By Dr. Ronn Pineo & Ian Kowalski
Council on Hemispheric Affairs
The most violent nation in the world is Honduras, with more murders per capita (92 per 100,000) than even Iraq or Afghanistan and twenty times more than the United States. It is now getting worse, as a wave of brutal killings sweep over the nation in the run-up to the country’s elections on November 24. The left-leaning opposition Partido Libertad y Refundación (Liberty and Refoundation, or LIBRE) has emerged as the target of choice in the majority of attacks.
A Weakened Democracy
Honduras’ recent troubles grow directly out of the events of June 2009, when a military coup removed democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya (2006-2009). Honduras, one of the last Latin American nations to move toward authentic democracy, had been slowly constructing democratic political institutions until the coup. But with this one stroke, Honduras’ nascent democratization suffered a damaging blow from which it has yet to recover.
Honduras, a Tennessee-sized country of 8.4 million people, is in many respects Latin America’s most unreconstructed nation. It only began the process of democratization in the 1980s and its economy is still built around unprocessed agricultural exports—chiefly coffee and bananas—produced on latifundio plantations and the beginnings of a maquila industry. The nation’s GDP per capita is under $4,000 USD PPP (purchasing parity power), ranking near the bottom of all Latin American nations.
Recent Honduran elections reliably produced right-wing, pro-neoliberal leadership, and the 2005 outcome appeared at first to be no different, with center-right candidate Manuel Zelaya of the Partido Liberal de Honduras (Liberal Party of Honduras, or PLH) winning the presidency.
But Zelaya, to the increasing dismay of the nation’s ruling elites, began to drift toward the left. Particularly troubling to business leaders was Zelaya’s support for a boost in the Honduran minimum wage. In December 2008, Zelaya backed an increase in the monthly $33 USD rural wage minimum to $213 USD, and likewise raised the urban monthly minimum wage from $109 to $290 USD.
The business elite, with many invested in the maquila industry, responded with outrage, and moved swiftly to re-energize the traditional Latin American oligarchy of church, military, and economic power in opposition to President Zelaya. Most effective was their use of the mass media, nearly all branches of which are controlled by the nation’s various elites.
Former president Carlos Flores (1998-2002), owner of the newspaper La Tribuna; Jorge Larach, owner of La Prensa and El Heraldo; and Rafael Ferrari, owner of the nation’s largest TV and radio networks in the country, joined together to denounce Zelaya in a multi-media smear and fear campaign.
The proximate cause of the 2009 coup was President Zelaya’s decision to hold a plebiscite regarding the possibility of a constitutional convention, with the ultimate goal of rewriting the constitution and promoting wider popular participation. Grahame Russell of Rights Action, a non-profit organization that raises funds and advocates for human rights and grassroots organizations throughout Latin America, recently explained to COHA that:
[this] was quite clearly a non-binding opinion poll, … asking people … whether … they wanted to include a ballot initiative related to reforming the constitution … Zelaya would have been out of power by [the time of the balloting anyway] … and the new president would have been elected by then …
Nevertheless, the Honduran oligarchy feared that Zelaya was following the example of Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador, seeking to cement in place both himself and the nation’s mounting turn to the left.
Following the coup and the interim government of Roberto Micheletti (2009-2010), elections came in late 2009. The right-wing favorite, Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo (2010-present), won by nearly 20 percent over his nearest opponent. The Honduran left, dismayed by the illegality of the coup and suffering the blows of the continuing attacks by government forces, boycotted the election.
But while the United States, Colombia, Costa Rica, and Panama recognized the election results, the international community did not. The electoral process was deeply flawed. As American University professor Adrienne Pine has noted, “the UN, the European Union, the OAS, and the Carter Center … refused [even] to send [election] monitors.” Nevertheless, the United States applauded the “restor[ation] … [of] democracy” in Honduras, and invited Lobo to visit the White House.
Since the coup and Lobo’s tainted victory, conditions have grown worse for ordinary Hondurans (or catrachos, as they call themselves) across an array of economic and social measures. While Honduras enjoyed a reduction in income inequality under Zelaya, the situation has reversed under Lobo.
In what is the most unequal region in the world, Honduras is now the Latin American nation with the greatest maldistribution of income, and it is one of only three countries in the region where inequality has actually worsened in the last several years.
Under Zelaya, the income received by the richest 10 percent grew by 1.3 percent, while the income going to the bottom 90 percent grew 9 percent per year. Under Lobo the income going to the top 10 percent is now up 6.9 percent per year, while the share received by everyone else, the bottom 90 percent, has actually declined 6.5 percent per year.
Poverty, too, has increased. The situation had somewhat improved in the Zelaya years, but now more than two-thirds of catrachos live in poverty. Even economic growth has slowed, dropping from an average annual rate of 4.3 percent from 2002-2011 to the mid 3 percent range this year and last.
Meanwhile, social safety net programs have been cut back. Last year Lobo canceled the Programa Matricula Gratis, which had provided families with funding for basic schooling. Now the school lunch program, Programa Merienda Escolar, has been reduced radically. For the moment, at least, the conditional cash transfer program, Bono Diez Mil, has been spared budget cuts, although it mainly depends on external funds.
A Violent Nation
Much of the violence plaguing Honduras today is fueled by the trade in illegal drugs, although many of the killings are merely random street crime.
Today, one-third of the world’s processed cocaine is transported through Honduran territory. In Honduras, as elsewhere, entrepreneurs of the illegal drug trade are usually gang members. In Central America, the most dangerous gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha and the 18th Street gang, are largely made up of U.S. expats—criminals who for the most part were deported from Los Angeles after being apprehended by law enforcement.
The gangs are armed with weapons that come either from the vast stockpile of leftovers from the 1980s U.S.-backed Contra war launched against the elected Nicaraguan government from Honduras, or else are drawn from the endless stream of high-powered weapons flowing from the U.S. border south to Mexico, Honduras, and beyond. Illegal drugs, criminal gangs, and high-powered weapons are a toxic and lethal mix that continues to plague Honduras.
At the same time, the violence in Honduras is an outgrowth from the economic conditions ordinary people must face on a daily basis. Poverty can breed desperation, and the adoption of neoliberal economic measures, pressed on Honduras by the IMF, World Bank, and by Washington from the era of President George H. W. Bush, has reinforced the tendency towards extreme income concentration.
Poverty and economic policies that fail to create jobs have left far too many people without hope. Compounding this situation is the rapidly growing population of Honduras. The Central American nation has yet to pass through the demographic transition—a decline in birth rates to match lower death rates—registering an annual population growth rate of 2.5 percent in the last decade, and now finds itself with one of the highest rates in the region.
Each year tens of thousands of young adults are added to the already swollen labor pool in Honduras. Without jobs, many turn to crime.
Given this violent setting, it is sometimes hard to see which of the pre-election killings are targeted and which are just additions to the casualties in the day-to-day reality of mounting crime in Honduras. Still, the pattern that has emerged is that the left-wing opposition is being singled out in the majority of the attacks.
The election season has proven especially deadly for members of the left-leaning LIBRE party of Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, the wife of ousted president Manuel Zelaya. In response, some LIBRE candidates have gone into hiding and others have fled the country.
As human rights expert Karen Spring of Rights Action noted in a recent interview with COHA, there really is not so much that LIBRE party members can do in response to the mushrooming number of targeted killings and attacks against them, beyond releasing communiqués to attract media attention. “It has a lot to do with fear,” Spring explained, “They don’t want to make their supporters even more fearful to vote for them.” Likewise, because of such high levels of impunity and the lack of political will to investigate, it is increasingly difficult to discern the motives for these offenses and to bring criminals to justice.
Moreover, citizen insecurity in Honduras is among the highest in the region, and has steadily added to the crisis in the country. According to the United Nations Development Program, over 50 percent of Hondurans feel unsafe walking alone at night in the area where they live. More than two out of every ten people feel unsafe in their own neighborhoods and about four out of ten believe their security has deteriorated.
The United States has contributed in several significant ways to Honduras’ atmosphere of lawlessness and continuing violence. It was deeply irresponsible for the United States to send dangerous gang members back to El Salvador and Honduras without adequate discussions to prepare them for the impact of this policy decision.
The arming of these gangs through the unrestricted flow of dangerous weapons from the United States to Latin America is beyond dispute. According to a study released earlier this year from the University of San Diego Trans-Border Institute and the Igarapé Institute, an average of 253,000 weapons are purchased in the United States and then smuggled over the border into Mexico each year, aided by lax domestic gun laws and a porous border.
Likewise, from 2009 to 2011, the U.S. “Fast and Furious” operation allowed more than 2,000 weapons to cross freely to Mexico in hopes of leading officials to cartel locations; instead, the plot inadvertently strengthened cartels’ firepower, endangered countless people on both sides of the border, and in 2010 led to the death of a U.S. federal agent.
Beyond this, the U.S. fixation on prosecuting the war on illegal drugs, even as Latin America continues to see the folly of this policy, brings continued havoc to the region.
The U.S.-backed neoliberal policies of cutting back the government’s role in the economy, including an accord reached by President Lobo in January 2010 with the World Bank, had the predictable results of increasing inequality and poverty. The U.S. action of recognizing the post-coup government and the election of Porfirio Lobo served to undermine respect for democracy and the rule of law in Honduras.
A briefing on Capitol Hill by the Center for Economic and Policy Research and the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador last month presented stunning evidence of the pre-election violence in Honduras directed against LIBRE. Particularly compelling was the account offered by Ms. Bertha Oliva, head of the leading Honduran human rights organization, Comité de Familiares de Detenidos Desaparecidos en Honduras (Committee of the Relatives of the Disappeared in Honduras, or COFADEH).
She is also a victim of human rights abuses—her husband was murdered by the military. Ms. Oliva stressed that “a national emergency regarding human rights exists now” in Honduras, but noted that human rights violators are not being punished. Oliva underscored the on-going pattern of right-wing repression of their political opponents, including six cases in the past month and at least 17 murders of LIBRE members in the past year and a half.
Lamentably, the U.S. government has mounted only the feeblest response.
Two letters deploring the violence, one from the U.S. House of Representatives and one from the Senate, went out last year, but neither had any discernible impact. This June, a letter expressing distress over the pre-election violence was signed by 24 of the 100 Senators. By October, just three members of the 435-seat U.S. House voiced similar concerns.
More recently, Secretary of State John Kerry’s November 18 remarks before the Organization of American States made only a brief mention of Honduras and the upcoming elections. While Kerry touched on the importance of development, peace, security, and the alleviation of poverty, he effectively ignored the inextricable crime and security crisis and the burgeoning inequality plaguing the country.
Kerry also expressed concern over weakening democratic institutions in Venezuela, but failed to acknowledge his own administration’s support of the Honduran coup in 2009 and the elections that followed. This is a rather pitiful response given the extent and urgency of the problem and the evident indifference of most members of Congress is inexcusable moral blindness.
As Oliva rightly noted, “human rights violations are not just a Honduran problem—it is all our problem.” “We all should be concerned,” she concluded, “about the corrupt and criminal regime in Honduras.”
(Featured Photo: Photo Source: AP/Fernando Antonio)
Dr. Ronn Pineo is senior research fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs and Chair of the Department of History at Towson University, and Ian Kowalski is research associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. This article was originally published on the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.