Source: NACLA Report on the Americas

On the evening of Saturday, September 22, human rights lawyer Antonio Trejo stepped outside a wedding ceremony to take a phone call. Standing in the church parking lot of a suburb of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, he was shot six times by unknown assailants. Despite his requests, he had been granted no police protection in the face of death threats; Trejo had believed he would be targeted by wealthy landowners over his outspoken advocacy on behalf of small farmers seeking to reclaim seized territories.1 In his death, Trejo joined dozens of fallen peasant leaders whom he had defended, as well as murdered opposition candidates, LGBT activists, journalists, and indigenous residents. All were victims of the violence and impunity that has reigned in Honduras since the 2009 coup d’état against its democratically elected and left-leaning president, Manuel Zelaya.

Earlier that day, Trejo had appeared on television, denouncing the powerful interests behind the government’s push for ciudades modelos—swaths of land to be ceded to international investors and developed into autonomous cities, replete with their own police forces, taxes, labor codes, trade rules, and legal systems. He had helped prepare motions declaring the proposal unconstitutional.

This concept of “charter cities” has been promoted for a couple of years by Paul Romer, a University of Chicago–trained economist teaching at New York University. He described his brainchild in a co-authored op-ed as “an effort to build on the success of existing special zones based around the export-processing maquila industry.” A “new city on an undeveloped site, free of vested interests” could bypass the “inefficient rules” that hinder “peace, growth and development” worldwide, he argued. With new and stable institutions, the charter city could become an “attractive place for would-be residents and investors.”2

The international press swooned over Romer’s revolutionary idea: Foreign Policy magazine named him one of its Top 100 Global Thinkers of 2010 for “developing the world’s quickest shortcut to economic development”;3 that same year, The Atlantic dedicated a 5,400-word paean to Romer and his “urban oases of technocratic sanity,” which held the promise that “struggling nations could attract investment and jobs; private capital would flood in and foreign aid would not be needed.”

But the applicability of Romer’s radical vision in Honduras always depended on the enthusiasm of the authoritarian, post-coup government of Porfirio Lobo. Lobo owes his presidency to the sham elections of 2009, which took place under the U.S.-backed de facto military government that overthrew Zelaya and were marred by violent repression and media censorship. With the exceptions of the U.S.-financed International Republican Institute and National Democratic Institute, international observers boycotted the electoral charade that foisted Lobo into power.

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