A United Nations human rights expert is urging the Honduran government to take concrete action over the thousands of people being forcibly displaced by endemic violence.
Rampant gang crime, armed criminal groups and an inadequate justice system are forcing people to seek refuge elsewhere in the country.
Following his five-day visit to Honduras in November, Chaloka Beyani, the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons, has called on the government to urgently address internal displacement, which he describes as an “invisible epidemic”.
During his first official visit to the country, Beyani met with victims of internal displacement, as well as government representatives, UN agencies, national and international civil society and non-governmental organizations, to discuss the growing crisis.
“While the causes of this internal displacement are quite different to that resulting from conflict or disaster witnessed in other countries I have visited, the impact on the lives of those affected is no less catastrophic,” Beyani said in a press statement.
The Inter-Agency Commission for the Protection of Persons Internally Displaced by Violence estimates that there are some 174,000 internally displace people in Honduras. Data on internal displacement is incomplete, however, and the commission concedes that the numbers could be much higher.
Thousands of men, women and children are fleeing their homes to escape threats, extortion, rape and murder at the hands of gangs – known as maras – and other armed criminal groups.
During the week of the Beyani’s visit, several brutal massacres hit the headlines. On Tuesday (November 24), suspected gang members murdered eight bus drivers after they refused to pay extortion money in Choloma, northern Honduras, and on Saturday (November 28) assumed members of a gang killed seven people in the capital, Tegucigalpa. The next day (November 29) there was yet another attack in the capital, Tegucigalpa. AFP reported that assailants armed with guns and machetes massacred at least six people, including three children.
Young people are particularly vulnerable to the exploitations of armed gangs. They are often recruited to carry drugs or weapons or to act as lookouts, compelling parents to flee their homes to protect their children from the threats that gangs pose.
In 2014, Insight Crime reported that 13-year-old girl Andrea Abigail Argeñal Martinez paid the ultimate price for refusing to join a gang. The teenager was murdered 15 days after being kidnapped by alleged members of the notorious gang Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13). Her tortured body was discovered buried beneath the patio of an abandoned house.
Violence is driving people to flee to other parts of Honduras, but Beyani notes that internal displacement is often a precursor to migration and that “many internally displaced people see few viable options that provide security and livelihood in Honduras and make the difficult decision to leave the country”.
A United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) report published in November on the migrant crisis involving women fleeing violence in Mexico and the Northern Triangle of Central America (NTCA) – which includes Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala – found that more two-thirds of the 130 women interviewed had attempted to first find sanctuary in their home country.
Honduras’ failing criminal justice systems has led to a lack of security with gangs and criminals often operating with absolute impunity.
One Honduran woman interviewed for the UNCHR report said that authorities are “always contracted by the same gang members. They don’t do anything for people who really need it. They’re only on the side of the gang members”.
Beyani, who will present a full report in June 2016, notes that while it is encouraging that the government is taking steps towards addressing the issue and has demonstrated political will, “priorities must include tackling impunity and rebuilding trust in national institutions including the police, the criminal justice system and judiciary which has been deeply eroded”.
Internal displacement is not just a problem in Honduras. It is an issue in other countries in the region, particularly Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico, which are also affected by the narcotics trade and criminal gangs. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), at end of 2013 some six million people in Latin America had been forced to flee their homes because of human rights violation, violence and war.