DORAL, Fla. (AP) — U.S. Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly came to Congress in March 2015 with some good news from Honduras, a country where good news is often hard to find.
As leader of the U.S. military’s Southern Command, he had been playing an important role in America’s push to stop the flow of drugs through Honduras and other troubled nations south of the U.S. border, a mission that would boost his diplomatic credentials and later help lead to a bigger job: Donald Trump’s White House chief of staff.
Kelly told Congress in his 2015 testimony that the Honduran government was working hard, in partnership with the U.S., to fight drug trafficking and shield its citizens from violence.
“Human rights groups have acknowledged to me that Honduras is making real progress,” he testified.
Kelly didn’t say which groups had told him that. In fact, key organizations tracking human rights in Honduras were saying just the opposite.
Weeks before his testimony, the international nonprofit Human Rights Watch reported that Honduras continued to suffer from “rampant crime and impunity for human rights abuses” and that efforts to reform the country’s police and military had “made little progress.”
Kelly’s upbeat assessment for lawmakers was typical of his stance toward Honduras and its leaders during the more than three years he led the South Florida-based U.S. Southern Command. He praised Honduran political and security officials for making strides fighting corruption and protecting human rights even as media headlines and U.S. government reports continued to link the country’s security forces to murders and corruption.
Today, human rights abuses and government corruption are still major concerns in Honduras, despite millions of dollars in U.S. aid and pledges by Kelly and other American officials that they were helping the country root out misconduct within its security forces. While U.S. government statistics show the Honduran government had some success in reducing cocaine trafficking and violence during Kelly’s tenure, the country remains a busy transit hub for the movement of cocaine to the United States and its murder rate still makes it one of the deadliest countries in the world.
These issues are in sharp relief this week as President Trump continues to rail against immigrants from Honduras and other violence-torn Central American countries who are migrating north to flee gangs, police corruption and other ills. Trump is determined to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border to keep migrants out.
Last week, he called for the National Guard to patrol the border and threatened to cut off aid to Honduras as a caravan of migrants moved through Mexico. “The big Caravan of People from Honduras, now coming across Mexico and heading to our ‘Weak Laws’ Border, had better be stopped before it gets there,” Trump tweeted, adding that trade with Mexico “is in play, as is foreign aid to Honduras.” Tuesday, Trump decided at the last minute to skip out on a conference with Latin American leaders in Peru aimed at battling corruption.
The White House declined to provide a statement in response to questions from The Associated Press, and did not make Kelly available for an on-the-record interview to discuss his work in Honduras, including which human rights groups had told him things were improving in 2015. The Honduran government did not respond to questions for this story.
In a public speech last year, Kelly emphasized his support for human rights, noting that he regularly visited human rights groups in whatever country he visited. People close to Kelly note that he faced big challenges operating in a region where governments are often troubled and drug trafficking is prevalent. James Nealon, a former U.S. ambassador to Honduras who considers Kelly a friend, said the general had no choice but to work with “imperfect people and imperfect institutions.”
From late 2012 to early 2016, Kelly forged close ties with Honduran military and security chiefs, even as colleagues elsewhere in the Obama administration raised concerns about links between drug trafficking and high-ranking officials in the Honduran government, according to interviews with more than 20 former State Department, Defense Department, Drug Enforcement Administration and national security officials who worked closely with Kelly, as well as human rights activists, former Honduran officials and academics.
“Kelly’s support for the Honduran government was pretty unconditional,” said Mark Ungar, a Brooklyn College political scientist and expert on police reform who attended closed-door meetings between Kelly and human rights groups. “He would not question them, he would not doubt their ability or their policies, which was striking because he doesn’t shy away from criticizing people.”
By January 2016, when Kelly retired from the Marines and finished his tenure as commander at SOUTHCOM, Honduras remained a central hub in the flow of drugs from Latin America into the United States. A State Department report said eastern Honduras continued to be “a primary landing zone for drug traffickers operating by land and sea.” Honduran authorities had started extraditing alleged drug traffickers to the U.S. where some have been charged and convicted. But they had not seized a single suspected drug boat in 2016 despite being tipped off by U.S. authorities to “100 actionable events,” the report said.
The country’s security forces, meanwhile, continue to be dogged by allegations of violence against citizens and complicity with drug cartels.
In March, United Nations human rights officials expressed alarm that security forces had shot dead at least 16 people, including two children, amid protests that the country’s presidential election had been rigged. Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN’s high commissioner for human rights, said the “already fragile human rights situation in Honduras” was “likely to deteriorate further unless there is true accountability for human rights violations.”
Two of the country’s top security officials have been shadowed by claims that they colluded with drug kingpins. A leader of a drug gang testified in a U.S. court in New York last year that Honduras’ Cachiros cartel collaborated with Honduran Security Minister Julian Pacheco Tinoco and other high-ranking officials. In January, the AP revealed that a confidential Honduran government report had alleged that the country’s newly appointed national police chief, Jose David Aguilar Moran, had helped a drug trafficker pull off the delivery of nearly a ton of cocaine in 2013, while he was serving as chief of intelligence for the National Police.
The Honduran government has said previously that the claims about Pacheco and Aguilar are false.
On Tuesday, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez cut the ribbon inaugurating a new U.S.-funded base for an elite unit of the National Police, proclaiming a new stage in the country’s assault on drug traffickers as Pacheco and several U.S. officials looked on.
Hernandez said Honduras had emerged from dark days when it was the world’s deadliest country, plagued by drug trafficking, guns and organized crime that had once “permeated even the country’s security institutions.” Honduras would not have turned the corner, he said, without U.S. assistance.
__THE NATIONAL INTEREST
As a core U.S. ally that hosts the strategically positioned Soto Cano Air Base, Honduras was at the center of Kelly’s forays as a statesman. He understood the challenges there, warning Congress about the “corrosive expansion” of transnational organized crime in Latin America and highlighting “deteriorating citizen security, especially in Honduras.”
As Kelly saw it, Central America didn’t need officials making decisions from air-conditioned rooms in Washington. It needed a leader who could tackle drug trafficking and gang violence on the ground by engaging with local security forces. Former colleagues said Honduran officials found Kelly refreshingly free from the Washington power structure and liked that he had an open phone line and a plane. Kelly made 12 trips to Honduras , his second-most frequent foreign destination after the U.S. military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, records show.
Kelly knew the country would be crucial to waging the war on drugs, since nearly 90 percent of South American cocaine smuggling flights went straight to Honduras in 2012.
“If you want to get anything done — and diplomacy is the art of getting foreign governments to do what’s in your interest, and not necessarily in theirs — you have to work with the people and institutions that exist,” said Nealon, who served as U.S. ambassador to Honduras from 2014 to 2017. “You have to weigh decisions carefully, constantly examine your conscience, and be as sure as you can in an uncertain world that the national interest and ‘the right thing to do’ are one and the same.”
Kelly formed what he described as a friendship with Honduran President-elect Hernandez, the ruling party candidate who had run on a law-and-order platform. Hernandez sought Kelly out even before he was sworn in as president in January 2014. The two dined together at a private home in Miami, then met again when Kelly made a jaunt to Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, weeks later.
The four-star general later took some credit for what he saw as progress in the nation of 9 million people, claiming he was steering U.S.-Honduran relations in a diplomatic role that went beyond his defense mission.
“My lane is the military lane, so it’s very narrow,” Kelly said in a 2015 interview with the Pacific Council on International Policy. “But I don’t stay in that lane at all, because I see so many things going on that no one is really addressing. I have very close relationships with these countries: the militaries, civilian leaders, even their presidents. I can call a president and he will take my call faster than he’ll take a call from just about anyone else.”
Kelly enlisted in the Marines in 1970, served three tours in Iraq, advised a Defense secretary in Washington and then landed at the Southern Command. The installation, know known in military shorthand as SOUTHCOM, oversees U.S. military interests in 31 Caribbean and Latin American countries.
Kelly embraced his new posting as he did other stops in his career, displaying a take-charge manner that echoed through the ranks.
“He was well-loved and respected,” said U.S. Navy Capt. Robert Newson, who worked briefly with Kelly at SOUTHCOM. “You could feel the energy when a leader like that came into the room.”
With an active war in Afghanistan and the emergence of ISIS, the National Security Council and top echelons of the State Department had little time to work on Central America. Kelly saw a diplomatic void he could fill, said Mark Schneider, a former assistant administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development who attended meetings with Kelly.
When Kelly arrived at SOUTHCOM in 2012, front pages of the Honduran press blared near daily stories of murders and repression that spiraled after a 2009 coup. Every few months, the corpse of a journalist reporting on the coup or government abuses would turn up. The State Department reported that corrupt police officers had “participated in crimes with local and international criminal organizations” and said there “continued to be instances in which military or police officials suspected of human rights violations were not investigated or punished.”
“Gen. John Kelly would have known about impunity, corruption, and the link between them and the violence driving the surge in spontaneous migration from Honduras on his watch,” said Fulton Armstrong, who worked in Honduras and elsewhere in Central America and Mexico for the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Council and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Less than two months into his SOUTHCOM appointment, Kelly met with Hernandez’s predecessor as Honduras’ president, Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo. During a meeting in a wood-paneled room at the presidential palace in Tegucigalpa, Kelly promised humanitarian aid, joint military exercises and other U.S. help.
Several former State, Defense and DEA officials said they had concerns about alleged drug trafficking ties to Pacheco, the Honduran army general Lobo appointed in 2013 to be his chief of investigation and intelligence.
Kelly met with Pacheco at least twice over the next two years, including once when a Honduran delegation accompanied Lobo’s successor, Hernandez, on a visit to SOUTHCOM to discuss threats and security cooperation. Hernandez later promoted Pacheco to security minister and put him in charge of purging the police force of corruption.
A 2013 Honduras government report recently obtained by the AP alleges that a “criminal organization” had been operating within the National Police and Security Ministry for more than a decade. The confidential report said “active police officials, officers of the Honduran armed forces, Honduran political figures and high-ranking public functionaries” were “using police helicopters and patrol vehicles to transport drugs from different parts of the country to the border with Guatemala so that they could be transported to the United States.”
The operations involved various Honduran drug-trafficking organizations and Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel, which used Honduras to move tons of drugs from Colombia to the U.S., the report from the Security Ministry’s inspector general’s office said. At least seven former Honduran police officials are now in U.S. custody in connection with a related case tied to another drug organization, the Cachiros cartel.
Kelly acknowledged the risks of engaging with the police, telling U.S. lawmakers in an April 2014 hearing that the “police throughout most of the region are either entirely corrupt or so intimidated that they won’t do their jobs.”
Former colleagues in Washington said Kelly effectively lobbied Congress to fund Central America programs. The Obama administration increased aid to the region in 2014 after finding it was in U.S. interests to improve security and governance in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
Behind the scenes, Kelly met with top Honduran police brass and took the step of inviting senior police officials to attend the annual Central American Security Conference, which in 2015 was sponsored by SOUTHCOM and the Honduran Armed Forces. “We’ve now decided to work more closely,” he told reporters.
As more people migrated from the region, Kelly also led an effort to integrate the Honduran police into a task force on the Honduran-Guatemalan border to be staffed by both nations’ police and military, former colleagues said. Kelly wanted million for border security, including a Honduran task force to be equipped with 42 jeeps, infrastructure and training, according to a document SOUTHCOM submitted to a congressional committee. Lawmakers declined to fund that effort as requested, but the task force may have received assistance from another federal funding stream, said SOUTHCOM spokesman Jose Ruiz.
By March 2015, Kelly was touting Hernandez’s “incredible” work directing Honduras’ fight against drug traffickers and citing a drop in the number of drug planes landing there. Honduras remained a major transit country for cocaine, according to a State Department analysis. But there been improvement: In 2013, an estimated 75 percent of South America smuggling flights stopped over in the country, and that estimate had dropped to 60 percent a year later. Hernandez was committed to reducing violence while protecting human rights, and “due to that commitment, when he asks, I do a few things,” Kelly said in an interview with a Honduran newspaper.
Kelly highlighted the Hernandez administration’s efforts in his congressional testimony that same month.
“The situation is especially encouraging in Honduras, where the government is working hard to combat the drug trade, re-establish governance in remote areas and take meaningful action to protect human rights,” he testified.
That statement flew in the face of what human rights defenders had been telling Kelly, according to Adam Isacson, defense oversight director at the nonprofit research and advocacy group Washington Office on Latin America.
“This is not a time when things were on the upswing in Honduras,” said Isacson, who attended human rights meetings at SOUTHCOM. “No one would have been saying human rights was getting better in Honduras in terms of actions of security forces.”
Kelly held regular meeting with human rights groups, but didn’t appear open to criticism, several attendees said.
Juan Angel Almendares Bonilla, a Honduran physician and human rights advocate, said Kelly lost his temper at a 2015 meeting of rights groups in Honduras after Almendares criticized America’s role in Central America.
“I said, ‘General, I don’t agree with you because the strategic military policies and geopolitics of the United States are some of the principal contributing factors to the violation of human rights,” Almendares recalled. “Obviously we could see that Kelly was a little mad because he asked everyone else in a certain tone, ‘Do you all agree with this man that the U.S. military mission should leave Honduras?’ Almost nobody responded.”
In April 2016, a few months after Kelly left SOUTHCOM, Hernandez named members to a commission to clean up the police. The commission since has claimed that nearly 5,000 police have been purged from the force, but human rights groups have questioned the effectiveness of the purge.
Berta Oliva, coordinator of a human rights group, the Committee of Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras, called the purge a “superficial” exercise in which many corrupt officers were protected.
“When there isn’t real political will to improve the investigation of corruption, of human rights violations, there isn’t going to be any advance,” she said.
__WHITE HOUSE ROLE
President-elect Trump recruited Kelly back to government in December 2016, asking Kelly to head up the Department of Homeland Security. Kelly was a leader and “the right person to spearhead the urgent mission of stopping illegal immigration and securing our borders,” Trump said.
In July 2017, Trump asked Kelly to move over from Homeland Security and take over as White House chief of staff. Honduran President Hernandez said he expected the appointment would help his country get more out of its relationship with the United States.
Late last year, after Hernandez was declared the winner in his race to claim his second term, thousands of Hondurans massed in the streets, accusing the government of stealing the election through vote fraud. UN human rights investigators found that security forces had used excessive force against demonstrators, beating and kicking some and firing on others who were trying to run away. At least 10 passers-by were killed or wounded by stray bullets coming from police officers who “opened indiscriminate fire on protesters,” the report said.
Amid the post-election crisis, the Trump administration certified the country’s progress in attacking corruption and supporting human rights, paving the way for Honduras to get millions of dollars in U.S. aid.
Inside the White House, Kelly has had little time to publicly engage with former security partners in Latin America. On a recent afternoon at SOUTHCOM, Newson told the AP that Kelly left a strong network of contacts in Central America, and that Defense officials have been building on them to counter external threats in the region from China, Russia and ISIS.
In a speech days before taking over as White House chief of staff, Kelly pointed to his time at SOUTHCOM and his experiences with Honduras and its neighbors as evidence of his commitment to protecting “people to the south” from political violence.
“To try to influence the lives of folks who lived in places like Central America, we worked very, very hard,” Kelly told an audience at the Aspen Institute. “Much of what I did day to day, week to week, year to year down there had to do with social and economic development and always, always, always human rights.”
Mendoza reported from San Francisco and Sherman reported from Mexico City.
Burke, Mendoza and Sherman on Twitter: @garanceburke @mendozamartha @chrisshermanAP