Dostoyevsky once wrote that the “degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” The human tragedy or what some are already calling a massacre which occurred at Honduras’s Comayagua prison during the late hours of February 14th supplies us with a rich array of lessons. While many have pointed to the extraordinary incompetence and negligence of local prison administrators and there is still a strong suspicion that the incident was staged to cover up for selling inmates their freedom, perhaps the biggest lesson is the relationship between dependency and criminal justice policy. This is particularly apparent in the area of social control and the correctional system where the country has mimicked the U.S.’s practices of crime control while allowing its own path of democratic development to be truncated. In so doing the nation has staggered from one human rights crisis to the next. This recent horrific and grotesque spectacle is but the latest in a long trajectory of such “incidents” and we should expect many more.
Honduras gained independence from Spain in 1821 but was not an independent republic until 1838. Since that time it has remained under the yoke of the Monroe Doctrine which openly declared the U.S.’s dominion over the Americas and its unilateral right to intervene wherever and whenever it feels threatened. As a consequence, Honduras, the original “banana republic,” was invaded seven times by the U.S. Marines in the first three decades of the twentieth century, the stated reason on each occasion was to “restore order” and “stabilize the nation” while, of course, protecting U.S. interests, i.e., the United and Standard Fruit Companies. It has also been subject to countless U.S.-backed military coups with the last one, just two years ago, against President Manuel Zelaya whose sin it was to support land reform and talk to Hugo Chavez.
Further, during the 1980’s Honduras was the staging post for the U.S.-backed contras where it served as the CIA’s base of operations against the Sandinista Revolution for more than ten years. Now it is one of the regional centers for the U.S.’s disastrous 50 billion dollar per year war on drugs. A war of more than twenty-five years duration that has done nothing to reduce the U.S.’s demand for illegal narcotics, nor reduce their production but everything possible to destabilize nation states, militarize civilian life, and saturate the formal and informal economies with narco dollars, narco “life-styles” and narco politics.
The domination of Honduras’s political economy has continued unabated with the nation’s entry into the U.S.-initiated Central American Free Trade Agreement cemented in 2005. This treaty like all such treaties before it ensures that trade is entirely unequal. It could hardly be otherwise when a poor, developing country with no international clout and little but cheap labor, cash crops and raw materials enters into partnership with a northern behemoth whose economic raison d’être is to provide expanding profits to its global corporations. The former 1950’s Secretary of Defense Charles Wilson got it right when he said, “I thought for years that what was good for the country was good General Motors.” Little has changed.
It is through this longue durée of powerlessness, repression and subordination that we should understand the present tragedy in Honduras. A system of total subjugation that is non-negotiable, that guarantees crippling levels of inequality and social exclusion, eleven families that claim 50% of the nation’s wealth, and 65% of the population existing on or below the poverty line in the second most impoverished nation in the Western hemisphere. If anything, the vaunted free trade agreement conjoined with the misnamed war on drugs have deepened the misery of the majority of Hondurans and driven more and more of them across the border in search of the illusive American Dream.
Given this lopsided, twisted and absurdist social, economic and political relationship is it any wonder the human results are so perverse.
Under such conditions where else can the crime rates go but up? Washington’s answer to the devastating circumstances it has largely created is first take no responsibility for them and second to export their social darwinistic approaches to all things supposedly deviant among the lower orders. Variously called “zero tolerance” on the streets of New York and Los Angeles and Operación Libertad (Operation Freedom) in Honduras, the class and ethnic cleansing of society goes on apace. The developing country again apes its mentor, instead of attacking the roots of the problems through locally based interventions we see the usual ideological U.S. crime wars aimed at maladjusted behavior and the appearances of social threat and evil. The results are entirely predictable: a massive increase in transnational gangs and gang membership, exploding prison populations, homicide rates now the highest in the world and the erosion of any meaningful opportunity structures to counter the hopelessness for youth who number 50% of the population.
As in the past, the moral panic is truly on and all the official aphorisms are in place, full of their emotive action-packed qualities. The dependent nation once more reveals itself as hapless, corrupt and chaotic, turning desperately to the superior, efficient, omniscient colonial power for help and inspiration.
In Comayagua we have clearly witnessed the dynamics and constituent parts of this simulacrum, this endless cycle of cruelty, desperation and dependency. The colonizer teaches its students well. Like the U.S. the Honduran prisons are overcrowded, filled with people who shouldn’t be there, arrested by state agents for looking like bad guys (last year over 600,000 mostly Black and Latino youths were “stopped and frisked” on the streets of New York City). Like the U.S. almost half of the inmates in Comayagua had not been adjudicated (in New York’s Rikers’ Island, the biggest prison in the world, roughly two thirds of the 17,000 inmates are there because they can’t make bail). Like the U.S. torture and prisoner abuse are endemic (only in the U.S. they call it solitary confinement and death row). Like the U.S. the rich get richer and the poor get prison if they are lucky and if not…well…
Prof. David C. Brotherton, Ph.D.
John Jay College of Criminal Justice
City University of New York