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David Vine

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Fanning the Flames in Honduras

Posted: 02/22/2012 1:14 pm

holocaust: ...Complete consumption by fire...complete destruction, especially of a large number of persons; a great slaughter or massacre.

- Oxford English Dictionary, 1991.

Photographs of the burned, blackened bodies of the victims of last week's prison fire in the Honduran city of Comayagua are almost beyond comprehension. When I saw the piles of intertwined human beings charred beyond recognition, my mind conjured up images of the Nazi Holocaust -- heaps of bodies, black ash, crematoria. More than 350 human beings asphyxiated or burned alive in packed prison cells, washrooms, showers while guards took 30 minutes to unlock cells and allow firefighters inside to extinguish the fire. If holocaust seems too strong a word, the photographs (little seen in the United States) suggest otherwise.

Last summer I visited Comayagua when I was researching a nearby U.S. military base. The base the U.S. military calls Soto Cano is just a 15-minute drive from Comayagua's dusty streets.

During a tour, I remember noticing the base's large fire department and its more than one dozen red fire trucks. A few weeks before my visit, I remember, the base held a training exercise with Honduran firefighters.

Shortly before I arrived in Honduras, a friend and colleague, Honduras expert Adrienne Pine, happened to meet a Soto Cano firefighter while flying into the country. She asked him if they ever respond to fires off base. "They're calling on us a lot from [Comayagua]," he told her. "If it's a factory or something we might go in if it's good PR, but if it's a house, we say, 'Let it burn.'

"A few months ago there was a huge fire on the mountain nearby," he continued. "We let it burn for four days -- what did we care? They were calling and calling us, but it was just brush. There was nothing in it for us."

The U.S. military started building Soto Cano in 1982 to support the Nicaraguan Contras and counterinsurgency wars waged by repressive regimes in El Salvador and Guatemala. Since these wars ended, the Pentagon has justified the ongoing presence of this "temporary" installation on the basis of its ability to provide disaster relief and humanitarian aid in Central America as well as its role in fighting the drug war.

On the night of the fire in Comayagua, Soto Cano's fire department did not assist in fighting the blaze. Apparently they sent glowsticks, surgical masks, and flashlights. A base spokesperson said they can only respond when called and that they were not called. Later, the base sent body bags and refrigerator trucks to create a temporary morgue.

The deaths of hundreds of young men in Comayagua are part of a larger pattern of murder and death facing young men and some women in Honduras since the official end of Central America's wars. Beginning in the 1990s, crime and violence started spiking in Honduras, the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere behind Haiti. Murder rates escalated to where they're now the highest in the world (with Honduras joined at the top by two other countries wracked by the U.S.-backed wars, Guatemala and El Salvador). Death squads began to reemerge under the government's tough-on-crime, or mano dura [iron fist], policing program. Soon, anyone labeled a "delinquent" or a "gang member" for so much as wearing a tattoo could be killed with impunity. In 2003 and 2004, two prison fires similar to Comayagua killed almost 200 of these stigmatized men; in both cases, the Honduran government has been implicated in what some call "massacres."

In total, since 1998, an estimated 6,200 people under 23 have been killed, according to Honduras's Casa Alianza. In the United States that would be like 300,000 young people murdered -- or half the population of Washington, D.C. Pine, an anthropologist, has called these deaths, unnoticed and unremarked upon by most, an "invisible genocide."

While the United States bears no direct responsibility for the Comayagua deaths, it's worth asking what responsibility we bear for the conditions that made the tragedy possible -- given how our government used Soto Cano and dozens of Contra bases to turn Honduras effectively into one giant base to support Reagan's anti-communist campaign; given how the United States has largely ignored the country and its problems since; given how our failed drug war has only pushed traffickers into Honduras as a transit point to the north; given U.S. support for the murderous tough-on-crime strategies of a series of Honduran governments, including the current coup-backed government.

The fire in Comayagua is a symbol of a much larger fire that the United States has left burning, and too often flamed, since turning Honduras into an anti-communist base. The answer is not further militarization as some in both countries are demanding. This will only fuel the cycle of violence. To prevent more Comayaguas, we must find another path.