The Honduran general elections on Nov. 24 could determine whether the impoverished Central American nation will be able to stem its epidemic of violence or see it spin dangerously out of control. The lives of thousands of Hondurans depend on the nation’s ability to begin to restore fair elections and democratic institutions.
Honduras today has the highest number of murders per capita in the world. The explosion of homicides, threats and persecution is not random, but often chillingly targeted. Opposition leaders, human rights defenders, journalists, young people and women suffer from selective violence that cuts with the sharp edge of repression.
The military coup d’état June 28, 2009 took a heavy toll with violence becoming an everyday event for the people of Honduras. Human rights violations have skyrocketed. Men and women who defend their land have suffered attacks, notably in the region of Bajo Aguan where some 115 residents have been murdered in protests against displacement by large-scale developers.
The same year as the coup, 2009, there was a registered 62 percent increase in femicides. Women were at the forefront of opposition to the coup, making them targets, with reported cases of rapes and murders at the hands of police and military, such as the 2009 killing of 24-year-old Wendy Avila in a street protest.
This violence against women human rights defenders has not slowed down. In 2012, the Mesoamerican Initiative registered 119 attacks on women activists throughout the country. The victims report that the vast majority of the threats and attacks come from the government.
In one case, defender and Lenca indigenous leader Berta Cáceres received multiple death threats and was granted protective measures by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Ignoring this, the Honduran government slapped Berta with criminal charges related to her active opposition to a hydroelectric dam.
As Berta faces a possible prison sentence, crimes against women and rights defenders largely go unpunished in a nation where more than 80 percent of crimes overall do not make it through the dysfunctional justice system.
The administration of Porfirio Lobo named Juan Carlos “El Tigre” Bonilla head of national police despite his links with death squad activity in the past. In another ominous move, the ruling National Party recently deployed a new military police -- just weeks before the elections.
This emphasis on security at the point of a gun, supported by U.S. government under the Central American Regional Security Initiative, puts women at even greater risk. Honduran women’s groups report that militarization has led to more femicides and that crimes against women increase in militarily occupied areas.
As Suyapa Martínez of the Honduran Center for Women’s Studies told me last year during a visit I made to Honduras: “It should be the other way around in theory -- more spending, more security. But ‘citizen security’ throughout Central America has meant more death for women.”
Fair elections are key to improving the alarming situation.
However, the current context does not bode well for fair elections. Following the coup and four years of a government boycotted by the pro-democracy movement, the country is deeply divided, and institutions have been overrun by corruption and special interests. The National Party has recently carried out actions to control the institutions charged with running the elections.
Political violence has emerged. A report by the international human rights group Rights Action finds that 18 LIBRE candidates have been assassinated, more than all other parties combined.
Most polls show Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, of the new LIBRE party and wife of former president Manuel Zelaya, in the lead with just days away from the election. The same forces responsible for forcibly removing Zelaya from office in 2009 have candidates in the race as well, making for high stakes.
Hondurans clearly want to decide their own future. For the first time, there are more than two presidential candidates, and according to surveys, more than 80 percent of the population plans to vote.
The Center for Women’s Human Rights predicts “confrontations and possible acts of violence, especially in areas where the LIBRE party groups support a good part of the Honduran resistance.” It’s one of the main reasons why international delegations from the Organization of American States, the European Union and a special observation mission on women’s rights will be monitoring the elections and their political and human rights context.
The U.S. government has announced its intention to remain neutral and respect the decision of the majority. That’s a good start. But the United States must do much more, starting with speaking out against the increasing violence, human rights violations and efforts to silence or suppress opposition.
For this first time since the coup, a government could come to power, if not with universal consensus -- that’s not what democracy is about -- at least with a shared perception of legitimacy. Fair and peaceful elections are a path to ending violence against women and violence in general in a nation that has suffered far too long.