Poverty and crime bring Honduras to its knees

When Honduras inspired the term “banana republic” a century ago, the description, though pejorative, had a darkly comic connotation.

The Central American republic still bears some resemblance to the corrupt plutocracy depicted by William Sydney Porter in his 1904 novel, Cabbages and Kings, but nobody is laughing now.

The horrific prison fire that killed 359 people last week was just the latest sign that this country is enduring a crisis of state dysfunction with tragic consequences. Last weekend another blaze swept through three markets in the capital Tegucigalpa, injuring 11 and sending plumes of black smoke over the city, symbolising for many a sense of events spiralling out of control. Then, on Monday, hundreds of relatives of the prisoners who suffocated or burned to death in the fire stormed a morgue to demand the remains.
Police fired teargas to disperse them.

“The situation in Honduras is dire, arguably the most troubled in the region,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue think-tank. “The country presents a perfect storm: endemic poverty and notably fragile institutions buffeted by uncontrolled crime, aggravated by spillover from Mexico’s drug war and a profound political crisis.”

Honduras is the world’s murder capital, with a rate 12 times the global average, amid violent fallout from a 2009 coup.

“You often hear gunshots at night and people are very much aware of how dangerous the city is,” said Jill Powis, a human-rights worker in Tegucigalpa. “Many point to the irony that they have become the prisoners while, because of the failure of the justice system, the criminals roam free. You very much notice it in the city centre at night, which is now dead.”

Most of the killings happen in urban slums, which even by Latin American standards are shocking: mounds of fly-blown rubbish, potholes with fetid water, child glue sniffers with red noses and glazed eyes. Armed youth gangs known as maras, originally formed in southern California, fight each other for turf and extort a “war tax” on buses, taxis, shops and other businesses.

Mexican drug cartels compound the violence. As 98% of murders reportedly go unpunished, life and the taking of it appears cheap. Police officers moonlight as hired killers.

Poverty drives much of the violence, said Trinidad Sanchez, a ­former head of Comal, a farmer-run group that promotes fair trade. “The lack of education and employment, not having enough clothes, being hungry—it creates huge stress.”

His nephew, Johnny (25), a taxi driver accused of theft, died in the jail fire. “Every time I visited, I saw only peasants and indigenous people in the jail, never the wealthy.”

Shock waves still rumble from the overthrow of a left-wing president, Manuel Zelaya, in 2009, which pitted the middle class and elite against the president’s supporters in the slums and countryside.

“That crisis brought some dubious figures into government,” said Shifter. “Honduras’s isolation from the international community for two years did not help matters. The withdrawal of outside support as a way to punish the acting government only opened the way to heightened criminal activity.”

President Porfirio Lobo has gradually gained international legitimacy, but critics say aid from the United States is focused on military and counter-narcotics initiatives, instead of on jobs and poverty.

Many Hondurans feel abandoned by the state, said Sanchez. “Social advances went into reverse. Faith in institutions has degenerated.”

Honduras, he said, was ruled by a handful of US-educated families that dominated the economy, media companies and state institutions. “They think it is theirs to run; they have a complete sense of entitlement.”

Sanchez was speaking from Chicago, having fled Honduras after police raids on his home, part of what activists call a campaign of harassment and intimidation against critics. Dozens of journalists and activists who promote land reform or gay rights, among other causes, have been gunned down.

“With a murder rate so high, it is almost impossible to say what is a targeted killing and what was an incidental result of gang violence ... but there exists a very real level of political violence,” said Jamie Collinson, a British human- rights activist who has worked in Honduras.

“The state has been implicated in targeted disappearances and killings of members of resistance organisations working for social justice.”

The government denies that and claims that common crime is to blame. It insists that police reform is taking place. The jail fire, however, has exposed the state’s weakness and authorities are investigating whether it was deliberately started, with guards’ help, to aid an escape.—

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