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Hoping for a better future

by Rita Trautmann, Dennis Muñoz

In depth

Migrant caravan  from Honduras on a highway in El Salvador in January 2019. People try to get to the USA on foot.

Migrant caravan from Honduras on a highway in El Salvador in January 2019. People try to get to the USA on foot.

Honduras has rarely received as much press attention as it has in recent months. The reason is not the large public protests against government corruption or the murders of human-rights activists. The media are covering the spectacle of caravans consisting of thousands of men, women and children heading out of Honduras. People band together to leave their country and head for the USA.

The journey is long, and it follows one of the world’s most dangerous migration routes. The hazards include assault, abduction, extortion and sudden disappearance. Drug cartels and youth gangs prey on the migrants. And the journey has an uncertain outcome. Shortly before their destination, the migrants face a very well-guarded border.

All this is well known in Honduras, but people set off anyway. “We are fleeing from poverty and because of the government,” says a 35-year-old, “and we are also fleeing because of crime.”

What is driving these people out of their country is mainly hopelessness. Honduras is one of the poorest countries in Latin America. In the past four years, the poverty rate has soared to almost 66 %. But that is only one of the many causes of this exodus. Others include a corrupt political system that serves the elites rather than the people, a failed security policy, a shortage of jobs and an economic policy focused on exploiting natural resources instead of on land reform.

Corruption spans all parties and extends to all sectors. In 2015, one of the biggest scandals was exposed: millions of lempira were diverted from the social-security system for use in election campaigns of the ruling political party. A wave of public protests followed after that became known.  

Unconvincing measures against corruption

Demands were made to create an anti-corruption commission similar to Guatemala’s CICIG (Commissión Internacional  contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala). The government responded by establishing a “Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras” (MACCIH – Misión de Apoyo contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras). Unlike the commission in Guatemala, which operates under the auspices of the UN, the MACCIH operates under the aegis of the Organization of American States (OAS).

The MACCIH is not allowed to conduct its own investigations, merely supporting the efforts of the Public Prosecutor’s Office. Nonetheless, it has set some wheels in motion. The impact of its work can be gauged by the extent to which the MACCIH is obstructed and attacked by the government and the elites that back the government. Currently, the MACCIH’s existence is at greater risk than ever before. The agreement between the government of Honduras and the OAS is due for renewal in autumn 2019. It obviously does not offer any comfort to Hondurans that the Guatemalan government has discontinued its cooperation with CICIG, forcing that commission to move abroad.   

Officially, the government of Honduras takes no position on the work of the MACCIH. But state officials and deputies of the governing National Party (Partido Nacional de Honduras) have repeatedly issued statements suggesting that the end of the MACCIH is near. For example, the president of the Supreme Court recently said that he considers the mission’s task to have been completed.

In fact, many of the cases raised last year will not be fully resolved by the end of 2019. This time span is too short to investigate the vast networks of sham companies, bogus organisations and parliamentarians who systematically fleece the state. Such networks are active in the health sector and in the Ministry of Agriculture and many other contexts.

In recent years, the government of President Juan Orlando Hernández has brought all state institutions under the control of the ruling party. The recent reforms of electoral laws lag far behind what is needed, amounting to merely cosmetic changes instead of the fundamental change needed to facilitate fair and transparent elections.

The crisis that followed the November 2017 elections showed that reform is urgently needed and how tired the people are of not being taken seriously. The government is trying hard to sell its policies as a success. But the electorate is neither convinced of its security measures nor of its economic programmes.  

Failed policy

The judicial system is failing too. One indicator is that many offenders go free: 94 % of murders remain unpunished. The share is worse – 97 % – for murders of women (femicide). The femicide rate is rising continuously. This is one reason why ever more women are leaving Honduras.

Asked why she is leaving, a woman named Joselyn points to poor security and the general lack of opportunities: “There’s no work, and if anyone has work ... What then? The wages aren’t enough to pay the bills, and the mareros (editor’s comment: youth gangs) take protection money out of those wages.”

Only a small percentage of the approximately 4 million people who are capable of working actually has a job. The government focuses on producing raw materials and energy to the detriment of indigenous and rural communities. Almost 40 % of the workforce is employed in agriculture, with most working in subsistence farming. They are very poor, and their livelihoods are at risk.

Almost one third of the land has been awarded to companies through concessions. Many communities are resisting such projects. Those who object are being threatened and criminalised. The government has increasingly outlawed social protest; the freedom of civil society to act has been steadily restricted. In 2018 alone, more than 130 human-rights activists were charged, and more than 700 instances of threats were recorded by the non-governmental organisation COFADEH (Comité de Familiares de Detenidos-Desaparecidos en Honduras – Committee of relatives of detained and disappeared persons in Honduras).

The situation of many Hondurans is characterised by underemployment, casual labour and lack of security. In addition, almost 1 million young people between the ages of 12 and 30 neither work nor attend school or university (see article by Rita Traut­mann in Debate section of D+C/E+Z e-Paper 2018/11). Many of those who do not wish to be recruited by youth gangs or to be a burden on their families seek their fortunes in the USA. The situation is appalling. There is reason to suspect that the government finds it economically advantageous to have a large number of people emigrating and sending remittances back home. Yet of the thousands of Hondurans fleeing their country since the end of 2018, only a small share will manage to build a new life in the USA.

Migration from Honduras to the USA has been going on for decades. What is new is the collective and thus visible exodus from the country. It clearly demonstrates to the world the failure of Honduras’ government and its institutions.

Rita Trautmann is a social anthropologist. She worked as a specialist for the German Development Service in Honduras and has been active in human-rights work in Honduras since 2011. The original quotations in the text come from interviews conducted and kindly provided by the journalist Martin Reischke.

Dennis Muñoz is a human-rights activist and has been working for years to combat corruption and impunity. He currently lives in exile.