Civilian Democratic Rule

Honduras Table of Contents

In the decade since Honduras returned to civilian democratic rule in 1982, the political system has undergone notable changes. Hondurans successfully elected three civilian presidents in the 1980s, and elections came to be celebrated in an almost holidaylike atmosphere, similar to the electoral process in Costa Rica. In 1993 the nation was again gearing up for national elections in November, with conservative Osvaldo Ramos Soto of the PNH squaring off against Carlos Roberto Reina, leader of a leftist faction of the PLH. Although remaining a powerful factor in the political system, the military is increasingly facing challenges from civilians who are beginning to hold it responsible for involvement in human rights violations.

Nevertheless, many observers have noted that although Honduras has held regular elections and has begun to hold the military accountable, the nation still faces numerous political challenges, most notably reforming the administration of justice so that both military and civilian elites can be held accountable for their actions, realizing civilian control over the military, and rooting out corruption from government.

The human rights situation deteriorated significantly in the first few years of civilian rule, when the military, under the command of General Gustavo Álvarez Martínez, initiated a campaign against leftists that led to the disappearance of more than 100 people. Small insurgent groups also began operating during this period, but the overwhelming majority of political killings were carried out by the military. Although this violence paled in comparison to the violence in neighboring El Salvador and Guatemala, it marked a departure from the relatively tranquil Honduran political environment. Beginning in 1985, political violence declined significantly but did not completely disappear; a small number of extrajudicial killings continued to be reported annually for the balance of the 1980s and early 1990s. In July 1988 and January 1989, when the Honduran government was held responsible by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) for the 1982 disappearances of Ángel Manfredo Velásquez and Saúl Godínez, Honduran authorities were also held responsible by the court for a deliberate kidnapping campaign of between 100 and 150 individuals believed to be tied to subversive activities between 1981 and 1984.

In the early 1990s, as the political conflicts in El Salvador and Nicaragua were abating, the Honduran public increasingly began to criticize the military for human rights violations, including a number of political and other types of extrajudicial killings. One case that ignited a public outcry against the military was the July 1991 rape, torture, and murder of an eighteen-year old student, Riccy Mabel Martínez, by military members. Initially, the military would not allow the civilian courts to try the three suspects, but ultimately the military discharged the suspects from the military so as not to set the precedent of military members being tried in civilian courts. After a long drawn out process, two of the suspects, including a former colonel, were convicted of the crime in July 1993, marking the first time that a high-ranking officer, even though no longer in the military, was prosecuted in the civilian courts.

Observers credit former United States Ambassador Cresencio Arcos with speaking out promptly on the case and urging the Honduran government to prosecute it through an open judicial process. In fact, the United States embassy increasingly has been viewed as a champion for human rights in Honduras, and its human rights reports in the early 1990s were considerably more critical than those prepared in the 1980s.

Although Honduras has experienced more than a decade of civilian democratic rule, some observers maintain that the military is still the most powerful political player in the country. Its disregard for civilian authority is demonstrated by the military's immunity from prosecution for human rights violations. In early 1993, after the military received considerable public criticism for alleged involvement in the killing of a businessperson in San Pedro Sula in January 1993, military forces were deployed in both San Pedro Sula and in the capital. Rumors abounded about the true intention of the deployment, reportedly made without the knowledge of President Callejas. Some observers speculated that armed forces chief, General Luis Alonso Discua Elvir, took the action to intimidate his opponents and stem a barrage of recent criticism against the military. President Callejas later announced that he had ordered the deployment as one of a series of actions to deter criminal violence.


Some critics maintain that President Callejas should have been more forceful with the military and attempted to assert more civilian control during his presidency, particularly when the military tried to impede the prosecution of the Riccy Martínez case. Some maintain that Callejas himself had close ties with General Discúa, thus explaining why no strong civilian action was taken against the military. Others, however, maintain that Callejas substantially improved civilian control over the military with the establishment of such commissions as the Ad Hoc Commission for Institutional Reform, which recommended the breakup of the National Investigations Department, and the creation of a new Department of Criminal Investigation (Departamento de Investigación Criminal-- DIC) within the civilian government.

A growing concern of the business sector in the early 1990s was the military's increasing involvement in private enterprise. Through its Military Pension Institute (Instituto de Pensión Militar--IPM), the military acquired numerous enterprises, including the nation's largest cement factory, a bank, a real estate agency, cattle ranches, a radio station, and a funeral home. Critics maintain that the military has a competitive advantage in a number of areas because of certain benefits derived from its status, such as the ability to import items duty free.

According to some observers, a fundamental problem associated with the Honduran political system is the almost institutionalized corruption found within its ranks. Analysts maintain that the primary motivation of politicians in Honduras is personal interest; bribery (la mordida) is a common or institutionalized practice. Publicized instances of corruption are found throughout the political system, in all branches of government, and some observers maintain that Hondurans have come to expect this of their politicians. As noted by Mark B. Rosenberg, political power in Honduras is defined by one's ability to convert public authority into private advantage. Some analysts contend that corruption is literally a necessity to govern effectively in Honduras. Former United States ambassador Cresencio Arcos notes that "there is more than a kernel of truth in the Latin American cliché, a deal for my friend, the law for my enemies."

Some observers maintain that the Callejas government moderated corrupt practices, as demonstrated by the creation of the Fiscal Intervention Commission that turned its attention to investigating extensive corruption in the Customs Directorate. Others maintain that the commission was a smokescreen to give the appearance that the government was doing something to root out corruption, when in fact the Callejas government was saturated with corruption, and personal enrichment was the norm. The issue of corruption is a theme in the 1993 presidential campaign of PLH candidate Carlos Roberto Reina, who has pledged a moral revolution to punish those public officials enriching themselves through corruption.

More about the Government and Politics of Honduras.

Custom Search

Source: U.S. Library of Congress