How the World's Most Murderous Country Halved Its Killings in Five Years
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because other nations could learn from Honduras, but there may be a catch.
By Deborah Bonello
This OZY original series takes you to the doorstep of Developing World Lessons: stories of pathbreaking successes in education and health, technology and environmental protection, from Africa, South America and Asia, that are reshaping those societies and that the West too can learn from.
In 2012, Honduras didn’t just have the worst homicide rate in the world — it was also witnessing murders more than twice as frequently as the nation with the next worst record, Belize. More than 90 Hondurans out of every 100,000 were murdered that year, compared to 43 in Belize and 42 in El Salvador, third in this ignoble roll call.
Experts blamed the high murder rate on criminal phenomena, the country’s weak security and justice institutions, the penetration of the state by organized crime, political polarization and a lack of political will to really tackle the security issue. Criminal impunity in Honduras means that even now only 1 in 10 crimes is investigated, according to experts, which assures many offenders that they will get away with it.
But since 2012, Honduras has brought its murder rates down more than any other nation in the world, to just 42.8 per 100,000 in 2017.
The dramatic reduction wasn’t easy: It required not just determination but nuance when it came to analyzing why there were so many murders in the first place. President Juan Orlando Hernández’s government’s commitment to reducing the murder rate when he took power in 2013 was part of what analysts perceive as his populist approach. Violence is always a major issue during elections, and his tough-on-crime rhetoric sent the message that his administration — currently embroiled in a crisis of legitimacy after narrowly winning the presidential elections in 2017 amid allegations of fraud — was going to double down on fighting crime and street gangs.
The obvious place to start was gangs. The violent Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 street groups control a lot of territory in Honduran cities such as San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa, and they tend to be the driving force behind criminal markets and, by extension, homicides, due to extortion and drug trafficking. “Things have improved since they’ve gone after the gangs,” says Héctor Silva, a senior investigator at InSight Crime, a foundation dedicated to the study and analysis of organized crime in the Americas.
The much-questioned government of Juan Orlando Hernández has also overseen the dismantling of a number of the country’s most powerful drug-trafficking organizations, with the help of the United States. Honduras is a crucial transit nation for cocaine and other drugs heading north; the Trump administration estimates that some 90 percent of the cocaine trafficked to the U.S. transits through the country.
Police reform has helped reduce the killings too. The country has made a Herculean effort to purge its police force of the kind of corrupt elements that preyed on society, colluded with organized crime and carried out extra-judicial killings. Since 2016, Honduras has dismissed 4,455 police officers, and the country’s efforts have been applauded by international observers.
Experts say other changes to the way the police works have made a difference. “They created a new curriculum for police training — it had a human rights focus and community police, which was very positive,” says Joaquín Mejía, a specialist in human rights at the Reflection, Investigation and Communication Team in Honduras.
Improvements [in security] were boosted by a 50 percent increase in law enforcement spending since 2012.
The government also made efforts to improve its penitentiary system, which is a major focus for violence and crime, as well as the de facto headquarters of both violent street gangs. One of its most problematic prisons in the city of San Pedro Sula was shut down in 2017; authorities constructed two new maximum-security jails to house gang leaders and limit their communications with the outside world. Those improvements were boosted by a 50 percent increase in law enforcement spending since 2012.
But observers caution against patting Honduras on the back just yet. It may have brought homicides down, but they are still far too high and have spiked again in some cities. Crucially, they say, some of the measures that contributed to the drop may not be sustainable, and structural problems could impede further progress.
The extradition, for example, of the leaders of some of the major drug trafficking syndicates in the country to the United States — such as Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga of the Cachiros criminal group — suggests that Honduras’ own justice system is not up to the task of processing such cases efficiently. Other nations in the region, such as Mexico, have fought crime by removing the leadership of criminal gangs. But many found that the power vacuum and struggle for control that followed ultimately meant more violence, rather than less. While Honduras can serve as an example, not all of its efforts may actually reduce crime in the long term — and other nations hoping to follow its lead will have to remember that.
- Deborah Bonello, OZY Author Contact Deborah Bonello