The cost of systemic corruption in Honduras: Migration north

To address the socio-economic and security conditions driving transnational migration, Honduras will first have to solve the systemic corruption and democratic governance challenges plaguing the country.


Honduras’s frail democratic institutions, combined with systemic corruption, intensify the drivers of transnational migration to Mexico and the United States. Over the last decade, political leaders in Honduras actively eroded the separation of powers, increased authoritarian repression of dissent, and fueled public cynicism about the legitimacy of democracy in the country. In addition, recent corruption scandals clearly demonstrate how the country’s elites co-opt public resources for private gain. As a result, the Honduran state fails to protect vulnerable communities, guarantee access to economic opportunity, social mobility, or the delivery of basic public goods and services including security, healthcare, and infrastructure. Without addressing the root causes driving this vicious cycle, more Honduran citizens will likely join future migrant caravans in search of better life opportunities in other countries.       

After the transition to democracy in the 1980’s, the Partido Liberal and Partido Nacional controlled Honduras by splitting the political power of state institutions and using publicly funded programs to maintain clientelist constituent networks. The consolidated power sharing agreement resulted in weak state institutions dependent on political leaders who regularly traded government program benefits for votes and political favors. However, the 2009 coup in Honduras launched a political crisis that splintered the power of the two traditional political parties, polarized society, and sparked distrust in elections throughout the country. In addition, in 2012 President Juan Orlando Hernández leveraged his control of Congress to install four Supreme Court justices friendly to his political aspirations. The newly appointed judges later ended a constitutional ban on presidential re-election, allowing President Hernández to seek a second term in a questionable electoral process. Given the historically subservient role of Congress and a friendly Supreme Court, Honduran citizens doubt the legitimacy the country’s democratic institutions and the electoral system.

In addition to concentrating power in the executive branch, the state has developed surveillance capabilities to monitor, target, and repress dissenting voices. Honduran political leaders regularly use state secrecy laws to prevent citizens from accessing public information. Reporters Without Borders ranks Honduras 146 out of 180 countries because journalists are regularly harassed, threatened, and even killed for publishing stories exposing the corruption of political and economic elites. Similarly, human rights defenders, community and environmental leaders are also direct targets of torture, forced disappearances and extrajudicial executions. Berta Caceres, a prominent human rights activist, was assassinated in her home after publicly speaking out against a controversial hydroelectric dam project tied to former President Porfirio Lobo and the Cachiros drug cartel. The state’s increasingly authoritarian tactics also focus on stifling public protests. After the 2017 elections, the government used military and police force to repress demonstrators, killing 23 people and arbitrarily detaining over 1,300 citizens. The combination of state secrecy laws, active surveillance, and violent repression tactics have instilled fear and prevented citizens from taking to the streets to hold the country’s elites accountable.   

Finally, an internationally backed anti-corruption task force continues to unveil corruption reaching the highest levels of power in Honduras. The investigative unit revealed that more than 140 current and former members of congress had used non-profit foundations and shell companies to embezzle hundreds of thousands of dollars from constituent social service programs. The group also discovered $12 million dollars misallocated from farm economic development initiatives to the 2013 Presidential bid of Juan Orlando Hernández. President Hernández is also under scrutiny for alleged ties the Cachiros cartel after the DEA arrested his brother Tony for drug trafficking and weapons charges in Miami, Florida. These scandals echo past investigations against former President Lobo and his family. Lobo is accused of stealing an estimated $350 million dollars from the social security system, which funds public healthcare services in Honduras. The former president is also linked to the Cachiros drug cartel in an embezzlement scheme, and his son is currently serving 24 years in U.S. prison after pleading guilty to narcotrafficking charges. In addition, former First Lady Rosa Elena Bonilla de Lobo is also in prison for siphoning off $600,000 dollars into a personal account five days prior to the end of her husband’s term. These well documented corruption scandals show an increasingly corrupt ruling class that is gutting public services and infrastructure, concentrating wealth, and failing to address the problems of the 60 percent of the Honduras who live in poverty.

Addressing the social, economic, and security conditions driving transnational migration in Honduras will be hard without first focusing on the democratic governance and corruption challenges in the country. Any domestic or international actor interested in these systemic problems, including the United States, should start by working on the following key areas:

  • Support civil society coalitions producing objective information and pushing for reforms restoring the legitimacy of elections and democratic institutions.
  • Engage with alternative voices (youth, women, the LGBTI community, afro-descendants, etc.) capable of becoming the new political actors in charge of revitalizing the ruling class of the country.
  • Connect investigative journalists with their regional counterparts so that they can further protect themselves when they publish stories exposing corruption.
  • Continue backing the nascent anti-corruption efforts that are bolstering the justice system in Honduras.
  • Leverage international anti-corruption and human rights violation sanctioning systems, such as the Global Magnitsky Act, to reduce the use of repression throughout Honduras.

While cleaning up corruption and restoring functional democratic institutions in Honduras will likely take over a decade, these efforts will allow for stronger economic growth, a more equitable distribution of wealth, citizen re-engagement in democracy, and a long-term reduction of migration outflows.     

Patricio Provitina is a global affairs and Latin America expert who provides insight and analysis on political, social, and economic developments around the globe. The views expressed in this piece are the author’s and do not reflect those of any current or former employer.

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