Freedom in the World
On November 25, 2001 conservative businessman Ricardo Maduro, candidate of the opposition Nationalist Party (PN), bested Liberal Party (PL) contender Rafael Pineda to win the presidency by a 52--43 margin in a contest in which Honduras' spiraling street crime was the major issue. Maduro, a former Central Bank president and advocate of educational reform, promised a New York City--style crackdown on the tens of thousands of gang members who frequently stage bloody turf fights and traffick in narcotics. Maduro's own son was killed by gunmen in 1997. In November, the Central American Court of Justice ruled against Honduras in a two-year-long border dispute with Nicaragua in which, by means of a treaty signed with Colombia, Honduras dismissed Nicaragua's claims to about 52,000 square miles of the Caribbean.
The Republic of Honduras was established in 1839, eighteen years after independence from Spain. It has endured decades of military rule and intermittent elected governments. The last military regime gave way to elected civilian rule in 1982. The constitution provides for a president and a 130-member, unicameral congress elected for four years.
The two main parties are the center-left PL and the conservative PN. In the 1993, the PN nominated Oswaldo Ramos Soto, an outspoken right-winger. The PL, which held power during most of the 1980s, nominated Roberto Reina, a 67-year-old progressive and a former president of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Reina won with 52 percent of the vote. The PL won 70 seats in congress, the PN, 56. Two small left-wing parties took the remaining 4.
Reina promised a "moral revolution" and greater civilian control over the military. His administration had a positive, if mixed, record. The size of the military was reduced greatly, although its spending remained secret, and officers suspected of rights offenses protected. The process of separating the police from the military was undertaken following the December 1996 approval by congress of a constitutional amendment to place the police under civilian control.
However, a virulent crime wave, believed to be, in part, the work of former and serving military and intelligence officers, continued unabated. Several leaders of Indian and Garifuna minority groups attempting to defend their land from encroachments by non-Indian landowners were murdered.
On November 30, 1997, PL presidential candidate Carlos Flores, a U.S.-trained engineer and newspaper owner, won a resounding, 54 to 41 percent victory over PN candidate Nora Melgar. Flores immediately announced that civilian control of the armed forces would be strengthened by the creation of a functional defense ministry and the newly civilianized police would enjoy an increased budget. He also appointed five women to high-level posts, including that of minister of security, the portfolio in charge of the new civilian national police. In September 1998, congress voted to end more than 30 years of military autonomy by suppressing the post of commander in chief of the armed forces, a move that created unrest in the barracks. Flores also governed through some of the most trying times in Honduran history after Hurricane Mitch devastated the country in 1998, killing thousands and causing billions of dollars in damage.
In May 1999 a civilian judge ordered the arrest, for abuse of authority, of the general who had retired at the end of the previous year as commander in chief of the armed forces. A July 1999 crisis within the army, which brought a drastic reorganization of the military high command, was apparently the result of efforts by the civilian defense minister to audit the military's lucrative pension fund and holding company. The crisis was resolved only after Flores granted concessions to the rebellious officers in secret negotiations. In August 2000, in a move many hailed as a blow to military impunity, the former chief of the armed forces and nine other retired officers, including two generals, were accused in civilian court of embezzling $349,000.
In August 2001, more than 3,000 army troops and heavily armed police searched for youth gangs in Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula in an effort to clamp down on street violence that has killed more than 800 children and teenagers since 1998. Flores ordered the deployment after rival gangs clashed in downtown Tegucigalpa, leaving one person dead and seven injured. During the same month a retired U.S. police officer living in Honduras was murdered, the 14th American killed in Honduras since 1997. Transparency International has called Honduras one of the most corrupt countries in the world.
Also in August 2001, the United Nations called on the Honduran government to protect children and teenagers from extrajudicial executions, often at the hands of the police. More than 800 children and young people are believed to have been killed in the period running from 1998 to mid-2001. Police say many of the killings were the result of rivalries between young gang members; Honduras, with as many as 30,000 youths belonging to 475 gangs, ranks second only to El Salvador in gang numbers and violence in Central America. Human rights groups say many of the killings are committed by death squads linked to the police.
In the 2001 elections, the 54-year-old Maduro faced the 71-year-old Pineda, president of the congress, who promised greater spending on education and improved public services, paid for by a crackdown on tax evaders. After his election Maduro said his most immediate concerns included reactivating an economy still prostrate after Hurricane Mitch, a crippling drought, and a tropical storm in 2001, a drop in world coffee prices and a recession in the United States--Honduras' main trading partner. Some critics of his "get-tough" anti-crime platform said that only solutions that addressed the country's wide gap between the 80 percent of Hondurans who live in poverty and the small number of wealthy who live in heavily guarded fortresses would eliminate the root causes of the nation's endemic violence.
Citizens are able to change their government through elections, and the November 2001 election, in which 128 congressional seats and nearly 300 mayoralties were also open, was free and fair. However, although the election was largely peaceful, the murder of a PN congressional candidate on the eve of the vote underscored the growing threat to the country's stability posed by crime. For the first time, Hondurans living in the United States, estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands, were eligible to vote at special booths set up in New York, Miami, and Los Angeles. Separate congressional and presidential ballots were also used, allowing supporters of smaller parties to split their tickets. Constitutional guarantees regarding free expression, freedom of religion, and the right to form political parties and civic organizations are generally respected. However, repressive measures coming in the face of peaceful protests and mounting crime have limited political rights and civil liberties.
The judicial system, headed by the supreme court, is weak and corruption prone. In 1998 the new court was packed with lawyers close to both the military and to officials accused of corruption. Death threats and violent attacks face judges who assert themselves in human rights cases. Although 90 percent of the 10,000 people incarcerated are awaiting trial, they share deplorable prison conditions with convicted inmates. Drug-related corruption is rampant, and in August 2000, Guatama Fonseca, Honduras's new security minister, charged that "venal" judges were protecting drug smugglers.
The Honduran police are ill-paid and understaffed, and lack the training and equipment needed to effectively stem the rising tide of crime. There are only 6,500 officers in a country that registered 2,155 homicides in 2000, a number already surpassed by the end of November 2001. In 1997--1998, in an effort to end a more than three-decades-long legacy of rights abuse and endemic corruption, the police were removed from under the command and control of the armed forces. However, throughout 2001 the army was called in to reinforce the police presence in several major cities and in some rural areas. Less than 30 percent of reported crimes are investigated and the rates of apprehension and conviction of criminals are low. Also in 2001, revelations about the participation by police in crime gangs involved in auto theft, kidnapping, drug trafficking, and the robberies of banks, businesses and homes have increased citizen concerns. Politicized appointments within the police force are a problem, as are the lack of important political support, a generalized lack of engagement by civil society groups with the police, and severe limitations on resources and the number of authorities for disciplinary systems within the force. Meanwhile, low wages together with a purge of hundreds of officers accused of corruption and other abuses of power sparked a job action among the police.
The military exerts considerable, if waning, influence over the government. By naming a civilian instead of a general to head the armed forces in January 1999, President Carlos Flores said he hoped to strengthen government control over the military. The oversight offensive also included civilian control of the armed forces budget and the independent auditing of military-business ventures--the sources of much high-level corruption. A constellation of military-owned businesses makes the armed forces one of Honduras's ten largest for-profit enterprises; however, by 2001 the $40 million annual military budget was under strict civilian oversight. In November 2001, army officials admitted that former top commanders had looted some $8 million in public funds for their own use. Five once-omnipotent former commanders in chief were under ininvestigation by federal prosecutors for a corruption spree believed to have lasted from 1986 to 1997.
Labor unions are well organized and can strike, although labor actions often result in clashes with security forces. Labor leaders, religious groups, and indigenous-based peasant unions pressing for land rights remain vulnerable to repression.
Indian communities in Honduras's Atlantic coast region continue to fight against destructive, government-approved activities that threaten their lands and environment. Non-Indians continue to colonize Indian lands with government support for agriculture, ranching, timber and mining interests. In 2001, a Miskito Indian regional organization, Miskito Asla Takanka (MASTA), pressed on with its campaign to secure the demarcation of Indian lands in the Moquitia Coast region of Eastern Honduras. Along Honduras's northern Atlantic coast, the descendants of black slaves and Carib Indians known as Garifuna, find their language, culture, land, and access to natural resources under severe pressures, as the government seeks to promote tourist industry development on their traditional lands.
Some 85,000 workers, mostly women, are employed in the low-wage maquiladora (assembly plant) export sector. Child labor is a problem in rural areas and in the informal economy. UNICEF has estimated that, in the aftermath of the devastating Hurricane Mitch in 1998, more than 42,000 children joined an estimated 1.3 million between the ages of 10 and 17 who left school to work in the country's streets, factories, and fields.
Honduras is a source country for trafficked children, especially young girls, who are trafficked by criminal groups to other Central American countries for purposes of sexual exploitation. Honduran boys reportedly are sent to Canada in connection with drug trafficking. Trafficking in children also is believed to occur within the country's borders. The government has made significant efforts to combat trafficking. Effective law enforcement, however, is undermined by corruption, lack of resources, and weak police and judicial institutions.
Honduras received a downward trend arrow due to an increase in the use of military patrols to quell rampant street crime, and to government indifference to the killings of 800 street children during the last three-and-a-half years.