Monday, January 2, 2012

The Violence in Honduras

Why is there so much violence in Honduras? Honduras has got a high homicide rate and a high crime rate compared to most Central- and South-American countries, while the average of these indicators in Latin American countries is already much higher than in the US or Western European countries. What are the causes and why is it still increasing as you can see in the charts below? There is no single answer to this question. As you can read below there are many causes and most of these causes are clearly related. That's why this violence is very difficult to combat. Measures that were taken in the past to decrease the violence often turned out to be symptomatic, non-consistent, small focus or small scale because of lack of vision or monies.

Chart of CID-Gallup's 5 year poll of crime in Central-America
Central America - Victims of robberies and assaults
in the last four months of every 5 year period (CID/Gallup)
Chart of historic Homicide rates in Central-America- UNODC
Central America - Homicide Statistics
(Data UNODC)
How serious is it? It's serious and it's getting worse. This year UNODC put Honduras in the spotlight by naming it number one with 82.1 murders per 100,000 population. Take a look at the crime rate and homicide rate charts of Honduras at the left. However you should take into account that crime statistics in Central American countries are always flawed because of administrative and/or political reasons.
The homicide rate is only counting the dead bodies that are found, the murders of which the bodies were never found (missing persons) are usually not counted in the homicide statistics. Also homicide administration in rural areas is less accurate than in the big cities. The crime statistics only show the crimes that are counted as such by the Police. Many crimes (thefts, robberies and extortion) are not reported at the Police, because the population thinks the Police is doing nothing at all about it or the population is afraid for retaliation. Homicide is much more common in countries with low levels of human development, high levels of income inequality and weak rule of law than in more equitable societies, where socio-economic stability seems to be something of an antidote to homicide.

Historic chart of Honduras' most significant type of murders
Honduras - Most significant types of murder
(Data DEPN)
For the reasons mentioned above the official Honduran homicide (and criminal) statistics are strongly flawed and incomplete. That's why the UNODC adjusted its homicide statistics on Honduras upwards. I think that if you want to seriously combat the violence in your country, the first thing you'll need is reliable and detailed data. You need these data to determine your strategy and policies. Now take a look at the chart on the right about the most significant types of homicide in Honduras as specified by Dirección de Estadística Policía Nacional (DEPN). I left out the minor types (totalling 1.9%) to not make the chart confusing and I merged all year reports of Observatorio Nacional de la Violencia (ONdlV). The source of the data is the DEPN. The data is edited, enriched and published on the Internet by ONdlV. While the data of DEPN is publically available on request, DEPN is not publishing data itself, which I find rather remarkable. There are some shocking conclusions to draw from the chart and data:
  • The title of the original ONdlV charts is "MUERTES POR HOMICIDIO SEGÚN POSIBLE MÓVIL EN NÚMERO DE CASOS", meaning that the chart is only showing possible motives of filed homicide cases. The reason of this is that the great majority of homicide cases is not or not properly investigated. Often there is not even a mandatory autopsy done on the corps, because the courts are already overloaded. Therefore very few cases make it to court.
  • The chart shows that on roughly 50% of all homicide cases there is no data available. That is an awful lot!
  • The roughly 30% Retribution killings by hitmen are not specified either. What you need to know is who hired the hitman and for what reason.
  • Gang related homicide is relatively low according to the available data, but lots of retribution killings could have been carried out by gangs. This is unknown because it is not investigated.
In the next paragraphs I would like to discuss the main causes.

Culture and Society
Pie Chart of Honduras 2011 age distribution
Honduras - 2011 Age distribution
(Data US Census Bureau IDS)
Demography - Honduras has a very young population as you can see in the population pyramid and the pie-chart. Other poor countries in Central America have a similar age distribution in their population. 67% of Honduran population is younger than 30 years of age. For Nicaragua the percentage is 63%, for El Salvador the percentage is 59%, for Belize the percentage is 68% and for Guatemala the percentage is 68% (compare to less poor Costa Rica 52% and Panama 54%). A young population means you need to invest strongly in education and child/teenager-care. If you don't, youth related social problems will explode. Think of more street-children, teenage moms, street gangs. Also you have to anticipate in housing facilities and employment.

Honduras - 2011 Population Pyramid by USCB-IDB
Honduras - 2011 Population Pyramid
Machismo - Frequently boys grow up without their father being the male roll model in their life. Therefore they are more vulnerable to derail. Older boys who also grew up without a father often fulfill the male roll model for these boys. So these younger boys get the wrong norms and values for their adult life. But even a young father that grew up with the wrong norms and values during his youth and who gets married and  raises his kids with their mother, will in most cases raise his children - unwillingly - with partially wrong norms and values. When a single mother re-marries, because she needs income to raise her kids, often the same problems arise with the stepfather. So many youngsters decide to leave home because of problems and unfortunately will join youth gangs. 
Femicide - Just killing women because they are women. Women are being killed in Honduras at a rate of one a day. Convictions for these crimes are rare – between 2008 and 2010, there were 1,110 reported cases of femicide, yet only 211 made it to court. Only 4.2% of these cases resulted in a conviction. In most cases these women are the victims of vengeance attacks, carried out to send a message to male family members. In other cases, family members have identified members of the police as the executors of these murders, killing women as retaliation for gang attacks on police officers. Machismo is also an important factor in femicide. Women who are spurning the advances of influential men, get sometimes beaten, raped or murdered.

Inequality of Income

While combating inequality of income is often regarded as a socialist issue and is therefore not on the political agenda of liberals and conservatives, many studies have proved that a large inequality of income in a society is also not attractive to the rich. You may not know this but the US was most prosperous and enjoyed the greatest wealth in history during the fifties and sixties, while it had the least inequality of income.

A large inequality of income is responsible for two negative effects on a society
  1. A large economic set back for the country. The rich and the very rich are not able and will not spend the bigger part of their income on domestic consumer goods or domestic labor, but on imported luxury goods or save it at their (foreign) bank. Their gathered fortunes will also not be used to invest in the local economy, but largely in (financial) assets (land, stocks, commodities and so on). While goods are purchased to use, assets are purchased to sell them later at a higher price. Asset markets are less stable than goods markets. When prices rise on a consumer market, demand falls; when prices rise on an asset market, demand and additional purchasing power will rise too. The rising purchasing power is the result of the fact that people can borrow more against the value of their assets that they own and that went up in price. That's when bubbles start to grow. High inequality of income is often strongly correlated with high indebtedness. All the money that goes into the assets market can't go into the goods markets and is disappearing therefore from the real economy, meaning a strong set back. When asset bubbles eventually burst, this will mean a serious blow to the economy and society.
  2. All kind of negative effects on society as a whole. Especially rich developed countries with more inequality of income are doing worse on all kind of social problems like life expectancy, literacy, infant mortality, homicides, teenage births, imprisonment, mental illness and so on. There is a proven strong causality between the two, while there is far less causality between social problems and GDP per capita. In underdeveloped poor countries the same causalities apply, only slightly less significant because other causes (civil war, disasters, droughts and so on) contribute to social problems as well. In Honduras where, according to the CIA World Factbook, 65% of the population lives below the poverty line, this means for instance more stealing, more robberies, less education because of little money and more attraction to join gangs.
According to Wikipedia Honduras is one of the countries in the world with the highest inequality of income in the world. You find very powerful and influential oligarchs in Honduras, often protected by their own heavily armed private army. It is said that the real reason for the ousting in 2009 of President Manuel Zelaya, coming from a murderous oligarch family himself, was orchestrated by the Honduran oligarchy, because of his attempted social and agrarian reforms and alliance with Hugo Chávez. 
As an example, during the nineties large land-owners like Miguel Facussé Barjum, René Morales Carazo and Reynaldo Canales, put violent pressure on many cooperatives and campesinos in the lower Aguán valley (el Bajo Aguán) to sell their lands for very low prices to them. The land, which was reformed to African Palm Oil plantations, was disputed ever since and many campesinos were murdered by the paramilitaries of these large land-owners. It is also known that these land-owners became largely involved in cocaine trade.

Jobs, Education and  Unemployment

According to Instituto Nacional de Estadística (INE) the Unemployment Rate (% of Labor Force) for Honduras in May 2011 is 4.6 %. This looks relatively low, but there is also a visible underemployment rate of 10.4% and an invisible underemployment rate of 36.3% in Honduras, which are both very high. Underemployment involves working part-time despite desiring full-time work, over-qualification, over-staffing, seasonal unemployment. Above all you shouldn't look at the percentages of the total labor force, you should look at the absolute numbers of the young labor force. Because of the widely based population pyramid as you can see in the chart below, you will draw the conclusion that youth unemployment is very high and staggering. This is especially of great concern because young men are very vulnerable to commit crimes if they have nothing to do. And when they start their criminal life there's often no way back or alternative. Honduras is a country where there is high unemployment, no unemployment insurance, no homeless shelters and no reintegration programs.
Honduras - Pyramid Chart of the Labor Market 2008
Honduras - 2008 Pyramid of the Labor Market (INE)
Honduras - Chart of the working Population by Age
Honduras - 2008 Working-age of the nationwide population

The government under President Lobo announced that Honduras is once again “Open For Business,” and he welcomed the return of the natural resource industry. In just this year alone (2011), over 130 companies have entered Honduras to search for mineral deposits, hiring secretaries, truck drivers, lawyers, engineers, carpenters, surveyors, laborers of all sorts. Iron mines are opening up, lead and zinc and gold are being exported, millions of dollars are being invested in hundreds of projects. Honduras needs jobs badly, but the investors climate is not attractive. Too many violence towards the relatively rich expats, extortion of businesses, high corruption and instability.

The 6 years of Honduran primary school education are free, although less than 32% of pupils receive their educational grounding without repeating grades. These children represent only half of the original school entrants, and will have taken an average of 9.4 years to complete this phase.

In typical situations, children have to quit school permanently to work at a tender age to help support their families. Even though school is fully state-subsidized up till the 5th grade, many children are still unable to attend school because their families can not afford to buy uniforms and school supplies. A study conducted in 2006 by National Institute of Statistics estimated that as many as 368,000 of the 1.7 million children ages five to 12 did not receive schooling in that year.


MS 13 (Mara Salvatrucha Trece) and "Mara Dieciocho" (18th Street) are the most present organized gangs in Honduras, but you'll find many less organized gangs too. Gang related homicide is relatively low as discussed above,  but gang-related crime is much higher. Violent youth street gangs that extort local businesses with death threats and often kill to intimidate. Ever more violently recruitment of kids is also of great concern. Recruitment of young kids often starts by rewarding them for spying the neighborhood. Gangmember initiation means killing somebody. It's practically impossible to leave a gang as a gang-member without being killed yourself or at least your mother or sister. A drug-trafficker who doesn't pay gets killed as well as his family. A neighbor resident who betrays a local gang-member to the Police, gets killed.  Gang-members use marijuana, glue, cocaine, crack, gasoline, shoe polish and alcohol as drugs. They do drugs to be crazier, to not fear to kill, and to not fear that someone might actually fight back and kill them. Gangs are used by the bigger criminals to do their “dirty work”, such as trafficking drugs and arms, robbing cars, and eliminating enemies. Often these gangs are being paid by drugs and drugs are making gang-members much more violent.
Young people who are orphaned, homeless or otherwise do not have the protection of families would usually turn to the streets and gangs for a sense of livelihood and protection. These youngsters are targeted by gangs for harm and recruitment. The government has not been able to control or deal with gang activity and therefore such young people who aren't gang-members yet, are subject to targeting by outraged civilians and by (police) death squads.

Youths join gangs in Honduras for many reasons; it is difficult to pinpoint any one cause. As in other parts of the world, there seem to be a series of risk factors that drive youths to become gang members. Some of these factors are discussed below.
  • Lack of opportunities and alternatives for youth and adolescents. There are too few educational opportunities, skills training, recreation and sports activities, and artistic and cultural activities for Honduran youths. Educational options are often of poor quality or irrelevant to their lives, this can lead to school drop-out, leaving youths open to gang recruitment.
  • Family breakdown. Many families are single-parent households. In some cases, both parents are absent and other relatives (grandparents, aunts, and uncles) assume responsibility for raising the family. Many parents are forced to work long hours to earn enough income to subsist, which consequently means they have little time to spend with or supervise their children.
  • Movement of Hondurans to and from the United States. There are large numbers of Honduran immigrants—both legal and illegal—in the United States. A cultural confrontation occurs when the children of these immigrants return to Honduras, either voluntarily or involuntarily, such as in the case of deportations. These youths, who may have belonged to gangs in the United States, return to Honduras with different customs and socialization, which clash with the Honduran culture.
  • Abuse of drugs and alcohol. Many youths who join gangs are often drug dependent, and commit delinquent acts to acquire more drugs. The proliferation of drugs like crack, marijuana, and glue seem to be on the increase and are cited by many for the increase in violence among gangs.

Drug Cartels / Drug Trafficking

Honduran Minister of Security Óscar Álvarez confirmed in April 2011 that four international drug cartels maintain an active presence in four of Honduras' 18 departments. Members of Mexico's Sinaloa Cartel and Los Zetas, as well as the Cartel del Golfo based in Panamá and also Costa Rica, run illegal drug trafficking rings in the departments of Atlántida, Colón, Copán, and Ocotepeque, using local employees to manage operations. However, Los Zetas has been and is the most present Mexican drug cartel in Honduras. Los Zetas is also known as the most violent Mexican drug cartel. The cartel activities in Honduras are not just trafficking but also processing coca base in cocaine labs.

By an overwhelming majority, the Honduran congress decided in 2011 to follow a model used by the Mexican president Felipe Calderón to deploy the army to fight encroaching Mexican drug cartels in an effort to curb violence in the country. This is difficult to understand because there is no Drug Cartel War going on in Honduras as is in Mexico. President Calderón launched an army-backed campaign in Mexico against powerful drug gangs soon after taking office in late 2006. The effect was increasing violence. The campaign left over 46,000 dead in Mexico since December 2006. In Honduras there is little violence directly caused by drug cartels. Drug Cartel killings are mostly occuring in countries where drugs are produced (Colombia, Mexico, Peru) and in bordering countries of countries where drugs are distributed, smuggled into and consumed (Mexico and the US). Honduras is mostly just a transit country for drugs. The indirect killings that the drug cartels are causing in Honduras is due to the fact that they are paying gangs for their services not in money but in drugs. These drugs are used by gang-members themselves and sold on the Honduras drug market, causing collateral violence. As discussed above, homicides related to drug trafficking is not monitored as such by the Honduran authorities, but is counted under gang-related crimes.
 It is not in Los Zetas' interest to jeopardize their own business by "unnecessary" murders. Los Zetas are killing to protect their business and will always leave a clear "signature" that serves as a warning. They kill to intimidate competitors or associates, Police officers, public prosecutors or judges. While Los Zetas brings violence to Honduras, their own killings in the country have been "relatively" low. However, because the cartels are bribing police officers, judges and politicians in a massive way, their activities contribute in a massive indirect way to corruption, impunity and thus also violence.
 Deploying the army against the drug cartels in Honduras is even very questionable because there is strong evidence that the army is in fact cooperating with the drug cartels. According to a Wikileaks cable the Honduran army has “lost” several U.S.-supplied military weapons in recent years. The serial numbers on light anti-tank weapons recovered in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico and San Andres Island, Colombia, matched the numbers on guns that had previously been sold to Honduras. In addition U.S. authorities seized a number of M433 grenades from criminal groups in Mexico, which were also traced back to the Honduran army.

Corrupt Police - Not Only Corrupt But Deadly Too

In July 2011 the vice president of the Honduran Congress Marvin Ponce has claimed that police chiefs say up to 40 percent of their officers are involved in organized crime.
One of the latest examples is the murder of Landaverde on December 7th 2011. Former Honduran Security Minister Alfredo Landaverde held a reputation as a tireless activist against corruption and was one of the best-known voices calling on the government to clean up the country’s notoriously dirty Police forces. He was also at the head of efforts to get the Lobo administration to conduct a thorough review of police inventory when it came out that police officials claimed to have lose thousands of confiscated weapons, many of which ended up on the black market. He was murdered while driving in his car by two gunmen on a motorcycle; the usual routine. Now the Honduran Congress has passed a temporary measure banning motorcycles from carrying passengers.
If 40% of the Honduran Police is involved in organized crime it is not difficult to understand that proper crime investigation is not the usual standard.

Political Situation and Violence 

A rightwing coup that ousted president Manuel Zelaya in 2009 is still being played out via assassinations of activists and journalists. But long before Zelaya's ousting political violence in Honduras was quite common. Because these murders were widely covered in Honduran mainstream media, Hondurans became a sort of used to it. Socialist organizations that want to eliminate poverty, establish land reform, and combat the degradation of Honduran society are threatened and obstructed.

In April 2011, McClatchy News cited a former member of the Honduras Council Against Drug Trafficking who estimated as much as 10 percent of the Honduran Congress is linked to drug traffickers. 

Prisons and Penitentiary System

According to the latest count of prisoners in Honduras was 11,502.  The Prisoners per Capita count in Honduras is only 172 per 100.000 people (US is 715). If you take into account that less than half of the Honduran inmates are not convicts but detainees awaiting their trial, your conclusion will be that impunity reigns in Honduras. Add to this the fact that prisoners can regain their freedom by bribing corrupt judges.

Prisons in Honduras are a serious problem. They are not built to house gang members, and overall security is bad. Drugs are consumed, and alcohol consumption within the prisons is not addressed. Sentences for gang members can average up to 15 years. Due to problems with street gangs, prisoners are divided into 3 groups: Maras (active gang members) pesetas (former gang members) and paisas (those who have never been in a gang prior to their incarceration). Rehabilitation programs in jails are targeted at the non-gang population only. Many gang members have died in prison. The government’s response was to build a new prison-module, Escorpion (Scorpion), at the National Penitentiary Marco Aurelio Soto to deal exclusively with gang members.

Impunity, Prosecution and Corrupt Judiciary,

If you know that there are only two convictions for every 100 murders, than you'll realize that there is total impunity in Honduras. It's that bad that it becomes very dangerous to be not a corrupt judge or to be not a corrupt public prosecutor because if you try to be one you get killed ("plata o plomo"). It's extremely difficult if not impossible to combat widespread impunity.

What Is Needed?

There are just too many causes of violence in Honduras to combat all at once. Just combating one cause will often result in a balloon effect, meaning that for instance a decrease of murders committed by Police officials, will probably result in an increase in murders committed by hitmen. The Police will simply outsource their dirty work. So in my view it is best to introduce a long term (20 years+) program, that can't be interrupted and is immune for budget cuts by intermediate administrations and that spends the budget the first 5 years on:

  1. Strong long-term Anti-violence campaign through all media: TV, Radio, Newspapers, Internet, billboards. Also think of other means: telenovelas, daily non-violence show, education, pins, buttons, bumper-stickers, lotteries, baseball-caps, a non-violence mascot, a yearly non-violence day, National non-violence awards and so on.
  2. Get your statistics right and up to date, combat impunity and clean up the Police and Judiciary. Reorganize the Police like the Nicaraguan model. Reinforce prosecution and investigation dramatically.
  3. Social and educational programs for youth: prevent vulnerable youngsters to join youth gangs and offer them safe houses, where they get (re-)educated and teach them the right social norms and values. Schools should be on the same compound, so that youngsters don't need to travel daily and be subject to violent recruitment of gangs. There has been little money for social programs because of the consecutive conservative/(neo-)liberal governments for decades. Socialist parties hardly exist. The new Libre party of Xiamara Castro de Zelaya might be a start to reform the political arena.
  4. Educate men in respecting women and taking their responsibilities regarding their children and family life.
  5. Rehabilition program for ex youth gang members where they get educated in social norms and values, learn a profession and get a job.

More to read...

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