Mercenary Justice and Masculinity in Urban Honduras

Sounds good, eh? That fancy-sounding title is for a 1/2 hour paper I have to give tomorrow at the Visioning the Urban workshop at the Flamenco Hotel in Zamalek. I'm going to attempt to write it now (culling heavily from my book), including references to some of the fantastic papers presented today.

Don Wilmer, the general secretary of Alcoholics Anonymous in Honduras, told me:

from the time we are very little, our formation or lesson from our parents is that a man, if he’s really a man, should smell of alcohol, tobacco, and woman. Our own society permits and encourages young boys between twelve and 15 years old to go to a club or a whorehouse, drinking, smoking, and making use of a woman for the first time. It’s not like that for the female. With the female, that type of things, they’re not openly permitted. Even though there aren’t legal punishments that can really stop them, there are familial and social consequences.

Later, when I related this part of the interview with my friends Teto and his feminist mother, they rolled their eyes and laughed and he said, "yeah, in his epoch." When I asked what he meant he responded “Now men have to smell like gasoline and perfume. And preferably, dollars.”

I found that members of AA in Honduras employed a particular discourse of masculinity, one which relied on bourgeois notions of patriarchal responsibility and a Protestant ethic of hard work leading to success. In other words, a man was a man no longer through using drink to unleash his innate macho tendencies [note- to clear up some confusion that a reader or two have had, machismo is an ideology, not a reality- Honduran men don't really have innate macho tendencies any more than my female cat], but through dressing, speaking, and generally acting out their idea of an upwardly-mobile middle class subject. In effect, something like Teto's sarcastic version of Wilmer's saying.

The problem with that, in a nutshell, was that these men- the vast majority of them, anyway- were poor. As Bourdieu points out (in Masculine Domination), one cannot simply will one's habitus away, and one certainly can't change the structural conditions that helped to form it by embracing the structure itself. Some of the thousands of Honduran AA members, nearly all men, achieve long-term sobriety along with imitating the mannerisms of the bourgeois, but few of them see the material benefits that they tell themselves will accompany that state.

Meanwhile, the maquiladora [export-processing textile] industry has significantly changed the gendering of labor. The maquila industry in Honduras had its beginnings in 1976 with the passage of a law authorizing the construction of a free-trade zone (ZOLI, or “Zona Libre”) in Puerto Cortés, the historic gateway to the U.S. market of the original banana republic. As in most parts of the world, women are employed in much higher numbers than men in the factories. And this scares people. Carlos, a sociologist and researcher at the Honduran Institute for the Prevention of Alcohol and Drug Addiction and Dependency (IHADFA), told me:

I will show you! We will go to where the maquilas are and knock on people’s doors and you will see that only the men are home! And when the woman goes out at night, he says to her [in a feeble voice] ‘Where are you going, dear? Who are you going to see?’ and she says [in a slurred, drunken tone] ‘What the hell do you care! You can’t tell me what to do! I’ll go out with whomever I want! I bring home the bacon here.’ And when she comes home after work, she says ‘You! Put on those brown pants! We’re going out now.’ And he has to obey … That’s what I’m telling you about—role reversal, and then there are forms of conduct that have been in the man’s domain, you know, macho, that the woman is taking on. I don’t know how to explain—it’s the macho woman, uh, the same role, but the problem … is that the woman always was abandoned by the man, and she always raised the children and brought them ahead. And if these girls turn into daily drinkers on us—and God forbid alcoholics—who will look after their children … ?

Although Carlos’s depiction of maquiladora women’s behavior was exaggerated, demographic and economic changes have indeed provided young women with new possibilities for drinking. Discotheques and bars surround maquiladora factories, and many young women patronize these establishments. Indeed, as Sandya (Hawamanne) so eloquently and humorously described yesterday in her paper ("Learning Self-Governance in 'Unruly' Spaces: Global Discourses, Local Practices and FTZ Workers on City Streets"), Free Trade Zones can be "sites of gendered resistance in which women challenge stereotyped gender roles" [approximate quote]. Sexually charged challenges to men appear in myriad ways, as in this photo I took on a San Pedro Sula city bus:

In which the rooster declares, "I am a cock!"
to which the hen replies, "but I am the one with the huevos [eggs]."

For those of you who aren't sports fans or Spanish speakers, there's a double entendre there.

[just a writer's context break, here, not to be read at the conference tomorrow: as I sit writing, crazy loud music with singing in Arabic pumps from somewhere nearby, maybe in the building, interspersed with ululations from multiple actual (non-recorded) women, following the melody. I can hear a few distant honks and shouts- actually now that I'm listening for them, quite a few. I'll miss the noise]

As I put it in my book, "In this image, the male tries to flaunt his masculinity but is undercut by the fact that the female is capable, unlike him, of (re-)production, and therefore, ironically, of true masculinity (huevos)." [I guess I'll have to mime that "(re-)" in the presentation]. The threat to men of women's productivity in the paid workforce is compounded by their unemployability in it. In a process similar to that which Bourgois describes as the transformation of jibaro culture among Puerto Ricans in New York, the economic base of the patriarchy in Honduras has been radically transformed. Whereas the workforce was once primarily male, with the introduction of the maquila industry and the growth of the service sector, poor men find themselves with fewer job opportunities than women and scant opportunities to earn enough money to support a family. The inability of young men to fulfill their duties as men has important effects on masculinity (just as growth in the female workforce has implications for femininity) and on women’s and men’s roles in the family.

As women have moved aggressively into paid labor, many men have begun to participate in alternate economies to earn the money and respect that is denied them within the current legal economy. Some of these men join gangs which offer them networking and economic opportunities, as well as protection against the emasculation resulting from economic dependence on women. Honduran women are increasingly taking on the role of the primary wage earners of the household, yet they are still expected to fulfill “traditional” roles, including child-rearing. In the face of a very changed family, the persistence of a patriarchal ideology relying on the idea of the male head of the household as provider has led many Hondurans to argue that the “breakdown” of the family, rather than the social and economic forces behind this transformation, is responsible for the growth of gangs.

Ida [Susser] noted yesterday that men in South Africa "have no rights to the city if [they] are not working." [Note- Ida clarified in the actual presentation that technically this was only true during apartheid; however, in practice, the idea remains] This is true in Honduras as well. But the men in my study have no countryside to which they can return. Unemployed men, whether they join gangs or not, are marked as dangerous- something far beyond the racist euphemism so popularly employed in U.S. penal-scholastic discourse, "at risk."

Young men in Honduras today live precarious lives. While this is true of young women too, young men are understood to be dangerous and as a result are in far greater danger than their female age-mates. I'm talking about body count. "Between 1998 and the end of [last] year, the NGO Casa Alianza reported the killings of 3,943 children and adults under the age of 23, with 504 of these killings occurring during [2007]."(USDS Human Rights Report 2007) This is in a country of only around 7.5 million. The vast majority killed are young men and boys.

Fear of young men is constantly reinforced by a style of media coverage that following Jose Alaniz I have come to call "death porn." I will not show the pictures here, as I've lost audience members, and they've lost the contents of their stomachs, at previous talks. [see my 2002-2003 fieldnotes if you're curious]. Unceasing coverage of bloodied, machetied, dismembered bodies on prime-time news as well all full-page graphic color pictures in mainstream print media continuously reinforce a sense of danger among Hondurans and locates that danger in poor young men.

They have become what I refer to as an "excess demographic." Young men, especially poor young men who are undisciplined by the factory workplace or by institutions like Alcoholics Anonymous or Evangelical Christianity, are a threat that must be removed. This is necessary to achieve "security," itself a means to creating an "Investment-Friendly Infrastructure" to attract "Foreign-Direct Investment" (two of the three stock phrases for "World-Class Cities" that Arif [Hassan] pointed out yesterday).

On January 27th, 2002, Ricardo Maduro was sworn in as president of Honduras. His son, Ricardo Jr., had been killed in a botched kidnapping in 1997. Maduro had campaigned on a platform of “Zero Tolerance” on crime. In doing so, he borrowed both rhetoric and methods from Rudolph Giuliani, who has served as a consultant for Maduro as well as for metropolitan police forces throughout the Americas. As a security consultant, Giuliani has consistently recommended applying the same strong-arm approach, refered to as mano dura or strong fist, in Central America, to law enforcement that he employed as mayor of New York City to very different cultural and political contexts. Maduro outlined his Zero Tolerance plan in his inauguration speech at Copan:

The mandate of the people has been abundantly clear: I have been elected to fight first and foremost against insecurity. To fight against murder, against kidnapping and robbery. To fight a frontal battle without rest to bring down the delinquent who today feels safe. You can be sure that we will achieve it. Together, we will achieve it! Together we will build a secure future for all Hondurans. Nothing and nobody will distract me from the unshakeable goal of transforming Honduras into a country that is secure for life, for honor, and for people’s belongings.

Four days later he declared a Guerra Contra la Delincuencia, or “War on Crime.” Maduro’s war began symbolically with a speech in the impoverished Tegucigalpa barrio “Campo Cielo.” An article from Honduras This Week, an English language newspaper, states:

Traditionally, Tegucigalpa’s slums have been the scenario of cruel, criminal actions and gang warfare, a fact that drove Maduro to send out an appeal to all of society’s sectors to join forces and become ‘soldiers’ in this war.

The rhetoric of tradition as used here is a central tool of colonialism. Labeling poor Hondurans as “traditionally” violent falls within this framework. Maduro’s emphasis on the protection of private property in his speech points to the intended beneficiaries of this war. However, the language of war resonates with many poor people who tire of what Taussig terms “terror as usual,” and tend to forget that they themselves will be the victims of a war on crime. The Honduran government exploits the population’s fear of increasing violence. Poor people are more afraid of their own neighbors than of the repressive neoliberal state and industry, despite the fact that they are often themselves labeled criminals by virtue of class and geography.

Indeed, over the following years, I found this to be the case. With the war on crime, killings significantly increased, for in practice, Honduran Zero Tolerance has been carried out without the hassle of including the courts. But many of the poor people I spoke with voiced support for the policy, which they understood quite openly as "street cleaning;" the cleansing of delincuentes, a category that overlaps with young poor unemployed men and boys, from society. Just as the documented killing of prisoners later found to be not guilty on many a U.S. death row has not deterred death penalty advocates, the knowledge that the Honduran government has systematically avoided prosecuting killings carried out by "unidentified parties"--not suspected gang members--did not particularly bother my informants. Nor did the fact that the killings, widely known to be carried out by off-duty police officers and private security guards for pay, often targeted non-gang-affiliated non criminals. As an aside, that's a redundant distinction, since the 2003 Anti-Gang Law law made even hanging out with gang members a crime. As one of my friends and informants, a liberal young man I call Tomás, said to me, “Yes, it is terrible. But we don’t mind, because things had gotten so bad that, you see, it had to happen like this or the violence would never stop.”

This was a change from popular attitudes during the 1980's, when killings being carried out by Battalion 316 with the sanction of then-U.S. ambassador John Negroponte, currently deputy secretary of state, targeted domestic insurgents and provoked widespread outrage. They also, however, provoked widespread fear and thus had a somewhat similar disciplinary effect benefiting the state. The killings today bear striking resemblance to those of the 1980s carried out by Honduran military personnel trained at the School of the Americas and at least occasionally directly supervised by the CIA, with similar methods and weapons used. But the transition from cold war rhetoric of communist insurgentes to post-millenial rhetoric of depoliticized delincuentes accompanied a change in the agents of state terror. As Sanjay(?) pointed out yesterday, the state has become an instrument of privatization, and nothing is too small to be outsourced.

Just like the War on Terror, which as we know is increasingly being carried out by private armies, the current War on Crime is becoming a private matter. In 2006, newly-elected president Manuel Zelaya distanced himself from Zero Tolerance. Early in his presidency, he announced his plan to offer gang members rehabilitation programs including job training and education. However, Zelaya also dismantled the Unit of Crimes against Minors, an oversight commission established under pressure by the Maduro government. On September 5th, 2006, Zelaya launched an operation called “Operación Trueno” (“Operation Thunder”- perhaps not coincidentally also the Spanish-language title of the 1965 James Bond movie Thunderball, and of the 1995 Jackie Chan film, Thunderbolt), in which about 3,000 members of the police and soldiers were slated by presidential decree to patrol 24 hours a day in areas identified as violent. According to a presidential decree, this number was to be enhanced by the integration of private security guards, who two years ago numbered between 30,000 and 60,000 in Honduras. The U.N. Working Group on the Use of Mercenaries estimated last year that there may be as many as 280 private security firms operating in Honduras. (see Blackwater isn't just in Iraq and New Orleans.

Security companies have a high level of confidence to operate in Honduras. The U.S. Embassy recommends that corporations and expats employ them. They get away with murder, and they're increasingly brazen about it. In December 2006, for example, Dionisio Diaz Garcia, a lawyer for the Christian social justice Association for a Just Society (ASJ) was shot while sitting in traffic.(see, e.g., He represented hundreds of private security guards in a labor dispute with 13 private security companies. Numerous journalists have also been murdered or have received death threats after reporting on the abuses of the private security industry (see, e.g., "").

There are initiatives to explicitly combine maquiladoras and state crime-control policies to discipline the excess demographic of Honduras. The Noa Group—a company run by former Israeli intelligence agents— just received approval this month from the Honduran government to build a private prison that would house 2,400 inmates in Choloma. Numerous maquiladora owners have promised to build factories within the prison, which was first proposed to President Maduro’s government in early 2005. Interestingly, the only place where men are considered safe enough to hold a majority of the jobs in the maquila workplace is in prison. From the outside, it won't look much different- free trade zones and ZIPs, industrial processing zones, in Honduras are heavily guarded and surrounded by inward-facing barbed wire.

In 2003 my friend Teto sent me an email, excited about his opportunity, offered with the facilitation of the U.S. Embassy, to go work for a private company (he wasn't sure which) on the reconstruction in Iraq. We had a heated email exchange, in which I told him under no uncertain terms that he was not to go- I would fly down and stop him if I had to. He responded that Iraq couldn't be any worse than Honduras, where one of his brothers had been killed and he and another brother had been nearly killed by young men in separate incidents, and where his whole family daily feared for their lives, and anyway, who was I to say? I didn't have to struggle as he did to find a job! Eventually, alhamdulilleh, I won out.

In the U.S. and throughout Latin America, the War on Drugs (the predecessor to the War on Terror) has proven to be a war on the underclass, criminalizing drug use in ways that disproportionately penalize the poor and disadvantaged minorities. It is carried out against people, not against the abstract category “drugs,” and certainly not against underlying structural violence. The ideology behind these “wars on everything” centers on individual responsibility and choice. Wars carried out on abstractions—such as the War on Drugs, George W. Bush’s War on Terror, and Honduras's ongoing War on Crime—are able to be fought because they make ideological sense in a context of the achievement ethic, more commonly referred to as the Protestant ethic though more tied to capitalism than any religion. When young men fail to find a job, they become legitimate fodder for a murderous neoliberal crime control policy.

I've been emailing friends to let them know I'm going back to Honduras for the first time since 2003 to look at the issue of mercenary justice and its impact on health. I'll end my talk with my recent exchange with Teto.

subject: it's nice that you're coming
hi adriana
I'm glad you're coming to these forgotten lands, and you're more or less aware of the social situation in the country? that's to say that the violence that exists here and now, you have to be more careful than before.
well anyway we'll talk about it when you get here.
take care.
subject: re: it's nice that you're coming
more careful than before? seriously? but you (pl.) always say the same thing- that it's more dangerous than ever. how is it worse?
subject: re: it's nice that you're coming
much worse, honduras is above colombia in terms of violence that is, and in colombia there's a war as you well know
here every day people are either killed or assassinated and practically genocidally, so be very careful.