Honduras is a Narco-State with a Narco-President, Says Candidate for Inter-American Commission Secretary
Interview with Celia Medrano
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) will name a new Executive Secretary in May and Celia Medrano of El Salvador is one of the five finalists for the position. If selected, Medrano would be the first Central American woman to head the IACHR. Medrano has spoken openly about the erosion of democracy in Central America, such as when Bukele stormed the Legislative Assembly a year ago flanked by security forces. Medrano said she thinks the move was “a rehearsal.”
In 1987, for the fourth time, a president of the Human Rights Commission of El Salvador was assassinated. Celia Medrano was a journalist at the time, involved with the student movement and working in the University of El Salvador’s communications office. Medrano had also worked closely with the Commission to expose torture and human rights violations during the country’s civil war. Despite the risks, Medrano accepted her appointment as the Commission’s next president.
Medrano soon became a target for harassment from all sides, including from the now-defunct National Guard. Once, while documenting military detentions of people on a blacklist, she was apprehended in Usulután and flown by helicopter directly to military headquarters in San Salvador, ending up in a police holding cell. Medrano’s experiences as a human rights defender were subsequently documented in the Truth Commission’s report. She left the Human Rights Commission in 1995, and later worked as director of human rights and humanitarianism at the Ministry of Foreign Relations. Medrano also served as her country’s Consul General in Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia.
Until last August, Medrano worked at Cristosal, a Central American human rights organization, handling cases of human rights violations, mostly involving migrants and victims of forced displacement. She has now set her sights on the IACHR and is one of the five finalists for the Executive Secretary position. She says her selection as a finalist is significant: “The IACHR has a responsibility to this region. There’s a lot of work to do. We need more agile, effective mechanisms for defending human rights.” She also wants greater focus on recent political changes in the region, which she says have shifted toward authoritarianism as autocratic governments have weakened their own democracies.
Medrano believes that Nayib Bukele’s administration has the characteristics of an authoritarian regime, as evidenced by its attempts to consolidate power and militarize politics. As proof, she points to the events of February 9, 2020 in the Legislative Assembly. “The alarms are sounding, and we’re already on high alert,” said Medrano. She talks about “narco-municipalities” in Guatemala, and the “narco-president” and “narco-state” in Honduras. As for Latin America in general, Medrano sees a complex situation unfolding. “The democratic systems themselves are in crisis, and a permanent crisis in the economic systems as they continue to solidify their formal power through pervasive de facto powers like organized crime and transnational corporations. Continuing to apply a mentality of extractivism, resource exploitation, and preservation of inequitable economic systems leads to a crisis in the political structure,” said Medrano.
Considering the current state of Latin America, why do you want to lead the IACHR?
I believe that all of the Americas, including the United States, Mexico and Canada, are experiencing a very critical situation in that our democratic institutions are regressing. We’re losing some core elements of democracy, which we once thought were secure, and are disappearing before our very eyes. In the field of human rights, we find ourselves defending our past successes all over again. We’re being forced to fight to keep what we’ve already won. This can be seen in every country, all over the Americas. I would even venture to say that it’s a global trend. In this context, a supranational body such as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights becomes the last resort for people whose governments have completely failed to guarantee human rights, a recourse when domestic mechanisms have been exhausted. For example, the commission’s precautionary measures could be one of the most effective ways to save lives in certain instances, when there is no need for an exhaustive study to reach a final resolution. While the IACHR commissioners are the organization’s decision-makers, the Executive Secretariat’s role is to ensure the agility, suitability, efficiency and effectiveness of its activities. It can also imbue the organization’s technical work and all of its staff’s activities with a human element. As a gender- and diversity-based approach, I think it’s also important that a Central American lead this organization to provide greater support to the isthmus, to raise its visibility during these historic times.
What aspects of Latin America today must not be overlooked by the next IACHR Executive Secretary?
I would say the ability to clearly understand how the region’s recent history can be useful in avoiding the mistakes of the past. After some dark years marked by serious human rights violations, we couldn’t imagine that we’d again see another coup d’état in the region, or one branch of government pitted against another. Honduras is a clear example of a coup d'état, electoral fraud, the pressure from power structures, and their serious consequences. The January insurrection at the U.S. Capitol clearly reveals the existence of interests and forces aiming to tear down democratic and economic systems. The IACHR, as a supranational body, could be a key element in the pursuit of common agendas throughout the continent.
What is your diagnosis of Latin America? Why is this breakdown happening?
The democratic systems themselves are in crisis, and a permanent crisis in the economic systems as they continue to solidify their formal power through pervasive de facto powers like organized crime and transnational corporations. Continuing to apply a mentality of extractivism, resource exploitation, and preservation of inequitable economic systems leads to a crisis in the political structure. Certain elites that never had any formal power before are now divided and battling for power. Thus, the political crisis manifests itself as a coup d’état, or as a massive public protest of their government’s decisions. What’s happening around the continent? The opportunities for political participation continue to disappear, the economic powers keep on battling with each other and with new, emerging powers to hold onto their privileged positions, and to instrumentalize political power and formal power for their own benefit. Sooner or later, this leads to explosions such as that of February 9 here in El Salvador, and the coup d’état against Manuel Zelaya in Honduras. It also produces a presidential couple that has held onto political power in Nicaragua for decades, and a Guatemala, in recent years, incapable of maintaining functioning administrations.
I would add the circumstances that have led to Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil or Juan Orlando Hernández in Honduras, who has received surprisingly little criticism from the international community. The region’s turn toward authoritarian strongmen is evident. Why do you think this is happening?
It’s because of the concentration of power and organized crime. We’re seeing how organized crime has gone from infiltrating government structures to co-opting them. We talk about “narco-municipalities” in Guatemala, and the “narco-president” and the “narco-state” in Honduras. We have to understand that organized crime is not just gangs and youth groups, but is linked to real power structures that infiltrate, co-opt or control governments. Guatemala is an example of how organized crime controls judges to perpetuate their illegal activities. Some studies contend that we now have hybrid regimes like El Salvador, which demonstrate authoritarian, autocratic characteristics and susceptibility to organized crime. This means that we can no longer talk about democracies that are at risk. Rather, the alarms are sounding and we’re already on high alert. In the consolidation of presidential power and threatening opponents and critics,l El Salvador is orange and rapidly moving into the red of an authoritarian regime.
Are you saying that Bukele’s administration is authoritarian?
Yes, it’s clearly autocratic and authoritarian.
The consolidation of power, intolerance toward opposition, and limited opportunities for democratic and political participation. These characteristics are not good for the general public, and I believe that this is one of the most deceitful aspects of populist speeches that purport to expose serious flaws and errors by political opponents. An authoritarian regime typically garners affinity and votes through a constant barrage of messages and lies that drown out everything but the official version. These characteristics are clearly manifested in El Salvador. There is also a serious issue of corruption aimed at information control so that illegal activities and crimes are hidden from the public. This popular support will persist as long as the truth about what’s really going on continues to be covered up. That’s why journalists and human rights defenders are on the front lines when democratic spaces are shut down by an authoritarian regime. They’re a necessary counterbalance that can challenge a government’s official version of events.
That’s what we’re experiencing now﹣a consolidation of power by an authoritarian regime that is already manifest in the use of armed forces to militarize the political forum. It’s been a year since the events of February 9. That was a dress rehearsal to test how much society and other branches of government can withstand when confronted by a political act backed by military force. We experienced other tests all year long, like the Bukele administration’s attacks on the Supreme Electoral Tribunal last December, and the killings of the FMLN campaign workers. These are examples of what could happen in this country﹣things could get much worse.
What could prevent Bukele from sustaining his messaging?
Manipulating the dreams, hopes and resentments of people who have been betrayed by previous administrations is a short-lived strategy. That’s why there’s a direct attack on watchdog organizations, independent journalism and human rights defenders who are all capable of exposing the lies. Seizing total power in a short period of time is essential for the survival of authoritarian regimes. They have to change constitutions, give their armed forces political influence, justify and legalize repression of critics and political opponents. They need to consolidate power such that the entire formal structure of government becomes autocratic. The autocratic exercise of power is something that must be done now, immediately. People become aware over time of the gap between the official narrative and what’s really going on. People living in fear in gang-controlled communities begin to realize that there is no significant difference between the gangs and the military, police, and political structures that also vie for control of their communities. This gives people only two options﹣keep quiet and live in fear, or join a migrant caravan to the United States.
According to recent surveys, Bukele clearly has popular support. What is your view of this? Could it be that we like the idea of having a strongman as our champion?
I don’t think these surveys reflect the fear factor. I wouldn’t answer a phone survey or complete a questionnaire in my home if I think that someone behind the scenes will find out it’s me. I’m going to be careful about expressing my opinions, and I’ll give whatever answer feels safe. I don’t doubt that Bukele has some popular support, but I want people to explore other factors that may be influencing the results of a snapshot public survey about political support.
Returning to the issue of urgency, the current administration is feeling pressure to accelerate its march toward total control because popular support will erode over time.
Looking at some other countries where similar events have already played out, what should concern us? Where should we focus our attention?
First of all, try to gauge how far organized crime has penetrated the highest levels of government, particularly the Executive Branch. We already have some studies about this, but we need much more investigation and research. There are ways of challenging authoritarian, populist governments. Let’s look at Guatemala, where organized crime has presidents, vice presidents, and judges in its pocket. Why shouldn’t we say or assume that this hasn’t happened in El Salvador? The president of Honduras has been clearly linked to drug trafficking. His brother has been convicted in the United States for this, and has also made statements that connect his brother to drug trafficking. Yet he is holding onto power despite mass protests.
And despite the migrant caravans.
I’ve heard people wonder why those who are capable of breaking through military and police lines along international borders don’t channel that energy toward their own government. But they’ve already done this and what they got in return was a coup d’état followed by electoral fraud. They’ve exhausted all the available electoral, judicial, and legislative mechanisms; democratic mechanisms that should work have totally failed. Certain safeguards instituted by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to protect Honduran journalists, human rights defenders, and environmentalists have been ignored by the Honduran government, costing leaders like Berta Cáceres their lives.
It’s likely that migrant caravans will continue. Although there's a new U.S. administration, not much is known about its immigration policy. What should the IACHR do in this regard?
That’s what I mean by knowing how to read the continent as a whole. The Inter-American Commission and the Inter-American System are both designed to act in individual cases or specific cases involving groups defending rights threatened by their governments. But there must be a vision of the common factors affecting multiple countries, and the factors that transcend individual countries must be identified. Violations of the human rights of migrants happen everywhere: in the countries of origin, in the countries the migrants travel through, and in the destination countries. All three perpetrators have human rights obligations. But these countries have neglected to take multilateral measures for regional collaboration in order to address the causes of forced migration. There are two main drivers of forced migration from Central America’s Northern Triangle and Mexico: violence and the inability of their citizens to live dignified lives. We already have examples of forced migration causing problems in multiple countries, like the most recent caravan from Honduras. The Honduran government complained to the Guatemalan government about mistreating its citizens, while the Guatemalan government wanted to know why the Honduran government let the migrants leave in the first place. Nobody applied a human rights lens to an event in which military forces leveraged a public health crisis and state of emergency to forcefully repress and detain migrants.
What happens when precautionary measures are issued but then ignored by governments? What can the IACHR do to enforce compliance?
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issues decisions. When a country fails to comply with a decision, the case is often brought before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, a supra-jurisdictional body whose decisions and resolutions are binding for signatory nations. Individual countries recognized this court’s jurisdiction and authority by signing and ratifying the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights. Within this framework, signatory nations are subject to court decisions on human rights violations that include compliance and enforcement provisions such as economic and moral compensation of victims, and guarantees that the human rights violations will not be repeated. What happens when a nation repeatedly fails to comply with IACHR decisions, when human rights violations effectively become government policy, when nations ignore the decisions of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights? The Organization of American States apparatus is activated, and sanctions are applied to the offending country. International mechanisms can also be activated, and other nations around the world can exert pressure by withholding or reducing international aid. International aid cannot be granted to nations that have been repeatedly sanctioned for violating human rights.
Peruvian ex-president Alberto Fujimori made a mockery of the Court’s decisions and even initiated efforts to withdraw Peru from the component of the convention that recognizes the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Fujimori is one of the most prominent examples in the Commission’s 61-year history of a head of state that turned his disregard for human rights into government policy. It’s an issue that persists, unfortunately.
The Inter-American Court of Human Rights recently ruled that the government of El Salvador should take precautionary measures to safeguard El Faro journalists. What will happen if the Bukele administration simply ignores this ruling?
It will continue to erode. The precautionary measures to safeguard the El Faro journalists have to be viewed on three levels. First, they don’t just apply to El Faro, but to all journalists who practice or try to practice independent journalism. Second, they are a reprimand to an authoritarian government that has repeatedly attacked the independent press. Third, they reveal that El Salvador has no mechanisms that can be applied to the executive branch and other government institutions to protect press freedoms and ensure compliance with a precautionary measure. On this point, I’m encouraged by the efforts of various human rights organizations to pressure the Legislative Assembly into approving a law to protect human rights defenders. Honduras has a mechanism to protect journalists and human rights defenders, but it’s ineffective because it views the issue as a simple security problem. So, when a human rights defender is granted precautionary measures, the government assigns two police officers as bodyguards, which doesn’t work.
You said it yourself: precautionary measures are sometimes ignored. How should the IACHR address this with the governments we’ve been discussing?
This is one of the biggest challenges. I believe that the Inter-American Commission’s alliances must work hand-in-hand with international organizations and other governments advocating for human rights. They must be reinforced so that a government committing human rights violations forcefully feels the impacts of economic and social isolation. These sanctions must be applied gradually and be based on an impartial assessment conducted according to clear criteria, which determines whether human rights have been systematically violated. The Inter-American Commission alone cannot enforce its observations and decisions, or the Inter-American Court’s decisions. Other actors must contribute by exerting pressure through political alliances with other states and specific conditions for receiving financial aid. This financial aid must be conditioned upon the observance of basic standards of democratic institutionality and compliance with human rights protections.
Does your candidacy to head the IACHR emphasize this point?
It’s part of the three components I would prioritize if I were to be appointed Executive Secretary of the IACHR. These three priorities are, first, to reduce the procedural backlog of petitions submitted to the IACHR. After waiting 10 or 20 years while the internal mechanisms of their respective countries are exhausted, victims cannot wait even longer. Second, the IACHR must improve and extend the mechanisms of technical assistance and support for governments in order to reduce human rights violations that may be committed out of ignorance of the norms, especially where there is political will to solve this problem. Third, the IACHR must have administrative autonomy, which is fundamental to its ability to apply the same criteria and parameters, regardless of which government has been accused of human rights violations.
*Translated by John Turnure
FI name: February 2021