Institutional weakness, corruption, violence, and impunity undermine the overall stability of Honduras. Journalists, political activists, and women are often the victims of violence, and perpetrators are rarely brought to justice. While Honduras holds regular elections, irregularities surrounding the 2017 presidential poll prompted election monitors to call the result into question.
- Honduras registered over 120,000 cases of COVID-19 and 3,100 deaths by the end of 2020, according to University of Oxford researchers.
- In January 2020, the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Honduran government failed to reach an agreement to renew the mandate of the Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH), despite public support for renewal, and several prominent corruption cases ended in dismissal or acquittal during the year.
- In June, a new criminal code took effect that that lowers sentences in corruption and drug trafficking cases, and includes provisions criticized by human rights groups as risks to free expression, association, and assembly.
- Aggression against the Garifuna community escalated, with one community leader killed in June and five leaders subjected to enforced disappearance in July.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?
The president is both chief of state and head of government, and is elected by popular vote to four-year terms. The leading candidate is only required to win a plurality; there is no runoff system.
In a controversial 2015 decision, the Honduran Supreme Court voided Article 239 of the constitution, which had limited presidents to one term. President Juan Orlando Hernández of the National Party (PN) was subsequently reelected in 2017 by a narrow margin. The OAS noted numerous issues with the electoral process, which it said “was characterized by irregularities and deficiencies, with very low technical quality and lacking integrity,” and appealed for new elections to be held. The government dismissed the OAS petition, and by year’s end the United States, the European Union (EU), and Canada had recognized Hernández as the winner of the election.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?
Members of the 128-seat, unicameral National Congress are elected for four-year terms using proportional representation by department. In the 2017 polls, the governing PN acquired an additional 13 seats, but fell short of a legislative majority. The opposition Liberty and Refoundation (LIBRE) party and Liberal Party (PL) lost seven seats and one seat, respectively. While the 2017 presidential and parliamentary votes were held concurrently, stakeholders accepted the results of the legislative elections; only the presidential poll was disputed.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?
The Supreme Electoral Council (TSE) came under heavy criticism for its administration of the 2017 presidential poll. A preliminary vote count had showed challenger Salvador Nasralla with a significant lead, but subsequent updates and the final result—which was released three weeks after the elections—showed a victory by Hernández. The delay prompted protests and widespread allegations of TSE incompetence and bias toward the ruling party. Authorities dismissed the OAS’s recommendation for a rerun of the poll.
An UN-sponsored national dialogue did not produce an agreement on electoral reform in 2018, but a subsequent effort between the OAS and Honduras resulted in Congress’s 2019 creation of two new electoral bodies to replace the TSE, the Electoral Court of Justice (TJE) and National Electoral Council (CNE). As of the end of 2020, no new electoral law had been implemented, despite the imminent start of the 2021 campaign.
|Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?
Political parties are largely free to operate, though power has mostly been concentrated in the hands of the PL and the PN since the early 1980s. In 2013, LIBRE and the Anti-Corruption Party (PAC) participated in elections for the first time, winning a significant share of the vote and disrupting the dominance of the PL and the PN. PAC lost all but one of its seats in 2017, but LIBRE maintained its position as the second-largest party in the parliament.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?
Opposition parties are competitive, and in 2017, opposition candidates took a significant portion of the vote in both the legislative and presidential elections. However, the many serious irregularities surrounding the TSE’s administration of the 2017 presidential election prompted EU and OAS election monitors to question the validity of the vote count, and the opposition insisted that a PN-aligned TSE had denied the opposition candidate victory in the presidential race.
|Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means?
Political and economic elites have traditionally exerted significant influence over political parties, limiting people’s political choices. The military, after decades of ruling Honduras, remains politically powerful. President Hernández’s appointments of military officials to civilian posts, many related to security, have underscored that influence. There were numerous reports of vote buying during the 2017 polling period.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?
Adult citizens may vote, and voting is compulsory. Members of ethnic minority groups remain underrepresented in Honduras’s political system and in the political sphere generally, though there have been modest efforts by the government to encourage their participation and representation. After being criticized for failing to do so in past elections, electoral authorities in 2017 printed voter information materials in Indigenous and Afro-Honduran languages. However, no representatives of the Afro-Honduran (Garifuna) population were elected to Congress in 2017.
Women are also underrepresented in politics. In the 2017 elections, women won 27 of 128 congressional races and 23 of 298 mayoral posts. In October 2020 Congress passed a law requiring additional ballot slots for women in the 2021 elections, although it was unclear how effective the law would be in practice.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?
In 2014, the Hernández administration eliminated five cabinet-level ministries and created seven umbrella ministries in an effort to cut costs. Critics have argued that the restructuring concentrated power in too few hands. Two new executive decrees passed in 2018 further consolidated power in the executive branch. The military, which has traditionally maintained substantial autonomy from civilian oversight, has played an increasing role in both internal security and programs unrelated to security in recent years, prompting the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) to call for demilitarization and a return of nondefense matters to civilian control.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?
Corruption remains rampant in Honduras, despite efforts to bolster its anticorruption mechanisms in recent years. The MACCIH, which was established in 2016, facilitated anticorruption legislation aimed at preventing illicit campaign donations, and cooperated with the Attorney General’s Special Prosecutor’s Unit Against Impunity and Corruption (UFECIC) in its work. In April 2019, MACCIH reported that 120 individuals were being prosecuted for corruption, including 70 government officials. That December, Congress—some members of which were implicated in corruption by MACCIH’s work—advised President Hernández not to renew the MACCIH’s mandate. After the OAS and the Honduran government failed to reach an extension agreement, the mission ended in January 2020.
The shuttering of the MACCIH was just one marker of a pattern of regression in Honduran anticorruption efforts in 2020. In March, the Supreme Court vacated the conviction of former first lady Rosa Elena Bonilla, who had been convicted of fraud and embezzlement in 2019, and in July she was released from prison pending a new trial. The new criminal code that took effect in June 2020 eased penalties for multiple crimes public officials are regularly accused of, including corruption and drug trafficking. The new code also contributed to the dismissal of charges or acquittal of officials implicated in several emblematic corruption cases, including one that exposed large-scale embezzlement in the public health sector. The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in additional public health-related graft allegations, with revelations centered on fraudulent contracts and inflated prices for medical supplies and mobile hospital facilities.
President Hernández was directly implicated in corruption in 2019, when United States prosecutors identified him and former president Porfirio Lobo as coconspirators in a drug smuggling operation run by Juan Antonio Hernández, the president’s brother. In October 2019, a United States jury convicted the president’s brother; his sentencing was still pending as of the end of 2020. In May 2020, US prosecutors indicted Juan Carlos Bonilla, a notorious former Honduran police chief; the indictment’s language included suggestions that Bonilla had acted in collusion with the Hernández brothers.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?
Government operations are generally opaque. Journalists and interest groups have difficulty obtaining information from the government. Secrecy laws passed in 2014 allow authorities to withhold information on security and national defense for up to 25 years. The laws cover information regarding the military police budget, which is funded by a security tax, as well as information related to the Supreme Court and the Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Directorate.
During the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, civil society groups criticized a lack of transparency for medical supply and food aid distribution. The November creation of a Ministry of Transparency was also criticized by civil society representatives as an effort to undermine the efficacy of existing transparency mechanisms.
|Are there free and independent media?
Authorities systematically violate the constitution’s press freedom guarantees. Reporters and outlets covering sensitive topics or who are perceived as critical of authorities risk assaults, threats, blocked transmissions, and harassment. In 2020, television host German Vallecillo, Jr. was killed along with cameraman Jorge Posas in La Ceiba in July, while Facebook-based reporter Luis Alonzo Almendares was shot dead in Comayagua in September. Although a government program exists to provide protection to threatened journalists, both domestic press advocacy groups and the OHCHR describe it as inadequate.
The Committee for Free Expression, a local press freedom group, noted that the state of emergency declared in March inhibited reporting and led to dozens of press freedom violations, including at least nine attacks perpetrated by members of the security forces between March and mid-June.
Journalists are also targeted by various types of defamation laws. In March 2019, the Supreme Court upheld the 2016 defamation conviction of Globo TV host David Romero Ellner, and he was taken into custody to serve a 10-year prison sentence; in July 2020, Romero died in prison after contracting COVID-19. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), while defamation was decriminalized under the new criminal code, insult and slander continue to be subject to criminal penalties.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?
Religious freedom is generally respected in Honduras.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?
Academic freedom is undermined by criminal groups, who control all or parts of schools in some areas and subject staff to extortion schemes. Authorities sometimes move to suppress student demonstrations by arresting participants and dispersing the events, and violent clashes between police and student protesters sometimes occur.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?
Under the Special Law on Interception of Private Communications, passed in 2011, the government can intercept online and telephone messages. Violence, threats, and intimidation by state and nonstate actors curtails open and free private discussion among the general population.
|Is there freedom of assembly?
Freedom of assembly is constitutionally protected, but the government consistently uses force to disperse participants. Ongoing protests roiled the country for much of 2019, after President Hernández announced austerity measures for the country’s health and education sectors in April. Congress suspended the measures, but hundreds of protests were held throughout Honduras in the following months, with demonstrators calling for the president’s resignation. Hernández’s implication in his brother’s drug-smuggling operation drove additional protests in Tegucigalpa. Amnesty International reported that authorities regularly used tear gas and live ammunition against demonstrators and bystanders, and that six people were killed during protests or government reprisals by year’s end.
The COVID-19-linked state of emergency included restrictions on freedom of assembly, though the OHCHR logged hundreds of protests in 2020, many of them related to pandemic-related deprivation. State security forces were accused of excessive force in enforcing the assembly restrictions. In December, three UN special rapporteurs sent a joint letter calling for revisions of sections of the new criminal code that threaten assembly rights, including vague invocations of the word “terrorism” that potentially jeopardized protest organizers.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?
NGOs and their staff, especially in the human rights and environmental fields, face significant threats, including harassment, surveillance, smear campaigns aimed at undermining their work, and violence. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) reported that between January 2014 and August 2018, at least 65 human rights defenders were murdered. At least eight additional rights activists were killed in 2020, according to the OHCHR. Activists from the Garifuna community have been especially targeted in recent years, a pattern that continued in 2020. In June, Garifuna leader Antonio Bernárdez was found murdered, and in July, five community leaders were abducted by a large group of armed men, some of whom wore clothing bearing police agency insignia. All of the men remained missing at year’s end.
In 2018, a court convicted seven suspects in the prominent 2016 killing of environmental and indigenous rights activist Berta Cáceres; they received multidecade sentences in 2019. In August 2020, trial began for the president of the company constructing the hydroelectric dam Cáceres had opposed, though human rights advocates expressed concern about persistent delays in the process.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?
Labor unions are well organized and can strike, though labor actions have resulted in clashes with security forces. The government does not always honor formal agreements entered with public-sector unions. Union leaders and labor activists in both the public and private sector face harassment, dismissal, and violence for their activities. According to a report published in June 2020 by the Network Against Anti-Union Violence, 36 trade unionists were murdered between 2009 and 2019, including two in 2019.
|Is there an independent judiciary?
Political and business elites exert excessive influence over the judiciary, including the Supreme Court. Judicial appointments are made with little transparency, and the UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers reported in June 2020 that the Supreme Court maintains excessive control over lower-level judicial appointments. Judges have been removed from their posts for political reasons, and a number of legal professionals have been killed in recent years.
The Special Rapporteur also noted Congress’s excessive power over the judiciary. In 2012, Congress voted to remove four of the five justices in the Supreme Court’s constitutional chamber, and in 2013, the legislature granted itself greater removal power over officials from other branches, curtailed the power of the Supreme Court’s constitutional chamber, and revoked the right of citizens to challenge the constitutionality of laws. Corruption cases involving legislators are heard by the Supreme Court, and the Court has shelved or delayed cases of graft allegations involving scores of legislators.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?
Due process is limited due to a compromised judiciary and a corrupt and often inept police force, in which many officers have engaged in criminal activities including drug trafficking and extortion. The government has increasingly utilized the armed forces to combat crime and violence. Arbitrary arrests and detentions are common, as is lengthy pretrial detention. In 2017, authorities established several new courts in an attempt to address lengthy trial delays. Authorities in the armed forces have dishonorably discharged members accused of rights violations before their trials have taken place. The OHCHR noted that cases in the already backlogged justice system faced additional delays and complications in 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The new criminal code entered into force in June despite criticism by human rights groups, including over the continued criminalization of insult and slander, definitions of torture and enforced disappearance that were inconsistent with international standards, and a litany of ambiguously worded provisions that could affect free association and assembly rights. According to the OHCHR, the code did contain alternative sentencing provisions that could alleviate severe overcrowding in the country’s prisons.
Score Change: The score declined from 2 to 1 because a new criminal code contained vaguely worded provisions that expose citizens to arbitrary and abusive enforcement.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?
The homicide rate has declined notably over the last decade, but violent crime and gang violence remain serious problems, and have prompted large-scale internal displacement and migration. In response to widespread violence, the government has empowered the Military Police of Public Order (PMOP) and other security forces to combat security threats, and these units often employ excessive force when conducting operations. The OHCHR reported several deaths that constituted potential human rights abuses in 2020, including the April killing of a man in Cortés department by PMOP officers enforcing the pandemic lockdown and a suspected extrajudicial execution during a joint police-military operation in San Pedro Sula.
Prisons are overcrowded and underequipped, and prison violence remains rampant due in large part to pervasive gang presence. Despite the military taking control of prison security in late 2019, InSight Crime registered at least 55 inmates murdered between December 2019 and August 2020.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?
Violence and discrimination against LGBT+ people and Indigenous and Garifuna populations persist at high levels in Honduras. Lesbian Network Cattrachas, a local NGO, reported that at least 20 LGBT+ people were killed in 2020. Cattrachas registered an impunity rate of 91 percent in the 373 murders of LBGT+ people between 2009 and 2020. According to the OHCHR and the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, lands inhabited by Indigenous and Afro-Honduran people are particularly vulnerable to expropriation for development projects without adequate prior consultation, and communities that contest such projects are unable to effectively assert their rights.
Honduras has among the highest femicide rates in the world, and these murders are rarely investigated. According to the National Autonomous University of Honduras, 406 women were murdered in 2019, and 217 women were killed in the first eight months of 2020.
Asylum seekers from Honduras and other countries can find themselves held in Honduran territory due to a bilateral agreement signed with the United States in 2019. As part of the agreement, Honduras agreed to house asylum seekers whose claims were either rejected or not processed by the United States, even if they did not originate in Honduras.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?
While authorities generally do not restrict free movement, ongoing violence and impunity have reduced personal autonomy for the country’s residents. Those living in gang-controlled territories face extortion, and dangerous conditions limit free movement and options for education and employment. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated that over 247,000 people were internally displaced in Honduras at the end of 2019. According to the OHCHR, movement restrictions associated with the COVID-19 pandemic increased the difficulties faced by vulnerable communities, including Indigenous Hondurans and migrants.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?
Corruption, crime, and gang activity inhibits the ability to conduct business activities freely and dissuades entrepreneurs from establishing new businesses. Those who work in the transportation sector (taxi and bus drivers) are notable targets of gangs, but many are unable to flee for fear of retaliatory violence against themselves and their families. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), the government uses force to prevent people from attempting to flee the country.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?
Same-sex marriage remains illegal in Honduras. In 2019, a law came into force banning same-sex couples from adopting children despite the objection of activists, who called the bill superfluous and discriminatory. Abortion is illegal in Honduras, including in cases of rape or incest, with criminal sanctions including imprisonment for those accused of terminating their pregnancies. Emergency contraception is also prohibited. Domestic violence remains widespread, and most such attacks go unpunished.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?
Lack of socioeconomic opportunities combined with high levels of crime and violence limit social mobility for most Hondurans, and exacerbate income inequality. High youth unemployment and low levels of education help to perpetuate the cycle of crime and violence; these issues, especially access to education, were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic as well as Hurricanes Eta and Iota, which struck in November 2020 and affected over 4 million people, killed nearly 100, and caused significant damage.
Human trafficking is a significant issue in Honduras, which serves as a source country for women and children forced into prostitution; adults and children are also vulnerable to forced labor in the agriculture, mining, and other sectors, and as domestic servants.
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Global Freedom Score48 100 partly free