Wednesday, September 12, 2012

"We are not satisfied:" Civil Society's Response to the Withholding of Honduran Police Funding

By Cyndi Malasky 

The microphone was suddenly in my hand. I cleared my throat, “Muy buenas tardes. Soy Cyndi.  Estamos muy felices para estar aqui compartiendo con ustedes (Good afternoon. I’m Cyndi. We are very happy to be here sharing with all of you.”) I could feel the heat radiating from my face as I shoved the microphone back into the radio hosts hands as fast I could. It was the 2 o’olock hour on La Voz Lenca 97.3, one of the only time slots that is broadcast over various commercial stations. I had been looking forward to seeing live radio, but actually producing words was more difficult for me than I had expected.  Our interview was over before the color had time to recede from my face and Salvador had taken hold of the microphone, advertising the lottery tickets COPINH was selling as a fundraiser.

mural by Javier Espinal at Utopia, COPIN community center
Salvador Zuñega is co-director of COPINH, the Consejo Civico de Organizaciones Populares y Indiginas de Honduras, a very busy civil rights organization that, since 1993, has defended the civil rights and natural environment of the Lenca indigenous people in the department of Intibucá, Honduras. Since the coup in 2009, members of COPINH, like most organization of human rights activists, have suffered threats, violence, intimidation and aggression including detention and assassination.  A significant number of the alleged perpetrators have been members of the Honduran police and military as well as private hit men hired by owners of private companies that seek to profit from indigenous land. Like the vast majority of the other 10,000 formal complaints filed against the police and military since the coup, none of the crimes against members of COPINH have been addressed.

Ever since Salvador, clad in his straw sun hat and frosted glass cross necklace, had jumped into the pickup truck carrying us to the radio station, he had been buzzing about the lottery.  He had signed up all the members of COPINH present in our meeting before the radio show, and throughout the meeting, counted out tickets, mumbling to himself, and bouncing around the room handing them out. As the meeting went on it was clear there were various other things going on in the office, Salvador and Bertha (the other co-director) having to excuse themselves from time to time to take care business.

We intercepted Salvador on the way out of his animated radio spot and asked if he wouldn’t mind giving us a short interview about the Associated Press article claiming that the U.S. was going to cut some funding to the Honduran police force. “Oh yes, of course of course!” He responded and took off to answer the ringing the phone in the office.

Salvador Zuñega
We set up some chairs outside, looking for a quiet spot, and before long Salvador appeared, his bag of lottery tickets flailing in the wind behind him. I though he looked just like a Christian Base Community pastors I had seen in movies about Oscar Romero, whose face was outlined on his shirt. Listening to the first question of the interview, he removed his hat and clasped his hands together, suddenly the most still I had seen him since we arrived.

“What do you think about the removal of funds by the State Department of the United States?” Without skipping a beat or needing time to think Salvador began with a wholly different voice than his marketing persona, speaking slowly and purposefully he began, “Well, for us it seems important, this decision to not fund the squadrons that are formed,” he went on, “(but) obviously we are not satisfied.” 

The United States has pledged $56 million to the Honduran government for this year alone. The 2012 appropriation bill, however, required the State Department to evaluate improvements to the Honduran government’s human rights policies before releasing 20% of the money allotted. At the same time as the decision to withhold an unspecified amount of funding for police units directly overseen by the Honduran police chief, Juan Carlos Bonilla, the State Department also certified the Honduran Government’s human rights record, and released the rest of the funding to flow freely to other security forces.

"El Tigre" Bonilla, chastised by Uncle Sam
Salvador does not agree with the U.S.’s evaluation. He sees assassinations and human rights abuses as remaining very much a part of the repressive schema of the Honduran government.  According to Salvador, the sanctions against Police Chief "El Tigre" Bonilla a man known for participating a decade ago in death squads and accused of directly participating in at least 3 murders, should send a message. To actually stop the rampant violations of human rights, however, much larger changes will need to be made.

“It would be more useful if all the military aid that the United States government provides to the military and police was cut, and instead that there would be aid for development—there would be aid for supporting human rights—so small farmers wouldn’t keep dying, so indigenous people wouldn’t keep dying.”

Salvador sites the presence and continued construction of U.S. bases on Honduran soil, and events like the DEA killing of two Miskita women as examples of how the United States has failed Hondurans on the issue of human rights.

“The cut is very positive but the North American society should demand that their government not invest the tax dollars of its citizens in objects of war, in repression, in death, but rather to invest in the development of their own country.”

He reminds us that without drug consumption in the U.S. there would be far fewer narcos, and without U.S. weapons manufacturers, there would be far fewer guns.  Salvador, even caught just for a moment during a hectic day, defined very clearly what responses would be appropriate for the United States when dealing with the rampant human rights abuses in Honduras. But the State Department never asked him.

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