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Closing Space for Honduran Citizens Fuels Migration from Honduras

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Date: Nov 09, 2020

Author: Lisa Haugaard

This article was first published in the Fall 2020 issue of The Advocate.


In late September 2020, a new “caravan” of Hondurans desperate to seek a better life outside their country began to depart from San Pedro Sula. The group, which had grown to several thousand people by the time it arrived in Guatemala, was turned back with a show of force by Guatemalan security forces in riot gear. But while most of the migrants were deported back to Honduras, the forces driving migration continue—despite the near-total closure of access to asylum in the United States and worsening conditions for migrants in Guatemala and Mexico. 

The impact of the pandemic, poverty compounded by the effects of climate change, and violence from organized crime, gangs, and state security forces, as well as violence against women and LGBTQ+ Hondurans, continue to drive migration from Honduras. A less discussed but crucial factor is the closure of space for Honduran citizens to organize and express their views to create a better life for themselves, their families, and their communities. Hondurans face a government that not only fails to meet their basic needs, but profits from corruption, led by President Juan Orlando Hernández, whom U.S. prosecutors, during their successful prosecution of his brother Tony Hernández for drug trafficking, claimed accepted money from drug cartels for his campaigns. Yet efforts to organize for change are met with repression and threats, attacks, and legal harassment of human rights activists and journalists. Hondurans looking towards their 2021 elections for prospects of change see that their Congress failed so far to pass reforms to block opportunities for fraud that plagued the 2017 elections. 

As one Honduran humanitarian organization summed up the reasons people were giving for joining the latest caravan: “There is nothing for us in this country, I lost my family members because of COVID-19, there is no work, and the tyrant is overwhelming us.” 

Pandemic: The Last Straw

Honduras has registered over 100,000 COVID-19 cases as of early October 2020, although given limited testing, this is likely an undercount. The pandemic is complicated in Honduras by an ongoing dengue epidemic. Some hospitals are overwhelmed, and a number of health care workers have died. 

The economic impact of the pandemic is profound. Pandemic restrictions permitted people to leave their homes only once every two weeks, changed in September to once a week. Yet most of the population work in the informal sector or in jobs that cannot be performed from their homes. State employees protested due to nonpayment of their salaries. Maquila factories reopened in mid-May, but often without adequate protective gear for workers, conditions for social distancing, or access to healthcare. The pandemic is increasing hunger and inequality in rural areas. Government food programs are limited and sometimes distributed in ways that favor political supporters.

Pandemic restrictions have been at times brutally enforced. Thousands of people were arbitrarily detained at the start of the lockdown. In April 2020, members of the Military Police shot at and beat three brothers returning home from selling bread; one brother died the next day of his wounds, one was seriously injured, and the third was detained. As part of its lockdown, the Honduran government suspended constitutional guarantees, including freedom of expression and assembly. 

Corruption: Where’s the Money?

The massive scale of corruption led the international community to press the Honduran government to establish an anti-corruption mechanism, the Organization of American States-led Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity (MACCIH). As MACCIH, working with Honduran prosecutors, began to advance in its investigations, resistance by corrupt elites grew. Following the precedent set by former Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales, President Hernández refused to renew MACCIH’s mandate, and it was forced to shut its doors in September 2019. The Trump Administration’s focus on pressing the Honduran government to deter migration, establish Honduras as a “safe third country” for other asylum seekers, and receive deported Honduran migrants, rather than emphasizing improvements in governance and combatting corruption which could help reduce the causes of forced migration, gave President Hernández the political space to shut MACCIH. 

In 2020, two major successes of MACCIH’s anti-corruption efforts were unraveled by Honduran courts. On July 23, a court ordered former First Lady Rosa Lobo released from jail, where she was awaiting retrial for corruption after the Supreme Court overturned her conviction. On August 3, an appeals court dismissed charges against 22 of the 38 defendants in the “Pandora” case, many of them members of Congress, in which some $12 million of agricultural ministry funds were channeled through fake NGOs, much of which ended up financing National and Liberal party campaigns. 

Meanwhile, new cases of corruption are surfacing. The nongovernmental National Anticorruption Council (CNA) denounced flawed or corrupt pandemic-related purchasing practices, such as when the government purchased 5 mobile hospitals from a Turkish company for $47 million in March 2020. Four of the five mobile hospitals finally arrived months later in shabby condition and were still not functional as of mid-October. 

In August 2020, civil society activists launched social media campaigns and graffiti appeared across the country with the slogan, “Where’s the Money?” Another sign then appeared in front of the ruling National Party headquarters: “Here Is the Money.” The Honduran government reacted by detaining several people involved in painting graffiti. One prominent doctor, critical of the government’s response to the pandemic, was detained and beaten by police. 

Protesters Face Repression

With the absence of effective avenues to influence the government to serve its citizens, protest continues to be a primary way that Honduran citizens express their concerns. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights office in Honduras tallied more than 470 demonstrations in 190 days of the pandemic. 

Yet the rights of protesters, as well as of journalists and human rights defenders covering the protests, continue to be violated by Honduran security forces. In September 2020, a photojournalist covering an Independence Day rally protesting corruption was wounded by a tear gas canister thrown by police, according to the journalist, directly at him. A 22-year old bystander to the same event was beaten by police; the local police station refused to accept his complaint. Garifuna leaders protesting the disappearance of their community members (see below) were teargassed in July. Police beat transport workers demanding government pandemic relief in San Pedro Sula in June. 

Human Right Activists and Journalists Face Threats, Attacks, and Harassment

The space for human rights activists and journalists to defend and monitor rights is limited and closing while the opportunities for corruption and abuse expand. Environmental monitoring group Global Witness rates Honduras as the most dangerous country (per capita) in 2019 to be an environmental or land rights defender. To mention just two recent cases: 

  • Four Garifuna (Afro-Honduran) men and a fifth person were kidnapped from their homes in Triunfo de la Cruz in July 2020 at gunpoint by men wearing uniforms of a Honduran government police investigative unit. Among the men were community activists, including Alberth Sneider Centeno, leader of the Triunfo de la Cruz community and active participant in Garifuna rights group OFRANEH. Sneider is a principal force behind efforts to defend Garifuna territory and urge compliance with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights 2015 ruling ordering the Honduran government to respect the rights and territory of the Triunfo de la Cruz community. Little progress seems to have been made in investigating the disappearance of these men.
  • While deputies charged with corruption in the Pandora case were set free, eight environmental activists charged with alleged crimes as they defended their community’s river from pollution from a mining project have been in pretrial detention for over a year, in the case known as Guapinol. In August 2020, a court ruling put five more activists in danger of being placed in pretrial detention. On October 13, 2020, one Guapinol activist, Arnold Joaquin Morazán Erazo, was murdered. The Guapinol community demands accountability and justice for this murder–and for their jailed community members to be set free.

Electoral Reforms Stalling

In November 2017, President Hernández was reelected in a highly controversial electoral process. Honduran citizens and electoral observers denounced irregularities and fraud. In the aftermath, protests broke out. Honduran security forces, particularly the Military Police, allegedly shot and killed at least 16 protesters and bystanders, according to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights office in Honduras. Almost all these cases remain in impunity.

Yet, a year from the next presidential elections, the executive branch and Congress have failed to advance electoral reforms, meaning that the elections will likely go forward with few changes to ensure a free and fair electoral process. Even if the electoral reform bill does advance, it still does not address some of the major issues, such as the need for a second round of voting to prevent a candidate winning with a simple majority but little legitimacy (given the likelihood that multiple candidates will run and split the votes); setting presidential terms limits; and blocking dirty money from entering campaigns. 

If advances are not made, it is likely a continued lack of legitimacy in the next elections will cause greater social conflict and human rights violations and intensify, not begin to resolve, the profound crisis of democracy in Honduras since the 2009 coup. And forced migration from Honduras will continue.