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How to rein in violent crime is key issue as Honduras picks a new president

Juan Orlando Hernandez hasn’t even been elected, but his campaign promise of a “soldier on every corner” is already taking shape in some of the worst neighborhoods of Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, Honduras’ two largest cities.

The candidate who may have the best chance of beating Hernandez, Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, whose husband was ousted from the presidency in 2009, opposes the military expansion.

On Sunday, Hondurans go to the polls, beset by a crime wave that some in the country fear may lead to unconstitutional measures to deal with violence in what a United Nations agency says is the country with the world’s highest homicide rate.

As president of the National Congress, Hernandez pushed through a new law in August creating a military police force, the latest gambit to address drug-related crime that every major candidate in Sunday’s presidential race agrees is crippling this Central American nation. A 2012 World Bank report estimated that violent crime has cost 9.6 percent of Honduras’ annual economic output.

Hernandez, the candidate of the conservative National Party, has crisscrossed the country promising to do “whatever it takes” to pacify Honduras. Even though nearly 1,000 members of the military police already have been deployed, the force remains the heart of Hernandez’s campaign platform.

Critics worry that when Hernandez says “whatever it takes,” it means measures that don’t respect the rule of law or human rights.

The legal and humanitarian situation of Honduras has deteriorated in the wake of the June 2009 coup that ousted President Manuel Zelaya from office. Though the interim administration of Roberto Micheletti held elections five months after the coup, the homicide rate continued to rise steadily into the administration of current President Porfirio Lobo Sosa.

More chilling are the dozens of anti-coup protesters, labor organizers, gay and indigenous activists who’ve been assassinated during both the Micheletti and Lobo Sosa administrations. When one leftist congressional candidate, Beatriz Valle, recently reported death threats to the government, it advised her to leave the country.

“Creating a military police is a step backward,” said Leo Valladares, a former human rights commissioner in Honduras and a member of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. “There’s no guarantee that this newly created military police force will obey civil interests. It’s possible that once they’re in command, they will go into negotiations with the drug dealers.”

Though Honduras returned to regular democratic elections in 1981, it wasn’t until 1998 that the military came fully under civilian control and a civilian police force began to take shape.

Still, civil police are poorly paid, and many Hondurans say they fear the police as much, if not more, as the fearsome street gangs and drug traffickers.

Hernandez hasn’t dispelled the notion that protecting human rights and upholding the rule of law is less important to him that battling runaway crime.

Among the nine presidential candidates, Hernandez alone refused to sign the Commission of Public Security Reform’s “security pact” that calls for a professional, civil and non-military police force that respects human rights and transparency.

Hernandez led Congress in December in a vote to depose four judges on Honduras’ top court who’d ruled that the Lobo Sosa administration’s effort to purge the police force of corruption was unconstitutional.

German Leitzelar, a congressman and former labor minister in the National Party administration of Ricardo Maduro in the early 2000s, opposed the effort.

“The decision to depose the four magistrates had no justification,” Leitzelar said. “It was a technical coup against the democratic system.”

Leitzelar worries that the breadth of Article 274 of the Honduran constitution, which allows the Honduran military to cooperate with the police under the guise of combating terrorism, could stifle internal dissent.

Polls show that Xiomara Castro, the wife of the former president, is in a neck-and-neck race with Hernandez on Sunday. The vote marks the first time in modern history that a clear leftist candidate has a strong shot at winning the presidency.

In 2011, the Zelayas left the Liberal Party, the second of Honduras’ two traditional political parties, to form the leftist Liberty and Refoundation, or Libre, party. Castro de Zelaya (and her husband, who’s also running for a congressional seat) opposes the military police and is campaigning on a policy of community-based policing.

“We’re looking to a policy that will cause community security to become more effective – in a civil way, not in a way that inspires terror,” said Esdras Lopez, the owner of the Channel 36 television station in Honduras and a longtime Zelaya supporter who is running for congress as a Libre candidate. “People won’t be scared of a community approach, because they’re not encapuchados (gunmen with hoods).”

The 2009 coup marked one of the first foreign policy crises of the Obama administration. While the U.S. government roundly criticized Zelaya’s ouster, policymakers were hardly unhappy with Lobo Sosa’s subsequent election, which marked a return to the traditional U.S. cooperation with Honduras. U.S. military aid has been on the rise under the Lobo Sosa administration.

The concern of U.S. policymakers has been that a Zelaya restoration would mean a turn to the left and an even sharper turn away from the United States and toward Venezuela, Bolivia and other anti-American, socialist regimes in Latin America.