Country Profile: Honduras

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Clockwise from top left: Portrait of a boy from San Nicolas, to the west of Santa Barbara; an orphan from San Pedro Sula, holding photos of his parents; young footballers, also from San Pedro Sula, representing various health threats; children and cows picking through a rubbish dump in the capital, Tegucigalpa; and the cook is Elvira Garcia, from the indigenous Maya Chorti community in Copan province, bordering Guatemala. © Photos by Giacomo Pirozzi / Panos Pictures

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.

Louisa Reynolds

Country profile: El Salvador

El Salvdoran gang leader

Gang leader Carlos Tiberio Valladares mirrored in his prison cell in Ciudad Barrios. © Adam Hinton/Panos

El Salvador is still associated in many people’s minds with the 12-year-long civil war between rightwing government forces (backed by the US) and leftwing FMLN guerrillas, which ended in 1992 but left 70,000 people dead. The relative calm since – and the election as president of former FMLN rebel Salvador Sánchez Cerén, who took office in June 2014 – is somewhat misleading, however.

El Salvador flag

With an average of nearly 30 homicides per day, El Salvador could soon overtake Honduras as the most violent country in the world (excluding warzones such as Syria). Since a 2012 truce between the country’s two main gangs (MS-13 and Barrio 18) began to fall apart in 2014, El Salvador has experienced its highest number of murders since the civil war.

The truce, secured by the Catholic Church with the tacit approval of then-president Mauricio Funes, had managed to halve the country’s murder rate and had raised hopes that El Salvador could overcome its history of violence.

Imprisoned gang leaders were transferred from high-security jails to regular prison facilities and the Red Cross established a special mission to monitor human rights in prison. In exchange, the gangs agreed to end the forced recruitment of children and young people, respect schools and buses as zones of peace, reduce attacks on security forces and surrender limited amounts of weapons.

This effort to reduce violence by negotiating with criminal groups and focusing on the reintegration of gang members into society rather than on punitive measures was unique to the region and a far cry from the ‘iron-fist’ approach of previous administrations.

Valeria Michel Hercules is supported by friends on the way to the funeral of her stillborn child in the Las Victorias district of San Salvador.

Adam Hinton/Panos Pictures

However, as details began to emerge of what this fragile truce actually entailed, public opinion became increasingly polarized, with conservatives and the media raising questions about criminal organizations being legitimized as well as pointing out that extortion and other violent crimes had not diminished.

When the truce entered a more complex phase it began to flounder as the government failed to deliver money for prevention and rehabilitation programmes. Then the newly elected President Sánchez Cerén withdrew support for the truce. Gang leaders were returned to maximum-security prisons and violence soared once again.

Although the truce ultimately collapsed, it highlighted the inequality and lack of opportunities that allow gangs to recruit vulnerable young people – the huge disparity between El Salvador’s small, wealthy elite and the overwhelming majority of the population was at the root of the civil war but is still all too visible today.

There has been a massive exodus of Salvadorans to the US over the past three decades, fleeing unemployment, the civil war, natural disasters such as Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and earthquakes in 2001. As a result, one in three Salvadorans currently lives in the US and remittances sent by them are now El Salvador’s main source of income, totalling $4.2 billion in 2014.

Some of those who fled to the US during the war joined dangerous Latino street gangs there for protection and livelihood. In the mid-1990s, the US authorities began a mass deportation of gang members, who took with them the culture of violence and territorial disputes that now characterizes El Salvador’s gangland.

Although the Salvadoran authorities unequivocally blame the violence on gangs, a number of recent massacres bear the signs of drug-cartel involve­ment. The country’s weak institutions and rampant corruption have made it all too easy for drug cartels to infiltrate the police and other institutions, transforming El Salvador into an important trans-shipment point for drugs heading north to the US market.

The Washington-based thinktank Insight Crime describes the patterns of criminality in El Salvador as increasingly ‘taking on the overtones of a low-intensity war’.

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