EspañolThe night in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, is unlike the night in any other city. Even the most experienced travelers think twice before leaving their hostel at night to buy food at nearby restaurants. Once in the city, after a few hours of traveling, it becomes clear that something is very wrong with this place. It was only 9 p.m. in the world’s most dangerous city and the roads were desolate. Only police officers with large, intimidating weapons populate the streets. This scene more or less portrays daily life throughout the whole of Honduras.
The fact is, Honduras has been mortally wounded. The country is on the edge of the abyss, and its president is too confused to avoid pushing Honduran society into a freefall. The migration surge of women and children from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala to the United States triggered a crisis. However, the imminent deportation of thousands of young kids, who journeyed to the United States in search of better opportunities, hides an even bigger problem: the war on drugs.
Most of the migrants trying to get north of the Río Grande come from El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico. According to statistics from the US Department of Homeland Security, the number of detentions of unaccompanied children has more than doubled during the last year.
The number of families detained near the border has also increased. During the last nine months, US Customs and Border Protection was involved in more than 110,000 detentions, compared to 30,000 detentions during the fiscal year ending in 2013 (October 2012 to October 2013). This year, more than 55,000 families have been detained — a 500 percent increase compared to the previous year.
Of the more than 57,000 unaccompanied children that have been detained, around 16,000 come from Honduras, representing a 145 percent increase from 2013. To put things in perspective, the population of children and families currently escaping Central America is larger than the vast majority of Central American towns and cities.
A crisis requires a solution, and Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández knows it. What he doesn’t know is that his diagnosis is wrong.
Last week, Hernández met in Tegucigalpa with seven US congressmen, where he requested support from the US government to design “a plan to combat drug traffickers.” According to the Honduran president, the driving force behind the violence that plagues his country is the illegal drug trade.
He believes the southward expansion of Mexican drug cartels into Central America to be a consequence of Plan Colombia and the Mérida Initiative, counter-narcotics operations carried out in Colombia and Mexico with the financial and logistical support of the United States. As a result, drug gangs that previously operated in Mexico and Colombia have relocated to Honduras, bringing even more violence and death to the Central American country.
Hernández points the finger at the United States for the high rates of violence in Honduras, just as the guidelines for a traditional Latin-American politician would suggest. According to the latest official statistics available, Honduras is the most violent country in the world. In 2012, the country’s homicide rate was 90.4 per 100,000 inhabitants, 30 times the rate in Chile, the safest of all Latin-American countries. “Honduras is living through a wave of crime that causes an average of 15 deaths per day,” Honduran authorities have affirmed.
In this context, common sense would suggest that Hernández’s position in requesting US assistance in an anti-drug initiative is reasonable. If the reason behind the high rate of violence is drug trafficking, then implementing a plan similar to those in Colombia and Mexico should solve the violence problem in Honduras. What Hernández ignores, however, is that the enforcement of US designed and funded counter-narcotics initiatives only bring more death and violence and do nothing to solve the actual problem.
Plan Colombia was a failure, and the Mérida Initiative, in effect since 2006, has resulted in more than 80,000 deaths. “[Over] 80,000 people have been killed in Mexico during the last 8 years of its war on drugs. During the US intervention in Vietnam, the number of [US] Americans killed in 10 years was 58,000,” said Daniel Gómez, a former Drug Enforcement Administration agent. In Honduras, with a population less than one tenth the size of Mexico, 46,450 people were killed between 2000 and 2011. A Honduran version of the Mérida Initiative could be the component that triggers a conflict of a catastrophic proportion.
Corruption – the omnipresent connivance between drug gangs and state authorities – makes Honduras fertile ground to spring a new Mexican tragedy. If the violence is already uncontrollable, an escalation would leave a deep scar in Honduran society.
If Hernández’s wishes came true, inhumane prison conditions in the country would worsen. The overcrowding in Honduran prisons now reaches 65 percent. Between 13,000 and 14,000 inmates are being housed in a system designed for 8,300 inmates. And if anything best characterizes the war on drugs, it is the exponential growth of prison populations. Between 2007 and 2012, Mexico’s prison population experienced a five-fold hike, while US prisons have seen a 430 percent increase in the last 30 years.
Overcrowding is not the only problem, as the violence within the country bleeds into its prisons as well. Brawls between gang members in prison are an everyday occurrence, and large-scale massacres in these detention centers are no longer surprising. In 2012, Human Rights Watch issued a warning regarding this hazardous situation. Journalist José Luis Sanz described the problem in the Salvadoran news outlet El Faro:
A guard locked cell 6, where 25 people had taken refuge, including a woman and a young girl who had come to visit shortly before the shooting. He placed mattresses and cardboard over the door of the cell, sprinkled it with fuel, and set them on fire. The policemen who saw him did not lift a finger.
Nevertheless, Hernández is bent on securing US assistance. Last May, the country extradited a drug-trafficker to the United States for the first time, after passing a new series of laws in 2012. Furthermore, last June, the US State Department highlighted Honduras’s efforts in combating human-trafficking.
However, what Hernández ought to do is listen to his Guatemalan colleague, Otto Pérez Molina, one of the most vociferous critics of the war on drugs. This failed government policy is precisely the cause of much of the violence in the region. Drug prohibition, far from making illegal substances inaccessible, allows for the emergence of a black market controlled by organized crime. High levels of violence and skyrocketing incarceration rates are a predictable outcome of this manufactured crisis. Further deepening a policy whose failure is clearly evident will only aggravate the problem.
The solution is not more government force to engage a dynamic enemy that quickly adapts to the new rules of the game. In order to eradicate organize crime and the violence it produces, it is necessary to adopt policies compatible with individual rights and put an end to prohibition once and for all.