Is New Imperialism the Ultimate Sovereign? Gangs, drugs and bare life in Honduras

I thought it would be appropriate to talk about Honduras, home to the ‘murder capital’ of the world, in view of our class on necropolitics, biopolitics and the homo sacer. In Honduras there are 90.4 homicides per 100.000 people95% of which go uninvestigated. The next most violent country outside of a war zone is Venezuela with an average of 50.3 homicides per 100.000 people. But who is killing whom? Who has the power to kill, why do they have it, how and what are the limits?

As with all situations, the Honduran one is complex: interlinking, tangled factors and a repressive state have created a highly militarized context where fear is so thick you can cut through it with a machete. Pistols and AK47s are the preferred weapons for killing in Honduras, however. In fact, it is estimated that there are about 2 million firearms floating around Central America. Mix that up with 80% of the United States’ cocaine supply passing through – some of which gets conveniently left behind and consumed as crack – stick it into the hands of unemployed, frustrated young men and you’ve got a pretty good taste of the plat du jour. (UNODC, 2013).

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“God forsaken” [1] was the word that came to my mind after having been in San Pedro Sula for a few days. The military and private security forces conduct death patrols in their mission to eliminate the maras (gangs) one-by-one[2]. They also specifically target and assassinate human rights defenders, leaders of women’s rights movements, journalists and members of the oppositional party. Military expenditure continues to grow, reports on women’s rights state that these efforts do nothing or worsen their safety. It is well known that the military and the police are corrupt and cannot be trusted. (Nobel Women’s Initiative and JASS, 2012) The people who can afford it build ever-higher walls topped with barbed wire for protection, migrate or are forced to adapt.

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According to popular discourse it is the maras (gangs) that people are protecting themselves from (Rodgers, 2006). Maras[3] coercively control whole communities, rival each other, racketeer, kill and murder. Indeed the violence that the maras commit is beyond most people’s imagination (there are some films, documentaries and ethnographies if you wish to explore further). However, by waging a ‘War on Gangs’ (sounds familiar right?) the state and their accomplices legitimise their right to kill by using the maras as scapegoats for grander plans.

In other words, the sovereign reduces the maras to bare life. The authoritarian regime following the military coup of 2009 made gang membership illegal (fortunately for the military the maras are pretty easy to spot since they tattoo their entire bodies and faces with gang slogans), legitimising mass arrests and tattoo searches (as pictured below) and death patrols leaving slain bodies in the ditches (will spare you of these images, but they are out there).  (Rodgers, 2006).

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In a recent term paper I concluded that it all boils down to the workings of a powerful Honduran elite pawned by North American ‘New Imperialism’ (you know, national interests, so on and so forth)(Velmeyer, 2013). They are the ‘Sovereign’; they have the power to kill. They set up military bases, trade weapons and sniff enough cocaine to keep the ‘war machine’ lubricated (Mbembé & Mientjes, 2003: 34). This ‘partnership’ allows North America to regain its economic and military foothold in the region (after loosing grips due to being slightly more preoccupied with other baddies in the Middle East). The Honduran elite gets a fat friend whose thirst for Coca-Cola, appetite for Chiquita bananas and need for under-priced XXXL T-shirts are not easily satisfied.

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At the receiving end of this deadly circus are the Honduran civilians, stripped of political agency and reduced to ‘bare life’. They bottle our cokes, pick our bananas and sew our T-shirts. For instance, in the maquilas (assembly plants set up near borders or ports as a part of Structural Adjustment Programmes) that within 10 years came to employ over 100.000 people (Webber and Gordon, 2013), mainly grossly underpaid, overworked, non-unionised female workers. Similar to colonial Africa, maquila workers suffer a triple loss: “a loss of ‘home,’ a loss of rights over his or her body, and a loss of political status” (Mbembé: 21).

A crucial difference to the above notion of necropolitics, as Mbembé points out and which I would argue holds true in this particular case, is that due to the advent of globalisation and ‘new wars’ (more intra-state than between inter-state) it is not solely the state that has the right to kill, instead “a patchwork of overlapping and incomplete rights to rule emerges“, resulting in a ‘state of exception’ that is not clearly demarcated by boundaries distinguishing between the external and internal enemy, such as a concentration camp, but instead constitutes a ‘death world’ where entire populations are the target of the sovereign. (Mbembé: 30).

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Agamben’s theory of the ‘homo sacer’ and Mbembe’s contextualisation to a more globalised world for me has provided the theoretical underpinning of why state violence and particular creations of the sovereign are not random or committed by irrational warmongers who can only think of firing bullets as a way to solve issues. Instead, they are Imperialistic, strategic forms of necropolitics with a clear aim, and a structure that can sweep aside the unfortunate side-effects of slaughtering street childrenburning prisoners alive and killing women as the doings of unruly, violent groups. It has begged me to ask: when is the use of violence (il)legitimate for the sake of being unruly? Can we understand organised, violent crime as a form of resistance created by being reduced to bare life even though the perpetrators themselves don’t frame it as such?

[1] Ironically, an ethnography of a maras in Honduras showed that converting to the Evangelical Church is the only way out of the gang other than death (Brenneman, 2012). 

[2] Known as the mano dura (iron fist) approach. See more: Jütersonke et al. 2009.

[3] There are two, they are bitter enemies, Mara Salvatrucha and MS-18. They originate from the United States comprised of Guatemalan and Salvadoran refugees of war, 46.000 of who were deported to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras in the 1990’s. They have since evolved into local orgnisations of mainly young men, typically from poor, urban milieux.

Agamben, G., 1998. Homo Sacer. In Homo Sacer – Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford University Press.

Mbembé & Mientjes, 2003. Necropolitics. Public Culture. 15(1), pp.11-40. Duke University Press.

Literature about Honduras and the Maras: 

Brenneman, R., 2012. Introduction: JJ’s Second Marriage. In Homies and Hermanos. OUP. pp.3-20.

Gordon, T. & Webber, J.R., 2013. The Overthrow of a Moderate and the Birth of a Radicalizing Resistance: The Coup Against Manuel Zelaya and the History of Imperialism and Popular Struggle in Honduras. In Carr, B. & Webber, J.R. The New Latin American Left. Cracks in the Empire. Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield. pp.357-82.

Jütersonke, O., Muggah, R. & Rodgers, D., 2009. Gangs and Violence Reduction in Central America. Security Dialogue, 40(4-5), pp.1-25.

Rodgers, D., 2006. Living in the Shadow of Death: Gangs, Violence and Social Order in Urban Nicaragua, 1996–2002. Journal of Latin American Studies , 38(2), pp.267-92.

#blacklivesmatter and necropolitics

Killings By Police March

I want to write about police brutality and the murder of unarmed Black bodies by police officers in the United States, and the relationship to biopower and necropolitics. I also want to write about the protest movements, including #blacklivesmatter #staywoke #nojusticenopeace #handsupdontshoot and #icantbreathe, and the relationship to unruly politics.

But it’s hard for me to know where to start (because this started 400+ years ago?), it’s hard for me to stay up-to-date (because new forms of violence happen daily/hourly), and it’s hard to know how to end (because this has not ended). The most recent example of a protest that I know of is centered around Martese Johnson. Martese Johnson was brutally assaulted by police officers during an arrest that he did not resist, and had to get ten stitches. Hundreds of students have gathered to protest this incident, calling for #justiceformartese. Last week nineteen year old Tony Robinson was shot and killed by a police officer.

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The United States is a country built on slavery. Black death, as well as Native American genocide, built the system. The United States became rich by exploiting, commodifying, and torturing enslaved people’s bodies, while enslaved people had to “survive, resist, or endure” (Baptist).

In the article Necropolitics by Mbembe, it is written that “slavery is one of the first instances of biopolitical experimentation” (17). What’s biopolitics? Mbembe spends time explaining Foucault’s concepts to us, writing that “biopower divides people into those who must live and those who must die” (17). Dividing people in this way “presupposes the distribution of human species into subgroups”, which is what Foucault labels with the term racism (Mbembe 17).

The United States has systematically killed Black people over the last several centuries. The U.S. Criminal justice system functions as a contemporary system of racial control (Alexander).

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In 2012, a man named George Zimmerman killed an unarmed seventeen year old boy named Trayvon Martin. In 2013, George Zimmerman was found not guilty in the murder of Trayvon Martin. Protests sprang up all across the country, and a new generation of black activism was launched. “New organizations have been formed, new leaders have emerged, the spirit of resistance has been given a reboot, and a new movement has taken hold” (Smith).

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In 2014, Michael Brown was murdered by the police in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner was murdered by the police in New York City. The state did not bring charges against the police officers responsible for their deaths. After the murder of Michael Brown, the day of his memorial became unruly. Police brought in riot gear and helicopters. Since then, there have been ongoing protests, unruliness, and “civil disorder” (wikipedia).

How do we view this unruliness? Is it just looting? Just unrest and disorder? A riot? A protest? One Black activist writes on her blog that communities pushing back against the murderous police force that is terrorizing them cannot be labeled as just a ‘riot’. She writes, “It’s an uprising. It’s a rebellion… people rising up in righteous anger and rage in the face of oppression should not be dismissed as simply a ‘riot'” (McKenzie).

Activists from Palestine have reached out to the activists in the United States, using Twitter to give advice like how to wash teargas residue from their eyes and how to make a gas mask. They’ve connected using hashtags such as #Palestine2Ferguson and #CommonOpressor.

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Biopolitics (and necropolitics) help us to understand the construction of desirable and undesirable populations. Some bodies deserve a chance at life and reproduction. For Others, imprisonment or death is acceptable, “or even important for the survival of the nation” (Bassichis and Spade, 199).

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The view of the Black body as undesirable, as threat, as criminal – the Black bodies that are murdered by the police have been relegated to a category in which their “lives..are not lives worth grieving; they belong to the increasing number of those who are understood as ungrievable, whose lives are thought not to be worth preserving” (Butler). Even public mourning becomes a form of unruliness because “when lives are considered ungrievable, to grieve them openly is protest” (Butler).

In the book All About Love, bell hooks writes:

White supremacy has taught him that all people of color are threats irrespective of their behavior. Capitalism has taught him that, at all costs, his property can and must be protected. Patriarchy has taught him that his masculinity has to be proved by the willingness to conquer fear through aggression; that it would be unmanly to ask questions before taking action. Mass media then brings us the news of this in a newspeak manner that sounds almost jocular and celebratory, as though no tragedy has happened, as though the sacrifice of a young life was necessary to uphold property values and white patriarchal honor.

Young boy uses sidewalk chalk to draw on a parking lot filled with memorial slogans during a demonstration to protest shooting of Michael Brown and resulting police response to protests, in Ferguson, Missouri

Me Reclaiming Delhi…..???

Delhi is one of the most unsafe cities for women in India. Delhi is also the city where I was born and brought up. It’s the city where I discovered my politics and myself. It’s the city that confuses me and frustrates me the most, it’s the city that makes me feel sad and it’s the city I hope can show me some optimism, maybe a ray of light and hopefully sooner rather than later.

The recently released documentary India’s daughter, portrays the rape of a young medical student. The documentary got me thinking about my role in the struggle to achieve a safer, more women friendly and most importantly patriarchy free Delhi. What will it need for me to make this change happen, do I even have the power to make a difference?

In 2012, when the rape of the young student flashed across all news channels, there was an uproar in Delhi. India Gate was coloured in rage, with thousands of Delhi- ites protesting for justice. Many of my friends and family participated in these public protests, it felt as if Delhi had exploded and many of its citizens demanded change. Many friends were beaten with ‘lathis’, the police abused some, while others were subjected to tear gas, but this public protest had only one goal in mind, justice for Jyoti. Civil Society looked upon the law to uphold justice. There was hope that the law would impact and transform in some ways the patriarchal power structure in society. A special committee was appointed and the convicted were sentenced to the death penalty.

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However, there has been ringing in my mind, in what way has this ruling impacted the current situation in Delhi? Is Delhi now a safer city for women? Did those public protests that united Delhi to fight for women’s rights have any long lasting impact? If you ask me, unfortunately I will have to say NO.

I still feel as unsafe in public places, I still get harassed on the streets, I still avoid the Delhi streets at night, I still feel like society thinks I am the problem, I still feel parents have different standards for girls and boys, I still feel the Delhi man lurks around with a privileged feeling and I feel that the sense of security and equality has become more of a distant dream. So my answer is a resounding No. There may have been a change in attitudes, buts its yet to be seen reflected in the everyday lives of people.

However, to claim that these protests did not have any meaning and value at all would be incorrect. A public protest, an act of collective action has its place and is an important aspect of expression, and in this case communication with the State. Public pressure forced a fast track ruling of the case.

Menon says, that the law is limited in its power to provide justice and ‘emancipating’ women can not be only be regarded as the responsibility of the Law. I agree that legal redressal is an important aspect and does help to reflect justice but in an incomplete and perhaps unwilling way. The Law can help at ‘suppressing the autonomy of power’ of a patriarchal society but it doesn’t consider the ‘production of oppression.’ (Menon, 2004, p.213) The State does not have control over the power dynamics that govern everyday lives of men and women in Delhi. Perhaps we need to dig deeper into the unequal gender based power relations embedded in society, try to understand how intersectionality of issues such as caste, class, religion, region etc impact gender relations.

Collective action in the form of protests like the one that happened post the 2012 rape case created a stir at that time and let the State know that there is a group of people who oppose gender based violence and believe in the legal system to provide for justice. However, this kind of public protesting has shown to have limited reach and impact on gender justice in India.

From the way I see it, women’s subversion is woven into the social fabric of India and it will need a lot more than public protests to make changes in this social fabric. Reading Scott’s Small Arms Fire, reinforced my belief that fighting hegemony or dominant social structures or male privilege in Delhi is not about the odd protests that each of us has participated in as part of our struggle to fight for a women friendly safer Delhi; it is the everyday “action” of resistance. To change any kind of attitudes and breakthrough structures of patriarchy in a society that believes and thrives on male privilege we will have to protest everyday, it will have to reflect in the way we talk, walk, the choices we make in our life and the risks we are willing to take.

This brings me back to where I had started, what would it need for me to make this change happen, do I even have the power to make the difference?

Are we, am I protesting everyday? Am I resisting the pressures of patriarchy in my life? What are some of the forms of protest used by many of us middle class Delhi-ites? Somehow, to me it seems that a lot of us have begun to accept the current order of patriarchal Delhi and have manipulated our forms of protests accordingly. Scott, in his paper talks about how often the weak defy social order but only enough as to not overtly confront the powerful. Further Scott says that its not like the weak are not aware of their position, but are making a choice that is less risky and is calculated in a way that they are able to make their point without feeling the brunt of it.

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“What it does represent is a constant process of testing and renegotiation of production relations between classes. On both sides—landlord-tenant, farmer-age laborer—there is a never-ending attempt to seize such small advantage and press it home, to probe the limits of the existing relationships, to see precisely what can be gotten away with at the margin, and to include this margin as part of the accepted, or at least tolerated, territorial claim. “(Scott 2008, p.255)

I have been wondering if testing these margins with careful steps is enough to challenge patriarchal norms? Or can we classify it as the more realistic and practical option?

“One of the reasons behind the increase in incidents of eve-teasing is short dresses and short skirts worn by women. This in turn instigates young men.”    Chiranjeet Chakraborty, ‘Trinamool Congress legislator’

One form of protest against this statement would be to wear what we want, when we want and where we want, especially for all of us who have participated in public protests against mindsets such as these. Except, you will find many young Delhi-ites (including me) being selective about their choice of clothing depending on which part of Delhi they are in. You will see women in “attention seeking” clothing mainly in parts of South Delhi, which is perceived as more progressive as opposed to perhaps Old Delhi, which is perceived to be more conservative. Unfortunately, this selection is not based on ‘free will’ but the internalization of the impact of power dynamics of a male privileged society. Choosing to wear ‘attention seeking’ clothing maybe a form of protest (often against family, fighting patriarchy in the house) for many of us but the fact that we choose to wear these clothes in places where they may be more acceptable, where the risk of being harassed is limited is a sign of fighting a patriarchal society but at the same time accepting the current social structure.

“Girls should be careful at what time they move out in the city.” Asha Mirje, ‘NCP Party’

Many girls in Delhi do go out at night and by themselves. But have we taken back the night? No. There is still a fear of the night, of a space that does not belong to women and a space that has not been reclaimed yet. Going out at night includes a calculated cost benefit analysis of risk. If public transport can be avoided, it is avoided, if not then the latest safest time is calculated so as to avoid being in a vulnerable situation alone at night. Where we may go is also dependent on how high it measures up on the safety quotient. For many of us going out at night is a statement in itself, but its execution is so restricted. We are letting Delhi know that we exist at night and have rights, but it enacts itself out in restrained ways so as to avoid a showdown.

“Hey hottie, what an ass, I want to grab you” or “kya tot maal hai” are common words to hear for a woman in the streets of Delhi. “Eve teasing” as it is called is a common form of harassment, often turning into ass grabbing, chest grabbing and other forms of violence, verbal and otherwise. You will be surprised to know that lots of women don’t respond to these advances, common behaviour is to ignore the situation and pretend like it didn’t happen. Again the question is, ‘Why’, especially if we are out on the streets protesting against such behavior every time Delhi is struck with a news breaking rape case? Well, because, taking a stand can be precarious. Most men in Delhi roam around almost as if they have a social license to harm. If I am in a public space with potential supporters, I may respond to my violator but If I am alone, if there is a group of boys, if I feel scared for the consequences of either being attacked physically or otherwise I may not protest at all. I may not make it known that the man on the bus is rubbing himself against me (yes, been there, faced that)

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Protesting and fighting these everyday daily battles are not easy and yet it is this form of everyday resistance that is so important to fight against women’s subversion. For many of us it becomes much harder because the everyday battles start at home, its starts with fighting our own family and friends. So is fighting with your parents to go watch a movie at night, but choosing to go to a theatre that is considered safe, “barely” an act of rebellion? Or labeling this tiny victory as “just” survival, being both cynical and arrogant?

Are these victories too small and insignificant? My head tells me we need to win bigger battles, take larger risks but my heart knows how much courage it takes to confront that man on the bus.

We seem to live in a Delhi, where there is neither complete defiance, nor is there an absolute rebellion. Have we begun to “define what is realistic and what is not realistic and to drive certain goals and aspirations into the realms of the impossible, the realm of idle dreams, of wishful thinking.”(Scott 2008, p. 236)

I don’t know what the answer is, we are fighting small arms but is it time to pick up the AK 47s?

Bibliography

Menon, N. (2004). Recovering subversion: Feminist politics beyond the law. University of Illinois Press.

Scott, J. C. (2008). Weapons of the weak: Everyday forms of peasant resistance. yale university Press.

Dance of Death: Transcending boundaries between Angels and Demons

“Death has a language of its own

Psychedelic and celebratic in tragedy

Death has a symphony beyond limits

of freedom, of transcendence

“I am liberated today” He yelled to himself, like standing in a theatre of empty corridors  The corridors were empty, yet the wind had a howling resonance, within that resonance was he and his newly claimed sovereign.

He asked the Sovereign “what I have become?”

Sovereign replied “In the land of the bountiful, you are the purest, where slaves bow their heads in submission, you are the King of these lands and seas”

His heart started to beat rapidly as if veins were separated from his body, he asked “You are the sovereign, guardian of my soul, I find the continuum of my rivers  through you”

Sovereign paused for a moment and said “I am bones your flesh embrace, I am veins that your blood paints. I neither deny nor reciprocate. You are the origin and the conqueror of the sovereign”

He could hear his voice resonate in clog of smoke, yet only silence of his ambushed victims could revere him company. The lull before the inevitable, whispers before the dazzle had ended. The storm had arrived and with it hour of celebracy.  Death was a dancing companion, as if demons were transformed into angles. He could see nature smiling on him. Heaven was pouring blood and tattered flesh was a souvenir to illuminate aura of victory.  Each footstep detached him of his material remains, remains which were decomposing into shattered glasses, debris and rubble. He felt light, as if nothing tied him to before and after. The smoke gradually settled and arms of Angels carried him onto World of eternal happiness.  He was rekindled solider who had transgressed beyond the realm of pain, misery and material obscurity.

After moments of silence, the lull finally capitulated, there was sudden burst of noises and voices from every corner. The anthem had began, Sirens, horns, shrieks and cries. There was struggle, shock, despair yet the moment of so many switches had little clarity of what had occurred and what the response should be. Emotion tussled between utter numbness and vocal despair  Death was still dancing as a companion but as a demon taking away souls from tattered bodies. There was air of helplessness and sense of heaviness in the mist as corpses scattered like lightened morsels.  How can nature be so unkind, why is God watching this mayhem. These questioned brimmed in remorse of the smoke, that trailed into cracked  walls of some nearby building to castle transcendence of another tragedy.

The early morning Sunlight embraced his face, which seem like a stone untouched by light since centuries. There was little unique about the day, a sense of predictability in daily traffic,  small tussles between roadside vendors,  aggrieved eyes of beggars and rushing suited men in anticipation of another ambition.  He was a passive passenger in trail that was carrying him along, however in being passive he carried a pursuit much bigger. The pursuit of death or for him pursuit of eternal transcendence. It was the hour he had waited upon since so many years. In his blandness he carried many memories . However he was a man who had extinguished his emotions in nights of many a remorse. Self doubts were behind him instead what he believed in was truth of his internal power. The power of Suicide Bomber, which was revelation of the sacred, a celebratic affair of glory, liberation and self actualization.

I wrote this piece in backdrop of  twin deadly suicide bombing attacks that hit two  Pakistani Churches killing about 15 people injuring 75 in Lahore. The attacks are continuation of series of targeted violence against Christian Minorities, who make up 2% of entire population of Pakistan. The ratio of minority population has been on the decline since waves of extremism has intensified.

The tragedy again poses us the question of pervasive role of suicide bombing as modality of action by supposedly oppressed and marginalized against the sovereignty of the state.  Is this modality, more celebracy of Sovereignty over in-capabilities of the state or more conscious target killing. I believe it is more to do with celebracy of norm of Suicide bombing which is becoming a strategically defined means of political action. These fundamentalist groups have defined their own judicial norms so what lies beyond  grounds and rules of these is considered as exception and thus is treated in an exceptional manner.

References 

Agamben, G. (1998) ‘Part two: homo sacer’, in Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, pp. 71-115.