Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Update: What's happening in Honduras?

The news coming out of Honduras continues to reveal a flailing economy, political instability, and endemic corruption of the security forces and judicial system. A previous post gave an overview of the country's institutional, financial and security troubles at the outset of 2013. Here's a new update.

Institutional problems
As explained in the prior post, Congress removed four Supreme Court justices at the behest of current President Lobo following several decisions that went against his administration, most notably blocking a police reform law he had been championing. Congress did so without an impeachment trial, prompting the dismissed justices to file an appeal questioning the constitutionality of the decision. Until recently the case had not been tried because there were no sitting justices to rule on the appeal.

  • Last week, a special Supreme Court of justices hand-picked by the only judge not to get fired - Chief Justice Jorge Rivera Aviles - voted 13-2 not to admit the justices' appeal. While it should be noted that the removed justices were seen as corrupt, the move has elicited a clear message of disapproval from the opposition. In response to the decision, Salvador Nasralla, the Anti-Corruption party candidate for president, said, "They think it's a soccer match, but internationally, if today the justices are not returned, Honduras will be considered a dictatorship and that is serious because it removes the rule of law we've boasted about."
  • Since removing the justices, the National Congress has passed several new laws, some of which were previously blocked by removed justices:
  • A new telecommunications law, which will provide little security protection for users online and increase the government's regulation of traditional and social media. President Lobo also accused local media of damaging Honduras' image internationally, saying the violence in the country receives too much coverage and that the justice ministry should sue media outlets before the UN. The government has recently proposed a bill which would create a council intended to monitor all media coverage.
    • A much-criticized mining law and a "Charter Cities" law authorizing the creation of privatized territories bolstered by foreign investment governed autonomously in which the constitution itself doesn't apply.
    • A law allowing lawmakers to impeach any elected official as well as one removing Honduran citizens' rights to challenge the constitutionality of a law. Now citizens may only challenge regulations adopted to enforce the law.
    • A police purification law that the previous court claimed did not give officers due process, as well as a bill creating a security agency fusing military defense and internal security. According to Inter-Press Service, this new National Directorate of Investigation and Intelligence (DNII) "does not appear to be accountable to any other body, and does not appear to be under democratic civilian control."

    Crime and Security
    The security situation in the country seems to be getting worse as 1,400 soldiers have been deployed to the country's two largest cities.

  • According to Insight Crime, "Thanks to political instability, rampant corruption in the security forces and judicial system, Honduras has become that path of least resistance [for smuggling].Added to this is the fact that Honduras is the principal air bridge for cocaine from South America, with the departure point being Venezuela." The State Department has reported that some 40% of all cocaine destined to U.S. initially lands in Honduras.
    • Honduras' Defense Minister Marlon Pascua noted the increased presence of transnational crime in the country, saying, "There are various organizations, not only Honduran, but also with people infiltrated from other countries, Mexican cartels which have relationships with Honduran criminals and Colombian cartels, which also have relationships with criminals here."
    • Last month Honduran authorities found cars and weapons allegedly belonging to the Zetas, including a gold-plated AK-47. "Honduras has become the principal handover point for cocaine between Colombian and Mexican cartels. Transnational organized crime follows the path of least resistance," reported Insight.
  • According to a recent Congressional Research Service report on U.S.- Honduran relations, over 78% of Hondurans report having little or no confidence in the police force while 68% have little or no confidence in the armed forces. The same report noted that about 80% of crimes are never investigated according to the Honduran government's National Commissioner for Human Rights.
  • CRS also noted that in 2012, Honduras had roughly 10,600 military personnel, a defense budget of $189 million (1% of GDP) with less than 2% invested in maintenance and procurement, meaning the country depended on international donors for the majority of its equipment/technology.
  • Footage of hit men carrying out killings last November in Comayagüela, a city just outside the capital, Tegucigalpa, was released last week. The rather graphic video from a surveillance camera shows eight men get out of two vehicles and shoot two men dead and injure another. The video has deepened existing public outrage at endemic impunity and the government's inability to keep citizens safe.
  • Last week, gangs imposed a curfew in parts of the country’s capital, Tegucigalpa, posting signs that said: "At 7 p.m. we want to see businesses closed and people in their houses." According to Insight Crime and La Prensa, gang wars are escalating between Barrio 18, one of the region's largest street gangs, and the Chirizos, a newer local gang. Two police stations formerly located in the area have been closed for years according to residents.
  • In response to news of the gang curfew, last Friday Honduran President Porfirio Lobo deployed the military to the two largest cities in the country in order to crack down on rising crime. 800 soldiers were sent to Tegucigalpa and 600 to San Pedro Sula, as part of "Operation Freedom" (Operación Libertad). Over the weekend 13 people were killed in the country's capital.
  • A Mexican NGO, the Citizen Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice (Consejo Ciudadano para la Seguridad Pública y la Justicia Penal), released a list of the world's most dangerous cities. Honduras' second largest city, San Pedro Sula, topped the list, registering 169 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, while Tegucigalpa, the country's capital came in at number 4.
  • Over 60 subsistence farmers and indigenous leaders have been assassinated by paramilitary units hired by large land owners since the 2009 ouster. According to an article in Upside Down World, a quarter of the country's arable land is monopolized by less than 1% of the farmers. However, due in part to increasing global demand for palm oil, there is a continuing land conflict in the Aguán Valley.
  • Here's a photo of a police stop in Honduras.

    2013 Elections
    The general elections scheduled for November 2013 will be the first since the 2009 vote following the ouster of President Manuel Zelaya. Xiomara Castro, wife of ousted ex-president Manuel Zelaya, is ahead in the polls as the candidate for the newly-created leftist LIBRE party, over Juan Orlando Hernandez, the National Party candidate and current head of Congress. The assassination of at least five opposition party activists and candidates in the last year draws attention to fair campaign play in the coming months.

    Financial troubles
    The Honduran government is struggling to pay both its domestic and foreign bills. Public employees have gone unpaid and basic government services suspended.

  • The government is unable to access $500 million worth of assets seized from criminals over the past three years due to inefficiency and corruption with the country's judicial system, according to Insight Crime. Operations by anti-narcotics officers, special investigators, police and prosecutors seized 153 properties, 266 cars and more than $5 million during 2010, 2011 and 2012, however until a judge authorizes the transfers, the Honduran government cannot access it.
  • Tax collection is Honduras' main fiscal problem. On January 31, President Porfirio Lobo announced the creation of a commission consisting of 14 representatives from the public and private sectors to investigate tax exemptions and exonerations. According to Southern Pulse, the commission will propose a budget and submit recommendations after 60 days. According to President Lobo, these benefits extended to businesses and private institutions have not helped stimulate the country's economy.
  • US involvement in counternarcotics operations
    An opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times this week notes, "The United States is expanding its military presence in Honduras on a spectacular scale," despite human rights abuses and unconstitutional government actions. As was indicated in a previous post, several articles have come out recently about U.S. military presence and investment in the region, but here are some Honduras- specific numbers and news.

  • The commander of Special Operations Command South (SOCSOUTH) specifically mentioned Honduras in an interview last week as an area of concern, because "constrained resources limit its special operators’ ability to reach ungoverned sections of the country that offer traffickers safe havens." He noted that traffickers return to these rural areas after trainings and operations end, saying, "The problem is that the activity is not persistent." No specific operation plans for Honduras have been revealed by the U.S. government following the end of a joint State Department and DEA mission, Operation Anvil, that resulted in the shootings of suspects and innocent civilians, however it was reported that U.S. Navy SEALs spent 6 months training a 45-man Special Forces anti-trafficking unit within the Honduran Navy. The new unit is called the Honduran Fuerza Especiales Naval or (FEN).
  • 58 members of the House, led by Reps. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles), John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) and Gregory W. Meeks (D-N.Y.) sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry and Atty. Gen. Eric Holder demanding an investigation into the DEA over its role the murder of four civilians in May 2012.
  • An Associated Press article noted the National Guard's presence in Honduras and highlighted more numbers:
    • In 2012, the U.S. Defense Department spent a record $67.4 million on military contracts in Honduras, triple the 2002 defense contracts there and well above the $45.6 million spent in neighboring Guatemala in 2012.
    • Neither the State Department nor the Pentagon could provide details explaining a 2011 $1.3 billion authorization for exports of military electronics to Honduras — although that would amount to almost half of all U.S. arms exports for the entire Western Hemisphere.
  • A report by John Lindsay-Poland of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (reposted on Just the Facts) examined Pentagon contracts in Latin America for 2012. According to Poland, “Honduras, which has become a hub for Pentagon operations in Central America, is the site for more than $43 million in non-fuel contracts signed last year.” He also found that the Pentagon contracted $24 million in Honduras for fuel purchases.