Remnants of a migrant caravan crossing Mexico are on the last leg toward the U.S. border in Tijuana, where scores of Hondurans are expected to ask for asylum. This has attracted the ire of President Trump, who not only tweeted a threat to cut off U.S. assistance to Honduras but days later deployed the National Guard to the border.
This flurry of attention on Honduras came on the heels of a string of negative headlines this year. Allegations of election-tampering sparked protests in January in which 30 people were killed by security forces. The Honduran Congress passed an “immunity pact” to protect its members from corruption charges. Then the head of an international anti-corruption mission to Honduras resigned, citing a lack of support from the government and the international community.
It is tempting to look at all this and say nothing has changed in Honduras, and nothing ever will. But that’s not the case. In spite of daunting challenges, over the past four years, Honduras has made progress in reducing violence, improving governance, fighting corruption and extending economic opportunity to citizens. But that progress is fragile and now is not the time for America to abandon its support.
Reducing U.S. assistance to Honduras right now would play in to the hands of drug traffickers, corrupt government officials and violent gangs.
Honduras’ astronomically high levels of violence earned it the title “Murder Capital of the World.” In 2012, the homicide rate hit a high of 86 per 100,000. This year, it has dropped to around 42 per 100,000. That is still far too high; for comparison, the U.S. rate is 4 per 100,000. Still, it is an impressive gain achieved through courageous efforts by Honduran government officials, civil society actors, specially trained units in the national police and the international community, particularly the United States.
The Honduran national police — historically part of the problem — also are making strides against corruption. Through a civil society-led Purge Commission, more than 4,000 officers have been fired, including nearly all those at the very top of the police force. At the same time, the international community and Honduran civil society have supported bottom-up reforms, improving recruitment and training to ensure that the police can take on the powerful gangs in violent communities and win the support of a skeptical populace.
Other Honduran institutions, including the courts and government agencies, also have been plagued by corruption for a long time. But in early 2016, the Honduran government and the Organization of American States, or OAS, agreed to create the Mission to Support the Fight Against Corruption and Impunity, a joint legal force led by international experts. With strong support from the attorney general’s office, it already has helped to convict the leaders of an enormous Social Security scandal and to identify other rings of official corruption, including in the national congress.
These steps have bad actors running scared in Honduras at last. How do we know? Because those gains — important, impressive, but fragile — have been under attack by an unlikely coalition of those who thrived amid the country’s lawlessness. These shadow leaders have launched a full-on campaign of coercion and manipulation in the Honduran courts and Congress, of which the “immunity pact” is just one sign. In short, the empire is striking back.
Cutting off or greatly reducing U.S. assistance to Honduras right now would play in to the hands of drug traffickers, corrupt government officials, violent gangs and all the other nefarious actors who sowed violence, corruption and chaos for decades. The Honduran people — long let down by their leaders and institutions — would be left once again to save themselves. And that means many more will vote with their feet and attempt to migrate to the United States.
U.S. assistance isn’t charity, nor is it a gift to Honduras. It is an investment in preventing the country from sliding backward. It is in the U.S. national interest to keep supporting efforts to reduce violence, improve governance and create economic opportunities so that Hondurans see their future not in the United States, but in a stable and safe Honduras.
James D. Nealon was U.S. ambassador to Honduras from 2014 to 2017. Kurt Alan Ver Beek, a sociology professor at Calvin College, has lived in Honduras since 1988 and is co-founder of the Assn. for a More Just Society.