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By Amy Lieberman
Honduras is the murder capital of the world. Over the last ten years, Honduran homicide rates climbed past those of El Salvador, Colombia, and South Africa, with over 7,100 murders in 2012. According to the National Autonomous University of Honduras (NAUH), the murder rate in Honduras rose from 30 murders per 100,000 residents in 2004 to 85.5 murders per 100,000 in 2012.
Most observers blame the rising violence on the spread of organized crime. But Hondurans also point to a government that is unable and unwilling to break an infectious web of local gang activity. Over the past few years, this country of 8 million has become a safe haven for transnational organized drug networks creating rough political terrain for any prospective presidential candidate. Some municipalities in the northwest region are now totally “under the control of complex networks of mayors, businessmen, and land owners dedicated to cocaine trafficking,” according to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime. Not surprisingly, murder rates spike along trafficking routes.
Experts attribute the rise of the drug transshipment trade in the country to 2006, when the Mexican government implemented a security strategy that made it tougher for traffickers to ship drugs directly to Mexico. Honduras, previously a refueling stop for vessels moving cocaine, became a top transit path for the drugs themselves. According to the American policy group Washington Office of Latin America, or WOLA, about 80 percent of the cocaine destined for the United States now passes through Honduras. “I can tell you Honduras is probably the country that worries me the most in all of the Caribbean and Central America,” said Amado de Andres, the regional representative of the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, speaking from Panama City.
Mexico’s two largest drug cartels, the Zetas and Sinaloa, gained footholds in Honduras after the June 2009 military coup d'état of Manuel Zelaya, the husband of right-wing candidate Xiomara Castro de Zelaya. Seven months of violent military arrests and de-facto government followed the military’s forced removal of Zelaya, who was sent into exile after trying to illegally extend his term limit.
“Nothing is too far gone. You have to do something, but it is a long road, and you have to attack the source of the weakness,” said Mark Ungar, a political science professor at Brooklyn College who serves on the Honduran government’s five-person Commission for Security Reform. “You have to start naming organized criminals, dealing with arms trafficking. There is no plan by any campaign to change that.”
Crime is the top concern on Hondurans’ minds as they head to the polls next month in the first national election since 2009. At opposite ends of the political spectrum are Xiomara Castro de Zelaya and his opponent, Juan Orlando Hernández. Both are capitalizing on the public’s fears, offering polarizing answers as to how Honduras could become a safer nation. Yet few believe either candidate can fix Honduras’ deeply engrained problems: problems that produce chart-topping levels of violence.
Hernández, the leader of the National Party (Partido Nacional) now controls the national congress, and enjoys the support of most of the country’s marginal elite. He says that as president he will intensify the military’s control of internal security. This tactic has become more common over the last 10 years in Honduras, says Ungar.
Indeed, Hernandez has already demonstrated the tactics he would likely employ as president. Under the leadership of Hernández, the National Congress granted itself the voting power to impeach the president, supreme court justices, and legislators, while taking away citizens’ rights to challenge the constitutionality of laws. Hernández has admitted to stuffing ballots during the primary elections last November. This spring he approved measures to militarize 1,000 police. As president, he would likely increase this number. The decision was not entirely unpopular in Honduras. All the same, it is not clear how training local police as soldiers is effective in reducing violence.
“It makes people feel safer, but there isn’t much evidence it has actually worked anywhere in Central America to reduce homicides,” said Geoff Thale, the program director of WOLA. “It winds up being tolerance for extrajudicial executions and becomes a serious problem.”
Hernández trailed Castro by about 10 points in October polls. Castro captured 31 percent of voters’ support, while Hernandez held 21 percent. Both activists and experts agree that Castro, a newcomer to the political scene, would be the best option among the eight candidates,. Yet she is often seen as an extension of her husband, the deposed former president who was allowed back into the country in 2011. Her plans to alter the constitution are precisely what led to his military ousting and could trigger a potential repeat of the same scenario.
Castro, who leads the new Liberty and Re-foundation Party (Libre), has gained a lead in the polls through talk of attacking violence by essentially cleaning the state – purging the police force and restructuring all legislative bodies. She opposes militarizing the police; instead, she envisions a Honduras run by the people. “She says she wants to re-found the nation, and it isn’t very clear what this means,” said Ismael Moreno, a Jesuit priest who directs the Honduran political research organization the Center for Reflection, Investigation and Communication. “She might not respond very well in two years to this problem of violence, but she will at least allow debates, a chance to look for answers.”
The voices of common citizens in Honduras, though, are subject to powerful and potentially threatening influences. Honduras, with a GDP of $18.5 billion, is one of the poorest nations in Latin America. Nearly 50 percent of Hondurans live in extreme poverty. People in the rural western part of Honduras, near the Guatemalan border, rely on organized criminal groups for jobs in local stores, restaurants and companies.
“We say that these groups being there is a ‘positive’ thing,” said Jose Luis Chinchilla Sorto, the vice president of a Honduran NGO that works on transparency issues. “We are seeing the number of drug traffickers drop a bit now and some people think that is a negative, is a loss of work. In some ways their being here has become normal. ”
It is understood that drug money flows freely in political campaigns in Honduras. Political candidates are not required to show their campaign financing and neither Castro nor Hernández have offered their finance details. Some dirty sources sometimes reveal themselves. There are various departments where mayoral candidates are related to people publicly recognized as narco-traffickers, says Moreno. But making these connections in a Honduran newspaper could result in murder. Twenty journalists have been killed in Honduras since 1992, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. “Almost everyone, not just the average person but well-informed political observers, believes that drug money has corrupted the political process,” said Thale, of WOLA. “I have very little doubt it is true, but investigating and proving it is very difficult.”
Ensuring transparency at the voting booths is also challenging. The electoral tribunal recently announced, after some deliberation, that the political parties will receive the ballots after the tribunal tallies them. A plurality is needed to win office. “There have been a lot of changes that are bringing many uncertainties to the process,” said Chinchilla, who is observing the elections. “We also see that one of the candidates is now ruling the country, so that raises questions of credibility.” The European Union and the Organization of the American States are sending 140 electoral observers to support Chinchilla and about 1,000 other Hondurans monitor poll booths Nov. 24.
Some politically active voters like Dilsia Posadas are considering just staying home. “You don’t feel very inspired to go vote because you know nothing is going to change,” said Posadas, the president of the civil society group Women’s Network for Peace in Honduras. “These candidates promise one thing and when they arrive to power they completely do another.” Andrés Guzman, a 25-year-old living in Tegucigalpa, is planning to vote for the inexperienced anti-corruption party candidate, Salvador Nasralla. Yet Guzman is also thinking beyond Honduras, as he tries to secure a job in the United States, where his grandmother and brother live. He wants to leave for some time, at least, until things seem a bit better at home. However, it might be a while before he returns to a country thus far riddled by organized crime and corruption.
Amy Leiberman is a journalist based in New York, reporting from the United Nations as well as Latin America, South Asia, and Southeast Asia.
[Photo courtesy of Travel Blog]