Sunday, January 22, 2012

Tim Johnson sheds light on Honduran crime

Since I recently complained in frustration about the way mainstream media (using as my example the Washington Post) rely on an overly generic storyline to account for crime in Honduras, I need to applaud McClatchy reporter Tim Johnson for writing a story that sounds, for practically the first time, as if it was written by someone who has actually talked to people in Honduras.

As a result, the story he tells is one of police corruption and impunity, and the rule of law broken down; a lack of security and a lack of trust in government to provide security. Johnson writes:
Unlike other parts of Central America, where organized crime has relied on enforcers recruited from street gangs and unemployed youth, in Honduras entire units of the national police appear to work for drug and crime groups, preying on the public and gunning down foes.

Read more here:

This is a far cry from the easy storyline about youth gangs which has been used in Honduras to justify fatal violence against the young, whether they are engaged in criminal activity or simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

My own perspective on this comes from a prior episode of repression in Honduras, when a hard working young man I knew, from a dirt poor barrio (literally dirt poor-- the kind of place where houses had dirt floors), who was as talented as any of the much better educated and privileged North Americans on our project, was shot and killed, victim of being out for a drink when someone decided to take out young men thought to be (and perhaps actually) involved in drug dealing.

My friend was collateral damage. But the crime was portrayed as a regrettable but necessary response to the danger posed by young men generically-- not young men involved in crimes, who-- again, sadly, worth underlining-- should be subject to arrest, trial, and conviction before being punished, but were seen as disposable.

We can disagree about all of the causes of the current Honduran situation. We will disagree about what steps might put Honduras on a route out of this mess. But we should all agree that Johnson proved that a reporter who approaches the story with open ears might actually find something new, and maybe even illuminating, to say.

I was astonished to read a quote from the head of the Chamber of Commerce and Industries of Cortes (where San Pedro Sula is located), Luis Larach saying that

drug lords "have bought tremendous tracts, ranches, farms (and) coastlands" in Honduras, and the drug profits have filtered into sectors such as banking, construction, sports teams, restaurants, auto sales and private security.

In a sign of money laundering, he said, unknown companies are winning bids "on huge infrastructure projects, like highways and bridges, and no one knows where the money is coming from."

Read more here:

We have been covering many of these government contracts given to shell companies. Our suspicion has been that these are evidence of behind-the-scenes corruption, payoffs to decision makers, or promises of favors, but like Larach, our ultimate question has been, how do companies with no assets get these contracts?

I am glad to see a story that doesn't just say Hondurans are inherently violent. Now, the question is whether other media will start paying attention to the specifically local character of the tragedy in Honduras. Johnson quotes the rector of UNAM, Julieta Castellanos, whose perspective as a sociologist informs her comments, saying
many Hondurans [view] police corruption as a litmus test of whether the state could stave off an onslaught of gangsters.

"People are really indignant, worried, but above all frightened. If nothing happens, if the police are not purged, where is the country headed?" she asked. "Who will be governing in a few years?"

This isn't a threat entirely from outside; it isn't a cancer that can be removed with ever more security measures. This is what happens when impunity reigns, trust in institutions disappears, and the social fabric itself threatens to come apart.


RAJ said...

Boz writes about this story and another that I find somewhat less useful, but still grounded, in the Miami Herald.

He suggests that "an organization similar to Guatemala's CICIG" could be set up in Honduras, something already advocated in a Wilson Center report he co-authored.

Of particular interest to me is his summary of reasons why no progress on such a front has happened in Honduras:

Political forces, some related to organized crime and others related to the 2009 coup, have so far blocked the potential for an outside investigative unit to be set up in Honduras.

There are still plenty of people in the Honduran government who participated in the illegal actions of the coup and the de facto regime. Among the many other kinds of damage the coup did, it confirmed for a certain class of political actor that they could act for their own interests without accountability. That damage continues to echo.

RAJ said...

Also on target: Juan Donaghey, who in a blog post reminds us of the appalling toll taken by domestic violence, as well as the need for international media to remember the effects of the 2009 coup.

He concludes:

Violence is not inevitable. But the solution is seeking a healthy life and economy for all people, especially the poor, and building up structures of social cohesion.