The public despair driving recent protests stems, in part, from the enormous power of organised crime groups.

Honduras counternarcotics police. Credit: Flickr/usasocBy Antonio Sampaio, Research Associate for Security and Development

Honduras has recently added a political crisis to its already long list of national challenges, which include rampant criminal violence and a 60% poverty rate. A dispute over the 26 November presidential election has sent the country into crisis, sparking nationwide protests and a night curfew designed to prevent riots.

Opposition candidate Salvador Nasrallah complained of fraud when, during the count, his early lead over incumbent Juan Orlando Hernandez quickly disappeared, shortly after a slowdown in the counting process. Nasrallah’s argument was strengthened when observers from the Organization of American States said the electoral process was marked by a lack of transparency amid last-minute changes to vote-counting mechanisms.

The political crisis reached a dangerous threshold on 4 December, when the national police announced that it would not act against anti-government protesters or enforce the night curfew. Some officers told the press that their demands were ‘not about money, but about support to peace and democracy’. An agreement with the government was announced the following day, but it remained unclear whether officers would agree to dissolve protests.

The rapid escalation of the crisis revealed how Hondurans’ trust in their political system had long broken down. The country performs dismally in Transparency International’s annual corruption perception index reports. In August, opposition lawmakers denounced the government’s alleged efforts to introduce more lenient sentences for corruption without clearly informing the public or the press. Members of the governing coalition said the suggested changes still allowed for ‘aggravating factors’ to increase sentences. Nevertheless, the independent Support Mission against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras echoed the opposition’s concerns and said reducing sentences would be a ‘bad sign for the country’.

Drug trade ‘infects civil society’

One reason for the widespread public anger is the evidence linking corruption in key state institutions to the country’s rampant organised crime groups. In September, Fabio Lobo, son of Honduras’s previous president Porfirio Lobo, was sentenced by a US court to 24 years in jail for drug trafficking in association with a criminal group called Los Cachiros. Prosecutors said Fabio Lobo had accepted bribes from drug traffickers in exchange for protection from law enforcement.

Joon H. Kim, acting US attorney in Manhattan, commented at the time that the illegal drug trade in Honduras infected much of its civil society and brought frightening levels of violence on its people. Author Sarah Chayes argues that symbolic assassinations of activists, such as that of indigenous human-rights defender Berta Cáceres in March 2016, are ‘carefully targeted for maximum psychological effect’ on ‘like-minded communities’.

Amid the country’s wave of criminal violence, one episode in particular has shed light on criminal infiltration of public institutions and the obstacles to fighting it. In 2009, General Julián Arístides González Irías, the national director for counter-narcotics, was shot dead in what a former Honduran crime boss testified was an attempt to stop his crusade against powerful drug-trafficking networks. The crime, according to the testimony provided by the former drug lord, included the hiring of local police officers.

33 death threats – but no investigation

The incident led the government to create a police reform commission, but Human Rights Watch has warned that reports of both corruption and abuse continue to be made about the military police and army. Human Rights Watch has also said that Beta Cáceres had reported 33 death threats to the police, without a single investigation being conducted. An astonishing number of crimes are not prosecuted in Honduras, more than 80% according to the country’s human-rights commissioner.

The impact of corruption on organised crime and broader political stability is not a new issue, but it has gained increased urgency with the latest political crisis. The US, which provides crucial aid money and security-sector training to Honduras, has already said efforts to curb corruption are requisites for the disbursement of money from the Alliance for Prosperity, an assistance plan announced during the Obama era.

Recent evidence suggests support from such organisations is no guarantee of the structural change needed to resist corruption and criminal infiltration. Honduras is a crucial stage in the cocaine trafficking route from South America towards the US, the world’s largest drugs market. As a result, Central American criminal groups have vast sums of money with which to bribe officials. Honduras’s latest political crisis is far from resolved, but the real challenge facing the country’s institutions and their international backers is targeting the roots of the problem – a fight that is likely to last a long time. 

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