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A member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) sits in his tent in the “Alfonso Artiaga” Front 29 FARC encampment in a rural area of Policarpa, Narino, in southwestern Colombia on 16 January 2017. AFP/Luis Robayo
Report 60 / Latin America & Caribbean

In the Shadow of “No”: Peace after Colombia’s Plebiscite

Revised and ratified after its shock rejection in October 2016’s referendum, Colombia’s peace agreement still lacks sustainable political support. Reversing public distrust will need swift and effective implementation of the accord – including full apologies for past crimes and the visible handover of weapons by insurgents.

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Executive Summary

Defeat by a wafer-thin margin in the October 2016 plebiscite on the peace agreement between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) insurgency shocked Colombia’s society and political establishment, as well as the accord’s international backers. With the signed document suspended while rebel combatants tentatively gathered in sites across the country, prospects for an end to 52 years of armed conflict initially darkened. A revised accord, with numerous changes demanded by opposition leaders, was unveiled less than two months later, but the illusion of consensus was short-lived. Indignant that it was not able to review the new text and incensed that though many of its proposals were included, a few key ones were not, the opposition decried the agreement and its ratification in Congress. Peace with the guerrillas is again set to polarise parties and candidates in elections in 2018. A swift, effective start to implementation of the accord is needed to reverse public wariness and political resistance.

Victory in those elections for opponents of the peace agreement would be the harbinger of major challenges to the deal’s sustainability. Concentration of FARC combatants is underway, albeit problematically and with delays, and the six-month timetable for the handover of weapons has been set in motion. However, funding gaps, administrative delays and the political balance of power ahead of 2018 threaten to curtail transitional arrangements and structural reforms aimed at remedying the root grievances of the conflict. The opposition could financially starve institutions, programs or policies in the peace agreement if it comes to power. The terms of transitional justice, measures on rural reform and land access, and community-based approaches to removing coca crops and establishing alternative income-generating activities could all be in danger.

Defending the agreement will be an intrinsic part of the political battle ahead. Persuading a distrustful, urbanised public to give its backing depends in the immediate term on what happens in and around FARC cantonments. Over the next year, successful implementation will be the best way to bolster popular and political support and make it politically costly for opponents to reverse the peace process. Transparency in handover of weapons, full apologies for past crimes, continued progress on humanitarian actions such as de-mining, increased results in the search for victims of forced disappearance and eventual cooperation with the Special Jurisdiction for Peace would underline the insurgents’ commitment to peace and the dangers of reneging on the agreement.

Violence on the ground will also affect support for the agreement in the short term. FARC leaders and troops fear betrayal by the state, and some may seek to hedge their bets in face of the visible opposition from significant political forces. Promised peace talks with the country’s second insurgency, the National Liberation Army (ELN), have not begun, and various armed groups appear to be behind dozens of killings of social leaders that constitute a new wave of terror in remote rural communities. Only resolute commitment by the state to prevent battles for control of illicit economies and protect civilians and ex-combatants will give peace real local-level meaning.

The international community should continue its political support, using its delegates and special envoys to maintain dialogue with all sides and exerting discrete pressure when necessary on opposition leaders to preserve crucial parts of the agreement that could be in jeopardy. It should refrain from making calls for renewed aerial fumigation of coca crops and instead give the agreement on illicit drug substitution a real chance to have effect. It must also use its financial assistance to establish mechanisms for moving resources quickly on behalf of effective implementation on the ground, helping resolve and learn from problems as they arise.

Rebuilding Colombia's Trust in the Peace Process

In this video, our Senior Analyst for Colombia, Kyle Johnson, highlights the main findings of Crisis Group’s report “In the Shadow of “No”: Peace after Colombia’s Plebiscite”. Crisis Group


To build political support for sustainable implementation of the new peace agreement

To the government of Colombia:

  1. Strengthen dissemination of the peace agreement in both rural and urban areas, while increasing protection rapidly for social leaders under threat until the agreement on security guarantees can be implemented.
  2. Establish and fund new institutions and commissions tasked with key roles to implement the peace agreement quickly, while strengthening nascent and galvanising existing bodies to generate early peace dividends for victims and conflict-zone communities.

To the government of Colombia and the FARC:

  1. Continue with the established weapons handover schedule despite delays in FARC arrival at cantonment sites, while adopting a proactive communication strategy, including documenting evidence of the FARC laying down weapons and engaging in reinsertion and of progress on other aspects of implementation.
  2. Keep victims at the centre of the process as implementation begins, increasing cooperation in the search for victims of forced disappearance, releasing all children age fifteen and under in FARC ranks and continuing public apologies for notorious crimes committed in the war.
  3. Explore space for dialogue with the opposition on implementation.
  4. Prioritise improving security for local leaders in the short term with preventive measures, training and strengthened security schemes, while also setting up institutions for protection of FARC members.
  5. Include local and regional authorities more directly during the arms abandonment process and planning of other implementation aspects.

To the opposition:

  1. Reinitiate dialogue with the government on implementation and increase the frequency, strength and level of its denunciations of violence against social leaders.

To the international community:

  1. Continue peace process support by maintaining delegates and special envoys during implementation, supporting citizen security and sustaining funding for international actors with important post-conflict roles, such as the UN High Commissioners for Human Rights and Refugees among other key players.
  2. Press the government and FARC to keep their commitments on time and to involve local actors more extensively.
  3. Continue dialogue with the opposition so as to press for support especially of at-risk parts of the peace agreement, such as rural development, political participation, transitional justice and humanitarian measures.
  4. Make more frequent public statements showing concern for the killing of social leaders and demanding progress in protection and justice.
  5. Support new agreements for major alternative development investments to tackle illicit drug production before pressing for more direct eradication.

To the UN mission:

  1. Finish deployment as quickly as possible, including of the civilian component, to prepare for and receive FARC fighters as they gather in cantonments for weapons handover.
  2. Adopt a proactive communications strategy, publishing frequent updates on FARC concentration and weapons handover, using media beyond regular official reports.
  3. Press the government and FARC to follow the schedule for weapons handover in the peace agreement, despite early and likely future delays.

Bogotá/Brussels, 31 January 2017

I. Introduction

When Colombians voted in October 2016 on the peace agreement between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the “no” vote edged the “yes” by less than half of one per cent, with a 37 per cent turnout.[fn]For previous Crisis Group work on the peace process, see Latin America Reports N°s 58, Colombia’s Final Steps to the End of War, 7 September 2016; 53, The Day after Tomorrow: Colombia’s FARC and the End of the Conflict, 11 December 2014; 51, Left in the Cold? The ELN and Colombia’s Peace Talks, 26 February 2014; 49, Transitional Justice and Colombia’s Peace Talks, 29 August 2013; 45, Colombia: Peace at Last?, 25 September 2012; and Briefing N°32, On Thinner Ice: The Final Phase of Colombia’s Peace Talks, 3 July 2015.Hide Footnote  An intense process of high-level political dialogue ensued, leading to a new agreement that the government, FARC and many in civil society defend. Voicing dismay at the government, which it accuses of undermining democracy, the opposition has also united, but with the aim of rejecting the new agreement.

Congress has ratified the accord, and the start of the calendar for the insurgency’s weapons handover was set for 1 December, initiating the countdown for the 15,000 FARC combatants and militia members to gather in 26 cantonments across the country. The opposition, despite the Constitutional Court having allowed the congressional ratification procedure, has argued that by relying on the previously established pro-government majorities in both houses of the legislature, President Juan Manuel Santos cheated the people. Attempts to persuade it to support the new agreement have failed.

The context in which peace is to be implemented is far from hospitable. The government will struggle, even with international aid, to fund all the activities envisaged. New institutions the accord requires – some already created – are skeletal, sorely understaffed and unable to undertake the programs they are designed for, such as the Agency for Territorial Renovation; other official bodies, including the attorney general’s office, have proposed policies contrary to those in the agreement.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, high-level diplomat, Bogotá, 28 November 2016; interview, government official, 9 December 2016.Hide Footnote Violence against local social leaders has increased, raising doubts about peace benefits and leading to further polarisation between supporters and opponents. The peace process with the National Liberation Army (ELN), Colombia’s second largest insurgency, is yet to begin.

Political support for the peace agreement is weak and will most likely flag as the presidential election campaign begins later this year that will bring a new leader to office in 2018. Full implementation is thus far from guaranteed. Even so, the government and FARC have a window of opportunity to build support via implementation over the next eighteen months that would raise the political cost of not continuing the process from mid-2018 onwards.

The research for this approach included extensive interviews with members of the opposition, FARC and government negotiating teams, members of the Tripartite Mechanism to monitor and verify the ceasefire, pro-peace agreement leaders and politicians, political and legal experts and members of the international community close to the peace talks.

II. Getting to a New Agreement

The journey from plebiscite to new peace agreement hinged on various decisive moments. The starting point was the document’s narrow defeat on 2 October, leading to a complex shift in the balance of political power. Neither government nor opposition could claim a clear mandate. Tensions worsened as renegotiation began on a new text, ending with the crafting of an accord that lacked the stable, sustainable political base that opposition support would have added to that of pro-peace political parties, many victims’ organisations and civil society.

A. What Explains the Plebiscite Result?

The surprise result stemmed from the diversity and levels of commitment of voter bases in the opposition and pro-accord movements. A combination of ex-President Álvaro Uribe’s devoted support, anti-“gender ideology” churchgoers and the most right-wing elements of the divided Conservative party made up the majority of those who rejected the agreement.[fn]“Gender ideology” is the phrase used by groups who claim the accord looks to convert children into homosexuals, attacks the traditional family and seeks to take away parents’ right to educate their children in traditional ways. They say the ideology is in those parts of the agreement that promote special treatment for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) victims of the conflict. Crisis Group interview, pastor opposed to peace accord, Bogotá, 3 November 2016.Hide Footnote Though he remains extremely divisive, Uribe’s support is stable and high. His followers tend to be more active in promoting their views and encouraging others to vote than those who favour the accords. Uribe backers are in general also more inclined to vote than other groups. The plebiscite was ideal for mobilising his committed base, as it loathes the FARC, rejects its participation in politics and fears Colombia turning into chavista Venezuela. The “religious vote”, primarily concerned about an alleged “gender ideology” smuggled into the agreement, is assumed to have been higher than in previous elections and fundamental to the result. Finally, an unknown part of the “no” vote derived from disinformation targeted at voters according to their region and income level.[fn]‘La estrategia del Sí tuvo muchos desaciertos’: Francisco Gutiérrez”, Semana, 8 October 2016. Jennifer Cyr and Carlos Meléndez, “Colombia’s right-wing populist movement defeated the peace deal. Here’s how we know”, The Washington Post, 4 October 2016. The director of the “no” campaign said different messages were used for distinct population sectors to encourage anger-based voting. These included claims the FARC would receive impunity; images of Santos and FARC leader Timochenko together; that subsidies and pensions for the poor and elderly would be cut; and Colombia would turn into Venezuela. Juliana Ramírez, “El No ha sido la campaña más barata y más efectiva de la historia”, La República, 5 October 2016.Hide Footnote

The high-level battle also favoured the opposition. Ex-President César Gaviria, leading the “yes” campaign, was unable to counter opposition arguments effectively, and no strong, unifying figure similar to Uribe emerged. Vice President Germán Vargas Lleras, a candidate for the role given his power and direct experience of guerrilla violence, was almost completely silent and, if anything, gave indirect support to the opposition.[fn]Vargas Lleras said he supported the agreement, with misgivings on certain issues. The Uribe argument of supporting peace but with changes was conceptually similar, and Vargas Lleras’s lack of campaigning, plus some ideological similarities with Uribe, may have led part of his base to vote “no”. He is due to step down in March 2017 to begin campaigning for the presidency.Hide Footnote “Yes” campaign strategies were also questionable. President Santos’s and other establishment-based parties focused on regional and local politicians, depending mainly on political machines, powerful families and coalition-building, which proved less effective in a single-issue plebiscite than in regular elections and were not even fully activated. Civil society, while vocal, again showed its historical weakness at mobilising votes. Finally, some pro-accord voters may have been complacent due to polls pointing to a big victory.

Areas of higher poverty tended to vote for the accord, except in Bogotá where lower-income groups were strongly “no”. The periphery – defined by measures of typical rural attributes or state capacity – also tended to back the agreement. It has been argued that areas with higher victimisation levels in the armed conflict tended to vote “yes”, but that argument hinges on how victimisation is measured.[fn]Leopoldo Fergusson and Carlos Molina, “Un vistazo a los resultados del plebiscito”, La Silla Vacía, 4 October 2016. If victimisation is measured solely by displacement, there is a clear correlation with “yes” votes, but not when it is measured more generally.Hide Footnote

The opposition’s victory meant its proposals for a new agreement had to be taken into account if the process was to be saved. Early on, some opposition leaders argued that any new accord required their approval. But the close result also allowed the politically-weakened government to divide the opposition (or isolate Uribe) by absorbing some concerns, while maintaining the risky option of a new plebiscite, a tactic that deprived foes of an absolute veto. Moreover, at various stages, the opposition showed itself to be divided. It was not until a new agreement was reached and ratified in Congress, despite the omission of certain of its key concerns, that the opposition could unite in indignation.

B. Positions for a New Agreement

Shortly after the plebiscite, the political and social actors who actively opposed the original agreement handed in their proposed changes. The first document with the entirety of their proposals presented in Havana to the FARC contained more than 260 items from at least ten sources.[fn]Santos no recibe más propuestas sobre el acuerdo de paz”, El Espectador, 20 October 2016. “Propuestas de Gobierno”, Government of Colombia (GOC), 23 October 2016.Hide Footnote Part, especially those touching on rural reform, reflected political interests rather than the concerns of many “no” voters. Despite the diverse, in some cases contradictory universe of proposals, there was a handful the opposition considered indispensable.

The most politically important were unmistakeable. There was a consensus that punishments in the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (SPJ) – the system devised to mete out transitional justice for serious crimes committed during the conflict – must be harsher, especially (in some cases exclusively) for the FARC. The SPJ, the opposition argued, should become part of the normal judicial system. There was near agreement that the Armed Forces must receive preferential treatment, though what that entailed differed between factions. The opposition shifted from demanding permanent prohibition from political office for those convicted of crimes against humanity and war crimes to a ban until sentences were completed.

All opposition groups agreed that there should be no amnesty for drug trafficking, the FARC should hand over its assets to be used as reparations to victims, and FARC use of such resources for political activity should be explicitly prohibited. The opposition was also united in demanding the agreement not have constitutional rank.[fn]The constitutional rank, or bloc, is the series of norms not in the constitution but used as parameters for constitutional control of law, such as treaties. “Sentencia C-067/03”, Constitutional Court, 2003.Hide Footnote Private property, it insisted, must be explicitly respected. Finally, concerns were expressed over “gender ideology” and its alleged effects on what was argued to be traditionally defined family and society.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, opposition representative and negotiators, Bogotá, 19, 20 October, 8, 11 November; Christian pastor, Bogotá, 3 November; senior diplomat, 11 November, all 2016. “Propuestas de Gobierno”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

The government responded by identifying those it considered easy to resolve, those that were difficult but not impossible and those that were held to be completely unviable. The opposition then argued that ruling out anything meant Santos was opening the door to “cheating” “no” voters by discarding key proposals that were inconvenient. Nonetheless, Santos sent his negotiators to Cuba with orders to take tougher stances on certain points, leading to friction with the FARC on the political participation issue, for example.[fn]Santos dice que algunas propuestas para acuerdo de paz son inviables”, El Tiempo, 20 October 2016. “Santos quiere hacer conejo con el acuerdo: Alejandro Ordóñez”, El Espectador, 3 November 2016. Crisis Group interview, senior diplomat, Bogotá, 4 November 2016; opposition negotiator, Bogotá, 8 November 2016; FARC negotiator, Havana, 28 October 2016.Hide Footnote

Once renegotiations began in Cuba, attention turned to the FARC’s reaction. Soon after the plebiscite, the group announced it was committed to peace and, in a 7 October communiqué, to adjusting the agreement so that it could earn broad-based political backing.[fn]Comunicado conjunto: Acuerdo Final, plebiscito y cese al fuego”, GOC and FARC-EP, 7 October 2016.Hide Footnote But it also said it could not yield on eligibility for office, which it considered the essence of the negotiations: converting an armed insurgency into a peaceful political force. It also continued to reject prison sentences, insisting that any harsher punishment must be applied to all actors in the conflict, and opposed including the SPJ within the ordinary justice system. The FARC (and government) disagreed with the proposal to give landowners a permanent assumption of good faith in all land purchases, thus allowing them to avoid prosecution if the land had been stolen without their direct participation. Lastly, it pushed hard for the accord to have constitutional force, but eventually gave way.[fn]Crisis Group interview, FARC negotiator, Havana, 28 October 2016.Hide Footnote

C. Three Renegotiations

A new agreement depended on three negotiation processes. The first was between the opposition and government. In public, both spoke of productive talks; in reality, there was a mutual lack of confidence. The government believed the opposition wanted to drag talks on into the 2018 presidential election, while the opposition was unsure the government would genuinely represent its positions in Havana. After an early back-and-forth, the opposition handed in a document with all its original proposals, some of which were watered down to show flexibility.[fn]Crisis Group interview, opposition negotiator, Bogotá, 8 November 2016.Hide Footnote

The second track involved civil society supporters of the peace agreement and the government, as well as on occasion the FARC. Not so much a negotiation as a defensive move by the pro-agreement camp, organisations, movements and leaders met with Santos to urge him to find a new accord quickly and to retain the original principles. A series of marches across the country and creation of a Peace Camp in Bogotá’s central Bolívar Plaza kept pressure on all sides.[fn]Crisis Group interview, organiser of the Peace Camp in Bolívar Plaza, Bogotá, 12 October 2016.Hide Footnote Some movements travelled to Havana to urge the FARC to persevere in its search for peace.

The third and final negotiation was between the government and the FARC. The government negotiators returned to Havana on 21 October and began a first round of talks, each one lasting roughly twelve hours. After these, the team returned to Bogotá to update the opposition. On 29 October, a new round began with the FARC, eventually leading to the announcement of a revised accord on 12 November. The latter talks had their difficult moments, particularly over FARC’s future political participation.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, high-level diplomat, Bogotá, 4 November 2016; FARC negotiator, Havana, 28 October 2016.Hide Footnote

During the negotiations with the FARC, a stable line of communication was established to keep opposition leaders up to date. However, concern that the government was not properly representing opposition positions was never fully dissipated. The “no” leaders expected further discussion on the new agreement before it was signed, but this never happened. With a few key concerns not addressed and amid politically motivated allegations that the revisions were little more than cosmetic, the opposition finally united against the document.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, opposition negotiators, Bogotá, 8, 11 and 30 November 2016.Hide Footnote

Throughout the renegotiation, the government and FARC felt under great time pressure due to concern the bilateral ceasefire could fall apart, despite an early consensus between them and the opposition that it was necessary. A new, detailed protocol included the pre-grouping of FARC fighters. With the government paying for FARC sustenance after 30 days, maintenance of the cessation of hostilities was possible, but the ceasefire was designed to last only three months.[fn]Crisis Group interview, member, UN mission, Bogotá, 9 November 2016. “protocolo para el cese al fuego y de hostilidades bilateral y definitivo (CFHBD) entre el gobierno nacional y las FARC-EP”, GOC, FARC-EP and UN mission, 13 October 2016.Hide Footnote On 13 November, the army killed two FARC fighters carrying out extortion activities on pretext of being ELN in Santa Rosa del Sur, a southern Bolívar province municipality.[fn]“GOC and FARC-EP violated ceasefire in south Bolivar incident”, Tripartite Mechanism communiqué, 30 November 2016.Hide Footnote While this event highlighted the ceasefire’s fragility, it also showed the robustness of the Tripartite Mechanism.[fn]The Tripartite Mechanism, which includes the government, FARC and UN mission, is to monitor and verify the ceasefire and weapons handover process. The UN mission is charged with investigating possible violations, helping agree protocols when necessary, assuring the parties fulfil their roles and providing recommendations after violations, among other tasks.Hide Footnote Both parties immediately turned to it to investigate, and it found violations by both sides. Government and FARC language then softened, and no further violent actions took place between them.

D. The New Agreement

The new agreement announced on 12 November included numerous changes based on opposition proposals. Some 58 per cent of the opposition’s original public proposals were included completely or partially. Some 58 proposals posited complete changes in form and underlying justification, of which 21 were included completely and six partially.[fn]See “Radiografía del plebiscito y el posplebiscito”, and “Radiografía del nuevo acuerdo: ¿Qué tanto se renegoció?”, both Fundación Ideas para la Paz, n.d.Hide Footnote Contrary to opposition charges, the revisions were beyond cosmetic.

Most of the opposition’s proposals and wording on Comprehensive Rural Reform were included and/or addressed, such as the rural tax system and legal protection for those who bought land in good faith. The same can be said for proposals and wording on political participation, for example on the role of political parties in designing a new statute for the political opposition.[fn]Many of victims’ leader Herbin Hoyos’s original proposals on victims’ participation in politics did not make it into the agreement, as they were either already implicitly there or proposed automatic seats in Congress for victims and a party with the same rights as the FARC, among others. The statute for political opposition is a legal measure to outline the special “guarantees for political parties and movements that declare themselves to be in opposition”. “Acuerdo final para la terminación del conflicto y la construcción de una paz estable y duradera”, GOC and FARC-EP, 24 November 2016, p. 37.Hide Footnote Some proposals on procedures for ending the conflict and on guarantees for ex-combatants’ security were accepted, though the conditions under which ex-combatants could hold office, including automatic allocation of congressional seats, were not altered. Several proposals on illegal drug cultivation were also incorporated, including a FARC legal commitment to hand over all relevant information about the drug trade, and the state’s right to aerially fumigate coca crops, despite suspension of this method in 2015.

Regarding victims and justice, the FARC is to hand over its whole war economy to provide victims reparations. The SPJ system is to be connected to the penal code and judicial system and not have foreign judges nor give NGO reports the same weight in evidence as information from the state authorities. SPJ courts may rule that FARC drug-trafficking can be interpreted as having been for personal gain, not merely to fund armed political activity. Perhaps most importantly in light of “no” campaign rhetoric, the new accord defines the restriction of liberty of convicted guerrilla combatants as obliging them to reside throughout their sentences within a village, under UN surveillance, while doing reparations-oriented work.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

Numerous implementation proposals were added, including clauses on the accord’s financial stability; definition of “gender focus” as the “recognition of the equal rights between men and women, the special circumstances of each …”; and explicit respect for religious liberty.[fn]Ibid, p. 193.Hide Footnote Nor will the agreement have constitutional rank.[fn]Sources for this information include a comparison of the new accord, GOC and FARC-EP, op. cit., and the first document used in Havana to discuss opposition proposals, “Propuestas de Gobierno”, op. cit.; and “Sistematización opciones y propuestas voceros del no y lo acordado en el nuevo acuerdo”, Oficina del Alto Comisionado para la Paz, 22 November 2016. For just changes, see “Documento de trabajo: cambios, precisiones y ajustes”, Office of the High Commissioner for Peace, 12 November 2016. Pablo Abitbol, “Comparación anterior y nuevo Acuerdo Final Gobierno de Colombia – FARC-EP”, n.d.Hide Footnote The government and FARC argued they made changes to 56 of 57 topics discussed with the opposition; FARC political participation was the exception.[fn]“‘Logramos precisiones y cambios en 56 de los 57 temas abordados en nuevo acuerdo’: Santos”, El Espectador, 12 November 2016.Hide Footnote

III. Peace Toward 2018

All opposition leaders and the government negotiating team met the evening of 21 November in Bogotá.[fn]On the morning of 21 November, the presidential candidates of the Democratic Centre Party met with government negotiators to cordially discuss agreement on implementation. But poor communication from the opposition and differences of opinion on the government side, as well as procedural disagreements, set the tone for the evening meeting. Crisis Group interviews, opposition negotiator, Bogotá, 29 November 2016; political expert, Bogotá, 2 December 2016.Hide Footnote It started poorly, and ended worse. Perceptions differed on whether changes had been made to key parts of the accord; whether the new agreement was to be discussed with “no” leaders before signing; and over the way forward. They settled for complete disagreement: the opposition publicly rejected the accord, backtracking on some of its offers of greater flexibility. The polarisation created by the plebiscite, after being briefly camouflaged during the renegotiation process, resurfaced intact during the new ratification process.[fn]No es No”, La Silla Vacía, 22 November 2016; “Comunicado de representantes del No y de las víctimas”, 21 November 2016; Crisis Group interview, opposition negotiator, Bogotá, 30 November 2016.Hide Footnote

A. The Politics of Congressional Ratification

On 29 November, the Senate approved the peace agreement, 75-0; 25 from the opposition took part in debate but abstained, arguing Congress had no legal mandate to approve the accord. The same occurred in the House of Representatives the next day, where the vote was 130-0 (out of 166 taking part). The votes were controversial for reasons that will continue to impair support for the agreement.

Using Congress gave the government and FARC a clear route to ratification, while putting the opposition at a patent disadvantage. The pro-government coalition has a clear majority in both houses, especially on issues relating to the peace process. With Congressional elections not due until 2018, there is no immediate way for the “no” movement to translate its support base into legislative power.

This has led the opposition to argue that the government is undemocratically “imposing” the same peace deal, but the assertion that the congressional ratification is “undemocratic” depends on two claims. The first is that the new accord has only cosmetic changes, which fails to recognise the opposition’s success in getting key proposals into the text. The second contests the government view as to what can be defined legally as a “popular referendum”. The opposition argues that a special congressional vote is not a valid “popular referendum”; the pro-agreement side, including Santos, insists it is. Forced to adjudicate, the Constitutional Court ruled in December that Congress could itself decide on the ratification process.[fn]The Legislative Act for Peace’s fifth article required any peace agreement to go through a “popular referendum”, which at the time included the options of local committees, Congress or a new plebiscite. When the act was passed, the “popular referendum” language referred to the plebiscite. The Constitutional Court’s ruling on the Legislative Act avoided answering if Congress was a valid option, letting that body decide. The response in effect was “yes” as Congress activated the fast-track in December. “Comunicado No. 52”, Constitutional Court, 13 December 2016, p. 2.Hide Footnote The result of these differences is that the opposition has begun to use more extreme language, ratcheting up political polarisation by questioning not just the terms of peace but also the government’s respect for basic democratic tenets.[fn]See the speeches made by the Democratic Centre Party (DCP) Senators Iván Duque, Carlos Holmes Trujillo and Óscar Iván Zuluaga during the referendum debate in the Senate on 29 November 2016.Hide Footnote

The Constitutional Court also allowed Congress to activate the fast-track system laid out in the Legislative Act for Peace for approving the more than 50 laws needed to implement the peace agreement while avoiding the standard four or eight congressional readings of each bill. Considered essential – the FARC even said it would otherwise return to war – fast-track enabled Congress to approve key legislation, including the amnesty law passed at the end of December.[fn]“‘Sin ‘fast track’ volveríamos al monte’”, Semana Video, n.d.Hide Footnote

Avoiding a second plebiscite and securing fast-track procedures for peace agreement legislation have been essential to rapid recovery of the peace process. However, the way in which the government has acted makes rejection of the peace accord and its implementation – partially or wholly – a profitable political platform for 2018, as the opposition will continue to argue there has been no new peace agreement, and that the 2 October plebiscite was thwarted. Implementation in the medium- and long-term thus is at serious risk.

B. To 2018 and Beyond

As in the 2014 elections, peace will be at the heart of the national vote in 2018. The peace agreement will be central in the opposition’s congressional and presidential platforms.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, opposition negotiators, Bogotá, 11 and 30 November 2016.Hide Footnote With Uribe and other leading opposition figures set against the peace agreement and portraying themselves as the saviours of democracy, and with Vice President Vargas Lleras another contender, the likelihood of an anti-agreement candidate winning the presidency is high.[fn]Colombian presidential politics is a mix of traditional patronage networks and political identities, powerful families and opinion-based voting. Uribe will be able to mobilise perhaps around four million supporters for his preferred candidate. Vargas Lleras has the highest favourability of any politician (61 per cent), followed by Uribe (57 per cent), though recent scandals in his Radical Change party, may weaken him. Nonetheless, his patronage networks are unmatched. Marta Lucía Ramírez, Conservative party, had a good first round in 2014, and has a favourable rating of 41 per cent, but her party is regionally weak. On the pro-agreement side, the likely Liberal party candidate, Humberto de la Calle, has a 54 per cent rating. His party, though, can no longer count on votes from its 2014 alliance with Cambio Radical and is still weakened by old divisions. The Greens and Democratic Pole are relatively weak. “Gallup Colombia Poll #116”, December 2016. “Elecciones Presidenciales: Resultados”, Registraduría Nacional del Estado Civil, s.f.Hide Footnote Full implementation of the accord would then be in jeopardy.

Coalition-building will be crucial for the next president and Congress.[fn]Alliances are a constant in presidential elections, as parties make agreements after the first round to support one of two remaining candidates. In 2018, many coalitions will likely already exist due to shared positions on the peace agreement. After the plebiscite, the power of various actors within those coalitions is hard to judge and not static.Hide Footnote The numerous possible presidential candidates within the “no” movement, including Marta Lucía Ramírez, Óscar Iván Zuluaga, Iván Duque, Carlos Holmes Trujillo, and Alejandro Ordóñez, as well as Vargas Lleras, will make competition within and between parties fiercer than normal. In general, the Democratic Centre Party (DCP) starts with an edge, as its vote threshold is high, and Uribe, though barred from a new term, enjoys a certain cult of personality.[fn]“‘La estrategia del Sí tuvo muchos desaciertos’: Francisco Gutiérrez”, Semana, 8 October 2016; Crisis Group interview, political expert, 10 November 2016.Hide Footnote It is difficult to imagine a realistic scenario in which the DCP candidate does not make it to the second round of voting. As other opposition contenders look to increase their vote share, they have tended to portray themselves more radically as saviours of democracy and security.[fn]Alejandro Ordóñez has charged that because of how the peace accord was handled, Santos is consolidating a “dictatorship”. “En Colombia estamos ‘desde hace rato en una dictadura’: Alejandro Ordóñez”, Oiga Noticias, 26 October 2016. Marta Lucía Ramírez has called for a Constitutional Assembly to “redefine the functioning of established state organs, such as the presidency, Congress and the Courts”. “Colombia se está adentrando en una crisis de legitimidad institucional”, Ramírez, 22 December 2016.Hide Footnote

Vargas Lleras will be something of a wildcard. Though he keeps a low profile on the peace issue, the influence of his Radical Change party and the extent of his political patronage networks mean he commands many votes. He regards as his main opponent Humberto de la Calle, the most likely Liberal Party candidate, who, as the government’s chief negotiator with the FARC, is a staunch defender of the peace agreement. However, Vargas Lleras and Uribe have a poor relationship, despite certain gestures from the latter that could be interpreted as an invitation to an alliance.[fn]Tatiana Duque, “La estrategia disidente de Vargas”, La Silla Vacía, 28 November 2016; Crisis Group interview, high-level diplomat, Bogotá, 4 November 2016.Hide Footnote A possible outcome is a second round in the presidential election pitting the DCP against Vargas Lleras, with neither candidate strongly for implementing the whole peace agreement.[fn]Crisis Group interview, pro-accord senator, Bogotá, 30 November 2016. Vargas Lleras never had a strong position on the accord; recent information suggests he may oppose. Tatiana Duque, “Así se prepara Vargas Lleras para cuando le llegue su hora”, La Silla Vacía, 15 January 2017.Hide Footnote If he does not reach the second round, Vargas Lleras’s support would likely be decisive for the winner. He currently appears inclined more toward the DCP than pro-peace agreement parties.

Evangelical Christian churches will also be another major player in the run-up to the election. They are believed to have provided between one and two million votes to the “no” camp, and various religious leaders expect to play a central part in 2018.[fn]Natalio Cosoy, “El rol de las iglesias cristianas evangélicas en la victoria del “No” en el plebiscito de Colombia”, BBC Mundo, 5 October 2016; “El voto evangélico, clave en la victoria del ‘no’ en el plebiscito de Colombia”, El País de España, 13 October 2016. There is no way of knowing how many votes the churches provided, though they are widely credited with contributing two million to the “no” campaign. Some church actors did favour “yes”, but they are perceived as a minority.Hide Footnote The Christian “no” vote, however, is not homogeneous. While references to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) issues in the peace agreement were ripped out of context and used to anger most Evangelical voters, there is less consensus among these Christian communities on other issues, such as justice, the truth commission and land ownership. Some pastors and followers but not all seem interested in political influence.[fn]Cristianos: ¿el poder decisorio en la política?”, Semana, 29 October 2016; Crisis Group interview, Christian pastor involved in post-plebiscite negotiations, 3 November 2016.Hide Footnote

Crafting coalitions will also be a priority for parties looking to defend the peace agreement. Numerous parties favour peace but by themselves do not provide enough votes to secure a second-round candidacy, as their support is scattered. Creating a pro-agreement alliance would be a step toward assuring that a candidate willing to implement the accord reaches the second round. But such a coalition would feature a wide array of groups that disagree strongly on other issues.[fn]Crisis Group interview, pro-agreement senator, Bogotá, 30 November 2016. For example, Jorge Robledo, Democratic Pole party senator and its possible presidential candidate, favours the accord but strongly opposes the government’s new tax bill, which parties that also support the deal back. “La peor reforma tributaria imaginable: Robledo”, Jorge Robledo, official website, 20 October 2016.Hide Footnote

The pro-agreement coalition would feature the Green Party, a force whose ability to mobilise votes is likely larger than its current representation in Congress; the Liberal and U parties, in which Santos has his roots and currently belongs respectively, and which are unlikely to make it to the second round, having done so in 2014 only because of their alliance with the Radical Change party in the first round; and what remains of the divided, left-leaning Democratic Pole party. Pro-agreement candidates will also have to find the right balance between supporting the accord and distancing themselves from Santos. The tax reform passed toward the end of 2016, which hiked value-added tax by three percentage points, the troubled economic conditions due to declining oil revenues and the president’s unpopularity make it essential that candidates who favour the peace process differentiate themselves from him and his government on other issues.[fn]President Santos’s 60 per cent disapproval rating, “Gallup Colombia Poll #116”, December 2016, is likely to worsen after a very unpopular tax reform in December. In 30 November Bolívar Plaza protests, when the House of Representatives voted on the new peace agreement, some accord protesters also held signs and chanted against the tax reform, believing it was connected to paying for peace and FARC reincorporation.Hide Footnote

Coalitions will also be decisive for forming a majority in Congress.[fn]Eighteen parties are in Congress; five parties competed in the first round of the last presidential election. Regionally-based small parties can amass just enough votes to enter Congress but not enough to be on the presidential ballot. See “Partidos y Bancadas”, Congreso Visible, s.f. “Elección de presidente y vicepresidente – primera vuelta”, Registraduría Nacional de Colombia, s.f.Hide Footnote The plebiscite result suggests the DCP could well increase its Senate representation. In the House of Representatives, however, it may find the going harder. Others tend to have greater regional success, including the Conservative, Liberal and U parties.[fn]Crisis Group interview, political expert, Bogotá, 10 November 2016. In the House of Representatives, the DCP has nineteen seats, six from Antioquia, five from Bogotá and eight from different departments. It has only one governor (Casanare). All but one of 27 Conservative party deputies are from outside Bogotá, as are 36 of 39 Liberals and 35 of 37 U party deputies. See “Elegidos Congreso de la República 2014-2018”, Registraduría Nacional, s.f.Hide Footnote To form congressional majorities, the DCP must count on other parties, making preservation of opposition unity vital for it. Pro-agreement parties will also seek to stay united on the issue to keep their congressional numbers.[fn]Crisis Group interview, opposition negotiator and senator, Bogotá, 30 November 2016.Hide Footnote

If the opposition does take power with a mandate against at least part of the peace agreement, implementation of the most contested areas could end. One option would be to modify laws that were impossible to change when they were originally passed due to the fast-track. Another would be to starve politically and financially key institutions, programs or policies. By underfunding them or undercutting their political importance, it could quickly make the accord an irrelevance.

The government has tried to prevent this by tabling a bill that would oblige future governments to implement the peace agreement, but this could be repealed or ignored after a shift in the balance of power.[fn]Proyecto de acto legislativo 01 de 2016 senado“, law proposed by Interior Minister Juan Fernando Cristo, 19 December 2016.Hide Footnote Pressure from abroad and vocal parts of Colombian society, however, might make it prohibitively costly to jettison the agreement. In that case, a commitment to continue implementing key parts of the agreement, such as transitional justice and humanitarian mechanisms, and not undo progress on other points, could be a viable goal for renewed dialogue between the government and opposition throughout 2017.

IV. Implementation and its Effect on Political Support

During 2017, congressional and presidential support for the agreement will be strong and stable. But popular support for its implementation is fragile and uncertain beyond the short term, putting full application of the accord at risk. A small window exists during which implementation could decisively shift backing in either direction, depending on success in carrying out fundamental parts of the pact and altering conditions in conflict-affected territories.

A. FARC Concerns

The effect on the FARC of political opposition to the peace agreement is likely to become more pronounced in coming months. Throughout the ceasefire, and particularly since the plebiscite, it has faced the risk of increased internal strains. The ceasefire violation in southern Bolívar is telling: the front operating there was unable to control its fighters or had simply continued extortion. A later expulsion of five mid-level commanders in the eastern plains, including Gentil Duarte, who had been put in charge of the faction of the First Front that supported the peace agreement, shows the strains at that level, whether due to political uncertainty, connections to lucrative illegal economies or both.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Tripartite Mechanism member, Bogotá, 9 November 2016. “FARC-EP separa a 5 mandos de sus filas”, FARC-EP, 16 December 2016. In June 2016, a First Front faction in Guaviare announced it would not be part of the agreement. FARC leadership then selected Duarte, a Central High Command member, to lead the part that still supported the peace accord.Hide Footnote

The political climate fosters one concern above all within the FARC: that the government will not fulfil its part of the accord. While the group, in its tenth conference in September 2016, ratified the whole peace agreement by consensus, the possibility of returning to the battlefield resurfaced in December, when Timochenko reminded fighters they might have to prepare for “plan B”: resumption of war. Such threats could increase if implementation is jeopardised.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, FARC members, Yarí plains, 15-25 September 2016. “Timochenko alerta a la tropa de las Farc: preparemos el plan B”, Las 2 Orillas, 8 December 2016.Hide Footnote

FARC dissidents could cause violence, which would produce a chain reaction on implementation and national political support for the agreement. There have already been reports of First Front violence in Guaviare and Vaupés.[fn]Defensoría alerta sobre reclutamiento forzado y extorsiones de bloque disidente de las Farc en Vaupés”, El Espectador, 11 November 2016.Hide Footnote Dissidence in the ranks of the Daniel Aldana Front has been confirmed in Tumaco, though it is not clear whether this is related to the peace process or a schism caused by the character of the front (formerly a mobile column). The death of Don Y, a leader of the dissident faction, at the hands of the FARC in November showed how infighting can lead to violence.[fn]‘Don Y’, el disidente de las Farc que azota a Tumaco”, La Silla Pacífica, 31 October 2016; “Las Farc mataron a ‘Don Y’”, La Silla Pacífica, 16 November 2016. Eduardo Álvarez, “Disidencias de las FARC: ¿Por qué lo hacen? ¿Qué tan peligrosas son?”, Razón Pública, 14 November 2016.Hide Footnote With other armed groups looking to take over Tumaco, home to a dense concentration of coca crops, increased violence there is probable. The removal of five commanders, plus a skirmish between eight dissident members of the 14th front and pro-agreement members of the Teófilo Forero mobile column, provide further examples.

After the weapons handover finishes, the possibility of FARC members returning to violence could grow, through dissidence or individual desertion from the reincorporation program. That program for ex-fighters is notably weak when it comes to a specific approach for mid-level commanders, who are used to handling large sums of money and enjoying political and military power. Many key details of the reincorporation process will only be decided after the census of FARC combatants is finished and Ecomun – the cooperative business the FARC is to run for their reintegration – is created. The political and humanitarian costs of fighters leaving the process to return to violence would be extremely high.[fn]“Lo que tiene que pasar este año para aterrizar los acuerdos”, La Silla Vacía, 10 January 2017. For more on FARC reincorporation, see Crisis Group Report, Colombia’s Final Steps, op. cit.Hide Footnote The already-established National Reincorporation Council and Ecomun will have key roles in keeping fighters involved.

In the immediate future, the first, most critical part of the timetable for both guerrillas and government is the weapons handover to the UN mission.[fn]On D-Day +90, FARC combatants will have to hand over 30 per cent of their weapons; on D-Day +120, another 30 per cent; and on D-Day +150, the remaining 40 per cent. By D-Day +60, the FARC will have had to hand over all light weapons, grenades, munitions and militia arms.Hide Footnote The end of FARC existence as an armed organisation is the crux of the peace agreement and was the government’s principal argument to muster support for quick renegotiation after the plebiscite. Typically, many challenges arise in such processes, including delays, logistical issues and incomplete handover of weapons, and these have already affected FARC concentration. Arms abandonment by the FARC will likely face other problems that the opposition could easily highlight to argue the process is faltering. Discovery of hidden arms, for example, would fuel a wary public’s mistrust. At the same time, lack of medium- and long-term political support for the agreement increases the possibility parts of the FARC will hedge their bets on peace and so risk further undermining public backing.[fn]Crisis Group interview, opposition negotiator, Bogotá, 30 November 2016; Pro-agreement senator, Bogotá, 30 November 2016. For more on the arms handover process, see Crisis Group Report, Colombia’s Final Steps, op. cit.Hide Footnote

A pressing reason for the FARC to prevaricate in this way is the killing of and threats against local social leaders. At least 90 killings and more than 230 threats were recorded in 2016.[fn]Armando Neira, “Asesinatos de líderes sociales, el lunar que deja el 2016”, El Tiempo, 28 December 2016. Eduardo Álvarez, “Quién sigue matando a los líderes sociales en Colombia?”, Razón Pública, 28 November 2016.Hide Footnote It is imperative that the government protect civilians in targeted communities, irrespective of who is doing the killings or whether paramilitaries are behind the wave of violence. If the hypothesis that armed groups moving into new territory and seizing control over illicit economies explains part of the killings, the government must make substantial progress on filling the power vacuum left by the FARC.[fn]Crisis Group interview, high-level diplomat, Bogotá, 28 November 2016.Hide Footnote Until then, the continued killing heightens the risk of fragmentation within the FARC and undermines the perceived benefits of peace locally.

The agreement on security guarantees, for the FARC and other activists and political actors locally, needs to be enforced quickly and effectively. The government should start by strengthening existing individual and collective protection schemes and work with local leaders on steps they can take to mitigate risks. This can be done while the FARC security system is set up during the weapons handover process. Opposition leaders should also increase the frequency and volume of their condemnations of such violence and clearly distinguish their arguments against the peace deal from the actions of violent saboteurs at the local level.[fn]This is not to say there is a connection between the opposition and this violence, but rather that perpetrators might be using opposition arguments to justify their actions.Hide Footnote The international community, already highly concerned by the violence, could raise the international visibility of these attacks by more frequent public condemnations and calls for justice.

B. Planning Successful Implementation

Weapons handover began poorly. Shockingly little had been done to install adequate infrastructure in the cantonment sites, causing delays in the first steps of the process.[fn]“Comunicado Conjunto Nº 10”, GOC and FARC-EP, 28 December 2016.Hide Footnote FARC fighters will gradually move from the pre-grouping sites as the 26 cantonments are finalised. By mid-January, land to house combatants had been rented in only seventeen. Only in two, Putumayo and Policarpa, Nariño, were FARC fighters able to stay and build the facilities they need to live. According to the government, preparation of cantonment infrastructure is moving fast.[fn]Gobierno acelera el paso para dejar listas las zonas veredales de Farc”, El Tiempo, 10 January 2017; “El 90% de los miembros de las Farc está a 10 km de zonas de desarme”, El Tiempo, 10 January 2017.Hide Footnote A renegotiated protocol has established that delivery of the materials needed to finish construction and the complete concentration of the FARC are to be accomplished by 31 January.[fn]“Acta de acuerdos de trabajo entre el gobierno nacional y las FARC-EP”, GOC and FARC-EP, 17 January 2017.Hide Footnote

While the first three deadlines – FARC concentration, destruction of unstable weapons and transfer of personal and militia-members’ small weapons to the cantonments – were not met, the government has insisted the rest of the handover process will go as scheduled. These targets could easily encounter problems, but it is essential they are met according to the accord’s terms to prevent feeding public mistrust of the group. To avoid this, fighters who arrive first in cantonments could be part of the 30 per cent to hand over their weapons at D-Day +90.

The UN mission and the Tripartite Mechanism to verify and monitor the ceasefire and weapons handover have key roles.[fn]UN: First 2 Deadlines in Colombia Cease-Fire Can’t Be Met”, The New York Times, 11 January 2017. “Ya tenemos 17 zonas arrendadas y 8 en trámite’: Carlos Córdoba”, Semana, 10 January 2017. “Para evitar más muertes, Sergio Jaramillo propone acelerar implementación de acuerdos”, El Espectador, 16 November 2016; “Intervención del Presidente Juan Manuel Santos en el acto de la Firma del Nuevo Acuerdo de Paz con las Farc”, Presidencia, 24 November 2016.Hide Footnote The former has already been engaged in verifying ceasefire violations but has also become entangled to some degree in a few incidents of improper behaviour. Though they were not directly involved, the governor of Antioquia’s accusations that under-age prostitution and heavy drinking by many FARC members in town centres suggested lack of clear information on the ceasefire process. The Tripartite Mechanism later confirmed there was no prostitution but verified a case in which a FARC member violated protocol, leaving the cantonment without permission and drinking and arguing with a civilian in a small hamlet. The governor toured the cantonments after the DCP openly supported him and subsequently backtracked on his original accusations. Still, the Tripartite Mechanism, including the UN mission, in effect became the arbiter between political rivals.[fn]La pelea entre las FARC y el gobernador de Antioquia”, Semana, 28 December 2016. “Mecanismo de monitoreo y verificación communicado de prensa”, Misión de la ONU en Colombia, 30 December 2016. “Uribe dice estar dispuesto a acompañar al gobernador de Antioquia a sitios de preconcentración”, RCN, 29 December 2016. “Así avanza la polémica revisión de las zonas de concentración en Antioquia“, Semana, 7 January 2016.Hide Footnote

More publicly, images of UN mission staff dancing with FARC members on New Years’ Eve led to an opposition outcry and claims that the mission’s credibility and impartiality had been impaired. The members involved were removed, though some questioned whether the incident had not been overblown.[fn]Misión de la onu en colombia separa a observadores de su servicio”, Misión de la ONU en Colombia, 5 January 2016. Marta Ruiz, “El episodio de los verificadores: un escándalo desproporcionado”, Semana, 6 January 2017.Hide Footnote

In its first report, which gained limited media and public attention due to the focus on the alleged scandals, the UN mission stated that 280 observers were in the country, with the number to increase to 450 in January, though the civilian component has lagged behind deployment of the military. A balance between the civilian and military parts of the mission is essential, especially in maintaining strong relationships between the mission, local authorities and communities. By 7 December, the mission had also successfully monitored 183 movements of FARC fighters and dealt with 27 requests for verification, only nine of which could be investigated as eighteen were not within its mandate.[fn]Primer informe de actividades del MM&V”, Mecanismo y Monitoreo y Verificación, 30 December 2016.Hide Footnote

The troubled start to concentration of FARC forces should not obscure the importance of the mission’s role in the future handover of weapons. Complete deployment of personnel across all cantonment sites and regular release of updates to the media beyond its regular reports, with consent of the government and FARC, would help enhance the mission’s effectiveness and public standing, as well as the public’s perception of progress. The mission should also work closely with the government and FARC to push them to follow the weapons handover schedule laid out in the peace agreement, despite early delays.

A robust communications strategy for when the FARC hands over weapons is crucial to gain support for the process. The opposition has not made the early delays the focal point of its complaints, concentrating instead on the relationship between the UN, the government and FARC. Its grievances have been based on mistrust of the guerrillas, which would only be fuelled by an insufficiently transparent weapons handover. To overcome scepticism, the FARC would be well advised to drop its long-held misgivings and allow publication of photos of fighters handing over weapons to the UN mission. Its new media savviness, which has bolstered its poor public image, and its interest in generating political capital suggest it may do so.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, FARC negotiator, Havana, 9 June 2016; high-level diplomat, Bogotá, 28 November 2016. “Nueva estética de las Farc, ¿Estrategia mediática o cambio verdadero?”, Semana, 12 November 2016.Hide Footnote The cost of not doing so could be proliferation of claims that the FARC have held back some weapons.

The handover is due to end six months after D-Day, but the Special Jurisdiction for Peace (SPJ) will not be operating by then. Given that justice was one of most controversial items in the peace accord, opposition scrutiny of the transitional justice system and misgivings about the SPJ will be prominent in the year’s debate. That benefits for FARC fighters, such as amnesties, security measures and reincorporation money will be provided early on, while SPJ sentences will be handed down much later, could create an impression that the FARC is being rewarded without having fulfilled any judicial or truth obligations.[fn]Crisis Group interview, member, international community, Bogotá, 14 December 2016.Hide Footnote As Congressional and presidential campaigns enter their final stretch, the SPJ will likely be hearing its first cases. How it handles them and how the accused behave toward the courts, will surely be closely scrutinised by the opposition and voters.

The FARC should cooperate as much as possible with transitional justice mechanisms, including the SPJ, the truth commission and efforts to find remains of victims of forced disappearance. By proving commitment to fulfilling their obligations even at personal cost, FARC leaders could sway opinions on peace and undercut opposition arguments. Not doing so or using the new judicial mechanisms to defend its war effort, point fingers and/or deny responsibility in high-profile cases would strengthen opinion against the guerrillas and the peace agreement. Members of the Armed Forces must also appear before the SPJ so as not to fuel a perception it is a mechanism aimed only against the FARC and protects state officials.

Public apologies for major war crimes should also remain part of FARC and government approaches to building support for the deal. FARC has apologised for killing eleven deputies in 2007; it should do the same for bombing the Nogal club in Bogotá in 2003. But these should not be public shows of remorse for political purposes.[fn]The public apology in La Chinita for a 1994 massacre had much show and little substance according to an attendee. Crisis Group interview, diplomat, Bogotá, 21 October 2016.Hide Footnote More generally, the focus on and participation of victims in early implementation and other peace activities should remain central, including efforts to find victims of forced disappearance and cooperation with the truth commission. Not doing so would undermine the argument that victims were central to the negotiation and the agreement’s legitimacy. Matters have been made more complicated since the plebiscite by disputes between different opposition and pro-agreement actors over the right to represent victims, a contest that will inevitably continue into the election season.[fn]Opposition actors claimed to speak for FARC victims, including Sofía Gaviria and Herbin Hoyos, as did government and pro-peace agreement leaders.Hide Footnote

The government also needs to continue educational work to create ownership of the accord by local and regional communities, as well as urbanites. Generating that sense would increase the political cost of non-implementation or diluting content. The opposition showed in the plebiscite that connecting the accord to people’s everyday lives, accurately or not, was an effective strategy.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, political activist and university professor, Bogotá, 16 November 2016; opposition negotiator, Bogotá, 30 November 2016. “El No ha sido la campaña más barata y más efectiva de la historia”, La República, 5 October 2016.Hide Footnote Proactive communication to show progress in implementation would be equally important.

A number of other important efforts related to the agreement, especially de-mining, will also be measures of tangible progress. It was recently announced that after 46 devices were destroyed over more than a year, Orejón, in Briceño, Antioquia, no longer has any landmines.[fn]Deicy Johana Pareja M., “El Orejón, la vereda que es ejemplo del desminado humanitario”, El Tiempo, 22 December 2016; “Vereda Orejón, municipio de Briceño (Antioquia)”, Dirección Contra Minas, n.d.Hide Footnote Such efforts, as well as coca crop substitution pilots and other quick-impact projects by different institutions, can help communities feel that peace has brought a major material change in their daily lives and create an expectation of economic and institutional development to come. The 700 projects that the post-conflict ministry recently announced it will begin or carry out in the first 100 days of peace, in addition to its Rapid Response Plan, will be crucial, but there is still a lack of financial and political backing within the government. Adequately managing local communities’ expectations will thus be essential.

Lastly, creation of a space to reinitiate and maintain political dialogue with the opposition on implementation should also be explored. This might begin by inviting “no” leaders to meetings on verification and/or implementation issues and help channel political debate toward serving the stability of the peace process rather than undermining it.[fn]Crisis Group interview, opposition negotiators, Bogotá, 8 and 30 November 2016.Hide Footnote

C. Peace and Other Armed Groups

Implementation of the renegotiated peace agreement faces major challenges at the regional and local levels due to the presence of other armed groups, which will in turn influence national support for the process. Foremost among these groups is the ELN, whose own putative peace process was not aligned with the FARC’s. Negotiations have not begun, though they are scheduled to start on 7 February.[fn]Fase pública de diálogos con el ELN se inicia el 8 de febrero”, El Espectador, 18 January 2017.Hide Footnote Trying to implement the FARC accord where the ELN is active poses acute dilemmas.

ELN violence will affect the government’s ability to implement the peace, especially as the group is expanding its presence and still operates in many priority conflict-affected areas, such as Catatumbo and Arauca (both on the Venezuelan border), as well as Cauca, Nariño and Chocó. Even aspects of the deal that have broad support are affected by the ELN presence, as shown in the Santa Rosa del Sur incident.[fn]“Tripartite Mechanism Communiqué: Government of Colombia and FARC-EP violated ceasefire in south Bolívar incident”, Tripartite Mechanism, 30 November 2016. The FARC fighters involved in the incident had presented themselves as ELN combatants, leading the army to attack them in the belief it would not be violating the ceasefire.Hide Footnote Establishing an effective state presence where control is still contested by armed groups will be costly in lives and resources. The integrity of peace with the FARC will also be at stake in areas where little is likely to change in terms of violence, such as Arauca, Cauca and Catatumbo.[fn]Some recent murders in Cauca, where killings have increased, have been attributed to the ELN. “Tres hombres asesinados en zona rural de Silvia, en el norte del Cauca”, El Tiempo, 20 September 2016. The ELN has also been accused of “killing communists” in Arauca. Carlos A. Lozano Guillén, “Mirador: Carta a Gabino (I)”, Periódico Voz, 2 September 2016.Hide Footnote The situation is aggravated where the FARC and ELN have made agreed or coordinated a transfer of territorial control, such as Cauca and Nariño.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, high-level diplomat, Bogotá, 2 August 2016; government official, Bogotà, 9 December 2016.Hide Footnote

Effective implementation of the FARC accord is also important to convince the ELN it can trust the government to fulfil agreements it signs with insurgents. After the plebiscite, the group internally questioned the merits of trusting the government to deliver on its promises, exacerbating mutual wariness that in any case has tended to be worse than what existed between government and FARC at the start of their negotiation.[fn]During secret government-FARC talks, the latter concluded that Santos was serious about peace. The ELN, years later and during talks to define a negotiation agenda, argued that Santos represented the same old political elite. This, for some in the ELN, has led to a view that negotiations with the government are the correct path, but not now. See Víctor de Currea-Lugo, “Eln dice estar listo para la paz, entrevista con Antonio García”, El Espectador, 9 December 2016. Crisis Group interview, ELN experts, Bogotá, 3 October 2016; Yarí plains, 23 September 2016.Hide Footnote Any further deterioration in ELN confidence in the state would imperil the possibility of a peace accord with it in the near future. It would also be calamitous with regard to public support if ELN presence became a reason for failure to implement the FARC agreement, which in turn would lead the ELN to continue to mistrust the government’s ability to deliver on peace.

Other armed groups, such as neo-paramilitaries and the remnants of the Popular Liberation Army (EPL) will also create difficulties for implementation on a local level.[fn]This report uses the term “neo-paramilitary” instead of criminal bands or Bacrim, per Soledad Granada, Jorge A. Restrepo and Alonso Tobón García, “Neoparamilitarismo en Colombia: una herramienta conceptual para la interpretación de dinámicas recientes del conflicto armado colombiano”, in Restrepo and David Aponte (eds.), Guerra y violencias en Colombia Herramientas e interpretaciones (Bogotá, 2009), pp. 467-499. The Libardo Mora Toro front, the remains of the EPL, operates in the Catatumbo region. It is the only dissident front from the 1991 EPL peace process that still exists.Hide Footnote Both have been moving into areas of former FARC control for some time and will continue to do so unless stronger judicial, political and law-enforcement action is taken against them. Colombia is witnessing a resurgence in coca cultivation, and crop substitution programs designed by the peace accord will take time to have an effect.[fn]According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), coca cultivation in 2015 increased by almost 40 per cent, to 96,000 hectares. “Colombia: Monitoreo de territorios afectados por cultivos ilícitos 2015”, UNODC, July 2016.Hide Footnote If other armed groups take control of areas with illicit crops before the state can, they could directly stimulate new dynamics of violence and influence the success or failure of crop substitution.

Many social movements believe the neo-paramilitaries – mainly the Gaitán Self-defence Forces (AGC) – are behind the recent increase in killings of local activists, whether for political or economic reasons.[fn]The AGC, also known as the Gulf Cartel, Úsuga Clan or Urabeños, was created and became heavily involved in drug trafficking after the paramilitary demobilisations that ended in 2006.Hide Footnote Evidence for this is patchy, however, and there does not appear to be one specific phenomenon or organisation responsible.[fn]Some interpret the killings as done by paramilitaries under the direct influence of high-level political opposition, though there has been no evidence connecting the two. See Oto Higuita, “¿Por qué están asesinando a los voceros e integrantes del Marcha Patriótica?”, Prensa Rural, 2 December 2016. “¿Quién está ordenando matar a los líderes sociales en Colombia?”, El Colombiano, 27 November 2016. Eduardo González, “¿Quién sigue matando a los líderes sociales en Colombia?”, Razón Pública, 28 November 2016. Crisis Group telephone interview, high-level diplomat, 28 November 2016.Hide Footnote The ELN is behind some killings, as in Arauca; local armed groups connected to local political elites play roles in others, such as in Urabá; and in yet other areas, such as Caguán, the possible arrival of new armed groups might be the main factor.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, government official, Bogotá, 2 December 2016; political analyst, Bogotá, 9 Jul 2016; high-level diplomat, Bogotá, 28 November 2016. Eduardo González, “¿Quién sigue matando a los líderes sociales en Colombia?”, Razón Pública, 28 November 2016.Hide Footnote Even so, the sense that political violence is on the rise makes implementation more difficult, not only because of its effect on FARC’s transition to civilian life, but also because community leaders may come to see participation in peace mechanisms as personally risky.[fn]This is already a risk, as the renegotiated accord weakens community participation. Juanita León, “La gran diferencia entre el Acuerdo I y el Acuerdo II”, La Silla Vacía, 15 November 2016.Hide Footnote

While the agreement includes various initiatives aimed against these groups, including the new investigative unit in the attorney general’s office, and calls for international support to the initiatives, these will be necessary but likely insufficient to constrain new patterns of coercion on the ground. A clear risk exists that implementation of the peace agreement could lead to greater violence in certain areas if the state does not move quickly enough to protect local populations and also to combat neo-paramilitary groups.

There are various explanations for the prospect of a spike in criminal and political violence once the peace accord gets underway. First, armed groups could clash over control of areas the FARC leave, as has occurred between the ELN and AGC. These will be areas with strong illegal economies, trafficking routes and militarily strategic points, such as Tumaco, Chocó and the Nudo de Paramillo, for example. Other reasons are more political. While some concerns of local land-holding elites regarding rural reform aspects were addressed in the new accord, others remain and have led some of those landholders to reject the renegotiated deal.[fn]Crisis Group interview, government official, Bogotá, 9 December 2016.Hide Footnote If the relationship between some of these elites and illegal armed groups and/or actors stays in place but is targeted toward the accord’s land distribution terms, violence could well increase, including in areas traditionally vulnerable to land conflict such as Urabá.[fn]James Bargent, “BACRIM Vuelve a sus Raíces Paramilitares en la Lucha por la Tierra en Colombia”, Insight Crime, 19 July 2013.Hide Footnote

Another possible source of violence prompted by the peace accord’s implementation is continuation of attacks against social leaders due to the perceived imminent opening of the political system regionally and locally, including the sixteen special circumscriptions in Congress for conflict-affected areas.[fn]The peace agreement creates sixteen special constituencies in Congress so that conflict-affected regions can have a stronger voice in legislation and policymaking. The idea is that those who run for these seats not be part of established political parties (including that to be established by the FARC), represent isolated regions and give a voice to victims. See “Acuerdo final para la terminación del conflicto y la construcción de una paz estable y duradera”, GOC and FARC-EP, 24 November 2016, p. 54.Hide Footnote Such local, conservatively-minded political violence has history in Colombia and explains how the paramilitaries gained so much power in the 1980s and 1990s.[fn]Mauricio Romero, Paramilitares y Autodefensas (1982-2003), IEPRI (Bogotá, 2003).Hide Footnote A spike of violence in this spirit would be qualitatively similar to that against the Patriotic Union (UP) in those decades, though it is very unlikely to reach the same level. Too many international actors are already concerned and attentive, thus raising its cost.

D. Institution Building

Violence and security on the ground are not the only issues that could dent political support for the agreement in 2017. Much of the problem for smooth implementation stems from the institutions meant to manage the war-peace transition. Some national-level ones barely exist beyond paper, with little staff or capacity to execute budgets or projects: these include the National Land Agency, the Territorial Renovation Agency and the Agency for Rural Development.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, high-level diplomat, Bogotá, 28 November 2016.Hide Footnote If unable to execute on the ground, the state will risk losing the chance to gain local legitimacy. Since they are coming into existence at a time of tight caps on public spending, their financial and political support is also very fragile, especially given the current and historical resistance to rural reform. Facing the threat of being starved of resources or steered toward invisibility over time, as has happened with previous rural-focused institutions, they badly need an injection of high-level support, money and staff.[fn]For a quick review of land reform and institutional issue literature, see La política de reforma agraria y tierras en Colombia Esbozo de una memoria institucional, Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica (Bogotá, 2013).Hide Footnote

Institutional fragmentation at different levels poses additional dilemmas. Political pressure to combat increasing coca cultivation has led various state actors to adopt rival strategies, some of which could be contrary to the accord’s spirit. This risk will grow if the opposition comes to power in 2018. Local political actors also have insufficient institutional and technical capacity to implement many parts of the agreement, and in some cases, their willingness will be fragile, unless they feel they can obtain financial resources for their regions.[fn]Crisis Group interview, political analyst, Bogotá, 3 December 2016.Hide Footnote

The Rapid Response Plan (RRP), designed by the post-conflict ministry (MPC) but to be implemented with and by various other institutions, needs both political and financial support. The friction between implementing institutions, the MPC and the High Commissioner for Peace’s Office remains a problem, as some institutions feel the latter two overstep their bounds and are too influential. Lack of a clear transition from the RRP to implementation of longer-term aspects of the peace agreement also raises broader concerns.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, government official, Bogotá, 9 December 2016; political analyst, Bogotá, 2 December 2016.Hide Footnote Stronger leadership from above, complemented by international community pressure, is needed.

V. A Role for the International Community

The international community has focused on supporting the peace process and ensuring it concludes with a feasible, robust agreement. It has done so by providing economic resources for state institutions and civil society actors working on peace issues; political backing for the process; delegates from the guarantor and accompanying nations and special envoys from the U.S., European Union and Germany; and technical support on implementation issues, such as support for local justice mechanisms and formalisation of land titles. Such backing remains essential.

A. Implementation and Political Support

In the current political context, a quick start to implementation, with early victories, is ever more required. Though the plebiscite suggested that high-level international support was less effective than anticipated, the delegates and envoys who aided the negotiations should continue to press for the agreement to be carried out. Not only could they be helpful in resolving disputes and influencing the government and FARC, but they will also be able to highlight the broad foreign commitment to peace in Colombia.[fn]The U.S. special envoy to the peace talks, Bernie Aronson, no longer plays this role, and no replacement is in sight. The U.S. Secretary of State nominee, Rex Tillerson, stated in a written response to questions as part of his confirmation process, that the U.S. would have to “review” the new peace agreement to determine which parts it would support. “Trump’s state nominee raises doubts on Colombia peace pact”, The Washington Post, 22 January 2017.Hide Footnote The rural reform pact in particular will face political resistance on different levels, and the international community can play a vital role in raising the cost of obstructing or ignoring it. Financial aid and pushing the government to get key institutions functioning would be major contributions.

International support can also influence FARC decisions, especially if an opposition government proposes changes to, rejects or is unwilling to implement parts of the accord. Given the group’s concerns with full implementation, a change in government could undermine its commitment to peace, leading to fragmentation as some of the organisation return to organised violence. Pressing the FARC to maintain its commitment to peace will be vital. Here the second UN mission, requested in the peace accord to monitor FARC political participation, reincorporation and security guarantees, will have a vital role in maintaining trust between the guerrillas and government. It will also be politically contentious, as its mandate covers the most controversial issue in the new agreement, namely the FARC’s participation in politics. It will need to be functioning quite soon in order to respond to its mandate; early preparation to take advantage of the period before its mandate begins is essential.

Financial aid will also be vital, especially beyond 2017. Colombia is currently unable to fully afford its post-conflict pledges, something that the international community has committed to make good. In the longer term, financial support might help persuade a new government to honour disputed aspects of the accord. Partners could also work directly with local governments, providing financial and technical assistance and ensuring that political differences between local, regional and national levels do not impede implementation.[fn]Crisis Group interview, political analyst, Bogotá, 3 December 2016.Hide Footnote Finally, international non-state actors will also need funding, such as the UN High Commissioners for Refugees and Human Rights, among others, who have important post-conflict roles on displacement, border issues and violence, all risks to a successful transition from war to peace.

B. The Special Issue of Drugs

It is unlikely that a decrease in coca cultivation resulting from application of the peace agreement will occur before 2018. New programs need time and will be largely emasculated if support wavers. Recent coca production increases have made the drug issue important again to preventing violence, but also politically critical. The opposition points to rising hectarage to argue that drug policy is not working due to concessions made to the FARC, including prohibition of aerial fumigation. Drug policy also is a source of tension within the government and between Bogotá and local communities.[fn]“Procurador colombiano acusa a Santos de proteger cultivos de las FARC”, El Nuevo Heraldo, 18 April 2016; “Uribe considera que fin de aspersiones con glifosato es exigencia de las Farc”, El Nuevo Heraldo, 10 May 2015. Between July and September 2016, protests by coca growers, mainly in Putumayo, lasted 39 days, as peasants rejected the use of fumigation chemicals applied on the ground during manual eradication. Peasants in Putumayo also have voiced concerns over drug policy and implementation of the peace agreements on crop substitution. See “Razones del paro cocalero en Putumayo”, El Espectador, 19 August 2016; “Levantan protesta cocalera en Putumayo”, El País de Cali, 7 September 2016; Crisis Group interviews, local leaders and coca growers, 20-24 March 2016. Within the government, new Attorney General Néstor Martínez has called for fumigation to be reinstated but with new chemicals. “Fiscal pide volver a la fumigación aérea contra los cultivos ilícitos”, El Tiempo, 4 September 2016.Hide Footnote When published this year, cultivation data will show another increase in 2016, before crop substitution programs derived from the peace deal begin. This may increase calls for traditional policy, including forced eradication. The government plan to substitute and forcefully eradicate 50,000 hectares each in 2017 is probably unreachable and will also create serious tensions on the ground. The forced eradication will also produce unnecessary tension with the FARC and close the state’s window to gain legitimacy in areas highly affected by coca cultivation.

The international community, especially the U.S., should give the agreement on illicit drugs a chance to prove itself and not expect immediate decreases in illicit crop cultivation. The focus should instead be on strengthening interdiction within and outside Colombia and supporting the rapid and effective implementation of the relevant points of the peace agreement. Prioritising such implementation over national and international political interests related to traditional counter-narcotics policy will be critical, not least because returning to costly forced manual eradication, the results of which are easily reversible, is no guarantee of success.

VI. Conclusion

Colombia has signed and ratified the peace agreement, and the whole of the FARC will soon be in cantonment sites, where they will hand over their weapons and begin transition to civilian life. While this is cause for celebration, how peace was signed and approved was highly controversial, and the agreement appears to lack broad, stable, sustainable political support. Implementation is threatened on several fronts, and with a united and strengthened opposition, the future looks somewhat bleak for pro-agreement leaders. The peace deal is likely to be a target for multiple grievances in the 2018 presidential election, which may produce a result not unlike that of the 2 October 2016 plebiscite.

Substantial and rapid progress on implementing crucial aspects of the agreement is needed in 2017 to shift the balance in favour of the accord. The difficult national and local contexts – a financial shortfall, a stuttering peace process with the ELN, weak institutions and internal government rivalries and high levels of targeted killings in rural areas – mean implementation faces concrete threats that have been partly aggravated by political disputes over the peace agreement. If efforts to apply the accord do not overcome these initial hurdles, parts of it may be condemned to failure before they have a chance to succeed. If that happens, FARC commitment to peace, the possibility of a similar negotiation with the ELN and prospects for addressing the root issues in the long armed conflict will all be in doubt. The immediate political battle to finalise the agreement has been won, but it is premature to declare victory for peace.

Bogotá/Brussels, 31 January 2017

Appendix A: Map of Colombia

Map of Colombia AB Carto/International Crisis Group
Honduran riot police stand guard during a demonstration demanding President Juan Orlando Hernandez resignation for his alleged links to drug trafficking in Tegucigalpa, on 21 October 2019. AFP/Orlando Sierra
Report 77 / Latin America & Caribbean

Fight and Flight: Tackling the Roots of Honduras’ Emergency

Despite U.S. restrictions on Central American migration, Hondurans are fleeing north in record numbers as the country struggles with polarised government, corruption, poverty and violence. With outside help, Tegucigalpa should revisit its heavy-handed security policies and enact judicial and electoral reforms to avert future upheaval. 

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What happened? Months of street protests and a mass northward exodus, despite a sustained U.S. campaign to deter Central American migrants, illustrate the depth of despair in Honduras at political leaders, gang violence, extortion, poverty and inequality.

Why does it matter? State security crackdowns against a backdrop of extreme political polarisation dating back to the 2009 coup, fuelled by scandals over alleged links between the ruling party and criminal networks, could further fuel violent unrest. Washington’s fixation on bottling up migrant flows in the region risks making a bad situation worse.

What should be done? With support from the U.S. and other donors, the Honduran government should enact electoral and anti-corruption reforms and grant stronger investigative powers to the judiciary and police, avoid heavy-handed responses to civil unrest, and fund programs that address urgent humanitarian needs while also reducing violence, a key driver of migration.

Executive Summary

In a troubled region, Honduras stands out for its political convulsions, deadly gang presence, and the desperate flight of its people. A key U.S. ally in Central America despite recent strains on that relationship, President Juan Orlando Hernández’s government confronts profound public malaise. Discontent runs high with political leaders accused of exercising one-party rule since the 2009 coup and of colluding with organised crime. Six out of ten Hondurans live in poverty, while violent crime thrives, generating some of Latin America’s worst murder rates. Political, economic and security grievances have fuelled mass protests in recent years, and account for the huge rise in Honduran migrants and refugees heading north. But the government’s crackdown on protests and the draconian treatment of Central American migrants spearheaded by U.S. President Donald Trump risk aggravating instability and deepening the region’s humanitarian and security crisis. Backed by the U.S. and donors, Tegucigalpa should focus on reforms and programs that could eventually make flight a less compelling option.

Ruled since 2014 by President Hernández, Honduras has witnessed a steady concentration of power in the ruling National Party’s hands and increasingly heavy-handed law enforcement. The Nationalists have taken some promising steps in their time in power. Moves to purge corrupt police forces, implement tough law enforcement measures and extradite drug traffickers have broken up cartels and reportedly halved the homicide rate after it reached a historic high eight years ago.

Honduras still suffers the toxic political and public legacy of the June 2009 coup.

But these changes have not brought stability. Waves of post-election protests shook the country in late 2017, and were followed by other surges of unrest in 2019 when the government announced plans for controversial health and education reforms. Public discontent has propelled a surge in emigration. From October 2018 to end-August 2019, U.S. border patrols apprehended more than 240,000 Hondurans trying to cross into the U.S. from Mexico (approximately 2.5 per cent of Honduras’ population).

Several reasons account for this disaffection. For one, Honduras still suffers the toxic political and public legacy of the June 2009 coup, in which the left-leaning Manuel Zelaya was deposed and exiled abroad for allegedly seeking re-election and straying too close to Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela. The conservative National Party has since ruled the country, appointed supporters to state and judicial institutions, and reportedly abused its power through corruption and criminal collusion. Zelaya, who returned to Honduras in 2011, has emerged as the main opposition figure, exploiting dissatisfaction with public institutions and inequality in a society where only 20 per cent of people earn the paltry minimum wage. He has encouraged Hondurans to take to the streets, including after the contested November 2017 elections, when mass public unrest was met with police repression and left at least 23 dead, chiefly on the protesters’ side. After a U.S. court convicted the president’s brother on drug trafficking charges in October 2019, Zelaya and other opposition leaders called for mass protest until the president resigns.

Notwithstanding the reduction in homicide and the break-up of drug cartels, the grip of street gangs and extortion rackets on Honduran communities remains strong.

A second cause lies in Honduras’ criminal underworld. Notwithstanding the reduction in homicide (which has tailed off in 2019) and the break-up of drug cartels – especially in trafficking hubs like the country’s second city San Pedro Sula and along the Atlantic coast – the grip of street gangs and extortion rackets on Honduran communities remains strong. The murder rate is still stubbornly high – Honduras was third in Latin America in terms of lethal violence last year, behind only Venezuela and El Salvador – while the flight from violence explains between 20 and 40 per cent of the country’s emigration. Reported abuses by the security forces, their alleged collusion with criminal organisations and high impunity rates for serious crimes help drive public frustration with state institutions and allow gangs and other criminal organisations to use violence to tighten their grip on communities, with pernicious effects on women and children in particular.

Honduras faces higher risks of turbulence and emigration in the years ahead unless its government and international partners find a way to start addressing the problems that push so many Hondurans to flee the country. Short-term fixes that focus on symptoms rather than drivers of unrest – such as Tegucigalpa’s crackdown on protesters or Washington’s arm-twisting to force regional governments to host migrants under asylum cooperation agreements, the so-called “Safe Third Country Agreements” – will leave the causes of instability to fester. In this vein, the U.S. suspension of assistance that might have helped Honduras address the conditions driving migration, which has been only partly reversed to allow for the continuation of security and law enforcement aid, is both callous and counter-productive.

Though the many challenges Honduras confronts have no easy fixes, the government and its partners can certainly take steps toward security and better government. With U.S. and other donor support, Tegucigalpa can build on the agreements reached under UN auspices to reduce political tensions, focusing in particular on enacting political and electoral reforms thrashed out in a UN-sponsored dialogue last year. The same parties should back a fresh mandate for the Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH), created in conjunction with the Organization of American States to prosecute high-level graft. For its part, the government should shift away from militarised policing toward strengthening judicial and police investigations. And the U.S. government should resume assistance with a particular focus on programs that can address the conditions, like hunger, that drive Hondurans to flee, recognising that if Washington wants a future in which migrants do not throng to its borders every year then it will have to make more of an investment in it.

Bogotá/Brussels/Tegucigalpa, 25 October 2019

I. Introduction

Honduras is one of the poorest and most violent nations in Latin America. Even after years of declining murder rates, it ranked among the three deadliest countries in the region in 2018, with an annual murder rate of 40 homicides per 100,000 habitants.[fn]In 2018, only Venezuela and El Salvador had higher rates of lethal violence in Latin America, according to figures gathered by Insight Crime. As discussed below in Section III, the figure of 40 murders per 100,000 is reportedly down from a rate of 86.5 per 100,000 in 2011, although the rate reduction appears to have slowed – and even reversed itself – in 2019. “Insight Crime’s 2018 Homicide Round-Up”, Insight Crime, 22 January 2019.Hide Footnote It is plagued with extremely high levels of inequality, and more than 60 per cent of its 9.1 million inhabitants live in poverty.[fn]In 2017, Honduras’ Gini coefficient was around 0.5, second only to Brazil in Latin America. “The World Bank in Honduras”, World Bank. The Gini coefficient measures income dispersion on a scale from 0, representing a completely equal income distribution, to 1, in which one person earns all income.Hide Footnote

The country also has a spotty experience with democratic governance. After nearly two decades of military rule and a brief war with neighbouring El Salvador in 1969, Honduras returned to democracy in 1981 under a two-party system, although the armed forces continued to exert considerable influence over policymaking.[fn]Mario Posas, Honduras: Una democracia en proceso, Colección Visión de País, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), 2003, pp. 9-10.Hide Footnote With the backing of the government and military, Honduras became the centre for U.S. counter-insurgency operations in neighbouring Nicaragua in the 1980s.[fn]Malcolm Byrne and Peter Kornbluh, The Iran-Contra Affair: The Making of a Scandal, 1983-1988, (Ann Arbor, 1990).Hide Footnote

In 2009, a constitutional crisis followed by a coup upended the political order that had prevailed in Honduras for nearly three decades.

In 2009, a constitutional crisis followed by a coup upended the political order that had prevailed in Honduras for nearly three decades. Then-president Manuel Zelaya’s ouster and exile in June 2009 followed his attempt to retain power for an unconstitutional second term, and also reflected alarm in the mostly conservative political establishment about his alignment with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. Tensions escalated between Zelaya and his own centre-left Liberal Party, which worked with the Supreme Court, the military and the opposition National Party to remove him from power and establish an interim government that called a new election.[fn]“Para que los hechos no se repitan: Informe de la Comisión de la Verdad y la Reconciliación”, Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, July 2011.Hide Footnote An agreement between former president Porfirio Lobo from the National Party, which has ruled uninterruptedly since the coup, and the Organization of American States (OAS) allowed Zelaya to return to Honduras two years later.[fn]The agreement also allowed Honduras to rejoin the OAS after being expelled in the wake of the 2009 coup. “Para que los hechos no se repitan”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Zelaya went on to found the left-wing party “Libertad y Refundación”, known as Libre, displacing the internally divided Liberals as the main opposition group.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Liberal party political adviser, Tegucigalpa, 20 April 2018.Hide Footnote

Honduran politics since the coup have been dominated by two trends. On the one hand, the National Party, led since 2014 by President Juan Orlando Hernández, has practically erased checks and balances on state power by exerting growing influence over the judiciary and electoral institutions, and appointing intimate allies as high-level state officials. On the other, Zelaya’s Libre party and some Liberals have played a double game – intensifying their criticism of the moves by the ruling party that they describe as authoritarian, while simultaneously pursuing back room deals that afford them more power and posts in key state institutions.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, politicians, political analysts and civil society, Tegucigalpa, 4-8 March 2019.Hide Footnote

Demonstrations have often become vehicles for expressing anti-government sentiments and demanding President Hernández resign.

The net effect has been to heighten polarisation, increase public distrust of political elites and fuel recurrent tides of unrest. This became fully visible in the wake of the 2017 elections, when concerns about foul play at the polls, among other issues, sparked a public outcry and a month of protests that left 23 dead and 1,351 detained.[fn]Crisis Group Commentary, “Do the Numbers Lie? Mistrust and Military Lockdown after Honduras’ Disputed Poll”, 4 December 2017.Hide Footnote Protesters also took to the streets between April and June 2019, as trade unions mobilised in response to fears that health and education reforms enacted by the Honduran Congress would lead to mass privatisation and lay-offs in those sectors.[fn]Crisis Group Q&A, “Crackdown Raises Stakes as Honduran Protesters March On”, 2 July 2019.Hide Footnote These demonstrations have often become vehicles for expressing anti-government sentiments and demanding President Hernández resign, a call that has gathered steam after the president’s brother was convicted for drug trafficking in a U.S. court.[fn]“Hondureños exigen renuncia del presidente por supuestos vínculos con el narco”, Reuters, 9 October 2019. “Honduras President’s Brother Convicted in Drug-Conspiracy Case”, The Wall Street Journal, 18 October 2019.Hide Footnote

Criminal networks have exploited Honduras’ weak governing institutions and gaps in its security architecture. Drug cartels and gangs such as the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the 18th Street Gang run extortion rackets in the country’s impoverished urban areas and have turned the rural areas of the Caribbean coast into a regional transit hub for drug trafficking.[fn]For more on these issues, see Crisis Group Latin America Report N°52, Corridor of Violence: The Guatemala-Honduras Border, 4 June 2014; and Crisis Group Latin America Report N°62, Mafia of the Poor: Gang Violence and Extortion in Central America, 6 April 2017.Hide Footnote Although economic desperation remains the leading reason why Hondurans flee the country, and notwithstanding the government’s highly-touted achievements in bringing down the murder rate and making inroads against organised crime, insecurity remains an important driver of emigration. A lack of faith in national institutions helps drive flight as well.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, asylum seekers and humanitarian workers, Tegucigalpa, 20-23 February 2018. “Atlas of Migration in Northern Central America”, Food and Agriculture, 12 December 2018. “Sondeo de opinión pública 2018”, ERIC-SJ, April 2019.Hide Footnote

Ten years after the 2009 coup, this report describes Honduras’ most pressing political and security challenges, how they drive migration, how the response of the country’s most powerful foreign partner – the U.S. – threatens to lead the country and region further into crisis, and discusses steps that could start reversing negative trends. It is based on over 100 interviews in Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula over the past two years with high-level politicians, security experts, magistrates, NGOs, asylum-seekers, humanitarian workers, diplomats and academics, among others.

II. Honduras’ Enduring Political Crisis

A. The Political Legacy of the 2009 Coup

1. Two camps, three parties

Ten years on, the June 2009 coup still overshadows day-to-day political life in Honduras. “Since 2009, there are two camps in Honduras: one that supports the coup and one that sees in the government of [President] Hernández a soft dictatorship”, said one civil society leader.[fn]Crisis Group interview, civil society leader, Tegucigalpa, 21 June 2017.Hide Footnote

The pro-coup bloc is represented in the Honduran Congress by the National and Liberal parties, which engineered Zelaya’s ouster and continue to defend it. Their justifications include, among other things, Zelaya’s alignment with Venezuela, which the traditionally conservative political elites feared could be a first step toward socialism in Honduras, and his apparent manoeuvring to seek a second term in office, then prohibited by the constitution.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, political analyst, Tegucigalpa, March 2018. To create a legal opening to seek re-election, Zelaya proposed a referendum on the creation of a Constituent Assembly that would have the power to amend the constitution, and remove its prohibition on presidential re-election in Article 239. As discussed below, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court opposed the initiative at that time, but then struck down the prohibition on re-election in 2015.Hide Footnote This faction has been buoyed both internationally and domestically by support from the U.S., which, despite the Obama administration’s disapproval of the coup, recognised the results of the subsequent election that in November 2009 installed the National Party in power and has proved crucial to the gradual restoration of Honduras’ global standing.[fn]Initially, the U.S. cut financial support to the country (as did the EU) and revoked coup leaders’ visas. Over time, however, it recognised the result of the November elections but said the Honduran Congress should nevertheless vote on the restoration of deposed President Manuel Zelaya and form a government of national unity. These steps were never taken. “EU to warn Honduras of further sanctions over coup”, Reuters, 10 September 2009. “US Prepares Further Sanctions Against Honduras Coup Leaders”, Voice of America, 2 November 2009. “La OEA suspende la pertenencia de Honduras a la institución”, OAS statement, 5 July 2009. “U.S. recognizes Honduras vote with caveats”, Reuters, 29 November 2009.Hide Footnote Until President Trump recently turned on Tegucigalpa for its purported failure to curb migration flows, Washington has given firm backing to post-coup administrations.[fn]In a 16 July interview 2019, President Trump stated that the U.S. would not send any more money to Guatemala and Honduras because “they weren’t doing anything for us [the U.S.], they were forming caravans and they were sending them up”. He partly reversed the decision in October after signing asylum cooperation agreements with these countries. “Trump claims Honduras and Guatemala are sending ‘hardened criminals’ in caravans”, Washington Examiner, 16 July 2019. “U.S. restores aid to Central America after reaching migration deals”, Reuters, 16 October 2019.Hide Footnote

The roots of political division in Honduras go deeper than the coup, however, and also are bound up with competing ideologies, values, and support bases.

On the other side of the political divide is the left-wing Libertad y Refundación (Libre) Party headed by former President Zelaya.[fn]In 2017 congressional elections, Nationalists won with 61 seats (out of 128), Libre obtained 30 seats, while the Liberals suffered a historic defeat with only 26 seats.Hide Footnote Libre supporters led by Zelaya continue to see the National Party’s rule as the product of an illegitimate transfer of power, arguing that Zelaya (in his own words) “was taken away violently from the presidential chair”, and claim that they are working to restore democratic governance.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Manuel Zelaya, former president of Honduras, Tegucigalpa, 14 December 2017.Hide Footnote

The roots of political division in Honduras go deeper than the coup, however, and also are bound up with competing ideologies, values and support bases. The ruling National Party claims to champion conservative and Christian values.[fn]President Hernández is an active member of a Christian evangelical church and makes frequent references to the Bible in public speeches. “International Religious Freedom Report for 2017”, U.S. State Department, 29 May 2018. Crisis Group interviews, political analysts, Tegucigalpa, March-April 2018.Hide Footnote Its support network is mainly located in the capital Tegucigalpa, a traditionally conservative bastion, as well as in the impoverished farmlands of the country’s south and south east, where the party relies on extensive patronage to maintain voter loyalty.[fn]The 2017 EU Election Observation Mission report noted the intensely partisan use of government social programs in an effort to rally National Party support. EU Election Observation Mission Honduras 2017, final report, 6 March 2018, p. 10. Crisis Group interviews, opposition members and political analysts, Tegucigalpa, 9-10 November 2017. For a geographical distribution of Nationalist support, see the map of the 26 November 2017 general election results. Supreme Electoral Tribunal of Honduras official results.Hide Footnote

The fastest growing economic sectors have very little impact on the country’s unemployment and sky-high poverty rate.

Economic policies favouring trade with the U.S. and state-sponsored infrastructure projects have secured the Nationalists strong support from the private sector and extensive coverage in the largest media outlets, owned by Honduras’ most prominent businessmen.[fn]The EU Election Observation Mission for the 2017 elections noted “a significant imbalance [in media coverage] between the different candidates, and in favour of Juan Orlando Hernández” in the months prior to the election. Crisis Group interview, civil society leader, 21 June 2018. EU Election Observation Mission Honduras 2017, final report, 6 March 2018, p. 27.Hide Footnote Steady GDP growth in recent years has earned President Hernández the support of the business community; the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) estimated in July that the economy will grow by 3.5 per cent this year, one of the highest rates in Latin America. But this positive news has been undercut by recurrent protests and corruption scandals that have caused economic losses and the stagnation of foreign investment.[fn]Jorge Faraj, president of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Cortés, a leading private sector association based in the country’s most industrialised region, stated on 1 June that corruption and mismanagement have damaged the Honduran economy more than recent protests. Crisis Group telephone interview, political analyst, 12 June 2019. “Honduras pierde más con la conducción errónea del país: CCIC”, Criterio, 1 June 2019. For figures on direct foreign investment in Honduras, see Trading Economics’ website.Hide Footnote Critics also argue that the fastest growing economic sectors (eg, banking, financial and energy sectors, and information technology) have very little impact on the country’s unemployment and sky-high poverty rate.[fn]See more on unemployment, inequality and poverty in Section IV. “Informe de Cepal reafirma crecimiento económico, control de inflación y reducción de pobreza en Honduras”, Gobierno de la República de Honduras, 31 July 2019. “Fosdeh: informe de crecimiento económico de Cepal no es más que una trampa”, Tiempo Digital, 1 August 2019.Hide Footnote

Standing in ideological opposition to the Nationalists, the Libre party is young, committed to issues of social justice, and has close ties to popular movements and their champions among student and feminist associations, some grassroots human rights NGOs, and environmental activists.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Libre members and sociologist, Tegucigalpa, April 2018. “Crisis post electoral en Honduras”, Perspectivas No. 1/2018, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung report, January 2018.Hide Footnote The party has often aligned itself with the region’s left-wing governments in Nicaragua, Venezuela and Cuba, although its recent support for these allies has been more guarded in light of political turmoil in the first two countries.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Libre adviser, Tegucigalpa, 5 March 2019.Hide Footnote Libre’s support base is located in central and northern Honduras, especially around the Cortés department.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Libre members, Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, April 2018.Hide Footnote

Less prominent than either the National Party or Libre is the once-powerful Liberal Party to which Zelaya belonged before the 2009 coup. Ravaged by internal divisions that weakened and displaced it from its historic role as the main competitor to the National Party, the Liberal Party remains a centre-left force that depends increasingly for its support on the popularity of its local representatives.[fn]The party’s divisions arose over support or opposition to the 2009 coup. More recent frictions between party chief Luis Zelaya and its leader in Congress Carlos Flores have weakened the Liberals. Zelaya has been criticised for the party’s poor performance in recent elections and for allegedly authoritarian handling of party affairs. Crisis Group interviews, Liberal party members and advisers, and political analyst, Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, April 2018 and 4 March 2019.Hide Footnote

2. The consolidation of nationalist power

Nearly a decade in government and a solid majority in Congress have allowed the National Party to strengthen its control of the country’s main institutions. In 2012, when Hernández was president of Congress, he led a successful effort to expel four of the five magistrates of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court after they quashed a security initiative launched by former president Lobo.[fn]“Honduras: en riesgo de crisis institucional”, AFP, 12 December 2012.Hide Footnote In 2015, the same court, by then stacked with judges close to the ruling party, struck down a constitutional article limiting presidents to one term in office, arguing that it violated the candidate’s human rights. This allowed President Hernández to run for a second term in the 2017 elections.[fn]The ruling was highly controversial given that former president Zelaya was ousted in 2009 for seeking a referendum on more or less the same issue (ie, eligibility for a second presidential term). Joaquín Mejía Rivera and Rafael Jerez Moreno, “La reelección presidencial en Honduras”, Equipo de Reflexión, Investigación y Comunicación de la Compañía de Jesús en Honduras (ERIC-SJ), November 2018, pp. 83-84.Hide Footnote

The Nationalists have installed an influential cadre of political allies across the government and judiciary while cultivating cosy relations with the media. Mauricio Oliva, chair of Congress, Rolando Argueta, president of the Supreme Court, and David Matamoros, until recently head of the now disbanded Supreme Electoral Tribunal, are all reportedly close to the president.[fn]Crisis Group interview, political analyst, Tegucigalpa, 5 April 2017.Hide Footnote The net effect has been an erosion of checks and balances on the executive branch. “There are no counterweights in Honduras. Control [by the executive] over the country’s institutions is very clear”, said an observer in the diplomatic community.[fn]Crisis Group interview, diplomat, March 2017.Hide Footnote

With less access to public funds and limited representation in the country’s leading institutions, opposition parties have responded in two ways. In public, they have decried the ruling party’s power-consolidating moves as authoritarian, organising rallies to protest the “dictatorship” of President Hernández. Behind closed doors, however, most disputes among parties have focused on obtaining larger shares for the opposition across the government and in judicial bodies, while all parties appear to share a lack of enthusiasm for stronger anti-corruption legislation, perhaps reflecting a concern that all have something to lose from stricter scrutiny in this domain.[fn]An example of these pragmatic alliances was the pact in May 2017 by the three main parties, which held up approval of the Law on Clean Politics proposed by the MACCIH to control campaign funding. Another can be found in the election of the Attorney General Óscar Chinchilla in August 2013, as well as his re-election in 2018. Civil society representatives allege that Chinchilla is not really interested in prosecuting corruption due to his intimacy with the ruling elite. Crisis Group interviews, analysts and civil society leaders, Tegucigalpa, March-April 2018. “Ley de política limpia, cuando se ignora la política en el combate anti-corrupción”, El Pulso, 30 May 2017. “Honduras AG Re-election: A Pyrrhic Victory for the Status Quo?”, Insight Crime, 3 July 2018.Hide Footnote

B. Corruption and Collusion

The erosion of checks and balances on executive power over the past decade – and particularly the weakening of judicial oversight – has created fertile ground in Honduras for corruption and state collusion with actors engaged in illicit activities.[fn]Sarah Chayes, “When Corruption is the Operating System. The Case of Honduras”, Carnegie Endowment, 2017. On the character of political power, see Marvin Barahona, “Elites, redes de poder y régimen político en Honduras”, ERIC-SJ, July 2018.Hide Footnote

Corruption scandals have implicated politicians of every rank up to the president. As one MACCIH magistrate told Crisis Group: “Corruption in Honduras has been normalised, socialised, and institutionalised”.[fn]Crisis group interview, MACCIH magistrate, Tegucigalpa, 5 March 2019. The most prominent case dates to 2015, when high-ranking government officials were implicated in allegedly looting $300 million from the Honduran Institute of Social Security between 2010 and 2014 to fund their lavish lifestyles.[fn]Some civil society organisations have connected the diversion of resources away from the health system to an erosion in the quality of services and medicines that it provides. Movimiento Amplio por la Dignidad y la Justicia did so when it claimed in May 2015 that around 2,800 people had died in In-Home Supportive Services (IHSS) facilities between 2010 and 2014 due to lack of medical attention. For more information, see http://www.saqueoihss.com/. A recent epidemic of dengue fever in the country, which has caused around 150 deaths, has reignited public concern over the misuse of health service funds. “Sube a 144 la cifra de muertes por dengue grave en Honduras”, EFE, 30 September 2019.Hide Footnote During the course of an investigation it emerged that part of the embezzled funds allegedly supported Hernández’s presidential campaign in 2013.[fn]“Presidente hondureño acepta que su campaña recibió dinero de corrupción”, EFE, 4 June 2015. News of these allegations sparked mass protests – which became known as a movement of the “outraged” (in Spanish indignados) – that became a forum for demanding Hernández’s resignation. Hernández admitted receiving three million lempiras ($150,000), said he was not aware of its origins, and sought to defuse popular anger by working with the OAS to establish the MACCIH – a mechanism that, among other things, supports state prosecutors investigating graft.[fn]“Convenio entre la República de Honduras y la Secretaría General de la OEA”, 19 January 2016.

Criminal gangs are so territorially widespread that local politicking requires interaction between elected officials and gang members.

Politicians also reportedly work with organised crime at every level of government, starting at the grassroots. Criminal gangs are so territorially widespread that local politicking requires interaction between elected officials (or would-be elected officials) and gang members. “Logistically, it is impossible not to talk to them [gangs] if you want to campaign in their neighbourhoods”, said a member of the Liberal party in San Pedro Sula, although publicly the major parties tend to deny such conversations.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Liberal Party member, San Pedro Sula, March 2018.Hide Footnote

As to whether and how much the gangs influence elections, accounts vary wildly. On the one hand, National Party representatives alleged to Crisis Group that in the 2017 presidential elections gangs co-opted at least “150,000 people living in National Party strongholds in Tegucigalpa [to vote for their opponents]”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, National Party representatives, Tegucigalpa, 7 March 2019.Hide Footnote Security experts, meanwhile, maintain that certain gangs have worked on behalf of the National Party.[fn]Crisis Group phone interviews, security experts, April-June 2019.Hide Footnote By contrast, researchers from the Autonomous University of Honduras found “no evidence” of gang involvement in the 2017 electoral process.[fn]Crisis Group interview, academic, Tegucigalpa, 6 December 2018.Hide Footnote

Over the last decade the country’s most senior leaders have been credibly accused of working with drug trafficking groups.[fn]“When Corruption is the Operating System”, op. cit. “Un pato llamado Honduras”, El País, 13 July 2019.Hide Footnote According to documents filed by U.S. prosecutors in the trial of drug trafficker Hector Emilio Fernández (alias Don H), in 2005 then President-elect Zelaya allegedly received $2 million from the drug lord, although he denies the accusations.[fn]“Expresidente Manuel Zelaya niega haber recibido dinero de Don H”, La Prensa, 29 July 2019.Hide Footnote In 2017, drug lord Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga, one of the leaders of the Cachiros cartel who turned themselves in to U.S. authorities in 2015, testified that the group had business dealings with the ruling National Party, which included financing recent presidential campaigns.[fn]Fears of being killed by rival traffickers or being detained by Honduran authorities prompted the Maradiaga brothers, Devis Leonel and Javier Eriberto, to make a deal with the DEA and hand themselves in. Thanks also to Devis Leonel’s testimony, Fabio Lobo, son of former president Porfirio Lobo, was convicted in September 2017 for participating in drug operations alongside this cartel. For the full testimony of Rivera Maradiaga, see https://bit.ly/2nnr0K3. “Fabio Lobo condenado a 24 años de cárcel”, VOA, 5 September 2017.Hide Footnote Former Nationalist president Porfirio Lobo has always denied these accusations.[fn]“Pepe Lobo niega vínculos con Los Cachiros: “Un asesino, un sicario, quiere poner en duda mi testimonio de vida”, El Heraldo, 24 May 2019.Hide Footnote

The most recent and inflammatory scandal concerns allegations that President Hernández received drug money to consolidate his political power. In November 2018, his brother Juan Antonio was detained in the U.S. on drug-trafficking charges.[fn]“US charges Honduran president’s brother with drug conspiracy, AP News, 26 November 2018.Hide Footnote On 18 October 2019, he was convicted on four charges, including drug trafficking, and will face sentencing in early 2020, although his lawyers claim he is innocent and have announced they will appeal against the ruling.[fn]Juan Antonio Hernández was found guilty of smuggling around 200,000 kilos of cocaine into the U.S. between 2004 and 2018. The other charges involved weapons offences and lying to U.S. officials. He could spend the rest of his life in prison. “Honduran president’s brother guilty of drug smuggling”, BBC, 18 October 2019.Hide Footnote In court documents, U.S. prosecutors alleged Hernández’s 2013 campaign received $1.5 million of funding from drug proceeds. Prosecutors and trial witnesses, who were mostly convicted drug traffickers collaborating with U.S. authorities, even alleged that at the height of the 2013 presidential elections convicted Mexican drug lord “El Chapo” gave $1 million to Juan Antonio as a payoff intended for the president in order to protect his business partners – including the Valle brothers and Alexander Ardón, mayor of the town of El Paraíso.[fn]“‘El Chapo’ gave $1 million to Honduras leader’s brother, prosecutor says”, Los Angeles Times, 2 October 2019.Hide Footnote Hernández has vigorously denied these allegations, questioned the integrity of the prosecution case, and argued that they are the work of drug cartels striking back at him for tough law enforcement policies, in collaboration with opposition parties seeking political advantage.[fn]“Presidente Hernández: ‘Mel, Nasralla y Luis Zelaya deben renunciar a ser voceros del narcotráfico’”, Televisión Nacional de Honduras, 6 August 2019. “Honduran president hobbled after being implicated in brother’s bribery conviction”, Reuters, 19 October 2019.Hide Footnote

Against this backdrop, Honduran prosecutors and the MACCIH have worked closely together. They have brought some thirteen investigations against high-level criminal targets, and secured the conviction of former first lady Rosa Elena Bonilla, wife of former president Porfirio Lobo, on fraud and embezzlement charges. (Bonilla pleaded innocent and her lawyers filed an appeal to the Supreme Court on 8 October.)[fn]“Honduras ex-first lady bought jewellery with public funds”, BBC News, 5 September 2019.Hide Footnote In May 2019, MACCIH filed charges against twelve people in a money-laundering case involving drug proceeds.[fn]“UFECIC-MP/MACCIH-OAS Team Presents Twelfth Case of Integrated Criminal Investigation, entitled: ‘Narco-politics’”, OAS Press Release, 24 May 2019.Hide Footnote Although not formally included in the list, Lobo was mentioned in the case because he appointed some of the accused as directors of public infrastructure institutions and granted them multimillion-dollar contracts. He later accused the mission’s head of defamation and filed a complaint with the National Commissioner for Human Rights.[fn]“Pepe Lobo denuncia al vocero de la MACCIH ante el CONADEH”, Criterio, 4 June 2019.Hide Footnote

The mission has helped spearhead the selection of a group of anti-corruption judges within the Honduran judiciary, the creation of a dedicated unit in the Attorney General’s Office to investigate high-impact cases, and the establishment of a civic observatory on penal justice.[fn]The Anti-Corruption Unit of the Attorney General’s office (UFECIC) is MACCIH’s main partner in the Honduran judicial system. For more on MACCIH achievements and challenges, see “Avances y Desafíos: Informe sobre los primeros dos años de la Misión de Apoyo contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras (MACCIH)”, CLALS Working Paper n. 18, June 2018.Hide Footnote Moreover, the MACCIH has proposed legislation that would beef up the judiciary’s investigative powers. An example is the Law of Effective Collaboration, which encourages alleged criminals to cooperate with investigations and prosecutions in exchange for lighter sentences. The MACCIH presented the first draft in 2017 and the latest in February 2019, but Congress has repeatedly found ways to slow passage of the bill and shows little interest in its enactment.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, Pro Honduras Network, 17 July 2019.Hide Footnote On the other hand, Congress recently approved a law restoring immunity from prosecution for all parliamentarians in relation to their legislative activities.[fn]“Diputados hondureños aprueban la inmunidad parlamentaria”, La Prensa, 16 October 2019.Hide Footnote

With its mandate due to end in early 2020, the MACCIH faces an uncertain future.

Notwithstanding some success, Honduran prosecution units fighting crime and corruption still face significant challenges. One is that they lack sufficient staff and resources, with some prosecutors juggling backlogs of 200 to 300 cases.[fn]Crisis Group interview, civil society leader, Tegucigalpa, 7 March 2019. Crisis Group telephone interview, Pro Honduras Network, 17 July 2019.Hide Footnote Another is that tensions between OAS headquarters and MACCIH officials in Tegucigalpa over the management of the mission hampered its operations in its early days, though this is less of a problem of late.[fn]Tensions within the commission and between its spokesperson, former Peruvian prime minister Juan Jiménez Mayor, and the OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, reportedly led to the resignation of the former in February 2018. Since then, the mission has taken on a lower profile and carried out numerous investigations under the leadership of Brazilian attorney Luiz Antonio Guimarães, in charge until June 2019. Crisis Group interviews, diplomats, Tegucigalpa, February-March 2018; MACCIH representatives, Tegucigalpa, 5 March 2019.Hide Footnote Yet another challenge is that the mission’s efforts have predictably generated hostility from certain quarters. Congress reacted indignantly after the mission started an investigation probing whether more than 60 lawmakers repeatedly misused public funds allocated for local NGOs.[fn]In response, the Congress passed a bill in February 2018 to limit the Attorney General’s Office investigative powers. “La red de diputados corruptos en Honduras podría ser de 140 y no 60”, El País, 5 February 2018.Hide Footnote A group of lawmakers also sought a ruling from the Supreme Court that the MACCIH was unconstitutional. The court ruled in May 2018 that the mission was legal, but questioned the constitutionality of the dedicated anti-corruption prosecution unit formed under its auspices.[fn]“Fallo de corte en Honduras puede minar organismo anticorrupción”, Insight Crime, 4 June 2018.Hide Footnote

With its mandate due to end in early 2020, the MACCIH faces an uncertain future. The Honduran government has asked the OAS to provide an assessment of MACCIH’s performance before taking any decision, while in parallel proposing the creation of an Anti-Corruption National Observatory. Some civil society representatives fear this initiative could be aimed at dismantling the MACCIH and replacing it with a weaker body.[fn]The observatory is supposed to become active in 2020, coinciding with the end of MACCIH’s mandate. Crisis Group telephone interview, Pro Honduras Network, 17 July 2019. “Honduras allana camino para crear Observatorio Nacional Anticorrupción”, La Tribuna, 11 July 2019.Hide Footnote Ongoing investigations of National Party members could make President Hernández reluctant to extend its mandate, or lead him to propose a bill to Congress to reform the mission’s objectives (diminishing its investigatory capacity and making it less threatening to political elites) as a condition for a mandate extension.[fn]“Canciller hondureño solicita evaluar funcionamiento de la MACCIH”, La Prensa, 23 July 2019.Hide Footnote

Despite their reservations, Honduran lawmakers should redouble efforts to fight corruption, recognising that an outraged public is demanding progress, and that failure to respond could have implications for the country’s stability (see below). They should pass the Law of Effective Collaboration and assign more resources to national anti-corruption judicial units, as well as ensuring a fresh mandate to the MACCIH without weakening its powers. Making the most of its significant leverage with the Honduran government, the U.S. – which has in recent years been a strong supporter of the MACCIH – should urge the Honduran government to take these steps.

C. Public Unrest and Political Weakness

Against the backdrop of intense political polarisation, corruption and other criminal scandals involving senior Honduran officials and public institutions have fuelled widespread discontent with authorities that has flared into mass demonstrations and violence. An April 2019 survey by a Honduran media group registered extremely low approval rates for politicians and public officials: the National, Liberal and Libre parties had approval rates of between 15 and 17.6 per cent among those surveyed, and more than 80 per cent of respondents distrust the Supreme Court, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal or Congress.[fn]“Sondeo de opinión pública 2018”, ERIC-SJ, April 2019.Hide Footnote President Hernández’s approval rate has fallen to 38 per cent, down from 61 per cent in 2017.[fn]“CID-Gallup: paz social es lo que más desean los hondureños”, La Prensa, 24 September 2019.Hide Footnote The slogan “Fuera JOH” (“Get Out Juan Orlando Hernández”) is a common battle cry among his administration’s opponents, but also represents a deeper frustration with Honduran politics. It is, in the words of one academic, “a scream against corruption, impunity, insecurity and everything that [Honduran] politics represents”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, academic, 21 February 2018.Hide Footnote

The 2017 post-electoral crisis showcased the extent of public dissatisfaction and may have marked a turning point. The sense among many Hondurans that the election had been rigged arose partly out of the way election results emerged. The Supreme Electoral Tribunal delayed the announcement of the first count – in which the ruling National Party was losing by a small margin – for several hours. But the candidates’ fortunes reversed during a weeklong vote count, and electoral authorities declared Hernández the winner.[fn]Concerns about National Party influence in the Supreme Electoral Tribunal as well as the 2015 Supreme Court ruling on re-election fuelled the controversy. The report by the OAS electoral observation mission was very critical, and Secretary General Luis Almagro sent a tweet on 17 December calling for fresh polls. Nevertheless, neither the EU, the OAS nor the UN found evidence of fraud, although the OAS did question the integrity of the electoral process. Crisis Group interviews, diplomats and Nationalist lawmaker, December 2017-April 2018. “Honduras Final Report General Elections 2017”, EU-EOM, 6 March 2018. “Preliminary Report of the OAS Electoral Observation Mission in Honduras”, 4 December 2017. “TSE declara a Juan Orlando Hernández ganador de las elecciones en Honduras”, La Prensa, 18 December 2017.Hide Footnote The opposition cried foul and called for roadblocks and protests to contest the results.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, electoral observer and Libre members, Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, December 2017-April 2018.Hide Footnote Most marches were peaceful, but some ended in clashes between protesters and military police, as well as looting and other criminal acts. The government, shaken by the upheaval, declared a ten-day curfew.[fn]“Do the Numbers Lie?”, op. cit.Hide Footnote By mid-January 2018, violence had left 23 dead and 1,351 in jail. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights subsequently reported on numerous human rights violations allegedly committed by security forces.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, OHCHR consultant, April 2018. “Violations of human rights in the context of the 2017 elections in Honduras”, op. cit. pp. 2-4.Hide Footnote

Between April and June, clashes between protesters and security forces left at least six dead and 80 injured.

These episodes of unrest have become more frequent since 2017. As noted, turmoil erupted in April 2019 after Congress passed controversial reforms to the health and education systems, which workers in those sectors worried could lead to privatisation and mass layoffs.[fn]“Honduras Congress stalls reforms after violent protests”, Reuters, 30 April 2019.Hide Footnote President Hernández’s effort to lower tensions proved ineffective. Despite the president’s call for a national dialogue with the trade unions in those sectors and the ultimate withdrawal of the bills in early June, protests and strikes went on for months, with some demonstrations so large they paralysed major transportation arteries.[fn]“Crackdown Raises Stakes”, op. cit.Hide Footnote The protest movement got another boost in May when the government published a new criminal code penalising public criticism of officials, feeding worries that the authorities would use the law to suppress political expression and association.[fn]The code is scheduled to come into effect in November and is still controversial in the country. The government has since agreed in principle to amend it, but has not made significant progress yet. “Estancada ha quedado la socialización de Código Penal de Honduras”, El Heraldo, 19 July 2019.Hide Footnote As a result, demands for Hernández’s resignation intensified. With protests growing violent, Hernández deployed the army across the country on 20 June. Between April and June, clashes between protesters and security forces left at least six dead and 80 injured.[fn]“Honduras: Exercising the right to protest has a high cost for those who dare take to the streets”, Amnesty International, 5 July 2019.Hide Footnote

Allegations of Hernández’s ties to drug-trafficking networks are another driver of current unrest. The allegations in August 2019 that Hernández’s 2013 presidential campaign had benefited from drug-trafficking proceeds spurred another wave of protests, with more demands for his resignation.[fn]“Thousands protest against Honduran president after drug link surfaces”, Reuters, 6 August 2019.Hide Footnote Even before Hernández’s brother was convicted, opposition leaders such as Manuel Zelaya, Luis Zelaya and Salvador Nasralla, stepped up their calls for the president to resign and for early polls. The latter two jointly asked for a popular “insurrection” starting 9 October, while the former – who has greater mobilisation capacity – suggested waiting until the trial’s culmination.[fn]“Salvador Nasralla y Luis Zelaya llaman a la ‘insurrección’ para sacar a JOH”, El Heraldo, 7 October 2019. “Hay que sacar a JOH y adelantar elecciones: Mel Zelaya”, Criterio, 7 October 2019.Hide Footnote After the U.S. jury found the president’s brother guilty, Manuel Zelaya joined forces with Nasralla and Luis Zelaya, and called on his supporters to protest until the president resigned.[fn]“Manuel Zelaya, Salvador Nasralla y Luis Zelaya acuerdan crear una coalición”, La Prensa, 19 October 2019. “Hondureños salen a las calles para pedir la renuncia de su presidente”, El Periódico, 10 October 2019.Hide Footnote Before urging protests, Libre’s deputies announced on 9 October they would seek Hernández’s impeachment, but that would require the support of three quarters of the Nationalist-controlled Congress votes to start investigations, support that Libre does not have.[fn]“Libre buscará juicio político contra Juan Orlando Hernández”, El Heraldo, 9 October 2019. “Tomás Zambrano a Libre: ‘Propuesta de Juicio Político nunca pasará’”, Proceso Digital, 9 October 2019.Hide Footnote

The growing tumult has cost President Hernández both domestically and internationally.

The growing tumult has cost President Hernández both domestically and internationally, calling into question his earlier reputation among diplomats and others as a “man in control”. Hernández has faced growing criticism by some traditional allies within the Catholic Church, private sector, security forces and, to a limited extent, the U.S. government.[fn]“Crackdown Raises Stakes”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Although Nationalists in Congress have mostly remained supportive of the president, frictions with his own political party have also surfaced: Vice President Ricardo Álvarez suggested on 16 July that the next round of presidential elections, due to be held in 2021, be brought forward to 2020.[fn]“Ricardo Álvarez: ‘Recomiendo adelantar las elecciones para noviembre de 2020’”, Tiempo Digital, 16 July 2019.Hide Footnote The proposal has yet to gain traction within the National Party, which has so far maintained support for the president even after the verdict in his brother’s trial.

The U.S. government remains enormously influential with the Hernández administration. “If the U.S. ambassador simply posts a critical tweet, that has ten times more impact than all [other] ambassadors publicly condemning [the government]”, explained one diplomat.[fn]Crisis Group interview, diplomat, Tegucigalpa, 22 February 2017.Hide Footnote But Washington has sent mixed signals about the extent of its support in recent years. On the one hand, in late 2017, while Honduran security forces were confronting anti-government marches, the U.S. State Department certified Honduras’ human rights efforts and fight against corruption, thereby releasing aid to the country.[fn]“Exclusive: U.S. document certifies Honduras as supporting rights amid vote crisis”, Reuters, 4 December 2017.Hide Footnote But in 2019, Washington veered between a generally supportive tone, sharp criticism that Tegucigalpa was not doing enough to curb migration and – after clashes between protesters and police forces turned deadly in spring 2019 – exhortations to convene a dialogue and hold accountable those responsible for the violence.[fn]“Statement from the U.S. Embassy in Honduras”, U.S. Embassy in Honduras, 25 June 2019. However, in a 5 August tweet, interim Chargé d’Affaires Lawrence J. Gumbiner reiterated its support to Hernández even after U.S. prosecutors’ filings against him were made public. See tweet at https://bit.ly/2ZJBabo.

In Washington, congressional staffers worry the U.S. is less than optimally positioned to support stability in Honduras because the State Department tends to treat Tegucigalpa – where the ambassadorial post is currently empty – as a “backwater”. As one staffer said: “We need our most senior, accomplished people to go there […] because these relationships are among the most important in terms of day-to-day impact on the United States. We treat them like they don’t matter, but they do”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, U.S. congressional staffer, Washington, DC, September 2019. See also “Rubio Blocks Trump’s Honduras Envoy”, Foreign Policy, 6 February 2019. “The United States needs a career ambassador in Honduras”, The Hill, 19 February 2019.Hide Footnote

D. Dialogue and Electoral Reforms

Amid the 2017 post-electoral turmoil, national bodies and foreign powers sought to calm Honduras’ tensions. With its leader weakened and its international standing tainted, the National Party announced in December 2017 its willingness to engage in a “national dialogue” with its opponents, and in early 2018 asked the UN Secretary-General for technical support.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Tegucigalpa, February-March 2018.Hide Footnote Local UN Coordinator Igor Garafulic led the initiative and decided to press ahead despite the conclusion of an exploratory UN mission in February 2018 that “there were no conditions nor incentives” for dialogue.[fn]Garafulic justified this due to the “need to lower tensions”. Crisis Group interviews, UN officials and diplomat, Tegucigalpa, 6 December 2018 and 6 March 2019. “ONU recomienda a Honduras una serie de medidas para establecer un diálogo nacional”, UN News, 23 February 2018.Hide Footnote

With support from the Spanish embassy, the UN launched the dialogue in August 2018 after six months of “pre-dialogue” aimed at reaching agreements among the country’s three main parties.[fn]Discussions focused on the 2017 electoral crisis and presidential re-election; human rights; constitutional reform and state strengthening; and electoral reforms. Crisis Group interviews, diplomats and UN officials, February-December 2018 and March 2019. “Se inicia el Diálogo Político Nacional en Honduras con la colaboración de la ONU”, UN News, 28 August 2018.Hide Footnote The process ended in December 2018 with no agreement, but 169 nonbinding points of understanding on accountability, electoral reform and human rights, which it referred to the Congress for discussion and approval.[fn]“Diálogo político: 169 acuerdos serán enviados al Congreso Nacional”, La Prensa, 12 December 2018.Hide Footnote

Although [the dialogue] has not been able to reverse the polarisation that divides the country, it functioned as a political “decompression mechanism” to some extent.

Even with these points of consensus, the dialogue was at best a mixed success with incomplete participation. The opposition was represented by Luis Zelaya, leading one faction of the divided Liberals, and Salvador Nasralla, a political independent without negotiating experience.[fn]Crisis Group interview, diplomat, Tegucigalpa, 5 December 2018.Hide Footnote Libre, the main opposition, did not attend a single discussion and refused to participate despite several invitations from the UN, arguing the dialogue was a “trick” by Hernández to buy time as he consolidated power.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Libre members and UN officials, February 2018.Hide Footnote The National Party participated, but criticised the process and insisted that any efforts to increase transparency and accountability would remain under its control.[fn]On 19 March 2018, the government’s representative in the dialogue Ebal Díaz tweeted: “[O]ur position is that the dialogue table can’t give orders to the National Congress, the Judiciary, the Public Prosecutor’s Office or any state institution”. Crisis Group interviews, diplomats, Tegucigalpa, February-December 2018.Hide Footnote The Nationalist head of Congress, Mauricio Oliva, allegedly sought to undermine the dialogue by inviting the OAS to initiate a parallel study on electoral reforms in September 2018.[fn]In July 2019, the OAS presented its reform proposals to the parties, except Libre, which did not take part in the meeting as part of its “legislative insurrection”. The “insurrection” dates to May 2019, when Libre deputies in Congress gave symbolic support to street protests taking place at that time through acts such as burning the constitution and throwing firecrackers during votes. Crisis Group interviews, diplomats and analysts, Tegucigalpa, 5-7 December 2018. “OEA dará asesoría al Congreso para la reforma electoral en Honduras”, El Heraldo, 24 September 2018. “Bancadas, a excepción de Libre, reciben documento entregado por OEA sobre reformas electorales”, Proceso Digital, 16 July 2019.Hide Footnote Participants were also either unwilling or unable to reach consensus on certain key issues, such as whether presidents can run for multiple terms and whether presidential elections should include two rounds of voting.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, National Party representatives and diplomat, Tegucigalpa, 7 March 2019.Hide Footnote

Notwithstanding its failings, the dialogue has been a bright spot in a charged political atmosphere. Although it has not been able to reverse the polarisation that divides the country, it functioned as a political “decompression mechanism” to some extent, in the words of one civil society leader.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, National Party representatives and diplomat, Tegucigalpa, 7 March 2019.Hide Footnote It showed that political parties can reach agreement on at least some sensitive issues, and stoked political interest in reform efforts.[fn]Some analysts have argued that a weakened President Hernández has in effect transferred power to the head of Congress Mauricio Oliva, who, despite initial misgivings, led Nationalist efforts to build accords in Congress with the Liberals and the Libre party. Crisis Group interview, political analysts, Tegucigalpa, 4-7 March 2019.Hide Footnote

It also produced some potentially significant results on electoral reform. By early 2019, lawmakers from the Liberal, National and Libre parties had agreed – consistent with the dialogue’s recommendations – to reform the Supreme Electoral Tribunal by replacing it with two new bodies and (with support from the EU) digitalise the personal identification system, both measures intended to improve the electoral system’s integrity.[fn]The rationale behind the reform is to restore credibility to electoral institutions and prevent future post-electoral turmoil. The Supreme Electoral Tribunal will be substituted by two new bodies: the National Electoral Council and the Tribunal of Electoral Justice. These two bodies will, respectively, oversee the administration of electoral cycles and settle election-related disputes. Crisis Group interview, diplomat and political analyst, Tegucigalpa, 4-6 March 2019.Hide Footnote In mid-September, Congress appointed the members of the new bodies, evenly distributing the posts between representatives of the country’s main parties.[fn]“Juramentos en el legislativo: asumen funcionarios del CNE, TJE y RNP”, La Prensa, 10 September 2019.Hide Footnote

Honduran lawmakers should now work to approve the electoral reforms agreed in the national dialogue process. Although Hernández is reaching the midpoint of his term, political parties are already starting to focus on primary elections. These soon will begin to absorb legislators’ attention and paralyse the already faltering legislative process.[fn]Crisis Group interview, member of Libre, Tegucigalpa, 5 March 2019.Hide Footnote The opposition for its part should also strengthen efforts to enact electoral reforms, instead of insisting Hernández resign immediately, which would force early elections. Early polls carried out without clear regulatory legislation of new electoral bodies and an incomplete reform process are not likely to pre-empt the kind of electoral disputes that spurred the 2017 post-electoral turmoil. International partners should also insist on the importance of implementing crucial electoral reforms – especially digitalising the voter registry – to avoid further upheaval after future polls.

The government and opposition should build on last year’s dialogue to ease current tensions and prevent further violent clashes between protesters and security forces.

More broadly, the government and opposition should build on last year’s dialogue to ease current tensions and prevent further violent clashes between protesters and security forces. The government should engage in substantive dialogue with health and education professionals on improving working conditions. It should also delay the entry into force of the new penal code, continue to discuss its contents with interested parties, including press associations, media outlets, the private sector, human rights defenders and anti-corruption activists, and show itself willing to rescind those parts of the code that risk criminalising dissent and enabling corruption and impunity.[fn]These include the creation of the “crime against honour” for those who express critical opinions, or the reduction of sentences for certain crimes such as drug trafficking. “Nuevo Código Penal de Honduras: violación de libertades e impunidad, según organizaciones”, El Nuevo Herald, 3 August 2019.Hide Footnote For its part, the opposition should refrain from inciting the population to stage an “insurrection” and strive to keep protests peaceful.

III. Crime and Violence

Honduras has relied on a combination of mano dura (iron fist) law enforcement and extraditions to dismantle drug cartels and reduce murder rates, but the sustainability of this approach is doubtful. The downward trend in the homicide rate has recently reversed, while the population’s perception of insecurity has worsened, prompting large numbers of civilians – many of whom feel that they are living under the de facto rule of criminal groups – to flee.

A. Organised Crime in Honduras

Drug trafficking groups exploited the instability created by the coup to consolidate their territorial presence.

Honduras’ thriving illicit economy is rooted, among other things, in the country’s geographic position on drug trafficking routes from South to North America, weak institutions and security half-measures. These longstanding problems became worse in the aftermath of the 2009 coup.

Drug trafficking groups, present in Honduras since the heyday of Colombian kingpin Pablo Escobar in the 1980s, exploited the instability created by the coup to consolidate their territorial presence.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, Pro Honduras Network, 17 July 2019. “Honduras and Venezuela: coup and cocaine air bridge”, Insight Crime, 23 May 2018.Hide Footnote With the support of the Mexican cartels, the country’s major smuggling clans – the Valle and the Cachiros – established control over the Honduran border with Guatemala and the northern Caribbean coast respectively, having already cultivated political influence and popular support in those regions.[fn]These groups became one of the main sources of employment in many rural areas of Honduras and allegedly negotiated drug trafficking operations with local and national authorities. Crisis Group telephone interview, criminologist, May 2018. “The rise and fall of Los Cachiros cartel”, Revista Envío, March 2015.Hide Footnote The breakdown of the democratic system, its corrosive effects on political and judicial institutions, and the massive deployment of security forces to contain social unrest that followed the coup – which diverted those forces’ attention from policing illicit activities – fostered the cartels’ expansion.[fn]Other minor cartels benefited from the situation and expanded their activities, including the Atlantic Cartel, the Sula Valley Cartel, the Southern Cartel and the Olancho Cartel. “Transnational Organized Crime in Central America and the Caribbean”, UNODC, September 2012, p. 44.Hide Footnote A U.S. government annual assessment of drug-related activities reported that 75 air flights believed to have transported cocaine from Venezuela into Honduras in 2010, compared to 54 in 2009 and 31 in 2008.[fn]“2011 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report”, U.S. State Department Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, Vol. I: Drug and Chemical Control, March 2011.Hide Footnote

Disputes over drug routes soon turned violent. In 2012, the main groups entered a period of bloody turf wars. Cities San Pedro Sula and La Ceiba that were considered strategic because of their proximity to trafficking routes recorded homicide rates of 173 and 157 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2012 respectively (up 41 per cent from 2009 in San Pedro Sula and up 35 per cent in La Ceiba).[fn]“Boletín Nacional Enero a Diciembre 2012 – Ed. No. 28”, Violence Observatory of the Autonomous University of Honduras, January 2013.Hide Footnote Even now, some of the most violent Honduran municipalities are located along the country’s main drug corridors.[fn]“Crimen en Honduras: un producto de la geografía”, El Pulso, 20 June 2019.Hide Footnote

Since 2012, authorities have made a pronounced effort to break up the main Honduran drug cartels. They captured and extradited many of the cartels’ leaders to the U.S. for prosecution, prompting others to turn themselves in to U.S. authorities. But while this has broken up the cartels to a great extent, drug-related criminal activity has not fallen significantly and has (according to U.S. authorities) even been “revitalised” in recent years.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, Pro Honduras Network, 17 July 2019. “Carteles de Honduras reacomodan mando”, Proceso Digital, 31 March 2019.Hide Footnote According to Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) estimates, in 2017 as much as 84 per cent of cocaine reaching its territory passed through the “Eastern Pacific” region, which includes Honduras as one of the main Central American hubs; this figure is up from 76 per cent in 2015.[fn]“2018 National Drug Threat Assessment”, U.S. Department of Justice – Drug Enforcement Administration, October 2018, p. 51.Hide Footnote U.S. authorities maintain that drug trafficking organisations have “begun moving drug shipments in smaller amounts to avoid detection and interdiction by Honduran authorities”.[fn]“2019 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report”, U.S. State Department Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, Vol. I: Drug and Chemical Control, March 2019.Hide Footnote

Beyond cooperation on extradition, the U.S. has provided counter-narcotics assistance in the form of training, technology and equipment to Honduran security forces. At times it has gone further. A series of interdiction missions the DEA conducted in partnership with Honduran authorities in 2012 resulted in deaths and injuries to innocent civilians. Most prominently, a May 2012 operation conducted by DEA and Honduran police officers in eastern Honduras left four people dead, including two women and a 14-year-old boy.[fn]“A Special Joint Review of Post-Incident Responses by the Department of State and DEA”, May 2017.Hide Footnote

High urban poverty rates, the disruption of family units caused by mass migration to the U.S., and weak and corrupt law enforcement all made Honduras fertile territory for gang expansion.

Criminal gangs have also thrived in Honduras – the number of gang members was once estimated to be the highest in the region, although El Salvador appears to have since surpassed it.[fn]Estimates for Honduras’ gang population vary considerably and are generally based on dated information. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime estimated that in 2012 there were approximately 12,000 gang members in Honduras, compared to 36,000 in 2007, but Honduran police authorities lowered the figure to around 5,000 in late 2018. El Salvador has now around 60,000 gang members according to police authorities. See “Transnational Organized Crime in Central America and the Caribbean”, op. cit., p. 29. “The Problem with Counting Gang Members in Honduras”, Insight Crime, 17 February 2016. See also Joana Mateo, “Street Gangs of Honduras”, in Thomas Bruneau, Lucía Dammert y Elizabeth Skinner (eds.), Maras. Gang Violence and Security in Central America (Austin, 2011). Crisis Group Report N°64, El Salvador’s Politics of Perpetual Violence, 19 December 2017. “Miembros de maras y pandillas se reducen de 25,000 a 5,000”, El Heraldo, 24 December 2018.Hide Footnote While gangs have been reported in Honduras since the 1970s, the largest groups took root in the early 2000s following mass deportations of convicted criminals from the U.S. to Central America.[fn]See, eg, “Street Gangs of Honduras”, op. cit.; “Gangs in Honduras”, Insight Crime and the Asociación Para una Sociedad Más Justa, 21 April 2016; and “Maras y violencia. Estado del arte de las maras y pandillas en Honduras”, Friedricht-Ebert-Stiftung, 1 November 2016.Hide Footnote High urban poverty rates, the disruption of family units caused by mass migration to the U.S., and weak and corrupt law enforcement all made Honduras fertile territory for gang expansion.[fn]“Street Gangs of Honduras”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Groups such as the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the 18th Street Gang have proliferated over the past two decades and are considered largely responsible for Honduras’ sky-high murder rate.[fn]“2018 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report”, U.S. State Department Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, Vol. I: Drug and Chemical Control, 17 March 2018, p. 184.Hide Footnote

Among the differences between the two largest gangs, the 18th Street Gang is often linked with extortion rackets, while the MS-13 is allegedly more involved in local drug peddling.[fn]“Gangs in Honduras”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Both activities drive high levels of violence in the fight for territorial control.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, security expert, 30 April 2019.Hide Footnote Interviews with local authorities in San Pedro Sula indicate that from their perspective the MS-13 seems to use armed violence more sparingly and selectively, mainly to maintain its grip on illicit activities and expand its territorial reach. “With these guys [MS-13 members], at least you can talk”, said a veteran politician.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, San Pedro Sula, 22-23 March 2018.Hide Footnote For its part, the 18th Street Gang seems more prone to violence to intimidate the communities under its sway, whether in Honduras or elsewhere in Central America.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, humanitarian worker and security expert, Tegucigalpa, 6-7 March 2019. Crisis Group interview, senior Guatemalan government official, 5 December 2017.Hide Footnote However, a 2016 study did not find any statistical difference in the number of homicides between areas controlled by the MS-13 and 18th Street gangs.[fn]“Gangs in Honduras”, op. cit.

The two larger outfits have managed to absorb many local groups over the past few decades, but others have also emerged to challenge them. Such is the case of the Chirizos, which got its start by taking on MS-13 in downtown Tegucigalpa.[fn]“Honduras: Los Chirizos, banda heredera del ‘gato negro’”, La Prensa, 22 April 2015. Many other gangs have emerged in the poorest neighbourhoods of San Pedro Sula, such as Los Vatos Locos, Los Tercereños, La Ponce and Los Olanchanos, which are in constant territorial dispute with one another, and rely heavily on the extortion of local businesses.[fn]“Barrio pobre, barrio bravo: la violenta historia de Rivera Hernández, Honduras”, Insight Crime, 9 December 2015. Alberto Arce, Novato en nota roja. Corresponsal en Tegucigalpa (Madrid, 2015). These groups are often confused with extortion racketeers – ie, more traditional criminal cells that manipulate fear of gangs to coerce small and medium-size businesses. “[Y]ou do not even know who is extorting you”, said one security expert.[fn]Crisis Group interview, security expert, Tegucigalpa, 8 March 2019.Hide Footnote According to a 2017 survey by the Honduran Council of Private Enterprise, more than 32,000 businesses had to cease their activities because of extortion in the last six years.[fn]“La extorsión continúa atacando a comerciantes”, El Pulso, 26 November 2018.Hide Footnote

B. Flawed Security Policies

Honduras was a regional pioneer in iron fist security policies, which have become the norm in Central America over the past two decades.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, security expert, 30 April 2019.Hide Footnote Its militarised approach to law enforcement reflects, among other things, the influence the armed forced have historically had in shaping public policies, the focus of foreign donors (especially the U.S.) on security assistance, and the weakness of civilian policing due to endemic corruption.[fn]“Street Gangs of Honduras”, op. cit. For context on the first responses to gang violence in Central America during the 1990s, see “Mafia of the Poor”, op. cit.Hide Footnote The same considerations that inflated the role of the military have generally undermined cultivating stronger prosecutorial and judicial capacity.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, security expert, 30 April 2019.Hide Footnote

The Honduran strategy for managing gangs has been fairly consistent over the past two decades. Under Ricardo Maduro’s administration (2002-2006), the country responded to the rise of organised gangs with an increased police presence in affected neighbourhoods, mass detentions of young people and heavy-handed law enforcement, including reported extrajudicial executions of young people.[fn]“Honduras: Zero Tolerance … For Impunity: Extrajudicial Executions of Children and Youths since 1998”, Amnesty International, 2003. Crisis Group interviews, security experts and criminologists, Tegucigalpa, June 2017.Hide Footnote Manuel Zelaya (2006-2009) promised to focus on economic opportunities and violence prevention. But little of what he pledged materialised, and efforts in this direction evaporated after the 2009 coup.[fn]Crisis Group interview, security expert, Tegucigalpa, June 2017.Hide Footnote The subsequent Nationalist president Porfirio Lobo (2010-2013), an advocate of capital punishment, resumed the tough line of Zelaya’s predecessor, but nevertheless saw a spike in homicides during his mandate.[fn]In 2011, under Lobo’s presidency, Honduras was the most violent country in the world not at war, with 86.47 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. “Porfirio Lobo, el hombre del cambio”, El País, 1 December 2009. See National Police data on murder rates at https://bit.ly/2NSBxic.Hide Footnote Since 2014, under President Hernández’s guidance, the Congress has strengthened anti-gang legislation and increased the security and defence budgets, to the detriment of social spending.[fn]The defence budget has constantly increased across Nationalist governments, doubling in value in ten years, now at around 8.5 billion lemiras ($348 million). “En 4 mil millones de lempiras se aumentó gasto militar de Honduras en casi nueve años”, Tiempo Digital, 17 December 2018.Hide Footnote

Hernández has a long record of looking to military measures to fight crime.

Hernández has a long record of looking to military measures to fight crime.[fn]During his 2013 campaign, Hernández promised he would put “a soldier on every corner” to combat crime. Crisis Group interviews, diplomats and academics, Tegucigalpa, 2017-2018. “Honduras’ Post-Coup Militarization”, Council on Hemispheric Affairs, 5 April 2017.Hide Footnote In his previous post as head of Congress, he was strongly supportive of the Public Order Military Police, under the aegis of the Defence Ministry, and Troop and Special Security Response Groups (TIGRES), a military unit inside the National Police trained with U.S. financial support.[fn]“Juan Orlando Hernández promete crear Policía Militar”, El Heraldo, 18 July 2013.Hide Footnote In 2014, he created the Inter-institutional Security Force (FUSINA), an interagency task force of military, police and judicial personnel.[fn]Crisis Group interview, U.S. official, Tegucigalpa, March 2018.Hide Footnote He also pushed in 2018 for the transformation of the National Anti-Extortion Force into a joint police, military and judicial force dedicated to combating gangs.[fn]“Fuerza Nacional Antimaras y Pandillas”, Honduran Presidency, Secretariat of National Defence, 28 June 2018.Hide Footnote

Setting aside whether the militarisation of anti-gang efforts has been effective, which is discussed below, it has had several drawbacks. For one thing, military units involved in public security have been implicated in the use of excessive or unlawful force to manage civil society activism and political dissent.[fn]“Piden disolver la Policía Militar hondureña y denuncian el peligro de los presos políticos”, EFE, 27 June 2019.Hide Footnote The Military Police allegedly killed at least thirteen protesters in post-electoral clashes in 2017.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, human rights advocates, Tegucigalpa, December 2017. “Violations of human rights in the context of the 2017 elections in Honduras”, op. cit.Hide Footnote A Military Police training officer was convicted in 2018 of recruiting the hitmen responsible for the notorious 2016 killing of environmental activist Berta Cáceres.[fn]According to independent investigators, the killing of Cáceres involved a much broader network of culprits, including state officials and business figures. On 4 July 2019, a hitman allegedly involved in a first attempt to kill Cáceres in 2015 was found dead in San Bartolo, Intibucá. “Represa de violencia. El plan que asesinó a Berta Cáceres”, Grupo Asesor Internacional de Personas Expertas, November 2017. “Sicario contratado para asesinar a Berta Cáceres aparece muerto”, Criterio, 6 July 2019. “La hija de Bertha Cáceres denuncia ‘colusión entre militares y empresarios’ para asesinar a su madre”, El País, 10 September 2019.Hide Footnote In gang-controlled communities, humanitarian workers report the alleged involvement of security forces, ostensibly there to fight organised crime, in committing abuses against local residents.[fn]Crisis Group interview, humanitarian workers, Tegucigalpa, 6 March 2019.Hide Footnote Moreover, relying on security forces may propel gangs’ expansion in what experts call a “cockroach effect”: while their area is occupied by these forces, some gang members seek refuge and settle elsewhere, installing local “cliques” before returning to their former territories once the occupation has ended.[fn]Crisis Group interview, security expert, Tegucigalpa, 8 March 2019. “‘Maras’ y pandillas expanden células en 30 municipios”, La Tribuna, 17 June 2019.Hide Footnote

Growing reliance on the military to perform law enforcement functions has also run parallel to a deep crisis in the Honduran National Police.

Growing reliance on the military to perform law enforcement functions has also run parallel to a deep crisis in the Honduran National Police. Before Hernández took office, the Honduran government had made at least three attempts to reform the National Police to tackle widespread corruption and ineffectiveness – usually in response to scandals over criminal infiltration, corruption and abuse.[fn]“Purging and Transformation of the Honduran National Police Force”, Asociación para una Sociedad más Justa, November 2016, p. 3. In October 2011, two university students, one of them the son of National University rector Julieta Castellanos, were murdered by on-duty police officers attempting to steal their car. The scandal pushed then-President Lobo to create the Directorate for the Investigation and Evaluation of the Police Career (DIECP in Spanish) to investigate police officers’ conduct, in November 2011, and a special Commission for the Reform of Public Security (CRSP in Spanish) in February 2012. The CRSP was dissolved in 2014, while the DIECP evaluated 8,546 police officer over four years but removed only 227. David Dye, “Police Reform in Honduras: The Role of the Special Purge and Transformation Commission”, Wilson Center, 21 June 2019. “Honduras student murders highlight crime concerns”, BBC News, 23 November 2011.Hide Footnote The latest attempt was prompted by a New York Times report in April 2016, which alleged that officers killed the head of anti-drug operations for the National Police, Arístides González, on his morning commute in 2009, days after the arrest of twelve officers on drug trafficking charges.[fn]“Tres generales y un cartel: violencia policial e impunidad en Honduras”, The New York Times, 15 April 2016.Hide Footnote The scandal led Hernández to create a special commission for police reform, which itself triggered a surge of dismissals for corruption and other wrongdoing.[fn]The three senior police officers accused of González’s assassination deny the accusations and have been suspended from the police. “Purging and Transformation of the Honduran National Police Force”, Asociación para una Sociedad Más Justa, November 2016, p. 4. Crisis Group interview, civil society leader, Tegucigalpa, 7 March 2019.Hide Footnote

These reform efforts have yielded mixed results. On the one hand, over three years, the special commission has dismissed 5,775 officers for corruption and other misdeeds, and pushed through new legislation to ensure better working conditions, including improved training and greater internal oversight for police officers.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, member of the Special Commission for the Purging and Transformation of the National Police, 12 August 2019.Hide Footnote On the other hand, only 2,100 of those dismissed officials were denounced by the commission and investigated by public prosecutors for alleged collusion with illicit activities, and only one has been sentenced so far.[fn]Of them, 100 were reportedly members or affiliates of the MS-13. Crisis Group interview, member of the Special Commission for the Purging and Transformation of the National Police, 7 March 2019. Nazario S., “Pagar o morir”, The New York Times, 31 July 2019.Hide Footnote Moreover, critics of the reform worry that the process has been insufficiently transparent and may in part be driven by political motivations – namely the desire to purge government detractors from the force.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, civil society members, Tegucigalpa, December 2017 and March 2019.Hide Footnote They add that the failure to take prosecutorial action against or provide alternative employment for sacked personnel is particularly worrying given that many were dismissed for alleged links to criminal networks.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, civil society members, Tegucigalpa, December 2017 and March 2019.Hide Footnote President Hernández in July launched the creation of a police unit tasked with investigating the alleged involvement of purged officials in illicit activities.[fn]Hernández stated on 20 June that dismissed officials were behind the strike staged by police special forces in recent protests, although the strike was also motivated by demands for better working conditions. “Honduran police end strike as protests demand president quit”, AP News, 21 June 2019. “Crearán fuerza de élite para seguimiento a expolicías”, La Prensa, 19 July 2019.Hide Footnote

Honduras has also struggled to manage a dangerously overcrowded prison system. The prison population boomed in the late 1990s as a result of iron fist policies, which led to mass incarceration of gang members.[fn]The prison population rate jumped from 109 inmates per 100,000 inhabitants in 1992 to 184 per 100,000 in 2000. See World Prison Brief Honduras page.Hide Footnote As happened elsewhere in the region, gangs took advantage of overcrowding, lax security and corrupt officials to turn prisons into their headquarters, from where they oversaw illicit activities on the outside.[fn]“Mafia of the poor”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Penitentiaries such as the one in San Pedro Sula became a symbol of the deterioration of the prison system as they fell under the rule of inmates.[fn]“Where Chaos Reigns: Inside the San Pedro Sula Prison”, Insight Crime, 2 February 2017.Hide Footnote A fire that swept through Comayagua prison in 2012, killing 382, drew attention to the extreme squalor and prisoner neglect in many jails.[fn]“Annual report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the human rights situation in Honduras”, OHCHR, 19 March 2018. “Comayagua, la peor catástrofe penitenciaria en Latinoamérica”, El País, 15 February 2012.Hide Footnote In recent years, the government has tried to address both overcrowding and security issues, building two new maximum-security jails. Even so, prisoner numbers under Hernández have outstripped the capacity of these new facilities. In 2018 there were 229 inmates per 100,000 inhabitants, and jail conditions are still “deplorable” according to human rights groups, especially for minors.[fn]See World Prison Brief Honduras page. Crisis Group interview, security expert, Tegucigalpa, 8 March 2019. Crisis Group telephone interview, human rights advocate, March 2017.Hide Footnote

Another chronic failing of the Honduran prison system is the lack of rehabilitation and reintegration policies.[fn]“Falta de control y rehabilitación facilita reyertas en cárceles”, La Tribuna, 17 June 2019.Hide Footnote The Hernández administration has endeavoured to implement initiatives aimed at steering youth away from criminal activity – generally referred to as “violence prevention” programs – with limited success.[fn]The security tax is a measure levied on companies to help fund the country’s security initiatives, introduced in 2011. In 2018, it collected around $110 million. Crisis Group interviews, security experts, Tegucigalpa, 2017-2019.Hide Footnote It has created a dedicated (though underfunded) ministerial office to oversee the construction of infrastructure for these initiatives (for example new parks and “outreach centres” that are essentially recreational centres located in crime hotspots) as well as sports and cultural events.[fn]The office received little more than 0.5 per cent of the national budget in 2018, and barely 2.5 per cent of the revenues of the special security tax, or around $2.5 million, was allocated to prevention initiatives. “Solo un 2.5% del ‘tasón’ se destinó a la prevención”, La Prensa, 10 February 2019.Hide Footnote USAID officials tend to tout the outreach centres as successful, and there is some evidence linking them to homicide reduction in some neighbourhoods of San Pedro Sula.[fn]Crisis Group interview, USAID consultant, Tegucigalpa, March 2017. “How the Most Dangerous Place on Earth Got Safer”, The New York Times, 11 August 2016.Hide Footnote

Still, the security gains resulting from these new public spaces appear somewhat superficial: critics maintain they have to be guarded by military units all day long, while gangs take back control at night. Residents have complained that the initiatives do not match communities’ needs, while consultants familiar with these projects suggest that their reliance on foreign government funding imperils their sustainability and prospects for long-term impact. [fn]Crisis Group interview, security expert, Tegucigalpa, 8 March 2019. Crisis Group interview, monitoring and evaluation expert, June 2017.Hide Footnote

C. Results and Areas for Improvement

President Hernández has both claimed and received credit for his role in bringing down Honduras’ homicide rate over the past eight years.[fn]“Amid corruption concerns, Gen. Kelly made allies in Honduras”, AP, 12 April 2018.Hide Footnote “We are the ones who made this [model of homicide reduction] possible, something that is now being studied as a success in the world”, Hernández said in a March 2018 speech in the northern city of La Ceiba.[fn]Since 2011, this city’s annual murder rate dropped from 173 to 44.7 per 100,000 inhabitants. “Boletín Nacional Enero a Diciembre 2018 – Ed No 52”, Violence Observatory of the Autonomous University of Honduras, March 2019.“Presidente Hernández: Reducción de violencia es logro de todos los hondureños”, Honduran National TV, 7 March 2018.Hide Footnote That model relied in part on aggressive extradition policies that dismantled all the main drug cartels, particularly in the coastal and border regions where these outfits mainly operated, combined with intensified law enforcement.[fn]Murder rates in the departments with stronger cartel presence have experienced a larger drop than others, although they remain the most violent areas. Crisis Group interviews, academics and security experts, 2017-2019. See figures from Violence Observatory of the Autonomous University of Honduras at https://bit.ly/2xOSOwE. “Crimen en Honduras”, op. cit. The government also gives substantial credit to the 2014 creation of 30 Citizen Security Municipal Observatories (OMCSC in Spanish) in providing reliable local information and enabling tailored security interventions, enhanced by police reform.[fn]According to the U.S.- and UN-funded regional information platform Infosegura, between 2015 and 2018 homicides fell by 34.1 per cent in municipalities with OMCSC presence, compared with 13.3 per cent in the others. For more information visit Infosegura’s website.Hide Footnote

But although the lower murder rate is certainly an achievement, it needs to be considered in a broader security context where many trends are not as positive. Even the area of homicide statistics contains much sobering news. For one thing, the decline in murders has slowed since 2016, with homicides even starting to creep back up at the height of this year’s protests. Honduras currently seems on track to reproduce its 2018 murder rate of 40 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, which, as noted above, made it the third most dangerous country in Latin America, right behind Venezuela and El Salvador.[fn]See the monthly evolution of homicides in the online platform of the National Police: https://bit.ly/31Zu6Zk. “Insight Crime’s 2018 Homicide Round-Up”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Furthermore, the annual number of multiple killings increased by 32.3 per cent in the year to August 2019, according to the Honduran Observatory of Violence.[fn]“Honduras registra 41 masacres en lo que va de 2019”, La Prensa, 8 August 2019.Hide Footnote

Gender-based violence indicators remain very high, with Honduras reporting the second highest femicide rate in Latin America, with 5.8 killings per 100,000 inhabitants.

Changing extortion practices may have a role in the declining rate. Some studies hint at the possibility that the MS-13 is ceasing this practice, at least in communities under its control, which would explain a decrease in the violence used as part of this racket.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, security expert, 30 April 2019. Douglas Farah and Kathryn Babineau, “The Evolution of MS-13 in El Salvador and Honduras”, Center for Complex Operations (CCO) at the National Defense University, PRISM Vol. 7, No.1, 2017.Hide Footnote According to this analysis, the decision to pull out of extortion is made possible by the gang’s growing participation in the more lucrative drug trade, and is intended as a way to build a loyal support base in communities.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote By contrast, other local observers contend that the extortion business is actually thriving and becoming a more formal business operation. If it is so, the decrease in homicides may stem from increasing public resignation in the face of extortion and widespread payment to the gang of a “war tax”, sparing payers’ lives.[fn]Crisis Group interview, sociologist, Tegucigalpa, 5 March 2019. “Mareros extorsionan a través de “car wash”, La Tribuna, 16 July 2019. “Honduras Drop in Homicides One Part of Complex Security Situation”, Insight Crime, 27 June 2019.Hide Footnote

Meanwhile, despite the reported reduction in homicides, many of Honduras’ security indicators still reflect worrying trends. Gender-based violence indicators remain very high, with Honduras reporting the second highest femicide rate in Latin America, with 5.8 killings per 100,000 inhabitants.[fn]“El Continuum de la violencia contra las mujeres en la región centroamericana”, UNDP report, January 2017, p. 34. For data on femicides, see the website of the Observatorio de Igualdad de Género.Hide Footnote Hate crimes have not decreased: 332 members of the LGBTI community have been murdered since 2009, with 26 alone in the first nine months of 2019, up from 25 in the whole of 2018.[fn]For figures on crimes against the LGBTI community see Cattrachas, a national organisation focused on the issue.Hide Footnote While improving, the rate of unsolved murder cases remains around 90 per cent.[fn]“Segundo informe de Impunidad en Homicidios: Período de estudio 2010-2017”, Alianza por la Paz y la Justicia, 4 June 2019.Hide Footnote The fact that police investigative units are only present in 16 out of 298 of the country’s municipalities does not help.[fn]Crisis Group interview, security expert, Tegucigalpa, 7 March 2019.Hide Footnote

Consequently, the fall in homicides has not led to improved public perceptions of security, at least when measured over the last several years. A recent study by the Autonomous University of Honduras suggested that 42.8 per cent of participants believe insecurity to be the most pressing issue in the country, and 87.6 per cent feel insecure – 16.8 per cent more than the previous survey in 2016.[fn]“Percepción ciudadana sobre inseguridad y victimización en Honduras”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Despite reform efforts, distrust of security forces remains high. The Latinobarómetro 2018 survey showed that only 33 per cent of interviewees trusted the National Police, while 80.3 per cent of those who participated in a 2019 poll by the Autonomous University believe security forces are involved in corruption.[fn]“Informe 2018”, Corporación Latinobarómetro, 9 November 2018. “Percepción ciudadana sobre inseguridad y victimización en Honduras”, IUDPAS-UNAH report, February 2019.Hide Footnote “They [the police and gangs] are the same thing. If I go to the police, in minutes I would have a gang member in front of my house”, said an asylum seeker who decided to flee his hometown after being harassed by a local gang.[fn]Crisis Group interview, asylum seeker, Tegucigalpa, 22 February 2018.Hide Footnote

Since causes of gang violence in Honduras tend to be found in extreme urban poverty, impunity and lack of economic opportunity, future security policies should shift toward violence prevention, stronger powers of criminal investigation and security force accountability.[fn]“Street Gangs of Honduras”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Higher levels of investment in those violence prevention initiatives that seem most promising, and in effective rehabilitation programs for prisoners, would be a good place to start. Police reform should focus on empowering investigative units so as to combat high impunity rates for serious crimes such as murder, strengthening internal accountability mechanisms to sanction abuses of authority, and providing reintegration programs for dismissed officers. Reforms supported by the MACCIH, such as the Law of Effective Collaboration – still paralysed in Congress – would also provide a boost to Honduras’ public prosecutors in their efforts to reduce impunity.

IV. Migration and the U.S. Response

A. A Worsening Crisis

Driven by poverty and insecurity, which have been compounded in recent months by political unrest, waves of Hondurans continue to flee northward in search of safer and more prosperous lives.[fn]Sofía Martínez, “Today’s Migrant Flow Is Different”, The Atlantic, 26 June 2018. Crisis Group Latin America Report N°57, “Easy Prey: Criminal Violence and Central American Migration, 28 July 2016.Hide Footnote U.S. authorities reported that they apprehended more than 240,000 Hondurans – 2.5 per cent of the country’s population – seeking entry into the U.S. between October 2018 and August 2019.[fn]For figures on U.S. southern border apprehensions see U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s website.Hide Footnote Of these, 19,696 were unaccompanied Honduran children, and 182,449 were in families. 

Climate change has made a bad situation worse, contributing to droughts that wrack 40 per cent of the country’s territory, and affecting the livelihoods of 170,000 families.

The primary driver of emigration is economic need. A total of 69.5 per cent of Honduran interviewees in a 2018 ERIC-SJ survey indicated lack of income as the primary cause for leaving the country.[fn]“Sondeo de opinión pública 2018”, ERIC-SJ, April 2019, p. 9.Hide Footnote According to World Bank estimates, one out of five Hondurans in rural areas lives on less than $1.90 per day. Only 20 per cent of the total population earns the minimum wage of $369 a month, well below the $540 that the World Bank estimates is the monthly price for a “basket” of essential food sufficient to feed a family.[fn]“The World Bank in Honduras, Overview”, World Bank Website. “Canasta básica de Honduras entre las más caras del mundo”, Criterio, 14 July 2018.Hide Footnote Climate change has made a bad situation worse, contributing to droughts that wrack 40 per cent of the country’s territory, and affecting the livelihoods of 170,000 families, according to the National Commissioner for Human Rights.[fn]“Estudio de caracterización del Corredor Seco Centroamericano”, FAO, December 2012, p. 42. “Sequía afecta cada año más de 170,000 familias: CONADEH insta al gobierno ubicar crisis alimentaria como tema principal en su agenda”, Comisionado Nacional de los Derechos Humanos, 18 March 2019.

Layered atop these economic concerns are deep worries about personal security. Among Hondurans who flee the country, between 20 and 40 per cent reportedly do so in part to escape violence.[fn]26.2 per cent of interviewees in a 2018 ERIC-SJ survey identified violence and insecurity, alone or together with the economic situation, as the main cause for emigrating. A 2017 survey by Médecins Sans Frontières found almost 40 per cent of Honduran interviewees “left the country after an assault, threat, extortion or a forced recruitment attempt”. “Sondeo de opinión pública 2018”, ERIC-SJ, April 2019, p. 16. “Forced to Flee Central America’s Northern Triangle: A neglected humanitarian crisis”, Médecins Sans Frontières, May 2017, p. 11.Hide Footnote According to a recent survey, almost one in every three Hondurans has a relative or acquaintance who left the country for this reason.[fn]“Sondeo de opinión pública 2018”, op. cit., p. 16.Hide Footnote The percentage of women among the migrant population is a potential indicator: Mexican authorities reported a ratio of one woman to every three deported Honduran men in the first half of 2019, while it was one for every five in 2017, possibly a reflection of high rates of gender-based abuse, including strict anti-abortion laws.[fn]Deportation figures from Mexican Secretariat of the Interior’s website. Articles 126-128 and 132 of the Honduran criminal code sanction abortion in all instances, including rape and incest, and establish sentences of up to six years for women who practise it and up to ten years for those who induce or help a woman abort. “Life or Death Choices for Women Living Under Honduras’ Abortion Ban”, Human Rights Watch, 6 June 2019.Hide Footnote Parents may also emigrate to protect their children from armed gangs: a 2014 UNHCR survey found that 44 per cent of children migrating from Honduras “were threatened with or were victims of violence by organised armed criminal actors”.[fn]The survey was based on a 98-child sample. “Children on the Run”, UNCHR, 3 March 2014, p. 10.Hide Footnote Another explanation for the growing number of families and children travelling north is that human smugglers reportedly mislead migrants by convincing them it is easier to obtain refugee status in the U.S. if they travel with children.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, IOM official, 20 August 2019.Hide Footnote

Migrants fleeing Honduras are of course not an isolated population.[fn]“Forced to Flee Central America’s Northern Triangle: A neglected humanitarian crisis”, op. cit.Hide Footnote They join flows from other countries in the region – notably Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico – who are similarly fleeing poverty and violence. Of the 740,000 citizens of these countries apprehended by U.S. authorities in the eleven months beginning October 2018, Hondurans account for almost a third.[fn]See U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s website.Hide Footnote

B. Tough U.S. Migration Policies

For the Trump administration, with restricting immigration at the core of its political agenda, reducing flows across the southern border has become the defining objective of its relationship with Central American countries. In the service of this objective it has been willing to deploy forms of pressure that more traditional administrations would have considered off limits – including humanitarian and development aid cuts and tariff threats – and proved either blind or indifferent to the possibility that its policies may well, over time, worsen the situation it is trying to address. While the U.S. embassy in Tegucigalpa has both been a source of political support for the Hernández government and an occasional voice of restraint during the recent civil unrest, Washington’s insistence on measures to curb emigration increasingly drowns out all other messages.

U.S. immigration policy toward Honduras has three overlapping strands. One relates to dismantling or limiting mechanisms by which Hondurans can gain legal entry or the right to stay in the U.S. In May 2018, the U.S. government gave nearly 81,000 Hondurans who benefit from temporary protected status in the U.S. until January 2020 to seek alternative lawful immigration status or leave the country (the order is currently on hold following a court ruling).[fn]The administration has appealed an October 2018 federal court injunction that halted attempts to end the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) designations for immigrants from El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua and Sudan. Although immigrants with TPS from Honduras and Nepal were not included in that litigation, the administration agreed in March 2019 to link the status of Honduran and Nepali TPS recipients to the outcome of the existing case. “Honduras: Background and U.S. Relations”, op. cit. “Trump administration puts end of TPS on hold for Hondurans and Nepalis”, Vox, 12 March 2019.Hide Footnote More recently, in July 2019, the Trump administration proposed changes to the asylum system that would impede access to refugees who travel to the U.S. via a third country.[fn]Despite widespread criticism, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the administration to continue implementing the measure while related litigation proceeds. “Supreme Court Says Trump Can Bar Asylum Seekers While Legal Fight Continues”, The New York Times, 11 September 2019.Hide Footnote On 12 August 2019, the administration introduced a new rule that would weed out poorer immigrants by making applicants ineligible for temporary or permanent visas if they fail to meet income standards or receive public assistance such as welfare, food stamps, public housing or Medicaid.[fn]The Trump administration finally issued the rule on 4 October, which would come into force on 3 November. “New Trump rule targets poor and could cut legal immigration in half, advocates say”, Reuters, 12 August 2019. “Trump’s order will deny visas to immigrants who lack health-care coverage”, Washington Post, 4 October 2019.Hide Footnote

Both the U.S. and Mexico are deporting increasing numbers of Central Americans. Together they returned 75,279 Hondurans in 2018 and 90,109, as of 11 October 2019.

A second strand of U.S. migration policy as it relates to Honduras concerns denial of entry and deportation. In order to seal the border to Central American and other migrants, the administration has deployed more than 6,000 soldiers to patrol the border with Mexico.[fn]“Pentagon to deploy additional 2,100 troops to U.S.-Mexico border”, op. cit.Hide Footnote It has also strong-armed Mexico into tighter enforcement of its own southern border, as part of a deal struck by threatening a tariff hike.[fn]“Mexico’s Crackdown at Its Southern Border, Prompted by Trump, Scares Migrants from Crossing”, The New York Times, 24 June 2019.Hide Footnote In addition, both the U.S. and Mexico are deporting increasing numbers of Central Americans. Together they returned 75,279 Hondurans in 2018 and 90,109, as of 11 October 2019.[fn]“Honduras: cifras oficiales de retornos”, IOM factsheet, December 2018. For 2019 and past years figures on returnees see Consular and Migratory Observatory of Honduras (CONMIGHO) website.Hide Footnote The flood of returnees – especially children – has placed enormous strain on the improved but still limited Honduran facilities tasked with providing assistance to them.[fn]Recent improvements to the reception system include the creation of the Attention Centres which receive, orient and redirect returnees to their homes (only three of which exist to date), the General Directorate for the Protection of Honduran Migrants (a national registry system created in 2015 to administer reception and reintegration services) and a network of sixteen municipal units for the care of returnees created to expand reintegration services. Crisis Group telephone interview, IOM official, 20 August 2019. “Sustainable Reintegration: Strategies to Support Migrants Returning to Mexico and Central America”, Migration Policy Institute, January 2019, p. 20. Crisis Group interview, humanitarian worker, Bogotá, 13 June 2019.Hide Footnote

Finally, the Trump administration has managed to pressure its southern neighbours to sign agreements committing to corral migrants seeking asylum in the U.S. It has sought asylum cooperation agreements with Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries (Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras) under which the counterparties promise to receive those who have applied for asylum in the U.S. and process their cases. Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales committed to such an agreement on 26 July after the U.S. threatened to impose travel restrictions on Guatemalans visiting the U.S. as well as tariffs and remittance fees.[fn]On 12 August, President-elect Alejandro Giammattei stated that the agreement will need ratification by both U.S. and Guatemala legislative bodies. 40 per cent of Guatemalan exports go to the U.S., and remittances account for 12 per cent of GDP. “Trump’s Safe Third Country Agreement with Guatemala Is a Lie”, Foreign Policy, 30 July 2019. “Guatemala’s next president says ‘safe third country’ deal needs two congress ratifications”, Reuters, 12 August 2019.Hide Footnote El Salvador and Honduras followed suit with similar agreements in September.[fn]“US signs asylum deal with Honduras, the latest in a string of agreements with Central America”, CNN, 25 September 2019.Hide Footnote Mexico has so far declined to sign an agreement of this sort, but joined a protocol that entails similar measures.[fn]“Mexico says no to safe third-country asylum discussion with U.S.”, Reuters, 22 July 2019. The protocol (which advocates argue poses a security threat to asylum seekers obliged to wait in extremely dangerous border cities, such as Ciudad Juárez) was announced in January 2019 by then-Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen M. Nielsen.Hide Footnote

Some observers note that the countries concerned are unsafe, lack the processing capacity to handle the influx of asylum seekers, and are likely to see the migrants settle in precisely the poor areas that their own people are already fleeing.[fn]90,000 Hondurans and Salvadorans filed asylum requests worldwide in 2018 alone. In 2018, Guatemalan authorities attended 262 requests. Crisis Group interviews, humanitarian worker, Bogotá, 13 June 2019; and IOM official, 20 August 2019. Crisis Group Latin America Report, Mexico’s Southern Border, op. cit. “La exorbitante cifra de solicitudes de asilo que tendría que soportar Guatemala de convertirse en tercer país seguro”, Prensa Libre, 26 July 2019.Hide Footnote With respect to Mexico, media outlets report that waiting times for the more than 40,000 migrants under the protection protocol are extremely long, and they are exposed to rape, kidnapping and murder while they wait in dangerous border cities.[fn]“Trump’s ‘Migrant Protection Protocols’ hurt the people they’re supposed to help”, Washington Post, 18 July 2019. “How the U.S. Asylum System Is Keeping Migrants at Risk in Mexico”, The New Yorker, 1 October 2019. “Number of Migrants Waiting at the U.S. Border Rises to 40,000”, Time, 8 August 2019.Hide Footnote

Even as U.S. policies place increasing strain on its southern neighbours and deny their most vulnerable citizens the release valve that a more generous migration policy would afford, the Trump administration has also cut aid to the region. President Trump announced in March 2019 that all aid to the three Northern Triangle countries, including much of the $182 million in unspent funding destined for Honduras in 2017, would be frozen due to their alleged failure to halt emigration.[fn]Elisabeth Malkin, “Trump Turns U.S. Policy in Central America on Its Head”, The New York Times, 30 March 2019. For a detailed breakdown of U.S. support to Honduras, see the “Monitoring U.S. Assistance to Central America” program page of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).Hide Footnote A total of $432 million of previously approved projects and grants were restored in June, but 0n 16 July Trump announced the U.S. would not disburse any more aid to Honduras and Guatemala.[fn]The Democrat-led House of Representatives voted on 15 July to halt Trump’s cuts, but the Republican-led Senate has yet to agree. Should the Senate approve it, the deal could become law even if Trump vetoed it so long as both chambers reject the veto with a two-thirds majority. “Trump: We’re not sending money to Guatemala, Honduras”, Fox 8 News, 17 July 2019. “United States-Northern Triangle Enhanced Engagement Act; Congressional Record Vol. 165, No. 118”, U.S. House of Representatives, 15 July 2019.Hide Footnote That same day his administration allegedly diverted $41.9 million in humanitarian aid destined to those two countries to support the opposition in Venezuela.[fn]“Trump administration plans to divert $40 million in aid to Venezuela’s opposition”, Reuters, 16 July 2019.Hide Footnote Civil society organisations in Honduras supported by USAID, which have provided services to crime victims and returnees, as well as monitoring corruption and reform, fear they may lose all funding from the U.S.[fn]“USAID suspende ayuda económica de ONGs en Honduras”, Criterio, 2 July 2019.Hide Footnote

Washington has shown willingness to at least partly reconsider its decision after Central American governments signed the migration deals. On 16 October, President Trump praised Central American governments’ commitment and promised to reinstate some aid, focused on security and law enforcement. He did not provide further information, but an anonymous source consulted by the Washington Post claims the amount of restored aid will be around $143 million.[fn]“U.S. restores aid to Central America after reaching migration deals”, Reuters, 16 October 2019.Hide Footnote

C. Prospects for Reviving U.S. Assistance

U.S. policy toward Honduras during the Trump administration has been increasingly driven by the administration’s hostility to immigration, but it has also been shaped by a tight-fisted approach to foreign assistance that is linked to the president’s inward-looking political agenda.[fn]“What ‘America First’ means for US foreign aid”, Brookings, 27 July 2017.Hide Footnote While Congress has generally served as a brake on the administration’s efforts to slash foreign assistance, it is not clear whether it can resuscitate U.S. funding for Honduras. This may depend on whether a Republican champion emerges to push the White House on the kinds of development and institution-building programs that the government has traditionally viewed as both an investment in Central American peace and prosperity and a damper on the forces that drive migration.

Technical and political challenges will hamper any congressional effort to force the administration’s hand and require it to restore funding. At a technical level, funding legislation for countries in the region has in recent years authorised the executive branch to spend “up to” a designated amount, leaving the White House and State Department discretion to spend at levels that fall short of the cap without technically running afoul of rules against “impoundment”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, congressional staffers, Washington, September 2019. Impoundment occurs when the U.S. government fails to spend money that has been appropriated by the U.S. Congress.Hide Footnote While there has been some conversation among congressional staff about including more “directive” language that requires the administration to spend a definitive amount in the next funding bill, this is unlikely to clear the Senate, which is controlled by the president’s Republican allies.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, congressional staffers, Washington, September 2019.Hide Footnote

The better route to restoring some assistance would be for a member of Congress with political sway in the White House to press for it. To date, however, Republicans who carry such weight have not sent clear signals about whether they are willing to do so. Without dismissing the possibility that Florida Senator Marco Rubio (who has traditionally shown interest in regional policy) or someone like him could push to restore some programs, staffers sounded a note of caution, pointing out that while congressional Republicans have in the past “gone along” with long-term institutional investments, they are sceptical about their effectiveness.[fn]Crisis Group interview, congressional staffers, Washington, September 2019 (noting that Republicans tend to associate programming of this nature with “nation-building”).Hide Footnote

Organisations and governments that have traditionally worked with the U.S. in providing support to Honduras should encourage Washington to resume its assistance beyond the security realm.

Indeed members of both parties in the U.S. worry it has too little to show for earlier investments in Honduras and the other Northern Triangle countries, but there appears to be more support for restoring assistance among Congressional Democrats.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote Some are of the view that for the U.S. to shut down foreign assistance in the face of the enormous hardships facing the Honduran people is both cruel and counterproductive, particularly where the curtailed programs seek directly to address specific drivers of migration.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, congressional staffers, Washington, September 2019.Hide Footnote They also suggested that programs clearly addressing the latter – for example, through support for hunger alleviation – might be the most promising for attracting bipartisan congressional support.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

Organisations and governments that have traditionally worked with the U.S. in providing support to Honduras should encourage Washington to resume its assistance beyond the security realm. Until then, they should help fill funding gaps generated by the U.S. suspension. In particular, the EU and OAS should continue to offer support for institutional reforms and humanitarian aid, with the OAS focusing on capacity-building in the area of electoral reform and pushing for a renewed mandate for MACCIH. The EU should also continue to prioritise support for electoral reform, particularly digitising the voter registry, and press for accountability for alleged human rights violations in the state response to public protests. However, suspending the EU Association Agreement with Honduras, as some members of the European Parliament have proposed, would not be a constructive response to the government’s crackdown on protesters earlier this year as it would merely worsen the country’s economic predicament.[fn]The EU is the second-largest Honduran trade partner. Around 16 per cent of Honduras’ exports, valued at almost $1.5 billion, head to EU countries. “Eurodiputados piden cancelar ayuda a Honduras e investigar acusaciones contra JOH”, Criterio, 7 August 2019. For trade figures see the Observatory of Economic Complexity’s website.Hide Footnote

V. Conclusion

The June 2009 events solidified Honduras’ status as one of the region’s most unstable countries. An unresolved political crisis has bequeathed a divided, ever more belligerent opposition and a ruling party that has accumulated largely unchecked power across the breadth of the state and judiciary over the past decade. The country’s judicial and electoral bodies have lost much of their legitimacy; corruption has burrowed deeper into many public institutions; and criminal groups have flourished. Poverty remains high, while the benefits of economic growth are spread unevenly.

Political unrest, violent crime and a surge in emigration are the price Honduras is paying.

Political unrest, violent crime and a surge in emigration are the price Honduras is paying. The post-electoral protests of late 2017 and the wave of unrest over health and education reforms earlier this year marked the most visible displays of political disaffection in recent years, while fresh turmoil could well follow the conviction of the president’s brother for drug trafficking. But it is the relentless emigration of Hondurans northward that shows the depth of public despair. The exodus of close to 3 per cent of the nation’s population since late last year and their journey to the Mexican border in the face of intimidating rhetoric from the White House should serve as a warning that increasing border and asylum controls may displace migration, but will not stop it.

Even though it may be difficult to change migration patterns dramatically any time soon, the country could begin to resolve its principal institutional and security dilemmas and improving the way it is governed, thereby setting itself up for greater stability over the longer term. Fledgling reform efforts nurtured in UN-led talks offer a start. The OAS-backed MACCIH anti-graft mission has done some good work and, if renewed, stands to do more. But donor support and encouragement will be important if this strained, poorly governed, and under-resourced country is to make meaningful progress in addressing the deep-seated challenges it faces. The U.S. – traditionally the country’s biggest donor and most powerful partner – has a particularly important role to play.

Honduras urgently needs help in addressing some of the roots of its public discontent, as well as providing more security and economic opportunities for its potential migrants and refugees.

The question is whether it will do so or instead mistakenly continue to turn bilateral relations into a transaction over migration control. Honduras urgently needs help in addressing some of the roots of its public discontent, as well as providing more security and economic opportunities for its potential migrants and refugees. A fixation on short-term results will only exacerbate the conditions that make Honduras an inhospitable home.

Bogotá/Brussels/Tegucigalpa, 25 October 2019


Appendix A: Map of Honduras

Appendix B: Fleeing the Grip of Gangs

Crisis Group interviews with Hondurans who have fled their homes show that gangs have become the de facto authority in many neighbourhoods. These testimonies illustrate how gangs exercise control over people living in their areas of influence through physical and sexual abuse, forcing affected residents to flee.

Rosa, 32 years old: One day, my 14-year old daughter did not come back to school. I looked for her everywhere I could think of, desperate to find her. Finally, I went to a place where gang members usually “make people disappear”, and there she was. Thankfully, I knew one of the guys because I sell tortillas in the market, so he let my daughter go. We immediately ran away, who knows if that could happen again!

Luisa, 51 years old: I saw my son and my mother killed by the gangs in the same week. My son was killed because he refused to pay renta [extortion payment]. He was 21. My mother was killed because the marero came to my house and thought she was me. When I close my eyes, I can still see my son’s entrails spread all over the floor. I want to leave Honduras no matter what. What can be worse than this?

Rodolfo, 34 years old: I am a father of five, I used to live in a community controlled by the MS-13. These guys [gang members] are very noisy, and were partying all the time by our house. My mum is sick and she could not sleep well, so one day I went and talked to them, telling them to be respectful in the neighbourhood. They hit me until I was bleeding, and the next day a group of them came on their motorcycles making circles and firing their guns outside my house. When I saw that, I knew it was a sign for us to leave.

Source: Crisis Group interviews, asylum seekers, Tegucigalpa, 2018. Names have been changed.

Appendix C: Migration

Table 1: Apprehensions in U.S. Southwest border by country and type
Single adults/Unaccompanied alien children/Family unit (2019 = TD AUG)

Source: U.S. Border and Customs Protection https://bit.ly/2Yx2cli.

Table 2: Hondurans returned from any country, January 2015 to 11 October 2019

Source: Consular and Migratory Observatory of Honduras (CONMIGHO).

Graph 1: Hondurans returned from any country by month,
January 2015 to September 2019

Source: Consular and Migratory Observatory of Honduras (CONMIGHO).

Appendix D: Homicides

Comparative maps of homicide rates by department 2011 and 2018

Crisis Group / KO / 2019 (base map from © Vemaps.com). Source: Violence Observatory of the Autonomous University of Honduras, 2011 and 2018.

Graph 2: Comparative number of homicides in Honduras by month,
January to 21 October 2018 and 2019

Source: Security Secretariat, Honduras National Police.

Graph 3: Homicide Rates 2007 to 2018 in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras

Source 2018: Insight Crime 2019.

Source 2007-2017: National Police of Nicaragua, Annual statistics, 2007-2017 (per year); Ministry of Justice and Public Security of El Salvador, Directorate for Information and Analysis, Total amount of homicides 2007-2017 (per year); Secretary of Security of the National Police of Honduras, Department of statistics – Directorate for planning, operational proceedings and continuous improvement, December 2018; Tweet from Ministry of Interior of Guatemala, “Historic comparison of homicides per 100,000 inhabitants”, 31 August 2018; Vice Ministry of Peace of Costa Rica, Observatory of violence, Tables and charts.