U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1998 - Honduras

Honduras is a constitutional democracy, with a president and a unicameral congress elected for 4-year terms. President Carlos Flores Facusse took office on January 27. The two major political parties, the Liberals and the Nationalists, have alternated in power peacefully after free elections. The judiciary is independent, but often ineffective and subject to outside influence. The Honduran Armed Forces (HOAF) comprise the army, the air force, and the navy. The National Police (formerly a paramilitary force known as the FUSEP) were transferred to civilian control in 1997. The Government created a new Ministry of Security in 1998 to oversee police operations and counter a nationwide crime wave. In September the National Congress unanimously amended the Constitution to establish direct civilian control over the armed forces--through a civilian Minister of Defense--for the first time in nearly half a century. This change, ending the considerable institutional and legal autonomy with which the HOAF operated, was expected to take effect in January 1999. Reports of human rights abuses have declined since the police were separated from the military forces; however, members of both the armed forces and the police continued to commit abuses. The market-based economy is based primarily on agriculture, with a small but increasingly important maquiladora (in-bond processing for export) industry that accounts for about 100,000 jobs, most filled by young women. The armed forces indirectly play a declining role in the national economy through their pension fund, which controls some enterprises usually associated with the private sector, including a bank and several insurance companies. About 37 percent of workers labor in agriculture, with most of the rest in industry and manufacturing, commerce, and services. The principal export crops are coffee and bananas; these, along with "value added" income from the maquiladora industry, constitute the leading sources of foreign exchange. Nontraditional products, such as melons, pineapples, and shrimp, play an increasingly important role in the economy. In October Hurricane Mitch devastated the country, causing thousands of deaths, leaving hundreds of thousands of persons temporarily homeless, and seriously damaging the nation's infrastructure. Annual per capita income is about $830; about two-thirds of the country's households live in poverty. The Government's human rights record improved somewhat, but serious problems remained. Members of the security forces allegedly committed extrajudicial killings, particularly of presumed criminals, leading human rights groups to charge that the security forces had formed neighborhood death squads. Incidents of police beatings and other abuse of detainees remained a problem. Prison conditions remain harsh, detainees do not always receive due process, and lengthy pretrial detention is common. Considerable impunity for members of the economic and official elite, exacerbated by a weak, underfunded, and sometimes corrupt judicial system, contributes to human rights problems. Although civilian courts increasingly considered allegations of human rights violations or common crimes against armed forces personnel and some cases went to trial, there were relatively few convictions. In November an appellate court upheld a lower court grant of amnesty to a military officer convicted of committing human rights abuses. While no senior government official, politician, bureaucrat, or member of the business elite was convicted of crimes, the Government removed numerous military officials, police investigators and agents, and judges from office on corruption and other charges. The judicial system continued to deny swift and impartial justice to prisoners awaiting trial. In the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch, in November the Government, with congressional assent and in accordance with the Constitution, temporarily suspended certain civil liberties; these were restored 4 weeks later. On occasion the authorities conducted illegal searches. Other human rights problems included societal discrimination and violence against women, discrimination against indigenous people, and abuse of street children. The Government does not enforce effectively all labor laws. Child labor is a problem, particularly in rural areas and in the informal economy, but not in the export processing sector.


Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom From:

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

There were no reports of politically motivated killings. However, human rights organizations alleged that individual members and former members of the security forces, acting as vigilante "security squadrons," committed extrajudicial killings. The Government publicly denied accusations relating to the security forces as institutions, but investigated individual allegations against members of neighborhood vigilante groups. Human rights groups also implicated members of the security forces in a number of killings of street children (see Section 5). In February persons in Santa Rosa calling themselves "Vigilantes of the Night" killed Ernesto Sandoval Bustillo, a former judge who was the Copan department representative of the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights in Honduras (CODEH). Sandoval had been investigating the possible involvement of local officials in contraband and narcotics smuggling, land expropriation schemes, environmental destruction, and police abuses. The Government deployed police investigators from Tegucigalpa who determined that the Chinchilla crime organization had carried out the murder; the police subsequently arrested two dozen members of the Chinchilla gang who were awaiting trial at year's end. In May unknown persons killed Carlos Antonio Luna Lopez, a town councilman in Catacamas. Police continued to investigate this case. In October Pedro Garcia Villanueva, a regional director of attorneys for the Public (Justice) Ministry, was killed in Santa Barbara. Garcia had been investigating several notorious human rights cases, including the 1992 murder of former national electric company director Marco Tulio Castellon Baide. The police detained several suspected assailants. Dramatic increases in violent crime fueled the continued growth in the number of private, often unlicensed, guard services, and of volunteer groups who patrolled their neighborhoods or municipalities to deter crime. The continued proliferation of private security forces made it more difficult to differentiate among homicides that may have been perpetrated by government security personnel, private vigilantes, or common criminals. The number of homicides nationwide rose, reaching 6 to 12 murders per day in the capital city of Tegucigalpa alone; random shootings and other violent assaults also were common. Human rights groups asserted that at least some of these homicides were extrajudicial executions. Over 100 youths associated with criminal gangs were killed, execution-style. In such cases, renegade elements of the security forces, or civilian (including vigilante) groups working with such elements, allegedly used unwarranted lethal force against supposed habitual criminals. The Government did not take effective action to try, convict, or punish anyone for these offenses. Concerns that the security forces would not investigate credible allegations of extrajudicial killings by members of the former FUSEP led to the creation in 1994 of a civilian-controlled Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DIC) under the Public Ministry (which also includes a prosecutorial branch). The Police Organic Law, which took effect in November, placed the DIC under the new Ministry of Security and renamed it the General Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DGIC). Since the creation of the DIC, the Attorney General and human rights groups have noted a decrease in reported human rights abuses. In January a judge of the second criminal court ruled that although Lieutenant Colonel Juan Blas Salazar Mesa was guilty of participating in the kidnaping, torture, and murders of students in 1982, he qualified for amnesty. In December the Supreme Court upheld the lower court's ruling on amnesty for Salazar. In 1997 the authorities jailed two former senior military and security officials in the cases of Adan Aviles Funez and Nicaraguan citizen Amado Espinoza Paz, who disappeared in Choluteca on June 12, 1982. Authorities detained Colonel Manuel Enrique Suarez Benavides, while retired police colonel Marco Antonio Matute Lagos surrendered voluntarily; both faced charges of illegal detention and murder. Both officers appealed their detention. Suarez was freed on appeal in late 1997, and Matute was granted conditional liberty in October. Police Colonel Alexander Raymundo Hernandez, another suspect in this case, has been missing since 1995; the police discontinued his salary in 1997 and discharged him from the force in March. There was no progress in the investigation or prosecution of other alleged extrajudicial killings committed in previous years. In June the armed forces named a commission of senior military officers to investigate accusations of human rights violations or other criminal activities by armed forces personnel. At year's end, this commission had made no public findings.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances. The Attorney General continued investigations into the disappearances of 184 persons in the 1980's. Various witnesses, survivors, and a few former members of the military have charged that members of Battalion 3-16 kidnaped, tortured, and murdered many of those who disappeared. The National Commissioner for Human Rights, Leo Valladares, also continued his investigation into the human rights abuses alleged to have been committed by members of Battalion 3-16 and the former police intelligence unit. At the request of the Government, the U.S. Government in 1997 and 1998 reviewed and declassified thousands of pages of official documents related to alleged human rights abuses in Honduras during the 1980's and provided them to Commissioner Valladares. In December the Supreme Court upheld a lower court's grant of amnesty for Lt. Col. Juan Blas Salazar Mesa. The lower court had found him guilty of participating in kidnapings and other human rights abuses in 1982 (see Section 1.a.).

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The Constitution prohibits torture, but there were isolated reports that officials employed such practices. The National Commissioner for Human Rights reported seven known instances of torture during 1997, the lowest recorded figure for the decade. Police beatings and other alleged abuses of detainees remained a problem. The police also engaged in violence (including beatings and a number of killings) against street children (see Section 5). The Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) within the National Police investigates allegations of official torture and abuse and can recommend sanctions against police agents found guilty of such mistreatment. However, neither the police commander nor the OPR is empowered to punish wrongdoers; only the immediate superior of the accused agent has the authority to do so. The Public Ministry and human rights groups criticized the OPR for being unresponsive to their requests for impartial investigations of police officers accused of abuses. In 1996 the Public Ministry created the office of Human Rights Inspector within the former DIC to monitor the behavior of its agents; the Inspector reports to the head of the human rights section of the Public Ministry and to the Attorney General. The DGIC dismissed or suspended over two dozen agents for involvement in corrupt activities and abuses of authority. The National Police took similar action against over 50 policemen, including police commander Colonel Julio Cesar Chavez and police chief of staff Colonel Manuel Antonio Urbina, on similar grounds. The civilian Police Transition Board, established when the police were removed from military control in September 1997, exercised operational control over the National Police, pending its planned integration into the new Ministry of Security in January 1999. The Board dealt swiftly with charges of corruption or malfeasance against individual police officials by removing them from positions of authority, pending judgment. In October the Public Ministry sought arrest warrants for police Colonels Chavez and Urbina and three other senior police officials for allegedly trafficking in stolen vehicles. The widespread frustration at the inability of the security forces to prevent and control crime, and the well-founded perception that corrupt security personnel were complicit in the high crime rate, led to considerable public support for vigilante justice. In October President Flores, with congressional backing, deployed 600 army troops in the country's four major cities to assist the National Police in curbing surging street crime. In October the Congress ratified a 1997 constitutional amendment that permits sentences of life imprisonment to be included in the pending reform of the Penal Code. In 1996 the Supreme Court issued a special decree permitting officials associated with the criminal justice system (including the military, police, prison wardens and employees, criminal investigative agents, public prosecutors, judges, and other magistrates) who are undergoing investigation or on trial to serve their preventive detention at military bases and police centers, rather than at the central penitentiary in Tegucigalpa, as had been the case in the past. It was hoped that the decree would encourage military officers sought for alleged human rights abuses in the 1980's to turn themselves in. However, only a small number of officers whose cases fell under the decree surrendered or were apprehended; most have been freed for lack of evidence. In December the Supreme Court upheld a lower court's grant of amnesty for Lt. Col. Juan Blas Salazar Mesa. The lower court had found him guilty of participating in torture and other human rights abuses in 1982 (see Section 1.a.). Elements of the armed forces withheld their cooperation from official efforts to track down military officers wanted in connection with alleged human rights abuses dating back to the 1980's. In August a HOAF spokesman quoted the armed forces commander as having admitted that the military was protecting officers accused of human rights violations; the HOAF subsequently claimed that the news media had reported the commander's remarks erroneously. The Supreme Court considered whether government amnesties for crimes committed in the 1980's covered the military, as political deliberations in the Congress had suggested. The Court determined in December that, while the amnesty laws were constitutional, amnesty appeals would have to be decided on their individual merits (see Section 1.e.). Constitutional amendments aimed at reforming the armed forces and eliminating the legal immunity enjoyed by military officials were expected to be ratified by January 1999. There were developments in two cases involving alleged former members of the army's notorious counterinsurgency Battalion 3-16. Canada deported Fausto Ramon Reyes Caballero, and he subsequently provided testimony regarding several human rights cases of the 1980's. However, that testimony did not lead to any new charges or convictions. Retired captain Billy Fernando Joya Amendola, who fled to exile in Spain in 1995, returned voluntarily in December to face charges in several cases of torture and disappearance. Prison conditions remained harsh. Prisoners suffered from severe overcrowding, malnutrition, and a lack of adequate sanitation, and allegedly were subject to various other abuses, including rape. The 24 penal centers held over 10,000 prisoners; more than 90 percent of these were awaiting trial for an average of 22 months, with some waiting over 5 years (see Sections 1.d. and 1.e.). Prison disturbances, caused primarily by harsh conditions, occurred throughout the year, resulting in deaths and injuries, the destruction of prison facilities, and mass escapes. In some instances, the Government placed army troops in temporary command of prisons until order was restored. In February approximately 25 inmates escaped from the jail in El Progreso, Yoro, which holds nearly 250 prisoners despite a designed capacity of 150. In August four murderers, including Nahum and Santos Padilla Bustillo, brothers convicted of homicide and other crimes, escaped from the prison in San Pedro Sula. Another 12 prisoners fled from the San Pedro Sula facility in October. In December Juan Ramon Hernandez, an alleged major drug trafficker who headed a major criminal organization, bribed his way out of the new maximum security prison outside the capital, where he had been awaiting trial. The colonial-era central penitentiary in downtown Tegucigalpa suffered severe deterioration, with some prisoners narrowly escaping death from collapsing walls, and was destroyed in October due to flooding caused by Hurricane Mitch. The Government opened a new central prison in Tamara, outside the capital, for prisoners who have been sentenced, but it proved no more secure than older prisons; sections of the new facility were closed to enhance overall security, and the Government launched an investigation into charges of corruption related to its construction. The new Ministry of Security is to assume responsibility for the prison system in early 1999. The Government sought and secured assistance for its prisons from international sources. Mexico provided technical assistance to the prison system, including the first rehabilitation program in the central penitentiary. The Government also allocated emergency funds for prisons and their staff as part of its efforts to combat rising crime, but improvements were not expected to be evident before 1999. Despite the decrepit condition of the prisons, the new civilian National Police showed increased respect for the human rights of the prisoners. More often than not, and for lack of alternative facilities, wardens housed the mentally ill and those with tuberculosis and other infectious diseases among the general prison population. Prisoners with money routinely bought private cells, decent food, and permission for conjugal visits, while prisoners without money often lacked the most basic necessities, as well as legal assistance. The prison system budgets just $0.43 (6 lempiras) per day for food and medicine for each prisoner. Prisoners were allowed visits, and in many cases relied on outside help to survive, as the prison system could not provide adequate or sufficient food. Street children in detention often were housed in adult prisons, where they were abused routinely. Women were incarcerated in separate facilities under conditions similar to those of male prisoners, except that female prisoners do not have conjugal visit privileges. The Government permits prison visits by independent human rights monitors.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

The law provides for protection against arbitrary arrest and detention; however, the authorities occasionally do not observe these legal requirements in practice. The law states that the police may arrest a person only with a court order, unless the arrest is made during the commission of a crime, and that they must clearly inform the person of the grounds for the arrest. By law the police cannot investigate; it only detains suspects. Police must bring a detainee before a judge within 24 hours; the judge then must issue an initial temporary holding order within 24 hours, make an initial decision within 6 days, and conduct a preliminary investigation to decide whether there is sufficient evidence to warrant further investigation. While bail is legally available, it is granted primarily for ostensibly medical reasons; however, procedures in such cases are confused and unclear. Poor defendants, even when represented by a public defender, seldom are able to take advantage of bail (see Section 1.e.). Lengthy pretrial detention is a problem; more than 90 percent of prisoners are awaiting trial, some for over 5 years (see Sections l.c. and 1.e.). Under the 1984 Code of Criminal Procedures, judges, the police, public officials, or any citizen may initiate criminal proceedings. Perhaps as many as 80 percent of the cases reported to the police are never referred to the criminal justice system, but instead are settled administratively by the police or by the municipal courts. Neither the Constitution nor the legal code explicitly prohibit exile, but it is not used as a means of political control.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The Constitution provides for an independent judiciary; however, the judiciary is often ineffective and subject to outside influence. While the Government respects the constitutional provisions in principle, implementation has been weak and uneven in practice. A number of factors limit the effectiveness of the system. Both the judiciary and the Public Ministry suffer from inadequate funding; low wages make law enforcement officials susceptible to bribery; the civil law inquisitorial system is both inefficient and nontransparent; and powerful special interests still exercise influence and often prevail in many courts. Also, many leading politicians enjoy constitutional immunity from prosecution because of their membership in either the National Congress or the Central American Parliament. That immunity extends to acts committed before taking office. The court system is composed of a 9-member Supreme Court, 10 appeals courts, 67 courts of first instance of general jurisdiction, and 325 justice of the peace courts of limited jurisdiction. Congress elects the nine Supreme Court justices and names the president of the Court; the Supreme Court, in turn, names all lower court judges. The 4-year term for justices of the Supreme Court coincides with those of the Congress and the President. The Constitution provides for the right to a fair trial. However, the written, inquisitorial trial system is labor intensive, slow, and opaque; it does not protect the rights of defendants adequately. Judges legally are in charge of investigations, as well as of trials and sentencing. Both prosecutors working for the Public Ministry and private prosecutors may bring criminal charges against citizens. A judge may jail an accused person for 6 days before a determination is made of probable cause to accept charges. If a judge sustains the criminal accusation, the accused remains in jail, or may be released on bail while awaiting trial (see Section 1.d.). An accused person has the right to an initial hearing by a judge, to bail, to an attorney provided by the State, if necessary, and to appeal. Although the Constitution recognizes the presumption of innocence, the Criminal Code in practice often is administered by poorly trained judges operating on a presumption that the accused is guilty; consequently, the rights of defendants often are not observed. All stages of the trial process are conducted in writing and, at the judge's discretion, may be declared secret and, thus, even less "public" than normal. Defendants and their attorneys are not always genuine participants in the process, despite rights accorded under law. Defendants may confront witnesses against them and present evidence on their own behalf, but only through the judge. By law, defendants and their attorneys are entitled to review government-held evidence relevant to their cases, but this right is not always respected in practice. A public defender program provides service to those unable to afford an adequate defense. There are 137 public defenders providing free legal services nationally to 37 percent of the prison population; however, public defenders are hard pressed to meet the heavy demands of a nonautomated, inadequately funded, and labor-intensive criminal justice system. The Supreme Court issued an instruction that holds judges personally accountable for reducing the number of backlogged cases; separates judges into pretrial investigative judges and trial and sentencing judges; and creates a program to monitor and enforce compliance with these measures. The Court's instruction was intended to ensure more effective protection for the rights of the accused to a timely and transparent defense, but it has had little effect to date. Detention of criminal suspects awaiting trial averaged 22 months and lengthy detention remained a serious problem. In 1996 the Government enacted a law regarding unsentenced prisoners that mandates the release from prison of any detainee whose case has not come to trial, and whose time under detention exceeds the maximum prison sentence for the crime of which he is accused. Nonetheless, many prisoners remain in jail after being acquitted or completing their sentences, due to the failure of responsible officials to process their releases. A significant number of defendants served the maximum possible sentence for the crime of which they were accused before their trials were concluded, or even begun. In September the Supreme Court erroneously imposed a 15-year sentence on a detainee who had died 4 years earlier. As of year's end, more than 90 percent of all prisoners had been neither tried nor sentenced. Modest progress was made in previous years towards implementing a judicial career system to enhance the qualifications of sitting judges, depoliticize the appointment process, and break the subcultures of corruption, clientism, patronage, and influence-peddling within the judiciary. Nonetheless, many courts remained staffed by politically selected judges and by unqualified clerks and were inefficient and subject to influence from special interests. In September the Attorney General made public a list of 31 judges who were under investigation for alleged corruption. Over the past 4 years, the Public Ministry has taken positive steps to investigate and charge not only military officers for human rights violations, but also ranking officials of the two previous governments, for abuses of power, fraud, and diversion of public funds and resources. However, at year's end, none of those accused had been tried or convicted. Following much-publicized investigations of alleged past and present human rights violations by national security personnel, judges in the civilian court system brought criminal charges in 1997 against a number of senior active or retired military officers for murder, attempted murder, and illegal detention during the 1980's. Nonetheless, the appellate courts dismissed all these cases for lack of evidence. Only four military officers accused of human rights violations have turned themselves in; three were acquitted and one awaits trial. Although the HOAF continued to profess respect for civilian court jurisdiction over its members, it vigorously promoted the right to amnesty of military personnel. There were no reports of political prisoners.

f. Arbitrary Interference With Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

The Constitution specifies that a person's home is inviolable, and that persons in the employ of the State may enter only with the owner's consent or with the prior authorization of a competent legal authority. Entry may take place only between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m., or at any time in the event of an emergency or to prevent the commission of a crime. However, as in previous years, there were credible charges that police and armed forces personnel failed at times to obtain the needed authorization before entering a private home. Despite an improved system of "duty judges" and "duty prosecutors" to issue search warrants, coordination among the police, the courts, and the Public Ministry remained weak. The Government respects the privacy of correspondence. In the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch, President Flores temporarily suspended civil liberties pertaining to unlawful detention and privacy of the home; Congress allowed the suspension to lapse 4 weeks later on November 30.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The Constitution provides for freedom of speech and of the press, and the authorities largely respected these rights in practice. Journalists admitted to self-censorship when their reporting threatened the political or economic interests of media owners. Although there was little serious investigative journalism, the news media were, at times, critical of certain government entities, including the HOAF and municipal officials. The news media themselves suffered from corruption and politicization. Credible reports existed of regular and substantial payments to journalists by public and political entities either to carry or suppress certain stories. In April HOAF commander General Mario Hung Pacheco asked that a civil court order the arrest of CODEH president Ramon Custudio, charging that he forged documents presented as evidence when Custodio prosecuted Hung in January for the 1988 disappearance of student Roger Gonzales. The courts ultimately dismissed both complaints. The Government respects academic freedom and has not attempted to curtail political expression on university campuses.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Constitution provides for these rights, and the Government respects them in practice.

c. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution provides for all forms of religious expression, and the Government respects this right in practice.

d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation

Citizens enter and exit the country without arbitrary impediment, and the Government does not restrict travel within the country's borders. The Government cooperates with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations in assisting refugees. The Government provides first asylum and grants asylum or refugee status in accordance with the terms of the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. There were no reports of the forced return of persons to a country where they feared persecution.

Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government

Citizens last exercised the right to change their government through democratic and peaceful means in the November 1997 elections. International observers found the elections to be free and fair. The President, three vice presidents, and the National Congress are chosen by free, secret, direct, and obligatory balloting every 4 years. In 1997 voters for the first time were able to cast separate ballots for the President, deputies in the National Congress, and municipal leaders, making individual elected officials more representative and accountable. Voting was made easier for citizens by a change that allowed them to vote closer to their homes. Suffrage is universal, but neither the clergy nor members of the military or civilian security forces are permitted to vote. Any citizen born in Honduras or abroad of Honduran parentage may hold office, except for members of the clergy, the armed forces, and the police. A new political party may gain legal status by obtaining 20,000 signatures and establishing party organizations in at least half of the country's 18 departments. There are no legal impediments to the participation of women or minorities in government and politics; however, the proportion of women and minorities in political organizations and elective office is far lower than their overall representation in society. Women in the Government include one of the three vice presidents, two cabinet ministers, and a Supreme Court justice, as well as a number of cabinet vice ministers and agency heads. Of the 128 deputies in the Congress, 10 are women. In the 1997 elections, for the first time a woman ran as the presidential candidate of a major political party. There were few indigenous persons in leadership positions in government or politics; there are no members of Congress who state that they are indigenous.

Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

A wide variety of human rights groups operates without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials generally cooperate with these groups and are responsive to their views. In 1996 the Congress ratified a presidential decree expanding the functions of the National Commissioner for Human Rights and unanimously reelected Leo Valladares to a 6-year term as National Commissioner. Under this decree, and in fulfillment of his expanded functions, the National Commissioner has free access to all civilian and military institutions and centers of detention, and is supposed to perform his functions with complete immunity and autonomy. However, efforts by the National Commissioner to inspect military archives for evidence of past human rights violations were unsuccessful, as upon inspection the requisitioned file cabinets were literally empty. Anonymous telephone callers continued to threaten persons active in human rights endeavors. Commissioner Valladares and his family received numerous telephone threats. CODEH president Ramon Custodio and Bertha Oliva de Nativi, general coordinator of the Committee of Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH), also received numerous telephone threats. Attorney General Edmundo Orellana and Comptroller General Vera Rubi reported threats against themselves and their families due to their investigations into high-level corruption. The HOAF commander and the CODEH president filed defamation suits against each other in the courts over public declarations by both, but the courts ultimately dismissed both complaints (see Section 2.a.). In March the commander created the post of armed forces human rights ombudsman to supervise the incorporation of human rights training into all the military education curriculums.

Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status

The Constitution bans discrimination based on race or sex. Although it also bans discrimination on the basis of class, in fact, the political, military, and social elites generally enjoyed impunity before the legal system. Members of these groups rarely were arrested or jailed; legislators enjoy legal immunity. Although the Government detained two officials of the former Callejas administration, Jose Tomas Guillen Williams and Luciano Coello, on charges of corruption and abuse of authority in 1996, both remained in the central penitentiary in Tegucigalpa and have not yet been brought to trial. Women Violence against women remained widespread. The Penal Code was amended in 1997 to classify domestic violence and sexual harassment as crimes, with penalties of 2 to 4 years' and 1 to 3 years' imprisonment, respectively. Most such violence took place within the family. The penalties for rape are relatively light, ranging from 3 to 9 years' imprisonment. Under pressure from women's advocacy and reform groups, the Congress in 1997 enacted a Law Against Domestic Violence to strengthen the rights of women and increase the penalties for crimes of domestic violence. The new law allows the Government to protect battered women through such emergency measures as detaining an aggressor or separating him temporarily from the victim's home. All rapes are considered public crimes, so a rapist can be prosecuted even if he marries his victim. There are few shelters specifically maintained for battered women. The Government operates 1 shelter that can accommodate 10 women and their families. Six private centers for battered women opened in 1996, offering legal, medical, and psychological assistance, but not physical shelter. In 1998 some 3,000 women took action under the Law Against Domestic Violence, but their cases remained pending because the Government has not yet created the special courts authorized by that law. The Government attempted to remedy this situation by working with women's groups to provide specialized training to police officials on enforcing the Law Against Domestic Violence. Sexual harassment in the workplace also continued to be a problem. Women were represented in at least small numbers in most professions, but cultural attitudes limited their career opportunities. In theory, women have equal access to educational opportunities, but family pressures often impede the ambitions of women intent on obtaining a higher education. The law requires employers to pay women, who make up 51 percent of the work force, equal wages for equal work, but employers often classify women's jobs as less demanding than those of men in order to justify paying them lower salaries. Some organizations have begun to offer assistance to women, principally targeting those who live in rural areas and in marginal neighborhoods of cities. For example, the Honduran Federation of Women's Associations provided home construction and improvement loans, offered free legal assistance, and lobbied the Government on women's causes. The Center for the Investigation and Promotion of Human Rights continued to operate a program to make women aware of their rights under the law. Women advanced significantly in some professions. For the first time, the HOAF and National Police academies accepted female recruits; women at the air force academy also received aeronautical training for the first time. In September Reyna Dinora Aceituno was elected secretary general of the Confederation of Honduran Workers (CTH), the country's second largest labor confederation. Aceituno is the first woman to head a national labor confederation. In March the Government granted cabinet-level status to its Office of Women's Affairs. Children Although the Government allocated 38 percent of its 1999 budget to public education and health care, this was insufficient to address the needs of the nation's youth. The Government provides free, universal, and compulsory education through the age of 10. The Government estimated that up to 175,000 children each year fail to receive schooling of any kind. The Government announced in November that it would seek to increase the minimum required education for minors to the 12th grade by the year 2005. The Government was unable to prevent the abuse of street children (see Section l.c.) and child laborers (see Section 6.d.). The Government raised its estimate of street children to 8,000, only half of whom have shelter on any given day. Many street children have been molested sexually, and about 40 percent regularly engaged in prostitution. Approximately 30 percent of the street children in Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, the two population centers, were HIV-positive. At least 40 percent were addicted to sniffing glue. Over 75 percent of the street children found their way to the streets because of severe family problems; 30 percent simply were abandoned. The number of children on the street increased substantially due to Hurricane Mitch. Both the police and members of the general population engaged in violence against street children. When the authorities arrested minors charged with the commission of capital and other serious crimes, they were housed with adult detainees who often abused them. In 1996 the Government opened juvenile centers in Tamara, El Carmen, and El Hatillo (located in sections of Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula). Nonetheless, a general lack of juvenile detention facilities contributed to the detention of minors in adult prisons, and to vigilante violence against, and police abuse of, street children. Over 100 street children or members of youth gangs were murdered in the streets. Human rights groups implicated out-of-uniform security force personnel in some juvenile deaths. Covenant House of Honduras, an organization dedicated to children's rights, exposed an alleged kidnaping ring that employed as many as 200 children as drug couriers to, or as prostitutes in, Canada. Police and congressional investigations ensued. In 1997 Covenant House brought charges before the Public Ministry against unnamed members of the armed forces and the police for the alleged torture of 63 juveniles or minors, 35 of whom reportedly were murdered, since 1990. The Government took no action in this instance. There was no progress in the case of police agents who were detained and placed under investigation for detaining and beating youths in October 1997. New legislation covering children and adolescents took effect in 1996, covering the rights, liberties, and protection of children, including in the area of child labor (see Section 6.d.). It established prison sentences of up to 3 years for persons convicted of child abuse. In September the Government launched a National Commission for the Gradual and Progressive Eradication of Child Labor, comprising government ministries, official family welfare agencies, and local NGO's (see Section 6.d.). Also in September, the Government for the sixth consecutive year convened a national children's congress at which boys and girls from across the country, including street children, discussed issues affecting the nation's youth. People With Disabilities There are no formal barriers to participation by an estimated 300,000 disabled persons in employment, education, or health care, but neither is there specific statutory or constitutional protection for them. There is no legislation that requires access by disabled persons to government buildings or commercial establishments. Indigenous People The small communities of indigenous people have little or no ability to participate in decisions affecting their lands, cultures, traditions, and the allocation of natural resources. Indigenous land rights are communal. While the law permits persons to claim individual freeholding titles, this is difficult to accomplish in practice. Tribal lands often are defined poorly in documents dating back to the mid-19th century and, in most cases, lack any legal title based on modern cadastral measurements. The Honduran Forestry Development Corporation (COHDEFOR) makes all decisions regarding exploitation of timber resources on indigenous lands, often over strenuous tribal objections. The lack of clear title by indigenous groups to public lands that they occupy often leads to conflicts between such groups and COHDEFOR and other government entities. However, such disputes are equally common between COHDEFOR and nonindigenous groups, and COHDEFOR is working with numerous indigenous groups on management plans for public and tribal lands that they occupy. In view of the absence of clear land titles and their unequal access to legal recourse, indigenous groups also are vulnerable to the regular usurpation of their property rights by nonindigenous farmers and cattle ranchers. Expanded coverage of the national cadaster, property titling, and government land registries is reducing this vulnerability. The courts commonly denied legal recourse to indigenous groups and often showed bias in favor of nonindigenous parties of means and influence. Failure to obtain legal redress frequently caused indigenous groups to attempt to regain land through invasions of private property, which usually provoked the authorities into retaliating forcefully. The Government generally is responsive to indigenous land claims, but numerous cases remained unresolved because of conflicting claims by nonindigenous persons. During the year, the Government issued over 100 land titles, encompassing over 250,000 acres, to various indigenous groups. An additional 170 land claims by indigenous people were under adjudication at year's end. The Government issued over 20,000 individual land titles in 1997, benefiting many indigenous families. Indigenous groups nonetheless charged that the Government had fulfilled barely 20 percent of its 1997 commitments in this area. In 1997 Candido Amador Recinos, a leader of the Chorti indigenous group active in efforts to acquire claimed tribal lands, was murdered in Corralitos; there has been no progress in the investigation of his death. Also in 1997, after a month of nationwide protests by indigenous organizations that included a hunger strike, the Government signed a 22-point agreement with representatives of various groups that made available 9 initial land grants of about 22,000 acres each to different tribes, granted some contested land titles outright to indigenous petitioners, and set aside $15,385 (200,000 lempiras) in government funds for indigenous housing. The Congress also created a commission to study indigenous land claims, which often conflict with the claims of small farmers. Indigenous groups objected to a proposed Constitutional amendment to permit foreigners to own and develop the country's coastal areas and territory abutting its land frontiers. The Government sought to spur domestic economic growth and provide job opportunities for indigenous persons by attracting new foreign investment and tourism to such areas, but the indigenous groups asserted that the proposed amendment would vitiate indigenous claims to ancestral lands and deprive indigenous people living in the areas affected of their access to those zones. In December the Congress approved the proposed amendment, and a second vote required for its ratification was scheduled for early 1999.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

Workers have the legal right to form and join labor unions; the unions are independent of the Government and political parties. Most peasant organizations are affiliated directly with the labor movement. Unions frequently hold public demonstrations against government policies and make extensive use of the news media to advance their views. However, only about 14 percent of the work force is unionized, and the economic and political influence of organized labor has diminished in recent years. The Constitution provides for the right to strike, along with a wide range of other basic labor rights, which the authorities honor in practice. However, the Civil Service Code denies the right to strike to all government workers, other than employees of state-owned enterprises. Public sector employees in the fields of health and education conducted illegal work stoppages during the year. A number of private firms have instituted "solidarity" associations, essentially aimed at providing credit and other services to workers and managers who are members of the associations. Representatives of organized labor groups criticize these associations, asserting that they do not permit strikes, have inadequate grievance procedures, and neutralize genuine, representative trade unions. The three national labor confederations maintain close ties with various international trade union organizations.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

The law protects worker rights to organize and to bargain collectively; collective bargaining agreements are the norm for companies in which workers are organized. However, although the Labor Code prohibits retribution by employers for trade union activity, it is a common occurrence. Some employers have threatened to close down unionized companies and have harassed workers seeking to unionize, in some cases dismissing them outright. The labor courts are considering hundreds of appeals from workers seeking reinstatement and back wages from companies that fired them for engaging in union organizing activities. However, once a union is recognized, employers actually dismiss relatively few workers for union activity. Nonetheless, such cases serve to discourage workers elsewhere from attempting to organize. Workers in both unionized and nonunionized companies are protected by the Labor Code, which gives them the right to seek redress from the Ministry of Labor. The Ministry took action in several cases, pressuring employers to observe the code. Labor or civil courts can require employers to rehire employees fired for union activity, but such rulings are uncommon. Agreements between management and unions generally contain a clause prohibiting retaliation against any worker who participates in a strike or other union activity. The Banco de Trabajadores reinstated two workers who had unionized the bank. The firm had fired the workers in 1997 but rehired them at their former salaries under a court order. However, it assigned them to an empty office and denied them the opportunity to work. The bank had refused to cooperate with an investigation into these circumstances by the National Commissioner for Human Rights, who threatened to pursue legal action against the bank. The Government also had seized control of the bank's records and threatened to arrest bank officials for noncompliance with the court's edict. The Labor Code explicitly prohibits blacklisting. Nevertheless, there was credible evidence that informal blacklisting occurred in the privately owned industrial parks. When unions are formed, organizers must submit a list of initial members to the Ministry of Labor as part of the process of obtaining official recognition. However, before official recognition is granted, the Ministry must inform the company of the impending union organization. The Ministry has not always been able to provide effective protection to workers. There were credible reports, particularly in the Export Processing Zone (EPZ) sector, that some inspectors had gone so far as to sell the names of employees involved in forming a union to companies that then dismissed union organizers before the Ministry could recognize the unions. The same labor regulations apply in EPZ's as in the rest of private industry. Unions are active in the government-owned Puerto Cortes free trade zone (7 of 11 maquiladoras there are unionized), but factory owners have resisted efforts to organize the privately owned industrial parks. The Honduran Association of Maquiladores (AHM) over the past 3 years has sponsored seminars and other meetings between its members and major labor groups. As a result, tensions have declined, and some two dozen plants have unionized peacefully in the privately owned EPZ's. In 1997 the AHM adopted a voluntary code of conduct governing salaries and working conditions in the industry and recognizing workers' right to organize. Although local unions were not consulted during the drafting process and have no formal role in its implementation, the code nonetheless represented a public commitment by apparel manufacturers to abide by local laws and regulations governing their industries. It provided a starting point for a dialog among the AHM, organized labor, and the Government. The attitude of the Government towards organized labor in the EPZ's is the same as regards other industries. In a number of maquiladora plants, workers have shown little enthusiasm for unionizing, since they consider their treatment, salary, and working conditions to be as good as, or better than, those in unionized plants. In the absence of unions and collective bargaining, several EPZ plants have instituted solidarity associations that, to some extent, function as "company unions" for the purposes of setting wages and negotiating working conditions. Other EPZ plants use the minimum wage to set starting salaries, and adjust wage scales by negotiating with common groups of plant workers and other employees, based on seniority, skills, categories of work, and other criteria. In 1997 a South Korean-owned maquiladora plant agreed to permit an independent monitoring group composed of religious, human rights, and women's organizations to inspect its facility and observe the working conditions of its employees. The national labor confederations objected to the agreement because it excluded them, while other maquiladoras observed that the monitors lacked relevant expertise in the industry. Plant officials gave the independent monitors office space on the premises in 1997, but withdrew it in June. However, they continued to allow periodic visits by the monitors, who have provided assistance to the local union during contract negotiations. Labor leaders blame the Government for allowing private companies to act contrary to the Labor Code and expect the problem to continue until the Ministry of Labor is reorganized to make it more efficient. They criticize the Ministry for not enforcing the Labor Code, for taking too long to make decisions, and for being timid and indifferent to workers' needs. A 1995 Memorandum of Understanding between the Ministry of Labor and the Office of the United States Trade Representative calling for greater enforcement of the Labor Code resulted in some progress. However, labor unions charged that the Ministry has made insufficient progress towards enforcing the code, especially in training its labor inspectors and in conducting inspections of the maquiladora industry. The Government has acknowledged that it does not yet adhere completely to international labor standards and in 1997 agreed, along with other Central American nations, to fund a regional program to modernize the inspection and labor management functions of the Ministry of Labor.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The Constitution and the law prohibit forced or compulsory labor, and this applies equally to children. Although there were no official reports of such practices in the area of child labor, there were credible allegations of compulsory overtime at EPZ plants, particularly for women, who make up an estimated 80 percent of the work force in the maquiladora sector.

d. Status of Child Labor Practices and Minimum Age for Employment

The Constitution and the Labor Code prohibit the employment of minors under the age of 16, except that a child who is 15 years of age is permitted to work with parental and Ministry of Labor permission. The Children's Code prohibits a child of 14 years of age or less from working, even with parental permission, and establishes prison sentences of 3 to 5 years for individuals who allow children to work illegally. An employer who legally hires a 15-year-old must certify that the child has finished or is finishing the required compulsory schooling. The Ministry of Labor grants a limited number of work permits to 15-year-olds each year. The Ministry of Labor cannot effectively enforce child labor laws outside the maquiladora sector, and violations of the Labor Code occur frequently in rural areas and in small companies. According to the Ministry, human rights groups, and children's rights organizations, an estimated 350,000 children work illegally. The most significant child labor problem is in the construction industry. Many children also work on small family farms, as street vendors, or in small workshops to supplement the family income. The employment of children under the legal working age in the maquiladora sector may occur, but not on a large scale. (Younger children sometimes obtain legitimate work permits by fraud or purchase forged permits.) The maquiladoras in recent years have raised their minimum employment age, and some hire only at age 18 or above, reducing the number of legal job opportunities available to persons under 18 years of age. In September the Government created a National Commission for the Gradual and Progressive Eradication of Child Labor (see Section 5). Forced or compulsory labor is prohibited, including that performed by children, and there were no reports of its practice (see Section 6.c.).

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

In January the Government decreed a median 17 percent increase in the minimum wage. Daily pay rates vary by geographic zone and the sector of the economy affected; urban workers earn slightly more than workers in the countryside. The lowest minimum wage occurs in the nonexport agricultural sector, where it ranges from $2.12 to $2.62 (28.65 to 35.40 lempiras) per day, depending on whether the employer has more than 15 employees; the highest minimum wage is $3.47 (46.80 lempiras) per day in the export sector. All workers are entitled to an additional month's salary in June and December of each year. The Constitution and the Labor Code stipulate that all labor must be paid fairly, but the Ministry of Labor lacks the personnel and other resources for effective enforcement. The minimum wage is insufficient to provide a standard of living above the poverty line for a worker and family. Labor leaders claimed that the Government was ignoring salary issues for workers earning above the minimum wage (for example, those in the maquiladoras and in other industries, such as banking), and called for an across-the-board increase of 40 percent for all workers. The law prescribes a maximum 8-hour workday and a 44-hour workweek. There is a requirement of at least one 24-hour rest period every 8 days. The Labor Code provides for a paid vacation of 10 workdays after 1 year, and of 20 workdays after 4 years. However, employers frequently ignored these regulations due to the high level of unemployment and underemployment and the lack of effective enforcement by the Labor Ministry. The Ministry of Labor is responsible for enforcing national health and safety laws, but does not do so effectively. Although fewer than in previous years, some complaints alleged the failure of foreign factory managers to comply with the occupational health and safety aspects of Labor Code regulations in factories located in the EPZ's and private industrial parks. There is no provision allowing a worker to leave a dangerous work situation without jeopardy to continued employment.

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