RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The United Nations recently named Honduras the most violent country in the world. The government there is weak, it's a major stop for drug traffickers and corruption is rampant. Many analysts say things got markedly worse there after a 2009 coup that ousted democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya. Annie Murphy reports on the struggle in Honduras to recover from the coup's fallout.

ANNIE MURPHY, BYLINE: When it comes to coups and dictators, Latin America has a difficult past, but today, the region is largely democratic. Dictators and coups are supposed to be a thing of the past. In Honduras, the last dictatorship ended in 1982. So, the June 2009 coup that ousted President Manuel Zelaya was a shock to the region and a surprise to world leaders, including Zelaya.

MANUEL ZELAYA: (Through translator) The shooting started around 5:20 am. I went downstairs and there were about 250 masked soldiers around my house. All you could see were their eyes. I said, my God, what is this?

MURPHY: The military whisked Zelaya out of the country on a tiny plane and left him in Costa Rica.

ZELAYA: (Through translator) They took off, and there I was, the democratically elected president of Honduras, standing in my pajamas in the middle of a runway in Costa Rica. And I said to myself, so this is that great new future everyone is talking about for Latin America?

MURPHY: Zelaya was speaking from his home in Honduras's capital, Tegucigalpa. He spent two years in forced exile. Last year, he returned home as part of negotiations for Honduras's re-entry into the Organization of American States, which it had been kicked out of after the coup. The coup itself was ordered by members of the Supreme Court and carried out by the military. Zelaya had been pushing for a poll to gauge public interest in rewriting the constitution and the court ruled that it was illegal. After ousting Zelaya, the coup government sent the army and police into the streets, then began arresting, beating, and even killing anyone who protested against the new government. According to an official truth commission, they were responsible for at least 20 deaths in the immediate aftermath.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

MURPHY: Edgardo Valeriano is a medical doctor and researcher. He'd never been political, but after the coup he joined protests demanding democracy and Zelaya's return. Like many protestors, he was beaten. His skull was split open by batons, and police lashed him with chains. Valeriano says he feels like Honduras went back to the 1980s.

EDGARDO VALERIANO: (Through translator) I remember those years well. I was a student in medical school back then, and I remember how some students would show up tortured by the police - stories on the news about other young people that had been brutally tortured, whose bodies would turn up at different spots in the capital. There was an atmosphere of strong repression.

MURPHY: Former president Rafael Callejas ruled from 1990 to 1994, and his election marked the first time in 60 years that power was transferred peacefully between two major parties. He believes Zelaya is too brash but says illegally ousting him has had huge repercussions.

RAFAEL CALLEJAS: We're in a crisis. We went back 20 years. We lost again the issue of democracy. Who rules in Honduras now? Really, who rules? The people, the system or strength? I mean, that's the question that has to be solved.

MURPHY: For over a century, the U.S. government has had significant influence in Honduras, from the era of U.S.-owned banana plantations, to military and economic ties that endure today. Because of that history, the U.S. response carried a lot of weight. Fulton Armstrong is a former analyst for the CIA and was working as a senior staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during the coup. He watched the U.S. response unfold.

FULTON ARMSTRONG: After the coup, a lot of the line that was taken by pro-coup people here in Washington was that the coup was the restoration of democracy, and they sold that in Washington. But when you look at what was actually happening in Honduras, he really was part of a continuation of halting but definitely forward-moving consolidation of democracy.

MURPHY: Despite the call for Zelaya's return by nearly every other country in the hemisphere, Washington chose to back new elections, which were condemned internationally because of widespread violence and repression. Polls were held and, five months after Zelaya's ouster, Porfirio Lobo was elected president. Eventually, the crisis was declared over but violence has only increased. Crisencio Arcos was ambassador to Honduras in the early '90s, and has been involved in the country for decades. He says the Obama administration failed to take a firm position regarding the coup.

CRISENCIO ARCOS: And I think that this stems from the following: that Latin America is an orphan in our foreign policy. I don't think we have a defined policy. We never defined - we had one during the Cold War, they were our allies. After the Cold War ended, we never redefined, we never retooled.

MURPHY: Many here say the outcome of the coup is what pushed Honduras to where it is today - the world's most violent nation. Edgar Valeriano, the doctor who was beaten by the police.

VALERIANO: (Spanish spoken)

MURPHY: It was shocking that in the 21st century, they could pull off a coup. If the president can be taken out of a country and have his rights taken away without a trial or anything, he says, then what becomes of your average citizen? For NPR News, I'm Annie Murphy.

MARTIN: Reporting for this story was supported by a fellowship from the investigative reporting program at the University of California Berkeley's journalism school.

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