In 2009, the Honduran military, with the backing of the Supreme Court, illegally overthrew the elected government of President Manuel Zelaya, a populist reformer. In contrast to the governments of Latin America -- many of whose histories are marred by U.S.-backed coups
-- the American government balked at using the term “coup”
in this case, and made little effort to get Zelaya returned to power, instead pressuring Honduras' neighbors to recognize the new government
The de facto government in Honduras used the military
to quell protests and re-establish order in the capital. Drug cartels stepped in along the Honduras-Guatemala border, exploiting the power vacuum, according to a report
published in June by the International Crisis Group.
“Local law enforcement, always weak, fell into disarray,” the report says. “The U.S., concerned about providing assistance to an unaccountable and illegitimate regime, suspended non-humanitarian aid, including counter-narcotics assistance. The result was a ‘cocaine gold rush,’ as traffickers hurried to secure routes through the region.”
They succeeded. A 2012 State Department report
estimated that as much as 90 percent of the 700 metric tons of cocaine shipped from Colombia to the U.S. every year passes through Central America.
A sharp escalation of violence accompanied the 2009 coup and the expansion of cartel operations. The Honduran homicide rate spiked from an already high 61 per 100,000 in 2008 to 90 per 100,000 in 2012 -- the world’s highest murder rate, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.
Source: U.N. Office On Drugs and Crime
Today, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala are horrifyingly dangerous places. Children are fleeing. The response from much of Congress and the tea party has been to argue for the repeal of immigration laws so that the U.S. can quickly deport the children back to their devastated home countries.
But that, said O'Rourke, is an abdication of responsibility. "Just on basic humanitarian grounds we should do the right thing by these kids and accept them as refugees -- or the legal term is 'asylum seekers' -- but we also own this problem, we have culpability in it, whether it's our involvement with thuggish governments there in the past, or whether it's the fact we are the world's largest consumer of illegal drugs that are transited through these countries, or whether it's the war on drugs that we've foisted upon these countries," he said. "All of those things contribute to the destabilization, the insecurity, the failed governance, the lack of civil society development. So, one, we should help now that we've done so much to create this situation and, two, we should work constructively with regional partners to rebuild these societies to the best that we can."