Freedom in the World
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Honduras is a multiparty democracy, but institutional weakness, corruption, violence, and impunity undermine its stability. Journalists, human rights defenders, and political activists face significant threats, including harassment, surveillance, detention, and murder. Though it has fallen in recent years, Honduras’s murder rate remains among the highest per capita in the world.
- In March, internationally recognized rights activist Berta Cáceres was murdered in her home after campaigning against the construction of a dam on indigenous lands.
- In April, leaked documents revealed that high-ranking police officials had been involved in the 2009 killing of Honduras’s top antidrug official, and in the murder of his deputy two years later. Major reforms to the national police force followed the revelations.
- The Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH), a body established in a 2015 agreement between the Honduran government and the Organization of American States (OAS), began work in April.
- In August, Congress rejected an opposition-backed initiative to hold a plebiscite on a controversial 2015 Supreme Court decision to allow presidential reelection. In November, President Juan Orlando Hernández announced he would seek a second term.
The March 2016 murder of Cáceres, a high-profile rights activist, and the revelation in April that top police officials had been involved in the past murders of two top antidrug officials, drew renewed international attention to pervasive violence, corruption, and impunity in Honduras. The country is among the most dangerous in the world for rights activists to operate, and its per capita murder rate is among the world’s highest. Attacks generally go unpunished, leaving a pervasive climate of impunity.
In response to the revelations of high-level police officials’ involvement in the murders of the antidrug officials, a Special Commission for the Purging and Reform of the National Police was formed in April 2016. During the year it conducted investigations and instituted various organizational changes to the police force, including the discharge of more than 1,000 police officials.
In response to national and international pressure over a scandal involving the misappropriation of social security funds, the Hernández government in 2015 signed an agreement with the OAS to create MACCIH, which began operating in April 2016. During the year, the body investigated the social security scandal, and helped to develop a party financing law and a new court system for corruption cases.
In August, Congress rejected an opposition-backed initiative to hold a plebiscite on a controversial 2015 Supreme Court decision to allow presidential reelection. Opponents of the ruling say the Supreme Court lacked the authority to overturn the article of the constitution that banned presidents from running for a second term. In November, amid the controversy, President Hernández announced that he would run for a second term in 2017.
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 a controversial 2015 decision, the Honduran Supreme Court voided Article 239 of the constitution, which had limited presidents to one term; the development exacerbated existing political polarization and the opposition attempted unsuccessfully to reverse the move in 2016. In November, the president announced plans to run for a second term.
Members of the 128-seat, unicameral National Congress are elected for four-year terms using proportional representation by department.
Election observers noted a number of irregularities in the 2013 general elections, 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 campaigning period. The TSE conducted a partial recount, but ultimately certified Hernández’s victory.
OAS monitors found that the TSE did not have clear rules for processing candidate registration applications and along with European Union monitors also 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.
Political parties are largely free to operate, though power has mostly been concentrated in the hands of the Liberal Party (PL) and the National Party (PN) since the early 1980s. In 2013, Liberation and Refoundation Party (LIBRE), the Anti-Corruption Party (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, have underscored that influence.
In August 2016, Congress rejected an opposition-backed initiative to hold a plebiscite on the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision to allow presidential reelection, with opponents of the ruling saying that the Supreme Court did not have the authority to overturn the relevant article of the constitution. This rejection has exacerbated a constitutional crisis that began with the 2009 coup against Mario Zelaya, who was ousted when he had attempted to eliminate term limits through constitutional reforms. President Hernández is running for a second term in 2017; police broke up some demonstrations against the constitutional changes and his reelection campaign in 2016.
Minorities are underrepresented in Honduras’s political system. Following the 2013 elections, 33 of 128 seats in Congress were held by women; only 22 of 298 mayoralties were held by women. No representatives of the Afro-Honduran (Garifuna) population were elected to Congress in 2013; one English-speaking Afro-Honduran and one Miskito 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.
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.
Corruption remains a serious problem. In 2016, nine mayors were arrested for a variety of crimes, including homicide, drug trafficking, and money laundering, although two were later exonerated. As of October 2016, over thirty mayors, congressmen, judges, military officials, and police officers were under investigation for links to organized crime.
A scandal involving top officials with the Honduran Institute of Social Security (IHSS) in the misappropriation of more than $300 million in public funds broke in 2015. Later that year, Hernández admitted that his 2013 election campaign had accepted funds linked to companies implicated in the scandal, though he denied knowledge of any wrongdoing. In October 2015, the Hernández government signed an agreement with the OAS to create the MACCIH, which began operating in April 2016 and has since begun investigating the social security scandal. It also helped develop a party financing law that was approved in October, and assisted in the establishment of a new court system for corruption cases. However, local human rights and anti-impunity groups have expressed disappointment with MACCIH’s mandate, saying its powers are limited.
The Law on Classification of Public Documents Related to Security and National Defense, a 2014 statute allowing the government to withhold information on those 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.
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 August 2016, television reporter Ariel Armando D’Vicente was convicted of criminal defamation and sentenced to three years in prison, and banned from practicing journalism for three years; the charges were filed in connection with his reporting on police involvement with criminal groups. In May, Honduran journalist Félix Molina was shot in a taxi in Tegucigalpa, the country’s capital; the attack, from which he recovered, took place not long after he had published an article on the murder of indigenous rights leader Berta Cáceres.
A 2015 law to protect journalists, human rights defenders, and administrators of justice took effect in 2016 following a lengthy process to establish its internal regulations. Feedback on the performance of the mechanism created by the law to protect these at-risk populations has been mixed, and it continues to face budgetary and staffing challenges. Most attacks against journalists go unprosecuted, creating a climate of impunity that encourages self-censorship.
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 2016, members of a student movement demanding participation in university governance and protesting privatization of public education claimed that authorities were improperly suppressing their demonstrations.
Access to the internet use is generally unrestricted. However, 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.
Constitutional guarantees of freedoms of assembly and association are not consistently upheld. Human rights defenders and political activists continued to face significant threats in 2016, including harassment, surveillance, detention, and murder.
In March 2016, prominent indigenous rights leader Berta Cáceres was shot to death in her home, after receiving more than 30 death threats connected to her opposition of a dam project on indigenous lands. Months later, a former Honduran soldier told Britain’s Guardian newspaper that Cáceres’s name had been included on a Honduran military hit list. Six people were arrested in connection with her murder, including people associated with the construction company behind the dam, Desarollos Energéticos S.A. (DESA), as well as two active military members and one retired military officer. Case files for Cáceres’s murder were stolen from the car of a judge involved in the case in September 2016, casting suspicion on the investigation. Assaults, threats, and intimidation against environmental activists, particularly members of Cáceres’s organization, increased after her murder. In October, Amnesty International named Honduras a “no-go zone” for human rights defenders.
International bodies have noted that the registration process for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) 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, surveillance and attacks against union leaders and blacklisting of employees who sought to form unions remained problems in 2016.
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 a controversial move in 2012, Congress voted 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 granted 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.
The government continued to rely on the armed forces to fight crime in 2016, and critics contend that too much power is concentrated in the hands of the military. Army officers have been found guilty of involvement in drug trafficking and other crimes. An increase in reported abuses, including murder, illegal detention, and torture has accompanied the militarization of domestic policing. Private security guards have also committed abuses.
The police force is highly corrupt, and officers engage in criminal activities including drug trafficking and extortion. In September 2016, an internal police investigation revealed that 81 police officers, among them high-ranking officials, had been working for a gang and that some were involved in mass killings of civilians. In April, the media publicized leaked documents showing that high-level officials within the National Police had been involved in the 2009 murder of Honduras’s top antidrug official, Julián Arístides González, and in the 2011 murder of González’s top adviser. Internal police investigations into both crimes had concluded that the officials were involved in both murders, but the results were only made public after being leaked. Soon after, a Special Commission for the Purging and Reform of the National Police was formed. As of November 2016, hundreds of officials had been dismissed. Other proposed changes to the police system include modifying training procedures, eliminating redundant positions, and implementing a new organizational structure to increase transparency and create specific and functional roles within the police force.
While the murder rate in Honduras has declined in recent years, it continues to be one of the highest in the world at approximately 58.83 murders per 100,000 inhabitants in 2016, according to police.
Impunity is a serious problem in Honduras. Many crimes committed in Honduras are never reported, and police investigate only a small percentage percent of those that are. A new maximum security prison opened in 2016, marking an initial step toward a planned redesign of the country’s correctional system, but prison conditions are generally harsh, with overcrowding of up to 200 percent, lengthy pretrial detention, and rampant inmate violence that generally goes unpunished. Prosecutors say protection for witnesses in criminal cases is insufficient.
Although there is an official human rights ombudsman, critics claim that the work of the office is politicized. Discrimination against the indigenous and Garifuna populations is widespread. Both groups experience high rates of poverty and socioeconomic exclusion.
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 have reported the violent deaths of over 200 LGBT activists and individuals between 2009 and 2016.
Honduras’s ongoing violence and impunity have reduced personal autonomy for people in Honduras. 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 remains a serious problem in the private sector.
The conflict between indigenous groups, authorities, and private actors persisted in 2016, with clashes among peasants, landowners’ private security forces, and state forces. Indigenous and Garifuna residents have faced various abuses at the hands of property developers and their allies, including corrupt titling processes, acts of violence, forcible eviction and unfair compensation for expropriated land. The clearing of land for clandestine airstrips used in the drug trade has increased pressure on indigenous groups in remote areas of the country.
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, even as femicide was added as a crime to the penal code in 2013. Women remain vulnerable to exploitation by employers, particularly in the low-wage maquiladora (assembly plant) export sector.
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.