DORAL, Fla. — 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.
The Honduran government was working hard to fight drug traffickers and shield its citizens from violence, Kelly told lawmakers.
"Human rights groups have acknowledged to me that Honduras is making real progress," he said.
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."
Today, human rights abuses and government corruption remain major concerns in Honduras, despite millions of dollars in U.S. aid and pledges by Kelly and other American officials to tackle misconduct within the country's security forces. While U.S. government statistics show Honduras had some success in reducing drug trafficking and violence during Kelly's tenure, the country remains a busy transit hub for cocaine moving to the United States and its murder rate is still one of the world's highest.
These issues are in sharp relief this week as President Trump rails 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 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 details of his work in Honduras. The Honduran government did not respond to questions for this story.
Kelly's upbeat assessment for lawmakers was typical of his stance toward Honduras and its leaders while he led the South Florida-based U.S. Southern Command, known in military shorthand as SOUTHCOM. He praised Honduran politicians and security officials for making strides fighting corruption and protecting human rights even as media headlines and U.S. government reports linked the country's security forces to murders and graft.
James Nealon, a friend of Kelly's who worked closely with him at SOUTHCOM, as U.S. ambassador to Honduras from 2014 to 2017 and briefly in the Trump administration, said he and Kelly 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, while colleagues elsewhere in the Obama administration raised concerns about links between high-ranking Honduran officials and drug trafficking, 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 who attended closed-door meetings between Kelly and rights groups.
By 2016, when Kelly retired from SOUTHCOM, a State Department report said eastern Honduras remained "a primary landing zone for drug traffickers." Honduras had started extraditing alleged traffickers to the U.S., where some have been charged and convicted. But the country had not seized a single suspected drug boat despite U.S. authorities' tips, the report said.
The country's security forces, meanwhile, remain dogged by allegations of violence against citizens. In March, United Nations human rights officials warned of a "fragile human rights situation" after Honduran security forces shot dead at least 16 civilians amid protests following a contested presidential election.
Two top Honduran security officials have been shadowed by claims that they colluded with drug kingpins. A leader of Honduras' Cachiros cartel testified in a U.S. court in New York last year that the group collaborated with Security Minister Julian Pacheco Tinoco, among other officials. In January, the AP revealed that a confidential Honduran government report alleged that the newly appointed national police chief, Jose David Aguilar Moran, had facilitated the delivery nearly a ton of cocaine in 2013, when he was the force's chief of intelligence.
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.
Mendoza reported from San Francisco and Sherman reported from Mexico City.