Freedom in the World
Honduras received a downward trend arrow due to the government’s failure to address corruption and impunity for crimes against journalists, human rights defenders, land rights activists, and the poor and other marginalized segments of society, who are routinely subject to violence by both state and nonstate forces.
A major corruption scandal involving the Honduran Institute of Social Security (IHSS) rocked the country in 2015. The ruling National Party (PN) and President Juan Orlando Hernández allegedly benefited from the $300-million scandal that activists claimed resulted in as many as 3,000 patient deaths. Protesters, collectively referred to as the Indignados (the Outraged), held weekly marches demanding the president’s resignation and the establishment of an international anti-impunity body. Meanwhile, the adoption of a constitutional amendment allowing indefinite presidential reelection and the circumvention of a congressional vote on military policing led critics to charge that Hernández was eroding democratic governance.
Honduras continued to have one of the highest homicide rates in the world as drug traffickers, organized criminals, and street gangs preyed upon communities, often in collusion with authorities. The militarization of police was accompanied by an increase in abuses. Violence and intimidation against journalists, human rights workers, and land rights activists went unpunished, despite a new human rights defenders law.
Political Rights: 19 / 40 (−1) [Key]
A. Electoral Process: 7 / 12
The president is elected by popular vote for a four-year term. The leading candidate is only required to win a plurality; there is no runoff system. In April 2015, the Honduran Supreme Court voided Article 239 of the constitution, which had limited presidents to one term. Members of the 128-seat, unicameral National Congress are also elected for four-year terms using proportional representation by department.
In 2013 general elections Hernández of the PN won 38 percent of the vote in a field of eight candidates for president. Xiomara Castro of the Liberation and Refoundation Party (LIBRE) won 28.8 percent, followed by Liberal Party (PL) candidate Mauricio Villeda with 20 percent and Salvador Nasralla of the Anti-Corruption Party (PAC) with 14 percent. In concurrent legislative elections, the PN won 48 seats, LIBRE won 37, the PL won 27, and the PAC won 13; three smaller parties each won 1 seat.
Election observers noted a number of irregularities, including the harassment of international observers by immigration officials, vote buying, problems with voter rolls, and potential fraud in the transmission of tally sheets to the country’s electoral body, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE). More than a dozen opposition activists and candidates were murdered during the campaign season. Castro and the LIBRE party contested the results and demanded a recount, which the TSE partially conducted; in the end, nearly all complaints were rejected and the TSE certified Hernández’s victory. In June 2015 Hernández admitted that funds from the IHSS scandal—in which companies with links to IHSS were involved in money laundering and bribery—were used in his 2013 election campaign, though he denied knowledge of it. Analysts speculate that access to those funds gave him a significant advantage.
Monitors from the Organization of American States (OAS) found that the TSE did not have clear rules for processing candidate registration applications and noted inconsistencies in the development of voter lists. The OAS also found that campaign finance laws in Honduras were not stringent enough to ensure fair and transparent elections.
B. Political Pluralism and Participation: 9 / 16
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, the PAC, and the Patriotic Alliance Party (ALIANZA) all participated in elections for the first time, winning a significant share of the vote and disrupting the dominance of the PL and the PN.
The military, after decades of ruling Honduras, remains politically powerful. President Hernández’s appointments of military officials to civilian posts, many related to security, underscored that influence.
Minorities are underrepresented in Honduras’s political system. No representatives of the Afro-Honduran (Garifuna) population were elected to Congress in 2013; one English-speaking Afro-Honduran and one Misquito person won seats. No election materials were printed in indigenous languages. In 2014, the Ministry for Indigenous Peoples and Afro-Hondurans was folded into the Ministry of Development and Social Inclusion, a move criticized by indigenous rights activists.
C. Functioning of Government: 3 / 12 (−1)
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 concentrates power in too few hands.
In 2014, Mario Zelaya, former head of the IHSS, and several other IHSS officials were arrested on charges related to the misappropriation of more than $300 million in public funds. In May 2015, Globo TV released leaked documents detailing the scandal, including evidence that the PN had received significant sums. The revelations sparked months of protests. In October, the Hernández government responded by signing an agreement with the OAS to create the Mission to Support the Fight Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH). Critics, noting that the body would operate under existing Honduran judicial officials, questioned whether it would be able to function independently.
Corruption remains a serious problem. According to the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), 23 percent of Hondurans were victims of corruption in 2014. Honduras was ranked 112 out of 168 countries and territories surveyed in Transparency International’s 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index. In 2015, at least 35 mayors and deputy mayors were under investigation for connections to organized crime. In October, the mayor of Sulaco was arrested for heading a criminal organization.
The Law on Classification of Public Documents Related to Security and National Defense, a 2014 statute allowing the government to withhold information on these topics for up to 25 years, continued to undermine transparency. The law covers information regarding the military police budget, which is funded by a security tax.
Civil Liberties: 26 / 60 (−3)
D. Freedom of Expression and Belief: 9 / 16 (−1)
Authorities systematically violate the constitution’s press freedom guarantees. Numerous radio and television stations reported continued harassment in 2015, including police surveillance, assaults, threats, blocked transmissions, power outages, and government harassment of journalists. Radio Globo director David Romero Ellner received threats against his life after he exposed the social security embezzlement scandal, and in November Romero was convicted of slander against a prosecutor. In October, Julio Ernesto Alvarado, a journalist at TV Globo and Radio Globo, was prevented by Honduran immigration officials from traveling to Washington, D.C., to participate in an Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) hearing on his case. In 2013, Alvarado had been banned from working as punishment in a defamation case. In December, the Honduran government suspended the work ban, complying with an IACHR ruling issued more than a year earlier.
Honduras is ranked the most deadly country in the Americas for journalists by the IACHR. Most cases go unprosecuted. A law to protect journalists and human rights defenders went into effect in June 2015. Repression and violence have resulted in self-censorship. Internet use is generally unrestricted, though the government may have monitored some online communication in 2015.
Freedom of religion is broadly respected. Academic freedom is threatened as educators are subject to extortion by gang members, who control all or parts of schools in some areas. In 2015, students protested the extension of school hours into the evening, which they argued compromised their safety. In March 2015, four student protesters, one as young as 13, were found murdered. Student protesters demanding participation in governance and protections against the privatization of the Honduran National Autonomous University (UNAH) have faced threats following peaceful occupations of university buildings.
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.
E. Associational and Organizational Rights: 5 / 12 (−1)
Constitutional guarantees of freedoms of assembly and association have not been consistently upheld. Human rights defenders and political activists continued to face significant threats in 2015, including harassment, surveillance, detentions, and murder.
In January 2015, after revoking the legal status of thousands of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in 2014, the government announced that some 4,100 more would lose their legal status. International bodies have noted that the registration process has become overly complicated; some NGOs have suggested that the moves are intended to silence criticism.
Labor unions are well organized and can strike, though labor actions often result in clashes with security forces. Threats against union leaders and blacklisting of employees who sought to form unions remained problems in 2015. In June, a representative of the Worker’s Union of the National Autonomous University of Honduras (SITRAUNAH) was murdered.
F. Rule of Law: 4 / 16 (−1)
Political and business elites exert excessive influence over the Honduran judiciary, including the Supreme Court. Judicial appointments are made with little transparency. Judges have been removed from their posts for political reasons, and a number of legal professionals have been killed in recent years. Prosecutors and whistleblowers handling corruption cases are often subject to threats of violence.
In 2012, Congress potentially violated the constitution by voting to remove four of the five justices in the Supreme Court’s constitutional chamber after they ruled a police reform law unconstitutional. In 2013, the legislature passed a measure granting itself the power to remove from office the president, Supreme Court justices, legislators, and other officials. It also curtailed the power of the Supreme Court’s constitutional chamber and revoked the right of citizens to challenge the constitutionality of laws. In 2015, questions were raised about the constitutionality of the ruling allowing indefinite reelection of presidents when one of the justices from the Supreme Court’s constitutional branch attempted to rescind his approval of the decision.
The government continued to rely on the armed forces to fight crime in 2015. Critics contend that too much power is being concentrated in the hands of the military. Army officers have been found guilty of involvement in drug trafficking and other crimes. An active army general was appointed as security minister in 2014. The militarization of domestic policing has resulted in an increase in reported abuses, including murder, illegal detention, and torture. The police force is highly corrupt, and officers engage in criminal activities including drug trafficking and extortion. Hundreds of juveniles have reportedly been killed in “social cleansing” campaigns by police. Police officers have committed extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, and illegal searches. In February 2015, four members of the military police were arrested on charges of attempted kidnapping. The same month, nine members of the elite Tigres police unit were charged with stealing $1.3 million during a 2014 drug raid.
Impunity is a serious problem in Honduras. Fewer than 4 percent of homicides between 2010 and 2013 ended in a conviction. According to the government, approximately 80 percent of crimes committed in Honduras are never reported, and police investigate only 4 percent of those that are. Prison conditions are harsh, the facilities are notoriously overcrowded, lengthy pretrial detention is a problem, and inmate violence often goes unpunished. In 2015, at least 25 prisoners were killed in acts of prison violence. Prosecutors have attested that protection for witnesses in criminal cases is insufficient.
In April 2015, the Honduran government passed the Law on the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, Journalists, Media Workers, and Justice Operators. The law provides legal protections for these individuals and intends to promote a safer environment for human rights activists to conduct their work. As of December 2015, four human rights defenders had brought forth cases, though the effectiveness of the law is yet to be determined. Although there is an official human rights ombudsman, critics claim that the work of the office is politicized.
In 2015, Honduras continued to have one of the highest murder rates in the world at approximately 61 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, down from 68 per 100,000 in 2014. Discrepancies in homicide data between the Violence Observatory of UNAH and police have resulted in suspicions that the state may manipulate homicide rates. Most murders are attributed to organized crime, including transnational youth gangs and Mexican drug-trafficking syndicates. In July 2015, Congress increased prison terms for gang members to between 20 and 30 years and established sentences for gang leaders of up to 50 years. The changes to the penal code also increased sentences for gang members who attack state officials or pressure minors, pregnant women, or the elderly into committing crimes.
Discrimination against the indigenous and Garifuna populations is widespread. Both groups experience higher rates of poverty and socioeconomic exclusion than the average citizen.
The LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community faces discrimination, harassment, and physical threats. A 2005 constitutional amendment prohibits same-sex marriage and same-sex adoption. Rights groups reported that at least 215 LGBT activists and individuals were murdered between 2009 and 2015. According to a 2014 study conducted by a coalition of human rights groups, police officers and gang members carry out most of the violence against members of the LGBT community.
G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights: 8 / 16
Honduras’s ongoing violence and impunity have reduced personal autonomy for the average citizen. Some Hondurans living in particularly violent neighborhoods have been forced to abandon their homes and businesses. Children have been fleeing the country to avoid forced recruitment into gangs.
Corruption is a serious problem in the private sector. In October 2015, three members of the prominent Rosenthal family, owners of Grupo Continental, were indicted on money laundering charges in U.S. federal court.
The conflict between indigenous groups, authorities, and private actors persisted in 2015, with clashes among peasants, landowners’ private security forces, and state forces. More than 90 people, mostly landless peasants, died between 2009 and 2012 in violence related to fertile land where lucrative palm plantations are located in the Bajo Aguán region in northern Honduras. In 2015, Global Witness named Honduras the most dangerous country per capita for environmental and land activists. In November, the president of the Land Defense Committee of Cristales and Río Negro, also a candidate for local office, survived an assassination attempt. In December, the son of an indigenous leader was killed in Santa Elena de la Paz. Military death squads have been implicated in some killings, though they are rarely brought to justice. In December 2015, a soldier convicted in the killing of indigenous activist Tomás García Domínguez was sentenced to 30 to 90 days in prison, even while the penal code sets a sentence of 15 to 20 years for such a crime.
Indigenous and Garifuna residents have faced various abuses at the hands of property developers and their allies, including corrupt titling processes and acts of violence. Indigenous and Garifuna populations are rarely fairly compensated for the expropriation of their lands and resources, and communities are often forcibly evicted. The clearing of land for clandestine airstrips used in the drug trade has increased pressure on indigenous groups in remote areas of the country. In June 2015, an arrest warrant was issued for Canadian investor Randy Jorgensen for depriving Garifuna communities of their legal rights to land in Trujillo Bay through illegal sales. In December, the Inter-American Court on Human Rights condemned the Honduran government for failing to protect land rights of a Garifuna community in Triunfo de la Cruz. In September, a 16-year-old boy was killed when military and police evicted the Regalo de Dios community in Villanueva, Cortes. In December, two Garifuna civilians were killed in Iriona by soldiers in what the military described as an antidrug operation.
Violence against women is a serious problem, and femicide has risen dramatically in recent years. Many of these murders, like most homicides in Honduras, go unpunished, despite the fact that femicide was added as a crime to the penal code in 2013. Women also remain vulnerable to exploitation by employers, particularly in the low-wage maquiladora (assembly plant) export sector. Following the 2013 elections, 33 of 128 seats in Congress were held by women; only 22 of 298 mayoralties were held by women.
Child labor is a problem in rural areas and in the informal economy. Honduras is primarily a source country for human trafficking, and women and children are particularly vulnerable to being trafficked for the sex trade and forced labor. Domestically, gangs have forced Hondurans to traffic drugs, perform sex work, and carry out violent acts. Police and government officials have been implicated in protecting sex trafficking rings and paying for sex acts.
X = Score Received
Y = Best Possible Score
Z = Change from Previous Year