By: Knut Walter and Otto Argueta*
File photos by Martín Cálix
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed two major structural problems in Honduras. The first problem is how the public is affected by the precarious status of the country’s institutions, an outcome of their neglect and plundering. The second is how the government has resorted to using legal and physical force to control a population determined to flout the pandemic emergency measures, because compliance with these measures threatened their financial survival. This has led the Honduran Armed Forces to assume operational leadership of the pandemic emergency measures.
On March 16, when only six cases of COVID-19 had been detected in Honduras , the central government mandated a curfew that suspended nine articles of the Constitution, the strictest pandemic containment measure imposed to date. The suspension of these constitutional articles is ongoing, during which time police and military security forces have been deployed to the country’s main cities to enforce the public lockdown. As of the end of July, more than 54,000 people have been detained and released after 24 hours for curfew violations. The police branch of the Armed Forces (Policía Militar del Orden Público – PMOP) was also part of the riot control force used to quash the many public demonstrations that broke out, especially the protests against hunger. The Armed Forces have also played an active role in various pandemic care efforts. For example, a brigadier general now leads the most prominent intervention committee after the government institution with the largest health emergency budget was hit by a corruption scandal related to the misappropriation of public funds, including the fraudulent purchase of seven mobile hospitals. The military has also coordinated the activities of other institutions addressing the health crisis, and has been involved in everything from food distribution to poor families, to flying military helicopters over the capital, and bringing in religious leaders to pray for the people.
However, this is nothing new for the Armed Forces in Honduras. Ever since their direct participation in the 2009 coup d’état, the Armed Forces have resumed the leading political role that they had played in the past. But this time, the role was not manifested as a military government or a junta, as it had so many times before. Rather, the Armed Forces have been the mainstay of three National Party administrations since 2009 that have weakened the already vulnerable Honduran democracy to the point of becoming an autocracy – a form of dictatorship that displays a veneer of democratic institutionality, but concentrates power in a single figure. That institutionality is increasingly barren and lacking in legitimacy, controlled by a political party that acts like a mafia. Due to the instability that this produces, the Armed Forces have become the backbone of a country that always seems to be on the edge of the abyss.
Democracy doesn’t save Honduras, nor does it save itself. External pressure from the United States led to the country’s democratization, a process marked by a legacy of violent and adversarial competition between the caudillos that led the two traditional parties: the Liberal Party and the National Party. That fragile and unfamiliar democratization process not only faced the antagonism of its own political class, but was also delayed by the catastrophe of Hurricane Mitch in 1999, from which it has not yet recovered.
The dominance of the two largest political parties never translated into a stable country. On the contrary, the looting of public resources has been a constant in which the Armed Forces has participated directly through its government leadership, and through its tutelage of the governing parties. The nationalist, covetous, and protective imaginary that characterized the Guatemalan army during the second half of the 20th century, and that incited internal conflicts regarding the use of Guatemalan land by U.S.-supported forces fighting its enemies in the region, never existed in Honduras. On the contrary, Honduras, in the latter half of the 20th century was a country where five armies operated: the U.S. Army, which was the leader and financier of a counterinsurgency; the Salvadoran and Guatemalan armies that were training there; the Nicaraguan Contras; and, of course, the Honduran Army.
The Honduran Armed Forces accepted all this in exchange for resources, but also for an official status that enabled them to control the state. The U.S. government provided equipment, training and political support in exchange for a country that could be used as a strategic base to combat regional counterinsurgencies. The U.S. military base in Palmerola became the main symbol of the country’s importance to U.S. interests.
The role of the Armed Forces in Honduran politics became more prominent in 2009, but it has a long history. They have been a reliable partner of a contentious and mafia-like political class, and also of the United States. The political class seeks a stable country to ensure access to the state apparatus and to plunder its resources. The United States expects that the conflict will not increase above a certain level. Corruption has been a constant that is now more entrenched than ever in Honduras, with a president linked to drug trafficking through his brother and a substantial number of his trusted officials. The reelection of Juan Orlando Hernandez in 2017 not only produced a social explosion that further polarized the country, but also violated the electoral process. Neither the 2009 nor the 2017 elections adhered to the Honduran Constitution, which the Armed Forces are called upon to defend.
The country has already begun a new electoral process that will culminate in 2021. This process is moving forward under the shadows of a possible second reelection of the current president, the campaign of the Liberal Party candidate Yani Rosenthal, who served a 30-month prison sentence in the United States for crimes related to money laundering and drug trafficking, and a leftist opposition that is weak and lacking in legitimacy. In Honduras, democratic institutions do not have the primary responsibility of protecting democracy. The constitution bypasses the Electoral Tribunal and delegates this responsibility to the military, which must safeguard electoral processes and democracy. The outcome of this is an autocracy with fraudulent electoral processes, and social conflicts that make the country uninhabitable for thousands of its citizens. What has been the role of the Armed Forces in Honduran political life? How should we view this very solid institution in a country of precarious institutions? How can the military partnership with business and political elites and the United States be understood?
This article applies historical analysis to answer these and other questions. Societal changes occur when social and political forces compete and impose their interests during critical periods of high social tension. In Honduras, these periods are marked by competition from political actors that appear to have different philosophies, but actually often seek the same objective – control of the public sector for private benefit. The political actors who seek different objectives such as democratic, efficient and effective governance for the benefit of the community are too weak to have much of an impact. In addition, international pressure for democratization has been only half-hearted, especially from the United States. These actors are always aware that containing and almost always repressing social discontent in Honduras is enough. The military is the steady hand that maintains a balance that has not often tilted towards democracy. As it expands its non-military functions, there are dwindling opportunities for other institutions or political actors to assume that role.
Honduras, a country without an army (1900-1954)
Honduras became independent along with the rest of Central America, and soon found itself caught up in the conflicts between the new nations. Honduras’ geographic position in the center of the region, and its borders with three other countries, turned it into a waystation and battlefield for foreign armies. The country also suffered through multiple internal conflicts between political sides that fought to control the government, initially based in Comayagua and later in Tegucigalpa, the historic mining center that became the capital in 1880. The wars with neighboring countries were largely resolved when all Central American countries signed peace and friendship treaties in Washington in 1907 that declared Honduras a neutral country, among other things. Nevertheless, the country continued to be the scene of armed confrontations between its two main political forces – Liberals and Nationals – in the early days of the 20th century. This conflict finally ended in 1932 when General Tiburcio Carias Andino took on the presidency and put an end to violent political struggles by establishing a strict dictatorship.
Before Carias ended the civil wars, the use of force to achieve political objectives in Honduras had been described as “militarism without the military,” marked by poorly trained officers and troops. The government established a military academy in 1904, but it was shut down eight years later by an administration of a different political stripe. This did not slow down the proliferation of generals and colonels handpicked for their military exploits and political loyalties. For example, in 1899 there were 53 major and brigadier generals, 242 colonels and lieutenant colonels, 592 captains, 972 lieutenants and 932 sub-lieutenants. This amounted to 2,791 commissioned and non-commissioned officers commanding 36,686 troops, or approximately one officer for every 13 soldiers. In the capital, the president exercised direct command over his presidential guard, but the distances in Honduras and the poor conditions of the road and telegraph networks in the early 20th century did not allow him to control much more than that.
The Honduran constitutions of 1894, 1904, and 1924 all describe the army as a “public force… instituted to ensure the rights of the nation, enforcement of the law, and maintenance of public order” to be created from “militias” composed of recruits drafted into “mandatory military service,” most often drawn from its poorest citizens. The 1924 Constitution was the first call for the creation of an army general staff and military academies “for the teaching and instruction of the different branches of the army.” By then, much of northern Honduras had become a banana enclave where security was handled by the private security forces of the banana companies. The central government in Tegucigalpa didn’t pay much attention to the northern part of the country except to ensure that income from banana export taxes kept flowing. The president who laid the foundation for a professional army in Honduras was Tiburcio Carias Andino, the quintessential despot who ruled for an uninterrupted 16 years (1932-1948). Ironically, he was always wary of the political aspirations and designs of military leaders. The dictator’s preferred military branch was the air force that he created at the beginning of his term in collaboration with New Zealand pilot Lowell Yerex, who would later found TACA, the Central American aviation company. Carias was well aware of his country’s rough land transportation, and opted to deploy a fleet of aircraft to shorten travel time and distances that could also be used to deploy military forces, if necessary. By the end of his term, Honduras had the most powerful air force in Central America, a capability that Honduras maintains to this day.
The modern Honduran army took shape in 1946 with the arrival of a U.S. military mission that took on the running of several academies to train officers and soldiers. This U.S. contingent supervised the creation of the first infantry battalions that were established in the country’s main cities. These battalions could be mobilized to other locations around the country, which gradually weakened the departmental commanders of the old public military force. This new military organization was supported by a joint chief of staff and a nominally civilian national police that reported to the military chain of command.
The army increased significantly in importance towards the end of the Carias dictatorship, and not only because of the country’s internal dynamics. In 1947, the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance (Rio de Janeiro Pact) was signed, followed by the creation of the Organization of American States in 1948. Both focused on preventing the expansion of Soviet influence in the Western Hemisphere. Honduras participated in the first anti-communist operation undertaken by the United States, acting as the springboard for the armed force that invaded Guatemala in June 1954 to overthrow the government of President Jacobo Arbenz. Just one month prior, the Honduran government had signed a military assistance agreement with the United States that remained in effect until the 1980s, with some modifications. That same month, the great banana plantation worker strike on the northern coast began.
The banana worker strike ended in July 1954 without any resolution of the underlying problems. In fact, the banana companies fired thousands of workers who years later coalesced to galvanize a farmers movement. In reality, the country’s social and economic landscape was rapidly changing in many ways. The population began to grow quickly, thus increasing the demand for social services. In San Pedro Sula, a business class emerged that did not feel represented in Tegucigalpa’s corridors of power. The working class was organizing and gaining more awareness of its rights and political power. Lastly, the Armed Forces began taking more of an interest in the country’s affairs beyond its strictly military mission.
The Armed Forces’ original mandate to defend Honduran territory and national sovereignty was expanded to include national security, a concept that encompasses preventing Soviet-style communist ideology from entering the country, as well as suppressing any internal expressions of this ideology. In other words, the Armed Forces had to look outwards as well as inwards. It wasn’t long before the Armed Forces left their stamp on the country’s history books. When President Julio Lozano Diaz, a holdover from the Carias regime, tried to stay in office longer than the law allowed, he was overthrown by a military coup in October 1956, the first military coup in Honduras in the 20th century. The military junta that succeeded Lozano Díaz aligned with the democratizing ideals expressed by groups opposed to continuism. The day after the coup, it issued a statement pledging to “hand over the government to a civilian element with authentically popular support. Consequently, we will only remain in power for as long as democratic considerations allow and the national interest demands.” The junta proceeded to release a number of political prisoners and decreed an amnesty for political crimes committed during the previous two years. He also called for the election, in September 1957, of a constituent assembly, which then convened a Liberal Party caucus twice the size of the National Party caucus. In addition to introducing a new Constitution in December 1957, this constituent assembly proceeded to elect the country’s new president, Ramón Villeda Morales of the Liberal Party.
There has been much speculation about the negotiations that presumably preceded the December 1957 constitution, especially regarding the election of Villeda Morales by a congressional vote instead of a popular vote, and the articulation of an armed force in the new constitution. Villeda Morales eventually took office on December 21, two days after the constitution was enacted with the signature of two military junta members, one of whom was Colonel Oswaldo López Arellano, who was to play a leading role in Honduran politics for the next 18 years.
The 1957 Constitution endowed the Armed Forces with much greater weight, as evidenced by the seven articles dedicated to the army in the 1936 Constitution compared to the 16 articles in the 1957 Constitution. The most important innovation of the 1957 Constitution was the creation of the position of chief of the armed forces. A high-ranking officer would be appointed to this position by the National Congress, through which the president would exercise their role as commander-in-chief. The president’s orders were to be obeyed, but the constitution also clarified that “when a difference arises it shall be submitted to Congress for consideration, which shall be decided by majority vote. The decision shall be final and shall be enforced.” Since the direct command of the Armed Forces would be carried out by the head of the Armed Forces, who could only be removed by Congress, the actual power of the executive branch of government was reduced to the “purely administrative” tasks to be performed by the minister of defense appointed by the president. Even the management of allocated funding would be done internally and was not subject to review by government authorities.
The operational organization and its functions were meaningfully defined and centralized. The head of the Armed Forces was supported by a National Defense Council (Consejo Superior de la Defensa Nacional), a consultative body appointed by them and composed of the joint chiefs of staff and troop command positions. To provide a “more efficient service,” the country was divided into military zones oriented towards achieving better territorial control instead of the defense of national borders. A military school would also be created to train new officers. Finally, the Armed Forces acquired responsibilities completely outside the military sphere. The constitution established that the Armed Forces “cooperate with the executive branch in the tasks of literacy, education, agriculture, conservation of natural resources, roads, communications, colonization and emergency activities.” In short, the Armed Forces achieved a very high level of power and autonomy within the Honduran state.
The Villeda Morales administration operated under these constitutional provisions until October 1963, when it was overthrown by a military coup. The coup leader was Colonel Oswaldo López Arellano, the leader of the Armed Forces, who had held that position throughout the Villeda Morales administration. In fact, President Villeda had faced some difficult years, including the impact of the 1959 Cuban Revolution, growing union activism, and Honduras’ participation in the Central American Common Market. Although he proclaimed himself an ardent anti-communist and defender of citizen’s rights, the military coup that overthrew him shined a spotlight on the alleged ties of Villeda Morales and his Liberal Party to international communism, a position that was applauded by military-governed Central American governments (all except Costa Rica, which broke off diplomatic relations with Honduras), and that did not affect the always important relations with Washington. Within Honduras, the coup was backed by the National Party, which became the coup leaders’ electoral ally for the next round of elections.
As is almost always the case after a coup d’état in Central America, the priority of a new de facto government is to legitimize its own existence and pave the way for the next one by electing a constituent assembly that would then draft a new constitution and proceed to elect the new president. That is exactly what happened in Honduras after the 1963 coup d’état. Elections for the constituent assembly were held in February 1965 and gave the National Party a much disputed victory despite reports of widespread irregularities in voting and counting. Once installed, the assembly proceeded to promote López Arellano from colonel to brigadier general and to elect him president for the period 1965-1971.
General López Arellano came from the ranks of the Air Force, where he began his military career during the Tiburcio Carías presidency. His command of the English language made it easier for him to deal with the U.S. officers who played a key role in supplying the planes, and in training pilots and ground personnel. As Chief of the Armed Forces in the Villeda Morales administration, one of his main disagreements with the president was about creating a new Civil Guard instead of replacing the former National Police. The Civil Guard was perceived as being a close ally of the Liberal Party, especially when it was placed under the control of the Ministry of the Interior, while the Liberals identified the Armed Forces with the National Party. When the Liberal Party candidate for President, Modesto Rodas Alvarado, was declared the winner of the October 1963 elections, succeeding Villeda Morales, López Arellano led the coup d’état to prevent Rodas Alvarado from taking office, thus knocking the Liberals out of the political game.
During his presidency, López Arellano promoted openly repressive policies, persecuted the Liberals, and fixed elections to give the National Party control of almost all of the country’s municipalities. The opposition unions were suppressed, as were merchants and industrialists of the north coast when they objected to certain fiscal policies implemented by the López Arellano administration. The 1965 Constitution gave López Arellano almost absolute control over the Armed Forces because the chief of the Armed Forces would no longer have the ability to appeal to Congress if differences arose between himself and the president.
The only time López Arellano enjoyed widespread political support was during the July 1969 war with El Salvador, whose history of demands for access to agricultural land had tremendous consequences for both countries. The return of tens of thousands of farmers who had moved to Honduras in search of land forced the Salvadoran government to consider agrarian reforms in order to prevent a social explosion. A similar problem was developing in Honduras, manifesting itself in clashes between agricultural workers and military and paramilitary forces linked to large landowners and agribusiness interests. However, as the 1971 presidential elections approached, the traditional Liberal and National political powers failed to understand that decisive responses were required to resolve the growing social conflict.
The National Party candidate, lawyer Ramón Ernesto Cruz, won the election but his presidency lasted only a year and a half, when General López Arellano, chief of the Armed Forces once again, led another coup d’état in December 1972 that returned him to power. This time around, however, López Arellano and the Armed Forces leadership touted social and economic reforms that were very similar to measures considered by other counterinsurgent military governments in Latin America, such as Torrijos in Panama, Velasco Alvarado in Peru, and Molina in El Salvador – all of which were threatened by real or potential guerrilla movements. Thus, the second López Arellano government decreed land distribution measures, economic development plans with government participation, and an ambitious educational reform program, among others.
The large landowners and big business interests wasted no time in pressuring the government to abandon its reformism. López Arellano was forced to step down as Chief of the Armed Forces, keeping the position of de facto president until it was revealed that he had taken a million dollar bribe from a banana company in exchange for lowering the tax on banana exports. On April 22, 1975, he was removed from power by a military junta, ending his prominent place in Honduran politics that had begun 19 years earlier when he participated in the 1956 coup against President Lozano. As a career military man who began as a recruit and rose to the rank of general through his skill and seniority, López Arellano remained in the center of political power after Lozano’s overthrow, as a member of military juntas, as chief of the Armed Forces, or as president. Along the way, he became a majority shareholder of an airline, partner in a bank, and had many other business interests. He represents the transition between the caudillos of old and the emerging power of a military institution considered to be essential for the stability of the country.
During the seven years following the overthrow of López Arellano, the military continued to lead the Honduran government, first with General Juan Melgar Castro (1975-1978) and then with a military junta (1978-1980) that called for elections for a constituent assembly to be held in April 1980. This constituent assembly selected General Policarpo Paz García to assume the presidency until 1982, when he would be obligated to hand over the post to a president elected under the provisions of the new constitution. As in 1956 and 1963, the usual post-coup events again unfolded and a new constitution was drafted, although it retained most of the articles of the previous constitution.
The 1982 Constitution, which remains in place almost 40 years later, albeit with a few necessary amendments, perpetuated the historical blueprint for the Armed Forces defined in previous constitutions: a) the president would still be the “Commander in Chief,” but the chief of the Armed Forces position was maintained. The chief of the Armed Forces would exercise “direct command,” including the power to appoint personnel; b) the nation would continue to be divided into multiple military regions “for reasons of national security,” under the command of regional military chiefs; and c) funding appropriated for the military would be administered by the Armed Forces, which would receive them in advance from civilian fiscal authorities every quarter. The Armed Forces would have surely opposed any changes in their role at a time of rising tensions in Central America, with the U.S. government determined to defeat the guerrillas in El Salvador and reverse the revolutionary changes in Nicaragua that ensued after the FSLN victory in July 1979.
Honduras was the key piece in Washington’s political-military strategy for the region. A counterrevolutionary army was assembled and trained in Honduras, and then dispatched to attack the Sandinista People’s Army in Nicaragua. Salvadoran Army officers and troops were trained in Honduras to fight the guerrilla insurgency in their country. Lastly, U.S. military bases were established in Honduras and numerous joint military maneuvers were conducted in case direct U.S. intervention was necessary. Critical airstrips were built or expanded around the country, including the Palmerola complex in Comayagua, where the United States established an airbase that is still in use today, and where the country’s new international airport is being built. The Honduran military was receptive to Washington’s initiatives mostly because of the dramatic increase in U.S. military aid, but also because its anti-communist ideology matched Washington’s objectives. The Salvadoran military was even allowed to train at the U.S. Regional Military Training Center (CREM) in Trujillo, on the country’s north coast.
The growing U.S. presence, personified by its ambassador in Tegucigalpa, did not escape criticism and protest, especially after a civilian president was elected. Liberal Party candidate Roberto Suazo Córdova won the 1982 election, and was criticized for his openly pro-U.S. stance when he defended the joint military maneuvers and the presence of Nicaraguan Contra combatants on Honduran soil. He also had to contend with a major problem within the military: the ambitions of the Chief of the Armed Forces, General Gustavo Álvarez Martínez. Álvarez not only exercised influence from his military position, but also founded and directed a political-business organization called the Association for Honduran Progress (Asociación para el Progreso de Honduras – APROH). Álvarez used his military position and APROH leadership to express a militaristic and highly repressive message, reminiscent of the military governments that ruled Latin America’s Southern Cone. Escalating friction with his own military peers culminated in his arrest and expulsion from the country in March 1984.
Amidst the growing U.S. military and political presence, the first lawful transfer of power in Honduras since 1948 took place – Suazo Cordova transitioned the presidency to Jose Azcona, another Liberal Party candidate. While Honduran political actors had undeniable roles in this remarkable event, it was also a product of a U.S. policy initiated by President Jimmy Carter (1977-1981) to discourage military solutions in civilian governance. Even though Ronald Reagan’s administration (1981-1989) openly favored using military capabilities and sometimes clandestine operations to impose stability on Central America and avoid any rapprochement with the Soviets, it also had to face growing opposition within the United States to the tragedy that its support for the war was causing in Central America. Reagan also had to negotiate with Democrat-controlled Congress to appropriate funding for the wars in Central America. Ironically, this is how the U.S. government supported the democratization of El Salvador and Honduras.
The end of the Cold War eventually dispelled U.S. concern about Soviet influence in Central America, although it did not extinguish the weighty legacy of the Armed Forces. After the peaceful transfer of power in Honduras from Suazo Cordova to Azcona, elections and presidential succession were normalized, at least for a few decades, ending 30 years of ups and downs in military and civilian government leadership. This doesn’t mean that Honduras has found the unequivocal path to democracy. As discussed in the next section, the Honduran military is not an impartial entity and continues to express their partisanship in various ways. In addition, the Armed Forces are facing a social and economic reality that may be even more problematic for democratic governance than the one the country experienced during the 1980s.
Military reform, a hurricane, criminal violence and a coup d’état
In the 1990s, the Honduran state was beginning to experience an extended period of civilian rule in which it sought to solidify the process of democratization. During the Liberal government of Carlos Roberto Reina (1994-1998), a series of military reforms were enacted that reduced the role of the Armed Forces in Honduras for the first time. This process was highly influenced by the international and regional drive for security sector reform, since only external pressure could produce these types of changes in Honduras. This was because Honduras didn’t have the excuse, nor the precedent of an end to internal armed conflict that its neighboring countries had.
In March 1994, obligatory military service was eliminated, the Armed Forces’ budget was cut, and police investigation units were removed from military authority. This began a process of transferring the police to civilian authority that culminated with the creation of the Ministry of Justice in 1996. In addition, certain public institutions were removed from military authority, like the telecommunications company (HONDUTEL), the Merchant Marine, the National Directorate of Immigration, and the National Geographic Institute.
Other constitutional reforms were made that had the paradoxical effect of reducing the institutional prominence of the Armed Forces while preserving its oversight over the nation’s electoral processes. The reforms also led to the expansion of some secondary functions for the Armed Forces, and other functions that were not strictly military in nature. Thus, the chief of the Armed Forces position was eliminated, which diminished the prominence of the Armed Forces, and placed the institution directly under the authority of the president as “commander-in-chief”. The constitution was amended to abolish compulsory military service, which would henceforth be served “voluntarily in times of peace, under the modality of an educational, social, humanist and democratic system” (without defining that modality).
The constitutional reforms also expanded the functions of the Armed Forces. The institution would now “participate in international peace missions resulting from international treaties, provide logistical support in technical assistance, communications and transportation, and in the fight against drug trafficking… The Armed Forces will also cooperate with public security institutions, and at the request of the secretary of state, will assist in combatting terrorism, arms trafficking and organized crime. The Armed Forces will also protect the powers of the state and the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, and at their request, will assist in their installation and operation.”
The preservation of military oversight over the electoral processes, a task that the Armed Forces had performed sporadically (and sometimes showing clear bias) in decades past, was confirmed: “In order to guarantee the free exercise of the vote, as well as the custody, transportation, and monitoring of electoral materials and other security-related aspects of the process, the President of the Republic will place the Armed Forces at the disposition of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, starting one month before the election day and ending when the election results have been declared.”
Finally, the prerogatives of a military career, which are essential for ensuring officer loyalty, were formalized in the constitution through the creation of a military social security institute (Instituto de Previsión Militar – IPM) headed by the Army Chief of Staff. Along with the Armed Forces Bank founded years ago, the IPM laid the foundations for military social security and forays into the business world.
Carlos Roberto Flores Facussé (1998-2002) of the Liberal Party was the first president who also took on the position of Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces. A promising period of military reform was beginning, which like everything else in the country, was interrupted by Hurricane Mitch in 1999. That hurricane was literally the watershed for the processes that had recently begun. The incipient and fragile democratization process failed to take root in a devastated society that, in addition to the country’s structural poverty, was undergoing a structural adjustment championed by the International Monetary Fund in the region. At that time, it is estimated that 73% of the population was poor and 50% was destitute. The political parties were not able to channel national and international aid funds to overcome the disaster with something that would minimally compensate for the human drama resulting from the hurricane. The international aid agencies funded most of the plans and strategies for national reconstruction, and the attempts to promote the political participation of citizens. Hurricane Mitch was devastating, but in the long term it was more about corruption and the inability of institutions to use resources adequately to overcome the consequences of the natural disaster.
Ricardo Maduro of the National Party took office in 2002, in a country still devastated by the hurricane. This did not prevent him from winning the election amidst controversy over his Panamanian origins and nasty campaigning by the two major parties. In a country once again politically polarized, impoverished, and battered by increasing crime, Maduro advocated for the military to return to its public security role, and supported legal reforms to fortify the prosecution of the maras and gangs that were beginning to emerge as a social problem that would be fought with repressive policies throughout the region. In the years that followed, massive emigration ensued and crime increased dramatically. In 1999, there were 40 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, which jumped to 57.3 in 2003 and 64.7 by 2009.
It was widely thought that it would take 10 years to rebuild the country after Hurricane Mitch. Instead, the 2009 coup d’état ousted incumbent Liberal president Manuel Zelaya, who won the 2005 elections after a political career as a representative for his home state of Olancho. During his administration, he battled rising crime with controversial decisions, such as transferring military personnel to reinforce the national police. This ran contrary to the traditional Armed Forces role of authority over the civilian police. A series of measures taken by Zelaya’s administration to tackle an imminent economic crisis alienated the conservative business elite, who were suspicious of any attempts at fiscal reform or minimum wage increases. Zelaya’s administration was supportive of Ortega in Nicaragua and Chávez in Venezuela, and also supported the integration of Honduras into ALBA. This raised a red flag for the political and economic elites who were very adverse to what was known in Latin America as the “Venezuelization” of poor countries. This was unacceptable in the country most tightly controlled by the U.S. in the region.
Zelaya began maneuvering to stabilize his government while the opposition National Party closed ranks with the business elites, the churches, and the military. The tension reached its peak after the official call for elections in November 2009 to elect a new president. In mid-June, Zelaya ordered the Armed Forces to distribute an additional referendum ballot for the electorate to consider. It was the question about modifying the constitution to allow presidential reelection. The Armed Forces disobeyed Zelaya’s order, who then dismissed General Romeo Vásquez from his position as Armed Forces Chief of Staff. Vásquez would later become one of the protagonists of the coup. A judicial court immediately prosecuted Zelaya, and Congress decided to order his arrest and remove him from office. The military did not carry out the arrest warrant, and effected an extra-judicial banishment of Zelaya to Costa Rica. Due process was disregarded because there was no pre-trial or legal process for the removal of a president. It was in fact a coup d’état executed by the Armed Forces and supported by officials, churches, and businesspeople who had ideological, not legal, reasons for doing so. This all happened with the support of a U.S. administration wary of Zelaya’s decisions to open the door for greater Venezuelan influence in the region. Zelaya was not a “reliable partner” in promoting the United States’ objectives for stability in the region. Shortly after the coup, the United States was asked to fund a “Colombia Plan” for Honduras, and it was no coincidence that former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe was the first president to internationally recognize the government of Porfirio Lobo after the United States endorsed the National Party’s victory in the November 2009 elections.
The coup reconfigured economic and political power in Honduras, and a new era began with the National Party in power. The military established itself as a solid political power, essential for the stability of a political party, the economic elites, and criminal groups that saw the state as their main source of funding and mechanisms for generating business. The coup once again devastated Honduran society. But it was an opportunity for the National Party, the economic elites, the churches and the military to begin a new chapter in the democratic degradation of the country that today can be considered an autocracy armed with military power.
An Armed Forces for every purpose
The democratization of Honduras has failed dramatically. Almost without exception, elections have been tainted by fraud allegations that are subsequently resolved with mafia-like, backdoor deals between the traditional political parties (traditional and the recent parties). Public institutions aren’t able to overcome the precariousness which has been clearly exposed during the pandemic. Poverty in Honduras had its grip on 61.9% of the active working population in 2018, of which more than 67% is employed in the informal economy. Emigration continues to be massive, and can now be described as an exodus, with thousands of people joining migrant caravans since 2018. Drug trafficking is now routine for the current president’s own family, businesspeople, local authorities and officials, and a colorful spectrum of criminal gangs that control the illegal economy and that have infiltrated the legal economy with impunity through the financial system. Corruption is the most important source of financing for the political system. It has resisted timid but significant anti-corruption efforts by international cooperation agencies and civil society, as well as an international anti-corruption commission that was ultimately dissolved in 2019. Impunity has stifled the hopes of a starving civil society that increasingly looks to the United States to get a glimpse of justice for the excesses of corrupt politicians and drug traffickers.
This is the context for the Armed Forces’ expanded role in leadership, administration, and operations that other institutions are no longer able or willing to perform. The framework that sustains the Honduran Armed Forces today was constructed during the Porfirio Lobo administration (2010-2014). The government was trying to stabilize a nation that was mired in a post-coup crisis, and that was suffering the highest levels of homicidal violence in the world, with a rate of 83.7 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2011. Lobo’s administration was riddled with corruption and impunity. Meanwhile, Juan Orlando Hernández, then-president of the National Congress, laid the foundation for his subsequent election to the presidency by forging a political alliance with the Armed Forces that explains a great deal about the military institution today.
The first component of the framework was the creation in 2013 of the military police (Policía Militar del Orden Público – PMOP) by the National Congress. The PMOP was initially composed of two brigade commands and 12 battalions, a force of 5,000 police officers. It was directly funded by a new “security” tax imposed to strengthen public security. That same year saw the creation of hybrid military/police special forces such as the Intelligence Unit and the Special Security Response Group (Tiger team). The justification for creating these special forces was the crisis that engulfed the National Police, compromised by corruption scandals, ties to criminal organizations, and extrajudicial executions. Initial attempts to strengthen the National Police included a multiyear corruption purge that ultimately failed. The PMOP quickly assumed responsibility for maintaining public security in Honduras.
When Juan Orlando Hernández was first elected to the presidency in 2014, the PMOP took over the role of maintaining public order, which included the repression of public protests by citizens disillusioned with the electoral process. A third political power that evolved out of the consolidation of several anti-coup social movements participated in the 2014 elections for the first time. Their allegations of fraud inspired public protests that were quickly repressed by the newly created hybrid security forces.
From the beginning, Juan Orlando Hernández had revealed his preference for applying military solutions within public affairs. The National Defense and Security Council was created in December 2011 while Hernández was President of the National Congress. Headed by the president, this organism is composed of the president of the Supreme Court of Justice, the attorney general, the secretary of state for security, and the secretary of state for national defense. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has criticized the Council for concentrating power in the Executive Branch over the other branches of government. Other important members of the Council are the ministers of security and of defense, both of whom are military officers. Similar to the Superior National Defense Council created in 1957, the new council has become the power center for a security policy that has preferred military options over civilian options. But this has not been a formal or explicit process. Security policy was developed with interagency input, which U.S. and other international experts view as the best way to compensate for the instability of police institutions and the passivity of other institutions, such as the Ministry of Justice.
One contradiction in the military role that stands out in the Hernández administration is that the president was reelected to a second term in 2017, despite being disallowed by the constitution. The Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice issued a controversial ruling authorizing precisely what Article 239 of the constitution prohibits; presidential reelection. This led to an electoral and post-electoral crisis that resulted in the death of more than 20 people whom, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, were executed by security forces, particularly the military. During multiple social protest events, the PMOP has proven to be a very violent shock force that has not been held accountable, despite constant denunciations of human rights violations. In 2009, there was a lone attempt to hold deliberations on amending the constitutional prohibition on reelection. This is a formal procedure endorsed by the constitution itself, and was one of the triggers for the military coup. This constitutional reform procedure did not occur in 2017, despite the questionable legality of the process that authorized the reelection. With an act of commission and one of omission, the Armed Forces reaffirmed their loyalty to a specific political sector.
The interagency security policy was developed further during the second term of Juan Orlando Hernández. In 2018, the National Anti-Extortion Force was reshaped to become the National Anti-Mara/Gang Force (Fuerza Nacional Anti Maras y Pandillas – FNAMP), which is part of the Inter-Institutional Security Force (Fuerza de Seguridad Interinstitucional – FUSINA). One characteristic of this policy is an administrative compartmentalization that produces a complex bureaucratic labyrinth that effectively thwarts efforts to achieve transparency and accountability for public spending and the legal responsibilities of these forces. Furthermore, they often refuse to release information for security reasons, which has turned into impunity in this authoritarian environment .
In Honduras, public security is in the military domain, while a weak and corrupt civilian police force is mired in precarious labor and professional conditions. Police units went on strike in 2017 and 2019, demanding improvements in work conditions. The circumstances of the civilian police are exacerbated by the markedly better work and professional conditions of the PMOP. The perverse logic of those justifying this situation argues that the weakness of the police is necessary because it makes a military solution to the problem indispensable.
The same logic seems to apply to the other functions performed by the Armed Forces that don’t pertain to military and security matters. The Armed Forces uses two mechanisms to validate broad secondary or institutional support functions. First, the Armed Forces intervene in institutions that they consider unable to carry out their functions. This is done through intervention boards led by active or retired officers who have no military functions at all. In 2018, a retired general headed up the intervention board for the University Hospital, the most important hospital in the capital city. When the pandemic hit Honduras, this board defended its intervention activities by pointing to allegations by medical staff of improper use of resources allocated to address the public health crisis. The military has also managed administration and security for the National Penitentiary Institute and the National Institute for the Care of Minor Offenders since 2019. Like so many other Honduran institutions, both of these institutions were in crisis, so the military’s capabilities were applied to solve their structural problems.
The second mechanism is to task the military with the implementation of new government programs at the onset. In 2019, a US$16.2 million program for the development of agricultural projects was approved and handed to the Armed Forces for execution. Similarly, the Guardians of the Homeland educational program was created in 2012 and implemented by the Armed Forces in public schools located in troubled neighborhoods and communities. This program was designed to instill military, civic and religious values in children and adolescents.
Neither of these programs have any military content and should be executed by other specialized institutions. When the programs are handed to the military for implementation, information about the programs is automatically restricted even though they have no national security implications. The government then touts them as successful programs because of purported military efficiency and honesty. All of this erodes the civilian government that should be the foundation of a democracy.
New responsibilities also means increased spending on implementation. The Defense Ministry’s budget for 2020 was US$344.6 million, an increase of US$8.1 million over 2019. The defense budget has steadily increased since 2001, when US$62.3 million was allocated to the Armed Forces. The military receives additional funding for secondary tasks such as equipment and training procurement, personnel hiring, and other tasks that do not pertain to their core functions. No other Honduran institution has enjoyed similar budget increases or this level of secrecy.
By extrapolating this evidence, one could argue that if the criterion for delegating the management of institutions or programs to the military is that the responsible government agencies are incapable of doing so, then there is a risk that the Armed Forces could ultimately assume all of the institutional functions of Honduras’ civilian government. That is a one-way road to a military dictatorship, or what is known as a bureaucratic-authoritarian military state.
Another major area undermining Honduras’ fragile institutional foundations is the link between political, military, and drug trafficking forces. Since the 1980s, when infamous drug trafficker Juan Ramón Matta Ballesteros operated freely in Honduras, the connections between the military, drug traffickers, politicians and businesspeople have been increasingly evident. It has also come to light how these networks collaborated with the U.S.-led counterinsurgency effort that not only tolerated them, but also supported them as part of its international intelligence operations. A clear line can be drawn from that point to “Tony” Hernandez, the current president’s brother who was convicted in 2019 in the United States for drug trafficking. His trial revealed how drug money was channeled to his brother’s presidential campaigns and to the National Party, and also how members of the Armed Forces and the police actively collaborated in drug trafficking. The National Party was not the only political party implicated. Yani Rosenthal, a member of the Liberal Party, also represents a corporate elite involved in illicit transnational business with strong links to criminal organizations and corrupt officials. In the middle of all this are all kinds of mayors, officials, businesspeople and individuals who feed off the wide range of illegal economic activities linked to drug trafficking. Thus, it is difficult for the most powerful institution in Honduras to ignore this rampant corruption, especially in Central America’s most closely controlled U.S. ally. Back in the days of the Central American armed conflicts, Honduras was the “largest U.S. aircraft carrier.” This is still true, but now it’s because of the U.S. Southern Command, which maintains a strategic foothold in Honduras.
Despite all the evidence linking President Hernandez and his family to corruption and drug trafficking, it remains taboo to discuss such involvement by the Armed Forces. Many analyses of organized crime argue that it needs strong states with solid institutions that can ensure the stability of illegal businesses and impunity, above all. Yet for everything else, especially regarding the well-being of its citizens, these institutions can remain unstable and dysfunctional.
The Honduran state was formed by economic and political elites that adopted institutional procedures at the behest of external forces, and by violent and corrupt political competition for access to national resources. The country’s democratization process was no exception, and its outcomes were very minor because the commitment of local political actors ended where their interest in plundering public resources began.
The Armed Forces have been another actor in this environment, with power and privileges based on their control of the exercise of force and violence and from alliances with the main political parties, especially the National Party, and with the United States. Honduras has not chosen to promote democracy like Guatemala did after 1963, when it protected the political actions of civilian actors, or by stepping aside for other political forces to establish democracy, as occurred in El Salvador. Neither the Armed Forces nor the political class in Honduras have had a formal or real commitment to democracy.
Institutional instability is a prominent feature of the Honduran state. Moreover, the last three administrations have opted to expand military administration of public services rather than strengthen existing institutions. The growing bureaucratic presence of the military in civilian institutions cannot be expected to strengthen democracy, especially when military reform was a limited and short-lived process in Honduras.
To overcome the democratic deterioration that the country is experiencing, alliances between political forces and civilian society that counteract the polarization that divides the country, are required. The historical struggle between the National and Liberal parties is no longer driven by ideological differences, if it ever was. Rather, it is driven by the pursuit of control of public goods for personal or family benefit. And the new political forces that are emerging are also dragged down by the effort of adapting to a political system that has its own undemocratic and opaque rules.
In the absence of local democratizing forces, the country’s destiny continues to be steered by external actors, especially the United States. The permanent yet disparate presence of the United States in Honduras has recently seemed contradictory. The New York trial of Tony Hernández and other similar trials have clearly shown the tolerance and even complicity of President Hernández in international drug trafficking and money laundering. Yet the Honduran government enjoys the support of the current U.S. administration even though it knows that the National Party’s electoral campaigns have been largely funded by transnational criminal activities.
Honduras is a country open to the highest bidder. It has been this way for decades – since the banana company enclaves, and continues to be so through the concession of large tracts of territory for resource extraction, energy generation, and even the implementation of mega-projects in the Employment and Economic Development Zones (ZEDE), which are an updated form of the old economic enclave model.
In this context, the Armed Forces continue to be a reliable partner for many local and foreign actors. But can they be a reliable partner for a vulnerable population that does not need more repression, but rather economic and social development? Will they also be a reliable partner for a democracy that has not completed its first steps? To do so will require the Armed Forces to reduce their political protagonism and bureaucratic expansion. Whether this initiative will spring from within the Armed Forces or be imposed by populist forces remains to be seen. Perhaps it will also have to be the outcome of international pressure. It is hoped that this doesn’t come about as a response to more episodes of natural or human disasters.
*Knut Walter. Historian and teacher at universities in Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua and the United States. He is the author of several essays on modern Central American history, particularly El Salvador and Nicaragua, and has coordinated the development of textbooks on Salvadoran and Central American history.
Otto Argueta. Historian and PhD in Political Science from the University of Hamburg, Germany. Regional coordinator of the Alianza para La Paz. His research focuses on issues of criminality and violence with special emphasis on gangs, organized crime, drug trafficking, and police forces, as well as political systems and government development processes.
This article is part of a regional research project by the Alianza para La Paz, with support from the Heinrich Böll Foundation.