Last Updated: Monday, 28 July 2014, 16:37 GMT

Countries at the Crossroads 2005 - Honduras

Publisher Freedom House
Author Michael Gold-Biss
Publication Date 5 May 2005
Cite as Freedom House, Countries at the Crossroads 2005 - Honduras, 5 May 2005, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4738690c5a.html [accessed 30 July 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

(Scores are based on a scale of 0 to 7, with 0 representing weakest and 7 representing strongest performance.)

Introduction

Author

Michael Gold-Biss is professor of national security affairs at the Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies, National Defense University, in Washington, DC.

Honduras has held six national elections since the armed forces left power in 1982. Each of these elections has been certified as fair and for the most part procedurally clean. It is thus possible to claim that Honduras has successfully consolidated civilian rule. The armed forces are not likely to intervene directly in politics by staging a coup, although they continue to be an important national actor. These are significant accomplishments, at both national and regional levels. Furthermore, considerable progress has been made since 1990, when the municipalities began to be allowed a significant level of self-governance; 1993 saw the direct election of mayors on separate individual ballots, and in 1997 the direct election of local government candidates on separate ballots began. Local governance, even if limited in terms of resources and expertise, has produced impressive improvements in some areas of community life.1 Especially significant is the relative autonomy of the mayors, who do not always run on party platforms and whose accountability is to their immediate constituents. However, Honduras is not yet a success story beyond the procedural level. Citizens do not enjoy the full range of rights, freedoms, and responsibilities.

Having been spared the worst of the civil war destruction of the 1980s, Honduras nonetheless suffered continuing physical devastation as one natural disaster hit after the other. Hurricane Mitch, whose after-effects are still palpable, hit in 1998, followed by extensive damage and flooding from Hurricane Michelle and a subsequent and destructive drought in 2001. The 1999 Stockholm donors' conference following Hurricane Mitch forced an opening of dialogue between the government and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), as well as the conditioning of assistance on more transparency, citizen participation, and improved government efficiency.2 Unfortunately, much of public life, and especially government performance, is deeply affected and distorted by institutionalized dishonesty, corruption, fraud, and levels of impunity that are almost completely due to the lack of effective prosecutions and convictions, among other shortcomings of the judicial system.

An estimated 60 percent of the population lives in poverty, and 36 percent of children suffer from malnutrition.3 Furthermore, overlapping waves of violence since the 1980s have overwhelmed Honduras. In the mid-1990s there was an almost anarchic explosion of mara (gang) violence. The violent are rarely, if ever, prosecuted and convicted, and the high profits of drug trafficking have become ever more alluring. Meanwhile, the legal economy is limping along, offering few good employment opportunities to youths with minimal educational skills. Thus, Hondurans feel besieged by violence and insecurity.

In response, the government of Ricardo Maduro Joest was elected in 2002 on a platform of zero tolerance for violent crime. His two-pronged response to the increase in violent behavior has been the passing of the Ley Antimaras (Antigang law), a revision of Article 332 of the penal code, and a community policing-style program called Comunidad Mas Segura (More Secure Community). While popular with most people for the absolute decline in the most extreme forms of gruesome violence coming from the maras, his policies have not been free from controversy. They appear to trample on civil and human rights and have unintended consequences. At times these can be horrifying, such as overcrowded prisons with inadequate prisoner safety, which twice have led to high numbers of lost lives in prison fires. President Maduro's persistently low popularity ratings, recently hovering at 37 percent, come not from his security measures or his zero-tolerance policies but from the measures he has undertaken to meet international lending agencies' demands. His backing for the U.S.-Central America Free Trade Area has also made him unpopular.4

Honduras's plight of being caught between the very real violence of maras, drug-traffickers, and vigilantes underscores the weakness of the governance abilities of the state, especially in the area of the rule of law. Honduras has been plagued by extrajudicial violence against those perceived to be social undesirables such as street children, prostitutes, and openly homosexual persons; much of this activity appears to be carried out by off-duty police, although civilians are also involved. As in many countries, political will is lacking to promote substantive changes that will inevitably undermine the traditional hold on power of political and economic elites. This is principally true between the two main parties, the National Party of Honduras (PN) and the Liberal Party (PL), but also in the three smaller parties, which exist primarily due to the political establishment's commitment to the status quo. In effect, the slow nature of political and social change in Honduras can be attributed to the recognition by these parties' leaders and militants that change is necessary but should be accomplished at an incremental and manageable pace. The country is slowly, but surely, creeping along the road from being a failing state with damaged governance to becoming a failed state with the fig leaf of periodic elections that fail to conceal the breakdown and atomization of public life.

Accountability and Public Voice – 3.81

The Honduran political system is open, with regularly scheduled free and fair elections among accepted political actors, although the Latinobarometro poll has found a sharp decline in support for democracy in Honduras since 2003.5 The two major parties, the PN and the PL, have traditionally alternated in power in the unicameral National Congress. These parties tend to represent the interests of a single economic elite and are therefore very similar ideologically.6 Three minor parties also have a regular presence in Congress. While no formal obstacles exist to the formation of other parties or to independent candidates' running for office, this is not common, and few succeed in being elected.

The law of elections and political organizations passed in 1981 has been amended at least 10 times. Although it is supposed to regulate all aspects of the elections, it is not uniformly enforced. For example, there are limits on how parties can finance campaigns, but the national tribunal of elections, which regulates elections, does not demand that financial reports be submitted. In May 2004 Congress approved new reforms of the electoral laws intended to increase transparency in the existing law. They include limiting the length of primary electoral campaigns to 90 days and general election campaigns to 120 days. Financing of campaigns is subject to more stringent disclosure requirements, especially donations of over 300,000 lempiras (US$16,500). The 2005 national tribunal of elections will have representation from the two major and three minor parties. Advertising restrictions have already been rendered moot as pre-presidential candidates carry out unofficial campaigns through the media, which in some cases they own.

The typical congressional deputy is a party stalwart who can deliver votes, money, or both to his party. In the Honduran electoral system, citizens vote for party ballots and not individuals; as a result, in many instances deputies do not know their constituents and feel no loyalty or responsibility to them. As in many Latin American countries, Honduras has a strong presidential system. The significant powers of the incumbent, who cannot be reelected, prevent a realistic balance of power among the branches of government. Many civil service appointments, made based on party loyalty and not expertise, are subject to significant turnover when the party in office changes. Ultimately, the economic elites have been able to use the two main parties to exert control over both the electoral process and governmental institutions. They use the law for their own benefit at the expense of the most vulnerable members of the population.7 Those actors, be they rural laborers or the urban middle classes, with substantive agendas for change that diverge from the security program and economic plan of the president make little progress. This is likely to be the case under the rule of any of the leading current political parties.

Civic groups, NGOs, and interest groups of all kinds have become vibrant parts of Honduran civil society. After the Stockholm 1999 conference of donors, the government learned to sit down with these groups to discuss problems and their solutions. However, for the most part, this has not led the government to take action based on a public consensus and with the participation of these organizations in the implementation of policies. The best that can be said is that political leaders will allow donor cooperation with reformers in civil society. Farmer cooperatives and unions, in particular, have become more vocal and have been relatively successful in having their grievances aired and even some of their complaints addressed.

Honduras has four major newspapers, two radio stations with national reach, three television channels with national reach, and four television stations with local reach. Of these outlets, among other influential individuals, Jaime Rosenthal, three-time PL candidate for the presidency, owns a newspaper and a TV channel, and Carlos Roberto Flores, an ex-president of the PL, owns a newspaper. The government has direct influence over the media through the placement of public announcements and advertisements, and it is common to hear of journalists being paid for stories. It is not surprising that some observers have concluded that media owners use their news outlets to further their own business and political purposes.8 The government does not interfere with satellite or cable television or radio, nor does it limit access to the Internet.

Honduran media have traditionally been intimidated by threats of prosecution with heavy prison terms and have thus practiced self-censorship, but they have for the most part been spared physical threats. It was therefore a shock when German Antonio Rivas, head of the Corporacion Mayavision-Canal 7 TV station, was shot dead upon arriving at work in November 2003. The station had recently aired stories of coffee and cattle smuggling, as well as cyanide pollution in the Lara River.9 To date there has been no resolution of this crime, the first murder of a journalist in Honduras in 20 years. Several other journalists have been physically attacked. For example, Eduardo Irais of TV station Canal 66 was attacked in front of parliament on October 8, 2003, while covering a student protest, and Carlos Mauricio Flores of the El Heraldo daily was attacked on October 21, 2003 by a Colombian implicated in arms smuggling.10 Article 345 of the criminal procedures code (CPC) imposes a two- to four-year prison sentence on those guilty of "threats, calumny, insults, or other offenses against the dignity of public authorities exercising their public duties."11 Television presenter Renato Alvarez was given a two-year, eight-month prison sentence, suspended for five years, and deprived of his right to vote, management of his property, and other rights after being found guilty of slander in the questioning of a government minister about drug smuggling on his program, "Frente a Frente" (Face to Face), in June 2003.12

While there is some control over sexual imagery in movies and publications, primarily under the influence of the Roman Catholic Church, most cultural expressions are uncensored and free from government oversight. However, as Honduras is a poor society in which most forms of cultural expression are luxuries, challenges to the establishment in the form of politicized art beyond that found at universities and art institutes are rare.

Recommendations

  • Provisions of the Electoral Law and Law of Political Organizations should be strictly and publicly enforced, especially regarding the regulation of the campaign process and funding.
  • A ballot system should be adopted that allows for the election of representatives accountable to constituents, not party militants selected for their ability to deliver votes or money.
  • The civil service should be fully professionalized, with appointment and promotion separated from the political process.
  • Laws restricting journalistic independence with threats of prosecution for slander and related offenses must be revised to guarantee freedom of speech and expression. A first step would be the elimination of libel provisions in the criminal procedures code.

Civil Liberties – 3.88

During the many years of military government in Honduras there were disappearances, murder, torture, and the whole host of human rights abuses associated with military governments at the time. Many of these continue to be unresolved, although President Maduro, in an act of public contrition unprecedented in the region, made a public apology for the political violence of the 1980s that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of left-wing activists at the hands of military death squads.13 It has been difficult to prosecute and convict suspected human rights abusers partly due to the corrupt and at times incompetent nature of the criminal justice system but also due to the suppression of evidence and heavy-handed intervention of local elites. In March 2004 Lt. Marco Tulio Regalado, the first military officer convicted for a human rights violation – the killing of Honduran Communist Party activist Herminio Deras in 1983 – was acquitted by a court because the evidence against him was not "irrefutable."14

The extent and intensity of past abuses are rapidly being overshadowed by two new and overlapping crises. The first is the execution of street children and young adults in a publicly semi-sanctioned "cleansing" of undesirables, along with the persecution of mareros (gang members), through both murder and "cleansing." The second is the draconian and indiscriminate application of the 2003 Ley Antimaras or Mano Dura (Heavy and Hard Hand) policy. The numbers of victims, the impunity of those committing the human rights abuses – which range from torture to disappearance and death – and the popular support for these policies contribute to an environment in which the rule of law is subordinate to the firepower and repressive abilities of the state.

The legal maneuver that allows for the criminalization of mara membership is the rewriting of Article 332 of the penal code in August 2003. The Honduran Congress amended Article 332 to make association in a street gang illegal. Congress modeled the reform on European laws used to combat violent Nazi gangs. In Honduras, gang members can receive 6 to 9 years in jail and leaders can receive 9 to 12. Specifically, membership in a gang is criminal, whether or not a crime has been committed. Most of the gang members are residents of the United States convicted of crimes there and deported to their country of origin after serving their U.S. prison sentences. After the first wave of 7,000 criminal deportees had been released into the streets – bringing with them guns, drugs, and gangs – murders increased in Honduras from 1,615 in 1995 to 9,214 in 1998. In most cases the deportees had left Honduras years before, had grown up in the United States, had joined gangs on the streets or in prison, and had at most extended family to turn to once back in the country. They reverted to the skills they had learned in the streets or prisons of the United States – drug dealing, theft, and even murder – to survive in what were otherwise to them entirely foreign surroundings.15

In practice, the evidence used to convict the gang members of their "illicit association," is based mostly on the physical evidence found on them: tattoos. Significantly, local experts of the Honduran National Police claim that the larger the tattoo, the more important the gang member is.16 This may be accompanied by photographs of the suspect making some of the hand signals used by gangs to identify and communicate and possibly a homemade weapon or assault gun (in 2003 President Maduro signed a decree making "weapons of war" such as assault weapons of the AK-47 type illegal).17 Honduras has the largest number of mareros in Central America, at 36,000.18 Despite claiming that this is not an intended consequence of his anti-gang policies, President Maduro recognizes that up to 2,000 mareros have left the country since the crackdown began.19

Most Hondurans are breathing a sigh of relief as gang-related violence appears to abate.20 Other programs introduced by President Maduro, such as Comunidad Mas Segura, have produced lower petty crime rates and increased a sense of security among the public. However, principled individuals and groups in society are concerned with the human and civil rights price Honduras is paying in semi-arbitrary arrests and almost indefinite incarceration. The respected NGO Casa Alianza (Alliance House) has declared that the "measures are not tackling the source of the problem: poverty and lack of opportunities."21 Amnesty International, the U.S. Department of State, and Honduras's National Commission for Human Rights have reported cases of kidnapping, torture, and killing of gang members, carried out by secret security forces and private groups similar to those responsible for the hundreds of disappearances of suspected leftists during the civil war.22 Government statistics indicate that between January 1998 and January 2004 there were at least 2,170 unsolved deaths of people under the age of 23.23 Berta Oliva, director of the Committee of the Relatives of the Disappeared, has said, "It seems to me that this country is losing, in great measure, the democratic advances that have cost us so much.... In the 80's, this country said it was O.K. to kill off political enemies because they were antisocial. We say the same today about gang members."24 Ramon Custodio, the National Commissioner for Human Rights, and Ms. Oliva have opposed the Ley Anti-Maras as unconstitutional, prompting the government to declare it will defend the law to protect the citizenry.25 Human rights advocates are themselves at risk; Amnesty International noted that "in Honduras several environmentalists and one human rights lawyer were killed between 2001 and 2003."26

Respected NGOs, such as the Committee of Families of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH), have maintained extensive records of indictments and cases without convictions and other instances in which the legal system has failed effectively to prosecute and convict human rights violators, even when evidence of involvement or fault is available. In 2003 Director of the Internal Affairs Unit of the Ministry of Security Maria Luisa Borja indicated that police agents had been involved in 20 or more summary executions and then ordered the weapons used to be destroyed. Subsequently, Borjas was demoted and transferred.27

Throughout the system, Honduras's prisons are overcrowded and antiquated. In April 2003, 68 inmates died in a fire at the El Porvenir prison in La Ceiba. A second prison fire took place on May 17, 2004, at the San Pedro Sula Prison. Most of the dead in both incidents were mareros. The report commissioned by President Maduro after the 2003 fire concluded that "51 of those who died were in fact shot, beaten, or burned to death by a force of the prison guards working with state police, soldiers, and other prisoners." No one has been brought to justice in that case.28 The National Commissioner of Human Rights indicated that the crime scene of the first fire was altered and contaminated, giving reason to believe that the security forces could be covering up an execution of gang members.29

In 1999, prisons held more than 10,000 inmates, 90 percent of whom had been waiting for their trials for an average of 22 months; a number had waited more than five years, and some had served the maximum sentences before appearing for trial for the crime of which they were accused.30 In 2004, the country had 26 prisons built to hold 5,500 inmates but in fact held over 13,000 prisoners, according to government statistics.31 A new criminal procedures code (CPC), passed in 1991, entered into effect in 2002, incorporating "guarantees of individual rights, freedom from arbitrary or lengthy detentions, oral and public hearings, transparency, and other fundamental elements of due process."32 The practical effects of the revised system may be felt in Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, the largest cities, but for most of the rest of the country the old processes and procedures are still in place. In some parts of the country there is no effective police presence, much less that of the judicial system. The chief justice of the Supreme Court has emphasized the fragile nature of the judicial reforms by characterizing the new system as "a crawling baby that still needs to be fed and helped to reach maturity and walk on its own."33 Citizens do not trust the justice system to protect them and are often wary of police, leading many to take the law into their own hands. As a result, much of rural Honduras is effectively lawless. Perhaps thinking that President Maduro's policies are not draconian enough, or to position himself better for the November 2005 presidential elections, in 2004 congressional president Porfirio Lobo Sosa proposed the reintroduction of the death penalty for murderers, kidnappers, and rapists. Few proposals have received such unanimously unfavorable reception by most political, religious, and civic leaders in the country. The death penalty is opposed largely on religious and moral grounds but is also seen to be an inappropriate solution to the root causes of violence, including poverty and social injustice.34 Honduras has ratified the American Human Rights convention, which declares that states that have abolished the death penalty may not reintroduce it.

For both women and indigenous minorities, life can be difficult, if not outright dangerous. Women and children have been targets of violence aimed against marginalized populations perceived to be disposable or of extreme forms of domestic violence in such numbers as to attract international attention. Civilian vigilante groups or off-duty security personnel torture and murder as a form "social cleansing" of social outcasts, including street children and prostitutes, perceived to be parasites; the body of one of these victims was found in San Pedro Sula with the words "limpiando la ciudad" ("cleaning the city") written on his shoulder with a pen.35 Only eight women are among the 128 diputados (deputies) and their 128 designated substitutes in Congress. Indigenous and black leaders have been targeted for execution, with at least 70 having been murdered since 1970; not a single case has led to a conviction.36 Furthermore, Amnesty International has asserted "indigenous people are subjected to human rights violations, including torture."37 Neither women nor other marginalized groups have effective means to enforce individual rights or seek redress for rights violations. Hondurans in general are not tolerant of sexual diversity and have made targets of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people with the same virulence as they have against other groups subject to "social cleansing."38

People with disabilities are one of the most disadvantaged groups in Honduras. Their needs are addressed by charity rather than through a human rights approach. Their rights are not well protected in Honduran law, and no central agency addresses human rights violations against them.39

The Roman Catholic Church plays a significant role in Honduran political life. While not partisan, it frequently makes public announcements that emphasize the importance of good governance and the role of ethics in public life. Other faiths are free to practice and face little if any overt discrimination, and certainly none from the state. Nevertheless, only the Roman Catholic Church has the requisite public legitimacy and proximity to the state to render public pronouncements on policy matters. For example, the church hierarchy has frequently questioned the large number of prisoners held in the overcrowded prisons. Auxiliary Bishop Romulo Emiliani of the San Pedro Sula diocese, who is active in the effort to rehabilitate gang members, called for an investigation into why the prisoners who had died in the 2004 fire had not been released so that they could flee the fire. The hierarchy has also been vocal in its criticism that President Maduro's economic policies do not address the problems of the country's poor.

Honduras has a lively and vibrant union environment that frequently takes to the streets in paralyzing strikes to call for better benefits or try to roll back government price hikes. Recent examples of their activism include a transportation strike that President Maduro was able to avert by negotiations, in part by sending the presidential airplane for the strike leaders in San Pedro Sula, and a teacher's strike that he was unable to prevent, which blocked roads across the country.40 While the government responds vigorously to strikes and protests and at times uses excessive force, there is some restraint on the force employed by security personnel.

Recommendations

  • The government should revisit and revise the 2003 Anti-Gang Law. Safeguards to ensure due process and protection of the rights of individuals accused, prosecuted, and convicted under this law must be adopted and enforced.
  • The Comunidad Mas Segura programs of community policing should be enhanced and expanded to help prevent criminal activity.
  • The government must stop the practice of social cleansing, which has continued to plague children and those considered undesirable such as gang members and prostitutes, through a more active police presence and the effective prosecution of those engaged in these practices. As a first step, the government must denounce publicly these acts and carry out an educational campaign to instruct Hondurans on their constitutional rights.
  • The prison system should be modernized and expanded to provide a minimum of protections for inmates and ease the overcrowding. Those who have already served maximum possible sentences for crimes they are accused of, but have not been tried for, should be released. Implementation of the new criminal procedures code should be expedited throughout the country.

Rule of Law – 3.35

Traditionally, the weakest part of the Honduran state has been the judicial system. The judiciary was subordinate to, and dependent upon, both the executive and legislative branches of government. In 2001 the Congress ratified 200 constitutional amendments designed to restructure the judicial branch, such as increasing the size of the Supreme Court. Opposition was strong within Congress to some elements of these reforms, including the establishment of a constitutional court to interpret and rule on the constitutionality of legislation. No action has been taken to establish a constitutional court and currently the Supreme Court makes decisions in this area. Nevertheless, the whole process received broad popular support. Among important changes was the separation of the appointment of Supreme Court justices from the four-year electoral cycle, extending the term of each justice to seven years. Congress now selects the 15 justices from a list of 45 names prepared by a judicial selection commission that includes members of civil society. The first time around, in 2002, a politicized selection process, characterized by extreme partisanship, tainted the result, with a court almost evenly split between the two major parties.41 Nevertheless, the process itself has been opened to public scrutiny and is much more transparent, incorporating important elements of fairness.

Much remains to be done to professionalize the rule of law and administration of justice. In particular, the appointment of judges in general has traditionally been highly politicized and characterized by extreme forms of patronage, including a significant turnover of judges with every change in government. The judiciary to some degree depends on the goodwill of Congress for its funding.

However, progress in modernizing the criminal system has also taken place. The new CPC (see "Civil Liberties") has replaced the former inquisitorial system with a more open adversarial system, including provisions such as plea-bargaining, restitution, and community service. The multiple advantages of such a flexible system include the ability to prioritize and process cases in an expedited yet fair manner, allowing for discretion over the prosecution of an infraction depending on its severity and nature. The new CPC provides for criminal investigation and prosecution as a responsibility of the public ministry. The defense of those who cannot afford their own – the majority of criminal defendants – is the responsibility of a small and under-funded public defender's office that operates under the auspices of the Supreme Court.42 An important caveat is that for these changes to bear fruit and work effectively over the long term, significant resources and time must be invested in them. Until then-and there is no precise time-line for such changes to mature – people of wealth or influence will continue routinely to undermine the judicial system by expecting and receiving special treatment. Meanwhile, the civil procedures code remains antiquated and unwieldy, impeding the timely resolution of civil litigation, including commercial disputes.43

Since the armed forces formally left government in 1982, their power has gradually diminished. They are now effectively subordinated to civilian rule under the president as commander in chief and a civilian minister of defense.44 The most significant moves to limit the power of the military were taken by President Carlos Roberto Reina (1994-1998), who ended conscription and made military service voluntary, thus greatly reducing the public role of the armed forces as a unifying factor with a national presence. Reina also drastically reduced the size of the military and established a civilian police force and the public ministry, analogous to the office of the attorney-general of the United States. The ministry of defense, today headed by a civilian, is responsible for the armed forces, while the ministry of security is responsible for the police forces. The armed forces have been sidelined from active participation in the country's political life and pursue institutional activities concerned with national security, the environment, combating drug trafficking, and fighting the illegal arms trade. Although some of the latter functions are traditionally the responsibility of domestic law enforcement agencies, the institutional and professional deficiencies of the security services, as well as the nature of the tasks involved, have led to the armed forces playing a leading role in these areas, a phenomenon common to the region as a whole.

While in theory all property rights are guaranteed by the constitution, the reality is that the economically advantaged have firmer property rights than do the poor. Title is allegedly held to lands in excess of 100 percent of the total national territory, the result of a lack of cadastres and enforceable property rights. Indeed, personal property rights are tenuous due to elite manipulation of the law, including contracts.45 The vulnerability and corruption of the judicial system, along with the traditional weakness of the national state, has made it difficult to introduce modern economic practices, including the ability of municipalities to assess and levy property taxes accurately.46 As the legal system cannot be relied upon to rule fairly and justly in a dispute, local and international investments are subject to high levels of uncertainty and also higher risk premiums.

The Honduran constitution provides for the protection of the lands of indigenous people. However, the situation remains poor. Although some land has been adjudicated to indigenous communities, no special land regime has been designed to address traditional landholding practices and give indigenous groups autonomy to manage their land. Serious contradictions between agrarian reform laws and regulations such as those governing forests and environmental issues have delayed progress toward a genuine policy recognizing indigenous territorial rights.47 Furthermore, environmental activism related to land claimed by these communities has led to persecution and even death among indigenous protesters. While some individuals have been prosecuted in these cases, the economic interests behind such abuses, such as landowners and loggers, have not been pursued.48

Recommendations

  • The 2001 constitutional changes enhancing the power of the Supreme Court must be fully implemented and the process of separating the selection of justices from the political process must continue. Standards of professional performance qualifying candidates for service on the court should be established, and the public, especially NGOs, should provide testimony in favor of or against the nominees.
  • A constitutional court should be established to provide for the impartial and legal adjudication of constitutional issues, including changes to the constitution or controversial laws (e.g., the Anti-Gang Law).
  • Property rights must be fully guaranteed, partly through the full implementation of existing laws but also through modernization of the legal system to ensure impartiality and minimize manipulation by economic and political elites.
  • The antiquated civil procedures code, which is based on involved and time-consuming written procedures requiring considerable resources, should be replaced with a modern civil procedures code based on oral proceedings.

Anticorruption and Transparency – 2.96

Honduras has traditionally fared poorly when it comes to the international evaluation of efforts to reduce corruption and increase transparency. The 2004 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index places Honduras 114 out of 145 countries, with a score of 2.3 out of 10.49 Transparency International points out that "there is a direct relationship between high levels of corruption and low levels of economic productivity. The lack of transparency that tends to go hand in hand with government corruption leads to a level of uncertainty that effectively discourages foreign investors."50 Honduras has yet to make substantive progress in the area of honest public policy and less opaque government dealings. Deficiencies in the rule of law seriously affect the ability to conduct business in Honduras. Funds for social programs and public works are regularly diverted. Tax evasion is routine and endemic, leading tax revenues to fall below levels required to provide essential services while maintaining macroeconomic stability.51

President Maduro has frequently deplored the ranking of Honduras among the world's most corrupt nations. Yet, his government's policies, effective in dealing with multilateral financial organizations such as the IMF, have not increased the confidence of the global community in better governance under his leadership. The government's only efficiency and transparency effort has been the Program of Efficiency and Transparency in the Purchases and Contracts of the State (UPET), announced in March 2004. Financed by the Inter-American Development Bank and cooperating donors, the program will be worth $23.4 million over four years.52 The advantage of this system is the simultaneous audits of ongoing transactions. The government proposed training 350 government employees and others in the process. However, the office of the presidency did not follow up on the plan. Moreover, while such programs undoubtedly build important capacity among officials and others, they cannot address the ongoing theft of state and public resources that takes place outside this limited level of scrutiny.

In February 2004 the vice-president of Transparency International, Ines Ospina, visited Honduras at the invitation of President Maduro. Her assessment of the progress being made in the country was mixed. She praised the government for undertaking actions such as delegating to the UN Development Program the purchase of medicines to ensure the transparency of the transactions, as well as to reduce the cost of the purchases.53 On the other hand, when she met with representatives of the private sector she protested that she had not seen that sector's commitment to combat corruption and stressed that much work remained to be done to make them aware of the need to cooperate with the struggle against corruption.54

In general, government largess benefits political allies through legal means. For example, public resources are used to bail out government-friendly banks with bad debt, thereby encouraging more poor investments and hurting the economy through increased cost of credit.55 The state does little if anything to enforce rules governing conflict of interest that may arise for public office holders (see "Accountability and Public Voice"). While requirements are on the books, elected officials do not offer financial disclosures to identify, much less address potential conflicts of interest. The state does nothing to regulate conflicts of interest in the private sector either, which is left pretty much to its own devices and to its ability to pay off or intimidate inquisitive officials or journalists. The high incidence of corruption and lack of transparency mean that public interest in good governance, sustained economic growth, and justice is not served.

No major government official or politician has been successfully prosecuted and forced to pay appropriate penalties, be they monetary or in terms of prison time, for corruption. The overwhelming nature of official impunity is reinforced by the legal immunity enjoyed by politicians serving in Congress (and in the Central American Parliament, an international representative body established to promote regional integration). Thus, the effectiveness of going after the "small fish" is diminished as the "big fish" continue to feed from public monies.

A case in point involved the Honduran chief prosecutor, Ovidio Navarro, who dismissed 10 public prosecutors and transferred 6 others after they criticized his controversial decision to put a number of corruption cases on hold, including some involving former President Rafael Callejas (1990-1994). As a result, prosecutors staged a strike and a large public demonstration in November 2004. The press and the general public challenged the vigorous defense Navarro mounted for his actions. The appearance of having favored former President Callejas – seven of the postponed cases were against him – reflects poorly on the prosecutor's office and the state.

The increasing availability of the Internet to the middle and upper classes of the region has led to an effort to place increasing amounts of information about the government online. This effort is a good way for governments to reach NGOs and journalists, who can redistribute information to the wider public. Information on the national budget and expenses incurred are made available by the state. Unfortunately, the information is primarily general and does not allow for reconciliation of accounts making use of generally accepted accounting rules. To some extent the government actually does not know how much money comes in and goes out. The complex nature of the different sources of revenue coming to the state, ranging from domestic taxes and export duties to international aid, is matched by various mechanisms for official expenditures including payrolls, rebates, and direct aid. Presidential and legislative budgets can differ significantly, and the reconciliation of differences usually does not take place in public. Primarily as a result of the 1999 Stockholm donors' conference, the disbursement of foreign aid related to Hurricane Mitch was for the most part free of major incidents of corruption. This transparency and accountability was partly ensured by the close scrutiny that international donors placed on the Honduran government, inspection that has eased over time as the funds associated with that particular tragedy were disbursed.

Anticorruption and transparency are very low on the priority list of the current Honduran government, and in the foreseeable future there is little hope that much will change in this area. The politics of continuing to support a restrictive political system, with few possibilities for innovation and change, offer little hope for a timely, or even eventual resolution to many of the country's almost intractable problems: "poor governmental performance providing services, bad economic policy decisions, misuse and waste of tax revenues, corruption, an uncompetitive investment environment, low growth, increased poverty, unreliable and inconsistent law enforcement, inadequate dispute resolution, poor public security, and human rights violations."56 Globalization and the erosion of national jurisdictions, along with national solutions to regional problems, exacerbate this already cloudy and troublesome scenario.

Recommendations

  • Existing legislation regarding corruption in the state apparatus must be enforced and relevant laws should be passed to address conflicts of interest in the public sector effectively.
  • Existing legislation should be enforced to protect whistle-blowers and others who expose corruption from retaliation.
  • Selected government purchases and transactions should be outsourced, insofar as is possible, to international organizations that have more effective transparency and oversight.
  • High-level public officials involved in corrupt practices must be fully investigated, prosecuted, and punished if found guilty.

Notes

1 Evidence of the importance of municipal empowerment in the provision of services and the improvement of quality of life can be found in a technical report by Glenn Pearce-Oroz, "Local Institutions Matter: Decentralized Provision of Water and Sanitation in Secondary Cities in Honduras" (Washington, DC: World Bank, Urban Research Symposium, 2003).

2 "Central America: Meeting of Central American Governments in Stockholm," TI Newsletter (Berlin: Transparency International [TI], September 1999), http://www.transparency.org/newsletters/99.3/reforms.html#9; Honduras: Democracy and Governance Assessment (Burlington, VT: ARD, Inc., January 2003), 11 (submitted under U.S. Agency for International Development, Center for Democracy and Governance, Contract No. AEP-I-00-99-00041-00).

3 Honduras: Amnesty International Report 2004 (London and New York: Amnesty International [AI], 2004), http://www.amnestyusa.org/countries/honduras/document.do?id=C41620B4CF489A5880256E9E005A95FA.

4 "Opposition fails to capitalize on government's woes," Latin American Caribbean & Central America Report RC-04-06, 22 June 2004, 11; "Economic and institutional weakness blights Central America," Latin American Caribbean & Central America Report RC-03-8, 16 September 2003, 1-2.

5 "Democracy's low-level equilibrium; The Latinobarometro poll," The Economist, 14 August 2004.

6 Honduras: Democracy and Governance Assessment (ARD, Inc.), 6.

7 "Honduras politics: Electoral reforms are passed," Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) ViewsWire, 26 July 2004, i, 7.

8 Honduras: Democracy and Governance Assessment (ARD, Inc.), 16.

9 "Journalist murdered near border with Guatemala" (Paris: Reporters Without Borders [RSF], 27 November 2003, http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=8642.

10 Honduras – Annual Report 2004 (RSF, 3 May 2004), http://rsf.org/print.php3?id_article=10234.

11 Honduras: Democracy and Governance Assessment (ARD, Inc.), 16.

12 Honduras – Annual Report 2004 (RSF); "Reporters Without Borders protests against TV journalist's jail sentence" (RSF, 20 February 2004), http://rsf.org/print.php3?id_article=9321.

13 "Honduras: Politics" (sidebar), Latin American Caribbean & Central America Report RC-04-11, 16 November 2004, 4.

14 "Absuelven a oficial por crimen de Herminio Deras" (Officer Absolved for Crime of Herminio Deras), La Prensa (Honduras), 27 March 2004, http://www.laprensahn.com/policiales.php?id=1405&tabla=March_2004&fecha=20040327; "The Quest for Justice: Efforts to Prosecute Honduran Human Rights Abusers," May I Speak Freely? Media for Social Change, n.d., http://www.mayispeakfreely.org/index.php?gSec=doc&doc_id=35.

15 Randall Richard, "AP Investigation: 500,000 criminal deportees from America wreak havoc in many nations," The Associated Press, 25 October 25, 2003. The US deportation law applies to anyone receiving a sentence of one year or more, even if it is suspended; it is retroactive; and it is virtually automatic as there are almost no grounds for appeal.

16 Ibid.

17 "Presidente sanciona decreto de ley que prohibe tenencia de las AK-47" [President signs decree making ownership of the AK-47s illegal] (Tegucigalpa: Presidency of the Republic of Honduras, press release, 10 July 2003), http://www.casapresidencial.hn/2003/07/10_1.php.

18 "Summit Rejects Salvador-Honduras Antigang Plan," Latin America Weekly Report, WR-03-50, 23 December 2003, 16; "Guatemala: Berger Slims Army, Slashes Spending," Latin American Weekly Report, 6 April 2004; "Shuttling between Nations, Latino Gangs Confound the Law," the New York Times, 26 September 2004, 1; W.E. Gutman, "Gangs: The Fatal Compulsion to Belong," Honduras this Week, 26 March 2004, http://americas.org/item_14520.

19 Mark Stevenson, "AP Enterprise: War on Central American street gangs brings violence to Mexico," The Associated Press, 10 December 2003.

20 Raphaele Bail, "Marked men with no place to hide," Christian Science Monitor, 18 August 2004, in Latin American Post, http://www.latinamericanpost.com/index.php?mod=seccion&secc=4&conn=3674.

21 "Region Wide Campaign Targets Street Gangs," Latin American Caribbean & Central America Report, 20 July 2004.

22 "Shuttling between Nations, Latino Gangs Confound the Law," the New York Times, 26 September 2004.

23 Freddy Cuevas, "Comisionado derechos humanos denuncia ejecuciones en Honduras [Human Rights Commissioner Denounces Executions in Honduras]," El Nuevo Herald, 3 March 2004, http://www.miami.com/mld/elnuevo/8095439.htm.

24 "Shuttling between Nations, Latino Gangs Confound the Law," The New York Times, 26 September 2004.

25 "Gobierno defendera Ley Antimaras para proteger a la ciudadania [Government will defend Anti-Mara law to protect citizenry]" (Presidency of the Republic of Honduras, press release, 6 January 2004), http://www.casapresidencial.hn/2004/01/06_2.php.

26 "Americas: Human Rights Defenders: Persecution reaches emergency proportions" (AI, press release, 10 November 2003), http://news.amnesty.org/index/ENGAMR010112003.

27 "Situacion de los Derechos Humanos en Honduras, Resumen 2004 [Situation of Human Rights in Honduras, Summary 2004]" (Tegucigalpa: Committee of Families of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras [COFADEH], 2004), http://www.cofadeh.org/html/documentos/situacion_derechos_humanos.2004.html.

28 "Maduro faces rap after 104 die in prison inferno," Latin American Caribbean & Central American Report RC-04-05, 25 May 2004, 6-7.

29 "Situacion de los Derechos Humanos en Honduras, Resumen 2004 [Situation of Human Rights in Honduras, Summary 2004]" (COFADEH).

30 Douglas Payne, Honduras: Update on Human Rights Conditions (Washington, DC: INS Resource Information Center, Perspective Series, September 2000), cited in The Center for International Policy's Central America Program, http://ciponline.org/central_america/humanrights.htm.

31 "Prison director investigated for role in jail fire," Latinnews Daily, 12 August 2004.

32 Honduras: Democracy and Governance Assessment (ARD, Inc.), 25.

33 Ibid., 26.

34 "Death penalty proposal provokes rare unanimity," Latin American Weekly Report, 21 September 2004.

35 Duncan Campbell, "Murdered with Impunity," The Guardian (UK), ZNET, 29 May 2003, http://www.zmag.org/content/print_article.cfm?itemID=3692ᄃionID=54.

36 Figure provided by Confederation of Indian Peoples of Honduras (COMPAH) and cited in "Pech Indian Leader Killed in Olancho," EFE, 14 July 2004, http://www.americas.org/item_15571.

37 Honduras: Amnesty International Report 2004 (AI), http://web.amnesty.org/report2004/hnd-summary-eng.

38 Honduras: Human rights violations against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people (AI, AI Index: AMR 37/014/2003, September 2003), 1.

39 "Honduras," in International Disabilities Rights Monitor: 2004 Regional Report of the Americas (Washington, DC: Center for International Rehabilitation, August 2004), http://www.cirnetwork.org/idrm/reports/americas/countries/honduras.html.

40 "President Maduro summons urgent meeting to stop transportation strike," Central America: Political press review, BBC Worldwide Monitoring, 6 January 2004; "Teachers Block Roads in Honduras Demanding Higher Pay," EFE, 24 July 2004, http://www.americas.org/item_15399.

41 Honduras: Democracy and Governance Assessment (ARD, Inc.), 25.

42 Ibid., 26.

43 Ibid., 26, 43.

44 Ibid., 4.

45 Ibid., 8; 2005 Index of Economic Freedom (Washington, DC: Heritage Foundation, 2005), http://www.heritage.org/research/features/index/country.cfm?id=Honduras.

46 Honduras: Democracy and Governance Assessment (ARD, Inc.), 8.

47 Roque Roldan Oritiga, Models for Recognizing Indigenous Land Rights in Latin America (Washington, DC: Inter-American Development Bank, Biodiversity Series, Paper 99, October 2004), 11.

48 "Pech Indian Leader Killed in Olancho" (EFE).

49 "Corruption Perceptions Index 2004" (TI), http://www.transparency.org/cpi/2004/cpi2004/cpi2004.en.html.

50 "Corruption spreads," Latin American Caribbean & Central America Report RC-04-11, 16 November 2004, 4.

51 Honduras: Democracy and Governance Assessment (ARD, Inc.), 43.

52 "Eficiencia y transparencia: Nueva formula en compras y contrataciones del estado [Efficiency and transparency: New formula for state purchases and contracts]" (Presidency of the Republic of Honduras, press release, 26 March 2004), http://www.casapresidencial.hn/politica_social/transparencia.php.

53 "Honduras esta tomando medidas transcendentales en la lucha contra la corrupcion [Honduras is taking significant measures in the fight against corruption]" (Presidency of the Republic of Honduras, press release, 25 February 2004), http://www.casapresidencial.hn/2004/02/25_2.php.

54 "International Transparency: Businessmen uncommitted to fight against corruption," Central America: Political press review, 27 February 2004, http://web.lexis-nexis.com/universe/printdoc. The story was quoted from the San Pedro Sula Tiempo (Time) at http://www.tiempo.hn_8.

55 Honduras: Democracy and Governance Assessment (ARD, Inc.), 9.

56 "Corruption spreads," Latin American Caribbean & Central America Report, ii.

Copyright notice: © Freedom House, Inc. · All Rights Reserved

Search Refworld

Countries