It is a distinctive feature of kleptocratic governing systems that agencies displaying independence or representing a potential threat to network interests are intentionally hamstrung or short-circuited. In Afghanistan, for example, when internationally backed investigators uncovered a nearly $1-billion hole in the top private bank and caught a member of the presidential staff extorting a bribe to influence the investigation, then president Hamid Karzai sought to disband the investigative units. U.S. and UK officials resisted, and he turned against specialized anti-corruption prosecutors, reducing their salaries overnight and transferring several to distant, dangerous provinces.246 In Egypt, first under former president Hosni Mubarak and then the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces following the Arab Spring, a somewhat independent judiciary was circumvented by use of military tribunals.247

Perhaps the most stunning recent example was what can only be described as the cannibalization of the militaries of Iraq, Nigeria, and Ukraine by the governments of Haider al-Abadi, Goodluck Jonathan, and Viktor Yanukovych, respectively. All three forces were crippled by the appointment of incompetent officers, the wholesale theft of materiel, and the proliferation of nonexistent “ghost soldiers,” whose pay was collected by superior officers. Challenged in 2014 by far less well-endowed and -structured militant groups (the self-proclaimed Islamic State and Boko Haram) or Russian-backed insurgents, all three militaries collapsed—requiring significant external support in the aftermath.248

Cases of deliberate sabotage of institutions are not hard to find in the United States, either. After the Federal Home Loan Bank Board mounted a campaign to investigate executives responsible for the 1980s savings and loan crisis, resulting in more than 1,000 felony convictions, U.S. officials reduced the number and independence of oversight professionals, and promulgated prosecution guidelines that made punishment of wrongdoers more unlikely.249 The same anti-regulatory climate in the U.S. left the Food and Drug Administration underfunded.250 Then, with pharmaceutical companies (and patients) complaining about the slow rate of drug approvals, regulations were relaxed.251 More recently, President Donald Trump’s initial budget released on March 15, 2017, slashed funding to such regulatory or oversight agencies as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Justice.252 A few of the Honduran agencies that have been similarly crippled are discussed below.

SERNA (Secretaria de Recursos Naturales y Ambiente de Honduras, or Environment Ministry)

As is plain from the Patuca dam narrative above, the environment ministry, or SERNA, is one of them.

Subsumed in 2014 into a consolidated ministry of energy, natural resources, environment, and mines, for example, SERNA lost out in that amalgamation, according to the anti-corruption lawyer cited above. “The environment used to be separated for reasons of checks and balances,” he points out. “But now they’re all together. So the water and the wood have no protection.”253 One Western development official compares Honduras unfavorably with some of its neighbors in this regard. “In Costa Rica, if I’m the agriculture, transportation, or infrastructure ministry, I have to go to the environment ministry and ask for a license like everyone else. That autonomy improves the standard.”

But standards in this domain are not the Honduran government’s priority. “It’s not written law,” the official muses, “but it’s almost law that they don’t have to respect environmental standards. They do a road wherever they want; the president signs an executive order saying it’s in the national interest.”254

In the case of mining, the agency charged with regulation and oversight was restructured to report directly to the president in the summer of 2014.255 Canadian companies operate most of the mines in Honduras, a number of which have been at the center of controversy for reportedly poisoning streams or drying up watersheds.256

Where SERNA does play a role allowing prospective projects to go forward, irregularities in the permitting process seem to be the norm. In the case of Patuca III, the original environmental impact assessment that drew the Inter-American Development Bank’s scathing rebuke expired after two years, in 2010. But neither a full, properly conducted study nor even a new, pro forma one has been undertaken as the law requires, yet permits have been delivered and construction on the dam has gone ahead.257 In one of the most infamous cases, the Agua Zarca dam project, SERNA’s number two official allegedly signed off on the permit in return for a bribe. He is currently in jail awaiting trial.258

In 2009, Global Witness published a meticulously researched report on illegal logging in the Río Plátano national forest that shed light on similar practices by the subordinate environmental agency. The report details how the forest authority issued memoranda and permits that violated legal provisions requiring the confiscation and public auction of illegally felled mahogany. The new rules made it easy to camouflage fresh illegal logging. Hundreds of rare and protected mahogany trees are believed to have been chopped down as a result.259

Veteran environmentalists and research biologists, both Honduran and American, talk about a “biological mafia”—a group of “academics,” to use UEPER’s term, who can be counted on to rubber-stamp environmental studies. “That’s their specialty,” the environmental expert cited above said, confirming descriptions given to us by U.S. and Honduran naturalists familiar with the forests of eastern Honduras. “Their studies accommodate what constructers want.”

In many cases, SERNA may dispense with environmental assessments altogether. “A process of evaluation is supposed to happen before construction,” the lawyer adds. “But—illegally, in my view—work often starts before the study is completed. The owners are given a license in a single day, a so-called temporary license. But the license won’t ever be revoked.”260

Dutch researchers requested a copy of the environmental impact assessment for a new version of the Agua Zarca dam, designed amid the widespread resistance to the project, which moved the main construction across the river from the original, permitted installation. They were told “that the new report appeared to be at the public prosecutor’s office. But [the woman] did not know where. Later, we received an official letter that stated that the report is not public.”261 The question arises as to whether it exists at all.

The ministry contends with chronically low budgets, and it relies heavily on donor country support. Under the 2008 Forestry Law, for example, 1 percent of the national budget is supposed to be set aside in a Forest Reinvestment and Plantation Fund, to be used for “rehabilitation of forested zones that have been degraded or deforested.”262 But the actual amount of money currently placed in that fund is just 100 million lempiras—of which 70 million has been transferred to the army, according to the USAID biodiversity study cited earlier.263 Indeed, then president Zelaya announced the initiative flanked by members of the armed forces, who soon fanned out into the Río Plátano Reserve.264 But, in five days traveling down the Patuca River, inside ostensibly protected national parks, we could discover no trace of replantation efforts or of an attempt to curb illegal tree-felling.

Using language that is ubiquitous among development agencies, this USAID assessment “concluded that institutional weakness is the root cause of environmental problems . . . in Honduras” (emphasis added). It enumerates inadequate enforcement of environmental laws and regulations; poor implementation, monitoring, and enforcement of environmental impact assessment requirements; low government priority; ignorance; and corruption.265

But this terminology of weakness, which is very common in donor discussions of developing country institutions, masks the deliberate nature of the deficiencies under consideration—and thus diverts attention from what lies at the root of many of the problems: structured corruption. The USAID report does give an oblique nod to this intentionality, pointing out that “the government is currently supporting expansion of palm, coffee, and sugar cane monocultures,” as well as cattle ranching and coastal tourism, all of which pressure the environment and threaten biodiversity. Environmental protection laws, therefore, “are often in direct conflict with current Honduran economic development policies.”266

Perhaps coincidentally, the businesses whose activities constitute the most serious menace to biodiversity—and therefore require “weak” environmental and legal institutions in order to flourish—are businesses in the hands of private-sector network members. These are the activities the Honduran government has selected as pillars of its development strategy.267

Some scholars suggest that the environmental degradation that results from such policies is also deliberate—that it is used to create a rootless class of poor laborers for industries controlled by the kleptocratic network. “Degraded environments often made community life almost impossible,” writes James Phillips in Honduras in Dangerous Times. “Pollution of water and land resources by logging or mining forced people to move. Often this meant the end of their traditional way of life, turning peasant farmers into displaced job seekers. Environmental destruction also undermined the spiritual values and morale of local communities. . . . [Daniel] Faber argues that environmental deterioration from such developments . . . is an intended part of the economic control of society. Displacing rural people from their land creates a pool of cheap labor.”268 (Not to mention northbound migrants.)

Thus, the very business model of the kleptocratic networks seems to be predicated on virtually unhindered exploitation of the environment. In the words of a villager, whose house overlooking the Patuca River is perched in the traditional style on stilts, “the same government that makes laws protecting this place is involved in the businesses that are destroying it.”269

Secretaria de Desarrollo e Inclusión Social (Ministry of Development and Social Inclusion)

Other examples of such weak—or deliberately weakened—government institutions are worth at least a cursory glance.

They include the social affairs ministry. It is remarkable that this agency, presumably responsible for addressing Honduras’s legendary poverty and income inequality, as well as deplorable infrastructure in rural areas—conditions that give rise to gang recruitment and migration—should be as relatively invisible as it is.270

One of its flagship initiatives is the Bono Vida Mejor, a program of cash transfers to impoverished Hondurans, especially aimed at educational expenditures.271 But interviewees pointed out that it is the president’s office that selects many of the beneficiaries, not the ministry. The Honduran government’s own communication confirms the observation.272

Interviewees consistently criticized the lack of transparency in the distribution of such bonos, and said they are used to secure support for the president. “The bonos and borsas are only given to National Party people,” observes a member of one southern Honduran community organization. “It’s a kind of vote-buying.” Others cited personal experiences of discrimination. “We can’t get that Bono 10 Mil [a predecessor of Bono Vida Mejor] or other programs because we are criticizing the government,” said a woodland farmer from the hills on Honduras’s border with El Salvador. “They use it like a political campaign. It’s a two-faced discourse: they talk education and development, but we’re not getting anything.”273 Other interviewees echoed this suspicion that some portion of these funds is used for campaign advertising or transporting people to—and paying them to participate in—public consultations or demonstrations, such as a July 24, 2016, Tegucigalpa rally in favor of Hernández’s reelection, during which hundreds of busses stood parked in ranks along the capital city’s central avenues and flyovers.274

In a view echoed by most interviewees, a former high-ranking official says “they are using money from the government budget for other purposes.” He singles out “Vida Mejor, which gets 1 percent of the national budget. Part of it is held in a trust fund. There is no transparent process for determining who the beneficiaries are.”275 As a professional driver echoed, “There are programs for kids and so on. But they help the people that suit them, that give them power. The money doesn’t go where it’s most needed.”276

Busses that carried demonstrators to a march supporting a second term for Hernández, Tegucigalpa, July 2016

INA (Instituto Nacional Agraria, or National Agrarian Institute)

From the perspective of underprivileged rural Hondurans, the role of the INA has varied, reflecting different governments’ approaches to land tenure, and perhaps some internal divergences among staff appointed at different times. On the one hand, it has facilitated big businesses’ consolidation of holdings under the 1992 Agricultural Modernization Act, and has allowed for illegal titling of protected land. The environmental law expert cited above highlights the agency’s internal incentive structure: “There’s a contradiction: no one is supposed to sell land within national forests. But the INA has targets for the number of titles it is expected to deliver.”277

But agency officials have also challenged the standing of large palm plantation developers in the Bajo Aguán valley, including enormously powerful Miguel Facussé, saying the conflict there could have been solved by expropriating lands to which ownership claims were dubious and distributing them to locals who had long farmed them.278 More recently, the institute has helped such indigenous communities as the Garifuna and Miskito gain collective rights to ancestral lands.279 “INA was a supportive partner during the whole recognition process,” says Fernando Rodriguez, an anthropologist studying the development of Miskito governance practices on the newly titled land. “It has served as a point of entry into the state for rural organizations and social activists.”280

Perhaps because of that accessibility, INA seems now to be in the process of getting hollowed out. It has suffered repeated budget cuts,281 leading to protests by unpaid workers in 2016 and fears on the part of peasants’ organizations that the intent is to dissolve the agency.282 “I hear it may be dismantled,” Rodriguez remarked, echoing rumors his contacts had passed along.283

Given the lack of any alternate forum for appeal, starving the INA of resources effectively deprives peasant farmersand indigenous Hondurans of any means of redress when they are embroiled in local conflicts over land. In other contexts, such a systematic deprivation of means of appeal or redress of legitimate grievances frequently drives the sufferers to violent extremes.284

Audit Institutions

The legendary ineffectiveness of the High Tribunal of Accounts (Tribunal Superior de Cuentas) is an example of hollow oversight agencies. “Cuentas?” scoffed one Honduran audit professional when I asked him about it. “That’s a joke. There is no control institution. It’s completely disabled. I mean, they didn’t even do anything about the IHSS scandal.”285 Indeed, it was the National Anti-Corruption Council that initiated investigations into that sprawling case, on the basis of an anonymous tip.286 In November 2016, the MACCIH complained publicly about a slate of new magistrates selected.287

By contrast, interviewees point out that the tribunal opened an investigation into the purchase of shoes for distribution to the poor by a charity owned by former president Porfirio Lobo’s wife.288 The rumor had spread that she was on a U.S. list for potential extradition, but under Honduran law, no one can be extradited if a Honduran legal process is under way against him or her.289

Despite the open secret about the quantity of drug money washing through the Honduran banking system, the financial industry regulatory body, the Comisión Nacional de Bancos y Seguros,has not brought a major money-laundering case in recent memory. Nor has it audited a single one of the public works or public-private partnership projects that are implemented by bank-managed trust arrangements.

It is critical to bear in mind the intentionality that is on display in these examples of institutional weakness. These are not cases of human capital deficits due to underdevelopment, or of opportunistic corruption within these agencies hampering professionals’ ability to do their jobs. Nor are well-intentioned officials being blocked on occasion by political interference. Rather, the agencies’ independence is being systematically crippled. Their remaining functionality is bent to the role of protecting network practices, often by throwing up smokescreens in the direction of the public or of international interlocutors. The regulations and oversight agencies are deliberately purposed to neuter actual oversight power and thus facilitate kleptocratic practices.

The examples above represent some of the national agencies that have been shaped or purposed in such a way as to serve the objectives of the Honduran networks. Several interviewees drew our attention to the further reflection that opened this section. Not only are government functions being distorted in this way, it was several interlocutors’ consensus that Hernández has also worked to consolidate control of these functions in his own hands to a degree that is remarkable even in Honduras. The word “autocracy” featured frequently in their assessments.

“Part of this crisis is the fact that we have a completely autocratic government: imposing decisions by force, sequestered justice, all the apparatus of government that is supposed to be operating independently is captured and controlled by the president,” said one.

“It’s very unusual, the way he has taken control of all the levers of power: Congress, the Supreme Court, and so on,” another put it. “Like a king.”

In the words of a third: “Hernández is trying to increase his power. He’s trying to concentrate as much power as possible in the presidency.”290

Local Officials

Western discussions of corruption frequently dismiss daily shakedowns by street-level functionaries as relatively unimportant “petty corruption” that need not command much policy attention. Or they focus on ties between municipal leaders and organized crime as an almost autonomous phenomenon—usually with the organized criminals cast in the dominant roles: as the corruptors of local officials or infiltrators of targeted government structures. In most cases, this framing underestimates the significance of corruption on a subnational level, and the degree of vertical integration that characterizes these systems.

In the case of Honduras, while local autonomy is observable, the kleptocratic network is also vertically integrated. That integration is visible in institutional structures as well as personal ties. Taxes gathered on the local level, for example, are not sufficient to cover all expenditures, so mayors rely on cash transfers from the national budget, set by law at 10 percent of tax and nontax government revenues, to be shared among the 298 municipalities.291

The suspension of these transfers to towns whose mayors protested the 2009 coup demonstrates the potential for Tegucigalpa’s discretionary use—for disciplinary purposes—of this critical funding.292 National parties, furthermore, select mayoral candidates, rather than local party committees or the prospective candidates themselves deciding independently to join the race.293 Some observers say certain mayors—those who have tapped into the tide of drug money, for example—have significant bargaining power in this process. Still, national-level network members play a determining role in deciding who actually runs local government.

Like corruption victims everywhere, Hondurans decry the shakedowns they suffer at the hands of local officials and bureaucrats. “The place where you go to get birth certificates,” a Tegucigalpa English teacher recounted by way of illustration, “they say they have no paper. But if you pay someone, you get it. That doesn’t make sense. If there’s no paper, there’s no paper! It makes me feel bad and angry . . . all sorts of feelings mixed up.”

In the rural department of La Paz, “they do all sorts of stupid little things to get money. Like on Independence Day, you have to sing the national anthem. If you refuse, you have to pay. If you don’t pay the fine, then your kids don’t move on to the next grade in school.”294

In numerous other countries, from Afghanistan and Azerbaijan to Nigeria and Uzbekistan, a portion of these street-level shakedowns is paid up the chain of command: either in the form of a portion of the cash handed off to a superior’s intermediary, the outright purchase of office, or gifts of labor or goods. Such payments are the price of the license to steal. Azerbaijan’s system is the most institutionalized of any I have documented: like a tip-pooling arrangement, bribes extorted at street level are consolidated at a higher echelon, then a portion of the cash is sent back down as so-called “envelope salaries.”295 No interviewee provided evidence of such an elaborate system in Honduras. But the likelihood that a cut of street-level shakedowns is shared upward was confirmed by several people. One corruption expert said the practice is especially well-established within the police and construction permitting offices.

The revenue streams most directly available to local officials are those related to land. Mayors are often involved in efforts to measure off and title small-holdings, as allowed under the 1992 Agricultural Modernization Law, either for their own purposes or to benefit private companies. “Our local indigenous councils own land collectively,” explained the coordinator of a community organization that covers a dozen villages in that department. “But the government told the mayor to parcel out our land and record individual plots in the cadastre. He assures us that no one has measured anything. But we went to the cadastre office and checked, and we found the measurements.”296 The coordinator noted that to obtain ordinary municipal services, such as a marriage license or an electricity hook-up, residents had to sign their agreement with the principle of individual land titling.

We visited his brother’s farm, where coffee and cocoa bushes grow interspersed between mangoes and tall forest trees on the steep slopes. Every few minutes, he would interrupt our conversation to point out a medicinal herb or a plant whose leaves or seeds help fix nitrogen in the soil or repel insects. The community clearly understands the area as his land, and knows where its boundaries lie. But traditionally, he could not sell it to outsiders for money. It is this tradition that the 1992 law is eroding. One of the consequences of individual parceling is that companies wanting to dig mines or build dams can buy out and replace enough individual residents to create dissension in the community. Newcomers, grateful for the land, may be happy to sign their consent on consultation documents as the price. Association members reported that their opposition to the measurement and registration of individual plots triggered a wave of police harassment and intimidation.297

For these rural Hondurans, the only role local government seems to play is an extractive one. “Our mayors aren’t bringing us any public services,” noted a man in a green jacket, missing several teeth. “They are only here to measure the land.”

“The roads here are terrible; we have to beg for development,” agreed another, wearing a red T-shirt, “but five different municipalities are taking taxes from us and want our forest, our water, and our wind energy.”298

As a result of these experiences, many rural Hondurans conclude that the democratic party system has not succeeded in providing them a real voice—that it is in fact a distraction, aimed at pitting them against each other and diverting their attention from defense of precious rights. “Political parties come in and divide people,” reflected the coordinator. “Now many of us are realizing neither one really represents us.” Others agreed. “It’s political sectarianism. Just another way of oppressing us.”299

Here and elsewhere in rural Honduras, residents complain about nontransparent budget expenditures and the capture of development resources by local officials. “We have terrible education here. No medicine in the health center,” said the man in the red T-shirt. “The government gets humanitarian resources, but none of it reaches us.” Another pointed out that international development agencies tend to channel resources through local officials’ offices.

In a push to avoid creating parallel structures, the European Union development agency—and, to a lesser degree, USAID—does highlight its preference for implementing programming through local officials.300 As one senior European development official went out of her way to emphasize in an interview, “We’re not substituting.”301 The question that should perhaps be asked with more care in this context is whether Honduras’s current political dispensation makes it likely that these officials actually represent their constituents, and if not, how better to deliver development assistance.

Along the Patuca River, the type of arbitrary, discretionary use of development assistance experienced in La Paz is fraying the gossamer threads that hold threatened indigenous communities together, and represents an essential cog in the machine that is chewing through some of the last tracts of tropical rainforest in Central America.

In repeated accounts, villagers explained that until about two years ago, small-scale development projects helped generate the tiny sums of cash they needed to subsist in the modern economy: to pay for the boat ride up or down river for supplies, or for medicine or shoes for their children. “There used to be little projects in all these villages,” explained a resident who requested a ride upstream from Wampusirpi to her home. “It would be a campaign to clean up the village, or to repair the dirt track down to the river, so people could make a little money. But now, nothing.”302 The mayor with jurisdiction over this stretch of river abruptly ceased sponsoring the activities about two years ago, she reported.

A man we met in the grassy village of Bilalmo told the same story. Ponies were grazing around us as we spoke, and cows walking free amid groves of orange trees and stacks of drying palm thatch. Stairs led up to the porches of wooden houses perched shoulder-high on stilts. “The mayor gets 25 million lempiras for this project, 25 million for that one; he carries it off on his shoulder,” the man told us, as half a dozen of his neighbors gathered around nodding. “He takes the money and says he implements the projects, but the government doesn’t check.”303

Press reports confirm the existence of widespread corruption allegations, as well as Mayor Walter Bertran Gonzales’s long absences from his post.304

Residents up and down the river have grown so incensed that they staged a sixty-day sit-in at the local capital, Wampusirpi, earlier in 2016. “For three years we’ve had no mayor we can trust,” the man exclaimed. “No mayor at all, for that matter. We’ve gone again and again to the government to get another mayor. We’re tired.” Eventually the protest broke up with no change in the situation.

As the small cash-for-work projects dried up, residents surreptitiously sold their land—though under the 1999 charter creating the national park, that land is inalienable, and no one but those who lived in the park when the charter took effect and their direct descendants can reside there.305 Any titles or deeds of sale granted by local officials or employees of INA are illegal.

But “the people have nothing,” explained our hitchhiker. “No other way to make money. It’s only because my daughter works in Tegucigalpa and sends me a little each month that I could refuse and keep my land for my grandchildren.”

Young Krausirpi residents described heated village meetings about the sales lasting late into the night. “We are angry at our elders for selling land,” said one, to whom we had also given a lift in our boat after spending the night in Krausirpi. “We told them: ‘You’re going to die, so it doesn’t matter to you. But what about us and our children?’”

“If there were projects,” regretted another young Krausirpi man, “we wouldn’t have to sell our land. The problem is cash. We have the capacity to grow rice, beans, and yucca, enough for our own subsistence. But it’s not enough to sell.”306

In this bitter personal quandary for indigenous households lies a threat to tropical forest that represents irreplaceable virgin wilderness—not to mention a giant carbon bank. The buyers of the lands long held by the Tawahka and Miskito villagers we interviewed are cattle-ranchers, who are laying waste to the ostensibly protected national park.

“They’ll bring in outsiders to clear it and plant pasture,” the hitchhiker said simply of the forest behind her village. Otherwise, indigenous people themselves are forced to do the work, as they seek wage labor once they can no longer sustain themselves from their land. A soft-spoken man who also flagged down our longboat for a lift, explained what we were seeing along the banks. “The businessmen’s people cut the trees down with machetes. Then when the wood is dry, they burn it. They might use some for their own houses, but they burn the rest or leave it to rot. It’s too expensive to take out.”307

“It’s not practical to sell the wood,” confirmed the environmental law expert. “It’s very hard to get permission to sell or use precious woods, so it’s not worth the effort. Twenty-four authorizations are required just to use the wood for noncommercial purposes. It takes forever and it’s costly, so people see no benefit. Best for them is to chop it down and put in cattle.”

Some on the river reported seeing canoe-loads of contraband wood plying the Patuca in broad daylight, but the black scars across miles and miles of hillsides confirmed the preference for burning. Once the trees are cleared, the land is often planted with corn and beans for a few years, then it is converted to pasture.

Patuca residents rarely know exactly who is buying their land. “Olanchanos,” they say, meaning non-indigenous people from Olancho, the department that includes an upstream section of the national park, but extends well to the west of it. We confirmed the assessment by asking a number of ranchers and their employees where they were from. Olanchanos, steeped in a noisy, frontier-style rancher/biker culture, have also bought out shops and other businesses in Wampusirpi. “It’s a new Spanish conquest we’re undergoing,” spat a resident of Krautara.308 These Wampusirpi businessmen are the people the hitchhiker identified as purchasers of land in her village and nearby Krausirpi.

But a few interviewees who dared talk about it confirmed the findings of American geographers and earth scientists long familiar with the area: that these small-time shopkeepers are fronts for, or allied with, the really significant businessmen in this notorious part of the country—drug traffickers.

The drug economy will be treated in greater depth in the section below on criminal elements of the kleptocratic network. But it is so integral to the fate of the Patuca water-shed—and to understanding the role of local officials more generally—that it needs at least a glancing mention here. In the mid-2000s, the downstream reaches of the river became part of a major transit zone for U.S.-bound cocaine. In “Drug Policy as Conservation Policy: Narco-Deforestation,” Kendra McSweeney, Eric Nielsen, and their co-authors note the “close correlation between the timing and location of forest loss and drug transit in this zone.”309 The pace of that loss vastly accelerated, they and others have found, after 2006.

Buying and “improving” land by converting tropical forest into ranches is a good way to justify presence in the isolated region, to secure space for transshipment, and to launder money—especially given the Honduran government’s promotion of meat exports.310 The researchers’ interviews revealed that many residents are intimidated or coerced into selling their ancestral lands. “It is narco-traffickers who act as shock troops in the assault on native homelands . . . dispossessing residents and rapaciously converting forest commons to private pasture primed for sale.”311 To several expert observers, the shutting down of small-scale development projects has been another deliberate element of this process, making it all the harder for villagers to resist the drug-traffickers’ encroachments.

In this way, the integrated corruption that braids together public officials, government-supported businesses, and criminal organizations is driving an assault on irreplaceable habitats and the people who have guarded and nurtured them for centuries.

To the west of the Patuca basin, around the city of Juticalpa, the connections between local government officials and narco-traffickers are even more blatant. For years, the area was a rear base for three, often rival drug-trafficking organizations, the Bayrons,312 the Cachiros,313 and the Sarmientos.314

“They were using this road as a landing strip!” a local who took us on a tour of the town maintained. “Before, you couldn’t have driven through here slowly like this.”315 By “before,” our guide meant before a wave of arrests of members of the Sarmiento family and associates—including the then-mayor of the town.316 For ten years, Ramon Daniel Sarmiento, the nephew of the family patriarch, Ulises “Liche” Sarmiento, had served as mayor of Juticalpa.

An in-depth report on another historic Honduran drug kingpin by an expert on organized crime in Central America, Steven Dudley, reinforces the views of many Hondurans that the current mayor of the commercial and industrial hub San Pedro Sula, Armando Calidonio Alvarado, may also be a key figure in the narcotics industry.317 His prior government office, deputy security minister, suggests the vertical integration of this intertwined strand of the network. Alex Ardón, of the AA Brothers Cartel, was mayor of El Paraiso, located in the department of the same name, contiguous in the southwest with Olancho.318

But these are hardly the only cases. In the past several years, a rash of investigations and arrests has swept through the ranks of mayors. Nearly three dozen have come under scrutiny for drug trafficking, money laundering, and assassination, among other crimes.319

A former minister whose duties included oversight of counternarcotics efforts expressed some empathy for local officials who are suborned. “A police chief is assigned to a small town,” he asked us to imagine. “He’s paid $1,500 a month. A ‘businessman’ offers him $30,000 a month not to notice the clandestine airstrips that are being built. For someone like that, it’s hard to say no. And this converts the whole security system into a branch of organized crime.” The former minister described the strategy he had observed: “There are three key people the narco-traffickers try to bring onto their side: the police, the judge, and the mayor. They usually succeed.”320 (For further discussion, please see the section on criminal network elements, pages 79–83, below.)

Other mayors, such as Tegucigalpa’s Nasry Juan Asfura Zablah, seem to take a more traditional route to self-enrichment, by promoting infrastructure projects that their own companies participate in implementing. “They call him ‘Papi a la Orden,’” commented an economist at a major international development bank. “He’s also a businessman. He owns a construction company. He openly talks about his own people working on public contracts.”321 Deadpans one Western development contractor: “The Tegus mayor is a construction guy; he’s really into infrastructure. He thinks you fix everything by infrastructure!”322


246 See Chayes, Thieves, 142–43.

247 See for example, Heather McRobie, “Military Trials in Egypt: 2011–2014,” openDemocracy, December 15, 2014,

248 For Iraq, Nigeria, and Ukraine, see Loveday Morris and Missy Ryan, “After More Than $1.6 Billion in U.S. Aid, Iraq’s Army Still Struggles,” Washington Post, June 10, 2016,; Aryn Baker, “Nigeria’s Military Quails When Faced With Boko Haram,” Time, February 10, 2015,; and Sarah Chayes, “How Corruption Guts Militaries: The Ukraine Case Study,” Defense One, May 16, 2014,; and Aleksandr Lapko, “Ukraine’s Own Worst Enemy,” New York Times, October 7, 2014,

249 See William Black, “Afterword” and “Appendix B: Hamstringing the Regulator,” in The Best Way to Rob a Bank Is to Own One, updated ed. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2013), 269–300, 308–9.

250 Ron Nixon, “Funding Gap Hinders Law for Ensuring Food Safety,” New York Times, April 7, 2015,

251 See for instance the text of this bill, introduced in the 114th Congress: Reciprocity Ensures Streamlined Use of Lifesaving Treatments Act of 2015, TAM15B08, 114th Cong. (2015),; and Lacie Glover, “Does the US Drug Approval Process Need an Overhaul?,” Fox News, July 1, 2015,

252 Alicia Parlapiano and Gregor Aisch, “Who Wins and Loses in Trump’s Proposed Budget,” New York Times, last updated March 16, 2017,

253 Interview, Tegucigalpa, August 6, 2016.

254 Interview, Tegucigalpa, August 2016.

255 Faustino Ordonez Baca, “Crean Instituto de Geologia y Minas en Honduras,” El Heraldo, April 7, 2014,

256 Rory Carroll, “Gold Giant Faces Honduras Inquiry Into Alleged Heavy Metal Pollution,” Guardian, December 31, 2009,; Dawn Paley et al., “Investing in Conflict: Public Money, Private Gain, Goldcorp in the Americas,” MiningWatch Canada, May 4, 2008,; Mike Blanchfield, “Stephane Dion Urged to Protect Honduran Villagers From Canadian Mining Company,” CBC, April 20, 2016, Note that a moratorium on new mining concessions and a revision of mining legislation that was drafted in early 2009 is seen as one of the motivations for the coup that deposed Zelaya. New mining legislation was passed in 2013, doing away with the protections that had been included in the 2009 bill. It does not prohibit open-pit mining, nor establish safeguards for local communities’ water rights, while it does shield project information from public scrutiny. Community consultation must take place only after delivery of the concession. See “Decreto No. 238-2012,” La Gaceta de la Republica de Honduras, April 2, 2013,; see also Phillips, Honduras in Dangerous Times, 47, 96.

257 Santiago, “Understanding Power.”

258 This article also connects agency officials to the IHSS scandal. See “Honduras: Capturan exviceministro de Serna acusado por caso de Agua Zarca,” El Heraldo, October 14, 2016,

259 “Illegal Logging in the Rio Platano Biosphere: A Farce in Three Acts,” Global Witness, January 28, 2009,, 5
(for the estimate of some 8,000 m3 of wood), 11 (on the forest authority’s regulation and permitting processes). Each mahogany tree can be expected to supply very approximately
15 m3, depending on age and other factors. R.E. Gullison et al., “The Percentage Utilisation of Felled Mahogany Trees in the Chimanes Forest, Beni, Bolivia,” Journal of Tropical
Forest Science
10, no. 1 (September 1997),

260 Interview, Tegucigalpa, August 5, 2016.

261 Willems and de Jonghe, “Protest and Violence Over the Agua Zarca Dam,” 21. See also Austra Berta Flores et. al., “Hechos y circunstancias alrededor del asesinato de Berta Cáceres Flores: En la busqueda de los autores intelectuales,” Oxfam, February 2017,

262 “Articulo 37.- Fondo para la reinversion forestal y fomento de plantaciones,” La Gaceta de le Republica de Honduras, February 26, 2008,

263 Myton et al., “Honduras Tropical Forest and Biodiversity Assessment,” A21.

264 “Illegal Logging in the Rio Platano Biosphere,” Global Witness, 9–10.

265 Ibid., 31, 26–27.

266 Ibid., 25–26.

267 Whenever they have spoken publicly about Honduran economic development, presidents Lobo and Hernández have emphasized these categories of activity. See for example, Secretaria de Estado de Coordinacion General de Gobierno, “Plan Estrategico de Gobierno 2014–2018: Plan de todos para una Vida Mejor,” Presidencia de la Republica de Honduras, December 2015,; and see Hernández’s September 2014 speech before the United Nations: “En Asamblea de la ONU: Presidente Hernández priorizara desarrollo sostenible y crecimiento equitativo,” Presidencia de la Republica de Honduras, September 17, 2016,; “El discurso del president Juan Orlando Hernández en la ONU,” El Heraldo, September 24, 2014,ández-en-la-onu; as well as the businesses touted in this brochure: “Honduras Is Open for Business,” Consulate General of the Republic of Honduras, May 2011,; “Honduras como destino de la inversion extranjera directa,” Observatorio de Multinacionales en America Latina, September 10, 2011,; and Phillips, Honduras in Dangerous Times, 96–97.

268 Phillips, Honduras in Dangerous Times, 47–48.

269 Interview, Krausirpi, July 29, 2016.

270 Its budget has increased nearly sixfold since Juan Orlando’s election, from 5.9 billion lempiras to 31.4 billion; see “Presupuesto Mensual,” Portal de Transparencia,

271 See the description at the Ministry of Development and Social Inclusion website: “Bono Vida Mejor,” Portal de Transparencia,

272 “Vida Mejor,” Presidencia de la Republica de Honduras,; see also “‘Bono Solidario’ se retirara con una tarjeta de debito,” La Tribuna, February 26, 2015,

273 Interview, July 23, 2016.

274 Among the comments: “The meetings today are to support reelection, using state money to pay people to come. For us that’s an act of corruption.” “The security tax goes into a trust fund the president uses however he wants.”

275 Interview, Tegucigalpa, August 4, 2016. In fact, the totality of the Vida Mejor program, including “solidarity credits,” scholarships, assistance for floors and roofs, etc., accounts for at least 2.2% of the budget. See “De 206 mil millones es presupuesto 2016,” La Prensa, December 17, 2015,

276 Interview, Tegucigalpa, July 19, 2016.

277 Interview, Tegucigalpa, August 5, 2016.

278 See this document on a media campaign on Cesar Ham’s leadership: “Facusse Ataca la Administracion de Cesar Ham en el INA,” Instituto Nacional Agrario, no date,ÑA%20CONTRA%20EL%20INA%20SITRA%20Y%20FACUSSE%202.pdf. Ham, director of INA at the time, was subjected to death threats and was injured in a 2015 assassination attempt. “Honduras: Atentan contra el exdirector del INA, Cesar Ham Pena,” El Heraldo, June 27, 2015,ésar-ham-peña. He later left Honduras and now lives in Miami.

279 “Alerta: Comunidad Garifuna de Nueva Armenia asediada por un grupo armado,” OFRANEH, May 4, 2015, Note, this article suggests the total area titled was far less than what the Garifuna’s were forced to relinquish to Standard Fruit in the 1920s. For Moskitia, see “Campaign Update: Honduras Gives Title to Lands to Miskito People,” Cultural Survival, September 19, 2013,; but also K. McSweeney and Z. Pearson, “Prying Native People From Native Lands: Narco Business in Honduras,” NACLA Report on the Americas 46, no. 4 (Winter 2013):

280 Interview (telephone), September 19, 2016.

281 “450 empleados del INA seran despedidos,” El Heraldo, May 22, 2016,án-despedidos.

282 “El INA se quedo sin presupues desde junio,” La Prensa, July 24, 2016,ó-sin-presupuesto-desde-junio; “Diputado Alegria denuncia que gobierno desaparecera el INA, Banadesa y la SAG,” Proceso Digital, April 18, 2015,á-el-ina-banadesa-y-la-sag.html.

283 Ibid.

284 Chayes, Thieves, especially chapters 12 and 13, 156–83.

285 Interview (telephone), September 20, 2016.

286 “Honduras: Once ‘empresas fantasna’ saquearon 332 millones del IHSS,” El Heraldo, November 9, 2014,

287 “Honduras: El Tribunal Superior de Cuentas (TSC) ya tiene nuevos magistrados,” El Heraldo, November 8, 2016,

288 “El CNA denuncia a ex primera dama por compra irregular de zapatos,” La Prensa, July 28, 2016,

289 See, for an example of this principle being invoked in the Rosenthal case, “Honduran Supreme Court Rejects U.S. Extradition Request for Jaime Rosenthal,” Southern Pulse, January 31, 2016,

290 Along with the examples above, the Honduran tax authority has been moved out of the finance ministry to become the Presidential Commission for Tributary Administration. See also: “SOA Grads Prominent Among New Military Leadership in Honduras as Juan Orlando Hernández Prepares to Take Office,” SOA Watch, no date,

291 See “Decreto Numero 134-90,” Tribunal Superior de Cuentas,; and Hal Lippman and Patrick Pranke, “Impact Evaluation: Democratic Local Governance in Honduras,” USAID, 1998,

292 Daniel Altschuler “The Municipal Politics of the Honduran Crisis,” World Post, no date, Note, the mayor of San Pedro Sula, the country’s second largest and most economically dynamic city, decided not to run for reelection due to the suspension.

293 See Lippman and Pranke,“Impact Evaluation”; and for a more recent look, “National Mayoral Candidates Begin to Prepare for their Race,” Honduras Report, September 28, 2016, A U.S. parallel might be the Trump administration’s threat to cut federal funding from localities declaring themselves sanctuary cities.

294 Interview, Marcala, July 23, 2016.

295 Chayes, “Structure of Corruption.”

296 Interview, July 22, 2016.

297 Interviews, La Paz department, July 22 and 23, 2016. See also Phillips, Honduras in Dangerous Times, 46.

298 Interview, July 23, 2016.

299 Interviews, July 22 and 23, 2016.

300 See, for example, Europe Aid Cooperation Office, “Aid Delivery Methods, Volume 1, Project Cycle Management Guidelines,” March 2004 ( especially pages 9–11 on the drawbacks of direct project delivery because of lack of “local ownership,” and the sections on sector approach and direct budgetary support.

301 Interview (telephone), November 10, 2016.

302 Interview, Patuca River, July 31, 2016.

303 Interview, Bilalmo, July 30, 2016.

304 “Liberan a alcalde hondureno que llevaba 900 mil lempiras,” La Prensa, December 6, 2014,; “Vecinos denuncian alcalde de Wampusirpi, Gracias a Dios, desde hace mas de dos anos sin que nadie haga nada,” Criterio, January 13, 2016,

305 “Decreto no. 157-99,” La Gaceta de la Republica de Honduras, December 21, 1999,

306 Interviews, Patuca River, July 31, 2016. To make matters worse, according to several interviewees, the earlier government-supported agriculture projects used GMO seeds, which required costly fertilizers and insecticides, so they did not provide a pathway to independent livelihoods.

307 Interview, Patuca River, July 30, 2016.

308 Interview, July 28, 2016.

309 Kendra McSweeney et al., “Drug Policy as Conservation Policy: Narco-Deforestation,” Science 343, no. 6,170 (January 31, 2014): 489–90,

310 See, for example, the presidential attention lavished on the reopening of a meat processing plant in Olancho: “Honduras: Reopening of Meat Processing Plant,” Central America Data, February 16, 2017,

311 McSweeney and Pearson, “Prying Native People From Native Lands,” 7; see also Elizabeth Bourne Jackson, “From Lobsters to Cocaine: The Shifting Commodity Landscape on the Miskito Coast of Honduras” (PhD dissertation, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2015).

312 “Aseguran bienes a supuesto narco vinculado a masacres,” La Prensa, June 18, 2015,

313 Steven Dudley, “Honduran Elites and Organized Crime: The Cachiros,” InSight Crime, April 9, 2016,

314 “Honduras: Inteligencia vincula a la familia Sarmiento con red delictiva,” El Heraldo, July 9, 2015,

315 Interview, Juticalpa, July 24, 2016.

316 Michael Lohmuller, “Arrest, and Release, in Nicaragua Illustrates Confusion About Honduras,” InSight Crime, July 6, 2015,; Sam Tabory, “Arrests Add to Murky Picture of Crime-Politics Links in Honduras,” InSight Crime, August 19, 2015,; “Honduras: Capturan al alcalde de Juticalpa, Olancho,” La Prensa, June 4, 2015,; “Agentes de Fusina capturan a Ramon Sarmiento, alcalde de Juticalpa,” El Heraldo, June 5, 2015,ón-sarmiento-alcalde-de-juticalpa.

317 Steven Dudley, “Honduras Elites and Organized Crime: Juan Ramon Matta Ballesteros,” InSight Crime, April 9, 2016,

318 Sam Tabory, “Mysterious ‘AA Brothers’ Captured, Negotiate Deal With DEA in Honduras,” InSight Crime, November 3, 2015,

319 “Marvin Ponce: ‘Me quede corto al decir que hay 35 alcaldes narcos,” La Tribuna, March 13, 2015,; “Corrupcion y sospechas de ‘narco alcaldes’ sacude a los gobiernos locales,” Proceso Digital, April 9, 2015,; Marguerite Cawley, “Honduras Mayor Accused of Leading Murderous Drug Running Gang,” InSight Crime, July 29, 2014,

320 Interview, Tegucigalpa, August 3, 2016.

321 Interview, Tegucigalpa August 5, 2016; “Las 12 cosas que no sabias de Nasry ‘Tito’ Asfura,” El Heraldo, August 28, 2015,; “Marcia Villeda pide renuncia a Nasry Asfura,” El Heraldo, April 7, 2014,; “Tito Asfura dice que seguira con contrato de basura en Tegucigalpa aunque resulte electo Alcalde,” Ultima Hora, July 16, 2012,

322 Interview, Tegucigalpa, July 23, 2016.