Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández dropped by the U.S. Southern Command in Miami this week to talk about security in Central America. Or the utter lack of security in Central America. Honduras has the highest murder rate on Earth, and things are almost as deadly in neighboring Guatemala and El Salvador.
That’s why the Southcom visit was a nifty photo op for Hernández – who'd like the world to believe that he’s having to wage a war with vicious narco-gangs solely because Americans have an insatiable appetite for drugs.
“This is a problem they generate,” he said last month. “Those who produce drugs and those who consume them in the North,” he claimed, are responsible for Honduras’ lawless nightmare.
It’s a charge Hernández and his counterparts in Guatemala and El Salvador are trumpeting a lot lately, as tens of thousands of Central American children flood the U.S. border to escape the violence. But it’s also a shamelessly hypocritical spin.
Hernández is half right. The U.S. – not just its drug lust but the damage it helped wreak on the isthmus during the civil wars of the 1980s – is considerably liable for the Central American crisis. But it's hardly the only culprit. Hernández and the rest of the region’s ruling class are just as guilty for making Central America so vulnerable to murderous mafias. Actually, more guilty.
Why? Because they’ve refused to create any credible security apparatus. Ever since the psychotic Spanish conquistador Pedro de Alvarado brutally subdued Central America 500 years ago, the elite have considered security a private and not a public concern. Visit any wealthy home in Honduras and you’ll enter a compound of high, barbed-wired walls and armed guards to rival the U.S. Green Zone fortress in Baghdad.
But visit any poor barrio in Honduras and you’ll usually find next to nada. In fact, what police presence you do encounter is most likely in the pay of the criminal gangs known as the maras. Honduras’ oligarchy can’t be bothered with forming and financing real cops.
That was all too evident three years ago this summer. Then President Porfirio Lobo was pushing a “security tax” that would have raised a desperately needed $400 million over five years to modernize Honduras’ wretched law enforcement and judicial system. The country’s business chiefs – who pay some of the world’s lowest taxes and often evade them altogether – rose up in angry alarm. The National Congress slashed the levy by 75 percent.
The president of the Congress at that time – whose right-wing National Party held an ample majority of seats – was Juan Orlando Hernández.
Guatemala has an even lower tax rate and higher evasion rate. Its revenues equal little more than a tenth of its GDP, making it almost impossible to provide meaningful public security.
Yet in an op-ed published last weekend in the British newspaper The Observer, Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina laid all his country’s criminal mayhem woes at the U.S.’s doorstep. What he didn’t mention: Guatemala’s justice system is so laughably funded and so lavishly dysfunctional that only 2 percent of its homicides are ever solved.
Pérez makes another glaring omission. He carps at the U.S. for its role in Guatemala’s 36-year-long civil war, which ended in 1996 and left 200,000 people dead. Yet he ignores the human rights accusations stemming from his own involvement in that conflict as an army general and military intelligence chief.
While Pérez has been the subject of numerous investigations, he's never been formally charged. “I have nothing to hide,” he often insists. But the questions hanging over his Cold War past make his Observer article disingenuous at best. They’re a reminder that if Washington helped make Guatemala weaker in the 20th Century, and therefore easier prey for drug gangs in the 21st, Pérez was right in the thick of it.
It’s just as hard to accept arguments from El Salvador that the U.S. is the source of all its violent troubles. This is a country, after all, where the maras are an equally horrific plague – and yet one of its judicial priorities today is incarcerating women accused of having abortions.
Because abortion under any circumstance is illegal in El Salvador, hundreds of women there have been convicted of homicide over the past decade, even if their pregnancies resulted from rape or incest. El Salvador's presidents, meanwhile, call truces with the maras.
Such is the level of Central American governance faced by President Obama. After he met recently with the presidents of all three countries at the White House, Hernández called on the U.S. to produce a “mini-Marshall Plan” to improve the region’s security.
It would be a good idea – if we could be sure the money would yield more than nifty photo ops for Hernández.
Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. You can read more of his coverage here.