What kind of government does Honduras have

Domestic conflicts

Wolfgang Knoblauch

Wolfgang Knoblauch completed his master's degree in Spanish-language and English-language literature at the University of Konstanz and worked in risk management for over five years, most recently in the position of senior advisor. He currently works as a freelance risk analyst.

In view of rampant corruption and massive gang and drug crime, Honduras is one of the most insecure countries in Latin America. The government and the police are hardly willing or able to enforce the state monopoly on the use of force. Critical journalists, trade unionists and human rights activists are threatened and murdered.

The military and police present almost 1.5 tons of cocaine that they seized during three operations against drug trafficking in Honduras before they are destroyed on March 1st, 2019. (& copy picture-alliance / AP, Fernando Antonio)

Current conflict situation

Several prison revolts at the end of 2019 once again highlighted the problem of criminal street gangs in Honduras: in December alone, at least 45 people died. President Juan Orlando Hernández tried to stop the wave of violence by declaring a state of emergency in the country's prisons and deploying the military, but failed to prevent two more riots.

The authorities explained the events with an escalation between the warring street gangs Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18, whose relatives populate the prisons in large numbers. But these gangs have also determined the security situation in Honduras outside of the prisons for decades. The murder rate of around 41 kills per 100,000 population, the third highest in the western hemisphere, is largely due to the activities of these and other gangs. They control large parts of the country's urban areas, extorting protection money from street vendors, small business owners and local transport operators and dominating the local drug trade.

When fighting over areas of influence, these groups use extreme violence. According to calculations by the newspaper El Heraldo, the number of multiple killings, i.e. the murder of more than three people, doubled in 2019, which is an indicator of the escalation of territorial disputes. This escalation is also reflected in the prisons, which have become the real headquarters of these gangs.

The rioting in prisons also has another aspect. In the United States, President Hernández's brother Juan Antonio Hernández was found guilty of cocaine smuggling in October 2019. During the legal proceedings, there were increasing indications of complicity on the part of the president: In addition to a number of compromising statements by arrested cartel members, a "Narcolibreta", a notebook in which payments to the president were noted, were also found as evidence. The writer of the notebook, who was detained in Honduras, was the victim of an apparently targeted killing in late October.

The strong evidence against President Hernández has exacerbated political tensions in Honduras. In addition to corruption and criminal machinations, opposition members accuse the president and his ruling party of electoral fraud, embezzlement of public funds and the establishment of an authoritarian regime. The frequent demonstrations regularly lead to violent reactions from the militarized security forces, which have caused dozens of deaths in recent years.

Activists are also exposed to significant threats. According to the NGO Global Witness, over 150 activists have been killed since 2010, with a large number of unreported cases being assumed. A prominent example is the internationally known environmental activist Berta Cáceres, who was killed by contract killers in 2016. There are also dozens of trade unionists, journalists, lawyers, women and LGBT activists who have been murdered or victims of other human rights violations.

Causes and Background

A central cause of the conflict is to be found in the country's socio-economic division. Although Honduras recorded the second highest economic growth in Central America from 2017 to 2019, according to the World Bank, more than 60% of the population still live below the poverty line. The socio-economically desperate situation of many people in Honduras drives young people in particular to join the street gangs. At the same time, emigration is constantly increasing. The U.S. Border Protection Agency counted over 250,000 migrants from Honduras in 2019, more than 2.5% of the Honduran population.

Another important factor is the geographic location of Honduras between the producing countries of drugs in South America and the receiving countries in North America. Drug deliveries come into the country from South America by ship or plane and are transported on to Guatemala. Numerous cartel members have been arrested in recent years, which has created a certain power vacuum in drug smuggling. The recent escalation between MS-13 and Barrio 18 gives rise to the assumption that these gangs, which until now have limited themselves to the local drug trade, are trying to push into this vacuum and fight for shares in the more lucrative drug smuggling.

The statements of the arrested cartel members also made the complicity of the political and economic elites in drug smuggling increasingly evident. The convicted Juan Antonio Hernández is just one example of many. President Hernández's party, the National Party of Honduras (Partido Nacional de Honduras, PNH), has been in power without interruption since 2009 and has been able to expand and consolidate its influence over all state powers and institutions as well as through the media. Important posts have been filled with party friends and allies, and laws have been passed that have made investigations against corruption more difficult and have reduced the penalties for corruption.

In addition to drug smuggling, the embezzlement of public funds was also facilitated. The "Mission in Support of the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras" (Misión de Apoyo contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras, MACCIH) set up with the help of the Organization of American States (OAS) named a sum of more than 450 million US dollars in 2016. Dollars, about 2% of the gross domestic product, which disappear from public budgets and coffers every year.

Corruption continues in the legal and police systems. The courts are corrupt, overloaded and influenced by politics. In 2020, Honduras ranked fourth from bottom in Latin America and the Caribbean in the Rule of Law Index of the World Justice Project; about 87% of the murders go unpunished. The police are also considered to be one of the most corrupt in the region and are involved in the activities of both street gangs and drug smugglers. Several attempts to reform the police force have not eradicated the deeply rooted corruption.

The policy of the hard hand ("mano dura") pursued against street gangs and other criminal groups since the early 2000s went hand in hand with a considerable militarization of police work from 2011 onwards. With military operations inside and the establishment of special militarized units, an authoritarian climate was created. There is also strong evidence that these units are also involved in criminal activities. In the abovementioned murder of activist Berta Cáceres, for example, the perpetrators were traced to members of the military police.

Processing and solution approaches

In recent years there have been some initiatives by the international community to improve the situation in Honduras. In December 2018, a national dialogue initiated by the United Nations ended without formal resolutions, which representatives of the opposition justified with the lack of will of the ruling party. The MACCIH was able to record a little more success. Despite the opposition of the political elite, it was able to uncover some cases of corruption in the highest levels of politics and society. When the end of the mission became apparent, international organizations such as the OAS and the EU pleaded for a renewal of their mandate, which, however, was not extended by the government at the beginning of 2020, including on the recommendation of the Congress.

This is all the more serious as the support and pressure of the international community are necessary to improve the situation in Honduras. The US is Honduras' main partner, with a focus on combating transnational drug smuggling. In addition, the US government under President Donald Trump has put considerable pressure on Honduras to curb migration flows to the US. Although the measures taken were able to reduce migratory movements, they are not suitable for improving the living conditions of the population in the long term. Honduran and international human rights organizations such as Global Witness are demanding greater financial support for poverty reduction, which could combat one of the most important causes of migration and at least partially deprive the street gangs of their recruitment base.

International influence is also necessary to carry out important political reforms. The electoral system in particular has been criticized. During the controversial polls in 2013 and 2017, EU observers pointed out a number of deficiencies in the electoral system, including the ruling party's control over the highest electoral authority, the Tribunal Supremo Electoral. With the help of the OAS, this was dissolved in 2018 and replaced with two new, equal-representation authorities, which is a first step in the right direction. However, opposition politicians insist on a complete reform of the electoral system to allow fair and free elections and avoid further unrest.

History of the conflict

The 2009 coup is one of the main causes of the strong political polarization in Honduras. The attempt by then President Manuel Zelaya to hold a poll about the calling of a constituent assembly was interpreted by the Supreme Constitutional Court as preparation for an unconstitutional second term. As a result, Zelaya was arrested in June 2009 and expelled from the country. The international community unanimously condemned the coup.

With the following presidential elections, from which Porfirio Lobo emerged victorious, the PNH's reign, which has now lasted more than ten years, began. In the course of this, the country was repeatedly shaken by controversies and civil unrest, especially during elections. After Juan Orlando Hernández's victory in the 2013 presidential election, it became known that his campaign was partially funded with money from the state social security fund. As a result, the "Oposición Indignada" (indignant opposition) movement emerged, which demanded consequences in months of protests. As a compromise, the MACCIH was set up, but it did little to alleviate tensions.

The situation came to a head in the 2017 elections when the Supreme Court gave President Hernández the opportunity to run for a second term, a process that served as a pretext for Zelaya's impeachment eight years earlier. The elections themselves were characterized by delays and alleged technical problems. It was only three weeks after the vote that Hernández was declared the winner with a 1.5% lead after challenger Salvador Nasralla was still 5% ahead in a preliminary count the day after the election. The subsequent riots resulted in over 35 deaths.

Street gangs have existed in Honduras since the 1970s, but the situation worsened dramatically in the early 2000s when the USA deported masses of delinquent immigrants from Latin America to their countries of origin. Among them were numerous members of the gangs MS-13 and Barrio 18, which were founded in Los Angeles. With their tight organization and willingness to use violence, these gangs quickly prevailed. Their relentless struggle for influence and territories drove the murder rate to the astronomical figure of more than 83 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants in 2011. The murder rate has since been reduced by around half thanks to the "hard hand policy" and numerous arrests, which has, however, led to a doubling of the prison population.


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Link list

Harzer, Erika (2019): Honduras in the vortex of impunity. Sheets for German and International Politics, March 2019

International Crisis Group: Analysis and reports on Honduras.

InSight Crime: Analysis, reports and news about Honduras.