By Tom Webb
In my report for the May issue of The NewPeople, I wrote of the multiple problems created by conflicts over land ownership, the role multinational businesses play in Honduras contributing to the material and ecological impoverishment of their people, and the crisis created for women living in a profoundly patriarchal culture.
Our recent delegations to Honduras found that factors there were not limited to their nation alone. Far more insidious was our discovery that the U.S. export of arms and weapons supplies is a major factor in the violence plaguing Honduras. But to understand the role our government and arms dealers play requires understanding the broader context of the international arms trade. First, according to the most recent release of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) Fact Sheet from March 2019, entitled “Trends in International Arms Transfers, 2018”, the U.S. was the top arms exporter in the world from 2009-2018. Our share of global arms exports increased from 30 percent to 36 percent. Russia, France, Germany and China lag far behind as the next four largest exporters of weapons.
We are the major arms exporter for Central American and Caribbean nations. While the US exported 17% of the arms to South American countries, we exported a stunning 47% of weapons and military supplies to Central American and Caribbean states. The second largest supplier of weapons to Central American countries was the Netherlands, which provided 16%.
Another important fact to consider: according to the Honduran constitution (Article 292) “the manufacture, import, distribution and sale of arms, ammunition and similar articles is reserved as an exclusive right of the armed forces.” A journalist from the Jesuit-owned Radio Progreso, in Yoro, Honduras explained that the military operates stores throughout Honduras where arms are sold to anyone, provided the weapons themselves are registered. When I asked if “anyone” included gang members, she responded with a nod. Since my return this story has been confirmed by several sources, including a retired Maryknoll missioner who served in Honduras, John Lindsay- Poland. Lindsay-Poland is a specialist in tracking the U.S. arms trade with Mexico and Central American countries, who works for the American Friends Service Committee in San Francisco, California, and is a recently-arrived Honduran to the San Francisco Bay Area.
The Radio Progresso journalist further informed me that, according to Honduran law, an individual may own as many as 30 registered weapons. Furthermore, mandatory weapons training was required of all public high school students. She noted this was also a means of attracting young men to national military or police service following high school graduation.
With this in mind, the obvious question is: what may be the relationship between U.S. arms exports and the distribution of arms in Honduras? First, that weapons are sold or can be owned by gang members, explains in part the influence they wield in the poorer Honduran colonias in which they live. Multiple media sources have reported the threats gangs pose to small business owners, residents of poor communities and the general Honduran population. Throughout our six day root causes investigation we saw repeated signs of the threats gangs posed, like the concertina wire woven along the cement walls guarding small and often modest homes in the various colonias we visited. It is often the threats and/or the violence they display which has driven Hondurans to flee from their own country. On the other hand, since the military itself is the principle distributor of weapons, it is free to use weapons imported from the United States to maintain the public order. Unfortunately, as we discovered during an emergency delegation in January 2018 to protect the life of Ismael Soto (also known as Padre Melo, the Jesuit director of Radio Progreso), weapons and U.S. military supplies are also used to squelch dissent, including the national outrage following the widely-viewed as fraudulent presidential election of November 2017. Radio Progreso had plastic bags filled with empty tear-gas canisters taken from scenes of military conflicts with civilians, which were manufactured in Homer City, PA. Colt Manufacturing has exported machine guns to Honduras that were used by military police on protestors during the uprisings following the 2017 elections, according to the Miami Herald of November 23, 2018.
The Trump Administration has recently threatened to cut aid to Honduras, which would affect military and police assistance, but rarely does this include firearms. Nor does it affect weapons sales from U.S. companies. Other U.S. companies based in Florida (handguns and long guns), Wyoming (explosives and some military weapons) and Illinois (ammunition) have also contributed to the mayhem which is today’s Honduras.
To make matters worse, an initiative that began during the waning years of the Obama Administration (but has since accelerated under President Trump) would transfer licensing and export oversight from the State Department to the Department of Commerce. If successful, this would remove virtually any congressional oversight of the weapons trade.There are currently bills pending in the House (HR 1134) and the Senate to prohibit this transition. Senator Menendez (D-NJ), the highest ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, has placed a temporary hold on this decision. Trump’s decision is no accident. He received $30 million in donations from the arms production industry for his 2016 campaign.
Presently, a small group of delegation members working closely with John Lindsay-Poland are exploring a number of options to address U.S. complicity in Honduran migration. Efforts will be made to research the Berta Caceres Human Rights in Honduras Act (HR 1945) which was reintroduced on March 28th by Rep. Henry “Hank” Johnson (D-GA-4) to see if further amendments can be added to control U.S. arms exports to Honduras. Similarly, in public presentations made by returning delegation participants across the U.S., notice will be given of the necessity of supporting HR 1134 and the Melendez Act.
All are invited to One Smithfield st, downtown on Thursday, June 13 from 7:00 – 9:00 PM to receive Tom Webb’s first hand report from his recent trip to Honduras earlier this spring. He will share his slide presentation of their delegation’s visit there. There will be time for discussion and suggestions on what can be done. The event is being co-sponsored by Casa San Jose and the Thomas Merton Center. Please rsvp by calling the Merton Center at 412-361-3022.
Tom Webb is currently on the staff of the Oakland Catholic Worker and a regional council member of Pax Christi Northern California. He is also freelance journalist, former resident of Pittsburgh, PA and a member of the Thomas Merton Center.