Honduras has in recent years stood out for its relative success in making inroads against organised crime and in curbing its sky-high homicide rates. But beneath the veneer of its achievements lie dysfunctional politics, high levels of ongoing violence and deep public discontent — all of which have worked together to spur recurrent waves of social unrest and prompt hundreds of thousands of Hondurans to flee northward in search of a better life.
Three sources of unrest
One source of major social unrest in Honduras is a deep political polarisation fuelled by the sense among those out of power that the current government lacks legitimacy. The country has never fully moved past a coup d’état that ousted former president Manuel Zelaya in 2009 — who was himself accused of seeking an unconstitutional re-election. Since then, the conservative National Party has held power without interruption, with president Juan Orlando Hernández taking office in 2014.
Having returned to the country in 2011 following a period of exile, Zelaya now heads the most prominent opposition party — the left-wing Libre — which has tended to paint Hernández’s actions as authoritarian. The Libre-led opposition has called him out for stacking key state and judicial positions with party sympathizers and — most consequentially — has alleged that he perpetrated electoral fraud in the 2017 elections in order to gain a second term. In the aftermath of the elections, Libre urged its supporters onto the streets. Clashes between protestors and security forces soon turned violent, leaving 23 dead and 1,351 in jail; the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights documented extensive human rights violations by the security forces.
Corruption scandals are the second main driver of public outrage. In 2015, an investigation revealed that $300 million had been looted from the Honduran Institute of Social Security with the involvement of high-level government officials, and that part of the proceeds had funded Hernández’s 2013 presidential campaign. Hernández admitted to having received some of the embezzled funds, although he claimed to have had no knowledge of their provenance. The case sparked mass demonstrations that persuaded Hernández to establish — with the backing of the Organization of American States — the Support Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH).
The president has also come under fire for his alleged links to drug trafficking networks. In August 2019, US court documents relating to the drug trafficking prosecution of his brother suggested that $1.5 million of drug proceeds had also gone to fund his 2013 campaign. Witnesses in his brother's trial even alleged that convicted Mexican drug lord "El Chapo" Guzmán handed him $1 million directed to President Hernández to ensure protection for his Honduran business partners. The US jury eventually found Juan Antonio guilty of four charges, including drug traffiking. This has sparked further outrage in Honduras, with opposition leaders calling for indefinite street protests untill the president resigns. Hernández has denied all charges but that was not enough to prevent a wave of protests clamouring for his resignation.
A third source of unrest concerns an unpopular reform agenda that the government introduced in the first part of 2019. When the Honduran congress passed reforms to the health and education systems, trade unions feared that privatisation and mass layoffs would ensue, and a surge of demonstrations followed. Starting in April, rallies and strikes went on for months, at times paralysing the country’s roadways and over time turning deadly — leading Hernández on 20 June to deploy troops in an effort to get the situation in hand.
The recurrent flare-ups of social unrest and multiple scandals have come at a cost to president Hernández, who was once viewed by foreign diplomats as a “man in control”. Not only has his public approval rating dropped from 61 to 36 per cent in just a couple of years, but key allies such as the Catholic Church and part of the business community, security forces and his own National Party have started to criticise his leadership. Vice President Ricardo Álvarez even suggested that the next elections, due in 2021, be brought forward to 2020. The US, the most influential foreign actor in Honduras, has also toned down its support for Hernández, although the US embassy in Tegucigalpa has reiterated its strong relationship with him. While the Trump administration is especially focused on the government’s inability to stem northward migration, US diplomats have also expressed concern about the government’s use of excessive force in managing the spring 2019 protests.
A sense of insecurity
Although Hernández has placed his record of security improvements at the centre of his appeal for support from both domestic and international audiences, that record is decidedly mixed.
Under his administration, homicide rates reportedly dropped to 40 killings per 100,000 inhabitants in 2018, compared to an historic high of 86.5 in 2011. He has relied heavily on the extradition of major drug lords to face prosecution in the US in order to dismantle various powerful drug cartels, such as the Cachiros and Valle Valle. He has also turned to iron-fist public security policies — including the use of the military for police functions and mass incarceration — in an effort to curb criminal gangs such as Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and the 18th Street Gang.
At the same time, however, a recent study shows that almost nine out of every ten Hondurans feel insecure, and for good reason: even if less than half the level it reached in 2011, the murder rate remains extremely high. Moreover, the rate of reduction in killings has decelerated, and even reversed in recent months, and has in any case not been matched by improvements in other security indicators. The Honduran Observatory of Violence has reported a rise of over 40 per cent in mass killings this year, probably the result of fierce turf wars for territorial control among criminal organisations. Honduras remains among the most dangerous countries in the region for reporters, human rights defenders, and land rights activists — as illustrated by the notorious murder of environmental activist Berta Cáceres in 2016 — and has the second highest femicide rate in the region. Despite some improvements in curbing impunity for homicides, the rate of unsolved murder cases remains close to 90 per cent.
Against this backdrop, Hondurans continue to migrate northward in extraordinary numbers. US authorities have apprehended more than 240,000 Hondurans, or around 3 per cent of the country’s population, tried to cross the US’ southern border since late 2018. The reason they flee is primarily economic. Six out of ten live in poverty, according to the World Bank, while only 20 per cent of the total population earns the minimum wage, which is itself insufficient to support a household. Living conditions are particularly grim in rural areas, where 170,000 families are affected by climate change-induced droughts, according to the National Commissioner for Human Rights.
But political turbulence and insecurity are also important factors. A recent survey shows that violence explains between 26 and 30 per cent of the country’s emigration, which could account for the recent spike in requests for asylum — which numbered 41,500 in 2018 and 23,000 in the first eight months of 2019 (with the latter counting just those requests lodged in Mexico).
As the Honduran authorities grapple with how best to respond to the governance and security crises that have gripped the country, they can take advantage of some work that is already under way.
At the political level, UN-backed dialogue between the major antagonists in the 2017 elections produced a series of agreements aimed at restoring peaceful democratic competition. Some of those agreements have led the Honduran congress to pass legislation for the creation of two new electoral bodies and the digitalisation of the National Registry of Persons — measures aimed at addressing voter fraud and preventing future violent electoral disputes.
As concerns security, in 2016 Hernández kick-started a deep police reform that has led to the dismissal of 5,775 corrupt or incompetent officials and the enhancement of officials’ training and internal oversight on corrupt practices.
But both efforts have been flawed in their implementation. Appointments to the new electoral bodies have been made based on political affiliation rather than professional skills. And the police reform omitted systematic follow-up measures either to prosecute dismissed officials or reintegrate them into civilian life, leaving many of those involved in criminal activities to continue breaking the law.
Going forward, Tegucigalpa will have to up its game if it wants to reverse the political and security challenges that help propel Hondurans to take to the streets or to flee. Cross-party agreements on electoral reforms are the most promising path to reinvigorating Honduran democracy. Renewing the MACCIH’s mandate — due to expire in January 2020 — will allow it to continue spearheading high-level anti-corruption cases and legislative proposals and thereby strengthen Honduran institutions’ capacity to combat crime and impunity.
Honduras will also need every bit of help from the donor community it can get — and especially from the US. The current US strategy of addressing migration principally by denying entry to desperate migrants and strong-arming Central American countries into signing unfavourable migration deals will almost surely intensify the humanitarian crisis south of the US border. This approach must be coupled with efforts to address the underlying challenges, in order to avoid fuelling a vicious cycle of turmoil, exodus and return, with troubling repercussions for regional stability.