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Honduras struggles to keep its democracy alive. Under the leadership of Xiomara Castro, the country faces critical challenges.

Two years into President Xiomara Castro’s administration, security strategies are focused on extending a state of exception—a poor copy of Nayib Bukele’s policies in El Salvador—and keeping the Armed Forces engaged in citizen security tasks. The result: human rights violations, negative statistics in the fight against extortion, and a weakening of democracy, once again relying on the «olive-green» men to sustain itself.

Honduras comes from a 13-year period (2009-2022) during which corruption and drug trafficking structures thrived. These led to high levels of violence, to the extent that San Pedro Sula was considered the most violent city in the world in 2011, according to the Mexican organization «seguridad, justicia y paz.»

Although the situation has been improving, this city and Tegucigalpa still ranked among the 50 most violent cities in the 2022 ranking (made public in February 2023). In conclusion, the former president of the Republic, Juan Orlando Hernández, is being tried in New York for drug trafficking offenses. In U.S. courts, Honduras has been labeled as a narco-state.

An «exceptional» measure turned permanent

In December 2022, after 10 months in office, the cabinet, chaired by President Castro, approved the state of exception «due to the serious disruption of peace and security prevailing in the main cities of the country, caused essentially by organized criminal groups operating as mafias,» according to decree PCM-29-2022 published in La Gaceta on December 3, 2022.

Those mafias endanger the lives and property of people, committing extortion, murders, robberies, drug trafficking, and kidnappings, the document emphasizes.

Through that decree, constitutional guarantees contained in articles 69 (right to freedom), 78 (right of association and assembly), 81 (right of locomotion), 84 (right not to be detained without cause), 93 (right to bail), and 99 (inviolability of domicile) were suspended.

According to article 187 of the Constitution, paragraph 4, the suspension of constitutional guarantees cannot exceed 45 days, so since that date, it has been extended at least 8 times and has been geographically expanded to cover 17 of the country’s 18 departments.

Honduras and El Salvador

Dr. Joaquín Mejía Rivera, a human rights doctor, warns that as its name suggests, the state of exception should be «exceptional,» but in Honduras and El Salvador, it has become a permanent situation and thus «denatures that tool that democratic states have to face serious problems.»

When the suspension of rights becomes a norm, there is a serious risk to democracy and a weakness of the State to fight violence with the tools provided by law and institutionalism, Mejía asserts, who is a researcher for the Reflection, Research, and Communication Team (Eric, of the Society of Jesus).

According to a statement from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), in the context of the state of exception, they have received reports of illegal detentions, excessive use of force, abuses during home searches without judicial order, and forced disappearances, especially committed against young people from low-income social strata.

Results don’t compensate for human rights violations

Nelson Castañeda, director of Security and Justice, of the Association for a More Just Society (ASJ, non-governmental), warns that in El Salvador, the restriction of guarantees meant in the last year a historical reduction in the homicide rate, but as it becomes a permanent measure, both in that country and in Honduras, there is a strong impact on the rights of citizens, due to arrests and detentions without justification, home searches at any time and without apparent cause, and other violations.

«It is a measure that can become quite negative because it can be instrumentalized to persecute those who are not in agreement or who audit the government’s actions,» said Castañeda. «The situation of civil society is worrying, the weakening of the civic space,» he added.

In the case of Honduras, there has also been a gradual reduction in the homicide rate, from that distant 2011 when it reached a rate of 86.5 per 100,000 inhabitants, to the 31.14 it closed with in 2023. An important advance but not enough, as it continues to be the most violent country in Central America, far from El Salvador’s 2.14 the previous year.

Where the strategy falls short is in the issue of extortion, one of the problems that the state of exception proposed to combat. According to an ASJ report, this criminal modality went from affecting 8.5 percent of Hondurans in 2018 to 11.1 percent in 2023.

State of Exception Balance

The report, based on a national survey, reveals that 52 percent feel the same as before the state of exception, 23 percent feel less secure, and 15 percent perceive greater security. Within the authorities’ plan to combat extortion was the fulfillment of 30 measures, but until the presentation of the document in December 2023, only 3 had been fulfilled.

In other words, the results are not optimal, «and the weakening of the rule of law; the international image of the country is greatly affected by these types of measures. I think there is enough capacity to seek other measures that do not generate these types of violations of the rights of Hondurans,» Castañeda referred.

Joaquín Mejía Rivera adds that the state of exception gives broad discretion to act to the Military Police of Public Order (Armed Forces, Ministry of Defense) and the National Police (Security Secretariat), two entities that are currently being severely questioned for allegedly collaborating in the trafficking and protection of drug shipments by partnering with corrupt politicians. Also, they have been at the service of large corporations to criminalize environmental and human rights defenders.

«Therefore, there will always be a risk that so much power will be given to state security forces that have not been held accountable for their crimes, that have not been purged. It is a serious risk because the state of exception gives the National Police and the Military Police the freedom to determine whom to detain and whom not to detain,» Mejía noted, who has represented victims before the Commission and before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) on several occasions.

Women, Silent Victims and Lack of Action

Another serious security problem in Honduras is the violent deaths of women. According to a report by the «Informal Economy» platform, based on data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and UN Women, Honduras ranks fifth in the world in femicide deaths, only after South Africa, Jamaica, Botswana, and Namibia. According to the Women’s Rights Center, in 2023, 383 violent deaths of women were recorded.

This situation reflects an entrenched macho culture and discrimination against women, according to lawyer Joaquín Mejía Rivera.

He points out that, although legal advances have been made, domestic violence, sexual crimes, and a huge gender gap persist in practice. «Men are the main perpetrators, not only of women but also of other men.»

Laws against violence are not the only requirement, «there is also a need for cultural change,

and that comes through action, through formal and informal education with the aim of men constructing ourselves differently.»

Challenges in the Face of the Epidemic of Femicides in Honduras

Given the seriousness, Mejía suggests that the State should declare a national emergency due to femicides. He also highlights the high rates of sexual violence and the disappearance of thousands of women, linked in some cases to trafficking networks and complicity of state agents.

Similarly, analyst Carlos Urbizo points to cultural and social factors as causes of violence against women, including machismo and jealousy. He believes that leadership is needed to bring together efforts from the government, private sector, and civil society to address this issue. However, few efforts are focused on this issue, and security policies also do not have a proposal for this problem.

On February 7, 2024, the Episcopal Conference of Honduras, which brings together the bishops of the Catholic Church, issued a statement, warning that «in the face of a ‘practical indifference’, without deep responses, we continue to be moved by the violence suffered by many people and, especially, many women in Honduras.»

They say they know that «violence is a complex drama, which far from diminishing, seems to spread more. In the face of this, we are all called to raise our voice, not only against facts that should never exist, but also against social structures and macho concepts that favor this repugnant violence, which has its most dramatic expression in femicide.»

Demilitarize, a Forgotten Promise

In 2013, when Juan Orlando Hernández Alvarado was president of the National Congress, decree 168-2013 was approved, which gave life to the Military Police of Public Order (PMOP), an entity to which its own budget was assigned, the Armed Forces were authorized to increase by 5,000 the number of personnel, and a budget of 24.5 million lempiras (approximately 1 million dollars) was assigned for its equipment.

When President Castro’s party (Liberty and Refoundation, Libre) was campaigning, prior to the November 2021 elections, they presented the Government Plan to Refound Honduras 2022-2026, where they proposed «the temporality of the law of Military Police of Public Order that militarizes civil order and contaminates the armed forces with an alien function» (page 11).

They also criticized that the militarization policy imposed by the government of that time (National Party) «has not yielded positive results anywhere in the world» and regretted that the Defense budget increased by 303.4 percent from 2009 to 2020, and Security increased by 152 percent in the same period. «While the population lives in fear and is forced to flee the country.»

They promised to «demilitarize citizen security,» ensure «precise separation and respect for the functions of the armed forces and the police.»

Upon taking office in January 2022, Castro began a timid process of demilitarization of prisons, under the control of the Armed Forces since 2019; while the Military Police continued in security tasks. This situation took a sudden turn on June 20, 2023, when a group of gang members carried out a massacre in a women’s prison, leaving 46 victims.

Risks to Democracy

The then Minister of Security, Ramón Sabillón, was removed from office, and military police were sent back to control the prisons, where they remain.

Mejía Rivera explains that the process of militarization in Honduras began during the government of Ricardo Maduro (2002-2006) and has persisted to varying degrees in all subsequent governments. During that period, sources from the U.S. government estimated that Honduras became the obligatory transit point for nearly 80 percent of the drugs sent to that country.

«So the military has either been complicit or incompetent. If they haven’t been able to protect the borders to prevent drugs from passing through national territory, why do we trust them to handle internal security?» asked the human rights doctor.

He points out that when the criminal firepower is so intense that it requires military intervention, certain requirements must be met, such as: being under civilian control; being continually evaluated by the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial powers, as well as by the citizenry; the intervention period in citizen security must be predefined; and a comprehensive response to citizens’ economic, social, and cultural problems must be pursued to address the causes, not just the consequences. None of this is done in Honduras.

The Dilemma of Militarization in Honduras

He emphasizes that military intervention indicates a weakness in democratic institutions, and in countries like Honduras, coup d’états are a real threat. This inclines governments like that of Xiomara Castro to seek the loyalty of the military because they are the ones who directly control the weapons, which are instruments of repression.

However, this supposed loyalty is not free but implies giving them more power, more budget, more weapons, and making efforts to keep the military leadership content. «And obviously, that severely weakens democracy,» he added.

Alejandra Fuentes, coordinator of the Legal Anti-Corruption Assistance Center at ASJ, stated that they continue to be concerned about the militarization of society because two institutions, the Armed Forces and the National Police, are performing the same function while insecurity levels continue to rise.

A Democracy Close to Authoritarianism

Fuentes points out that the actions of officials reveal a fragile democracy and mark a setback in institutionalism. She recalled that in The Economist’s 2022 Democracy Index, Honduras was classified as a «hybrid democracy.» This is a concept used to describe countries that have characteristics of democracy but also of authoritarianism.

«These are democracies that are too fragile and urgently need reconstruction, strengthening, mainly by representatives of the State but accompanied by the participation of different sectors of the country,» said Fuentes.

Businessman and political analyst Carlos Urbizo Solís, who in the past was a member of the National Party, warned that there is no clear government philosophy leading us to a specific goal.

Xiomara Castro’s administration calls itself «democratic socialism,» but in two years of governance, it has not taken steps in that direction, and it seems that what exists is a «hybrid» with libertarian, fascist, socialist, capitalist, and mercantilist facets, he warned. «What I can assure you is that it is not democratic.»

He believes that a series of electoral reforms are needed, but also changes that guarantee individual freedom, popular sovereignty, civil and political rights.

Intolerance to Criticism

In the statement from the Episcopal Conference mentioned above, the bishops suggest «creating a culture of encounter» that «allows us to deeply listen to the population, respecting the ideas of others and the right to dissent from official positions.»

They demand dialogue and «opening up institutions to all voices that may differ from our opinions.» They add that it is necessary to «move forward on the path of democracy and urgently regain credibility in the institutions of the State, maintain the separation of powers that ensures balance between them and the necessary checks and balances in the institutions; it is convenient to guide the discourse towards the meeting between Hondurans, eliminating confrontational tones.»

Immediately, government representatives, such as the Minister of Economic Development, Fredis Cerrato, called for «leaving political discussion to politicians.» While ruling party deputy Sergio Castellanos referred to «I don’t know what they mean by separation of powers.» He added that «if confrontation for them means pointing out those involved in acts of corruption, if confrontation for them means defending ourselves from unfair attacks on President Xiomara Castro, then they should renounce the Bible.»

More recently, on January 30, 2024, the ASJ (Honduras chapter of Transparency International) presented the Corruption Perception Index, which states that Honduras has maintained its score stagnated for the third consecutive year. This places it as the second most corrupt country in Central America and among the top five in Latin America.

Discrediting and Support

The response from officials was to discredit the organization and its representatives, accusing them of complicity with former President Juan Orlando Hernández, whose trial for drug trafficking is scheduled to begin on February 20.

Nelson Castañeda of ASJ noted that the report «has been a very sensitive issue for the current government.» He explained that they have been conducting it every year since 2012, and its purpose is not to attack but to serve as a tool to create strategies, methodologies, and mechanisms to improve the country’s situation.

«The reaction was not as expected; we knew we were going to generate some debate, but not that aggressive backlash from the government,» he added.

Lawyer Joaquín Mejía Rivera recalled that at the beginning of the government’s term, officials convened meetings to listen to the people, but «now they don’t listen to anyone. When there is criticism, even if it is constructive, we are labeled as enemies, troublemakers, and I don’t know what else.»

Mejía Rivera is an example of intolerance from the ruling party. Due to his long career and knowledge, the government nominated him to fill one of four available positions as commissioners to the IACHR, to be elected in June 2024 for the term ending in 2027.

However, his public stances have always been focused on pointing out the reality experienced by Hondurans, which caused discomfort, and they ended up withdrawing his candidacy, arguing that the necessary votes would not be reached within the General Assembly of the Organization of American States.

Investments and Reforms to Improve Security in Honduras

On January 31, 2024, the Security Secretariat announced the acquisition of ten Black Mamba Sandcat vehicles to carry out operations against organized crime. According to press reports, their unit cost would be around $500,000.

On February 7, 2024, the National Congress approved a $50 million loan to modernize the National Police in three major areas: police training, technology, and physical structures.

Deputy Security Minister Semma Julissa Villanueva believes they are working to respond to the demands of the population. Under this approach, the economic resources of the Security Secretariat and other justice operators must be directed where the greatest deficiencies lie. In terms of security, this means crime prevention and combating impunity, she acknowledged.

She also considers it important to invest in crime investigation to prevent impunity, «which we see when (investigation) has been ineffective.»

She recognizes that to improve the security environment, structural reforms must be implemented, mainly focused on having strong laws that allow the police to act.

For the official, security is not only the responsibility of the Secretariat but also of society, and responses must be comprehensive against crime, which is multidimensional (homicides, robbery, domestic violence, extortion, kidnapping, etc.).

«If we have a strategy against all these scourges, we can reclaim society and what we seek, which is to feel at peace and in harmony,» she assured. While these strategies take effect, Hondurans will continue their lives in uncertainty.


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