A lethal combination of drug wars and gang violence has turned Honduras – the original banana republic – into the most violent country in the world outside a war zone, and the violence has escalated since the 2009 coup that deposed left-leaning president Manuel Zelaya.
Elections for Zelaya’s successor did not take place until the end of 2013, when the conservative Juan Orlando Hernández became President for a four-year term, following a campaign marred by allegations of fraud and intimidation. On 23 April 2015 the Honduran Supreme Court struck down a constitutional prohibition barring incumbent presidents from running for a second term, paving the way for Hernández to remain in power after 2017.
Only weeks later, however, the Attorney General revealed that a network led by Hernández had defrauded the government of $120 million from 2010 to 2014 – the period of the interregnum following the military coup. The investigation also showed that some of those funds were used to fund Hernández’s 2013 presidential campaign.
San Pedro Sula, Siguatepeque, Choluteca and other major cities erupted in calls for the President’s resignation and on 5 June 2015 20,000 Hondurans took to the streets, bearing torches and shouting ‘JOH out, JOH out!’.
The protest movement, which became known as Los Indignados (the Outraged), included grassroots organizations and political parties that had fought to restore Manuel Zelaya, as well as ordinary citizens who had never taken to the streets before.
The Indignados offered a glimmer of hope in a country where years of authoritarian military rule and violent street clashes had left most Hondurans fearful of political activism.
After months of protests, President Hernández appeared to heed one of the Indignados’ main demands when he announced the creation of an anti-corruption commission supported by the Washington-based Organization of American States (OAS). But, far from quelling the protests, the Indignados felt cheated. What they wanted was a Honduran version of the UN-funded commission in Guatemala – initiated after a wave of protests following a corruption scandal – which had real muscle and eventually forced President Pérez Molina and his deputy out of office. By contrast, the OAS-supported commission endorsed by Hernández is currently focusing on making recommendations on reforms to the justice system.
For the Indignados, the commission feels like a Band Aid on a gaping wound – an attempt to appease the protest movement rather than a tool for meaningful reform. However, the movement has waned recently, the protests having failed to usher in any significant change.
Amid escalating levels of violence and political repression, attacks on journalists and human rights activists have become commonplace and go largely unpunished. In March this year, the murder of internationally renowned environmental activist Berta Cáceres, of the Lenca indigenous group, who had campaigned against the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam, hit the headlines worldwide and caused outrage. Before her murder, Cáceres had reported 33 death threats linked to the campaign.
Given that violence in Honduras has reached epidemic proportions and the country has some of the worst social and economic conditions in the hemisphere, it is hardly surprising that a growing number of Hondurans seek to emigrate, mostly to the US. Children and adolescents from poor neighbourhoods, desperate to escape gang violence, are increasingly choosing to make the hazardous journey to the US on their own and Honduras is currently the country of origin for the highest number of unaccompanied minors apprehended along the US-Mexico border. Hondurans are not searching for the American Dream, they are fleeing from the nightmare of violence and repression in their country.