Honduras, the Perfect Storm?

In January 2016, the government of Honduras and the Organization of American States (OAS) formalized the creation of a new international organ to help fight corruption in this country. The Mission of Support Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH, in the Spanish acronym) is a welcome step. However, it is very early to estimate whether it will be able to make a positive contribution to solving the daunting challenges facing justice and security in this country.

Honduras experiences what can be called a “perfect storm” of interrelated problems: violence perpetrated by diverse actors (gangs, drug traffickers); human rights abuses, in the context of a steady militarization of public security; impunity; corruption at the highest institutional levels, and widespread poverty and inequality. For years, it has been the most violent country in the world, with an average rate of 90 homicides per 100,000 people according to estimates by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime and the World Bank, which is significantly higher than the international average intentional homicide rate of 6.2 per 100,000 people.

Gangs, Drugs, and Corruption

Honduras, like El Salvador and Guatemala, has a serious problem with gangs. These are territorial groups involved in extortion and other crimes, exerting social control and who are connected to other criminal actors. The prevailing narrative from politicians and the media puts the blame of violence on the gangs, whose members are highly stigmatized as a result. Different governments have adopted iron-first and militarized approaches to deal with them. Casa Alianza, a charity that works and campaigns for the rehabilitation and the defence of street children, has documented that even children become victims of extrajudicial executions, carried out by death squads sometimes linked to the security forces. In January 2016, Casa Alianza denounced a monthly average rate of 81 children victims of extrajudicial executions.


Image of Mara Salvatrucha gang member by markarinafotos.

However, the figures of homicides attributable to gangs are highly disputed, and national and international actors diverge in their interpretations about the share of responsibilities for violence. This is a strategic corridor for drug trafficking, and the local markets are growing. According to the OAS, around 70% of homicides are perpetrated by drug cartels involved in wars for the control of routes, sometimes using gang members and youth as sicarios (a Spanish term for hit men). By January 2014, estimates were that 87% of the drug planes heading from South America to North America passed through this country. Transnational groups, especially from Mexico, have established bases here. Then, there are local groups and transportistas (carriers), contracted by the cartels and connected to Honduran political and economic elites, including land owners and mayors.

In 2012, when the news about the gang truce in El Salvador spread throughout Central America, the Honduran gangs explored the possibility of starting a similar process. In May 2013, they delivered their first public statements from jail, announcing that they would stop violence in exchange for a series of demands. This was the first public event of a process accompanied by the Bishop of San Pedro Sula, Rómulo Emiliani, and the Secretary of Multidimensional Security of the OAS, Adam Blackwell.

Dialogue never advanced for many different reasons, including the decentralized nature of the Honduran gangs (that makes it difficult to enforce discipline among the ranks), the lack of political maturity of their leadership, and the weak legitimacy of a government that had emerged from the 2009 coup d’état,. But Bishop Emiliani had warned, from the beginning, that even a successful truce could never emulate the sudden drop of homicides of El Salvador, where the daily rate plummeted from 14 to 5. n Honduras, he warned, the range of actors involved in violence for different purposes is extensive, and the balances of power among them very distinct from those of the neighbour country.

It is worth remembering that in the 80s, amidst the wars that ravaged Central America, the Honduran territory was used for drug and arms trafficking with the aim of supporting the US allies in these wars, among them the Contras, who fought against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. The illicit networks and connections created have survived well after these conflicts ended, including in sectors of the elite and security forces. Interpeace states that this is the country with more denounces of complicity between police members and illegal actors for the commission of crimes.

Militarization as a Response

President Juan Orlando Hernández, who took office in 2014, has followed others by trying to respond to these threats with an iron first strategy of crime suppression. But he has elevated the militarization of law enforcement to new levels. The military is now in charge of most aspects of public security.

The most prominent example is the creation of the Military Police of Public Order (PMOP), which currently has around 3,000 soldiers deployed throughout the country. A special law has been approved to prevent the Attorney General’s Office from investigating and prosecuting their potential abuses. It is the National Council on Defence and Security, under the control of the Armed Forces, who appoints judges and prosecutors for that role. The resources for the PMOP are collected through a security tax and allocated through a classified and ultra-secret budget.

Another emerging actor is FUSINA (Fuerza de Seguridad Interinstitucional), a task force composed of representatives of different security units. Led by the military, and with no formal status as an agency, FUSINA manages various bodies and organs, such as an anti-extortion unit that controls phone intercepts. Added to this is the US-backed Special Comprehensive Government Security Response Unit (TIGRES), a SWAT-style militarized police force.

Militarization takes place in the streets and also in the top-down institutional structures, with more military in charge of security positions, including the Security Ministry that has power over the armed forces and the police. The military also controls the penitentiary system, with soldiers guarding prisons. The trend is worrying in itself and for the lack of transparency and accountability implied. Civil society groups have denounced a trend that might be bringing the country back to the ‘80s, when the military had extended powers and human rights abuses were rampant, and reversing the efforts to advance civilian power during the 90s.

On the other hand, the national police experienced only limited reform in the past and are often accused of corruption and complicity in crime. Recently there have been limited purges of corrupt officers, but the situation could get even worse as they receive less equipment, salaries, and benefits than the PMOP. The priority given to the military threatens the feasibility and viability of a much-needed profound transformation of the police forces.

There have been some successes in the fight against drug trafficking, such as the dismantlement of the leadership of the crime organization Los Valle while Los Cachiros surrendered to US authorities. The head of operations of the Sinaloa Federation, who operated from San Pedro Sula, has also been captured. But efforts to cut the links of powerful elite sectors with narco-trafficking and crime have been far less evident despite the US efforts in this matter. The US Treasury Department has included some of them in their “kingpin list”, including the Rosenthal family, one of the most influential in the country. Jaime Rosenthal, former vice-president and head of an economic conglomerate, has been asked for extradition on charges of money laundering.

Corruption Shocking the Country

In 2015, a corruption scandal shook the country. Members of the President-related Liberal Party diverted more than 335 million dollars from the Institute of Social Security, at least in part to fund the party’s electoral campaign. Citizens protested for months in the streets of Tegucigalpa, the nation’s capital, and other cities against corruption, impunity, and human rights abuses. They claimed for the President resignation and asked for international support to fight corruption, through an initiative similar to the International Commission to Combat Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), which has achieved significant results including the case against President Otto Pérez Molina on corruption charges.

The Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH), tasked with “the prevention and fight against corruption and impunity in the country”, is now a reality and could be accompanied by a permanent UN human rights monitoring mission in Honduras. The MACCIH shares some similarities with the CICIG. Both are hybrid agencies, international and domestic, but composed by international civil officers accountable to international organs (the UN, and the OAS). Both are tasked with the fight against corruption and impunity with the hope of bringing justice where the national counterparts cannot for different reasons (pressures, corruption, lack of resources).

The MACCIH is expected to include independent judges and prosecutors to supervise and support their national counterparts, promote a review of the effectiveness of the public security system, create a civil society observatory to evaluate progress and a role for the Justice Studies Centre of the Americas in proposing legislation reform. But their powers will be more limited than those of the CICIG, which can initiate and conduct criminal proceedings against anyone without approval of the national authorities.

The MACCIH can promote transparency and reforms, but much will depend on the political will to follow and implement (instead of resisting) its recommendations and proposals. National and international voices have questioned whether it will have enough power to fight effectively institutional corruption. Honduran elites will probably resist any effort directed at reform and accountability. In April 2015, the investigator that uncovered the ISS corruption scandal received death threats and had to flee the country. And the former head of the National Commission for the Fight Against Drug Trafficking, Alfredo Landaverde, was shot dead days after condemning the links between police and organized crime.

With all those factors in mind, it becomes clear that repressive iron first policies and militarization cannot substitute the fight against illicit networks, corruption and impunity, nor the effort towards institution building, particularly in the rule of law and justice. They have been popular in electoral terms and have received substantial international backing, but are incapable of supressing crime connected to gangs or drug trafficking, and fail to guarantee human security. Furthermore, they do nothing to address corruption at all levels of the state and cut the links between elites and different forms of organized crime. Ivan Briscoe, of the Clingendael Institute, summarized the dynamic as follows: “Informal relationships, money and fear have initiated a vicious cycle of emergency responses, militarization and corruption that only virtuous policies with public backing can replace”. Of course, that will be a long-term endeavor.

Mabel González Bustelo is a Fellow of the Global South Unit for Mediation (BRICS Policy Centre, Brazil) and author of Mediation with non-conventional armed groups? Experiences from Latin America.