By Joel Brinkley
The State Department issued a new travel advisory last week for a neighbor state, Honduras, warning potential American visitors that they risk being kidnapped or killed. What's more, it said, if they face a problem, the police may not even show up.
If you do go, the advisory added, lock your car doors so robbers or kidnappers can't burst in at traffic lights. Eighteen Americans have been killed there in the last two years. Police have arrested no one for any of those crimes.
By now, many people know Honduras is a violent and desperately poor Central American state -- the murder capital of the world. An average of 20 people are killed there every day, more per capita than anyplace else on the planet. But many people may not realize that the United States virtually created Honduras and plays an important role in maintaining the failed state that the country is today.
Honduras is the original banana republic. Beginning in the late 19th century, two American companies, United Fruit and Standard Fruit (now Dole) owned huge banana plantations and virtually ruled the nation. That continued for more than 50 years.
In 1980, the nation held its first popular elections, but then the U.S. drew Honduras into the contra war in neighboring Nicaragua. Central Intelligence Agency operatives stationed there backed a Honduran death-squad campaign of extrajudicial killings of supposed Marxist-Leninist militia members allied with the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.
Today it's widely reported that Honduran police carry out extrajudicial killings all the time. I wonder where they got the idea?
Modern-day Honduras is largely controlled by violent, murderous gangs. Many of its leaders learned the tricks of that trade on the streets of American cities, including Los Angeles, and in American prisons -- before they were deported. (The U.S. deports 32,000 Hondurans a year.)
Those gangs are complemented by an even larger number of equally violent drug traffickers. The State Department estimates "that 79 percent of all cocaine smuggling flights departing South America" for America "first land in Honduras." Once again, the U.S. is playing a passive but malign role.
At the same time, more than half of Honduras' gross domestic product comes from licit and illicit trade with the U.S., plus remittances from Hondurans living in America.
With murderous gang and drug-trafficking marauders working almost everywhere in the country, for years the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has ranked Honduras as the country with the highest murder rate in the world, with at least 82 killings per 100,000 inhabitants.
Now, all of a sudden, Washington is looking at the mess it helped create, and politicians are screaming about human-rights violations. Last week, 21 senators wrote a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, demanding a report on whether the Honduran government is protecting citizens' rights and investigating reported "violence and impunity linked to state entities," adding: "There are also recent reports of death squads working with the police" who "kill gang members even after they surrender."
Surprise, surprise! Where have you been? It's perfectly obvious the Honduran government isn't doing any of that, and won't. A few days ago, the European Press Agency reported that 28 journalists have been killed in Honduras in the last three years, most often in reaction to something they wrote or aired.
A little over a year ago, 94 House members wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressing similar concerns, to little effect. In the last couple of years, Congress has intermittently withheld aid. The Peace Corps pulled its 158 volunteers out of the country last year. That had been one of the Peace Corps' largest missions, working on water sanitation and HIV prevention.
Still, Honduras remains reliant on the U.S. for so many things. So the government tried to seem as if it was responding by ordering polygraph tests of police. The state made a show out of calling hundreds of police to a downtown Tegucigalpa hotel. Each was asked if he'd been involved in criminal activity. Nearly four out of 10 police were reported to have failed the test.
But by April of this year, however, the government had dismissed only seven of the force's 11,000 officers. Then, a few weeks later, the minister of public security said some of them had been reinstated.
It seems likely that the government is simply afraid of the police. After all, dozens of officers seized control of a police building earlier this month after the government said it planned to shut down their renegade unit.
They stood down after the government folded, promising that the officers could keep their jobs.