Supporters carry the casket of assassinated Honduran indigenous leader Berta Caceres

Opinion: Honduras has it all – unfortunately

  • Honduras suffers from a triple threat of mass violence, organized crime and corruption
  • State capture by narco cartels is frustrating U.S. efforts to block drug and migrant flows
  • Nascent reform groups in Honduras will require strong outside support

El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – the so-called Northern Triangle of Central America – are today the primary source of illegal immigration to the United States. Stunting this flow of migrants will require an understanding of the push factors provoking their desire to move. The one-size-fits-all regional policy currently pursued by the U.S., the Alliance for Prosperity (an economic aid program intended to spur economic development and improve the quality of life), has not worked and will not work. What will, then?

In Guatemala, a successful policy would zero in on helping the International Commission Against Impunity, known by its Spanish initials CICIG. This commission’s success is critical to strengthening Guatemalan institutions, encouraging investment and improving citizens’ quality of life. In El Salvador, the policy should focus on reaching out to the vulnerable segment of the population that is neither employed nor in school (NINIs in Spanish) so that these young people do not join the gang-led violence that is tearing the country apart.

Triple threat

Honduras faces the most daunting challenge. The country suffers from catastrophic levels of violence, all-powerful gangs and endemic corruption. Urban murder rates approach 100 per 100,000 population, while the national level is the second-highest in the world after El Salvador’s.

Corruption in Honduras is organized vertically from the local to the national level, and horizontally from the public to the private sector

The problem is that most crime in Honduras is organized in networks and tied into the international traffic in illegal drugs. An estimated 80 percent of the drugs shipped to the U.S. from South America touch down on landing strips on the Mosquito (Caribbean) Coast of Honduras for transshipment.

Honduran corruption also occurs in networks, organized vertically from the local or municipal to the national level, and horizontally from the public to the private sector. In many cases, networks of corrupt local officials are tied into international organized crime, and there is evidence that members of the national government are involved in the drug traffic.

State capture

To make matters worse, criminal networks have captured the Honduran state outright. That means the economic elite that dominates politics is also complicit in the corruption and, by extension, in the transnational criminal networks.

If this were not bad enough, U.S. government agents have ended up shooting at each other because their departments failed to coordinate anti-trafficking operations or did not inform each other about which local drug kingpins had been given immunity for cooperating with law enforcement. In several recent cases, drug barons were captured and expatriated to the U.S., only for prosecutors to discover that they had been in the pay of another part of the federal government. Case closed.

Map of drug smuggling routes in Honduras
An estimated 80 percent of the illegal narcotics smuggled to the U.S. from South America transit through the Mosquito Coast of Honduras before heading north (source: macpixxel for GIS)

In one famous episode, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), working with elements of the Honduran military, killed civilians in a botched drug raid on the Patuca River on the Mosquito Coast. Operation Anvil, as it was called, involved Foreign-deployed Advisory Support Teams (FAST), which operated as military training organizations in a region inhabited by indigenous tribes where the Honduran state scarcely exists.

These indigenous peoples have complained long and loud about the destruction of their environment – mainly from mining and illegal logging – and about the use of their traditional lands for drug transshipment. Last year, the leader of the Civil Council of Popular and Indigenous Movements of Honduras (COPINH), Berta Caceres, was assassinated, In the aftermath of that killing, there was a flurry of press reports that local police and military trained by the U.S. were allegedly involved in the murder of the country’s drug czar, General Julian Aristides Gonzalez, in 2009, and of his advisor, Gustavo Alfredo Landaverde, in 2011.

Outside help

What is to be done when the state and society are riddled with corruption and plugged into transnational criminal networks? It will not be easy to stem the flows of illicit drugs through Honduran territory and of Honduran migrants to the U.S. The key is to sustain and strengthen those elements of Honduran society that seek reform.

Washington must start by improving communication among American agents on the ground

To stop the drugs and the migration, Washington must start by improving communication among American agents on the ground. It should also lend support to the local anti-corruption body, the Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH). Although this organization was created by the Organization of American States, the MACCIH – unlike its Guatemalan counterpart, CICIG – is locally run and therefore more vulnerable to political pressure. The mission gets help from the local branch of Transparency International (Asociacion Para Una Sociedad Mas Justa, or ASJ). The U.S. should also support reformists in every branch of government, including the Honduran parliamentary caucus fighting against corruption.

Other reform elements in civil society also depend on outside support. There is a special institute for the study of violence (IUDPAS-Honduras) at the National Autonomous University of Honduras, which keeps track of the killing. The murder of Berta Caceres has brought international attention to the campaign against indigenous environmental activists and spurred some external financing. As in El Salvador, an effort is being made to deal with the vulnerable young people through neighborhood drop-in centers and other social programs (though gangs play a less important social role in Honduras than El Salvador).

Finally, an important potential agent of change is the large expatriate community of Hondurans living in the U.S. Their remittances are said to amount to nearly 18 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. Mobilizing this group could help create a political climate less conducive to organized crime and corruption. But it will be an uphill battle.

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