies at Pitzer College in California.
John Doe: For the record, I do not work for any government or intelligence agency directly or as a contractor and I never have. My viewpoint is entirely my own. Income inequality is one of the defining issues of our time. It affects all of us, the world over. Still, questions remain: why? And why now? The Panama papers provide a compelling answer to these questions: massive, pervasive corruption. It’s not a coincidence that the answers come from a law firm. Mossack Fonseca used its influence to write and bend laws worldwide to favor the interest of criminals over a period of decades.
JS: Those words are from John Doe’s Manifesto. It’s a manifesto detailing the rationale for why the anonymous source gave the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung a data archive containing all the records of the Panamanian Law Firm Mossack Fonseca. The data revealed how Mossack Fonseca helped people, including very rich and powerful individuals, hide their money and assets from being taxed and scrutinized.
The data leak included more than 11 million documents, encompassing more than 200 countries. Heads of state implicated in what would be called the Panama Papers included Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and our very own Donald Trump.
Marisa Taylor: This was such an enormous amount of data. It was revealing a whole world. It wasn’t just a story about offshore. It was the goods. We had the goods on how it worked.
JS: That’s Marissa Taylor, [a] former investigative reporter with the McClatchy News Service explaining why the Panama Papers wasn’t just a story about how the rich don’t pay their taxes or about how crooks are crooks. But rather, a story about global corruption at the highest levels. Because of the sheer scale of the data involving some of the world’s most powerful people, it’s a story that required a collaborative effort with hundreds of investigative journalists from around the world.
That story unfolds in a powerful new documentary. It’s called “The Panama Papers.” It was written and directed by Alex Winter, and the film details the secret flows of money — undeterred by taxes or sanctions — and how it has led to growing global income inequality.
Joining me now to talk about how brave journalists from around the world risked their lives to reveal a system and network of global corruption is Alex Winter.
Alex, welcome to Intercepted.
Alex Winter: Thank you.
JS: For people that didn’t follow the tick-tock of the Panama Papers, just give an overview of what the Panama Papers are and were.
AW: There was an archive that was presented to a young journalist in Munich named Bastian Obermayer, back end of 2015.
Bastian Obermayer: And I got this first ping — this first message — from a person who called himself John Doe and asked if I would be interested in data.
AW: It was a whistleblower who was referring to themselves as John Doe reached out to him encrypted and said, “I’ve got a data leak.” And was able to claw out information over time that it was all the data from a Panamanian law firm called Mossack Fonseca. Hence, the name the Panama papers. The papers aren’t really Panamanian. Mossack has, or had, offices all over the world. So, you’re dealing with a law firm that primarily dealt in offshore tax shelters, that sort of thing, with offices everywhere. They had many offices in the United States, Switzerland, you name it.
What it was uncovering was primarily mechanisms for tax evasion. So, sometimes practices weren’t even illegal, in some places, though largely unethical but an enormous amount of criminality. Drug cartels, heads of state, the names were just incredible.
BO: We found you know, the best friend of Putin. We found the Icelandic Prime Minister. If you find money tied to Bashar al-Assad, and to Vladimir Putin, and to other dictators, then you somehow have the feeling maybe it’s not a good idea that only I know.
AW: So, from the very beginning Bastian and his partner, his colleague at the Süddeutsche Zeitung, they realized it was too big for just them and they brought in the ICIJ based in DC —
JS: The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.
AW: Yes, exactly. And so, rather than hold the scoop for themselves, they realized that it would be much better for the story, even if it wasn’t as good for the paper, for them to bring in other journalists. So, what started as really an act of pragmatism, which was let’s try to wrap our heads around this vast trove of media, turned into one of the largest coordinated acts of journalism in history which is a much bigger story than just “We need help.”
JS: Talk about how they found their partners around the world and how they kept this secret because it’s not just “Oh we don’t want the story to leak.” There were real lives on the line here.
JS: Very powerful people that would have no hesitation about whacking a journalist.
AW: Yeah, you know, almost every government in every major country in the world had their hand in this to some degree. So, the risks were really enormous. And it was a long vetting process to find journalists that they were able to trust, and that journalists that they felt would have the access that they needed to the on-the-ground stories. The call that they made early on which was very smart, was that you know, they really needed to find people that they felt had access to sources and even some of the players that were being named in the papers on the ground in those individual countries.
So, it took a long time and it was a precarious process and I think that there was some trial and error. But they did end up with you know, at the point of publication in 2016, they had I think, 380 journalists — grew to over 800 by the time the story was out there and cooking along. But it’s an enormous amount of journalists to be working in complete secrecy. So, they built their own encrypted database systems that they were using to communicate globally. It became a road test for can we coordinate in this way? Can we do it in secret? Can we break a story successfully? Can we not out each other? Can people not get hurt? There were so many boxes that had to get checked for this to function. And some journalists did get hurt.
JS: Who were the journalists that were directly affected as a result of working on the Panama Papers and then ultimately, exposing these very powerful — well, I mean, let’s just say it — criminals?
AW: Sure, the countries you would imagine were under great stress, journalists in Russia. A couple of them had to leave the country for a bit as they were getting close to publication. They were at risk. China, Mexico. There was a lot of death threats to a lot of journalists in Mexico that were, you know, being Mexico were real death threats. And then of course, something we cover extensively in the film, the assassination of Daphne Galizia, which is now thankfully becoming somewhat well-known. But I think is really one of the watershed cases of a journalist actually being brazenly killed in an E.U. country, a Maltese journalist.
Now, Daphne was not part of the core ICIJ — she was not a member of ICIJ. She was a was a blogger essentially, a very famous political blogger in a country with enormous corruption and was boldly writing about corruption from within Malta. However, her son Matthew was a member of the ICIJ and was very involved in Panama Papers story.
So, she was covering Panama Papers stories and was assassinated for work that was related to the Panama Papers. What was really, you know, hard for us was I was only about halfway through production when Daphne was killed. I think I was in London with The Guardian at the time, and it was incredibly shocking, and unsettling. And we knew going into the Trump era that there was you know, as bad as the threat to journalists were in the Obama era — and we all know they weren’t great then either — it was an order of magnitude worse. And we knew that was coming, and it came, and you know, the world in general has been swinging right in a lot of countries, and that has just upped the pressure on journalists around the world. You know, sadly more journalists have been killed in E.U. countries since Daphne but it really was a watershed moment.
JS: When people talk about the Panama Papers, I think that there is a perception that it didn’t really hit anyone in the United States, but that’s not true. What did these papers, these documents show about American figures including Donald Trump?
AW: Yeah, I would actually argue that the biggest impact of the Panama Papers is going to be on the United States and the U.K. when all said and done, which are the two biggest perpetrators of this kind of corruption in the world by far. In fact, if they change their laws, the rest of the world would probably follow to some degree. So, there’s sort of a big consequence — sort of an immediate consequence — and a more long-standing consequence to answer your question from my perspective. And the immediate consequence is the administration we currently have which are, you know, which is comprised largely of self-admitted and you know braggardly tax evaders. We’ve read the New York Times piece on Trump, you know, incredible piece of journalism, but certainly no surprise in broad strokes —
JS: Talking about how his businesses were set up —
JS: Going back to his father —
JS: And then, how they basically avoided paying taxes almost ever.
AW: Exactly and you know, I grew up largely in New York, and Trump and his family, they were notorious for that in the 80s, you know, much less now. So, you know, these are mechanisms by which a lot of people function. But they’re just so brazen about it, you know, Mnuchin —
Ron Wyden: Mr. Mnuchin, you ran a hedge fund for a few years starting in 2004 and I’ve been trying to get my arms around the Mnuchin web of bank accounts and shell companies. They were in the Cayman Islands and Anguilla. How many employees did you have in Anguilla?
Steven Mnuchin: We didn’t have any employees in Anguilla.
RW: How many customers did you have there?
SM: We didn’t have any customers that resided in Anguilla.
RW: Did you have an office there?
SM: We did not have a office ourselves there.
RW: So, you just had a post office box?
AW: Wilbur Ross who was exposed in the Paradise Papers, which was the leak subsequent to the Panama Papers.
Mary Louise Kelly: Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who reportedly retained investments in a shipping firm with ties to Putin’s son-in-law. That’s according to a trove of leaked documents known intriguingly as The Paradise Papers.
AW: So, and then of course, Manafort’s ties to the Ukraine and to various oligarchs who were heavily named in the papers. So, we ended up with this kind of, outwardly kleptocratic administration who literally exemplify the problems of the root of the story, which is really not about some rich guy who decides he doesn’t want to pay taxes, as much as an actual systemic corrupt aristocracy almost, you know, where a very core group of people do not operate by the same rules that everyone else’s. And the infrastructure that we don’t have is largely because of the money that they’re stealing.
JS: Well, and one of the investigators who’s an expert on international money laundering in your film talks about how the greatest revelation pertaining to Trump, and this was also seconded by a Reuters journalist was just understanding how he operates his businesses and the leasing of his name. Let’s actually listen to that section from your film.
HC: He didn’t pay any federal income tax. So —
DJT: That makes me smart.
HC: If he’s paid zero.
Kevin Hall: Trump is obviously one we were focused on from the very beginning. He appeared about 3,450 that we know of. That’s not to say his partners. That’s just him by name. The big find was a lot of documents around the Panama Hotel project.
Richard Engel: Trump Ocean Club soars over the Pacific and Panama City. It’s also where criminals everywhere from Russian gangsters to money launderers for Latin American drug cartels were able to hide their cash.
KH: There we found contract information between him and the developer Newland. One of the things I think that was very helpful in the Panama Papers is it actually showed Trump’s business model. It was a contract that showed how he got paid, how his name was leased. This really wasn’t known and the documents, here we had physical proof of how he arranges things.
JS: So, coming out of that, it’s interesting because you also hear Donald Trump when he was debating Hillary Clinton saying that he was smart because he didn’t pay any income taxes. What is the benefit of using a firm like Mossack Fonseca or others like it? Like, who does that appeal to and what service are these companies providing?
AW: Well, basically what they’re doing is they create a mechanism by which you can operate from the, you know, from the outside within the law, apparently. These things are all about hiding your identity, so you can hide your money. The brief way of describing it is they will have the name attached to a company, company X, right, which is where you’re going to park your cash. Company X has a nominee, has a director. Now, that director is not really, that director in Mossack’s case — let’s say there was one woman there who was the nominee director for tens of thousands of companies, and this is a woman who lives in poverty on the outskirts of Panama City.
JS: In fact, you show the neighborhood where she lives.
AW: We do. Yeah, and she’s essentially a poorly paid secretary who is the front for major corporations all around the world. So, she’s signing the documents. Her name is the sort of where the buck stops. So, the buck doesn’t stop where the money actually is. The buck stops somewhere else. And these are labyrinthine constructs that are you know implemented so that you can avoid paying tax and so that you can also just avoid whatever the nature of your business is.
So, you can, you could have, sure, a family trust, say, that you don’t have to pay taxes on. You can have entire businesses based on whatever your business industry is that you don’t want to pay taxes on, and then you could have drug cartels. There is coziness amongst people within these systems and that’s something that we were getting at that. That there is a kind of a network here once you start to pull the strands apart.
JS: One of the things I think is so important about the film that you’ve done is showing people why this kind of corruption — money laundering, tax evasion — impacts ordinary people around the world. Lay out some of the big-picture analysis that you did in this film about the consequences of eight trillion dollars and counting in tax evasion.
AW: Well, if you think about it, the general populace is being propagandized. You know, back in the old days of just a straight-up aristocracy like France, for instance, where the aristocracy didn’t pay tax, and they had their own set of rules, and the general public knew they were basically, you know under a yoke of one kind. In this climate, like Trump’s line that you mentioned when he’s talking to Hillary, this notion that “I’m smart because I don’t pay my taxes,” is really propaganda because the average person is in no position to play that game. And the average person does not have either the money or the connections to get away with playing that game. And that game is played by a very rarefied group, and is played at very, very high stakes.
And so, the thing that the film really that we set out to show because it was kind of the lightbulb moment that I think happened to every journalist that I interviewed — everybody. Other than say, you know, tax investigators who have been working for 50 years. But every investigator came onto the story and thought: “Well, offshore whatever, you know, so the rich hide their money like down in the Caymans. Big deal.” But each one of them a light bulb went off and they realized that it really was a systemic level of corruption. That you’re dealing with such an enormous amount of money that it renders ideas like the federal deficit completely meaningless. The idea of having to argue how much goes into defense as to how much goes into having clean water, and national health, and education. I mean, all of those problems would be immediately solved if you didn’t have this level of kleptocracy. So, you are dealing with that scale of theft, essentially.
And the amount of work that we all have to do as public citizens to try to claw whatever money we can for public services, and infrastructure, and the ability to not die of some, you know, even minor disease because you can’t afford the medication, all of that would be meaningless if this system was not in place. And so, we wanted to show that, but we also wanted to show complicity. That it isn’t just, you wouldn’t have this problem if it wasn’t for the legal tax dodging mechanisms that we have in the U.K. and the U.S., if you didn’t have complicity on the part of every major bank in the world, you know, that are all taking part in upholding this system. So, it isn’t just Assad. It isn’t just Putin. It isn’t just these people that we label as the bad guys. It’s like the whole damn system is basically complicit.
JS: What are some of the banks that people would have heard of that are implicated in this?
AW: Oh, HSBC, obviously — I mean there was a huge HSBC corruption scandal before the Panama Papers broke — Commerce Bank, Deutsche Bank. There’s a lot you know, Hypobank. There was a huge raid of that bank in Austria, but you would be surprised. So there’s a lot, almost — because of Delaware, Wyoming, and Nevada — almost every major U.S. bank is in some way complicit because they’re helping to build mechanisms for this.
JS: So, this consortium of a few hundred journalists start moving their way toward the moment when they have to now not only go to the firm, to Mossack Fonseca, but also to individuals who are going to be named in their reporting. Explain what happens as the sort of cat starts to get out of the bag, as journalists around the world start confronting powerful people, and as the team go to confront, or try to confront officials at Mossack Fonseca.
AW: Yeah, I mean this is the most vulnerable moment for a journalist who’s been on a story like this for this amount of time and has had to deal with the level of secrecy that they have. And the vulnerability given the level of power of the people that they are going to be attacking, which is the highest levels of power everywhere, left and right which is very vulnerable.
You can’t get help from one side when both sides are guilty. So, you had about a two to three-week process, a little window where every one of the major journalists that were working each one of their local stories had to confront the person they were going to reveal stories about.
JS: Could be the head of state, could be a narco-trafficker.
AW: It was all of the above.
JS: So, what happens then?
AW: Then basically, they were besieged with death threats, lawsuits. The two Russian journalists had to leave the country. They got shepherded out for a little while till they could see what the fallout was going to be. You know, journalists in Mexico had to go in hiding, some of these journalists left journalism and never went back. It was funny because the general public didn’t know what was coming but it really was in a sense, when you’re inside, that’s the moment that you’re exposed. So, as far as the journalists were concerned now, they were no longer, they no longer had the benefit of secrecy. They were walking targets, they felt.
And if you think about Rita Vásquez, the editor of La Prensa in Panama and her husband Scott Brownstein. I mean, these were two people who were sitting on the biggest corruption scandal their country had ever seen. It’s a very small country. Many of the people they were about to name were very close friends they were seeing on a nightly basis. They had close friends within Mossack Fonseca, close friends within the government. And now for the first time they are exposed and they’re having to work within Panama City and you know, everyone was getting armed bodyguards. The pressure was really intense. And it was also real. They were sued. They were threatened. And I think this is really what’s noble about them is they knew that that no matter how the story was going to be received — no matter what level of impact it was or wasn’t going to have — they were going to have to step out from behind a cloak of secrecy and live with that forever.
JS: How did Mossack Fonseca respond? I mean, I know you show in the film that that at first, they tried — all these cameras descend on the building — and this poor security guard is having to be the representative of all these evil people, but when there was something substantive, how did they respond?
AW: Almost everyone has had a similar response. Their response was to claim that — it’s what I call the napster defense. That you know, they didn’t facilitate any of this. They were just the middlemen. It wasn’t their responsibility or their business, frankly what was you know happening with their mechanisms. They just set up mechanisms. They were really just bureaucrats. There was a lot of evidence in their case that that wasn’t true. They were very aware that they were actively helping to hide and obfuscate their clients, that they absolutely knew who their clients were, that they were advising everyone from Assad, to the cartels, to everybody else on how to stay hidden.
But that was their first offense, you know, then subsequently they started to — something I kind of wanted to put in the film because it is comical — but they started to claim that it was just tax strategy. That there was kind of a sort, you know, the fake news thing we see here in the states where basically anyone who is going up against them was a communist, or socialist and anti-capitalist and that they were using the mechanisms that keep capitalism going which of course, is true, but not for the reasons they would like to think.
In the end, because of the government in Panama, well, they were arrested but not prosecuted meaning they were arrested. They were charged. They were eventually let go on bail and they’ve managed to evade prosecution since which is outrageous, I think. But of course, you’ve seen that around the world.
I think that the thing about the film that I think can be hard to swallow because it’s true is that this is not a story — I feel this way probably about Trump as well — this is not a story where you’re going to get that satisfying moment of a perp walk that contains, you know, Putin, and Assad, and Trump, and the cartels. What you’re going to get hopefully is very slow, measured, long-standing reform and changes to laws that need to happen mostly from within the U.S. and the U.K.
JS: As we wrap up, I wanted to ask you what you learned from being totally immersed in the world of this investigation that might help people understand the moment we’re in right now with Trump as president.
AW: You know, technology is great in a lot of ways and bad a lot of ways which we all know, but the ability to spread propaganda is equal to the ability to report the truth. And the story is a really good example of that I think because you really had one of the largest coordinated acts of journalism. You had an unbelievable roster. It was like, you know an all-Star team of some of the greatest investigative journalist in the world all applying their skills on this story and getting unbelievably important stories out, local and global.
At the same time, you have this kind of overarching propaganda that paying your taxes is something that you shouldn’t do. That the American dream, or sort of, the global dream is to get yourself to a position where you have the yacht. You don’t have to deal with this stuff, and I think the lesson that one learns when you’re deep inside this — which is somewhat obvious, but harrowing when you’re inside it — is just that the nature of corruption, the sort of, the willful nature of just stealing from the global populous, and the cost of that and what that’s doing obviously from climate change to healthcare to everything else. But unfortunately, the ability for what I call the real fake news for the propaganda to be spread effectively. So, I think it is a real uphill battle. And when you’re dealing with a nature corruption like this — that isn’t partisan — it is silenced. And so, a great story gets published, it gets squashed.
You know, someone will write massive articles about it, it evaporates. So, I think that moving forward journalism does need to be global. It does need to be communal. It does need to be coordinated. It shouldn’t be so siloed. You know, I don’t think that news organizations should be working in such a siloed form where they don’t share stories, where they really are trying to break a scoop on their own. I think there’s absolutely strength in numbers. So, I do think moving forward this story has shown us that this is the way things need to go. It’s both safer for the journalists on a pure human cost level, but it’s a much stronger way of battling back against the propaganda.
JS: Alex Winter, thank you very much for joining us on Intercepted.
AW: Thank you. It’s great to be here.
JS: Alex Winter is a writer, director, and actor. He made The Panama Papers in collaboration with Deep Web, Jill Burkhart and Epix; as well as with Laura Poitras and Charlotte Cook from Field of Vision. Panama Papers is available now on the Epix channel and will soon be available on Hulu and other streaming services.
That does it for this week’s show. If you are not yet a sustaining member of Intercepted, log on to theintercept.com/join. Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. We’re distributed by Panoply. Our producer is Jack D’Isidoro and our executive producer is Leital Molad. Laura Flynn is associate producer. Elise Swain is our assistant producer and graphic designer. Rick Kwan mixed the show. Our music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky.
Until next week, I’m Jeremy Scahill.