Thursday, January 12, 2012

Massacre in the Aguan: Two Ways to Report

Earlier this week, another group of farmworkers living in the Aguan valley died. Children as young as one year old were killed in an act of great violence.

This time, the details were so horrific that they have attracted international media attention. But readers of the Washington Post would be hard pressed to connect the story reported January 11 with its specific context. The Post wrote
Officials in Honduras say men armed with AK-47 rifles and machetes killed four adults and four children in a part of the country torn by a land dispute between workers and landowners....

Regaderos is in the Aguan River valley where farmworkers have been demanding ownership of thousands of acres of oil palm plantations that they say were illegally seized by landowners.

All I have left out in the quoted section above is the grisly details of who was killed and how, details that feed the sensationalism of this kind of reporting. So what we are left with is all the context the Post sees fit to provide. I suppose I should be grateful that they acknowledge there is a land dispute at all; but notably absent is any attempt to explain who the victims are, structurally, and who the likely authors of this crime are.

Honduran media rushed to fill the gap with premature elimination of suspects. La Tribuna writes that
The massacre of some eight people that occurred yesterday in Sabá, Colón, could be the product of a conflict over land, the authorities noted today.

The chief of police of Colón, Osmín Bardales, said that the first inquiries point to an enmity resulting from conflic over the ownership of some land.

Nonetheless it is not possible yet to make official if this is the true cause, but he clarified that the topic of the Bajo Aguan has nothing to do with this situation.

Nothing to see here: move along.

The attempt by Bardales to divert suspicion away from the conflict that pits campesinos against major landowners is to be expected. The telling fact that the attackers were provided with AK-47s simply sits there begging to be addressed: who has this kind of weaponry?

But don't look to places like the Washington Post to follow through on asking that question, or others that might shed light on this incident. This is, after all, the paper that on December 26 published an article that shed considerably more heat than light on the crisis of violence in Honduras today.

The headline of that story Grim toll as cocaine trade expands in Honduras, offered a simple storyline that we might call the default narrative for violence in Central America. Derived from the sensationlistic coverage of what is in fact a very dangerous situation on the Mexican border, it skips the actual step of establishing cause and effect. Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world; it is a pass-through point for moving drugs from South America to the US; so obviously, the murder rate must be caused by the drug trafficking.

The story acknowledges that "the homicide problem goes back decades", but then plunges right on to say that the rise to 2011 heights came "as if the cocaine were gasoline tossed on a fire".

So tell me, what kinds of evidence show that drug trafficking is producing the increased murders in Honduras? Perhaps the Post did an analysis of statistics about Honduran murders?

Well, no. Instead, they stitch together data on drug flights into the Mosquitia with the story of a police raid on a so-called drug processing lab in the mountains near San Pedro Sula, before getting to their only argument linking the drug trade-- which is, without doubt, corrosive to public safety and institutional legitimacy:
Honduran police commanders say smugglers are also increasingly paying their contacts in raw product rather than cash, driving up local drug-dealing and the lethal violence that accompanies it.

Well. I feel like that is a convincing argument. "Honduran police commanders" say so. Like Osmin Bardales, who, within hours of a massacre, knows that it has nothing to do with the continuing conflict that shapes tensions in the Bajo Aguan. Who is sure enough that it is a private conflict to state that, but offers no explanation of the access that the antagonists (presumably, other peasants?) have to AK-47s.

The Post continues with a by now much-needed caution (but really, what reader other than someone like me is paying attention by this point?) that acknowledges that there is no causal analysis supporting their story line:
Researchers caution that the surge in killings here cannot be attributed entirely to narcotics trafficking. As in Ciudad Juarez, drug-fueled violence appears to have fostered an overall climate of impunity, in which bullets settle the slightest dispute and anyone can literally get away with murder.

Well, San Pedro Sula is not Ciudad Juarez, and Honduras is not Mexico. That "climate of impunity" might have other causes which an alert reporter might possibly, maybe, mention. Remember that whole coup d'etat incident back a while? when the de facto dictator defied the world, and unleashed the police and armed forces against the citizenry?

And that, of course, is where the next paragraph finally arrives:
Journalists, labor activists and gays also are apparently being killed at elevated rates, and political violence has flared since the 2009 coup that deposed leftist President Manuel Zelaya. Then there are the thousands of other Hondurans who seemingly have nothing to do with the drug trade who have been slain in carjackings, muggings and hotheaded feuds.

Yes. I would give a lot to know how much thought went into the "apparently": yes, journalists are being murdered at an extraordinary rate. And the Honduran police, including those commanders in the Bajo Aguan, try to claim that each such incident is due to "enmity", personal stuff, or else wave their hands at "drug violence". Yes, LBGT activists have suffered horrendous attacks. Yes, it became worth your life to be a labor or social activist.

And oh yes: being a peasant fighting for land in the Bajo Aguan is very, very bad for your health.

Here's what's missing from the Washington Post and other mainstream media: analysis. It isn't impossible. Back on October 6, a website called Honduras Daily took the amazingly difficult step of downloading and reading a UN report on global crime statistics.

That report considers the relationship between drug trafficking and violence to be non-linear:
Organized criminal groups involved in drug trafficking do not necessarily make themselves visible through violent and lethal crime. For example, in situations when areas of influence and/or illegal activities are clearly distributed among different criminal groups they may prefer to maintain a low profile and not to attract the attention of state authorities. Violence often escalates when an existing status quo is broken, as a result, for example, of changes in the structure of the drug market, the emergence of new protagonists or the “threat” posed by police repression.

In other words, violence along the Mexico and US border-- which results from cartels fighting battles to control a lucrative market, and fighting Mexican government efforts to break their power-- is not automatically a model that fits Honduras. The report continues:

higher levels of violence and homicides are not only associated with increases in drug trafficking flows, but also with decreases in drug flows that lead to turbulence in established markets, more competition between criminal groups and more killings. It is therefore likely that changes in drug markets drive lethal violence, not overall levels of trafficking flows per se.

For me a glaring omission in reporting dominated by the comfortable narrative of drug violence is the contribution of murders of women to the death toll. In a report titled Unbearable Levels of Violence, the NGO Social Watch draws the connection between impunity and the 2009 coup that so often evades the English-language media. Citing an "alarming rise" in violence against campesinos and a marked rise in violence against "transsexuals", the report goes on to say
femicide is also increasing. In the period 2003 to 2010 some 1,464 women were killed, 44% of them aged 15 to 29. In 2010 alone 300 women died violent deaths but in only 22 of these cases (7.3%) were the perpetrators brought to justice. From 2008 to 2010 there were 944 murders of women but the legal system only managed to punish 61 of the murderers (6.4%).

Similar figures have been reported by other advocacy groups, such as the Campaña Nacional Contra Femicidios. Writing in a statement relates October 7, 2011, this group reviewed the statistics on prosecution of murders of women in Honduras:
of the total of 351 cases reported to the prosecutor in 2010, only 179 (51% of the total) were able to enter the court as cases, and only 59 cases arrived at trial in court, of which 48 verdicts were produced, which indicates to us a percentage of 13.6% effectiveness in those cases.

They conclude:
While impunity exists we women will continue in a state of defenseless and the list of victims of femicide will continue to grow.

As, in fact, has happened with the latest atrocity in the Aguan, which added two more women to the death toll.

Impunity; the availability of guns; targeting of certain groups for political and structural reasons; and the ineffectuality and corruption of the police, who no one expects to actually investigate crimes professionally: all these factors should be the start of press coverage of crime in Honduras, not the end.

But then, that is a story that requires more specific historical context. So much easier to just draw a line from San Pedro Sula to Ciudad Juarez, and ignore all that is particular to each of these zones.

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