Honduras, the politics of violence

The incidence of targeted social violence in the central American country is a growing political concern as presidential elections approach, finds Matt Kennard in Tegucigalpa.

Julio Funes Benítez was shot dead in broad daylight outside his house in the Honduran capital Tegucigalpa in early 2010. The assassins had unleashed a hail of bullets in his direction while driving past on a motorbike. Mr Benítez had been active in the resistance movement, which flourished after the coup against the president, Manuel Zelaya, in June 2009. But nearly three years on, no one has been charged with his murder.

"From when they killed my husband to now, I never got any support from the authorities," Lidia Marina Gonzales, Mr Benitez’s widow, tells me. "There was never an investigation, the culprits are free. The agent who was meant to investigate told me that if I wanted there to be an investigation I would have to pay."

The fact that Mr Benítez’s killers got away with murder is not an exception in modern-day Honduras. The central American country, with a population of 8 million, is now the most dangerous country in the world, according to the United Nations. There are ninety-one homicides per 100,000 people, or one every seventy-four minutes. Nearly all remain unsolved, and many, as in the case of Mr Benítez, not even investigated. The impunity rate ranges from 95-98%, depending on who you ask.

Honduras's newfound reputation as the world’s "murder capital" is something the current administration of President Porfirio Lobo Sosa, alongside the large number of United States agencies working in the country, is trying desperately to shed as the presidential elections approach in 2013. But there is a shortage of quick solutions.

The US, which has traditionally had a strong base in Honduras, says it wants to stop the killings by making sure that justice institutions work. "That’s a long-term process, it’s not done overnight," Lisa Kubiske, US ambassador to Honduras, tells me. "We do have a lot of interest to support Hondurans as they have tried to clean up the police for example."

In the meantime, Honduras is a central part of the US’s "war on drugs" in the region, with three new "forward operating locations" - in lay terms, military bases - recently expanded to stifle the trafficking of narcotics into the US from south America.

It’s proving harder than originally thought as Mexico and other countries in the region have stepped up counter narcotics operations and pushed traffickers into the unexplored hinterland of Honduras. "We’re not winning, but we’re trying very hard," says a senior US official working on counter-narcotics operations in Honduras. He adds that much of the violence on the streets of the countries cities has roots in these criminal cartels.

But things were made harder for the US mission, when on 11 May 2012, a Drug Enforcement Administration-assisted operation in the north of the country ended with the killing of four civilians, two of them pregnant women. A further problem is that the multi-billion pound business has permeated much of Honduran society, including, according to many, its political class. "I believe there are plenty of people involved - they would have to be involved to allow what goes on here - high up the food chain," adds the US official.

The lost voices

There is no doubt among most observers of Honduran society that corruption is rampant, and partly to blame for the extremely high levels of impunity. "I agree with the sentiment that corruption a big problem in this country," says ambassador Kubiske. "It is eating up a lot of money and destroying the social fabric of this society."

The Honduran government itself says it is focusing on modernising the justice system and reforming political institutions in its effort to bring down the homicide rate. "The advance of narco-traficking alongside the geographical position of the country and corruption in the pólice make it hard to combat," says Julio César Raudales, the minister for planning in the Lobo administration. "It is going to be a long road to reconstruct the social fabric, but that won’t stop us."

The primaries have just been held. The various parties are attempting to promote their own ideas about how to reduce the levels of violence. The LIBRE coalition, which was formed after the coup in 2009, and boasts former president Zelaya and his wife among its members, says it would focus on getting the narco-economy out of congress."The government of Honduras is basically completely neutralised by these narco-forces," says Gilberto Rios Mungia, LIBRE’s international coordinator. More specifically, Mungia says LIBRE want to professionalise the police and to take the military out of law-enforcement and public life.

Human-rights groups claim that political assassinations compose a significant portion of the violent deaths in the country, and have spiked since the 2009 coup. "There has been much more killing, on the streets, as well as against journalists and campesinos communities, since the coup," says Dina Meza, a journalist and human-rights worker with Cofadeh, which tracks the increasing number of desparacidos (disappeared) in the country. In the period since the coup, over eighty campesinos (small farmers) have been killed in the Aguan valley in the north of the country. Journalists are also under threat. In 2010, the year Mr Benítez was murdered, Reporters Without Borders found that Honduras was also the most dangerous place in the world to be a journalist.

These tensions and problems contribute to the sluggish economy. A "model cities" project was seen as a way to kick-start the economy, through creating completely privately run cities on Honduran land where immigrants from across Latin America could come to work in the maquiladores. It was, however, rejected by the Honduran supreme court in October 2012 as "unconstitutional". "If you want security for citizens it’s interrelated with socio-economic conditions of country," says US ambassador Kubiske. "If you have people who can earn enough money, they don’t have to be tempted by criminal activity. If they think there are no options, they may be tempted."