Honduras | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2006

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While official results had not been announced by the end of November 2005, Manuel Zelaya of the opposition Liberal Party (PL) seemed poised to capture the presidency of Honduras in elections held that month. Gang violence, the dominant issue in the presidential campaign, continued to plague Honduras, including the murder of 28 people on a bus in December 2004. In November, mudslides and flooding caused by Tropical Storm Gamma wrought extensive destruction on the northern coast and left at least 32 people dead.

The Republic of Honduras was established in 1839, 18 years after independence from Spain. Honduras has endured decades of military rule and intermittent elected governments, with the last military regime giving way to elected civilian rule in 1982. However, the military continued to be the most powerful institution in the country through much of the 1980s and 1990s. Through the country's constitution, Honduran presidents have the power to veto the military and choose its leaders; during the latest run of democratic government, the first president to exercise that power did so in 1999.

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.

Gang violence has escalated in Honduras in recent years, including attacks against both civilians and the police. In response, Congress unanimously approved a law in August 2003 banning gangs and stiffening the penalties for gang membership. As a result, membership in a gang is now punishable by up to 12 years in prison, and gang leaders can be fined up to $12,000; at least 1,600 gang members have been arrested under that law since 2003. The government of President Ricardo Maduro also ordered the country's military to help maintain order in major cities, and the military has often spearheaded antigang raids as part of Maduro's "iron fist" approach to dealing with gang members. The Salvadoran gang Mara Salvatrucha (also known as MS-13) has recruited the most gang members in the country and has perpetrated countless acts of violence. In December 2004, the gang hijacked a bus in San Pedro Sula and killed 28 people aboard, leaving messages opposing Maduro's anti-gang policies and efforts to reinstate the death penalty. In early 2005, police arrested nine MS-13 members in connection the massacre, and the gang leader, Ebert Anibal Rivera, was arrested in the United States. Later in the year, Defense Minister Andreas Brehme confirmed that MS-13 had made credible death threats against Maduro, and that the gang now had links with Colombia's guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). MS-13 was helping the FARC with its drug distribution business in Central America in exchange for arms and cash. The government reported there may be as many as 100,000 gang members and gang affiliates in the country among hundreds of gangs, some affiliated with larger international gangs such as MS-13.

After a fractious electoral campaign in 2005, power was set to change hands from President Maduro of the National Party (PN) to Jose Manuel Zelaya Rosales of the Liberal Party (PL). At the end of November, Zelaya was ahead in an incomplete vote count; however, the announcement of a Zelaya victory by the country's electoral commission drew strenuous protests from the camp of PN candidate Porfirio Lobo Sosa. In the concurrent legislative election, the PL took control of the unicameral National Congress, winning 62 seats in the 128-seat legislature; the PN won 55 seats. The Democratic Unification Party (PUD), a new party, won 5 seats, the most among minor parties. The Christian Democrats (PDC) won 4 seats, and the National Innovation and Unity Party (PINU) took 2 seats.

Zelaya and Lobo had been tied in pre-election polls, and the election campaigns for both the presidency and concurrent legislative and local elections were marred by violence. PN activists clashed with campaigners for the PL in San Pedro Sula, the country's second-largest city and business center. During several incidents, PL campaigners were left injured from severe beatings, and one PL campaigner was shot and killed. An election monitor for the PL was also killed by PN activists.

Crime, violence, and the growing problem of street gangs dominated the presidential candidates' campaign. Lobo-the former president of the country's National Congress and a former Communist who switched allegiance to the conservative PN- called for the continuation of strong antigang measures begun under Maduro and the institution of the death penalty for crimes such as sexual assault, kidnapping, and murder. While Zelaya opposed capital punishment, he advocated life sentences for those judged to be "career criminals."

In November, Tropical Storm Gamma struck the northern coast of Honduras, causing massive flooding and mudslides that destroyed homes and infrastructure. At least 25,000 people were displaced, and at least 32 people were killed.

Honduras is a very poor country; at least 70 percent of Hondurans live in poverty, and at least 30 percent of the country is unemployed.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Citizens of Honduras can change their government democratically. The 2005 elections, although marred by violence and vote counting problems, were considered free and fair by observers from the Organization of American States (OAS) and local organizations. The constitution provides for a president and a 128-member, unicameral National Congress, both elected for four-year terms. The number of votes received by a party's presidential candidate determines the proportional representation of each party.

The country's major political parties include: the Liberal Party (PL), the National Party (NP), the Democratic Unification Party (PUD), the Christian Democrats (PDC), and the National Innovation and Unity Party (PINU).

Official corruption and the lingering power of the military have dominated the political scene since the return to civilian rule in 1982. In 2005, the government implemented an anticorruption plan, and Jose Manuel Zelaya Rosales made fighting corruption under a "citizens empowerment" program a major platform of his presidential campaign. However, effective enforcement of anticorruption measures is by no means assured. Honduras was ranked 107 out of 159 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2005 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. However, media ownership is concentrated in the hands of a few powerful business interests with intersecting political and economic ties, resulting in self-censorship. Access to government officials and information is a significant obstacle for many journalists. In addition, corruption among journalists remains a problem. Journalists are sometimes given cash awards by government agencies and private interests, widely perceived to be payment for favorable coverage. Also, some journalists work multiple jobs, often moonlighting as public relations officials for government agencies that they cover. In May, the Supreme Court struck down restrictive defamation laws that had outlawed insulting public officials.

Freedom of religion is respected. During the year, the country's Supreme Electoral Court struck down a 184-year-old ban on clerics' running for elected office. Academic freedom also is generally honored.

Constitutional guarantees regarding freedom of association are generally respected, and citizens have the right to freely assemble. 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.

The judicial system is weak and open to corruption, and due process is generally not followed. 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. Drug trafficking through Honduras is on the rise, and drug-related corruption is pervasive.

The police are underfunded, ill trained, understaffed, and highly corrupt. Extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention, and torture by the police are significant problems. Members of the police and military are accused of running death squads that target street children. The group Casa Alianza claims there have been as many as 2,300 extrajudicial killings of young people (under 23 years of age) in the streets of Honduras since 1998, with those figures increasing in 2005. A former assistant chief of the National Police claimed she knew of death squads, such as one called Los Magnificos, that were made up of police and former members of the military bent on a mission of "social cleansing." Some of these death squads grew out of the infamous Battalion 316, which operated as a military death squad performing extrajudicial killings in the 1980s. President Ricardo Maduro did admit that some overzealous elements of the police and military had carried out such executions, but he called such incidents "isolated."

The military exerts considerable, if waning, influence over the government. Moreover, the pervasive corruption in the country has also infected that institution. Military officers have been found guilty of drug trafficking, including taking sides in cartel turf wars and protecting drug shipments in transit through Honduras. During 2005, President Maduro depended on the military numerous times to maintain order in the country's crime-plagued major cities.

Although indigenous rights made advances during the late 1990s, the country's economic and security problems have stalled any momentum for further change.

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, involving local women and children as well as sex workers from neighboring countries, is a serious problem. Casa Alianza estimates that as many as 10,000 girls and boys are working as prostitutes.

HIV/AIDS is on the rise in Honduras. In 2005, Honduras reported that 66,000 people died of AIDS, while 200,000 new cases were registered with the health system. The United Nations estimates that as much as 2 percent of the country's population may have HIV/AIDS.