Have you investigated it, or are you just waiting for credible evidence to land in your lap?That question by a reporter was the highlight of a contentious exchange over Honduras at yesterday's State Department press briefing. Earlier this week, The Guardian reported that a defected Honduran soldier claimed that Berta Caceres's name appeared among the names on a hit list of social activists and protesters ordered killed by an elite military unit.
The Guardian report is single sourced to a First Sergeant using the pseudonym Rodrigo Cruz, who makes a number of significant claims. He says he was shown a hit list by his commanding officer, who then defected because he refused to follow orders. He says he briefly saw a similar hit list fall out of the pocket of a commanding officer. He also says he saw a “torture room” and was forced to transport plastic bags with human remains and dispose of them in the Bajo Aguan region. Having defected, Cruz now worries for the safety of his family. Amid these allegations is the fact that the units that have allegedly committed these abuses receive training and funding from the United States.
Cruz’s story has some holes in it and it is only a single source. However, the accusations made within are damning and deserve investigation, especially given how these accusations line up with the large number of activists including Caceres who have been killed or threatened in the past decade and the claims made by social movements about military abuses. Five people implicated in Caceres’s murder have been arrested, including a former military officer, but the question of whether her death was part of a wider repression strategy with government involvement remains very relevant among the social activists in the country.
The State Department responded that, "We haven’t seen, in our view, credible evidence to back up these allegations. If we do, we’ll take it seriously.” And that led to the brilliant question of "Have you investigated it, or are you just waiting for credible evidence to land in your lap?” Unfortunately, the spokesperson answers the question by saying, "if any additional information comes to light that proves there’s credibility to these allegations, obviously, we’re going to take that very, very seriously." Which means they are waiting for it to fall into their laps.
Investigating these allegations of specific officers and units doesn't mean that we should cut off all cooperation with Honduras or its security forces, as some activists have argued. There are reasons we should want to maintain communication, cooperation and training to help Honduras improve its security. However, we can't legally or morally train those officers who commit or order significant human rights abuses. Turning a blind eye to allegations of abuse, refusing to investigate numerous allegations by dismissing the credibility of report after report, is a foreign policy mistake that will come back to haunt us.
Yesterday, right before this press briefing occurred, US government officials testified in Congress to defend the sanctions that have been placed on Venezuelan military officials implicated in abuses. A representative for OFAC indicated that the flexibility of the sanctions has allowed the US to remove visas and/or freeze assets due to human rights abuses and corruption. At least 60 individuals have had their visas revoked. “The resulting flexibility to respond to repression in real time is crucial, both as a symbolic deterrent and as a practical matter if circumstances require swift action,” is what a Treasury Department official testified.
I’m supportive of the Obama administration’s policy in Venezuela, where they have actively investigated abuses to target repressive military officers for sanctions. They haven’t waited for media reports to name specific names or list specific abuses. Unlike in Honduras, US government agencies aren't waiting for credible evidence to fall into their laps. A media report that the Venezuelan military had a “hit list” of opposition activists would never be dismissed as lacking credibility at a State Department briefing.
The US government should should be as or more interested in investigating the forces who we train and fund, to cut them off and punish them when we find abuse, as we are those of an antagonistic government. In Honduras, the US government needs what Treasury called the "flexibility to respond to repression in real time." We won’t be able to build a safer and more democratic Central America until we are as eager to investigate and punish the abuses and corruption of the Honduran military as we are the Venezuelan military.