Friday, August 24, 2012

Questioning the State Department: Human Rights "Progress" in Honduras?

UC Santa Cruz historian Dana Frank, in an editorial in the Los Angeles Times, strongly criticizes the US State Department for its recent affirmation that Honduras is making sufficient progress in correcting human rights abuses to allow disbursal of foreign aid funds sequestered by congressional mandate.

This finding recently received publicity, ironically, because of one small exception: the admission by the State Department that Porfirio Lobo Sosa's hand-picked police chief, Juan Carlos Bonilla Valladares, has a suspect history. As Frank writes:
the State Department did announce that it was withholding all U.S. funds to Juan Carlos (El Tigre) Bonilla, the national chief of police, or anyone under his direct supervision, until an investigation of his alleged death squad activity has concluded.

You would think that the fact that the president of Honduras appointed, and continues to support, someone with such a tainted history during a period when in theory the government is committed to clearing up corruption in the police would have raised questions about the Lobo Sosa administration, not just Bonilla. But apparently not: the vast majority of US funding that was subject to withholding has now been approved for release.

Why? Frank, in her final paragraph, reaches the same conclusion as most other observers of the situation; the US administration
is obsessed with an unwinnable, militarized drug war in Latin America, and as result appears to be willing to back almost any government that will allow it to expand its military presence in the region.

Frank cites the almost unbelievable numbers that have been tallied since 2009, when Honduran rule of law was disrupted by a coup, boundaries between military and policing began to be blurred, and the security forces were unleashed by the government to silence dissent:
  • 10,000 human rights complaints against security forces
  • 23 journalists killed
  • multiple reports by international human rights groups about repeated abuses of due process, denial of constitutional rights, and violation of human rights.

Want to read more details? Start with the links provided by the UNHCR. Or those maintained by Reporters Without Borders.

Too internationalist for you? Then visit the website of Freedom House, generally considered a centrist organization. In a report dated July 4, 2012, Freedom House writes that in the past year,
Honduras continued to suffer from human rights violations, impunity, and corruption.

But none of this convinced the State Department to use the leverage provided by Congressional direction to withhold a small percentage of funding--"20% of a portion of U.S. police and military aid", to quote Frank-- to try to move the Honduran government away from its current posture.

What is that posture?

In June, Maria Antonieta Guillen represented the Honduran government in testimony to the UN.  She argued that the government had to walk a "fine line" to "avoid delinquency by minors" while "preserving the integrity of the diverse centers of rehabilitation". Deadly prison fires over the past year have exposed the reality: overcrowding, large numbers detained without charges, and the criminalization of practices of the young. As sociologist Leticia Salomon wrote, these fires are "evidence of the collapse of the system".

Guillen argued that, since human life is the fundamental human right, policing cannot be said to violate human rights, because it is the prevention of violent crime. Whenever accusations of human rights violations are raised, the Honduran government's response is either that the crimes were private (explaining away the systematic and unprecedented increases in crimes against activists and journalists); or that the security forces were acting to combat crime. These justifications betray a fundamental difference in how the Honduran government understands the role of security forces and the status of human rights.

It would be one thing for the State Department to admit that Honduras has not improved its record, and make a case-- however it might want-- that US national security interests outweigh this failure. That at least would not involve giving a blessing to a regime uninterested in improving actual human rights, and incompetent to do so in any event.

What is tragic is that, by certifying progress that no one else sees, the US State Department is lending support to assertions about what is needed for social order in Honduras that are directly at odds with values the US espouses.

Progress Report on Police Anti-Corruption Reviews

The Dirección de Investigación y Evaluación de la Carrera Policial (DIECP) has reportedly issued a press release stating that the 24  police officers of all ranks who have not submitted to the proof of confidence testing required by the DIECP will probably be fired.

The DIECP reported that none of the 24 had provided a reason for not showing up for their scheduled appointment. The DIECP press release points out that this is disobedience of a superior's order, punishable with dismissal according to the police charter.

The files on these 24 police officers will be turned over to the police chief, Juan Carlos Bonilla, for disposition.

Proceso Digital reports that the DIECP has attempted to review 169 police officials, most of them members of the highest levels of command.  Of these, 145 have submitted to the exam, and 24 refused.  That is a rate of resistance to the campaign to excise corruption of about 14%.

The DIECP has not released the results of the confidence test on any of the 145 who have taken it so far, so the actual proportion of police officers who do not meet the requirements is not (yet) known.

The DIECP hopes to have conducted over 400 confidence tests by the end of 2012, and over 5000 in the next three years. 

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

War of Words Between Police Chiefs

Late yesterday Juan Carlos Bonilla, the police chief, revealed on Honduran TV that the police were linked both to the 2009 murder of General Julian Aristides Gonzalez and the 2011 murder of Alfredo Landaverde.

The former police chief, Ricardo Ramirez del Cid, seems to have taken that as a personal attack.   Ramirez del Cid told a local radio program:
If anyone has evidence against me they should present it but not send me subliminal messages in the media trying to blemish the image of retired officials, attacking from the inside will not resolve anything.

Del Cid also said:
He left us guessing; he didn't mention anyone's name but he left us guessing.  That's not good because the same thing could happen to him (Bonilla) tomorrow.

He went on to complain that Bonilla knows that there are many police stations in such precarious conditions that they could not possibly be used to commit crimes!

Ramirez del Cid seems to have been referring to finances when he said "precarious conditions".  The only way I can make sense of this statement is as a reference to the motorcycle used to kill General Gonzalez, which Bonilla said left from, and returned to, a Tegucigalpa police station. The implication seems to be, hey, our motorcycles wouldn't be in good enough condition for a drive-by shooting.

Ramirez del Cid also denied that any acts of police corruption occurred during his six months as police chief.

We will simply point to the killing of Julieta Castellanos's son, which happened during Del Cid's time as police chief. It was his handling of the event for which he was ultimately fired. Thw implicated police officers were allowed to escape. This was the case that led to police corruption becoming a focus in Honduras.

There is nothing in Bonilla's comments that we can see to lead Ramirez del Cid to take then as a personal attack.

It may be a guilty conscience.

Ramirez del Cid is one of 11 high ranking police who failed to show up for their appointment for the process being employed to identify sources of corruption in the Honduran police. The group not complying with the law includes pretty much everyone in the police command before Bonilla was appointed. Ramirez del Cid was the man in charge.

Del Cid is still an active duty police officer despite having no duties.  He still receives a salary, and therefore must submit to the tests under the law passed by Congress. The process he is ducking involves drug tests, psychological tests, financial investigation, and answering standardized questions while connected to a lie detector. 

Instead, he says he's asked to retire. But that isn't stopping him from launching a war of words with his successor.

Police Suspected in Key Murders

Late yesterday Juan Carlos Bonilla, the Police Chief in Honduras, told the press that police were suspected in the killing of Alfredo Landaverde, an advisor to then Security Minister Oscar Alvarez.

La Tribuna quotes Bonilla:
I am saying that the suspects indicate that members of the National Police participated in these cases.

But that's not all. 

Bonilla also admitted that the police were suspected in the killing of the head of the anti-drug program in Honduras, Julian Aristides Gonzalez. 

Bonilla reportedly told the TV program Frente a Frente
The only thing I want to say to you is that there are suspects who have some connection with the police in this case, and that will be demonstrated in its time because we are checking the information and if there isn't a direct or indirect connection with the case, it will be discarded, but now there are suspects (police) that are linked by omission and if the investigation turns out that way we will proceed.

La Tribuna goes on to report that the motorcycle used in the Gonzalez killing left from and returned to the main police station in Tegucigalpa.

Julian Aristides Gonzalez, then Anti-Drug advisor to the Public Prosecutor, was murdered by armed men on a motorcycle in Tegucigalpa in 2009. 

Afredo Landaverde was a senior advisor to then Security Minister Oscar Alvarez when he was murdered by men on motorcycles in December, 2011, also in Tegucigalpa.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Police Kill Four in La Ceiba

Eight police officers in La Ceiba have been suspended after witnesses reportedly saw some of those suspended officers arresting four young people who were found dead the next morning.

And these are not just ordinary cops-on-the-beat. They are members of one of the special units that have been organized to combat specific crimes.

The suspended officers are members of the local Grupo Especial Anti-Secuestro (Special Anti-Kidnapping Group) or GEAS.  Also suspended was the police commander in La Ceiba, Marco Tulio Cruz Aguilar.

The four youths were asphixiated by tying plastic bags around their heads, with their hands bound behind their back.  Their bodies were  then thrown into a stream.  The autopsy report indicates they were tortured before they were killed.

This is not the first time GEAS has been involved in controversy.  

GEAS was modeled after the Colombian Army's Anti-Kidnapping unit, GAULA, and its members were trained by elements of the Colombian Army.  Shortly after a GEAS/GAULA operation to free Porfirio Lobo Sosa's cousin from his kidnappers last November, six bodies were found in the same area.  Everyone agreed they were the kidnappers, but the police said it was a coincidence that they turned up dead.

Nor is this the first accusation against the La Ceiba GEAS group in particular. 

Last November, an officer who was part of the La Ceiba GEAS unit was captured by San Pedro police while he was attempting to kidnap a San Pedro businessman.

The prosecutor's office has opened an investigation of the latest incident.

Police commander Juan Carlos Bonilla says the suspensions are so that these officers don't get in the way of the investigation.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Luis Rubi: Police Cleanup Law Unconstitutional

We have often found ourselves critical of Luis Rubí and the Public Prosecutor's office. But we do agree with his latest finding: the law under which the Honduran police are being purged appears to violate the due process guaranteed by the Honduran constitution.

Here's the story: In late June of this year, 375 police officers filed an appeal of the May, 2012 law which Congress passed to clean up the National Police.

The law, decreto 89-2012 [note correction], created the Comisión de Reforma de la Seguridad Pública (Commission for the Reform of Public Security) with broad powers.

It also eliminated Articles 114, 127, 128, 129, 130, 131 y 132 of the Ley Organica, the police charter.  These were the articles that spelled out  due process procedures for firing a police officer of any rank. 

The Sala Constitucional, the five justices of the Honduran Supreme Court that hear constitutional cases, solicits an opinion from the Public Prosecutor about any law subject to challenge.  Luis Rubí filed his opinion, finding the new law unconstitutional. He argued that it denies due process rights to the accused police officers; implicitly presumes officers under investigation guilty; and demands that they prove their innocence.

Rubí said:
There is no doubt that the decreto 89-2012 weakens the rule of law by openly contravening the constitutional disposition and the international order to protect human rights.
The presumption of innocence and the right to due process are guaranteed by the Honduran constitution.

This opinion really should come as no surprise to anyone in Honduras.  Back in February, the Association of Magistrates and Justices of Honduras issued a press release reporting their opinion that the law was unconstitutional, because it suspended basic, constitutionally guaranteed, rights.

The day the law was approved the Public Prosecutor's office said they would begin a review of the law to determine if it violated the constitutional rights of police officers.  Previous attempts to clean up the police had failed for precisely this reason.

Nonetheless, Julieta Castellanos, the Rector of the National Autonomous University, criticized Rubí:
The Public Prosecutor will do harm by opposing a cleanup of the police and I think that there will be sufficient power in society to be able to succeed in the fight that we are all interested to put in order.

Castellanos suggested that Rubí is opposed to cleaning up the police because the same law covers his office as well.

What she doesn't do is provide a counter-argument to his finding, echoing that of the Association of Magistrates and Justices, that the new law violates guarantees of due process.

The Sala Constitucional has not ruled on the case, and the opinion submitted by the Public Prosecutor is not binding on the court, so for now, the process of purifying the police will continue.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Honduran Media Emphasize Role of DEA in Miskitu Killings

A story credited to the Spanish news agency EFE, published in Honduras by the news website Proceso Digital late on August 14, raises again the question of the degree of involvement of US Drug Enforcement Agents in the deaths of Honduran indigenous civilians in early May near Ahuas, a community in the Honduran Mosquitia.

Headlined "The DEA had a 'central role' [in the] anti-drug operation in Honduras that left 4 dead", the news story cites a 60 page report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research and Rights Action, dated August 15.

Proceso Digital summarizes the report as
underlining that the DEA agents took a "significant role" and not simply a support role as the US State Department argued; that the US has not sufficiently assisted in the investigation".

What is at issue, Proceso Digital makes clear, is that a full investigation of the events in May cannot take place without more active US participation, for example, making available surveillance video and providing access to the guns in the US helicopter for ballistics.

The CEPR report painstakingly pieces together news reports and official statements, reviews what has been described of the content of the as-yet restricted surveillance video that has been reported on by the New York Times, and-- most important-- assembles the testimony of the surviving passengers in the boat that was attacked under the claim it was engaged in drug trafficking.

The CEPR notes that "most witnesses report never having been interviewed by investigators."

The CEPR describes the journey of Hilda Lezama's boat, loaded with passengers and cargo. It provides the names of the passengers traveling that day, where they were coming from, and when they joined the trip.

It draws a clear picture of a commercial boat caught up in a military operation.

Approaching the final landing around 2:30 AM, the pilot passed a drifting, unmanned boat. Shortly after, the commercial boat was fired on by helicopters that had already been heard by some passengers:
Candelaria Trapp called her sister Geraldina Trapp shortly after 2:00 a.m. stating that she was almost at Paptalaya because she saw the town’s cell phone towers, but she expressed anxiety about four helicopters flying low over the boat. Geraldina reported hearing the noise of the helicopters over the phone.

While matter-of-fact, the report includes poignant detail on the experiences of the families traveling together, many of whom were shot or had family members killed-- including two pregnant women:
Bera, who remained on the boat longer than most of the others, says that the helicopter shined a light on the boat only after having opened fire and that she believed that they may have stopped shooting because only after they had projected their search light could they then clearly see that she was a woman with two young children. The helicopter flew away but circled around, and at this point Bera’s 11 year-old child jumped into the water. Bera grabbed her 2 year-old child and followed. She felt that she was on the verge of drowning, but managed to grab onto brush along the edge of the river and pull herself and her child onto the shore. She stayed hidden among the brush until after dawn when the helicopters had left and she heard people searching the river.

The CEPR report emphasizes what the US and Honduras should do now, including calling for a cut off in US funding for similar operations under the Leahy act.

This isn't what the Honduran media source found most worthy of highlighting. Instead, it emphasizes the "central role" of the DEA in the incident.

For many Hondurans, the attempt to disclaim the deep level of involvement of US forces in the country, and especially in drug operations, is the most significant aspect of reaction to the Ahuas killings.

US diplomats may focus on establishing that no DEA agent fired a gun-- a claim disputed in this report-- but in Honduras, the key issue is that this operation would not have taken place without the funding, equipment, training, and leadership of the DEA.

[edited 1:09 PDT 8/15/12 to reflect co-sponsorship and clarify who has seen the surveillance videotape]

Monday, August 13, 2012

Honduran Scholars on Militarizing Policing

Was a letter from Honduran and international scholars the inspiration for the US to place tighter controls (or suspend) some funding for Honduran police agencies?

No one can really say.

What we can demonstrate is that Honduran scholars have been unstinting in their critical analyses of what is happening in their country. Unfortunately, those voices do not get a hearing in the English language press. They should.

Consider an interview with Leticia Salomón, noted Honduran sociologist and scholar of policing. 

Headlined "Soldiers in the streets are a grave menace for citizenship", the interview includes Salomón's pointed comments on the proposed "elite" Tigres unit that, we have noted, is immune to the limitations on US funding sparked by the admission that the Chief of Police has a suspected history of extra-judicial killing.

Salomón expresses grave reservations about the participation of the military in civilian policing:
Notice that each time we are seeing with more frequency the military undertaking tasks of civilian security, which means that the soldiers in the streets, like the police, prosecutors and judges are converted into a grave menace to citizenship, and more serious yet because they carry arms and are prepared to shoot those who they consider their enemies.

It is this, fundamentally, that the US State Department needs to face: with US aid, the Honduran government has undermined the constitutional separation of civilian and military security, creating a situation in which the military can classify the people as the enemy.

The proposal to create an elite unit that deliberately blurs those lines even more preoccupies Salomón. In response to the question, "What do you think about the possible creation of the Tigres?", she responded
It is a dangerous return to the past, it signifies reaffirmation by the State of the linking of the military with public security. It is forming intelligence troops with operational units. Intelligence is thinking about, analyzing, and sensing tendencies, data, possible threats and what capacity of response we have, whereas the operational is going out into the street for which the information from intelligence serves to get results, in this proposal they want to do these two things at the same time, this is very dangerous.

Salomón is calling for a separation of intelligence gathering and analysis from operations-- a division she argues lowers the risk of intelligence being distorted by operational aims. She goes on to talk about the Honduran government's interests in creating this new ambiguous unit:
They are thinking of confronting society that dares to dissent, to question and to demand that the State satisfy its basic needs more immediately. This is evidence of a political decision totally removed from the major challenges that are presumed now to face security forces.

Salomón, like other Honduran intellectuals, sees the State turning against the people since the 2009 coup. She is most pessimistic about the institutions responsible for justice in Honduras:
We are talking in the first place of the police, but also the prosecutors and the judges whose instances are not at the level of the dimension of the insecurity that the country is living through, presenting serious signals of institutional deterioration, of involvement in criminal acts and of high levels of corruption...that is, now the delinquents are not just in the streets, they are also in the police, they are in the Public Prosecutor's office, and in the Judicial Branch, it is terrible for a society that still trusts in the order inherent in the State of Law.

It would be easy, from the US, to reduce what is happening with security in Honduras to US interests.

Salomón, in this interview, says she doesn't begrudge the US the pursuit of its own interests; but she does fault the Honduran government for its willingness to make concessions for US interests. What she and other Honduran scholars are calling for, here and in the letter they signed to appeal to the US government, is help in ensuring that the Honduran government puts Honduran interests-- in security in the exercise of civil rights, above all-- first.

The interview with Leticia Salomón, dated August 3, 2012, was published in A Mecate Corto, a product of the Jesuit Equipo de Reflexión, Investigación y Comunicación, ERIC-SJ, who also broadcast on Radio Progeso, one of Honduras' most remarkable independent broadcasters.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

US State Department Blinks on Honduran Security

All across the US, the news from Honduras over the last day has been the same:

"US withholds funds to Honduran police"

Or, if you read the Washington Post, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, or a number of other papers, you might see the story under the headline

"US cites human rights concerns, withholds funds to Honduran National Police"

What is making the rounds is an AP story by Alberto Arce in Tegucigalpa, with Martha Mendoza in Santa Cruz. It says that funds are being withheld from
Honduran law enforcement units directly supervised by their new national police chief until the U.S. can investigate allegations that he ran a death squad a decade ago.

It's about time. The murky antecedents of Juan Carlos Bonilla Valladares, El Tigre, were well aired back when he was appointed -- in late May, more than two months ago.

We noted at the time that the appointment gave insight into what Porfirio Lobo Sosa thought made a good top cop: getting results quickly, at any cost:
Bonilla Valladares definitely has a history of getting results. But that history shows that the "results" came from his exercise of extra-judicial power.

We  cited an interview by the Salvadoran media outlet, El Faro, which included this chilling exchange with Bonilla:
—Have you killed anyone outside legal proceedings?-- I asked him, while we left behind El Paraíso.

—There are things that one carries to the grave. What I can say is that I love my country and I am disposed to defend it at any cost, and I have done things to defend it. That is all that I will say.

As we noted at the time, State Department documents from 2004 acknowledged the accusations against Bonilla Valladares. 

Now, according to the AP, the State Department has produced a new report (which we could not locate) that
says the State Department "is aware of allegations of human rights violations related to Police Chief Juan Carlos Bonilla's service" and that the U.S. government has established a working group to investigate.

This story is worth the coverage it is getting. But there are some subtleties here that are worth further comment. The AP report goes to say
Under the new guidelines, the U.S. is limiting assistance so that it only goes to special Honduran law enforcement units, staffed by Honduran personnel "who receive training, guidance, and advice directly from U.S. law enforcement and are not under Bonilla's direct supervision," according to the report.

"Direct supervision" is the operative phrase here, since Bonilla Valladares, as national police chief, is the commander of all the Honduran police. Does it really matter if there is an interposed subordinate officer between him and the units the US is still funding?

Or is the significant difference here that the US will still fund US trained, guided, and advised units which, while technically part of the Honduran police forces, would be expected not to follow orders from the national police chief?

Some Honduran drug enforcement agents already have direct connections to US FAST teams, although their training wasn't enough to stop a still-disputed massacre in the Mosquitia.

The most obvious candidate for funding under this exclusion is the new unit, named the Tigres, that Honduras has proposed to create to offer policing while in theory continuing to purge the national police of corrupt officers.

According to reports in Honduran press, by September Tigres (Tropas de Inteligencia y Grupos de Respuesta Especial de Seguridad, "Intelligence and Special Security Response Groups Unit") will be deployed independent of the National Police. 

Juan Orlando Hernández, head of Congress (and presidential primary candidate in the right-wing Nacional party) is quoted as saying the Tigres would be
“a highly trained elite force that will have hi-tech equipment for fighting common and organised crime... This is not at all a force parallel to the police or the army. What we want is a rapid response team to tackle the insecurity in our country. Regardless of whether they like it, it will strengthen the response capacity to crime, because the Tigres will attack everything”.

La Prensa offers this characterization of the expected progress of the law that would authorize the Tigres, and their recruitment and training:
The law will be approved next week, in August the first stage of training and selection will come to an end since that process is already advanced, and in September the first contingent will appear.

That does not seem to allow much time for the purported training in human rights that, it is claimed, will keep this new force from committing the kinds of violations so common in existing Honduran security forces.

We have previously noted that selection and training of officers should legally follow approval of the law, which in a real democracy would not be taken as a fait accompli, but then, this is policing in Honduras today. Initial funding for the new unit will reportedly come from the Interamerican Development Bank.  

This unit, with its novel reporting line (in times of peace, the Ministry of Security; and in times of emergency, the Ministry of Defense), is the one Honduran "police" force that could be characterized as outside the direct control of the impeached police chief, Bonilla Valladares.

Writing on the IPS news website, Thelma Mejía provides a thoughtful summary of what we know about the proposed Tigre unit, and its contribution to continuing to blur the line between policing and military actions. She cites Honduran sociologist Mirna Flores and social commentator Eugenio Sosa, reminding readers that
similar forces created in the 1980s ended in grave violations of human rights, the most recent example being the so-called "Red Car Gang", a paramilitary corps that carried out operations of "social cleansing" against young men in gangs from 2003 to 2005, and acted from within the police, according to humanitarian groups.

In other words, there is a history here of abusive action by such "elite" police groups given sweeping mandates to combat "violence". 

Bonilla Valladares is part of that history; but his selection as police chief was not an error, that the US can simply avoid reinforcing. It was deliberate, despite this known history. The reaction of the Honduran government to the US withholding aid shows that: the AP story cites a Lobo Sosa spokesman Saturday supporting Bonilla Valladares, saying
the administration has repeatedly pledged full support for the police chief and that under his leadership "there has been a real improvement in the security situation."

There is one final subtlety worth underlining: the AP story gives credit for this modest reversal of the US support for militarization of civilian policing in Honduras to "a series of letters from Honduran and U.S. academics, activists and members of Congress". It quotes a June 7 letter "signed by hundreds of academics" that read, in part
Combatting drug trafficking is not a legitimate justification for the U.S. to fund and train security forces that usurp democratic governments and violently repress our people. 

This letter was the culmination of the frustrated cry from the heart of scholars in Honduras, the US, and 28 other countries asking the US government to stop ignoring the on the ground reality in Honduras. Cautiously, we might conclude that finally this outcry is getting heard.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

More Policing, Less Legality

General Rene Osorio Canales announced Tuesday that selection had already begun for the new elite military unit, Los Tigres (The Tigers), who will function like a police SWAT team.

The unit, when organized, will have 200 members.  Osorio Canales revealed that the officers from the military and police assigned to the group will recommend the function, organization, and training of the Tigers.

One small problem.  The final version of the law to create the unit has not even been written; so the final version has yet to be presented to Porfirio Lobo Sosa, the national Congress, or the Minister of Defense.

Osorio Canales told La Tribuna that the final draft law would be presented to Lobo Sosa, Juan Orlando Hernandez, and Osorio Canales's boss, Minister of Security Pompeyo Bonilla, before the 15th of August.

An early version of the proposed law was sent to Congress on July 26.

This draft law splits the command structure of the unit.  It is nominally a rapid response police force fighting organized crime, but will train on military bases.

In the fight against organized crime, the proposed unit will be under the command of the Minister of Security, while in time of war, it would report to the Defense Minister.

The proposed organization supports Lobo Sosa's goal of merging the Security and Defense Ministries. It also continues a troubling trend of merging civilian policing and military defense.

Osorio Canales seems to be constituting the unit before it has been authorized.

By Honduran law, Congress must pass legislation creating the unit and assign it a budget. The president must sign the law, and then it must be published, before anyone can legally spend a penny on the Tigers.

Government spending without budgetary support is a crime in Honduras. It was one of the major criticisms of the Zelaya government, in its final year in office, when it operated without a congressionally-approved budget.

But times, of course, have changed. Who needs to worry about due process or the rule of law in Honduras today?

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Satanism? In Lepaterique?

Be afraid; be very afraid!

There's a religious and Latin scholar in Lepaterique who knows how to use Facebook!

La Tribuna reported Tuesday on a shocking uprising of Satan worshipers in Lepaterique.

Most of the people consulted by La Tribuna's reporter said they had no direct knowledge about it, but that they had heard talk.

One anonymous informant said "there are few who want to talk about it" but that previously someone had tried and failed to force their way into the seminary in town as an attempt on the seminarian's lives.

According to the story, a group of youths are operating outside of the town as "satan worshipers".  Unnamed people of Lepaterique reported to La Tribuna's unnamed reporter that these youth shout words in the mountains in an unknown language.

They are clever, according to an anonymous informant:
it's very difficult  to infiltrate their meetings.  Those that form these groups are very wary [muy conservadores]  and some, we find, even attend churches to hide the existence of these satanic youths.

Fiendishly practicing Christianity in public as a cover for their satanism-- now that is diabolical.

But wait, there's more.

Other anonymous informants told La Tribuna's anonymous reporter that when these groups want to begin a ritual, they post prayers in Latin on Facebook. Highly suspect behavior.

The informant who mentioned the supposed attempt on the lives of seminarians specifically referred to a Latin prayer, "Hymnus Ad Galli Cantus", saying:
it appears, on the surface to be religious, sung at the time of Christmas and the birth of the baby Jesus, but the opposite of it is death, and as is obvious, the priests are considered pure, and this is why the satanists want to kill them.

La Tribuna helpfully reproduced what it said is the text of  Hymnus Ad Galli Cantus allegedly the prayer posted on Facebook.  Here's the Latin text they found demonic:
Aeterne rerum conditor
Noctem diemque qui regis
Et temporum das tempora,
Ut alleves fastidium.
Praeco diei iam sonat,
Noctis profundae pervigil,
Nocturna lux viantibus

If this actually were the Hymnus Ad Galli Cantus it would be an early (4th Century) Christian hymn, written by Aurelius Clemens Prudentius, a Roman from Spain, and a Christian convert. Said hymn was one of a suite of poems he wrote and published as Cathemerion, poems for each hour of the day and Christian religous festivals.  Hymnus Ad Galli Cantus is still used at Christmas time in the Catholic church.  Its actual first line is "Awake! the shining day is born."

That is not what "Aeterne rerum conditor" means.

The Latin text reproduced by La Tribuna, supposedly from a Facebook post by young satanists, is actually from another 4th Century Christian poet, Saint Ambrose, a Frenchman by birth who became Bishop of Milan.

La Tribuna actually reproduced the first several lines of Aeterne rerum conditor ("Maker of all, eternal King"). This was for centuries part of the Catholic service between Epiphany and Lent, and again from September 28 until November 26.

Here's a translation of the Latin above (with the last line of the stanza that La Tribuna omitted):
Maker of all, eternal King,
who day and night about dost bring:
who weary mortals to relieve,
dost in their times the seasons give:

Now the shrill cock proclaims the day,
and calls the sun's awakening ray,
the wandering pilgrim's guiding light,
[that marks the watches night by night.]

This hymn is even available as an MP3 download on Amazon and iTunes. Or you can buy it as a ringtone for your cell phone from other vendors.

So what's satanic about these hymns by early Christians? The article never makes that clear.

What La Tribuna's anonymous author does communicate is that the residents of Lepaterique are quaint country folk, who still believe in curers and go to them for health problems and love potions.

The reporter gives us this wonderful little gem:

The most exaggerated of this is the many who visit the dead Constantine, buried in his house, so that he can "illuminate" a problem.  The one who makes this connection is the widow Chavelita, of whom other townspeople are jealous because no one forbade her to bury her family member in the patio of her house, as most would wish.

Lepaterique was an indigenous community when the Spanish first came to Honduras. The implication seems to be that they've maintained non-Christian, backwards ways, wanting to bury their family members in the courtyard of their houses.

No wonder rampant satanism is on the loose there-- cleverly disguised as participation in Christian religious services, posting of Christian hymns, and general hell-raising of, luckily, completely undemonstrated form.

Even for the Honduran press, this article-- originally linked online in the "Nacionales" news section-- reaches a new low. It wouldn't be worth going through this, except for the echoes it raises of weird fears of religious otherness that break out from time to time in statements and actions by government officials, like Africo Madrid's denunciation of Halloween.

Promoting suspicion of the young also seems to be part of the overall hysteria, normally framed, of course, in terms of fear of gangs.

In place of the Brujos de Ilamatepeque, what we have here seems to be the Satanists of Lepaterique-- with equally poor justification.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Cultural Policy in Honduras

A while back, I was invited to speak in Honduras on the topic of "the challenges and advances in the investigation of Ciudad Blanca", as part of the celebration of the sixtieth anniversary of the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History (in Spanish the Instituto Hondureño de Antropología e Historia, or IHAH).

My already existing summer research plans precluded my accepting the invitation. I toyed with writing the remarks I would have made in the requested "pequeña ponencia" (brief talk) as a blog post here. But there were, frankly, more important things to do.

Now, as Adrienne Pine notes at Quotha, Virgilio Paredes, in charge of IHAH, has written a letter to El Heraldo, thanking them for their contribution to his project of publicizing "Ciudad Blanca", reproduced by that paper in a self-congratulatory ad about their coverage of the supposed discovery.

And that inspires me to follow through on the invitation I received, albeit a couple of weeks later than proposed, in this virtual forum.

What does the present head of IHAH mean when he writes about "los vestigios arqueologicos de la zona de la Mosquitia hondureña, de una civilizacion que puede haber sido la denominada Ciudad Blanca" [the archaeological vestiges in the Honduran Mosquitia, of a civilization that could have been that called Ciudad Blanca"]?

For an archaeologist, that sentence is painful to read. We are long past the time when we spoke in terms of "civilizations"; for us, the question of the archaeology of the Mosquitia is that of cultures represented, histories to be told, and social relations to be understood. Civilizations, unfortunately, can still be "discovered" and "explored"; social relations, histories, and cultural traditions need to be investigated and understood.

The LiDAR imagery produced undoubtedly shows evidence of past inhabitation of the Mosquitia. That is neither surprising nor particularly news. All of Honduras produces evidence of human occupation prior to the arrival of Spanish colonizers in the sixteenth century. The relatively low population of the Mosquitia today is an outcome of colonization and its aftermath. Knowing the reality of past habitation in the region requires us to ask what historical, political, and economic processes have disadvantaged the population in recent centuries.

Like much of the pre-hispanic past of Honduras, knowledge of the original distribution of towns and villages in the Mosquitia has been slow in developing, primarily due to over-valuation, both in Honduras and outside it, of the Classic Maya "civilization". This over-valuation of a Maya past became a shared obsession in North America and Honduras in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For North Americans, the Maya offered a civilization as "advanced" as the ancient Greeks-- a way to establish an advanced past in the Americas independent of that of the Classical world. For Central American elites, the Maya could provide antecedents for new nations, antecedents that were cultivated, desirable, and above all, up to the standards of global cultural centers.

The shared obsession with a purely Maya past led to a history of archaeological investigation that focused on the extreme western edge of the country; that normally asked-- and still too often asks-- the question "how were these other societies or cultures related to the Classic Maya?"; and that marginalizes the histories of the majority of the Honduran territory while generalizing the cultural tradition of the extreme margin of the country.

Against this background of "mayanization", attention to the archaeology of eastern Honduras should be welcome. But instead of building knowledge, the recent dramatic publicity about a supposed "discovery" of "Ciudad Blanca" takes refuge in tales of mystery with no basis in historical fact. As we have previously discussed, the legend of Ciudad Blanca is a modern fabrication, extending to false claims about the content of sixteenth-century Spanish documents.

Actual archaeological work conducted in the Mosquitia was ignored in the original publicity and continues to be ignored by the head of the IHAH. That research is of interest itself, because what it showed was an unexpected number of large sites occupied at the same time as Copan, and in some cases later. Some of these sites included architectural features recognizable as ballcourts, the kind of spaces where people from as far north as Arizona through Mexico and Guatemala played games using rubber balls. Not just significant as a sign of cultural identification with the zone to the north, but also socially significant as evidence of a practice through which different, independent towns participated in inter-site political, religious, and social relations, ballcourts had, until the early 1990s, been thought to be limited to the western edge of Honduras.

Yet the archaeology of the Mosquitia also showed abundant evidence of relations further south, to the societies of Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama. In some ways this was unsurprising: people in Nicaragua and Costa Rica valued the beautiful marble vases carved in the Ulua valley, and emulated the painted pottery of the Ulua tradition in their own locally made ceramic vases. But the modern history of archaeological research in Honduras had, since at least the 1930s, emphasized a break between western Honduras, connected with the Maya and other societies west and north, and the peoples of southern Central America.

What the archaeology undertaken in the 1990s (with little institutional backing or financial support) in the Mosquitia-- and in the department of Yoro, and more recently, in Olancho and the Jamastran valley-- demonstrated was that the old model of two blocs separated by a "frontier" was untenable. Instead, Honduran sites further east than the so-called "frontier" expanded our understanding of the geographical scope of travel, exchange, and knowledge, showing that before colonization by the Spanish, all of Mexico and Central America constituted an active chain of interconnected societies, ultimately linked north to the pueblos of the US Southwest and south into the mountains of Colombia, and perhaps beyond.

These were cosmopolitan peoples. Renewed investigation of the Mosquitia has the promise to remind us of this, and enforce real attention to the mechanisms through which this chain of societies were connected over their long histories.

Unfortunately, there is little likelihood that the present campaign by the IHAH will yield reliable knowledge, even if an expedition is mounted to the sites located through LiDAR imaging. Knowledge is not the same thing as discovery. Knowledge comes from building on what went before; the relentless promotion of the new data as unprecedented stands in the way of trying to honestly compare these sites to those known from the region, and across Honduras. The desire to link these real places to a modern myth, with its highly marketable narrative of lost cities of gold, has already distorted the process of archaeological research. How, in this time of high politicization of archaeology in Honduras, could any government-sponsored expedition dispute the claim that this is the discovery of a lost "civilization", Ciudad Blanca, and instead acknowledge that these sites are like those already known from previous research in the Mosquitia?

The greatest promise of following up on the new LiDAR imagery might be the potential to renew archaeological research outside the Copan zone. The greatest challenge presented is a fact cited by the manager of the Institute in his letter to El Heraldo. Paredes writes:
The government of the Republic presided over by Porfirio Lobo Sosa is working to fortify the economic development of the country through the Cultural Patrimony as a resource that should be used in a responsible and sustainable form, therefore, we do not doubt that the enhancement of such an important site will come to drive the economic development of the country without taking away from the natural and cultural riches that are encountered in the zone of the Mosquitia.

What is wrong here?

The mission of the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History is not to exploit sites of cultural and historical importance for economic development. That would be a reasonable statement of the mission of the Institute of Tourism. This passage shows a fundamental lack of understanding of the mission of IHAH. And that lack of understanding of the mission of the Institute, on the part of the person appointed to direct it, is the greatest challenge for any archaeology in Honduras today.

The law governing the Institute of Anthropology and History, established in 1968 and revised in 2008, says that its purpose is
the defense, exploration, conservation, restauration, repair, recovery and growth, and scientific investigation of the archaeological, anthropological, historic and artistic treasures of the nation, as well as places of tradition and natural beauty.

Nothing there, or in the articles that follow, about economic development. Indeed, article 26 explicitly enjoins against approving exploration for any reason other than "scientific investigation":
Projects that could discover archaeological monuments, like the exploration of those already discovered, shall have the exclusive goal of scientific investigation, therefore, the Institute cannot concede permission to persons who are pursuing other ends.

Under the law, sites are supposed to be of interest for one of two reasons: due to their relation to the "social and political history" of the country; and for their "exceptional artistic or architectural value that they characterize as an exemplar of national culture". Again, no mention of economic exploitation.

Also relevant to this discussion of the challenges to an "archaeology of Ciudad Blanca" is the Law for the protection of the Cultural Patrimony. Passed in 1997, it sets out at the beginning the value of the cultural patrimony:
Cultural properties constitute one of the foundations of the culture of the people and acquire their true value when their origin, history, and context are known with precision and are disseminated for the knowledge of the population.

The cultural patrimony law repeatedly cites the role of the Institute of Anthropology and History in the protection of the cultural patrimony-- not in its exploitation for economic ends.

In theory, there is no contradiction between sponsoring research-- the job of the Institute of Anthropology-- and contributing informed understanding to the development of historic and archaeological sites for visitation that is at one and the same time of economic benefit and a means to educate the public about the Honduran past.

In theory.

In practice, when economic development trumps scientific investigation and dissemination of historical knowledge, as clearly is the case in the unfounded promotion of sites in the Mosquitia as the mythical Ciudad Blanca, the interests of the Honduran people in real knowledge about the past are submerged under the desperate pursuit of money.