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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.
  • Wednesday, January 30, 2013

    What's happening in Honduras?

    Recent reports coming out of Honduras show a country in crisis with a failing justice system and an unstable political climate. From the looks of the current state of affairs, Honduras is in for a rocky 2013.

    Crime and Security

    Crimes increased significantly in Honduras in the second half of 2012, with a sharp increase in the last 45 days of the year.

  • In the past three years, there have been 20,573 homicides, with 7,172 murders registered in 2012, up 68 from 2011. The murder rate is 85.5 per 100,000 inhabitants, which comes to 19.65 homicides per day. For comparison, the murder rates in neighboring Nicaragua and Costa Rica is 12 per 100,000 inhabitants and 11.5 per 100,000 inhabitants respectively.
  • In 2012, 432 people were killed in 115 massacres. In the past ten days, there have been two reported massacres (three people or more killed), in which a combined 14 people were murdered, according the National Autonomous University of Honduras.
  • Last weekend, 534 police officers tested positive for marijuana and/or cocaine consumption. 73 upper level officials are being investigated for receiving illicit funds and 230 failed polygraph tests. Although the Supreme Court has since declared the tests unconstitutional, there will be investigations into the officers that failed the tests. Polygraph tests are administered to police in Colombia and more recently in Mexico (modeled after the Colombian initiative) where police began to be tested in the beginning of January 2013.
  • Honduras has one of the most corrupt police forces in the region. Marvin Ponce, vice president of the Honduran Congress, has said 40 percent of the country’s police are involved in organized crime. According to organized crime analysis website InSight Crime, Honduran police officers "have been accused of acting as killers and enforcers for the country's criminal interests."
  • Financial Troubles

    A large portion of Honduras' problems stems from its inability to pay both its domestic and foreign bills. The government is unable to pay for state services ranging from education to security. Of current concern is how much longer the government will be able to pay its military and police forces.

  • Currently the country's internal debt is around $3 billion; its budget deficit exceeds $1 billion (6% of its GDP), while its foreign debt lies at around $5 billion, the same amount allocated to last year's entire government budget. However, the ability to tax is Honduras’ main fiscal problem. According to the Associated Press, tax evasion is adding to the country’s financial woes, with an estimated 43 percent of revenue due.
  • A bill was recently introduced in Congress that would eliminate tax breaks for companies that import goods and create Honduras' first sales tax. Supporters say it will generate an extra $1.2 billion, doubling the government's tax intake.
  • The surveillance camera system in Honduras' capital city was shut off in early January because the government owes the company running the system over $5 million. According to Insight Crime, power to around 800 cameras monitoring crime hotspots in Tegucigalpa has been suspended until the government can pay its outstanding bill. Reports say the emergency response call system would be the next service to go.
  • So far Congress has only passed a partial budget and has yet to propose a solution to the deficit. The Associated Press reported public funds were being used election campaigns with the vote set to take place in November. President Porfirio Lobo Sosa is currently under investigation for financial fraud.
  • Institutional Problems

    In addition to high levels of impunity for crimes, the country is currently in the middle of an institutional crisis.

  • Current President Lobo encouraged Congress to remove four Supreme Court justices following several decisions that went against his administration. Congress, the majority held by Lobo's National Party, did so without an impeachment trial, however, because the judges have not been replaced, no one can rule on their appeal to be reinstated as the other justices refuse to try the case.
  • Last week, Congress approved a law that would allow lawmakers to impeach any elected official.
  • As stated by Southern Pulse, "in 2013, Honduras is headed down the same road that led to the 2009 political crisis." Southern Pulse notes that the difference is that "Lobo has the support of President of Congress Juan Orlando Hernandez who is also the National Party presidential candidate. The Supreme Court will not be a factor since the Congress has intimidated the justices. The Armed Forces are led by General Rene Osorio who was previously in charge of Lobo’s Presidential Guard." Orlando is the National Party's candidate for the November 2013 presidential elections, which he is expected to win.
  • U.S. involvement in counternarcotics operations

    There has been growing U.S. military involvement in counternarcotics operations in Central America. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency’s (DEA) involvement in three operations in which suspects or innocent civilians were killed in Honduras this year highlighted that involvement and draws a watchful eye for what is coming in 2013.

  • In August, the U.S. suspended radar intelligence sharing after the Honduran air force shot down two suspected drug plans. The U.S. resumed sharing radar intelligence in November. On January 17, the Associated Press reported that a drug trafficker was killed in the first U.S.-supported anti-narcotics raid in Honduras following the five-month suspension.
  • Also in August, the U.S. State Department put a temporary hold on about $50 million for antidrug and security efforts. The move to do so was motivated by concerns over the DEA’s role in civilian deaths and unauthorized plane shootdowns, accusations that the police chief, Juan Carlos Bonilla, was involved with death squads, and the government’s sluggish pace to reform a police force mired with corruption. The $50 million amounts to about half of all U.S. aid to Honduras for 2012 (including humanitarian assistance) and includes $8.3 million in counternarcotics aid, and another $38 million under the Central America Regional Security Initiative.
  • A joint State Department and DEA mission, known as Operation Anvil, began in April and ended in mid-July. Three of the five joint interdiction operations during Anvil included the shootings of Hondurans by either DEA agents, or by Honduran officers trained, equipped and vetted by the U.S., causing the operation to end days ahead of schedule.
  • Honduras is currently participating in Operation Martillo, an operation led by U.S. Joint Interagency Task Force South that works to increase offshore monitoring along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, and coordinates with governments to intercept drug shipments. As of yet, no other multiagency operations have been announced.