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Security and Human Rights in Honduras: A Conversation with Julieta Castellanos

By Peter Demers
March 7, 2013

In addition to its struggling economy and institutional challenges, Honduras is in the midst of a security crisis, with alarming levels of official corruption and the world’s highest homicide rate. Julieta Castellanos, rector of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Honduras (UNAH) and a civil, intellectual, and academic leader, has played a central role as an advocate for pubic security reform efforts to reverse the deterioration of the rule of law in her country.

Her work as a pioneer in fighting corruption and pushing for police reform was recognized by the US State Department’s “International Women of Courage Award,” which she received on March 8, International Women’s Day.   The day before the awards ceremony, Castellanos and a panel of experts discussed Honduras’ security challenges at the Inter-American Dialogue.

Like other countries in the region, Honduras is currently pursuing a police reform program. According to Castellanos, however, the reform process is too focused on corruption rather than improving the bad policing practices that lead to the murder of innocent youth, like  her son who was killed by police officers in 2011—an event that set off strong civil society demands for a public security overhaul. This reform process has been sluggish and has failed to implement oversight and accountability mechanisms. Especially worrying is the judicial system, which, according to Castellanos, is not under investigation for corruption and has few institutional controls. Supreme Court justices have repeatedly blocked attempts to carry out investigations of the police, citing violations of due process within reform legislation, which has created a constitutional standoff between the legislative and judicial branches.

However, it will be difficult to carry out the necessary reforms given constraints on the government’s resources and the magnitude of the violence and organized crime. Honduras’ government is in the midst of a fiscal crisis, its citizens are impoverished, and its population growing. Its economy struggles to absorb not only the growing domestic workforce, but also roughly 25,000 US deportees annually, many of whom are criminals. According to Adriana Beltrán, senior associate for citizen security at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), Honduras needs help to fund both its reforms as well as the violence prevention programs that are necessary to defuse the time-bomb.

The international and regional community will need to play a greater role in addressing the crisis as well. In order to carry out investigations into the widespread corruption in the police and judicial systems, Honduras will need cooperation from international organizations that can lend credibility, financial backing, and investigative capacity (similar to the UN  Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, or CICIG, which has operated in that country since 2007). 

There will also need to be improvements in Honduras’ security coordination with its neighbors in the region. Roberta Jacobson, assistant secretary of state for  Western Hemisphere affairs, pointed out that the drug trafficking organizations that put such a strain on Honduras’ resources are a regional threat, and require regional cooperation if they are to be dismantled.  What is needed now, Castellanos asserted, is a concrete plan for public security, and reform of not only those institutions under suspicion, but the entire state apparatus.