A group of Honduran military police officers — dressed in army fatigues, their faces covered in black masks — jumped from the back of pickup trucks around 11 p.m. on Dec. 1, 2017, witnesses say.
From the shadows, they opened fire on 20-year-old Alejandra Martínez and several dozen other unarmed young people burning tires in the streets of Tegucigalpa in protest of the recent presidential election. As bullets flew in every direction, Martínez ran, looking for shelter. She made it out alive.
Down the street, closer to where the officers emerged from the shadows, Kimberly Dayana Fonseca, 19, lay dead in a halo of blood and bits of her own skull. She was victim of a U.S.-made M4 fired by the Honduran Military Police for Public Order, investigators at the public ministry later told a reporter.
A 15-year-old boy was also critically injured that night by a bullet to the side, but survived, another likely victim of a U.S.-made weapon of war.
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The Miami Herald found that the political violence in Honduras, which has contributed to an exodus of migrants, was sometimes carried out with U.S.-made weapons used by the government’s paramilitary force. The Honduran military police should not possess U.S.-made rifles sold under private arms licensing agreements, according to the State Department.
Now, a year after dodging bullets fired by a paramilitary armed with U.S. weapons, Martínez is part of the caravan of thousands of migrants that left Honduras in October to make their way toward the U.S. border. The first migrants from the group just reached the U.S. border.
“We know that the guns come from the United States,” Martínez told the Miami Herald at the time of the bloodshed. “These guns have no business in Honduras. They should stay in the United States. They are sending them to Honduras to kill us.”
More than a dozen people were shot and killed by the military police in the post-election violence, including several children, according to United Nations investigators. More than 30 were wounded by the paramilitary unit, a repressive force that answers directly to the Honduran president.
Honduran security forces were ordered to contain protests spreading across the country as President Juan Orlando Hernandez of the National Party seemed set to win a second term. The vote was marred by irregularities and violence, prompting observers from the Organization of the American States to call for a redo.
The Honduran military and the national police have also been accused of human rights abuses, but in the wake of the 2017 elections, portions of both forces laid down their weapons, refusing to attack protesters. The military police were often deployed instead. “The military police are trained to kill,” Martínez said.
Official U.S. policy is to avoid supporting or associating with the Honduran military police in any way. Founded in 2013 as a supposedly incorruptible force in the fight against gangs, the Honduran military police — a paramilitary force distinct from both the Honduran military and national police — have quickly earned a nasty human rights reputation, including for extrajudicial killings.
“The U.S. official policy has been to stay clear [of the military police],” said Eric Olson, deputy director the the Latin American program at the Wilson Center, a Washington, D.C.-based non-partisan policy forum and research institute. “They’ve been very self-congratulatory, saying ‘we don’t support them so we are not responsible for what they do.’ ”
Yet, a photo on the Honduran government’s website shows three phalanxes of the camouflage-clad fighters brandishing rifles that five independent experts identified as modern, U.S.-made M4s, a weapon whose international sale is highly regulated by the State Department. Other Honduran government photos show the military police carrying what experts said appeared to be the same style M4s during jobs dating back through the beginning of 2017.
Although each expert said it is possible, if extremely unlikely, that the M4s could be off-brand copycats, half a dozen Honduran military police officers told Herald reporters in late 2017 the forces in Tegucigalpa carry only M4s that came from the United States. The Honduran government denied the Herald’s request for a list of weapons used by military police officers, and refused to answer questions about the M4s, citing “state secrets” laws and national security as the reason for their denial.
The military police carried the weapons to police civilian protests over the past year, sometimes using them to shoot at unarmed protesters, as documented in photos taken by journalists and human rights observers and ID’d by the five experts. (Military police outside of Tegucigalpa were seen by reporters carrying non-U.S.-made rifles.) During anti-government protests in December 2017, the force killed at least 20 people — some execution style, others as they tried to run away, according to United Nations reports.
“The military police are the Honduran government’s answer not only to street violence but to maintaining a level of political control and you really saw that after the contested elections in November 2017,” said Lisa Haugaard of the Latin America Working Group, a foreign policy lobby in Washington, D.C., who has worked extensively in Honduras.
The UN inspectors concluded that post-election killings, mostly at the hands of the military police, “instilled panic among sectors of the population, who feared reprisals for participating in protests.” Haugaard said the political violence and a belief that nothing will change has left people hopeless, driving some to migrate north.
After the United Nations investigators put out their reports of protester deaths by firearms, the State Department issued the following statement to the Miami Herald: “We extend our condolences to the families of the victims of post-election violence. … We look forward to appropriate authorities concluding their investigations and holding accountable those responsible for these crimes.”
To date, not a single officer has been charged for the deaths of dozens of protesters, according to local human rights observer César Fuentes. By contrast, several opposition leaders remain in maximum security prisons having already spent 10 months waiting for trials on charges of terrorism, brought under the nation’s sweeping new laws.
Arming the abusers
Since a military coup ousted a democratically elected president in Honduras in 2009, the United States has not provided weapons directly to Honduras; the more than $100 million in direct assistance approved by the United States to Honduras since 2009 was designated non-lethal, and included equipment and training programs.
The modern, M4-style firearms carried by the Honduran military police last year likely came from a private sale — known as a direct commercial sale — an arms deal between a U.S. weapons seller (usually the manufacturer) and the Honduran government. Licensing agreements for international weapons sales always require U.S. government approval.
The State Department authorized companies to export over 10,000 firearms to Honduras between 2015 and 2017, according to information obtained by the Security Assistance Monitor, an organization that tracks U.S. arms deals.
According to the Federal Register, the State Department specifically approved private sales of M4 carbine semi-automatic rifles and accessories to Honduras, in 2015 and again in 2017, of over $1 million dollars each. The 2015 deal included 5.56mm caliber rounds and 30-round magazine clips for the M4 rifles. The 2017 deal was worth $6,150,000, the Security Assistance Monitor reported.
The U.S. corporation that sold the weapons is unnamed, the information considered proprietary.
The first sale of M4s was slated to go to the military; the second one was for the Honduran government, but an arms expert formerly with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives told the Herald the weapons described could be the ones in pictures of Honduran military police taken last year.
The State Department must approve direct commercial sales licensing agreements that stipulate which government, military or security force may ultimately possess U.S.-made weapons of war. Honduran military police “are not an approved recipient of [direct commercial sale] weapons,” a statement from the State Department said.
“Human rights concerns are among the many factors the Department of State considers when reviewing [direct commercial sale] applications, along with our relationships with foreign security partners and promotion of American industry,” said the department, which addressed weapons agreements generally.
In the case of M4s destined for Honduras, congressional committees held up the 2017 deal for several months out of concern about the potential risks, said Colby Goodman, an expert on international arms deals and former director of the Security Assistance Monitor. A general concern: “The likelihood that the recipient would use the arms to commit human rights abuses,” Goodman said.
Authorizing a weapons sale to an ally nation is always a strategic calculation, Goodman said. “We’re providing these weapons to go after some entity, a criminal gang for example, and the benefit of them using these weapons to increase their effectiveness outweighs the risk of a few of those firearms bleeding out.”
Photographic evidence shows some M4-type weapons wound up in the wrong hands. In Tegucigalpa in 2017, the military carried old M16s, while the military police seemed to carry newer M4s in apparent violation of the arms licensing agreements, independent weapons experts who analyzed the photos said.
The United States is the only country that makes M4s. Still, it is possible the M4s carried by the military police did not come directly from the 2015 and 2017 sales listed in the Federal Register, and were instead resold to Honduras by a third party — another government, for example. Still, direct-sale licensing agreements also stipulate the recipients of resales, so their possession would still be a violation of a contract.
“The consequences of breaking a deal can mean that the U.S. will stop providing weapons. That is the most severe consequence but it doesn’t happen that often,” Goodman said.
Each year the State Department audits a portion (usually less than 2 percent) of direct commercial sales through a program called Blue Lantern, intended to ensure weapons end up where they are supposed to go, and used for their intended purpose. If a Blue Lantern review comes back “unfavorable,”said a State Department official, punitive actions could include denying or revoking licenses, updating the Directorate of Defense Trade Controls’ “Watch List” of ineligible or suspect entities, or even referring the case to U.S. law enforcement agencies.
The State Department would not comment on specific contracts or what, if anything, has been done to enforce the conditions of weapons contracts with Honduras.
Seeking political asylum
Several thousand Hondurans — part of the group that left in early October — just arrived to Tijuana, across the border from California. Others are still coming.
“If I return to Honduras they’ll kill me,” Martínez, who has live-streamed her trek, told the Herald by phone. She is still in Southern Mexico where she asked for political asylum. She isn’t sure if she will remain in Mexico or head north. She hoped to go to the United States, but does not want to be deported back to Honduras, where as a well-known political activist she fears for her life.
“There is definitely a case for political asylum,” said immigration lawyer Jose Fuentes from Mexico City, where he volunteers giving legal advice to Honduran migrants. “Our conclusion was that there are these death squads under the president of Honduras.”
But Fuentes said he advised migrants not to go to the U.S. border. Given the political climate in the United States, Fuentes said cases for asylum will be difficult to win, even for those who faced political persecution.
While some from the caravan have taken his advice, Fuentes says many of the caravan leaders continued on to the United States.
“They want to head to the United States border in a peaceful way to state to the U.S. government that they have to stop their policies in Honduras ... that they need to change their military policy,” Fuentes said.
Freelance journalist Jeff Abbott contributed reporting.