Increased U.S.-Honduras military engagement

Central America

This week the head of U.S. Southern Command (Southcom), General John Kelly, received an award for his collaboration with Honduras’ armed forces during a one-day visit to the country. The ceremony was the latest in a series of indicators that the U.S. is ramping up its cooperation with the Central American nation in its militarized fight against organized crime.

In late March and early April, cooperation faltered somewhat when the United States stopped sharing radar intelligence after Honduras passed a law permitting its air force to shoot down planes suspected of trafficking drugs. However, a Southcom statement ahead of General Kelly’s visit shows the move had no effect on maritime or land interdiction assistance, which has since increased:

U.S. Southern Command will continue to support Honduras’ Operation Morazan in the maritime and land domains and increase our efforts to reduce the amount of illicit trafficking into and around Honduras, and make the country and region less hospitable to transnational criminal networks.

The statement also said Southcom had offered to boost trainings for the Honduran military, which has become more involved in domestic security since President Juan Orlando Hernández took office in late January. Hernández ran on a platform of increased militarization, promising to “put a soldier on every corner.”

Hernández has moved towards this goal with Operation Morazan, a hyper-militarized security effort launched during his inauguration ceremony. The Southcom statement quoted above mentions ongoing support for the initiative, but there is little information about what that support looks like.

Operation Morazan is a collaborative effort by the Honduran military, military police and national police to saturate the areas most affected by organized crime. Here are a few points on how it is run:

  •  Carried out by the Military Police of Public Order (PMOP), a military police force created by Hernández, TIGRES, a police unit established this year to combat organized crime, Armed Forces, National Police, Directorate of Migration and Foreign Affairs, Executive Directorate of Revenue, Supreme Court and Public Ministry.
  • Involves roadblocks, covert operations, stings, helicopter scouts, military tanks on the street in known conflict areas, and TIGRE raids. People and cars will also be officially registered indefinitely.
  • Authorities designing new operations to combat extortion, which currently affects more of the population than any other crime. Their approach thus far involves carrying out prison raids to confiscate inmates cell phones and blocking all calls coming from the country’s jails.  
  • On May 8th Hernandez mentioned a new phase of Morazan, but has yet to reveal further detail on what these additional measures would look like.

Recent polls indicate public support for President Hernández’ heavy-handed policies, which have helped him garner a 66 percent approval rating after winning just 34 percent of the vote in November.

However, some analysts view the program as ineffective. This is because many of those currently being arrested by security officials are street level intermediaries. These are criminals who are neither heading criminal groups nor in charge of recruiting new members, but who are added to the country’s prison population, which is already beyond capacity. In addition to the human rights concerns raised by having troops on the streets, the operation fails address the top down corruption  or high unemployment rates that continue to fuel organized crime in the country.

Operation Martillo

The U.S. has also deployed more ships to the country’s coastline as part of Operation Martillo, a U.S.-led multinational maritime drug interdiction operation in Central America, which Security Assistance Monitor (as Just the Facts) has covered in previous posts and publications.

In March, at the request of President Hernández, the U.S. deployed four armed vessels -- two cutters and two frigates, one to the Atlantic and the other to the Pacific – to work in coordination with the country’s navy. In that same month the U.S. also announced it would increase collaboration in monitoring intelligence, in interdiction efforts and in information sharing.

Also of note is that the Obama administration has nominated James D. Nealon (pdf) to replace Ambassador Kubiske. Nealon is currently Southcom’s Foreign Policy Advisor.

Implications for U.S. assistance numbers?

The United States has ratcheted up this increased support through the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), the United States’ main assistance package to the region. 

In recent public appearances President Hernández has courted U.S. engagement further, calling the United States and General Kelly "great friends" of Honduras while using the positive feedback for political gain. During a speech on crime after General Kelly's visit, he told the crowd, "a high U.S. official, who ought to be well informed with respect to this issue, said he was impressed with the work on security. This means that we are on the right path and that Honduras is changing."

As Central America is the only part of the region where assistance has increased in recent years, it will be interesting to see if the U.S. Congress certifies Honduras for human rights improvements, following this boost in cooperation (currently 35 percent of 2014 assistance provided through the State Department to Honduran security forces is frozen over human rights concerns). Honduras’ heightened militarization comes amid calls for an alternative approach to the drug war in the region and given the notorious corruption plaguing Honduras’ security institutions, increased U.S. military collaboration in the country something to monitor.