We look at a new Reuters special report examining corruption and the drug trade in Honduras, which human rights groups say are pushing tens of thousands of people to flee the Central American country for the United States. “People really describe feeling that their life has become unlivable in Honduras,” Reuters correspondent Laura Gottesdiener says. This comes less than six months after a federal court in New York sentenced Tony Hernández, the brother of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, to life in prison for drug trafficking and listed the president as a co-conspirator. We also speak with Adriana Beltrán, executive director of the Seattle International Foundation, who says the instability in Honduras today is directly linked to the U.S.-backed coup of 2009 that deposed President Manuel Zelaya. “To a large extent, the crisis that you continue to see in Honduras and its democracy has its roots in the coup,” Beltrán says. “Honduras has been struggling to build representative democracy, to fight corruption and crime.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández Alvarado is in New York today, where he’s scheduled to address the U.N. General Assembly. His trip comes less than six months after a federal court in New York sentenced his brother Tony to life in prison for drug trafficking. U.S. prosecutors listed the Honduran president as a co-conspirator in the state-sponsored drug trafficking.
We turn now to a new Reuters special report looking at corruption and the drug trade in Honduras. It’s titled “How a drug-trafficking mayor in Honduras fueled the U.S. migration crisis.”
We’re joined now by Laura Gottesdiener who wrote the piece, a correspondent in Reuters’ Mexico and Central America bureau, former Democracy Now! producer. She’s joining us from Monterrey, Mexico. And we’re joined in Washington, D.C., by Adriana Beltrán, executive director of the Seattle International Foundation.
Laura, congratulations on this investigative piece. Why don’t you lay out what you found?
LAURA GOTTESDIENER: Sure. And thank you so much for having me.
We spent about the last six months looking into some of the effects of, essentially, one small municipality along the border with Guatemala in western Honduras. And we were interested in taking a look at this specific area because it’s one of the places where a number of the different factors that appear to be pushing forced displacement and forced migration from Honduras were embodied in this former mayor, Alexander Ardón, and confessed drug trafficker, who ruled as the elected mayor. He did confess to buying votes and carrying out fraud in that election, but he ruled as the elected mayor for eight years, from 2006 to 2014.
He had — according to his testimony in the Southern District of New York as part of these ongoing drug trials against a number of now-confessed drug traffickers from Honduras, he had very close ties to the ruling National Party. He has confessed to — both presidents have denied it, but he has confessed to donating millions of dollars to the election campaigns of both the current Honduran president, Juan Orlando Hernández, as well as the former president, Lobo. He also, again, according to his testimony, was the link between or helped facilitate some of the links between “El Chapo” Guzmán, obviously, the convicted Mexican drug trafficker, and the highest echelons of the National Party in Honduras, including, according to his testimony, facilitating in a million-dollar payment for Juan Orlando Hernández’s campaign.
So, what we were interested in is — obviously, I mean, you know, if you step back, no one disputes that if a drug trafficker is the mayor of your town, that that is a bad thing, you know. But what we really wanted to say is: How and is this linked to migration out of this region, and out of Honduras, more broadly, if we understand this to be a phenomenon that is replicated in various parts of Honduras? And so, what we wanted to look at is, essentially: How did the fact that this mayor, Alexander Ardón, transformed his border municipality into one of the principal drug-trafficking corridors in Honduras — how did that affect you, if you had nothing to do with the drug trade and you just wanted to keep living in what was always a neglected — neglected by the government, central government — and a poor region of the country?
And what we found is that his time in office, his eight years serving as mayor, as well as the many more years in which he was a major trafficker in western Honduras, fundamentally shifted the job prospects, the land ownership in that area. And what we found was that this was an area, a very rural area, primarily people engaged in subsistence farming, as well as the coffee industry. And what we found was that this mayor — and this is a phenomenon that many excellent anthropologists have looked into and see that is replicated across parts of Latin America — we saw that he and his associates essentially bought up large swaths of land that had previously been dedicated to the coffee crop, razed those, essentially destroyed those farms, and turned it into cattle grazing areas, because cattle is — essentially, requires large tracts of pastureland, which allows one to essentially have a hassle-free corridor for trafficking cocaine. This is not something unique to this one municipality.
But what we found was that when the number — or, the area under cultivation for coffee fell, both in this municipality as well as all of the surrounding municipalities, the number of jobs available to day laborers, landless families fell dramatically. And, you know, according to human rights experts and many migrants that we interviewed, both in the municipality of El Paraíso in Copán, Honduras, as well as people traveling through Mexico, as well as people living in the United States, that fueled their need to migrate, because their essential — their source of income and their livelihood had dried up.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Laura, what’s especially revealing about your article is this connection to what’s happening not only in terms of insecurity and drug trafficking for the populations, but also of the loss of jobs. I mentioned earlier in the show that the Census Bureau report showed that there has been a 129% — 126% increase in the Venezuela population. But the second-greatest increase among Latino groups in the country over the last 10 years has been in the number of Hondurans and Guatemalans — over a million Hondurans now in the United States, over a million Guatemalans now in the United States. And so much of this has been in the last 10 years, after the coup that occurred in Honduras in 2009. And most Americans don’t seem to make the connection between what happened there and why so many Hondurans are appearing at the border. Your thoughts? You interviewed one family, the Bautista family. Can you talk about them, as well?
LAURA GOTTESDIENER: Yeah. Thank you so much for that, Juan. I think that it’s incredibly important sort of to see this period of Honduran migration, which is distinct from other migrations from Central America — from Guatemala or from El Salvador, for example — because we’re really seeing the majority of the people who are now living in the United States coming in the last 10 years. So, for example, this year, according to CBP data, approximately a quarter of a million Hondurans attempted to enter the United States; similar figures for 2019. So, really, we’re seeing a dramatic increase of people who, from when I speak to them in — Monterrey, Mexico, is part of — a major city in one of the many different routes migrants take through Mexico, but people really describe feeling that their life has become unlivable in Honduras.
And that was certainly — that is certainly the case for many members of the Bautista family. I had the opportunity to meet one member of the Bautista family, Milton, here in Monterrey as he was trying to — or, he was reaching the Texas border, and he stopped here in Monterrey for a short period of time. And, you know, as we talked and as we conducted an interview outside of the shelter, he described having left home at 13 — he’s now 24, so it was over 10 years ago — because his family — his father had been killed, under circumstances that were never resolved, just before Alexander Ardón took office in El Paraíso and already as the drug trade was increasing. That, as the oldest son, even though he was quite young at the time, sparked a lot of fear for his mother and for him about the possibility of increased sort of threats to his life.
His family, like other families in rural areas, first fled to a major city. The fled to San Pedro Sula. His mother was working as a woman who washed clothes. But, you know, San Pedro Sula in those years had an incredible amount — continues to, but had an incredible amount of insecurity, violence, obviously, low wages for internal migrants, people who had fled from the countryside. She came back to El Paraíso. And in those years, she found that the town, that the area had really transformed. And other members of her family, all of whom are — not landless; they own an incredibly small plot of land, but not enough to make subsistence farming a reality to live on — all of whom worked in the coffee crop. And as the area — as the jobs in the coffee industry really evaporated — and again, it’s worth saying these were never high-paying jobs, but they made a living off of it — one after another member of the family, including many as teenagers, tried to reach the United States.
Some now successfully live in the United States. According to family members, one father and his 1-year-old child disappeared along this very dangerous migration route. Others have been expelled back into Mexico or deported back to Honduras. So, it’s really the story of a family that, over the course of 10, 15 years, has found what was already a poor area to become an unlivable area, in their assessment, and has really fueled forced displacement, as they see it. Milton and other members of the family told me they had never intended to leave where they are from.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to bring Adriana Beltrán into this conversation, executive director of the Seattle International Foundation, this whole issue of the U.S. support for these governments, like Juan Orlando Hernández, whose brother is now in prison for life in the United States. He himself was named as a co-conspirator in this, the president of Honduras. And you have, well, Juan famously asking Hillary Clinton, when she was running for president in [ 2016 ], way back, when she spoke to the New York Daily News editorial board, about the U.S. support for the coup in Honduras that deposed the democratically elected Zelaya and brought in these governments. Talk about that history.
ADRIANA BELTRÁN: Sure. Well, and, first of all, I just want to congratulate Laura for her brilliant piece. I think it describes and illustrates, bring attention, very clearly, to this nexus between politics, organized crime in Honduras, that’s a problem across the region.
And as you say, Amy, you know, to a large extent, the crisis that you continue to see in Honduras, in its democracy, has its roots in the coup. And Honduras has been struggling to build representative democracy, to fight corruption and crime. And what you had, you know, after the coup, while the U.S. did cut assistance, it was very quick to reinstate assistance. It was a time when you also — with the U.S. failed drug policy, you had a shift in routes to Central America. Organized crime took advantage of the fact that the government had stopped functioning after the coup, particularly in rural areas, where the country — you know, the government itself had very little presence. And that prompted, very quickly, a reengagement of U.S. You know, it fueled a significant amount of anti-drug aid that went to these corrupt governments. And as a result, you know, you’ve had a rise in crime over the years, a rise in corruption, that has continued to just debilitate the system.
And today, I would say, you know, Honduras — and Sarah Chayes greatly described this — you have a kleptocratic form of government, where corruption is the operating system of Honduras. And that has had implications for the government not being able to address the many needs of the population, from security, education, health, addressing environmental disasters — again, in a country that, as you know, has extremely high rates of poverty, particularly in the rural areas.
AMY GOODMAN: So, your comment on —
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And —
AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead, Juan.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Adriana, I wanted to ask you — the Biden administration has earmarked some $4 billion, supposedly to combat the root causes of migration from Central America. Could you talk about — in view of all this corruption that exists. And people don’t realize, $4 billion in Central America is a lot of money. I mean, the entire budget of the national government of Honduras in 2020 was less than that, was $3.5 billion. So, do you have fears that given the corrupt state of so many of these governments, that this money will be stolen rather than actually used for its intended purpose?
ADRIANA BELTRÁN: Right. That’s a great question. I mean, I think, you know — and Laura’s piece brings this to light, is that corruption and weak governance have been and continue to be the main impediments to economic growth and improved security in Honduras and in much of the region. And until we address these issues, we are not going to see much reform, needed reforms, in the areas of, again, education, health, economic development, security.
Now, the Biden administration, from the get-go, has said that they want to prioritize governance and tackling corruption. They launched the strategy, which, you know, illustrates this, but again, the devil is in the details. As you say, this includes learning from the past and ensuring that if we are going to invest in the region, that we look at the long term. I think, you know, in the past, the U.S. has tended to focus on Central America whenever there’s a crisis, and then we shift attention elsewhere. And that doesn’t really allow us to help those that are pushing for reforms in these countries really address the root causes of corruption, of weak governance, of high rates of insecurity and crime. That includes also picking the right partners. And this goes to your question.
There’s a lot of concern in Congress here about the just epidemic levels of corruption that you see in the region, the continued backsliding of advances that had been made in tackling impunity and corruption across the region and in trying to ensure that assistance does not end up in the pockets of corrupt officials. There’s been a big push to try to ensure that much of the aid goes to organizations, civil society, and to those voices that are committed to reform, that have been leading the efforts of reform. But I would say, you know, in the case of Honduras, like much of Central America, for me, it’s not just a question of aid, but a question of diplomacy and political efforts. And I do think that in order to tackle this epidemic corruption and weak governance, the Biden administration needs to use all its tools at its disposal to try to weaken and dismantle these illicit structures that have coopted the Honduran government and much of the institutions of other governments in the region.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Adriana, your message to the American people, when you look at the history of the United States, even going back, of course, before the U.S. supported the coup in Honduras in 2009, going back to, for example — and you could go further than this — but Honduras being the staging ground for the United States to illegally support the Contras in Nicaragua, toppling the Sandinista government, what that meant, then moving forward to supporting these literal drug traffickers in Honduras and what this means for the Honduran people, and linking it to migration today?
ADRIANA BELTRÁN: Right. And you said it best. You know, the U.S. has, throughout much of the history of the region, supported abusive, corrupt governments. In other times, it has, you know, because of its own interests in the region, looked the other way and has not prioritized democracy, human rights and governance. And that’s where we need to focus attention, if we really want to help those that are risking their lives for reform in the region. You know, as Laura’s piece beautifully describes, just the nexus between corruption and how it has contributed to migration, and the fact that — you know, when corruption reaches the top echelons of a government, what hope do people have that their needs are going to be met? What hope do people have that they’re going to find a decent job, that their kids are going to be able to go to school without the fear that they are going to be attacked by gangs or drug trafficking?
AMY GOODMAN: Well —
ADRIANA BELTRÁN: So, you know — go ahead.
AMY GOODMAN: Adriana, we want to thank you so much for being with us. Adriana Beltrán —
ADRIANA BELTRÁN: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: — executive director of the Seattle International Foundation. And Laura Gottesdiener, correspondent in Reuters’ Mexico and Central America bureau. We will link to Laura’s article, “How a drug-trafficking mayor in Honduras fueled the U.S. migration crisis.”
And that does it for our show. Democracy Now! is produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Messiah Rhodes, Nermeen Shaikh, María Taracena, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud, Adriano Contreras. Our general manager is Julie Crosby. Special thanks to Becca Staley, Miriam Barnard. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.