The Honduras Prison Fire: US Drug War Spreads Violence in Americas
February 18, 2012
Alci / Peace Exchange Bulletin Exclusive
The US bears responsibility for the latest of several fires causing mass deaths in a Honduran prison. Before the fire, which killed over 350 inmates, most of them victims of street sweeps and preventive detention policies, Hondura's president Porfirio "Pepe" Lobo (the beneficiary of the 2009 US-supported military coup) announced that US military personnel would be deployed in Honduras to "battle violent crime" and "contribute to the tranquility of the Honduran people."
TEGUCHIGALPA (February 16, 2012) -- The US bears responsibility for the latest of several fires causing mass deaths in a Honduran prison this week. Before the fire, which killed over 350 inmates, most of them victims of "mano dura" street sweeps and preventive detention policies, Hondura's president Porfirio "Pepe" Lobo announced the US military personnel would be deployed in Honduras to "battle violent crime" and "contribute to the tranquility of the Honduran people." (HRN Radio Network)
Lobo is the beneficiary of the 2009 military coup, tolerated or backed by the US, which overthrew the elected progressive government of Manuel Zelaya and led to a wave of repression and widely-disputed elections. The US military's Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) has two military bases in the country, joining Panama as part of a widening US training facilities and bases in Central America under the banner of fighting drug trafficking.
Zelaya would have ushered in an era of social reform and greater independence from the United States, and questioned the drug war instead of approving further militarization.
Mass deaths among detainees in Honduran prisons is not new, arising either intentionally or by well-documented criminal neglect in the overcrowded facilities. As Tom Hayden reported in an eyewitness visit, 68 gang members alleged to have died in an April 2003 prison fire were executed by bullets in their heads. In another fire on May 17, 2004, 105 gang members died from burns and smoke inhalation while the gates were chained shut and police stood by.
The Guatemalan Iron Fist
Guatemala's new president Otto Perez Molina, accused of mass torture and killings of Mayans during the country's civil war, made a "special call" to the US in his inaugural speech to intervene militarily against drug trafficking in his country, alleged to be a center of the Zeta cartel and transit point for shipments to the US. At least 200,000 Mayans and others were massacred in the Guatemalan civil war, atrocities for which even former President Bill Clinton formally apologized.
50,000 Dead in Mexico
Since the 2006 election of Washington-backed Felipe Calderon, nearly 50,000 Mexicans have perished in the country's dirty war. With strong US backing, Calderon has sent the army and police on a killing spree against alleged drug gangs and non-involved civilians. On Jan. 18, Calderon met in Mexico with US CIA director David Petraeus. Under the US-designed Merida Initiative -- or "Plan Mexico," patterned after "Plan Colombia" -- the US currently is spending $1.6 billion on the Mexican drug war for police and military advisors and training, and private contractors.
With presidential elections on the near horizon, Calderon's PAN has chosen to put forward the first female candidate on a ruling party ticket in Mexican history, Josefina Vasquez Mota, hoping to divert voter attention away from the catastrophic drug war. Recent polling has shown PRI candidate Enrique Pena Nieto, currently the Mexican state government, 20 points ahead of the PAN candidate.
On the left, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the candidate who never conceded defeat in the 2006 disputed election, is running as the candidate of the PRD. A clear policy alternative to the US-funded drug war policy has not emerged thus far, in spite of a growing popular movement to search for measures to end the killing, including legalization of certain drugs and ending NAFTA policies, which have created mass unemployment and migration.
In the chilling 2011 book El Sicario: the Autobiography of a Mexican Assassin, edited by Charles Bowden, the anonymous central character describes how drug cartels use police academies to train new recruits who remain to become double agents. The "sicario" is clear on his reasons for joining the local drug underground: poverty, food and money. Calderon, on the other hand, conjures the problem almost as a satanic force that spreads on its own.
Commentary on Mexico
The 2012 Mexican presidential race has kicked off and promises to be just as important as elections this year in the US, Venezuela and parliamentary elections in Iran.
In 2006, the elections were held amidst intense debates over whether Mexico should keep a traditional, right-wing economic trend in place with the PAN party's Felipe Calderon, or vote in the PRD's Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who at the time was touted (mostly by his enemies) as the embodiment of the wave of radical, social movements taking power or gaining prominence in South America.
AMLO, as he is popularly called, was painted by PAN propaganda as a Mexican Hugo Chavez ready to fill the country with armed militias to wage asymmetric war against the United States (not an exaggeration, you can find PAN TV spots from the time on YouTube). The ruling class was on edge considering that an impressive popular rebellion was also taking place in the poor, mostly indigenous state of Oaxaca.
The rest is history as the election was the closest in Mexican history since the notorious 1988 vote which was considered rigged in favor of the then-ruling PRI dynasty, this time Calderon came out the winner by half a point, some say a stolen half point.
Fast forward to 2012 and the elections are now framed by a US-backed drug war which has claimed 50,000 lives, no doubt forced thousands more to migrate to the United States, and an ongoing economic crisis. For months the PRI, which ruled Mexico for 71 years until the 2000 elections brought the PAN to power, has been seen as the big winner gaining from Calderon's blood-soaked legacy.
The situation for the PAN is somewhat similar to the position Republicans found themselves in after the Bush/Cheney saga. The PRI has won key regional elections and its candidate, Enrique Peña Nieto, is a darling of the powerful domestic media, despite some embarrassing public slips.
But AMLO hopes that a change in tone, in step with the current state of things, will give him a boost.
When it comes to AMLO and the PRD, the effects of the drug war and the PRI's resurrection can be seen clearly in the change of tone used in the party's slogans and proposals. Obrador has dropped a lot of the militant identity of his previous banners ("The Poor First") and replaced them with calls for a "Loving Republic."
With narco violence spreading into states like Veracruz, Obrador wants to sell his candidacy not as one of class warfare, but of peace and healing. According to the political magazine Proceso, during a recent stop in the state of Morelos, Obrador appealed to the families of drug war victims, stating that if he is elected on July 1st, he will open a direct channel of communication with families scarred by the ongoing violence.
"Whenever they need to speak with the president, they will be able to do it" he stated to a crowd in Yecapixtla. Obrador also made a direct comment at the current military/police deployments around the country, claiming the army, marines and police forces act on their own accords without any sort of serious, centralized control.
But he still hasn't been clear on whether he will simply reform the current strategy of Mexico invading itself, or if he will end it all together. La Jornada newspaper did report on January 6th that Obrador met with a group of businessmen in Cancun, warning that the military will not solve Mexico's current problems but the generation of jobs for increasingly unemployed youth.
The drug war is the main focus, but economic/social policy are also crucial in Mexico where the government has admitted not enough jobs will be generated in 2012, the official excuse being the Euro crisis across the sea. Obrador is now following the regional trend for centrists, which is to model himself after Brazil's former president Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, who is credited with Brazil's current economic boom.
In El Salvador in 2009, FMLN candidate Mauricio Funes assured investors Lula was his guiding light, while in 2011 Peru's Ollanta Humala shed his radical stances and also proclaimed Lula his new economic, ideological mentor.
"Lula" has become code for calming everyone down, assuring the powerful economic class that if elected, you will apply modest, social democratic reforms akin to Europe (at least "the old Europe" to borrow from Donald Rumsfeld) but no major nationalizations or militant rhetoric ala Chavez or Bolivia's Evo Morales.
AMLO has already met with business leaders during trips to Chicago and Los Angeles to promote friendly relations. In Cancun he told business leaders that he is "not an enemy of business because he couldn't go against "those who with their efforts make jobs" (La Jornada). Back in 2006 the Zapatista movement's iconic Subcomandante Marcos delivered his verdict on AMLO, saying during a national TV interview, "that's not leftism." But this is 2012 and AMLO might be seen by millions again as the best alternative to the current PAN disaster which has cost 50,000 lives with the drug war and the return of the PRI's iron fist.
2012 promises to be a year of intense syzygy as the drug war continues with Uncle Sam's blessing, the PRD tries to win hearts and minds and the dinosaur towers over all to reclaim the throne.
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