Tuesday, August 30, 2011

60% reduction in crime?

Oscar Alvarez, the Security Minister of Honduras, claims to have reduced crime by 60% over previous levels. He "recalled that statistic" El Heraldo reported, when asked about cleaning up the police in Honduras.

Meanwhile, in the same edition, El Heraldo notes that the area around the capital city, Tegucigalpa, is a dumping ground for bodies, 12 bodies so far this month there alone.

(The source of the "statistic" Alvarez cited is unclear. The US State Department cites data from 2009, when Honduras was widely described as having the highest level of murder in the world. Since the actual numbers of murders in a variety of categories have risen, perhaps Alvarez's "statistic" reflects a dramatic decline in some other form of "crime".)

But never mind. Alvarez is busy clearing out corrupt police:
"There have been 196 police officers arrested this year,"

he told the reporter.

That's 1.7 percent of the police force arrested this year.
"You have to note the positive actions of the police,"

Alvarez continued. He promised that in September we'd notice the change.

Alvarez is happy to blame others for any remaining crime in Honduras. He again criticized the Public Prosecutor's office for being soft on crime.

As usual, though, his definition of what constitutes troubling crime and that of other commentators is somewhat distinct.

For example, Alvarez told the El Heraldo reporter
"When minor children take to the streets and take over schools and a prosecutor says that they are acting within their rights, I think that something is not right."

Yes indeed. If all those pesky citizens exercising their rights to protest were just arrested, then clearly, the number of bodies being dumped around Tegucigalpa would drop dramatically.

We need to underline that ever since Oscar Alvarez was installed as security minister, and as a direct consequence of the coup d'etat, policing-- the governmental function of providing safety to citizens in their everyday lives-- and military functions have been blurred.

The armed forces are deployed to the Bajo Aguan, with the rationalization that the appalling number of murders there-- most of which the security forces Alvarez directs insist are individual and unrelated acts of common crime-- are at the same time the reflection of shadowy forces (foreign guerrillas arming peasants? drug traffickers? drug trafficking armed peasants?) that constitute national security threats.

There is a reason the Honduran Constitution enshrined a division between the police and military. What happens when Oscar Alvarez combines the two, and defines citizens as enemies, is the kind of lack of accountability that reminds observers of the worst of the 1980s.

It is worth noting that Alvarez gave his interview on returning to Honduras after signing a new agreement with US Homeland Security Head Janet Napolitano to provide airline passenger information (the APIS system) to US Homeland Security for each flight originating in Honduras.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Bad Press: Violence in Honduras

CNN's headline on its coverage reads: Troops deployed to northern Honduras after clashes leave 11 dead.

There is, indeed, violence in Honduras. But you won't understand much about it from CNN, nor from other English-language press relying on official statements.

CNN characterizes the government ministry of agriculture as "a national land reform organization", thus managing to use the spokesman for a government agency as if he were speaking for the campesino activists who are being accused of escalating violence.

So we are treated to Marco Ramiro Lobo speaking for INA being framed as the campesino position:
"What is happening at this moment has nothing to do with these organizations ... It is the result of individuals who have committed criminal acts and must be held accountable and punished."

This is contrasted in CNN's narrow-band reporting of different government voices with Miguel Angel Bonilla, minister of communications, who says
"Effectively there are people who are taking advantage of the situation... They want it to look like they are peasants."

CNN accurately reports that 11 people were killed in the Aguan, five on Sunday, 6 on Monday. But it leaves out some critical details, like who died, when, and how. And where it gives "details", it is relying on less than objective sources.

The Honduran paper La Tribuna reports that the conflict Sunday was an armed ambush of security guards on one of the African palm plantations, which have been the focus of contention between campesino groups and large corporate farm owners.

The violence reported on Monday claimed the lives of four employees of a bottling plant and a fifth person traveling with them, shot as they drove on the highway between Sinaloa and Sabá, Colón. Univision quotes regional police authority Roberto Benítez as saying that the victims were mistaken by someone-- he doesn't know who-- as parties to one side of the conflict-- he doesn't say which. Still, that is better than CNN manages.

Honduran press reports, never particularly sympathetic to campesino activists, nonetheless clarify that the government is at pains to try to distinguish between the people they think are responsible for the ambush on Sunday, and campesino groups involved in negotiations with the government designed to confirm title to lands in the region, such as the Movimiento Unificado del Aguán (MUCA).

You wouldn't understand that from the CNN report, which instead links the Sunday and Monday incidents-- one, remember, the shooting of bottling plant employees on the road-- to the long confrontation between campesinos and landowners:
The region in northern Honduras is the site of longstanding disputes over palm plantations between local peasants and corporate landowners.

Of course, CNN got that from a Honduran government statement that said the deployment of 600 troops-- bringing the total number of troops stationed there to 1000-- is aimed at
reinforcing operations to stop more disturbances and confrontations between peasants and private security groups.

CNN then develops its storyline further, relying on the most dubious unverified source possible: Dinant Corporation company treasurer Roger Pineda, who claimed that "hundreds" of armed attackers were involved in the Sunday attack.

Dinant, of course, is the corporation owned by Miguel Facussé, one of the main landowners losing land in the government-brokered settlement with MUCA. Dinant's comments were reported in El Nuevo Diario of Nicaragua on Sunday, where he is quoted as saying
"This morning some 200 campesinos attacked us, wanting to take over a finca, and they wounded 11 guards of ours and killed four of them."

Do I know who is responsible for these latest incidents, which are serving as the pretext for increased militarization of the Bajo Aguan? No. But I know more, even though I have to rely on the biased media of Honduras, than anyone would whose only insight into Honduras came from CNN and other English language media.

Oh, and another thing about the CNN article. The accompanying photo is not of the violence in the Bajo Agua. The caption starts "Students confront soldiers in a protest in Tegucigalpa on Tuesday".

But that's another blog post.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Congress Enables Embezzlers

Congress just made it easier to steal from the government.

In a reform to the Ley Orgánica del Tribunal Superior de Cuentas (TSE), the national auditing body, they removed imprisonment as a punishment for embezzling government funds, for amounts under a million lempiras (about $52, 770 ).

Now an embezzler who steals less than a million lempiras can only be fined up to the amount they embezzled, or, if they lack the funds, a lien can be put on their property.

There's practically no incentive not to steal, since the worst they can do is ask for the money back-- without interest!-- if they catch you.

Good job Congress! You've streamlined petty corruption in a bold reversal of all those old-fashioned good government initiatives intended to discourage this traditional political pastime.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Privatize Copan? Why Not.

Copan Ruinas asks for its rights over the archaeological park.

That headline in El Tiempo on Monday caught our eye.

What "rights", do you ask?

The newspaper reported Monday that in a town meeting over the weekend, the residents of Copan Ruinas (the town adjacent to the Maya archaeological site) voted to demand that the Institute of Anthropology and History turn over 50% of the gross revenues generated by the archaeological park.

Congress member Julio Cesar Gamez Interiano will reportedly introduce legislation to this effect. The legislation reportedly would enable the town of Copan Ruinas to sell tickets outside the country, keeping all of that revenue, although it leaves undefined the mechanism for these direct sales to foreign tourists.

This is exactly what was predicted in a letter from the Union of Employees of the Institute of Anthropology and History on June 8, 2011. As we said then, the consequences of such a shift in distribution of income from this national monument would be disastrous, both for the archaeological site itself, and for the Institute of Anthropology and History.

Why? Copan's income is currently the main source of funding for preservation of the cultural patrimony in Honduras.

That includes Copan. In fact, most of Copan's income is dedicated to preserving that very site.

The former director of the Institute of Anthropology and History, Dario Euraque, demonstrated in his book El golpe de Estado del 28 de junio de 2009, el Patrimonio Cultural y la Identidad Nacional that funds generated by admission to the archaeological site of Copan are used almost entirely in the maintenance and administration of Copan.

The article in El Tiempo includes no arguments to justify this grab by the town, no explanation for why the town thinks it has the right to the income from admissions to the site.

It's not like it isn't already receiving economic benefits from visitation to the site.

The government pays taxes on the land to the town every year; about 500,000 lempiras according to the El Tiempo article.

And of course, the town derives income from all the visitors who come and stay in the hotels, eat in the restaurants, and buy things in the stores. Anyone who remembers sleepy Copan Ruinas in the 1970s and visits today can see the economic growth there fueled by proximity to the archaeological site.

The call to take 50% of the revenues used to maintain the national monument is nothing more than a plan to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs for the town of Copan Ruinas.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Human Rights Commissioner: Give the Police Impunity

Ramon Custodio wants impunity for the Police.

A police officer who commits an illicit act in the line of duty should not even be charged, let alone tried for the crime; so says Honduran Human Rights Commissioner Ramon Custodio in his latest detailed assessment of the police in Honduras. They are defending society, Custodio asserts.

Custodio even gives the example of an officer who, in the process of defending the honest citizen against delinquents, shoots some people with his government-issued gun. He doesn't say whether it's bystanders or actual criminals that get shot. It doesn't matter. There should be no review of the police officer's actions, administrative or judicial, according to Custodio.

Custodio has previously defined impunity:
"impunity consists in letting go unpunished and without penalty someone who commits a crime against the public or private order."
So what he advocates is impunity for the police.

To be fair he's responding to a real problem; it's just that his solution is ludicrous.

The problem is, there are no police regulations, no administrative rules that guide an officer in the proper use of force in Honduras. They pretty much can use their gun as they see fit. However, they may be charged with a crime if they injure or kill someone, although it can take three or more years for such a case to be resolved in the Honduran courts.

In the US, situations like this are covered by rules on the proper use of force, and training that emphasizes the use of proportional force. Bystanders are not to be endangered by police actions. Any use of their weapons is reviewed administratively, and potentially turned over for prosecution. None of this happens in Honduras.

But Custodio says Honduran police should just be allowed to do it, no consequences.

Ironic, since in May, Custodio told Proceso Digital that "impunity destroys the public order."

Monday, August 8, 2011

Truth and Justice

We do not generally repost material written by others. If we don't have something to add to the discussion, we leave it to others to publicize such materials.

Today is one of those exceptional days, though. While we have nothing to add, we want to be sure readers are aware of a news item in The Huffington Post.

This is a note from Vincent Warren, Executive Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, reproducing a letter by Laura Raymond from CCR that was submitted to the Wall Street Journal, but not, Warren notes, published there.

Raymond was responding to an unbelievable (literally) editorial published by the WSJ, written by the wildly uninformed Mary Anastasia O'Grady, giving her weird spin of the report of the official Honduran "Truth Commission". Like all O'Grady's writing about Honduras since the coup, her editorial bears the same relation to reality as a bad drug trip-- with the drug here being the intoxication of Hugo Chavez-based fear mongering.

Raymond managed to do something I could not: find a way to use the insane WSJ editorial as an occasion to correct the historical record, writing that the official Truth Commission
was initiated by Honduran government officials who have been behind ongoing serious human rights abuses and without the input and involvement of civil society. Upon the Commission’s inauguration, Honduran and international human rights bodies sharply criticized it for lack of compliance with international standards for truth commissions. O’Grady states that Honduran social movements “didn’t quite get the condemnation they sought” from this Commission with the recent release of its report. The truth is, Honduran civil society never sought anything from this Commission; they knew it was doomed from the very beginning which is why a platform of the country’s leading human rights organizations established an alternative “Commission of Truth,” which has its own report coming out this fall.

In one simple paragraph, Raymond clarifies where progressives in Honduras stand with respect to the official Truth Commission.

The Center for Constitutional Rights describes its goal as
advancing and protecting the rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Founded in 1966 by attorneys who represented civil rights movements in the South, CCR is a non-profit legal and educational organization committed to the creative use of law as a positive force for social change.

CCR us doing an outstanding job following up on issues of violation of constitutionality in Honduras brought about by the 2009 coup.

Their Fact Sheet on the official Truth Commission and the independent "Commission of Truth" (or True Commission) is an excellent beginning point to understand these two different initiatives. CCR has engaged in US Freedom of Information Act requests in support of the work of the True Commission. CCR has also sued Roberto Micheletti in US court, on behalf of the parents of Isis Obed Murillo, who was killed early in the coup when President Zelaya attempted to land at Tegucigalpa.

Raymond did, in the end, have to repeat the crazy stuff O'Grady said in order to refute it. This was something we wanted to avoid (and clever readers will notice we did not repeat O'Grady's craziness here).

But what Raymond managed to do, that we could not, is find a useful thing to say that goes beyond simply trying to remind people that the sun actually does rise in the east.

Kudos to her, and to CCR, for truth and justice.


To be precise: 672 jobs. That's the total of hourly positions approved under controversial legislation passed in 2010.

Juan Orlando Hernandez, the head of the Honduran Congress, told us that a new part-time work law would create 600,000 jobs in the next three years. He then pushed such a law through Congress. It was published in La Gaceta in November, 2010. How's it doing?

It took the Labor Ministry under Labor Minister Felicito Avila until February to publish the regulations under which companies could register and be certified to have hourly workers. So, in the six months it's been in effect, the new law officially has generated 672 jobs.

Juan Orlando Hernandez says Avila is holding up implementation of the law. Avila points out that the law requires regulations, and that each company that wants to employ part time workers must register and be approved for hiring part time workers.

The workers' unions say the regulations are not working. Employers are going ahead and hiring hourly workers but failing to register their contracts. The unions estimate that more than 22,000 workers are already working hourly, just not legally.

And as predicted, there are complaints of abuses being filed with the Labor Ministry. One high-profile complaint was made by Lennys Fajardo, a Radio Globo reporter who claims he was fired, then offered to be rehired on an hourly contract.

Felicito Avilla says the law wasn't designed to create thousands of jobs, merely to support supplementing existing jobs with part time ones. Think part-time seasonal help and you'll have what he says the Labor Ministry had in mind when it crafted the regulations.

So: we have a law that is doing precisely what critics thought it would do-- encouraging employers to transform existing full time jobs with benefits into part time contracts without benefits. Meanwhile, the Labor Ministry gets criticized for keeping the number of officially approved hourly jobs low.

What no one seems to be addressing is the disconnect between the rhetoric about the hourly law that suggested it would create more jobs, when logically, all it ever promised to do was split existing full time jobs into more part time positions. Not precisely a success to celebrate.

Friday, August 5, 2011

On the Wrong Side of the Truth

Members of the US Congress are trying to reconfigure US policy toward the authors of the coup in Honduras, again.

Not only is this not timely-- it is something that the principal actor involved has been criticized for by no less an authority than the official, US supported "Truth Commission".

In a letter dated July 19th of this year, US Representative Connie Mack wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to ask that the US restore the visas of Roberto Micheletti Bain and others, revoked as part of US pressure on Honduras after the coup in Honduras in 2009.

Mack invited Micheletti to testify before Congress. Micheletti had to decline because his visa was revoked, testifying by video conference instead. So now he wants to reach back and remove the taint over Micheletti. But he does more: he argues in his letter that Micheletti and others whose visas were removed are patriots whose actions should be treated positively.

The letter is signed by Mack, 11 other Republican Congressmen, and one Democrat. It calls on the US to "immediately cease the political punishment of the Honduran visas taken in 2009."
"We believe that the United States should not continue penalizing Honduran citizens based on their efforts to support the constitution and and the law of Honduras,"

the letter states.


Even the official Truth Commission appointed by the successor government of Porfirio Lobo Sosa found the people whose visas were lifted acted illegally, and that they had legal means open to them. They chose to ignore the law, and caused a breach of constitutional order that is still affecting Hondurans today.

The Truth Commission report singled out the visits to Honduras in 2009 by US Congress members, including Connie Mack, as having prolonged the crisis, and as having muddied the perception of US government response to the coup in 2009.

Rep. Mack has a lot to answer for. Continuing to ignore the reality on the ground, a reality recognized even by a Truth Commission viewed as compromised by the Honduran resistance, doesn't suggest he understands what he did. He should try reading that report and stop trying to replay US policy moves from 2009. He has already done enough damage.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Lobo's Not So Supreme Court

Who judges the judges? Suddenly that's a serious question for Porfirio Lobo Sosa.

One of the recommendations of the official Truth Commission headed by Eduardo Stein was that the Supreme Court needed to submit to an examination of its actions during the coup by a group of magistrates. In particular, its actions with respect to human rights need to be examined, they concluded.

14. The Magistrates of the Supreme Court should submit their actions with regard to human rights violations derived from June 28, 2009, to a national consensus of the legislature to see if they acted against the right to judicial protection of article 25 of the American Human Rights Convention. The commissioners recommend that it be the national council of the Magistrates who should be responsible for an evaluation of all of their acts because it is the entity responsible for the naming of judges, their evaluation of job performance, and the oversight of the career.

Porfirio Lobo Sosa might have seemed to have this in mind when he suggested yesterday that the Supreme Court needs someone to oversee their decisions, their professionalism.

"The Judicial Powers can judge the President of the Republic, the president of Congress, and the representatives; who judges the Judicial Power, that's what's interesting.

Lobo goes on to suggest that there needs to be a Constitutional Court or other body where one can file complaints about judges, including the members of the Supreme Court, and have those complaints heard and evaluated. He came to this position, though, not because of the Truth Commission recommendation, but rather because a Judge in Comayagua released a number of suspects who were captured with more than 70 fragmentation grenades hidden in the door panels of their car. His Security Minister is livid.

Lobo Sosa had no answer when asked who would judge the actions of the Constitutional Court saying "its complicated".

Yes, it is complicated, but not so complicated that this isn't covered by rules.

Honduras, like all of Central America, has a legal code that is based on the Spanish legal code, classified by scholars as a form of the French Napoleonic code. All Central American countries have a legal system that has a court which renders a final, unappealable, decision, just as Honduras and the United States do. Judicial misconduct is handled through other procedures, and generally, the actions of judges in this high court are unregulated to preserve judicial independence. This is a fundamental principal of jurisprudence. The UN warns when government's write laws that degrade that independence (example: El Salvador ).

Porfirio Lobo Sosa's suggestions are a degradation of judicial independence, not a rebalancing of the powers as he suggests, and would likely be called into question by the UN were he to successfully sponsor legislation.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Model Cities Law

The National Congress completed and passed Model City legislation last Wednesday and while the details continue to trickle out, the law is very different than the prototype they started with.

This was one of the first laws that Congress passed with its new electronic voting system. Instead of debating and passing the law as a whole, Congress debated and voted on each of the 72 individual articles of the law. They also added four new ones. Paul Romer, the Stanford economist whose brainchild this is, was available in Congress all week during the debate and consulted on the legislation without charge.

The new law firmly establishes that any Región Especial de Desarollo (RED) or Model City is part of Honduras and cannot be alienated. The territories encompassed will be subject to the constitutional clauses about national sovereignty, territory, national defense, identity papers, and foreign relations. This explicit bow to Honduran sovereignty was necessary to gain the support of the Liberal Party members of Congress.

Congress will be able to create a RED from either an unpopulated region, or from urban regions that request conversion through a binding local referendum.

Congress will vote on and approve charter legislation for any proposed RED. Congress made it particularly difficult to change approved charters, reportedly to keep from having to respond to jockeying for gains.

Any RED approved will have an Executive Governor, responsible to a "Transparency Commission", appointed for a seven year term.

Here's where things get strange. The Transparency Commission will consist of elected foreigners who reside in the RED. The Transparency Commission-- a group of non-Hondurans-- will function as the governing council of the RED.

An Auditing Commission will be responsible for the day-to-day administration of the RED and will report to the Transparency Commission.

Finally, the law calls for a "Norms Commission" which will function to set the laws and regulations of the RED. It will function somewhat like Congress. Its members will be elected by residents within the RED.

The RED will have its own judges, though in part, they will enforce the Honduran Penal Code. It will have its own police force. It will be able to administer airports and ports freely. It will be free to set its own currency and taxes, though some taxes will also be imposed by the Honduran government.

A RED will have its own labor law. By law, 90 percent of the jobs in a RED must be filled by Honduran citizens. Each RED can set up its own education system and health care system. The import of automobiles into and out of the RED will be regulated by the RED.

Hondurans will, by law, be able to travel freely into a RED, but foreigners will require special immigration procedures. These were not spelled out in press coverage.

So what should we think of this version of the idea? we have previously covered the reasons we think model cities is a bad fit for Honduras-- even if we set aside all the qualms we have about corporatizing governance, it does not seem to us that model cities will deliver on their hype. The places held up as illustrations of the potential benefit from conditions not present in Honduras.

Reaction to the new law in Honduras also is negative-- including from sectors that might have been expected to be more positive.

COHEP, the business council, hates the law, calling it unconstitutional and filled with inconsistencies. According to COHEP it does not provide sufficient guarantees for investors, be they Honduran or foreign.

The law is unclear about whether absolute title to the land involved transfers to the RED, and thus whether they may transfer title when they sell or lease it to others within the RED. COHEP believes title does transfer. This could, depending on the location of any proposed RED, contradict Honduran laws about foreign ownership of lands near the coast or international borders.

From our perspective, the law simply concretizes a lot of the concerns we and others have expressed.

It provides no protections (either through labor law, or social protections like payments to IHSS) for the Honduran workers who work in any future RED.

It is up to the RED to set labor law, including protections for workers, and to establish its own health care system. The law is vague about who will have access to that healthcare system, if created. Nor do employers have to provide health care for workers.

The law is equally vague about an educational system, and whether it would be only for residents, or potentially also for employees who work in the RED.

But regardless of concerns like these, or even those of the Honduran business community, the enabling legislation has been sent to Porfirio Lobo Sosa for signing and publication in La Gaceta.

There is one enthusiastic supporter of the law: Paul Romer told El Heraldo that in six months all kinds of investors will be coming to Honduras to take advantage of this legislation.

Honduras is indeed open for business-- what is utterly unclear is whether predictions like these will actually prove to be accurate; and if they do, whether Honduran workers will benefit or see their social supports erode even more.