As tens of thousands of children cross the U.S. border fleeing violence in their native Central American home countries, we look at the historical roots of the crisis. The United States has a long and sadly bloody history of destabilizing democratic governments in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador — the very countries that are now the sources of this latest migration wave. This week saw the first planeload of children deported to Honduras since President Obama vowed to speed up the removal of more than 57,000 youth who have fled to the United States from Central America in recent months. The group of 38 deportees included 21 children between the ages of 18 months and 15 years, along with 17 female family members. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the experience of Cordova and others should demonstrate to Central Americans that "they will not be welcomed to this country with open arms."
But U.S. funding and foreign policy has long shaped the lives of Central Americans. June 28 marked the fifth anniversary of the military coup that deposed democratically elected Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, which the United States did not oppose. For analysis, we are joined by University of California-Santa Cruz Professor Dana Frank, who argues it was the coup — more than drug trafficking and gangs — that opened the doors to the violence in Honduras and unleashed an ongoing wave of state-sponsored repression. We are also joined by human rights activist and lawyer Jennifer Harbury from Weslaco, Texas, about five miles from the U.S.-Mexico border. Harbury’s husband, Efraín Bámaca Velásquez, a guerrilla commander, a Mayan comandante and guerrilla, was disappeared after he was captured by the Guatemalan army in the 1980s. Harbury is the author of "Searching for Everardo: A Story of Love, War, and the CIA in Guatemala" and has spent decades pressing for classified information on her husband’s case.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: This week saw the first planeload of children deported to Honduras since President Obama vowed to speed up the removal of more than 57,000 youths who’ve fled to the United States from Central America in recent months. The group of 38 deportees included 21 children between the ages of 18 months and 15 years, along with 17 female family members.
Among them was Victoria Cordova, who came to the United States with her nine-year-old daughter. They were captured at the U.S.-Mexico border after a 25-day journey and are now back in San Pedro Sula, the city with the highest murder rate in the world. Last month, children in Honduras were murdered at a rate of more than one per day. Cordova described her ordeal to reporters.
VICTORIA CORDOVA: [translated] I don’t have any work. It’s been four months without work. This is a part of what motivated me to go—the poverty, the situation here, this insecurity we live through. We see children nearby who are very young, 12 and 13 years old, and they drug themselves. It’s terrible to live like this. Here we live a life where you can’t even call the police, because they are controlled by the gangs.
When we crossed the river and they trapped us, we didn’t think. We had some hope. And then, when we arrived in McAllen, we were on the floor. There was dust. There were a lot of people there, and I was there for various hours. They call it an ice box, because it’s very cold there. We were there for two days. They took us to El Paso, Texas, on a plane, and there in El Paso, Texas, we spent two days there sleeping on the ground, cold.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: On Tuesday, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the experience of Cordova and others should demonstrate to Central Americans that, quote, "they will not be welcomed to this country with open arms."
Meanwhile, on Wednesday, Honduran officials called for an increase in U.S. aid to Central America. Honduran Foreign Minister Mireya Agüero called for a, quote, "mini-Marshall Plan," similar to the U.S. anti-drug programs in Colombia and Mexico.
AMY GOODMAN: In fact, U.S. funding and foreign policy has long shaped the lives of Central Americans. June 28th marked the fifth anniversary of the military coup that deposed the democratically elected Honduran president, Manuel Zelaya, which the U.S did not oppose. Our next guest argues it was the coup, more than drug trafficking and gangs, that opened the doors to the violence in Honduras and unleashed an ongoing wave of state-sponsored repression.
We’re joined right now by Dana Frank, professor of history at the University of California, Santa Cruz, an expert on human rights and U.S. policy in Honduras. She recently authored a piece titled "Who’s Responsible for the Flight of Honduran Children?" And in February, her article, "The Thugocracy Next Door," appeared in Politico magazine.
Dana Frank, welcome to Democracy Now!
DANA FRANK: Thanks a lot.
AMY GOODMAN: Thank you for joining us from the Stanford University studios. Explain what the background is for so many—and so many children—to be fleeing the violence in Honduras.
DANA FRANK: Yeah, I think, you know, we keep hearing the fact that people are fleeing gangs and violence, but there hasn’t been an analysis or discussion of why is there so much gang activity and violence in Honduras. And the answer is this tremendous criminality that the 2009 military coup opened the door to when it overthrew the democratically elected president, Manuel Zelaya. The coup, of course, itself was a criminal act, and it really opened the door for this spectacular corruption of the police and up-and-down, top-to-bottom of the government. And that, in turn, means it’s possible to kill anybody you want, practically, and nothing will happen to you. It’s widely documented that the police are overwhelmingly corrupt. Even a government official charged with cleaning up the police admitted last fall that 70 percent of the Honduran police are beyond saving. And you heard the woman, Ms. Cordova, say that the police themselves are tied in with organized crime and drug traffickers. So, when we talk about this violence, it’s really important to understand there’s almost no functioning criminal justice system and no political will at the top to do anything about this.
The president, the new president, Juan Orlando Hernández, who came into power in January, himself was a major backer of the criminal coup when he was the president—was head of a key committee in the Honduran Congress at the time, and a year and a half ago, as president of the Honduran Congress, illegally overthrew part of the Supreme Court, and he illegally was part of naming a new attorney general loyal to him last summer, named to an illegal five-year term. And he’s built his campaign not around cleaning up the police, but a new military police that is expanding this militarization of Honduran society, and that military police itself is committing serious human rights abuses, including, recently in May, beating up and jailing the most prominent advocate for children in Honduras.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Dana Frank, I remember being in San Pedro Sula back in the early 1990s. I mean, not only was the level of corruption incredibly high among the police forces, but there were—the military was out in the streets constantly patrolling. It’s also one of the poorest countries in all of the Americas. You’ve also referred to the impact of the CAFTA deal on Honduras and on the poverty of the country.
DANA FRANK: Oh, yeah, certainly, it’s not like there was ever a golden age in Honduras. But, you know, as Senator Tim Kaine said in a hearing for the new ambassador of Honduras, that Hondurans are saying that the level of militarization, as well—he said the level of military repression and terror there is worse than it was in the early 1980s at the height of the U.S.-funded Contra war in Nicaragua that Honduras was the base for. So we need to talk about, relatively, this is even more terrifying than then, which is really saying a lot.
Yeah, when we talk about the fleeing gangs and violence, it’s also this tremendous poverty. And poverty doesn’t just happen. It, itself, is a direct result of policies of both the Honduran government and the U.S. government, including privatizations, mass layoffs of government workers, and a new—in Honduras, a new law, that’s now made permanent, that breaks up full-time jobs and makes them part-time and ineligible for unionization, living wage and the national health service. And a lot of these economic policies are driven by U.S.-funded lending organizations like the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank, which itself is funding the corrupt Honduran police. The Central American Free Trade Agreement is the other piece of this. Like NAFTA did for the U.S. and Mexico, it opens the door to this open competition between small producers in agriculture in Honduras, small manufacturers, and jobs are disappearing as a result of that.
So, with this poverty that we’re seeing that people are fleeing, it’s not like people are like, "Let’s go have the American dream." There are almost no jobs for young people. Their parents know it. And we’re talking about starving to death—that’s the alternative—or being driven into gangs with tremendous sexual violence. And it’s a very, very tragic situation here. But it’s not like it tragically just happened. It’s a direct result of very conscious policies by the U.S. and Honduran governments.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Frank, I wanted to go to this issue of U.S. responsibility and turn to former Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, who was ousted five years ago. We got a chance to sit down with him in 2011 at his home in Tegucigalpa. I had just flown in with him. This was after the coup when a new president was chosen. And his family flew back from Nicaragua to Honduras. It was the first time that he was at his home for several years.
MANUEL ZELAYA: [translated] The U.S. State Department has always denied, and they continue to deny, any ties with the coup d’état. Nevertheless, all of the proof incriminates the U.S. government. And all of the actions that were taken by the de facto regime, or the golpista regime, which are those who carried out the coup, and it is to make favor of the industrial policies and the military policies and the financial policies of the United States in Honduras.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s former Honduran President Manuel Zelaya. Professor Dana Frank, he strongly felt that the U.S. was involved with the coup. What evidence is there for that?
DANA FRANK: Well, the biggest evidence we have is that his plane stopped at the air force base at Palmerola, known as Soto Cano Air Force Base now, which is a joint U.S. and Honduran base. That plane could not have stopped there without U.S. permission. We don’t have the big smoking guns. We certainly have the behavior of the U.S. State Department and the White House after the coup, which was to legitimate the coup government as an equal partner to Zelaya—in fact, as a superior partner. They never denounced the spectacular repression after the coup. And they treated Zelaya like a bad child for trying to return to his own country. They recognized—they announced that they would recognize the outcome of the illegitimate November elections after that, even before the votes were counted. And it was clearly they wanted the whole situation to go away.
I mean, they clearly—Zelaya was, in many ways, the weakest domino of all the center-left and left governments that had come to power in Latin America in the previous 15 years. And it was a message to all those other governments that we will back coups, and we will overthrow you, as well. The U.S. then supported President Lobo, the outcome of that November 2009 election, and made up this fiction that it was a government of national reconciliation, and, ever since, has been turning a blind eye, for the most part, to the spectacular human rights abuses, including killings by state security forces and really spectacular lack of political will to deal with corruption at the very top of the government. And the U.S. keeps acting like this is just a hunky-dory government that we should be working with as a partner.
You know, I found it tremendously chilling to be reading newspaper reports and media reports of that planeload of children that came back to Honduras and the U.S. working with the Honduran government, welcoming those children with open arms, when the government itself is countenancing this problem. The government itself, you know, beat—has countenanced the beating up of the leading independent children’s activist in the country. The government itself doesn’t have the political will to clean up the police. So, what does it mean that we’re working with this partner to help these Honduran children?
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We’re also joined by Jennifer Harbury, a human rights activist and lawyer based in Weslaco, Texas, near the U.S.-Mexico border. Her husband, Efraín Bámaca Velásquez, a Mayan guerrilla commander, disappeared after he was captured by the Guatemalan army in the 1980s. She’s the author of Searching for Everardo: A Story of Love, War, and the CIA in Guatemala and has spent decades pressing for declassified information on her husband’s case.
Welcome, Jennifer Harbury.
JENNIFER HARBURY: Thank you very much. I’m glad to be with you.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Talk to us about the—as we’ve been discussing Honduras, many of the children are also coming from Guatemala. And again, some of that history of U.S. involvement in Guatemala, especially in recent years.
JENNIFER HARBURY: Yes. We’ve been horrified by the thought of sending any of these children back, since, by international and domestic law, they qualify as refugees, almost all of them.
I can certainly talk about the Guatemalan counterpart to what Dana was just discussing. We talk sometimes about maybe the solution is to send more funding—as she was saying, a new Marshall Plan—to Central American countries. But that’s in fact going to pour gasoline on the fire, especially in Guatemala, where a number of former and current top officials in the military are in fact the drug lords. Some of them have left the military; some are still in. They got involved in the drug trade while the wars were going on and they had airstrips that were valuable to the Colombian drug lords. They became very wealthy that way and now have what are called parallel structures. And they organize, arm and train the gangs themselves to do their dirty work.
For example, the Zeta cartel that terrorize the border strip where I live now, which is almost down to Brownsville—I’m 10 miles from the Rio Grande—the Zetas are one of the most feared cartels anywhere, totally brutal. They were armed, trained and organized by the Guatemalan military special forces, called the Kaibiles, who, of course, in turn, were armed, trained, organized, etc., by the United States intelligence networks, and trained many of them at the School of the Americas. Another example is Julio Roberto Alpirez, a colonel, one of many high-level military officials, who is on the DEA corrupt officer list, but because he also worked as a paid CIA informant, no one has ever been able to go after him. So, much like Honduras, we have one of the highest murder rates in the world. The femicide rate is something like 10 times higher than that in Juárez.
As these refugees pour into the United States, we’re taking all kinds of measures to justify sending them back and claiming they’re not refugees. But the way we’re doing that is to expedite or rush them through proceedings so quickly that they can’t really tell their stories. And, of course, they have no legal advice. And basically turns on whether or not a 10-year-old child, when confronted with a Border Patrol agent, or young mother confronted with a Border Patrol agent, is able and willing to say, "I’m asking for political asylum. I’m in danger of persecution or abuse at the hands of the drug lords and the gangs." And all of those people know, if they ever say those words, they’re going to be dead when they go back home. It’s the death penalty to squeal, basically, on the gangs and the drug lords in any way. So, without a lawyer, within days, they’re going to be headed home under expedited proceedings.
And this is a violation of international law and also U.S. domestic law. If they qualify for asylum or treatment under the Convention Against Torture, if they’re in danger of being harmed in this way by people who either are government officials or who are acting without the local governments being able or "willing," quote-unquote, to protect the population, then these people are refugees. They cannot be sent back. And sweeping them under the rug and getting them out of the country so fast that they can’t tell their stories or get any legal advice is a double violation of humanitarian law, and it’s something we’re going to be answering for for a long time. We’re certainly not proud of having turned back the boatload of Jews to Nazi Germany, but at least we didn’t sail out on the high seas, board the ships and throw people overboard. These are children. These are refugees. We have to let them in.
There are many kinds of programs that we can put into action that would deal with the situation well, in the same way we’ve done before. We can do deferred action, deferred enforcement, temporary protected status. We’ve done those things for Honduras and Haiti. It would let people stay for a year or two and then have the danger in their homelands reconsidered. Meanwhile, they can work and support themselves. It would relieve the backup in the court. There’s many alternatives. We’re choosing to pretend that they’re not refugees, and send them home in violation of the law.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there, but we thank you both very much for being with us. We’ll link to both of your work.
Jennifer Harbury, human rights activist and lawyer, we’re speaking to her right near the border in Weslaco, Texas, near the Mexico border. Her husband, Efraín Bámaca Velásquez, a Mayan guerrilla commander, disappeared after he was captured by the Guatemalan army in the 1980s. He was tortured. He was murdered. And those involved with his killing were trained by the United States, and specifically the Central Intelligence Agency.
Dana Frank, we thank you for being with us from Stanford University’s studios, professor of history at the University of California, Santa Cruz, expert on U.S. policy in Honduras. We’ll link to your piece, "Who’s Responsible for the Flight of Honduran Children?" as well as the other one, "The Thugocracy Next Door," which appeared in Politico magazine.
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, the Pulitzer Prize-winning economist Joe Stiglitz. Stay with us.