Some in car­a­van say U.S.-made guns are killing in Hon­duras

The Bradenton Herald (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY SARAH BLASKEY [email protected]­ami­her­ald.com

A group of Hon­duran mil­i­tary po­lice of­fi­cers — dressed in army fa­tigues, their faces cov­ered in black masks — jumped from the back of pickup trucks around 11 p.m. on Dec. 1, 2017, wit­nesses say.

From the shad­ows, they opened fire on 20-year-old Ale­jan­dra Martínez and sev­eral dozen other un­armed young peo­ple burn­ing tires in the streets of Tegu­ci­galpa in protest of the re­cent pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. As bul­lets flew in ev­ery di­rec­tion, Martínez ran, look­ing for shel­ter. She made it out alive.

Down the street, closer to where the of­fi­cers emerged from the shad­ows, Kim­berly Dayana Fon­seca, 19, lay dead in a halo of blood and bits of her own skull. She was the vic­tim of a U.S.-made M4 fired by the Hon­duran Mil­i­tary Po­lice for Pub­lic Or­der, in­ves­ti­ga­tors at the pub­lic min­istry later told a re­porter.

A 15-year-old boy was also crit­i­cally in­jured that night by a bul­let to the side, but sur­vived, an­other likely vic­tim of a U.S.made weapon of war.

The Mi­ami Her­ald found that the po­lit­i­cal vi­o­lence in Hon­duras, which has con­trib­uted to an ex­o­dus of mi­grants, was some- times car­ried out with U.S.made weapons used by the govern­ment’s para­mil­i­tary force. The Hon­duran mil­i­tary po­lice should not pos­sess U.S.- made ri­fles sold un­der pri­vate arms li­cens­ing agree­ments, ac­cord­ing to the State Depart-

ment.

Now, a year af­ter dodg­ing bul­lets fired by a para­mil­i­tary armed with U.S. weapons, Martínez is part of the car­a­van of thou­sands of mi­grants that left Hon­duras in Oc­to­ber to make their way to­ward the U.S. bor­der. The first mi­grants from the group just reached the U.S. bor­der.

“We know that the guns come from the United States,” Martínez told the Mi­ami Her­ald at the time of the blood­shed. “These guns have no busi­ness in Hon­duras. They should stay in the United States. They are send­ing them to Hon­duras to kill us.”

More than a dozen peo­ple were shot and killed by the mil­i­tary po­lice in the post-elec­tion vi­o­lence, in­clud­ing sev­eral chil­dren, ac­cord­ing to United Na­tions in­ves­ti­ga­tors. More than 30 were wounded by the para­mil­i­tary unit, a re­pres­sive force that an­swers di­rectly to the Hon­duran pres­i­dent.

Hon­duran se­cu­rity forces were or­dered to con­tain protests spread­ing across the coun­try as Pres­i­dent Juan Or­lando Her­nan­dez of the Na­tional Party seemed set to win a sec­ond term. The vote was marred by ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties and vi­o­lence, prompt­ing ob­servers from the Or­ga­ni­za­tion of the Amer­i­can States to call for a redo.

The Hon­duran mil­i­tary and the na­tional po­lice have also been ac­cused of hu­man rights abuses, but in the wake of the 2017 elec­tions, por­tions of both forces laid down their weapons, re­fus­ing to at­tack pro­test­ers. The mil­i­tary po­lice were of­ten de­ployed in­stead. “The mil­i­tary po­lice are trained to kill,” Martínez said.

Of­fi­cial U.S. pol­icy is to avoid sup­port­ing or as­so­ci­at­ing with the Hon­duran mil­i­tary po­lice in any way. Founded in 2013 as a sup­pos­edly in­cor­rupt­ible force in the fight against gangs, the Hon­duran mil­i­tary po­lice — a para­mil­i­tary force dis­tinct from both the Hon­duran mil­i­tary and na­tional po­lice — have quickly earned a nasty hu­man rights rep­u­ta­tion, in­clud­ing for ex­tra­ju­di­cial killings.

“The U.S. of­fi­cial pol­icy has been to stay clear [of the mil­i­tary po­lice],” said Eric Olson, deputy direc­tor the the Latin Amer­i­can pro­gram at the Wil­son Cen­ter, a Wash­ing­ton, D.C.-based non-par­ti­san pol­icy fo­rum and re­search in­sti­tute. “They’ve been very self-con­grat­u­la­tory, say­ing ‘we don’t sup­port them so we are not re­spon­si­ble for what they do.’ ”

Yet, a photo on the Hon­duran govern­ment’s web­site shows three pha­lanxes of the cam­ou­flage­clad fight­ers bran­dish­ing ri­fles that five in­de­pen­dent ex­perts iden­ti­fied as mod­ern, U.S.-made M4s, a weapon whose in­ter­na­tional sale is highly reg­u­lated by the State De­part­ment. Other Hon­duran govern­ment pho­tos show the mil­i­tary po­lice car­ry­ing what ex­perts said ap­peared to be the same style M4s dur­ing jobs dat­ing back through the be­gin­ning of 2017.

Al­though each ex­pert said it is pos­si­ble, if ex­tremely un­likely, that the M4s could be off-brand copy­cats, half a dozen Hon­duran mil­i­tary po­lice of­fi­cers told Her­ald re­porters in late 2017 the forces in Tegu­ci­galpa carry only M4s that came from the United States. The Hon­duran govern­ment de­nied the Her­ald’s re­quest for a list of weapons used by mil­i­tary po­lice of­fi­cers, and re­fused to an­swer ques­tions about the M4s, cit­ing “state se­crets” laws and na­tional se­cu­rity as the rea­son for their de­nial.

The mil­i­tary po­lice car­ried the weapons to po­lice civil­ian protests over the past year, some­times us­ing them to shoot at un­armed pro­test­ers, as doc­u­mented in pho­tos taken by jour­nal­ists and hu­man rights ob­servers and ID’d by the five ex­perts. (Mil­i­tary po­lice out­side of Tegu­ci­galpa were seen by re­porters car­ry­ing nonU.S.-made ri­fles.) Dur­ing anti-govern­ment protests in De­cem­ber 2017, the force killed at least 20 peo­ple — some ex­e­cu­tion style, oth­ers as they tried to run away, ac­cord­ing to United Na­tions re­ports.

“The mil­i­tary po­lice are the Hon­duran govern­ment’s an­swer not only to street vi­o­lence but to main­tain­ing a level of po­lit­i­cal con­trol and you re­ally saw that af­ter the con­tested elec­tions in Novem­ber 2017,” said

Lisa Hau­gaard of the Latin Amer­ica Work­ing Group, a for­eign pol­icy lobby in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., who has worked ex­ten­sively in Hon­duras.

The UN in­spec­tors con­cluded that post-elec­tion killings, mostly at the hands of the mil­i­tary po­lice, “in­stilled panic among sec­tors of the pop­u­la­tion, who feared reprisals for par­tic­i­pat­ing in protests.” Hau­gaard said the po­lit­i­cal vi­o­lence and a be­lief that noth­ing will change has left peo­ple hope­less, driv­ing some to mi­grate north.

Af­ter the United Na­tions in­ves­ti­ga­tors put out their re­ports of pro­tester deaths by firearms, the State De­part­ment is­sued the fol­low­ing state­ment to the Mi­ami Her­ald: “We ex­tend our con­do­lences to the fam­i­lies of the vic­tims of post-elec­tion vi­o­lence. … We look for­ward to ap­pro­pri­ate au­thor­i­ties con­clud­ing their in­ves­ti­ga­tions and hold­ing ac­count­able those re­spon­si­ble for these crimes.”

To date, not a sin­gle of­fi­cer has been charged for the deaths of dozens of pro­test­ers, ac­cord­ing to lo­cal hu­man rights ob­server César Fuentes. By con­trast, sev­eral op­po­si­tion lead­ers re­main in max­i­mum se­cu­rity pris­ons hav­ing al­ready spent 10 months wait­ing for tri­als on charges of ter­ror­ism, brought un­der the na­tion’s sweep­ing new laws.

ARM­ING THE ABUSERS

Since a mil­i­tary coup ousted a demo­crat­i­cally elected pres­i­dent in Hon­duras in 2009, the United States has not pro­vided weapons di­rectly to Hon­duras; the more than $100 mil­lion in di­rect as­sis­tance ap­proved by the United States to Hon­duras since 2009 was des­ig­nated non-lethal, and in­cluded equip­ment and train­ing pro­grams.

The mod­ern, M4-style firearms car­ried by the Hon­duran mil­i­tary po­lice last year likely came from a pri­vate sale — known as a di­rect com­mer­cial sale — an arms deal be­tween a U.S. weapons seller (usu­ally the man­u­fac­turer) and the Hon­duran govern­ment. Li­cens­ing agree­ments for in­ter­na­tional weapons sales al­ways re­quire U.S. govern­ment ap­proval.

The State De­part­ment au­tho­rized com­pa­nies to ex­port over 10,000 firearms to Hon­duras be­tween 2015 and 2017, ac­cord­ing to in­for­ma­tion ob­tained by the Se­cu­rity As­sis­tance Mon­i­tor, an or­ga­ni­za­tion that tracks U.S. arms deals.

Ac­cord­ing to the Fed­eral Reg­is­ter, the State De­part­ment specif­i­cally ap­proved pri­vate sales of M4 car­bine ri­fles and ac­ces­sories to Hon­duras, in 2015 and again in 2017, of over $1 mil­lion dol­lars each. The 2015 deal in­cluded 5.56mm rounds and 30round mag­a­zine for the M4 ri­fles. The 2017 deal was worth $6,150,000, the Se­cu­rity As­sis­tance Mon­i­tor re­ported.

The U.S. cor­po­ra­tion that sold the weapons is un­named, the in­for­ma­tion con­sid­ered pro­pri­etary.

The first sale of M4s was slated to go to the mil­i­tary; the sec­ond one was for the Hon­duran govern­ment, but an arms ex­pert formerly with the Bu­reau of Al­co­hol, To­bacco, Firearms and Ex­plo­sives told the Her­ald the weapons de­scribed could be the ones in pic­tures of Hon­duran mil­i­tary po­lice taken last year.

The State De­part­ment must ap­prove di­rect com­mer­cial sales li­cens­ing agree­ments that stip­u­late which govern­ment, mil­i­tary or se­cu­rity force may ul­ti­mately pos­sess U.S.made weapons of war. Hon­duran mil­i­tary po­lice “are not an ap­proved re­cip­i­ent of [di­rect com­mer­cial sale] weapons,” a state­ment from the State De­part­ment said.

“Hu­man rights con­cerns are among the many fac­tors the De­part­ment of State con­sid­ers when re­view­ing [di­rect com­mer­cial sale] ap­pli­ca­tions, along with our re­la­tion­ships with for­eign se­cu­rity part­ners and pro­mo­tion of Amer­i­can in­dus­try,” said the de­part­ment, which ad­dressed weapons agree­ments gen­er­ally.

In the case of M4s des­tined for Hon­duras, con­gres­sional com­mit­tees held up the 2017 deal for sev­eral months out of con­cern about the po­ten­tial risks, said Colby Good­man, an ex­pert on in­ter­na­tional arms deals and for­mer direc­tor of the Se­cu­rity As­sis­tance Mon­i­tor. A gen­eral con­cern: “The like­li­hood that the re­cip­i­ent would use the arms to com­mit hu­man rights abuses,” Good­man said.

Au­tho­riz­ing a weapons sale to an ally na­tion is al­ways a strate­gic cal­cu­la­tion, Good­man said. “We’re pro­vid­ing these weapons to go af­ter some en­tity, a crim­i­nal gang for ex­am­ple, and the ben­e­fit of them us­ing these weapons to in­crease their ef­fec­tive­ness out­weighs the risk of a few of those firearms bleed­ing out.”

Pho­to­graphic ev­i­dence shows some M4-type weapons wound up in the wrong hands. In Tegu­ci­galpa in 2017, the mil­i­tary car­ried old M16s, while the mil­i­tary po­lice seemed to carry newer M4s in ap­par­ent vi­o­la­tion of the arms li­cens­ing agree­ments, in­de­pen­dent weapons ex­perts who an­a­lyzed the pho­tos said.

The United States is the only coun­try that makes M4s. Still, it is pos­si­ble the M4s car­ried by the mil­i­tary po­lice did not come di­rectly from the 2015 and 2017 sales listed in the Fed­eral Reg­is­ter, and were in­stead resold to Hon­duras by a third party — an­other govern­ment, for ex­am­ple. Still, di­rect-sale li­cens­ing agree­ments also stip­u­late the re­cip­i­ents of re­sales, so their posses­sion would still be a vi­o­la­tion of a con­tract.

“The con­se­quences of break­ing a deal can mean that the U.S. will stop pro­vid­ing weapons. That is the most se­vere con­se­quence but it doesn’t hap­pen that of­ten,” Good­man said.

Each year the State De­part­ment au­dits a por­tion (usu­ally less than 2 per­cent) of di­rect com­mer­cial sales through a pro­gram called Blue Lantern, in­tended to en­sure weapons end up where they are sup­posed to go, and used for their in­tended pur­pose. If a Blue Lantern re­view comes back “un­fa­vor­able,”said a State De­part­ment of­fi­cial, puni­tive ac­tions could in­clude deny­ing or re­vok­ing li­censes, up­dat­ing the Direc­torate of De­fense Trade Con­trols’ “Watch List” of in­el­i­gi­ble or sus­pect en­ti­ties, or even re­fer­ring the case to U.S. law en­force­ment agen­cies.

The State De­part­ment would not com­ment on spe­cific con­tracts or what, if any­thing, has been done to en­force the con­di­tions of weapons con­tracts with Hon­duras.

SEEK­ING PO­LIT­I­CAL ASY­LUM

Sev­eral thou­sand Hon­durans — part of the group that left in early Oc­to­ber — just ar­rived to Ti­juana, across the bor­der from Cal­i­for­nia. Oth­ers are still com­ing.

“If I re­turn to Hon­duras they’ll kill me,” Martínez, who has live-streamed her trek, told the Her­ald by phone. She is still in South­ern Mex­ico where she asked for po­lit­i­cal asy­lum. She isn’t sure if she will re­main in Mex­ico or head north. She hoped to go to the United States, but does not want to be de­ported back to Hon­duras, where as a well­known po­lit­i­cal ac­tivist she fears for her life.

“There is def­i­nitely a case for po­lit­i­cal asy­lum,” said im­mi­gra­tion lawyer Jose Fuentes from Mex­ico City.

Free­lance jour­nal­ist Jeff Ab­bott con­trib­uted re­port­ing.

JEFF AB­BOTT

Hon­duran mil­i­tary po­lice of­fi­cers, car­ry­ing M4-style ri­fles, stand at the edge of a protest headed for the U.S. Em­bassy in Tegu­ci­galpa, Hon­duras, in De­cem­ber 2017 to chal­lenge elec­tion re­sults.

Cour­tesy César Fuentes

In a photo taken by Hon­duran hu­man rights ob­server César Fuentes on Dec. 1, 2017, a mem­ber of the Hon­duran mil­i­tary po­lice is seen fir­ing a M4 ri­fle at two young men flee­ing af­ter of­fi­cers broke up an anti-govern­ment protest in the cen­ter of Tegu­ci­galpa. Fuentes said bul­lets were fly­ing ev­ery­where, and he checked him­self for bul­let wounds af­ter tak­ing the photo.

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