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Election campaigning for Honduras' November 2005 presidential elections already began during 2004, despite a law prohibiting such early campaigning. Meanwhile, a large prison fire in which more than 100 inmates, mostly gang members, were killed was the latest incident in serious gang-related violence in the country.
The Republic of Honduras was established in 1839, which was 18 years after independence from Spain. It has endured decades of military rule and intermittent elected government, with the last military regime giving way to elected civilian rule in 1982. The 1969 armed conflict between Honduras and El Salvador over land, sometimes known as the "Soccer War," ended with a peace treaty in 1980. In 1992, the International Court of Justice ruled that 69 percent of the territory in dispute should go to Honduras, and the court ruled further, in late 2003, against El Salvador's latest appeal. Nonetheless, in 2004, El Salvador again appealed the judgment, citing new evidence.
In the November 25, 2001 parliamentary election, the center-left National Party of Hondruas (PN) captured the largest number of seats, followed closely by the conservative Liberal Party (PL). After winning the concurrent presidential election, the PN's Ricardo Maduro Joest took office on January 27, 2002. Elected on a "zero tolerance" pledge aimed at ending crime, Maduro defeated PL candidate Rafael Pineda Ponce by 8 percent of the vote. The elections, which were the sixth held since military rule came to an end, were characterized by international observers as mostly free, fair, and peaceful. On the eve of the election, however, congressional candidate Angel Pacheco, of the PN, was gunned down outside his house. Police arrested three employees of the PL, an indication that the crime might have been politically motivated.
Although the next national elections are not scheduled until November 27, 2005 - and a new electoral law passed in May 2004 limits the length of campaigns to 90 days for primary and 120 days for general elections - campaigning already began during the year. The campaigns are subject to new disclosures and media limitations, but limitations on the media have already failed as unofficial campaigns by presidential hopefuls are in full swing. Maduro's approval rating of 37 percent leads political analysts to predict that the PN is not likely to break the cycle of failed reelection efforts characteristic of the country. The PL's two main factions have established an alliance that seeks to counter Maduro's decline in popularity with a show of unity by the opposition. Most of Maduro's woes come from the country's weak economic performance as well as a host of austerity measures the government implemented in 2004 to receive favorable terms from the IMF and others to reduce its debt burden.
Gang violence has escalated in Honduras in recent years and includes apparently random attacks against both civilians and the police. In response, congress unanimously approved a law in August 2003 banning gangs and stiffening the penalties for membership. Membership in a gang is now punishable by up to 12 years in prison, and the law also provides for fines of up to $12,000 for gang leaders. The national commissioner of human rights is questioning the constitutionality of the law. Though controversial, support for the tough stand taken against the gangs has not diminished among average Hondurans. The Ministry of Security has reported that of the estimated 70,000 gang members in Central America, 65 percent can be found in Honduras. There are some 36,000 gang members and 65,000 others who associate with gang members in the country, with 129 gangs active in the capital alone. By September 2003, in Operation Freedom, 300 people had been arrested under the new law.
Several severe outbursts of violence, including mass murders on buses, have been attributed to gangs. On May 17, 2004, a large fire at the San Pedro Sula prison killed 104 inmates, most of them members of the Salvatrucha gang. This followed an April 2003 fire, where 68 inmates, also gang members, died in a prison near La Ceiba on the Caribbean coast. A study of the 2003 fire that Maduro commissioned concluded that most of the dead had been killed by prison guards working with other gang members; to date there have been no prosecutions in the La Ceiba incident.
The aftereffects of Hurricane Mitch, which devastated the country's economy and infrastructure in 1998, continued to be felt in 2004. About two-thirds of households live in poverty, and 40 percent of the population live on less than one dollar a day.
Citizens of Honduras are able to change their government through regularly scheduled elections, and the 2001 contest was considered generally free and fair. The constitution provides for a president and a 130-member, unicameral congress elected for four-year terms. The number of votes received by a party's presidential candidate determines the proportional representation of each party.
Official corruption and the lingering power of the military have dominated the political scene since the return to democracy. Honduras was ranked 114 out of 146 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Authorities generally respect constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and of the press. Newspapers circulate freely, numerous radio and television stations broadcast freely, and there is free access to the Internet. There are, however, important exceptions, including credible reports of repression against journalists. Journalists have admitted to self-censorship when they uncover reports that threaten the political or economic interests of media owners. In 2004, Reporters Sans Frontieres reported that repressive laws restricting the media were still enforced. The group cited the case of Renato Alvarez, who was sentenced to two years and eight months for slander (suspended for five years on condition of "good behavior"), and deprived of some civil rights. His crime involved questioning Security Minister Oscar Alvarez and revealing the names of public figures accused of involvement in corrupt practices. While intimidation of the media, especially through the use of slander laws, is relatively common, the death of a journalist is not, and the murder of the journalist German Antonio Rivas late in 2003 caused great upheaval; as of late 2004, his violent death has not been solved.
Freedom of religion is respected. Academic freedom is generally honored.
Constitutional guarantees regarding the right to form political parties and civic organizations are generally respected, and citizens have the right to assembly freely. Labor unions are well organized and can strike, although labor actions often result in clashes with security forces. Labor leaders and members of religious groups and indigenous-based peasant unions pressing for land rights remain vulnerable to repression and have been killed.
The judicial system is weak and open to corruption, and due process is generally not followed. Changes introduced early in the administration of President Ricardo Maduro Joest, including increasing the number of Supreme Court justices to 15, have not borne fruit. Death threats and violent attacks continue against judges who take on human rights cases. Prison conditions are deplorable, and prisoners awaiting trial are housed with convicted inmates. Two deadly fires (in 2003 and 2004) have highlighted the appalling conditions in prisons. Generalized lawlessness has allowed private and vigilante security forces to commit a number of arbitrary and summary executions, including the murders of hundreds of street children. Drug trafficking through Honduras is on the rise, and drug-related corruption is pervasive.
The police are underfunded, ill-trained, understaffed, and highly corrupt. The military controlled the police since 1963, but civilian control was reestablished beginning in 1997. In the past, the military was for internal security tasks - suppressing labor unrest, quelling street protests, and combating street crime. Extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention, and torture by the police still take place. There is open talk of social cleansing by off-duty law enforcement officials and private citizens in groups known as "death cars." Several hundred youth gangs engage in murder, kidnapping, and robbery, as well as drug trafficking. The need to strengthen and professionalize the poorly equipped civilian police is hampered by a lack of public confidence.
At the invitation of the government, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary, or Arbitrary Executions visited Honduras in 2001 and noted evidence that 66 minors were killed by police and private security forces from January to June 2001 and that the government was negligent in investigating or preventing extrajudicial and summary executions. Casa Alianza, which works with street children, has calculated that from January 1998 to March 2004 more than 2,190 youths were killed; in 2003 alone, 557 were killed, up from 93 in 1998. In November 2002, after being shamed by international publicity over the murders of hundreds of children, the government announced the formation of a special security force, in addition to the 6,000 new police officers already put on the streets.
The military exerts considerable, if waning, influence over the government. A constitutional amendment established a civilian minister of defense in direct control over the armed forces and replaced the position of armed forces commander in chief with that of chief of the joint staff. Congress also passed the Organic Law of the armed forces to solidify civilian control over the military. Former president Carlos Roberto Reina (1993 - 1997) defied the military and abolished compulsory military service. The armed forces made public its budget for the first time in 2001. Most criminal cases against the military remained in military court jurisdiction, and charges were usually dismissed, even though since 1999, military personnel have no longer been immune from prosecution in civilian courts. Military officers have been found guilty of drug trafficking, including taking sides in cartel turf wars and protecting drug shipments in transit through Honduras.
The government of President Carlos Flores Facusse (1997 - 2001) had made efforts to give the concerns of indigenous and black peoples in Honduras a more prominent place in the public agenda. The current wave of violent crime, some of which is directed against the indigenous community, has pushed such efforts into the background.
Some 85,000 workers, mostly women, are employed in the low-wage maquiladora (assembly plant) export sector. Child labor is a problem in rural areas and in the informal economy. Prostitution is a serious problem, involving local women and children as well as sex workers from neighboring countries.