Human rights abuses, whether they are carried out by private security guards working for companies owned by the leaders of the 1980s death squad "Battalion 316," by the underpaid and poorly-trained police force, or by maquiladora owners, are inseparable from structural adjustment programs being imposed by the IMF and World Bank, with no democratic involvement on the part of the Honduran people.
Firstly, what inspired you to conduct your anthropological work in Honduras? What is the history behind your relationships and work with people in this particular country?
Although I first visited Honduras in 1990, I didn’t start doing research there until 1997. My decision to go to Honduras originally grew out of a desire to better understand the international process by which the clothing I wore went from design to the rack at retail stores around the U.S. Following the Kathie Lee Gifford scandal in 1996, I thought Honduras would be an interesting place to carry out a case study on the maquiladora industry. From my first research visit, however, I realized I would have to broaden my scope of analysis. Honduras is a fascinating country with such a complex history of exploitation, resistance, and poetry, that to focus on one particular industry (albeit a very important one) would have not done the Honduran people justice. The study I have done is still limited in scope-there’s only so much one can fit into a book-but I have tried to make it more comprehensive than my original focus would have permitted.
With regards to my relationships with Hondurans, I have developed close friendships with three different families with whom I have lived over the years while carrying out my ethnographic research—one in La Lima, one in San Pedro Sula, and another in Tegucigalpa. These relationships are all very different in character. The members of one of the families are relatively recent, fervent converts to evangelical Christianity. Another of the families, who I got to know through their transgender daughter who sought asylum in the U.S., are devout Catholics. The third has everything from conservative army members to radical antiauthoritarian feminists. The members of all three families have survived extreme violence, and in that, tragically, they are not exceptional.
In addition to the families with whom I have lived I am lucky to have developed many close friendships over the years with Hondurans. As I write in my book, although I often find my friendships in Honduras to be more complex and challenging to maintain due to my privileged position there (as opposed to my friendships in the U.S.), they have also been more rewarding to me. I strive to create relationships of solidarity with Hondurans, rather than the patron-client relationships that characterize so many of the NGO and aid efforts in Honduras.
You recently publicized your book "Working Hard, Drinking Hard: On Violence and Survival in Honduras" at several locations in the U.S. Is your work intended to raise awareness of the problems of inequality in Honduras? In that sense, is the book intended to campaign for human rights, and who were you reaching out to when you conducted your book launches?
I do indeed hope that my book will raise awareness about the problems of inequality in Honduras. However, beyond that, I hope it will help people to tie that inequality and its deadly consequences to a much larger international system of inequalities currently being exacerbated by the neoliberal economic model. Human rights abuses, whether they are carried out by private security guards working for companies owned by the leaders of the 1980s death squad "Battalion 316," by the underpaid and poorly-trained police force, or by maquiladora owners, are inseparable from structural adjustment programs being imposed by the IMF and World Bank, with no democratic involvement on the part of the Honduran people. Such programs have dramatically decreased the security of the Honduran people by denying them access to public education, public healthcare, and public oversight of their government, while providing massive profits to private corporations who are not required to return the favor in the form of taxes. At the same time, people have been distracted by the extremely high levels of violent crime, often carried out by agents of the state and private industry. Thus, many call for a different kind of security than that offered by education and healthcare. This arrived in Ricardo Maduro’s presidency in the form of "Zero Tolerance," a draconian crime control policy imported by former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, and resulted in what I call an "invisible genocide" and what Hondurans refer to as "street cleaning"-the murder of thousands of youths, primarily unemployed young men who were marked as criminals by a society that had no room for them.
So, although I am referring here to the particular case of Honduran human rights abuse, the various structures that facilitate them are international in scope. While Giuliani’s policy did not result in large-scale killings in New York, many accused it of criminalizing poverty and cleaning the streets to aid economic investment that never trickled down to the poor. Zero tolerance was implemented in New York and then Honduras to stop a violent yet vague threat, "delinquency," just as the Patriot Act, which reconfigured the U.S. constitution toward creating a security state, was implemented in the name of stopping the vague enemy, "terrorism." Similarly, the privatization of schools and healthcare in the United States, part of the Washington consensus model followed by the IMF and World Bank, has significantly increased the structural vulnerability of a large part of the population, a fact which is reflected in the poor educational outcomes, and high mortality and morbidity rates among people in that country. Thus, my goal in touring the U.S. is to help people better understand structural violence in Honduras as being not so different from their own. The target audience is as broad as people who care a whit about justice. While my book contains a significant amount of social theory, it is written in language that a college freshman could understand. On this tour, much of which I did jointly with Oscar Estrada, director of the documentary film "El Porvenir," I have spoken at 12 different venues. These have included independent bookstores, Central American Resource Centers, the School of Public Health at the University of Pennsylvania, union halls, the Washington Office on Latin America, and even anarchist collectives. I have spoken with people from all over the political spectrum, which is my aim. I don’t see the issue of structural violence as belonging to conservatives, liberals, deists, atheists, or any other group. It is something we should all be concerned with, and which I hope we can come together to change. But we have to start with a dialogue, with understanding.
What do you believe are the biggest obstructions to human rights problems in Honduras?
I have addressed this question to some degree already in previous answers, but I think the primary obstructions to human rights are government corruption and the complicity of groups of power (including organized crime, large corporations, and U.S. government agents). When Honduras, which hasn’t even begun to hold the torturers and assassins of Battalion 316 accountable, still finds itself getting ordered around by John D. Negroponte, the U.S. deputy Secretary of State who during the 1980s as the U.S. ambassador to Honduras aided and abetted the CIA-trained death squad, it’s difficult to imagine progress being made. Still, I believe it is vital to continue to demand accountability and to take a strong and consistent stance against torture and other human rights violations perpetrated in Honduras. In particular, those of us who do not risk our lives, as Hondurans do, by speaking out against these crimes, must speak all the more forcefully…
What do you believe are the biggest obstructions to human rights problems in Honduras?
To read the interview in its entirety visit: http://www.quotha.net
Excerpted Working Hard, Drinking Hard: On Violence and Survival in Honduras (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008). Copyright (c) 2008 by the Regents of the University of California.
"Melisa" (from p.69-72)
I never got to know Melisa very well. I first saw her on August 7th, 1997. I was eating tajadas (crispy fried plaintains) at a small neighborhood restaurant with Rebeca’s daughter Vanesa and Vanesa’s friend Elysa. An androgynous black girl with a shaved head wearing a t-shirt that read "O.J. 100% NOT GUILTY" in African National Congress colors came in. Elysa, whose boyfriend had been deported from the U.S. for gang activity, flinched. "She’s a Dieciocho," she told me. "Everybody’s afraid of la negra." The girl sat down by herself and ate her tajadas contentedly.
Later, I asked Rebeca about Melisa. Rebeca knew all the gang kids. "They respect me," she had told me on various occasions. "I’ve known them all since they were this tall" (motioning close to the ground). Rebeca said that Melisa had suffered physical and sexual abuse and had been abandoned by both of her parents. Her participation in the gang, according to Rebeca, was understandable—as opposed to the other kids, who Rebeca said were just making trouble. There are many such exceptions to the rule that gang members are "evil." I was often surprised by the failure of the many examples of personal victimization to change the general understanding of gangs as inscrutably savage.
In January 1999, I was again in La Lima. Hurricane Mitch had struck Honduras a few months earlier, and La Lima was one of the places hardest hit. Piles of sand had been left on the side of the road by the municipality to absorb the excess liquid, but in typical Lima government fashion, nobody had moved the sand onto the roads themselves in the months since they had been delivered. One afternoon around dusk, I was busy working on a photo essay involving a toy monkey, a pre-Columbian relic, and one of these piles of sand, when I was startled by two teenage boys I recognized as neighborhood gang members. I became nervous, having been warned time and again about being robbed or attacked by these children. I grabbed my camera more tightly and said hello.
"What are you doing?" one of them asked. I told them I was taking a picture.
"Do you need help?" the other asked.
I answered "well, yes," and let them position Sancho, as Sabrina and I had earlier dubbed the anthropomorphic figurine she had found after the hurricane, in the sand. They seemed to find this wildly amusing. As I continued back to the house I chatted with them. We discussed the standard neutral topics—the mud, the weather, where I was staying. "Oh yes," they told me, "we know Doña Rebeca." A group of their friends was playing a few streets down, Melisa among them.
"You’re taking pictures?" she yelled. "Take a picture of me! Look! I am Dieciocho! Take a picture of me in my shirt!" She turned around to model her basketball tunic with the number 18 on the back and beamed as I took her picture. After that, whenever I saw her around town, we would both smile and say hello.
In August 2002, seven months after Maduro’s War began, I went to visit Rebeca and her daughters in La Lima. They had moved to a new house, and Sabrina came to meet me at the town square to take me there. I followed her through the streets of La Lima in a direction I hadn’t expected to go. "You are living in La Mesa again?" I asked incredulously. "But what about the gangs?" After Sabrina and Omarito had been shot by the carro asesino in February 2000, Rebeca had barred her children from entering La Mesa—the poorest and most dangerous barrio in town (despite the fact that they had been attacked in one of the wealthier neighborhoods). At that time Rebeca’s daughters had described La Mesa to me by quoting the saying "Entre si quiere, salga si puede" ("Enter if you want, leave if you can"). In addition to its problems with poverty and violence, La Mesa abuts territory belonging to the San Pedro Sula International Airport, the fields of which have been engineered to drain straight into that barrio during heavy rain. Flooding occurs nearly every year in La Lima, with low-lying La Mesa getting the brunt of it, its rivers of aguas negras (raw sewage) mixing freely with floodwaters.
In response to my query, Sabrina told me the gangs weren’t a problem these days. I asked when the last flood had hit. "Last year. The water was up to here for six days" she said, drawing a line across her chest. Sabrina’s family lost all their furniture yet again. In my notebook I jotted down, "sometimes I wonder why they don’t just give in and go plastic."
At the house, I tried to get a better explanation of how La Mesa had become safe. I wrote in my field notes:
I asked Rebeca how things were around the barrio and she told me that they were tranquilo, much better than before, that Maduro’s "Zero Tolerance" policy had worked, that there were no more gangs here. The problem now, she said, is with the [new wave of U.S.] deportees. "But how can that be?" I asked her. "There were so many gang members. What happened to them all?"
R: They killed them all.
A: Who? Who killed them all?
R: The same group of people killed all the different gangs.
A: But who were they?
R: A private group. Nobody knows. Everybody sees them do it, but nobody knows who did it. And they’re in league with the police.
Rebeca told me how once the year before, her son Omarito had been hanging out with some friends at a neighborhood store when they were stopped by two armed men. All three of the boys were told by the men to lift their shirts. On seeing that he (and the others) had no tattoos, the gunmen said to Omarito "te salvaste chico," ("you saved yourself kid") indicating that had it been otherwise, he would not have survived. Neither Sabrina’s bullet wound nor this episode shook Rebeca’s faith in cero tolerancia. It was, according to her, Sabrina, and everyone else I asked subsequently, an unequivocally good thing that these neighborhood children, many of whom had retained good relations with Rebeca and her family, had been slaughtered for the sake of security.
Still incredulous at the radical change in a town I had once found familiar, I persisted:
A: All of them? They killed every single one?
R: Yes, they’re all gone.
A: What about la negra, the one who was in la Dieciocho?
R: Ah, that Melisa Melisa moved to San Pedro when they started killing them all. She started going to church and everything.
A: [excited] So she didn’t get killed!
R: No. They went and found her. They killed her too.
To purchase Working Hard, Drinking Hard: On Violence and Survival in Honduras, visit: http://www.ucpress.edu/books/pages/10769.php