Order Code RL34027
December 13, 2007
Mark P. Sullivan
Specialist in Latin American Affairs
Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division
Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division
The Central American nation of Honduras, one of the hemisphere’s poorest
countries, faces significant challenges in the areas of crime, human rights, and
improving overall economic and living conditions. While traditional agricultural
exports of coffee and bananas are still important for the economy, nontraditional
sectors, especially the maquiladora, or export-processing industry, have grown
significantly over the past decade. Among the country’s development challenges are
a poverty rate over 70%, high infant mortality, and a significant HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Despite these challenges, increased public spending on health and education have
reaped significant improvements in development indicators over the past decade.
Current President Manuel Zelaya of the Liberal Party won a four-year term in
the November 2005 elections. The country has enjoyed 25 years of uninterrupted
elected civilian democratic rule. The economy, which grew 6% in 2006 and is
forecast to grow 6% in 2007, has benefitted from significant debt reduction by the
international financial institutions that is freeing government resources to finance
poverty-reduction programs. A key challenge for the government is curbing violent
crime and the growth of youth gangs.
The United States has a close relationship with Honduras, characterized by an
important trade partnership, a U.S. military presence in the country, and cooperation
on a range of transnational issues. Honduras is a party to the Dominican RepublicCentral America Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA). There has been extensive
cooperation on port security, with the largest port in Honduras, Puerto Cortés,
included in both the Container Security Initiative and the Secure Freight Initiative.
Some 78,000 Hondurans living in the United States who have been provided
temporary protected status (TPS) since 1998 when the country was devastated by
Hurricane Mitch. In early May 2007, TPS was extended until January 2009. U.S.
foreign aid to Honduras amounted to almost $53 million in FY2006 and an estimated
$46 million in FY2007. The Administration requested $43 million in regular
FY2008 foreign aid funding , and at least $7.4 million in FY2008 supplemental
assistance for Honduras as part of the Administration’s Mérida Initiative to boast the
region’s interdiction capabilities and support a regional anti-gang strategy. The
Millennium Challenge Corporation approved a five-year $215 million compact with
Honduras in 2005.
In the 110th Congress, H.Res. 564 (Engel), passed October 2, 2007, recognizes
the threat that violence poses to Central America and supports expanded cooperation
between the United States and Central America to deal with youth gangs in the
region; H.Res. 642 (Solis), passed September 25, 2007, expresses sympathy and
support for countries of Central America, the Caribbean, and Mexico afflicted by
several devastating hurricanes; House-passed H.R. 2764, the FY2008 State
Department, Foreign Operations and Related Agencies Appropriations bill, would
provide $8 million to combat transnational crime and criminal youth gangs, including
in Central America; and H.Res. 532 (Gohmert), introduced July 10, 2007, would
recognize the energy and economic partnership between the United States and
Honduras. This report will be updated to reflect major developments.
Political and Economic Conditions . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1
Issues in U.S.-Honduran Relations . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5
Economic Linkages . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5
U.S. Foreign Assistance . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7
U.S. Military Presence . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9
Crime . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9
Migration Issues . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 12
Temporary Protected Status . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 12
Deportations . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 13
Drug Trafficking . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15
Human Trafficking . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 16
Port Security . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 17
List of Figures
Figure 1. Map of Honduras . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4
List of Tables
Table 1. U.S. Foreign Aid to Honduras, FY2005-FY2008 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8
Political and Economic Conditions
A Central American nation with a population of about 7.4 million, Honduras has
enjoyed 25 years of uninterrupted civilian democratic rule since the military
relinquished power in 1982 after free and fair elections. With a per capita income
of $1,200 (2006), Honduras is classified by the World Bank as a lower middle
income developing economy, and remains one of the poorest countries in the
hemisphere.1 Traditional agricultural exports of coffee and bananas are still
important for the Honduran economy, but nontraditional sectors, such as shrimp
farming and the maquiladora, or export-processing industry, have grown significantly
over the past decade. Among the country’s development challenges are an estimated
poverty rate over 70%; an infant mortality rate of 31 per 1,000; and chronic
malnutrition for one out of three children under five years of age. Honduras also has
a significant HIV/AIDS crisis, with an adult infection rate of 1.5% of the population.
The Garifuna community (descendants of freed black slaves and indigenous Caribs
from St. Vincent) concentrated in northern coastal areas has been especially hard hit
by the epidemic. Despite these challenges, the World Bank maintains that increased
public spending on health and education has reaped significant improvements in
development indicators over the past decade.2
Current President Manuel Zelaya of the Liberal Party won the November 2005
election by the close margin of 49.9% to 46.17%, narrowly defeating his National
Party rival Porfirio Lobo Sosa, the head of the Honduran Congress. While the
process was deemed free and fair, technical difficulties caused a delay in the official
vote count, and resulted in Lobo waiting until December 7, 2005, to concede defeat.
The Liberal and National parties traditionally have been the country’s two
dominant political parties. Both are considered center-right parties, and there appear
to be few major ideological differences between the two. During the 2005 campaign,
both candidates broadly supported the direction of the country’s market-oriented
economic policy, but they emphasized different approaches in dealing with crime
perpetrated by youth gangs. Lobo called for tougher action against gangs by
reintroducing the death penalty (which was abolished in 1957) and increasing prison
sentences for juvenile delinquents, whereas Zelaya opposed the death penalty and
World Bank, World Development Report, 2008.
World Bank, “Honduras Country Brief,” September 2006, and “Fighting Malnutrition in
Central America,” December 19, 2006; U.N. Economic Commission for Latin America and
the Caribbean, “Social Panorama of Latin America 2007,” Preliminary Version, November
2007. Also see CRS Report RL32713, Afro-Latinos in Latin America and Considerations
for U.S. Policy, by Clare M. Ribando.
emphasized a more comprehensive approach that would include job creation and
training. Zelaya also campaigned for more citizen involvement and transparency in
government and promised to increase social programs and combat corruption.
Inaugurated to a four-year term on
January 27, 2006, Zelaya succeeded
President Ricardo Maduro of the
National Party, who was elected in
2001. During his tenure, President
Maduro faced enormous challenges in
the areas of crime, human rights, and
improving overall economic and living
conditions in one of the hemisphere’s
poorest countries, challenges that
Zelaya is also facing. In the 2005
legislative elections that were held
simultaneously with the presidential
elections, Zelaya’s Liberal Party won 62
seats in the 128-member Congress, just
short of a majority, which has made it
more difficult for the Zelaya
government to enact its legislative
Born in 1952, José Manuel “Mel”
Zelaya Rosales hails from Olancho
department in rural eastern Honduras.
Zelaya studied civil engineering in college,
but left his studies for business, investing
in timber and cattle. He owns a ranch in
Olancho. Zelaya joined the Liberal Party
in 1970, and became party coordinator for
the departments of Olancho and Colón in
1980. He was first elected to Congress in
1985 and won three additional terms. He
served as head of the Honduran Social
Investment Fund from 1994-1997 and
again from 1998-2001 in two Liberal Party
He founded a
progressive faction of the Liberal Party,
and won the party’s presidential primary in
February 2005 before winning the general
In early 2007, public support for
Sources: “Manuel Zelaya,” Biography
the Zelaya government had been firm,
Resource Center Online, Gale, 2006; People
with a majority of Hondurans
Profile Manuel “Mel” Zelaya, LatinNews.com,
November 15, 2006.
maintaining that President Zelaya was
doing a good job. Zelaya’s high ratings
were buoyed by the strong performance
of the economy, his efforts to fulfill campaign pledges of free school enrollment and
an increase in teachers’ pay, and his efforts to curb rising fuel costs.3
As the year progressed, however, there was a drop in public support for
President Zelaya, due in large part to the government’s inability to achieve concrete
results in reducing crime rates, poverty, and unemployment; preventing fuel prices
from rising; and failing to tackle corruption. In May 2007, the government appeared
to be on the defensive, as President Zelaya lashed out at media owners for unfair
coverage and was especially critical of the media for allegedly sensationalizing
violent crime.4 The President ordered television and radio stations to broadcast two
hours of interviews and conversations with government officials for ten consecutive
days in order to counteract what he contended was unfair press coverage. This action,
however, was opposed by Honduran press groups as well as by the political
“Un 57 Pct de Hondureños Aprueba Gestión Presidente Zelaya,” Reuters, January 24,
2007; “Honduras Country Report,” Economist Intelligence Unit, January 2007.
“Honduran Government Dictates to Media,” LatinNews Daily, May 25, 2007; “Honduras:
Zelaya Accuses Media of Running the Country,” Caribbean and Central America Report,
May 17, 2007.
opposition. As a result, Zelaya was forced to back down somewhat by reducing the
amount of government programming that media outlets would be required to
Reducing corruption and crime are key challenges that have been testing the
Zelaya government. On the corruption front, President Zelaya has pressed for
transparency in government and access to public administration, but a new
transparency law has been criticized by some observers as having too many loopholes
allowing the government to prevent public access to “restricted” documents.5 During
Zelaya’s first year, several high ranking officials resigned as a result of corruption
scandals. More recently, in November 2007, the former director of the state phone
company has been charged with the illegal wiretapping of President Zelaya’s phone
conversations.6 Critics of the government also point to an increase in crime, with
over 3,000 murders during 2006, including the assassination of environmentalists and
human rights advocates.7 In early December 2006, for example, human rights
attorney Dionisio Díaz García was killed by unknown assailants in Tegucigalpa. The
State Department’s 2006 report on human rights practices in Honduras, issued in
March 2007, stated that, despite some positive steps, government corruption,
impunity for violators of the law, and gang violence have exacerbated serious human
rights violations in the country. (For more, see discussion on “Crime” below.)
Press rights groups have expressed concerns about violence against journalists.
In mid-October 2007, a popular radio commentator at Radio Cadenas Voces (RCV),
a station highly critical of the Zelaya government, was shot and killed. In early
November, the director of RCV left the country with his family after death threats.8
In July 2007, journalist Dina Meza, who has been the target of harassment and
intimidation, received a special award from Amnesty International for her work
focusing on labor rights violations for the online publication Revistazo.com
published by the Association for a More Just Society (ASJ). Meza had been a
colleague of slain human rights lawyer Dionisio Díaz García (noted above), who had
been on the way to the Supreme Court to take up a related ASJ case when he was
Honduras was devastated by Hurricane Mitch in 1998, which killed more than
5,000 people and caused billions of dollars in damage. The gross domestic product
declined by 1.4% in 1999, and the country felt the effects of the storm for several
years, with roads and bridges washed out, the agricultural sector hard hit, and scores
of orphaned children, many of whom joined criminal gangs. Spurred on by
substantial U.S. foreign assistance, however, the economy rebounded by 6% in 2000,
Thelma Meja, “Corruption: Honduras Grapples with Murky Transparency Law,” Global
Information Network, February 23, 2007.
“Honduras: Zelaya at Centre of Spying Row,” LatinNews.com, Weekly Report, November
“Honduras: Rocky First Year for Zelaya,” Central America Report, February 17, 2007.
“Head of Radio Cadenas Voces Flees the Country in Fear for His Life,” Reporters Without
Borders, November 2, 2007.
and has remained positive ever since. More recently, the economy registered growth
rates of 4.1% in 2005, 6% in 2006, and the forecast for 2007 is 6% as well.9
Figure 1. Map of Honduras
Honduras has signed two poverty reduction and growth facility (PRGF)
agreements with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) since 1999 that have
imposed fiscal and monetary targets on the government to maintain firm
macroeconomic discipline and to develop a comprehensive poverty reduction
strategy. The most recent PRGF agreement, which expired in February 2007, made
Honduras eligible for about $1 billion in debt relief under the IMF and World Bank’s
Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) Initiative. The Honduran government has
faced the dilemma of balancing the IMF’s calls for reducing public expenditures and
the public’s demands for increased spending. The government is negotiating a new
economic program with the IMF to replace the expired PRGF agreement. Under a
likely Policy Support Instrument, the IMF would provide advice and support as well
as more flexibility in setting fiscal targets that it would allow it to increase
expenditure on healthcare and education, but would not have access to a credit line
“Honduras: Country Report,” Economist Intelligence Unit, November 2007.
as under the PRGF.10 The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) also announced
a debt forgiveness program in late 2006 for its poorest members, including Honduras,
which will benefit from a reduction of $1.4 billion in foreign debt, freeing
government resources to finance poverty-reduction programs.11 In October 2007, an
IMF staff mission expressed some concern about the country’s rising fiscal deficit.12
Since Honduras is an energy importer, its energy import bill has risen
considerably with the rise in world oil prices, amounting to more than $1 billion in
2006. In late November 2007, the Zelaya government began talks with Venezuela
about its potential participation in PetroCaribe, a program in which Venezuela
provides oil at preferential discounted rates to Caribbean countries.
Issues in U.S.-Honduran Relations
The United States has had close relations with Honduras over many years,
characterized by significant foreign assistance, an important trade relationship, a U.S.
military presence in the country, and cooperation on a range of transnational issues.
The bilateral relationship became especially close in the 1980s when Honduras
returned to democratic rule and became the lynchpin for U.S. policy in Central
America. At that time, the country became a staging area for U.S.-supported
excursions into Nicaragua by anti-Sandinista opponents known as the contras.
Today, overall U.S. policy goals for Honduras include a strengthened democracy
with an effective justice system that protects human rights and promotes the rule of
law, and the promotion of sustainable economic growth with a more open economy
and improved living conditions. The United States also cooperates with Honduras
to deal with such transnational issues as narcotics trafficking, money laundering, the
fight against terrorism, illegal migration, and trafficking in persons, and supports
Honduran efforts to protect the environment and combat HIV/AIDS. There are some
800,000 to 1 million Hondurans residing in the United States, who sent some $2.4
billion in remittances to Honduras in 2006, or about one fourth of the country’s gross
U.S. trade and investment linkages with Honduras have increased since the early
1980s, and will likely increase further with the implementation of the Dominican
“Honduras: Country Report,” Economist Intelligence Unit, April 2007; Nestor Ikeda,
“Inter-American Development Bank Forgives Debt of 5 Nations,” Associated Press, March
“Honduras: IMF Accuses Government of Extravagance,” Latin American Economic and
Business Report,” October 25, 2007.
U.S. Department of State, “Background Note: Honduras,” June 2007; Inter-American
Development Bank, The Multilateral Investment Fund (MIF), “Remittances to Latin
America and the Caribbean 2006.”
Republic-Central America-United States Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR) that
entered into force with Honduras in April 2006. In 1984, Honduras became one of
the first beneficiaries of the Caribbean Basin Initiative (CBI), the one-way U.S.
preferential trade arrangement providing duty-free importation for many goods from
the region. In the late 1980s, Honduras benefitted from production-sharing
arrangements with U.S. apparel companies for duty-free entry into the United States
of certain apparel products assembled in Honduras. As a result, maquiladoras or
export-assembly companies flourished, most concentrated in the north coast region.
The passage of the Caribbean Basin Trade Partnership Act in 2000 (CBTPA), which
provided Caribbean Basin nations with NAFTA-like preferential tariff treatment,
further boosted Honduran maquiladoras.
The United States is by far Honduras’ largest trading partner, and is the
destination of about two-thirds of Honduran exports and the origin of about half of
its imports. Honduras is the second largest Latin American exporter of apparel to the
United States after Mexico. In 2006, U.S. exports to Honduras amounted to about
$3.7 billion, with knit and woven apparel inputs accounting for a substantial portion.
U.S. imports from Honduras amounted to about $3.7 billion, with knit and woven
apparel (assembled products from the maquiladora sector) accounting for the lion’s
share. Other Honduran exports to the United States include bananas, seafood,
electrical wiring, gold, tobacco, and coffee. In terms of investment, the stock of U.S.
foreign direct investment in Honduras amounted to $517 million in 2006,
concentrated largely in the manufacturing sector.14 More than 150 U.S. companies
operate in Honduras, with investments in the maquila or export assembly sector, fruit
production, tourism, energy generation, shrimp farming, animal feed production,
telecommunications, fuel distribution, cigar manufacturing, insurance, brewing, food
processing, furniture manufacturing, and numerous U.S. restaurant franchises.15 In
the 110th Congress, H.Res. 532 (Gohmert), introduced July 10, 2007,would
recognize the energy and economic partnership between the United States and
During consideration of CAFTA-DR, Honduras viewed the agreement as a way
to make the country more attractive for investment and as a way to protect its apparel
benefits under the Caribbean Basin Trade Partnership Act, which was set to in
September 2008. Honduran officials also viewed the CAFTA-DR as an important
tool in helping transform the country’s agricultural sector. Nevertheless, there are
concerns about the adverse effects of opening the Honduran market to U.S.
agricultural products, especially for several sensitive products such as corn, rice,
beef, poultry, and pork. Most significantly, Honduran officials are concerned about
the loss of jobs in some sectors, which could lead to social unrest if not addressed
properly through long-term investment in the agricultural sector.
One of the controversial issues in the CAFTA-DR debate in the United States
was how labor provisions would be handled. The agreement has provisions that
United States Trade Representative, 2007 National Trade Estimate Report on Foreign
Trade Barriers; U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Economic Analysis, “Survey of
Current Business,” September 2007.
U.S. Department of State, “Background Note: Honduras,” June 2007.
provide for the enforcement of domestic laws, establish a cooperative approach with
the International Labor Organization (ILO) to improve working conditions, and build
local capacity to improve labor rights. Opponents argue that the agreement should
have had provisions enforcing international standards, maintaining that Central
American countries have a history of non-enforcement of inadequate domestic laws.
In April 2005, Honduras and other Central American countries endorsed a work plan
with the goals of strengthening enforcement of labor laws in the region. In March
2006, the U.S. Department of Labor announced that it would be providing $5 million
in support of an International Labor Organization program to promote labor justice
under DR-CAFTA and evaluate its progress.16 Honduras has received criticism for
its poor labor conditions. According to the State Department’s 2006 human rights
report, issued in March 2007, there was credible evidence that blacklisting occurred
in the maquiladoras because of employees’ union activities.
U.S. Foreign Assistance
The United States has provided considerable foreign assistance to Honduras
over the past two decades. In the 1980s, the United States provided about $1.6 billion
in economic and military aid as the country struggled amid the region’s civil
conflicts. In the 1990s, U.S. assistance to Honduras began to wane as regional
conflicts subsided and competing foreign assistance needs grew in other parts of the
world. Hurricane Mitch changed that trend as the United States provided almost
$300 million in assistance to help the country recover from the 1998 storm. As a
result of the new influx of aid, total U.S. assistance to Honduras for the 1990s
amounted to around $1 billion. With Hurricane Mitch funds expended by the end of
2001, U.S. foreign aid levels to Honduras again began to decline.
Recent foreign aid funding to Honduras amounted to $54 million in FY2005,
almost $53 million in FY2006, and an estimated $46 million in FY2007 (see Table
1). For FY2008, the Administration requested almost $42.5 million in assistance,
including $16.7 million in Development Assistance, $10.6 million in Child Survival
and Health assistance, $10 million in food aid, and $3.5 million for a Peace Corps
These amounts include support for a variety of development projects in the area
of health, education, trade and investment capacity, agricultural sector productivity,
and the environment, as well as a large Peace Corps presence of almost 200
volunteers. For FY2008, no assistance was requested for Foreign Military Financing
(FMF) because of competing priorities worldwide. In past years, small amounts of
FMF were used to provide critical maintenance, training, and operational support for
the Honduran Armed Forces, and to enhance maritime interdiction capabilities. For
FY2008, the Administration is requesting $750,000 in International Narcotics
Control and Law Enforcement Assistance (INCLE). In previous years, INCLE
assistance had been provided as part of a regional Latin America program and was
not reflected in bilateral assistance figures.
“ILO Awarded $5 Million for CAFTA-DR Labor Program,” International Trade
Reporter, March 23, 2006.
Table 1. U.S. Foreign Aid to Honduras, FY2005-FY2008
(U.S. $ in thousands)
Child Survival and Health
Foreign Military Financing
International Military Education
International Narcotics Control
and Law Enforcement
Nonproliferation, Antiterrorism &
Food Aid (P.L. 480)
Sources: U.S. Department of State, Congressional Budget Justification, Foreign Operations, FY2007
and FY2008; Peace Corps, Congressional Budget Justification, FY2006-2008.
In addition to regular FY2008 foreign aid funding, the Administration has
requested at least $7.4 million in FY2008 supplemental assistance for Honduras as
part of the Administration’s Mérida Initiative to boast the region’s interdiction
capabilities and support a regional anti-gang strategy. (For additional background on
the Mérida Initiative, see CRS Report RL32724, Mexico-U.S. Relations: Issues for
Beyond traditional foreign assistance funding, in June 2005, the Millennium
Challenge Corporation (MCC) signed a five-year $215 million compact for
Honduras. The MCC compact has two components, a rural development project and
a transportation project. The rural development project involves providing Honduran
farmers with the skills needed to grow and market horticultural crops. The
transportation project will improve a highway linking the Atlantic port of Puerto
Cortés to Pacific ports and major production centers in Honduras, El Salvador, and
Nicaragua. It will also involve improvements to main highways, secondary, and rural
roads to enable farmers and other businesses to get their products to markets more
Millennium Challenge Corporation, “Honduras
The United States has also recently provided disaster assistance to Honduras.
In anticipation of damage from Hurricane Felix, USAID provided $25,000 in
preparedness assistance in early September 2007 to support emergency relief
activities. In October 2007, USAID provided $50,000 in the aftermath of heavy rains
that caused flooding in southern Honduras that killed five people and damaged or
destroyed more than 1,000 homes. On September 25, 2007, the House approved
(418-0) H.Res. 642 (Solis) expressing sympathy and support for countries of Central
America, the Caribbean, and Mexico afflicted by several devastating hurricanes.
U.S. Military Presence
The United States maintains a troop presence of about 550 military personnel
known as Joint Task Force (JTF) Bravo at Soto Cano Air Base. JTF Bravo was first
established in 1983 with about 1,200 troops, who were involved in military training
exercises and in supporting U.S. counterinsurgency and intelligence operations in the
region. Today, U.S. troops in Honduras support such activities as disaster relief,
medical and humanitarian assistance, counternarcotics operations, and search and
rescue operations that benefit Honduras and other Central American countries.
Regional exercises and deployments involving active duty and reserve components
provide training opportunities for thousands of U.S. troops. In the aftermath of
Hurricane Mitch in 1998, U.S. troops provided extensive assistance in the relief and
reconstruction effort. In 2005, JTF Bravo deployed teams to provide disaster
assistance in response to Hurricane Stan in neighboring Guatemala and to Tropical
Storms Beta and Gamma in Honduras.18 In November 2006, about 50 troops from
JTF Bravo were dispatched to Panama to provide assistance after flooding in the
In June 2006, President Zelaya announced that Honduras would seek to convert
part of the Soto Cano Air Base into a commercial air cargo terminal, while later in
the year the Honduran Defense Minister suggested that the conversion of Soto Cano,
which would take more work than originally thought and cost some $100-200
million, might not be viable financially.19 In a January 2007 speech to the Honduran
Congress, however, President Zelaya again reiterated that Soto Cano Air Base would
be upgraded so that it could be used as a commercial airport for exporting
merchandise to the United States.20
Crime and related human rights issues have been among the most important
challenges for the Honduran government. When President Maduro took office in
2002, kidnaping and murder were common in major cities, particularly in the
Edmund Woolfolk and James Marshall, “JTF-Bravo and Disaster Relief,” Joint Force
Quarterly, Issue 42, 3rd Quarter 2006.
“Honduras: Upgrading Palmerola Base,” Latin America Regional Report, Caribbean &
Central America, October 2006.
“Honduras Usará Comercialmente Base Aérea de EEUU,” Associated Press, January 25,
northern part of the country. Youth gangs known as maras terrorized many urban
residents, while corresponding vigilantism increased to combat the crime, with
extrajudicial killings increasing, including killings of youth.
Honduras, along with neighboring El Salvador and Guatemala, has become
fertile ground for the gangs, which have been fueled by poverty, unemployment,
leftover weapons from the 1980s, and the U.S. deportation of criminals to the region.
The two major gangs in Honduras — Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, and the 18th Street
gang, or M-18 — were first established in Los Angeles in the 1980s by Salvadoran
immigrants who were excluded from Mexican-American gangs. The U.S.
deportation of Central American criminals back to the region in the 1990s may have
helped lay the foundation for the development of MS-13 and M-18 in Central
America.21 Although estimates of the number of gang members in Central America
vary widely, the U.S. Southern Command maintains that there are some 70,000,
concentrated largely in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala.22
President Maduro, who campaigned on a zero-tolerance platform, increased the
number of police officers and cracked down on delinquency. The government signed
legislation in July 2003 making maras illegal and making membership in the gangs
punishable with 12 years in prison. Some human rights groups expressed concerns
about abuses and the effect of the crackdown on civil liberties. There were also
concerns that the crackdown would exacerbate already poor prison conditions.
Subsequently in 2004, a fire in the San Pedro Sula prison killed 107 inmates, mostly
gang members. Although the crackdown initially reduced crime (for example, an
80% decline in kidnapping and a 60% decline in youth gang violence)23 and was
popular with the public, crime subsequently picked up again. On December 23,
2004, MS-13 gang members massacred 28 people, including 6 children, on a public
bus crowded with Christmas shoppers in San Pedro Sula, an event that shocked the
Beginning in 2006, the Zelaya government — in a move to replace the Maduro
government’s zero-tolerance policy — initially announced measures to use dialogue
and other outreach techniques to convince gang members to give up violence and
reintegrate into society, but subsequently has focused more on traditional law
enforcement action to crack down on the gangs.24 In September 2006, the
government launched Operation Thunder to increase the number of police and
military troops in the streets and conduct raids against suspected criminals. The
operation led to 1,600 arrests.25 The government has also pledged to increase the
Ana Arana, “How the Street Gangs Took Central America,” Foreign Affairs, May 1, 2005.
House Armed Services Committee, Posture Statement of Gen. Bantz Craddock,
Commander, U.S. Southern Command, March 9, 2005.
John Authers and Sara Silver, “Death of Son Persuades Honduran to Take Political
Stage,” Financial Times, August 11, 2004.
“Honduran Government Reaches Out to Rehabilitate Gangs,” ACAN-EFE, January 30,
“Honduras’ Operation Thunder: The Effort to Stem Rising Crime,” Stratfor, October 30,
police force by 1,000 members each year. The Zelaya government has been criticized
by human rights organizations for proposing reforms to the national police force law
that would include the creation of a Special Forces Battalion; these groups fear that
such a move could lead to the “militarization” of the police.26
Despite the Zelaya’s government’s efforts, crime and violence in Honduras have
continued unabated. According to the government’s Human Rights Commissioner,
the murder rate in 2006 stood at 46 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, third in Latin
America behind Colombia and El Salvador.27 Several high-profile killings have
drawn greater attention to the issue of violent crime in Honduras. In early March
2007, the second ranking officer in the Honduran police force was killed, reportedly
by the Cartel del Atlántico, a drug trafficking organization.28 Also on June 22, 2007,
Zelaya’s military chief of staff, Captain Alejandro Montino, was gunned down, less
than a month after the murder of the husband of Zelaya’s secretary.29
Several recent studies on the gangs in Central America contend that so-called
mano dura (strong arm) policies focused on repressing the gangs with law
enforcement may have contributed to the gangs becoming more organized and more
violent. They contend that Central American governments need to develop social
and economic prevention programs as a means of effectively dealing with the gang
crisis. Best practices are seen as involving strategies that are developed with
community collaboration so that prevention and law enforcement programs are
accepted by all sectors and the general population.30
Several U.S. agencies have been involved in assisting Honduras and other
Central American countries in dealing with the gang problem.31 On the law
enforcement side, the FBI established a task force in 2004 focusing on MS-13 that
allows the exchange of information with Central America law enforcement agencies.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has worked closely with
“Honduras: Police Reform Suffers Serious Setbacks,” Central America Report, September
1, 2006; “Honduras Country Report,” Economist Intelligence Unit, January 2007.
“Homicide Rate in Violence-Prone Honduras One of the Region’s Highest,” Global
Insight Daily Analysis, March 12, 2007.
“Honduras: Gangsters Blamed for Killing Police Chief, LatinNews Daily, March 5, 2007.
“Military Chief of Staff Killed in Honduras,” Global Insight Daily Analysis, June 25,
“Youth Gangs in Central American, Issues in Human Rights, Effective Policing and
Prevention,” Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), November 2006;
“Transnational Youth Gangs in Central America, Mexico, and the United States,” Executive
Summary, WOLA and the Center of Inter-American Studies and Programs of the Instituto
Tecnológico Autónomo de México (ITAM), February 2007.
See CRS Report RS22141, Gangs in Central America, by Clare M. Ribando.
Honduran law enforcement pertaining to MS-13 and other gangs.32 The United
States has also conducted anti-gang training for Honduran law enforcement officials.
In January 2007, police and prosecutors from Honduras and other Central American
countries completed an anti-gang training program conducted at the U.S.-funded
International Law Enforcement Academy in El Salvador.33 The U.S. Agency for
International Development, while not having a specific program focusing on gangs,
supports several programs that attack the risk factors associated with gang
membership and violence. These include a program to provide basic education skills
to at-risk youths and a program to improve the effectiveness and transparency of the
In July 2007, Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Thomas
Shannon, announced that the United States would pledge $4 million to help Central
American governments draft a regional security strategy to fight street gangs and
drug trafficking.35 Such a strategy would consist of five areas in which the United
States would work with partners in Central America: diplomacy, repatriation, law
enforcement, capacity enhancement, and prevention.36
In the 110th Congress, H.Res. 564 (Engel), approved by the House on October
2, 2007 by voice vote, would recognize that violence poses an increasingly serious
threat to peace and stability in Central America and would support expanded
cooperation between the United States and the countries in the region, including
Honduras, to deal with youth gangs in Central America. House-passed H.R. 2764,
the FY2008 State Department, Foreign Operations and Related Agencies
Appropriations bill, would provide $8 million to combat transnational crime and
criminal youth gangs, including in Central America. The Administration requested
at least $7.4 million in FY2008 supplemental assistance for Honduras as part of the
Administration’s Mérida Initiative to boast the region’s interdiction capabilities and
support a regional anti-gang strategy.
Temporary Protected Status. In the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch in 1998,
the United States provided temporary protected status (TPS) to eligible Hondurans
in the United States, protecting them from deportation, because the Honduran
government would not be able to cope with their return. Originally slated to expire
in July 2000, TPS status for the eligible Hondurans has been extended six times.
House Committee on International Relations, Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere,
Statement of John P. Torres, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, U.S. Department
of Homeland Security, Hearing on “Gangs and Crime in Latin America,” April 20, 2005.
U.S. Department of Justice, “Prepared Remarks of Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales
at the Press Conference Following Bilateral Meetings in El Salvador,” February 5, 2007.
U.S. Agency for International Development, “Central America and Mexico Gang
Assessment, Annex 3: Honduras Profile,” April 2006.
“U.S. Offers Funds to Help Fight Central America Gangs,” Reuters, July 18, 2007.
U.S. Department of State, “Combating Criminal Gangs from Central America and
Mexico,” July 18, 2007.
Most recently, TPS was scheduled to expire on July 5, 2007, but on May 2, 2007,
Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff announced that TPS for eligible
nationals of Honduras (as well as El Salvador and Nicaragua) would be extended for
an additional 18 months until January 5, 2009. Some 78,000 Honduras currently
benefit from TPS.37 The extensions generally have been granted because of the
difficulty that Honduras would have in coping with their return. For the most recent
extension, a Homeland Security official maintained that while Honduras, along with
El Salvador and Nicaragua that also have TPS designations, have made significant
progress in recovery and rebuilding, each country continues to face social and
economic challenges in efforts to restore their nations to normalcy.38 (For
background on TPS, see CRS Report RS20844, Temporary Protected Status:
Current Immigration Policy and Issues.)
Deportations.39 After Mexico, Honduras is the country in the region with the
highest number of U.S. deportations. In FY2006, over 26,000 Hondurans were
deported, making it one of the top recipients of deportees on a per capita basis.
Deportations to Honduras have increased significantly over the past decade, from
2,769 in FY1996 to 26,526 in FY2006, almost a tenfold increase. In the first nine
months of FY2007, over 18,000 Hondurans were deported.40 As with most Central
American countries, those deported on criminal grounds to Honduras were a much
smaller percentage than the average for Latin America and the Caribbean overall.
About 20% of Hondurans were removed on criminal grounds in 2006. In March
2007, the Honduran Congress approved a motion calling for the United States to halt
deportations of undocumented Honduran migrants who live and work in the United
States.41 According to the Department of Homeland Security, in 2005 Honduras
became the first foreign country to agree to the use of video teleconferencing by
Honduran consular officers for travel document interviews in order to speed the
In Honduras and other Central American countries, policymakers are most
concerned about their countries’ abilities to absorb the large volumes of deportees
arriving from the United States. Increasing deportations from the United States have
been accompanied by similar increases in deportations from Mexico, a transit country
for Central American migrants bound for the United States. The deportations have
U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services,
“Secretary Chertoff Extends Temporary Protected Status for Eligible Hondurans,
Nicaraguans and Salvadorans,” Press Release, May 2, 2007.
“El Salvador-Honduras: Holding Out Hope for Immigration Reform,” Caribbean &
Central America Report, May 17, 2007.
Clare Seelke contributed information to this section. Also see CRS Report RL34112,
Gangs in Central America.
Information Provided to CRS by the Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and
Customs Enforcement, Office of Detention and Removal.
“CN Pide a EEUU que Cesen las Deportaciones de Compatriotas,” La Tribuna (San Pedro
Sula, Honduras), March 14, 2007.
“Homeland Security Department Introduces New Procedure to Expedite Honduran
Removals,” U.S. Fed News, April 19, 2005.
caused numerous challenges for Central American governments and social service
providers. In countries where poverty and unemployment rates are high, it can be
difficult for returning deportees to find gainful employment. Individuals who do not
speak Spanish, who are tattooed, who have criminal records, and/or who lack familial
support in the country to which they are deported have a particularly difficult time
with re-integration. Some deportees have left close family members behind in the
United States, which may make their transition even harder. In addition to these
social problems, regional leaders are also concerned that remittances may start to fall
if the current high rates of deportations continue.43
Some analysts contend that increasing U.S. deportations of individuals with
criminal records has exacerbated the gang problem in Honduras and other Central
American countries.44 By the mid-1990s, the civil conflicts in Central America had
ended and the United States began deporting unauthorized immigrants, many with
criminal convictions, back to the region. Between 2000 and 2004, an estimated
20,000 criminals were sent back to Central America, many of whom had spent time
in prisons in the United States for drug and/or gang-related offenses. Many contend
that gang-deportees have “exported” a Los Angeles gang culture to Central America,
and that they have recruited new members from among the local populations.45
Although a recent United Nations study says that there is little conclusive evidence
to support their claims, the media and many Central American officials have
attributed a large proportion of the rise in violent crime in the region on gangs,
particularly gang-deportees from the United States.46 Offender reentry has become
a major problem, as tattooed former gang members, especially returning deportees
from the United States who are often native English speakers, have difficulty finding
Most Central American governments have developed some type of programs to
help returning deportees reintegrate into society, but many of these tend to be
understaffed and underfunded. In Honduras, immigration officials, Catholic church
representatives, and volunteers provide food and information on job training
opportunities to repatriated individuals at the Center for Attention to Migrants, which
is next to the international airport in Tegucigalpa.47
Both Central American and Caribbean officials have called on the United States
to provide better information on deportees with criminal records. In July 2007
testimony before the House Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, the
Pamela Constable, “Deportees’ Bittersweet Homecoming; Migration is Boon, Bane for
Honduras,” Washington Post, June 27, 2007.
Robert L. Lopez, Rich Connell, and Chris Kraul, “Gang Uses Deportation to its
Advantage to Flourish in the U.S.,” Los Angeles Times, November 1, 2005.
Ana Arana, “How the Street Gangs Took Central America,” Foreign Affairs, May/June
United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Crime and Development in
Central America: Caught in the Crossfire, May 2007.
Pamela Constable, “Deportees’ Bittersweet Homecoming; Migration is Boon, Bane for
Honduras,” Washington Post, June 27, 2007.
Honduran Ambassador asserted that while the United States now provides
information on the criminal background of deportees, information is not provided on
whether the repatriated nationals are gang members. The Administration’s $7.4
million FY2008 supplemental request for Honduras as part of the Administration’s
Mérida Initiative includes assistance for a web-based Repatriation Notification
System that would give Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala notification of all
repatriations from the United States.
Honduras is a transhipment country for cocaine flowing north from South
America by air, sea, and land. According to the State Department’s 2007
International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, recent reports indicate that such
transit is increasing as drug traffickers have been shifting their boat traffic from
Guatemala to Honduras. Remote areas of Honduras, particularly the country’s
eastern Gracías a Díos department, are natural safe havens for drug traffickers,
providing them with isolated areas to refuel maritime assets and make boat-to-boat
The State Department report lauded Honduras for its cooperation with the
United States on counternarcotics efforts, noting close bilateral cooperation in
investigation and operations. A “Special Vetted Unit” in the Honduran police uses
sensitive narcotics intelligence to target major traffickers operating in the country
and to disrupt and disband transnational organized crime groups. The State
Department maintained that Zelaya government has made combating drug trafficking
a priority. This has included the expansion of maritime interdiction, especially along
the north coast, strengthened international cooperation, and initiatives to weed out
corrupt officials. It noted the government’s passage of two important laws in 2006:
a transparency law to provide public access to the workings of the government, and
reforms to the country’s civil procedure code that will speed up the judicial process
and allow for public oral arguments. The report also stated that the government took
action to fire police who have committed crimes or are linked to drug traffickers, and
to institute procedures to polygraph members of special investigative units.
At the same time, the State Department report stated that effective
counternarcotics efforts face such obstacles as funding constraints, a weak judicial
system marred by corruption and heavy caseloads, a lack of coordination, and
leadership challenges. It noted that the United States is encouraging Honduran law
enforcement to conduct cooperative criminal investigations on drug trafficking
organizations on the north coast and other areas of the country. Looking ahead, the
State Department noted that Honduras would like to make improvements to the
police academy and institutionalize anti-corruption efforts. It also maintained that
Honduras’ participation in the Container Security Initiative (discussed below) will
be a major deterrent to drug smuggling, weapons trafficking, and terrorism.
In mid-March 2007, the Zelaya government announced a plan to combat the
transit of drugs from Colombia to the United States along the Atlantic coast of
Honduras. Government officials stated that it would be establishing police
installations in the rural department of Gracías a Díos (in the Mosquitia region that
borders Nicaragua) with the technical assistance of the U.S. Drug Enforcement
Administration.48 President Zelaya also reactivated an interagency Council for the
Fight Against Drug Trafficking (CNLCH) that with the Ministers of Security and
Defense participating along with the Attorney General. The military’s role in
combating drug trafficking and other crimes will be expanded.49
According to the State Department’s 2007 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report,
Honduras is a source country for women and children trafficked for the purpose of
sexual exploitation, with many victims trafficked from rural areas to tourist and
urban areas such as San Pedro Sula, the north Caribbean coast, and the Bay Islands.
According to the government and NGO’s, an estimated 10,000 victims had been
trafficked in Honduras, mostly internally. However, the report also maintained that
women and children were trafficked to Mexico, the United States, and Guatemala.
In 2005, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) worked with Honduran
authorities to break up a human smuggling ring that lured young Honduran women
to the United States for forced labor.50 The State Department’s 2006 human rights
report highlighted Guatemala as a destination country for the trafficking of Honduran
women, with Honduran authorities estimating that 20 to 30 children are trafficked
across the border daily for purposes related to sexual exploitation.
Although the State Department stated in the TIP Report that Honduras does not
fully comply with the minimum standards of trafficking, it noted that the government
is making significant efforts to do so (a so-called Tier 2 country). It pointed to a law
that prohibits trafficking for the purpose of commercial sexual exploitation and the
enactment of a separate anti-trafficking statute in February 2006. However, not all
forms of trafficking for the purpose of labor exploitation are prohibited. The
government also conducted 27 anti-trafficking training sessions for its civilian police
force in 2006 and 10 anti-trafficking sessions that reached thousands of Hondurans.
The report indicates that Honduras has not ratified the 2000 UN TIP Protocol and it
recommends that the Honduran government intensify efforts to initiate prosecutions
under its new anti-trafficking law to achieve more convictions and increased
sentences against suspected traffickers. The State Department’s 2006 human rights
report maintains the application of the new anti-trafficking law has been limited. The
report also calls on the government to make greater efforts to increase shelter and
victim services. The Bush Administration’s FY2008 foreign aid request for
Honduras includes $200,000 to combat trafficking-in-persons and migrant
“Anuncian Plan Antidrogas en Honduras,” Associated Press, March 14, 2007.
“Honduran Government Launches Plan to Fight Organized Crime, Drug Trafficking,”
Open Source Center, March 15, 2007.
U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, “10
Charged in International Human Smuggling Ring that Lured Young Honduran Women to
U.S. for Forced Labor,” News Release, July 21, 2005.
Honduras and the United States have cooperated extensively on port security.
For the United States, port security emerged as an important element of homeland
security in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Honduras views
such cooperation as important in order to ensure the speedy export of its products to
the United States, which in turn could increase U.S. investment in the country.
In March 2006, U.S. officials announced the inclusion of the largest port in
Honduras, Puerto Cortés, in the U.S. Container Security Initiative (CSI), becoming
the only port in Central America under the CSI. Puerto Cortés is the major facility
used for the export of apparel to the United States. The CSI program, operated by the
U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) of the Department of Homeland Security,
uses a security regime to ensure that all containers that pose a potential risk for
terrorism are identified and inspected at foreign ports before they are placed on
vessels destined for the United States.
Honduras and the United States signed a Declaration of Principles in December
2005 that ultimately led to Honduras’ inclusion in the CSI. The Declaration also led
to Honduras’ involvement in the Megaports Initiative run by the National Nuclear
Security Administration of the Department of Energy. That initiative has the goal of
deploying radiation detection equipment to ports in order to detect nuclear or
In December 2006, the U.S. Departments of Energy and Homeland Security
launched a Secure Freight Initiative (SFI) with the goal of deploying a globally
integrated network of radiation detection and container imaging equipment to be
operated in seaports worldwide. Puerto Cortés was one of six ports around the world
chosen to be part of the first phase of the SFI, with the deployment of radiation
technology and nuclear detection devices. Testing of containers at Puerto Cortés
began in April 2007, and by early October 2007, the SFI became fully operational at
Puerto Cortés with all containers bound for the United States scanned for radiation
before they are allowed to depart.51
U.S. Department of Homeland Security, “DHS and DOE Launch Secure Freight
Initiative,” Press Release, December 7, 2006, and “Secure Freight Initiative Becomes Fully
Operational in United Kingdom, Pakistan, and Honduras,” Press Release, October 12, 2007;
R.G. Edmonson “U.S. Unveils Container Security Test,” Journal of Commerce Online,
December 7, 2006; “U.S. Begins Testing of Secure Freight Initiative,” Journal of
Commerce, April 13, 2007.