As Juan Orlando Hernández passes the midpoint of his presidential term in Honduras, InSight Crime evaluates how well he has addressed the most pressing security issues the country faced when he first took office.
In addition to pervasive poverty and fiscal turmoil, widespread insecurity had made Honduras the most violent nation in the world not at war. Street gangs were sowing bedlam in the streets while transnational criminal organizations were moving huge amounts of drugs through the country — often with the complicity of corrupt government officials. It was within this inauspicious security climate that Hernández began his presidency.
Fast forward two years, and the situation is remarkably different. Honduras still has one of the highest murder rates in Latin America, gangs continue to dominate entire neighborhoods, while institutional reforms have come at a halting pace. Nonetheless, authorities have dismantled a number of powerful organized crime groups, murder rates are falling, and the government recently permitted an international anti-impunity body to help it tackle crime and corruption.
But to get a clearer picture of where the Hernández administration is excelling and where it is lacking, InSight Crime is doling out grades for each of the top three security challenges the president faced upon taking office in January 2014, as outlined by us at the time.
Transnational Criminal Organizations and Extradition: ‘B’
In January 2014 Honduras was the principal stopover point for international drug shipments, and transnational criminal groups had their hands on most — if not all — of the product. At the time, as much as 87 percent of all drug planes from South America were passing through Honduras.
In the past two years, however, the Hernández administration has delivered a brutal blow to some of the most powerful drug trafficking networks operating in Honduras. Authorities dismantled the leadership structure of the Valles, a prominent narco-clan with links to Mexican cartels — and possibly Honduran government officials. The leaders of another narco-clan, the Cachiros, handed themselves over to US authorities at the beginning of 2015.
SEE ALSO: InDepth: Elites and Organized Crime
Honduras’ underworld was further riven apart when San Pedro Sula-based César Gastelum Serrano, head of the Sinaloa Cartel’s Central America operations, was arrested by Mexican security forces in April 2015.
These arrests and others have resulted in severely weakened drug trafficking networks, and US military officials say Honduras has gone from being the number one transit country to fifth in the region since Hernández assumed office.
“One of the principal accomplishments of the Hernández government has been the fight against organized crime networks,” Omar Rivera, coordinator of the civil society coalition Alianza por la Paz y la Justicia (APJ), told InSight Crime.
Both Rivera and Mark Ungar, a professor of political science at City University of New York, said the increased intelligence capabilities of Honduran authorities and greater cooperation with their US counterparts played an important role in this victory against organized crime.
“This success would not have been possible without the collaboration of US anti-narcotics agencies and other security institutions,” Rivera said.
The Hernández administration has also been active on the extradition front. In 2012 former President Porfirio Lobo reformed Honduran law to permit extraditions, but it wasn’t until May 2014 that authorities sent the first suspected drug trafficker to face trial in the United States. A flood of other suspected drug traffickers were soon captured and extradited as well.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Extradition
Hernández’s success capturing drug traffickers is seen in a less favorable light, however, when juxtaposed with his inability — or perhaps, his reluctance — to target political and economic elites with discreet links to the underworld. It was the US government, not the Hondurans, that sent shock waves throughout the region by indicting several members of the Rosenthals — one of Honduras’ most politically influential families that also runs a powerful economic conglomerate –, on money laundering charges last October.
The Rosenthals case provokes concern Honduran elites may be so comfortable that they don’t even feel the need to disguise their illicit dealings. Months before the US indictment, family patriarch Jaime Rosenthal admitted to InSight Crime that he had longstanding business ties with the Cachiros, a family of former cattle rustlers who eventually built a drug empire worth close to $1 billion.
Honduran authorities should not expect to make much headway against organized crime networks until they begin to target those powerful individuals operating in the shadows who are enabling and facilitating criminal activities. As long as corrupt elites can continue to hide in plain sight, it’s unlikely there will be a fundamental change in the overall dynamic of Honduras’ underworld.
Maras and Mano Dura: ‘C+’
Just days before taking office, Hernández declared “the party is over” for the country’s street gangs. “I know that we are going to recover peace and tranquility in this country,” he proclaimed.
That didn’t happen. As InSight Crime found during an extensive field investigation in 2015, the MS13 is looking to transform itself from a street gang into a full-fledged transnational criminal organization, although this evolution is not yet complete. Meanwhile, its main rival, the Barrio 18, continues to run lucrative extortion operations in the country’s city centers with a high degree of impunity.
Although the gang threat hasn’t lessened, the number of homicides in Honduras has dropped considerably in the last two years. Authorities registered a homicide rate of 57 per 100,000 in 2015, a more than 20 point drop from the year before Hernández took office and a far cry from the 90 per 100,000 recorded in 2011 and 2012 (pdf). For the first time in years, Honduras is no longer the murder capital of the world.
It will be interesting to see whether Honduras can continue to lower its homicide rate. It is unclear to just what extent street gangs are responsible for violence in Honduras, but they are believed to be a principal driver of it. It would be a rare feat for Honduras to see a sustained decline in homicides without authorities developing a more effective strategy to address the gang phenomenon.
SEE ALSO: InDepth: Homicides
During his campaign and now as president, Hernández has largely favored a “Mano Dura,” or Iron Fist, approach to tackling the country’s street gangs. Instead of weakening the gangs, however, this strategy has only served to strengthen them.
“Because of the Mano Dura in past years, the gangs were targeted because of circumstantial evidence like tattoos or their clothing,” Ungar, the professor at City University of New York, told InSight Crime “[The gangs] kind of got rid of that and became more sophisticated. They went to law school, they bought property… and after 2009 when the drug cartels moved in, they were in the perfect position to cooperate with them.”
Ungar noted that while there has been a shift away from using the expression Mano Dura, Hernández continues to rely on key tenets of the strategy. The president has broadened the role of the military police in fighting crime in urban areas, and has even attempted to enshrine the unit in Honduras’ constitution.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Security Policy
At the same time, Ungar added that Hernández has concentrated intelligence among Honduran security agencies in a more efficient manner. While this has enabled police and prosecutors to better understand criminal networks, there are also concerns about the increased level of secrecy within the government, according to Ungar.
“The tactics of the mano dura have not been abandoned, in short, but have been altered and placed in the context of a broader policy package,” he said.
Institutional Reform and Police Purging: ‘Incomplete’
Perhaps the most enduring security-related issue facing Honduras is the country’s weak and corrupt state institutions. It would be unreasonable to expect the president to overhaul an entrenched culture of corruption and impunity in just 24 months.
But Hernández earning an “incomplete” is not just a function of the enormous amount of political will, resources, and time that is required to complete this Herculean task. No, he receives an “incomplete” because it remains unclear whether or not Hernández is fully committed to ridding the country of corruption.
There have been encouraging signs.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Judicial Reform
In January 2016, Hernández allowed an anti-impunity body backed by the Organization of American States known as the Support Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (Misión de Apoyo Contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras ? MACCIH) to begin operations. In addition, many drug traffickers who were once thought to be receiving protection from political and economic elites now find themselves in prison, either in Honduras or extradited to the US. Authorities have also addressed police reform by purging corrupt or unsuitable officers from its ranks, including over 700 in December 2014.
And yet, nagging doubts remain about the sincerity of the president’s anti-corruption campaigns.
The MACCIH is, by design, a weaker body than the United Nations-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG), which was instrumental in uncovering numerous high-level criminal networks within that government last year. The MACCIH was also approved under intense domestic and international pressure, and critics have questioned whether the body will have sufficient powers to investigate government corruption.
Perhaps even more worrying, there are already signs that any disruption to the status quo in Honduras could be met with fierce resistance. In April 2015, the lead investigator into a huge corruption scandal at the country’s social security institute — revelations of which sparked the protests that lead to the MACCIH — was forced to flee the country after receiving death threats.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Police Reform
Hernández receives similarly mixed marks on police reform.
Ungar told InSight Crime that there has been a “critical shift” in political weight behind police purging, as Hernández is the first president who has “made it very clear that he was going to purge the police from the top.” Honduras has also created a new police academy centered on improving police-community relations, Ungar said.
But Hernández’s proposals have yet to translate into concrete actions.
“It’s a huge first step, but [police reform] hasn’t happened yet,” Ungar said.
Indeed, in January a leading civil society group in Honduras, the Asociación para una Sociedad más Justa (ASJ), declared the country’s efforts at police purging have “failed” due to the number of corrupt officers who remain within the ranks. In the past, Rivera has also been highly critical, saying that the rhetoric surrounding police reform hasn’t resulted in tangible results.
This overview provides a snapshot of where Honduras has improved security since Hernández took office — and where it still has room for improvement. Despite some concerning developments and setbacks, the country is on a much more promising trajectory than it was two years ago.
But will these security advances prove to be sustainable? You’ll have to check back in two years to find out.