Honduras, long one of the poorest countries in Latin America, is now also among the most violent and crime-ridden. The violence is carried out by local drug trafficking groups, gangs, corrupt security forces and transnational criminal organizations mainly from Mexico and Colombia.
In recent years, Honduras has become a strategic transit nation for drugs moving north to the United States. Political turmoil following the 2009 coup that ousted then-President Manuel Zelaya has exacerbated instability.
Powerful local criminal groups connected to political and economic elites manage most of Honduras’ underworld activities. The judicial system is afflicted by political interference and corruption, as well as a lack of capacity and transparency.
The police in Honduras is one of the most corrupt and mistrusted police forces in Latin America, and the country’s military has also been accused of engaging in criminal activities. Nonetheless, the ruling National Party, which has maintained control of the presidency since 2009, has increasingly deployed the military for policing functions, particularly in the fight against gangs like the MS13 and Barrio 18.
Honduras, the second-largest country in Central America, is bordered by Guatemala to the west, El Salvador to the southwest and Nicaragua to the southeast. The country has a long Caribbean coastline and access to the Pacific Ocean via a southern gulf.
The remote, forested northeastern Mosquitia region and small islands off the Caribbean coast have become prime landing spots for drug flights and boat shipments coming from Colombia, South America’s main cocaine producer. Large swathes of the country’s forests have been cleared by drug traffickers to build air strips and create money laundering opportunities. Honduras’ largely unmanned border with Guatemala is an important crossing point for contraband products and drugs.
Gangs are concentrated in the country’s largest urban areas, including the capital Tegucigalpa, the economic hub of San Pedro Sula and the Caribbean coastal city of La Ceiba.
Honduras became an independent country in 1838. Its first half-century of existence was characterized by tensions between political factions. Beginning in the early 1900s, the United States became heavily involved in Honduras, including by deploying US soldiers, as US companies invested heavily in the banana industry, transforming Honduras into a so-called “banana republic.”
Political turmoil and severe economic struggles based in large part on the country’s reliance on exports fueled a military revolt in 1957, which paved the way for several decades of military rule marked by a series of scandals, a bloodless coup and a brief war with neighboring El Salvador. From the 1970s to the 1990s, Honduras was an island of relative stability in the region as its Central American neighbors — Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador — were rocked by civil wars. But as one of the poorest Latin American countries surrounded by war, Honduras became vulnerable to corruption and organized crime.
Throughout the 1980s, Honduras was used as a trampoline for the movement of all types of illicit goods, from drugs to weapons and contraband — even after the wars ended, these trafficking routes would remain.
The US government, focused on fighting what it considered a burgeoning communist threat in the region, used Honduras as a hub for supporting anti-communist fighters in El Salvador and Nicaragua, even establishing training and attack bases along the country’s borders. Honduras became increasingly militarized during this time, setting the stage for traditional economic powers to be eclipsed by a new elite class.
During this time, Honduras’ first major international drug trafficker, Juan Ramón Matta Ballesteros, set up an underworld “Honduran bridge” between Mexico’s emerging Guadalajara Cartel and Colombia’s Medellín Cartel to facilitate the northern transport of cocaine into the United States. Matta Ballesteros relied on ties to the highest levels of power in Honduras, particularly within the military, and owned legitimate businesses in the country. The US government even contracted Matta Ballesteros’ airline company to shuttle aid and weapons to Nicaragua’s secretly US-funded “Contras,” who were fighting against the left-wing Sandinista government.
In 1985, Matta Ballesteros became one of the most-wanted men in the region when he and the Guadalajara Cartel allegedly tortured and killed US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent Enrique Camarena. In 1988, Matta Ballesteros was arrested by US Marshals in Honduras and extradited to the United States where he was convicted of kidnapping and remains incarcerated.
The 1990s were marred by rising crime and violence, corruption, economic crisis and environmental devastation caused by Hurricane Mitch, one of the worst storms in history to strike the Western hemisphere.
In the early 2000s, Honduras experienced a new surge in drug trafficking and other illicit activity. As Mexican drug trafficking organizations gained more control over the distribution chain, Central America’s importance rose. Local trafficking groups emerged across Honduras, the most important of which were the Cachiros in the northeastern Caribbean coastal department of Colón, and the Valles in the western Copán province bordering Guatemala. These organizations worked with other Honduran crime bosses such as business magnate and trafficker José Natividad “Chepe” Luna and drug trafficker José Miguel “Chepe” Handal, as well as international groups like the Sinaloa Cartel.
President Manuel Zelaya took office in 2006 with promises to tackle crime and implement social programs. But in 2009, Zelaya was ousted in a military coup after calling for a constitutional referendum to pave the way for his reelection. Criminal groups have taken advantage of the resulting political turmoil, as well as corruption within the country’s security forces and elite class, to expand their activities.
In the 2010s, Honduras’ homicide rate skyrocketed, peaking in 2011 and slowly declining since. The primary drivers of this violence are gangs like the Barrio 18 and MS13, which concentrate their criminal activities in urban areas and recruit young people, many of whom are suffering from widespread economic inequality and a lack of opportunity. These gangs, also present in Guatemala and El Salvador, often exert influence over entire neighborhoods, imposing their own order, demanding extortion payments from businesses and residents, and running local drug sales and kidnapping rings.
Since 2003, Honduras has pursued an “iron fist” security strategy against gangs. These policies, which did not address the root causes of gang membership or provide rehabilitation for gang members, have led to an increase in the prison population and burdened Honduras’ already stumbling penal system.
The National Party has maintained control of the presidency since the 2009 coup, first with President Porfirio Lobo Sosa and then with President Juan Orlando Hernández’s election in 2013 and controversial re-election in 2017, which was marred by fraud allegations.
In 2010, the United States designated Honduras as a major drug transit country for the first time. Since then, drug trafficking activities have intensified in the region, driven in part by a boom in Andean cocaine production. Honduras has cooperated closely with the United States on combating drug trafficking in recent years. In May 2014, Carlos “El Negro” Lobo became the first Honduran drug trafficker to be extradited to the United States. A number of other high-profile criminal suspects have subsequently been extradited, and several have provided information to US authorities as part of plea agreements.
This cooperation has at times sparked controversy. In 2012, several anti-drug raids conducted with assistance from US law enforcement allegedly involved unjustified uses of deadly force, including one incident in which a number of civilians were killed.
Widespread anti-corruption protests in 2016 prompted the establishment of the Support Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (Misión de Apoyo contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras – MACCIH), which is backed by the Organization of American States (OAS). Honduras’ Attorney General’s Office has worked with MACCIH to investigate corruption schemes implicating political and economic elites, including President Hernández.
Honduras’ most important criminal organizations have largely been dismantled in recent years with the arrests of their top leaders and their extraditions to the United States. The former leader of the Cachiros drug trafficking group,Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga, has provided explosive testimony alleging that he operated with the assistance or complicity of various political and economic elites.
The Valles drug trafficking organization, which allegedly shipped tons of cocaine each month to the United States, has also been nearly entirely dismantled, with many of its members sent to face trial in US courts.
The Atlantic Cartel, whose leader, Wilter Neptalí Blanco Ruíz, was arrested in Costa Rica in November 2016 and later reached a plea agreement with US prosecutors in July 2017, is presumed to have operated with protection from military, police and judicial officials.
Honduras’ two biggest gangs are the MS13 and Barrio 18, which operate mainly in urban areas and subsist largely through extortion and local drug dealing.
Various groups and individuals in Honduras also engage in trafficking firearms both into and within the country.
Honduras has a national police force overseen by the Security Ministry, which had less than 14,000 officers in 2016 with lofty plans to double the force by 2022. The national police is in charge of preventing and investigating crimes in Honduras, and is composed of the National Preventative Police and various special units focused on anti-gang and drug trafficking operations, investigations, intelligence and community policing. The police also coordinate with an anti-crime task force known as FUSINA, which includes prosecutors and soldiers.
Honduras’ police force is one of the most corrupt in the region. Honduran police officers have been accused of a wide range of criminal activities, including corruption, sharing information with criminal groups, allowing drug shipments to pass unchecked, and reportedly participating in, and even directing, violent criminal operations. In early 2016, Honduras created a police purge commission following revelations that high-ranking members of the police had participated in the 2009 murder of Honduras’ anti-drug czar. Unlike previous purge attempts, the commission made early progress reviewing hundreds of high-ranking officials, and thousands of officers have been removed from the force. Its mandate was renewed in early 2017 to last for at least one more year. But a recent scandal has thrown the commission’s legitimacy into question.
Honduras has increasingly militarized the fight against organized crime in recent years, granting soldiers policing powers in 2011 and creating an elite military police unit in 2013. President Hernández’s administration has deployed thousands of military police officers since 2014, which has reportedly fueled human rights violations, including kidnapping.
As of 2015, Honduras’ military, overseen by the National Defense Ministry, had around 24,000 active personnel in its army, air force, navy and military police. Under Honduras’ constitution, the Security Ministry can call on the military to cooperate in operations against terrorism and drug and arms trafficking. Military officials have been accused of colluding with criminal groups to traffic drugs.
Honduras’ highest judicial body is the Supreme Court of Justice, which includes chambers for constitutional, criminal and civil cases. Below this are an appeals court, first instance trial courts for criminal and civil cases, and municipal and district-level justices of the peace. Honduras has an Attorney General’s Office (Fiscalía General) that functions as part of the independent Public Ministry (Ministerio Publico) and handles criminal investigations.
Honduras’ judiciary is widely considered to be weak, ineffective and highly corrupt. The selection processes for Supreme Court magistrates and Attorney General have both been subject to manipulation by members of Congress, many of whom have been implicated in corruption scandals. The World Justice Project’s 2017-2018 Rule of Law Index ranked Honduras as one of the countries with the most corrupt and least effective criminal justice systems in Latin America and the Caribbean. Given the weakness of Honduras’ judiciary, many high-profile drug trafficking suspects have been extradited to the United States.
The internationally-backed MACCIH has supported the Attorney General’s Office’s investigations into corruption since 2016. But backlash from implicated elites, Congress’ so-called “impunity pact” and legal attacks aimed at undermining the commission have made it difficult for these probes to progress.
Honduras’ overburdened prison system is administered by the National Directorate of Special Preventive Services (Dirección Nacional de Servicios Especiales Preventivos – DNSEP) and run by the National Police. As of 2017, Honduras’ prisons were operating at almost 180 percent their capacity, in spite of 2014 reforms aimed at reducing overcrowding. Pretrial detainees account for more than half of the prison population and often face abuse and lack due process. The country’s overcrowded and underfunded penitentiaries are plagued by riots, killings and deplorable conditions, and chronic dysfunction has allowed prisoners to escape. Prisons have become centers of criminal activity for gangs due to authorities’ lack of control in many facilities.