TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — Nearly everyone in Honduras blames drug trafficking for the Central American country’s unfortunate distinction of having the world’s highest homicide rate—over 91 per 100,000. But in the same breath, nearly everyone in Honduras will also admit, just days away from a landmark general election, that the proliferation of firearms plays a key role in the tragic triumvirate of corruption, trafficking, and violence that’s increased here over the past decade.
A 2007 Small Arms Survey study found that Honduras has about 500,000 guns floating around, but four years ago the Tegucigalpa newspaper Heraldo estimated that number to be more like 800,000. That means that the Honduran gun ownership rate (between six and ten firearms per 100 people) pales to that in the United States, which leads the world in gun ownership by a wide margin of around 89 per 100. But that doesn’t count the number of firearms in use by Honduran police and military. It’s perhaps more troubling that guns are responsible for over 80 percent of homicides in Honduras, one of the highest rates of gun homicide in Latin America. And just as President Barack Obama’s fight for moderate gun control legislation seems futile in the United States, nearly everyone in Honduras also believes that efforts to legislate restrictions is equally improbable, no matter who wins Sunday’s presidential election—even leftist challenger Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, the spouse of former president Manuel Zelaya, who was ousted in a June 2009 coup. Though Castro de Zelaya hopes to announce a constitutional assembly to introduce vast changes to the Honduran constitution if she wins the election, those amendments are more likely to focus on economic and social justice and even the abolition of presidential term limits (a proposed referendum for a constitutional revision was the proximate cause of her husband’s ouster four years ago) than a serious attempt to restrict firearms.
Rasel Tomé, an activist who joined with the Zelayas to found Honduras’s new leftist party, Libre (the Party of Liberty and Refoundation), has high hopes for a wide array of progressive legislation if Zelaya wins Sunday’s election. But even Tomé doesn’t dare to list gun-control legislation on his wish list of potential policy highlights for the next four years—he argues that in a country where the government has so thoroughly and historically failed to respect human rights, the state can hardly be trusted to ask its citizens to disarm. “If the people were disarmed, they would feel vulnerable to abuses and infringements,” Tomé said. “Right now, when there’s such a culture of suspicion, what has [outgoing president Porfirio] Lobo Sosa’s government done so that people feel their human rights can be respected? Can you go to the public forces and feel that they will protect you? They won’t because there’s so much impunity. So it’s not the right moment to bring that topic to the forefront of the debate.”
The Honduran constitution doesn’t enshrine a "right to bear arms" like the 2nd Amendment does, but gun laws have been historically lax in Honduras. The chief restriction is a law that limits an individual to owning just five firearms, but that’s lightly enforced at best. Successive governments in the 2000s theoretically tightened Honduran gun laws—a national registry was created in 2002, assault weapons were banned in 2003, and it’s been technically illegal to carry guns (openly or concealed) in public since 2007. But in a country where officials lack the power even to investigate every murder, and where many citizens carry weapons for personal protection, those restrictions aren’t rigorously enforced. Moreover, those laws don’t apply to the police, who have been accused of perpetrating a troubling amount of the violence directed at Hondurans, especially the most vulnerable groups. But many Hondurans today believe that the U.S. is partially responsible for Honduras’s gun problem. They attribute the high rate of firearm ownership to the glut of weapons that flooded the country in the 1980s when the Reagan administration armed the Contras from within Honduras in an attempt to push the Soviet-backed Sandinistas out of power in Nicaragua to the south. Just as the United States gave its blessing to the transfer of weapons from Qatar to anti-regime Libyans in 2011 that may have subsequently found their way into the hands of Tuareg separatists (or worse) in northern Mali in 2012, U.S.-sourced firearms in the 1980s intended for the Contras have now found their way into the hands of the gangs that control the most dangerous parts of Honduras’s capital, Tegucigalpa, its industrial center of San Pedro Sula, and its Caribbean coast. But in recent years, a swarm of illicit arms have also entered Honduras from Mexico and other parts of Central America as part of the illegal drug trade.
Security is, by far, the top issue in this year’s election campaign, and yet no one on the Honduran left or right is proposing firearm legislation. Juan Orlando Hernández, the conservative National Party candidate, has pledged to put a "soldier on every corner," and as the head of the National Congress he spearheaded legislation earlier this year to create a military police to reduce violent crime. The idea was that an elite unit would be insulated from the vast corruption that has corroded both the existing civil police and armed forces, but with the country just a quarter-century removed from military rule and death squads, human-rights activists fear the new military police could pose an even greater danger than the drug traffickers and gangs they are designed to combat.
Dr. Leo Valladares, former national commissioner for human rights, and a former member of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, says suspicion of police and the military is one reason many Hondurans are wary of gun restrictions. “Many years ago, when I was a human rights commissioner, I proposed that everyone should be disarmed,” he said. “But everyone said that was crazy, because the police and the military would still have guns. That was going to leave the ‘good people’ without weapons and the ‘bad people’ with weapons.”
Sound familiar? It’s essentially the same rationale that buttresses the arguments of the National Rifle Association and other guns-rights groups in the U.S., who push concealed-carry laws and an end to gun-free zones, such as schools, hospitals, and federal workplaces.
Yet Honduras makes the United States seem like an oasis of tranquility—the U.S. homicide rate is just 4.7 per 100,000, which means that the Honduran homicide rate is over 19 times higher, on a per-capita basis. After eight years of rising homicides, you might expect Hondurans to be especially keen on implementing a truly restrictive gun-control regime, but it’s not been a particular priority of any of the three major candidates throughout the election campaign.
The roots of Honduran gun violence diverge greatly from the roots of gun violence in the United States, and the daily drip of grisly tabloid photos in Honduras may be shocking in a different way than the sensational coverage of a mass killing in a suburban Colorado movie theater or a small-town Connecticut elementary school. (Honduras, too, isn’t immune to mass killings, though they tend to be gang-related.) But Honduras's case is a sort of cold comfort to proponents of greater gun-control laws in the United States—proof that passing serious gun restrictions can be just as difficult in other countries, even in those where gun violence is perhaps its most serious threat.
Kevin Lees is an attorney in Washington, D.C., and the editor of the comparative politics blog, Suffragio.org.