Top 3 Security Challenges Facing Honduras’ Next President

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As leader of the world’s most dangerous nation, Honduras’ next president will face a unique set of security challenges. His response to these may determine whether the country begins to make a turnaround or moves closer to becoming a narco-state.

Juan Orlando Hernandez, a member of the same conservative National Party as current President Porfirio Lobo, will step into office on January 27, 2014. He has been president of Congress since 2010, where he has promoted measures including the creation of a military police force and a 2012 law authorizing extraditions.

But the new president faces a security situation that has steadily worsened since a 2009 military coup that toppled leftist ex-President Manuel Zelaya and plunged the country into economic and political turmoil. Since then, it has grown to become the most dangerous country in the world — the homicide rate peaked in 2011 at 91.6 per 100,000, according to the Organization of American States (OAS).

Hernandez also faces a country with pervasive poverty — in 2010, 66.2 percent of the population lived in poverty, the highest rate of any country in the Americas with available data listed by the OAS.

While the new president is considered a highly influential politician — one Honduran analyst told Reuters that his power “exceeds that of President Porfirio Lobo himself” — it remains to be seen whether he can or will successfully implement policies that begin to pull the country from this hole. His response to the country’s security problems may determine whether elements that have prompted debate over whether Honduras could become a failed state — including weak and corrupt state institutions, increasingly powerful criminal groups and epidemic levels of violence — will further consolidate during his presidency or begin to change.

Below is a discussion of three major security challenges Hernandez will face, and how he may handle them.

Transnational Criminal Organizations and Extradition

In interviews with InSight Crime, both former security minister turned Hernandez campaign aide Oscar Alvarez and Honduran security analyst Eugenio Sosa identified the growing presence of transnational organized crime as one of the principal security challenges facing the country. Honduras has become a major transit point for northern bound cocaine flights — up to 87 percent of US-bound flights from South America pass through the country, according to the US State Department. Simultaneously, it has seen a growth in the presence of transnational criminal organizations including Mexico’s Zetas and the Sinaloa Cartel, and the evolution of domestic criminal groups such as the Cachiros, a drug transport group that liaises between Colombian and Mexican organizations.

As Julieta Castellanos, director of the National Autonomous University of Honduras (UNAH), told InSight Crime, the expansion of this presence in Honduras has seen a troubling evolution in modes of violence. These have included an increase in massacres and the dismembering of victims’ bodies, patterns similar to what has been seen from criminal organizations in Mexico.

Hernandez has promised to be tough on criminals as president, stating, “I’ll do what I have to do to get rid of crime,” reported EFE.

According to Alvarez, Hernandez has plans to take on this growth in trafficking, particularly by identifying and forcing down drug planes flying through the country’s airspace. The outgoing administration appears set to facilitate this — Lobo recently announced the purchase of $30 million in radars to detect incoming planes, and the Congress approved a shoot-down law for suspected drug planes.

Improving the infrastructure will not be enough to slow the growth of criminal organizations. Sosa told InSight Crime that the country needed to put more energy into intelligence operations, and said the military police body promoted by Hernandez would be better focused on specialized border operations than street crime.

Hernandez was also instrumental in pushing for the controversial extradition law, which in theory allows the fate of Honduran criminals to be placed in the hands of the US justice system. No criminals have yet been extradited under the law, though the Supreme Court recently announced it was processing five extradition requests, without giving names. Hernandez is likely to continue promoting extradition as a legal tool to fight organized crime, Alvarez told InSight Crime.

“We are ready to put those guys on the first plane out,” he said, referring implicitly to members of the Cachiros drug transport group.

However, the appropriateness of using extradition to bring criminal organizations to justice is highly contentious. This is an important debate at present — the US is expected to request the extradition of high-level members of the Cachiros, from whom $800 million in assets were seized last fall. The use of extradition to address deficits in Honduras’ justice system has been criticized as an outsourcing of justice, and a case of the country bending to the will of the US. According to Sosa, high-level corruption present in the country could also block the effective use of this mechanism.

What’s more, extradition may lead to violence. Drug traffickers have threatened the incoming government, according to Alvarez, and high-profile killings of a presidential advisor and the country’s top money laundering prosecutor have sparked fears that organized crime may mount an effort reminiscent of Pablo Escobar’s bloody political campaign in the late 1980s to outlaw extradition in Colombia.

Maras and ‘Mano Dura’

Another major security challenge is the country’s street gangs; this is where much of Hernandez’s security discourse has focused thus far.

The Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) “maras,” as well as other criminal gangs, are major perpetrators of kidnapping and extortion, wreaking financial havoc on businesses and communities in Honduras, as well as in the country’s “Northern Triangle” counterparts, Guatemala and El Salvador. The region’s maras are more than localized threats — the MS13 was designated a transnational criminal organization by the US State Department in 2012.

Honduras’ maras have also developed deep community ties in response to government anti-gang laws, and make membership appealing by providing social benefits to members that they might not otherwise receive.

In a recent press conference, Hernandez remarked: “For the mara members, those who commit extortion, the dark party that has caused so much harm in this country has ended.”

He added that those who choose not to voluntarily give up this lifestyle “have the alternative of leaving the country, or if not, ending up in jail.”

However, the kind of “mano dura” (iron fist) strategy Hernandez proposes has proven to have a perverse effect on violence throughout Latin America, filling the region’s jails with easy gang recruits. It has also raised human rights concerns over the violation of civil liberties and the profiling of youth.

Despite the characterization of his strategy as iron fist by analysts, Alvarez says Hernandez’s proposals go beyond simply being tough on crime. According to the ex-security minister, he is planning a three-pronged approach that additionally involves economic and social measures. These include prevention programs to keep youths from gang involvement and an anti-poverty initiative titled “Vida Mejor” (Better Life).

Political rhetoric, though, is cheap. And in order to make a dent into the gang problem, he will have to commit real resources to a long-term strategy that aims to improve infrastructure, economic opportunity and social programs in the same way that it tackles crime. Facing a fiscal crisis, Hernandez may find it impossible to find these resources.

Institutional Reform and Purging Police

A third, related challenge — and arguably the central one facing Honduras — is that of severely weak and corrupt institutions. As Sosa put it, “If we don’t have a functional state, there is no way to confront [the other] problems.”

Castellanos, similarly, identified state weakness as a factor that has allowed cartels and domestic groups to become stronger in the country, setting up in areas where they are unlikely to be touched. Organized crime has also deeply penetrated state institutions, in Honduras and throughout the region, she said.

The dysfunctional institutions include the judicial and penal systems. Impunity is rampant in the country, and various judges have recently come under investigation for impeding justice and issuing sentences that favor criminals. The Cachiros, meanwhile, are believed to have operated with the blessing of the country’s economic and political elites.

But the most urgent reforms are needed in the police force. Up to 40 percent of members have organized crime ties, according to one official, and the force has frequently been a direct actor in the country’s violence. As Lisa Haugaard, executive director of the Latin America Working Group (LAWG), told InSight Crime, a key question is whether Hernandez will show the necessary political will in going after corrupt elements of the police. The country’s two-year-old police reform process had led to just seven confirmed dismissals as of mid-January, though numerous officers have failed confidence tests.

Alvarez said Hernandez would likely expedite the process, stating: “He said that whatever makes the process more efficient, he is willing to try.”

Sosa, meanwhile, said he doubted a systematic and comprehensive cleansing and reorganization of the force would occur.

A major tenet of the president’s strategy for filling this hole in the security forces is the continued use and expansion of the Military Police of Public Order (PMOP), which was approved and began operating during his time as head of Congress. The unit is composed of soldiers that will be deployed to the streets to combat crime, and is set to grow to 5,000 members.

Hernandez recently called on the Congress to give the military police constitutional status and increase their range of responsibilities, reported El Heraldo. He has also expressed plans to keep the force in operation until the national police force has been completely purged of corrupt officers under the ongoing reform process, reported EFE.

According to Sosa, the militarization of security, for instance to combat gangs, may bring positive results in terms of the perception of citizens that the government is facing down the problem. It may even have a short-term positive effect, he said, but the strategy is unlikely to be sustainable over the long term, in part because of the government’s extremely limited resources.

Castellanos called the blending of police and military roles a problematic and “risky” strategy, not just in Honduras but throughout the region, and said it was not an appropriate substitute for comprehensive police reform.

In addition, as noted by Haugaard, the strategy of placing the military on the streets as reinforcement for an ineffective police force fails to get at the root of the problem — the corrupt links at the top. The strategy — which is set to involve close collaboration between the PMOP and the police — also runs the implicit risk of “contamination” of the military by corrupt police elements, said Sosa.

The security challenges are numerous and immense, and Hernandez’s policy proposals thus far are incomplete and controversial. Hernandez is also off to a rocky start before his term even begins — his win left a bitter taste in the mouths of Libre and Anti-Corruption Party supporters, who called it election fraud. He will first have to pull together a divided Congress if his administration is to accomplish its aims democratically, while simultaneously dealing with a crippling fiscal deficit.

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