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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 290 | Septiembre 2005
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Honduras

A Pact of Impunity Around the Elections

Honduras may appear to be heading towards the elections, but is actually trapped in a violent, dead-end street. The two main traditional parties may appear to be rivals, but are in fact united in their complicity with corruption and drug trafficking.

Ismael Moreno, SJ

Each day brings further confirmation that Honduran society is being taught to use violence to resolve its conflicts. From 1998 through mid-2005, over 2,600 young people were murdered, their bodies dumped along highways, in empty fields, under bridges, in ditches, clearly the victims of a policy of extermination. But any evidence that implicates public authorities or institutions in the deaths of these young people is quickly covered up by the justice officials themselves, who are experts at hiding evidence and twisting information.

In a violent, dead-end street

When Ricardo Maduro’s government took office, people asked the new President for three things: to create jobs, guarantee security and punish corruption. Now, as Maduro rounds into the homestretch of his term, it is obvious that the government has failed to stop the violence through its repressive policies. Nor has it increased employment or dealt with those who practice corruption under “honorable” facades. The government seems instead to have proven that the corrupt are entirely untouchable, no matter how many reforms are made in the justice system. With less than six months to go in office, Maduro has been busily highlighting his government’s achievements, putting these reforms high on the list. He specifically touts the reforms made in the way Supreme Court justices are elected, yet this very court has done everything possible to allow former President Rafael Callejas to maintain his position as the main force in the National Party despite ample evidence of corruption. Decisions are routinely made in this court with the votes of eight National Party justices against seven from the Liberal Party.

The current government is ending its term by offering the laziest of solutions to the problems of unemployment and the precarious conditions in which most Hondurans are living. It has opened the doors wide to maquila assembly plants, which employ some 130,000 young people. And it boasts that nearly a billion dollars a year are now coming into the country in the form of remittances sent home by migrants abroad. Despite these two escape valves, most of the 50-60,000 young people who join the work force each year remain unemployed. Nearly 50% of the Honduran population scrapes out a living in the informal, underground economy. In 2004, some 100,000 young people tried to make it through Mexico and across the US border. Some 60,000 were turned back. They continue to strive to someday achieve the American dream, as they know that getting a job in their own country is an impossible endeavor.

At the same time as toughening up security policies against young people, the government is also consolidating the public policies that foster violence and delinquency among the young. The scenario is one of growing violence, diabolically linked to organized crime and to the public policies that encourage common crime.

The Honduran state is trapped in a dead-end street. None of the current political or business groups has the capacity to deal with the country’s crisis, because doing so would require bringing to justice the corrupt people hiding out in both public and private institutions. And while the various political and economic groups have their public disagreements, they remain united in a pact of complicity through which they protect their interests. Their main leaders include people closely linked, actively or passively, to the murky, untouchable business of drug trafficking.

Signs of a very dangerous future

Several seemingly isolated events in recent months may in fact be part of a trend towards a new, even more violent scenario: political violence masked as common crime. A Democratic Unification Party candidate in the department of Cortés was shot dead. The general secretary of the National Union of Rural Workers in El Progesso was killed by five bullets to the head while he rode on a city bus. A demonstration in Sonaguera, in the department of Colón, by a diverse range of sectors including ranchers, traders, orange growers, business associations, churches and the municipal government, all demanding nothing more subversive than the paving of a highway, was brutally broken up in a joint operation involving the army, the police, the navy and the Cobra Battalion. A grassroots leader from the Black Fraternal Organization of La Ceiba was shot and wounded after leaving a meeting and has since received anonymous threats. The house of Juan Barahona, coordinator of the Popular Bloc and a member of the National Grassroots Resistance Coalition’s leadership, was ransacked by five hooded members of the government’s Criminal Investigation Office.

These apparently isolated events are signs of an increasing trend to resolve problems violently, by eliminating opponents. This could be even more dangerous if it turns out to include the hidden powers of drug trafficking and organized crime. If it is true that all of the current presidential candidates owe something to the drug cartels, as several analysts have argued, Honduras would be subject to the “rule of law” established by these hidden powers in which social breakdown and ungovernability would be the only future.

The ties that bind them

As Maduro’s term draws to an end, his government has already ceased to exist for all effective purposes. In its remaining months, it will try to highlight its actual or purported achievements. With the maneuvering room granted by debt relief and the government’s poverty reduction strategy, it will start to implement projects that favor the political campaign of the governing National Party candidate, establish even harsher security policies and do all it can to create a favorable environment for international capital in the framework of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA).

Although the polls show a technical tie between the country’s two main traditional parties, everything seems to point to victory for the National Party under Pepe Lobo—a view also apparently shared by the most powerful sectors in the “rival” Liberal Party ranks. This is yet another sign that the country’s professional politicians, regardless of their colors, are united by common interests in banking, business, forestry, industry and shady, subterranean affairs. It is in these areas, rather than the political one, where we can find the ties that bind them. The two main political parties are merely instruments used to consolidate this power.

The project led by Pepe Lobo

The clearest example of this complicity is the Coyolito Club, a relaxed meeting place for the fifty richest and most prominent businesspeople in the country, who later appear in the media as rival Liberal, National, Christian Democrat, Innovation or Unity Party members.

In this light, it would not be surprising if the electoral scenario were shaped by a tacit pact around the project that offers these people the most security. And security is precisely what the project led by the National Party’s presidential candidate, Pepe Lobo, is offering them.

This pact in support of Lobo appears to include the traditionally most powerful sectors in the Liberal Party, especially those linked to Rosenthal Oliva, Pineda Ponce and even Carlos Flores Facussé himself, who is supposedly one of the men behind Liberal Party candidate Mel Zelaya. The pact would guarantee these Liberals a stable situation in which to pursue their interests. It would also serve the hidden objective of getting rid of an emerging sector in the Liberal Party known as the “beginners’ group,” made up of former leftists and led by Patricia Rodas, current president of the party’s executive committee.

Liberal strategy: Lose to win

The “beginners” are currently managing their party’s election campaign and apparently control its leadership. They have been acting as intermediaries in the disputes among the various party currents and are beginning to emerge as a powerful current in their own right, which could affect the interests of the traditional Liberal leaders. The silence on this situation maintained by the leaders of other currents, including those with the most power, raises a lot of suspicions.

If Zelaya wins the elections, Rodas’ group would consolidate itself within the Liberal Party and the more traditional groups would have to negotiate quotas of power. Faced with this challenge, these traditionally powerful groups could well find it more advantageous to lose the elections. This would weaken the group running Zelaya’s campaign and allow the older leaders to regain control of the party. This reasoning helps explain their explicit or tacit pact with the shadiest sector of the National Party. They will publicly support their candidate’s election campaign, while furtively working for Lobo’s victory, staying away from the fire and waiting for the “beginners” to get burned.

More repression and maquilas

The National Party, in the hands of its shadiest side, is organizing its campaign around promises to establish harsher security policies and promote the maquila industry and foreign investment in general. Lobo and his team can find fertile ground here: people are longing for a quick and definitive solution to the problem of public safety because they personally experience the threat of crime every single day. They don’t want to hear analytical speeches or complicated proposals; they want order and security. And they either need work in the maquila or some government job; or, if these aren’t available, a final push to emigrate to the United States. It is on these issues that Lobo is the most convincing candidate, with a lead over all his rivals.

The National Party appears to be basing its campaign on coordination between Lobo and the current government. The President is acting like Lobo’s campaign director, as shown by the publicity campaigns being orchestrated by the executive and legislative branches. Lobo needs to play on his role as president of Congress and distance himself from the President to avoid being tarred by the outgoing government’s mistakes. When Lobo criticizes the government for failing to respond to social demands, playing the part of a National Party candidate independent of the government, the President immediately responds in an attempt to show that the National Party is sensitive to the population’s needs.

An incoherent campaign,
without opposition

The National Party’s campaign is helping to consolidate the culture of violence expressed in attempts to solve differences by eliminating opponents, while society, especially young people from poor neighborhoods and towns, continues to live in fear.

In response, the Liberal Party is offering a vague proposal based on a notion of “citizens’ power” that no one really understands, much less assimilates. It is a reactive, defensive alternative, which does not effectively channel the growing discontent with the government or formulate a serious, credible opposition proposal.

This incoherent two-party panorama is like a concert where all lead instruments are played by the two traditional parties, while the other parties only have minor parts in the orchestra.

Sites of local opposition

Real opposition continues to be expressed in a dispersed way, in search of answers to particular local demands, although these can sometimes pave the way for broader consensus. Olancho’s environmentalists have been very successful in helping develop a national consciousness around the need to defend the forests and general environment, offering the country as a whole real signs of a credible, structured opposition. Another source of opposition is taking shape around the fight for justice, currently involving a number of diverse organizations that are trying to get to the bottom of prison massacres, or to critique and propose alternatives to the justice system’s increasingly hard line and the repressive security policies that ignore prevention and rehabilitation.

Why are the social movements
so weak?

The fight against CAFTA, which might have served as a catalyst for a national opposition, was born weak and only grew weaker. The same has happened in the battles waged this year by the National Grassroots Resistance Coalition.

Three factors stand out in this loss of power and cohesion. One is the inability to develop a common agenda that includes the different demands of the coalition’s grassroots member organizations. Another is the inability to bridge the gap between the coalition’s leaders and those member organizations, which have their own demands based on the situations in their communities. The radical, confrontational speeches and actions haven’t helped either; instead of attracting traditionally unorganized sectors of the population, they tend to have the opposite effect.

There is undoubtedly opposition to both the government and the system in general among Hondurans. But there’s no channel for this opposition, which is disconnected from the more structured opposition of the traditional grassroots organizations. It is a dispersed, disorganized and directionless opposition, devoid of political leadership, which is why it’s easily manipulated by charismatic leaders or caudillos. The challenge is to organize the nationwide opposition by respecting local demands and linking them to national ones.

The Catholic Church’s great responsibility

The Catholic Church continues to have a great influence and presence in the country. It therefore also bears a great social and political responsibility. How is it responding in the present situation?

On the one hand is the “official” position, expressed mainly in the words of Cardenal Oscar Rodríguez. On the other are the dispersed grassroots responses from the various dioceses and groups. The lack of coordination between these two responses results in a limited impact and an inability to shed any light on the great problems affecting the impoverished majority.

If, for example, the fight for the forests of Olancho led by Father Andrés Tamayo were effectively linked to the agenda of the different dioceses, the work would be much more effective. Hondurans would see not only the charismatic figure of
a single priest, but rather the entire Honduran Church standing up to defend the forests and the environment.

The same is true of other challenges facing society. Each diocese or parish ends up doing the best it can on important topics like the death penalty, the free trade agreement and the anti-gang law. But we’ve been unable to coordinate our responses or our accompaniment in a united way that can influence public policies.

A state without a nation
and a people without a home

As long as Honduras has existed as a republic, the concept of a state controlled by a small political and economic elite has predominated over that of a nation with an organized citizenry. We therefore often confuse the two terms, and end up strengthening the state to the detriment of the nation. We leave school, health, community and social organization, and social and cultural rights up to the politicians and public officials. But they don’t represent all the citizens, just a small elite who think they represent the nation and whose interests are ensured and represented in the state.

The politicians and public officials have their home in the political parties and the state. The businesspeople have their home in their businesses. But what can the people call home? Thus far, people have been living in a rented house—or room—in the back garden of a political party, a businessperson’s back room, or the churchyard. Or out in the cold.

With analysis and action, we can help people discover the need to build their own home, which can and must take the form of the country’s social movements. And in so doing, we can help build the Honduran nation.


Ismael Moreno, sj, is director of the Jesuits’ analysis, research and communication team (ERIC) and envío correspondent in Honduras.

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