Walls, Security and Extraction – Exploring the Root Causes of Honduran Migration

A version of this article was also published here  in Spanish in the publication Contrapunto.

January 2017

by Alejandro Artiga-Purcell

Walls, security and extraction—these have become the pillars of US foreign policy on Central American immigration this past decade. Purportedly designed to stem the tide of immigration, current US policy exacerbates and actively creates situations that force immigration. The opening up of borders to free trade and investment is founded on an extractivist model of development in which the privatization of more and more public resources—energy, minerals, water, land—leads to the consolidation of wealth for a few and poverty for the many. Security, though often justified to combat rampant gang violence and corruption, is vital to secure corporate access to these valuable resources, and to oppress all those who resist their forced displacement and dispossession. Walls not only serve as financial barriers to further extract wealth (for example, in the form of tolls on privatized highways), but also provide physical hurdles to the movement of those displaced and dispossessed people. So, instead of solving problems, current policy has become the latest expression of a US imperialism that ultimately serves neither the people of the United States nor the people of Central America.

The Migration Crisis: _

Stemming immigration to the U.S. from Central America has been a national priority since November 2014, when the detention and deportation of over 40,000 Central American children at the US-Mexico border leaked to the public. President Donald Trump’s continued threats to “build the wall” and increase deportation of undocumented immigrants (even after the Obama administration has already deported more people than any previous administration) have only intensified the national debate (Horsley, 2016). However, thorough and accurate analysis of why these immigrants are coming in the first place is almost entirely missing from political debate and public discourse.

Mainstream explanations in media, government and international institutions like the United Nations point to the vicious cycle of scarce economic opportunity, rampant poverty, and growing gang violence as the primary forces pushing people to uproot and go north.  These explanations fail to examine either the causes for these phenomena or the differences that exist country-to-country. The “Alliance for Prosperity Plan,” implemented as a response to the migration spike in 2014, reflects this flawed perspective. This four-country agreement between the United States and Central America’s Northern Triangle countries aims to curtail immigration from the regions largest immigrant-producing nations—Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Significantly, the $750 million budget approved by the US Congress for 2016 focused primarily on aid for “development assistance” and “security measures” (Iesue, 2016). Under this Plan, reducing incentives for immigration means cracking down on gang violence, drug trafficking, high levels of extortion and overall insecurity on the one hand, and alleviating poverty through increased development opportunities on the other.

This is a dangerously misdirected and incomplete analysis. This past December, I was part of a delegation to Honduras seeking to uncover the “root causes” of immigration.  The delegation met directly with a variety of affected communities. Gang violence and economic underdevelopment did not feature in these communities’ analyses of why they and their loved ones fled the country. In fact, as we met with indigenous communities, farmers, maquila workers, church leaders, human rights activists, and returned deportees, few mentioned gangs or underdevelopment at all. Instead, the recurring themes were the rampant privatization and extraction of public resources, facilitated by political corruption at the highest levels of government, and enforced through the militarization of the country and the criminalization with impunity of all those who dissent.

Geographically and culturally disparate communities within Honduras gave strikingly similar testimonies. The Garifuna, a coastal indigenous people, are fighting against a five-star tourist resort seeking to displace them from their home of over 200 years; Lenca indigenous in the Honduran highlands are threatened by hydroelectric dam and mining projects that seek to divert, over consume, and pollute the rivers that sustain their farming practices; Campesinos in the Bajo Aguan valley face harassment, disappearance and death at the hands of paramilitary and military groups for demanding that African Palm plantation magnates return their illegally stolen land. Furthermore, national protests continue to rage against the privatization of the country’s major highways and the subsequent proliferation of tolls. We were reminded that barriers to movement don’t begin at the US border wall, but within Honduras, as these tolls pose financial hurdles that extract further income from already impoverished commuters.

Whose Development?

While these testimonies are diverse in their details, each tells a story of exclusion and extraction through the privatization and consolidation of public resources. The extraction of water, land, energy, minerals, toll revenue, and the resulting accumulation of wealth in the hands of a few political and corporate elite propel the dispossession, displacement and repression of the Honduran people.

The stories of these resorts, dams, mines, palm plantations and privatized highways are not isolated. Mining, a hugely energy intensive industry, is intimately linked to the proliferation of hydroelectric dams. Tourism and resource extraction are linked to privatized transportation networks of roads and highways to bring people and goods in and out of zones of production and consumption. All of these industries demand large swaths of land, water and energy—opened up through their privatization—to operate at an economically viable scale (Interview with Karen Spring, December 2016).

Seen together, these cases represent distinct but intricately connected manifestations of a larger project geared towards market-driven development—the very type of development advanced by the Alliance for Prosperity. Honduras’ overlapping waves of privatization and dispossession have stripped its people of their access to clean environments, health, security and livelihoods, often without consent or compensation. One way out of the predicament is migration. Thus, in a cruel irony, one of the key remedies prescribed for reducing immigration, namely economic development through large projects that attract foreign and national capital, actually helps produce the conditions of poverty and repression that force Hondurans to flee!

The Myth of Security:

The Alliance for Prosperity Plan’s other priority—bolstering security—plays an equally important role in increasing rather than stemming the flow of migrants. It is no secret that throughout Latin America the expansion of resource extraction and privatization of public resources have often gone hand in hand with increased militarization of the state (Bury and Bebbington, 2013: 45; ICHR, 2015: 158-160). In Honduras, larger (often US funded) budgets for the military and police forces as well as increased impunity have been integral to the suppression of public dissent and community organizing (Spring, interview). Those who resist development projects, human rights violations and environmental degradation are subject to legal or extralegal persecution. This past year, the anti-corruption watchdog Global Witness ranked Honduras as the most dangerous country in which to be an environmental activist (Miroff, 2016). This title gained global recognition with the still unsolved murder of internationally renowned human rights and indigenous leader, Berta Caceres, despite her supposed protection by the Honduran state (Miroff, 2016). Less known, are the murders of Nelson García and Lesbia Urquía, members of environmental organizations COPINH and MILPAH. Other environmental leaders and activists, including Tomas Gomez, Caceres’ replacement as the director of COPINH, face similar death threats and assassination attempts (Guevara-Rosas, 2016; Interview with Tomas Gomez, December 2016).

Even those not protesting large development projects are under constant attack. Two leaders of the Agrarian Reform movement in the Bajo Aguan valley were killed just a few months before our arrival (Lakhani, 2016). Others in the movement came out of hiding to meet with us and share their experience facing lawsuits and terrorist charges. In the city, unionized workers at a maquila who wish to remain anonymous for their personal safety, spoke of having to constantly travel in groups as a precaution against kidnap or worse. Demanding only the right to organize for fair wages, safe working conditions and maternity leave, these workers cherish daily activities such as hugging their children goodbye in the morning, because of their painful awareness that they may not return home alive (Interview, December 2016).

Complicating the Rhetoric of Gang Violence:

The targeting of strategic leaders in environmental, human rights, agrarian reform, and labor movements belies official efforts to blame these tragedies on random gang violence and crime. When pressed about the role of the gangs and narco traffickers, many of those with whom we spoke found it difficult to distinguish between organized criminal activity and government-sponsored violence and corruption. In Honduras, corruption scandals are well documented.  Police officers have taken their cut of the “war tax” (the price paid to gangs to not be killed), conspired against anti-drug officials, and turned a blind eye to gang and drug related violence, further adding to a culture of impunity (Malkin and Arce, 2016). Currently, Honduran and US intelligence officers are investigating the close ties between narco traffickers and officials at every level of the Honduran government, including police officers, mayors, congress people, and judges (Gagne, 2016).

Highlighting the blurred lines between gang violence and state-sponsored violence in Honduras in no way refutes that gangs and cartels pose serious problems that contribute to everyday insecurity and repression. The chronic economic struggle of paying the “war tax” and the risks of day-to-day life are important factors in people’s decision to migrate. However, as Karen Spring, a coordinator for the Honduras Solidarity Network, explains, “Gangs are not autonomous actors. They are enabled by impunity, they are enabled by corruption, and they are enabled by…the mafia government of Honduras.” Gangs are also enabled by the same economic system that simultaneously prioritizes economic growth and development and strips Honduras of their resources, rights, and livelihoods. Generations of Honduran youth without economic opportunity and social support systems often have little alternative to joining a gang. Any analysis of immigration that stops with a critique of gangs and their so-called random acts of violence constitutes an overly superficial and misleading representation of a much more complex reality.

Towards a better understanding of Migration’s Root Causes:

While recognizing the varied motivations of Hondurans who migrate north, it is critical to attend to the more general political and economic failures that propel poverty, violence, gang activity, and migration. As more and more fundamental, life-giving resources and social life itself fall prey to privatization, commodification, and redistribution, the country’s wealth has consolidated in the hands of a few political and economic elite. Exploitation of environments and communities, and the frontal attack on their livelihoods, have led to a breakdown in the social fabric—as evidenced by fractured families, dwindling communities and mass impoverishment.

Importantly, this extractivist development model is inseparable from the high levels of government corruption, militarization, and impunity in Honduras that enforce particular economic interests and an unequal geopolitical balance of power. It should not be forgotten, furthermore, that over the past century the United States and “the West” (often embodied in institutions like the World Bank, the Inter Monetary Fund, and the Inter-American Development Bank) has played a key role in advancing the interests of foreign direct investment-based development in Honduras. Just this century US foreign policy sponsored the 2009 coup d’état and promoted the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA)—both of which have wrought havoc in the country’s political, economic and social arenas.

The Alliance for Prosperity is just the most recent iteration of US imperialism in Honduras. Founded on misleading rhetoric attributing immigration to gang violence and underdevelopment-induced poverty, the Plan not only mis-diagnoses the root causes of violence, poverty and immigration, but actually perpetuates the underlying disease by promoting unbridled  “development” and false “security”. Sadly, the “development” of which the Plan speaks is a ruthless extractivist development that prioritizes profit and growth above human rights and environmental well-being. Meanwhile the “security” it emphasizes, primarily secures transnational corporations and national elites’ rights to access and extract privatized resources by dispossessing the larger Honduran population.

Calls to Action:

The problem of the current migration crisis is certainly complex and steeped within a long history of failed development policies both nationally and internationally. Consequently no silver bullet solution exists to overcome centuries of colonial and imperial devastation. However, the lack of a simple fix-all policy leaves open the possibility and necessity for a plurality of responses. In North America, we bear the responsibility to pressure our heads of state, congress people, and local representatives, to both acknowledge our country’s role in perpetuating forced immigration and also to act on it. One concrete example of such a legislative action is to reintroduce and pass the Berta Caceres Human Rights in Honduras Act or “Berta Bill” which prohibits US aid to the Honduran police and military until certain human rights measures are met. A next step is not just to cut military and police aid to Honduras, but to redirect that aid to sectors where it can help and empower Hondurans—such as education, healthcare, and other social services.

Solutions cannot only come from the top down, or from the North to the South. A major theme in the global Women’s March on January 21, 2017 was to stop building walls and start building bridges. Taking this commitment seriously, and applying it internationally requires that we build solidarity networks between countries, cities and communities. This is necessary now more than ever as the struggles Hondurans have faced for decades—the fight against walls, security and extraction—are also our own. In the age of Trump, we collectively face the wall on the US-Mexico border, the prohibition of Muslim immigrants, attacks on sanctuary cities, the displacement and oppression of indigenous communities at Standing Rock, increased criminalization of African Americans and the policing of women’s bodies and their right to choose, to name just a few.

While these struggles are distinct and manifest in particular localities, they are inherently connected in a global struggle for justice. There may be frictions and contradictions between them, and indeed, no solution is complete. However, as Honduran communities facing threats to land, water, and livelihood continually reminded our delegation, our only option is to struggle for our rights. And our most valuable resources are each other.  


Works Cited:


Amnesty International Press Release “Activists’ murders turn Honduras for environmental https://www.amnestyusa.org/news/press-releases/activists-murders-turn-honduras-into-no-go-zone-for-environmental

Bury, J., and Bebbington, A. (2013). “New Geographies of Extractive Industries in Latin America”, In Subterranean Struggles: New Dynamics of Mining, Oil, and Gas in Latin America, A. Bebbington and J. Bury Eds. University of Texas Press, Austin, TX: 27-66.

Gagne, David. “US Investigating Criminal Ties of Dozens of Honduras Elites: Report” InSightCrime, October 11, 2016, accessed on January 6, 2017 at: http://www.insightcrime.org/news-analysis/us-investigating-dozens-honduras-elites-drugs-corruption

Garcia, Mercedes, (2016) “Alliance for Prosperity Plan in the Northern Triangle: Not A Likely Final Solution for the Central American Migration Crisis” Council On Hemispheric Affairs – COHA http://www.coha.org/alliance-for-prosperity-plan-in-the-northern-triangle-not-a-likely-final-solution-for-the-central-american-migration-crisis/

Gomez, Tomas. Personal Interview, December 12, 2016.

Guevara-Rosas, Erika. “Honduras/Guatemala: Attacks on the rise in world’s deadliest countries for environmental activists” Amnesty International, September 1, 2016. Accessed on January 6, 2017 at: https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2016/09/honduras-guatemala-ataques-en-aumento-en-los-paises-mas-mortiferos-del-mundo-para-los-activistas-ambientales/

Horsley, Scott, “5 Things To Know About Obama’s Enforcement Of Immigration Laws”, NPR: Politics. August 31, 2016. Accessed on January 10, 2017 at: http://www.npr.org/2016/08/31/491965912/5-things-to-know-about-obamas-enforcement-of-immigration-laws

Iesue, Laura, (2016) “The Alliance for Prosperity Plan: A Failed Effort for Stemming Migration” Council On Hemispheric Affairs – COHA http://www.coha.org/the-alliance-for-prosperity-plan-a-failed-effort-for-stemming-migration/

ICHR, (2015). “Indigenous Peoples, Afro-DEcendent Communities, and Natural Resources: Human Rights Protection in the Context of Extraction, Exploitation, and Development Activities”. Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Organization of American States (OAS), pp. 1-181.

Lakhani, Nina. “Two more Honduran land rights activists killed in ongoing violence”, The Guardian. October 19, 2016. Accessed January 18, 2017 at: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/oct/19/honduras-land-rights-activists-killed-unified-peasant-movement

Miroff, Nick. “A killing in Honduras shows that it may be the world’s deadliest country for environmentalists” The Washington Post, WorldViews, March 3, 2016. Accessed January 2017 at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/03/03/prize-winning-environmentalist-berta-caceres-killed-in-honduras/?utm_term=.0da45f8c91ea

Malkin, Elisabeth and Alberto Arce. “ Files Suggest Honduran Police Leaders Ordered Killing of Antidrug Officials” New York Times, Americas, April 15, 2016. Accessed on January 6, 2017 at: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/16/world/americas/files-suggest-honduras-police-leaders-ordered-killing-of-antidrug-officials.html

Spring, Karen. Personal Interview, December 18, 2016.

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