Honduras is a constitutional, multiparty republic. The country last held national and local elections in November 2017. Voters elected Juan Orlando Hernandez of the National Party as president for a four-year term beginning in January 2018. International observers generally recognized the elections as free but disputed the fairness and transparency of the results.
The Honduran National Police maintain internal security and report to the Secretariat of Security. The armed forces, which report to the Secretariat of Defense, are responsible for external security but also exercise some domestic security responsibilities in a supporting role to the national police and other civilian authorities. Some larger cities have police forces that operate independently of the national police and report to municipal authorities. The Military Police of Public Order report to military authorities but conduct operations sanctioned by civilian security officials as well as by military leaders. The National Interinstitutional Security Force is an interagency command that coordinates the overlapping responsibilities of the national police, military police of public order, National Intelligence Directorate, and Public Ministry during interagency operations. Although the Interinstitutional Security Force reports to the National Security and Defense Council, it plays a coordinating role and did not exercise broad command and control functions over other security forces except during interagency operations involving those forces. Civilian authorities at times did not maintain effective control over security forces. Members of the security forces committed some abuses.
Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest or detention; killings of and threats to media members by criminal elements; criminalization of libel, although no cases were reported; serious acts of corruption including by high level officials; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; and threats and violence against indigenous, Afro-descendant communities, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons.
The government continued to prosecute some officials who committed abuses, but a weak judicial system and corruption were major obstacles to gaining convictions. The national curfew and shutdown of government offices in response to COVID-19 severely hampered government efforts to address abuses during most of the year.
Organized-crime groups, including local and transnational gangs and narcotics traffickers, were significant perpetrators of violent crimes and committed acts of homicide, torture, kidnapping, extortion, human trafficking, intimidation, and other threats and violence directed against human rights defenders, judicial authorities, lawyers, business community members, journalists, bloggers, women, and other vulnerable populations. The government investigated and prosecuted many of these crimes, particularly through the national police’s Violent Crimes Task Force.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were several reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. The reported killings took place during law enforcement operations or were linked to other criminal activity by government agents. The Ministry of Security’s Directorate of Disciplinary Police Affairs (DIDADPOL) investigated members of the Honduran National Police (HNP) accused of human rights abuses. The Office of the Inspector General of the Armed Forces and the Humanitarian Law Directorate investigated and arrested members of the military accused of human rights abuses. Impunity, however, remained a serious problem, with significant delays in some prosecutions and sources alleging corruption in judicial proceedings.
The Autonomous University of Honduras Violence Observatory reported 13 arbitrary or unlawful killings by security forces during the year. The Public Ministry reported five such cases undergoing trial, with four cases in the sentencing phase of trial. Five other cases were under investigation. DIDADPOL conducted internal investigations of HNP members in a continuation of the police purge begun in 2016.
On September 16, the Public Ministry filed an indictment against army military police officer Josue Noe Alvarado Giron for the April 24 murder of Marvin Rolando Alvarado Santiago at a military roadblock in Omoa, Cortes. Josue Alvarado allegedly shot Marvin Alvarado after a heated discussion over Marvin Alvarado’s failure to wear a mask during the COVID-19 pandemic. Josue Alvarado was assigned to Task Force Maya Chorti.
On February 4, media reported unknown assailants shot and killed three National Party local leaders in three separate incidents within five days in Tegucigalpa: Oscar Obdulio Licona Ruiz on January 31 and Dagoberto Villalta and Marcial Martinez on February 4.
The government continued to prosecute individuals allegedly involved in the 2016 killing of environmental and indigenous activist Berta Caceres. The legal process against Roberto David Castillo Mejia, one of the alleged intellectual authors of the killing, continued slowly due to motions and appeals by the defense, and Castillo remained incarcerated. On November 23, the court halted the presentation of evidence hearing after the defense filed an appeal. The appeals court would have to rule on the motion before the trial could move forward.
Reports of violence related to land conflicts and criminal activity continued. On April 2, a private security guard for the sugar company La Grecia shot and killed land rights defender Iris Argentina Alvarez Chavez during a confrontation between land rights defenders and private guards. Police later arrested the guard accused of killing Alvarez.
Organized-crime organizations, such as drug traffickers and local and transnational gangs including MS-13 and the 18th Street gang, committed killings, extortion, kidnappings, human trafficking, and intimidation of police, prosecutors, journalists, women, and human rights defenders. Major urban centers and drug-trafficking routes experienced the highest rates of violence.
There were no credible reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Although the law prohibits such practices, government officials received complaints and investigated alleged abuses by members of the security forces on the streets and in detention centers.
The Committee of Relatives of the Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH) reported 28 cases of alleged torture by security forces through September, while the Public Ministry received three such reports. The quasi-governmental National Committee for the Prevention of Torture, Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment (CONAPREV) received 210 complaints of the use of torture or cruel and inhuman treatment, many related to the enforcement of the national curfew during the COVID-19 pandemic. COFADEH reported police beat and smeared a tear gas-covered cloth on the face of an individual detained for violating the national curfew in April in El Paraiso.
Corruption along with a lack of investigative resources and judicial delays led to widespread impunity, including in security forces. DIDADPOL investigated abuses by police forces. The Office of the Inspector General of the Armed Forces and the Humanitarian Law Directorate investigated abuses by the military. The National Human Rights Commission of Honduras received complaints about human rights abuses and referred them to the Public Ministry for investigation. The Secretariat of Human Rights provided training to security forces to increase respect for human rights. Through September the secretariat trained 2,764 law enforcement officials in human rights and international humanitarian law.
Prison conditions were harsh and sometimes life-threatening due to pervasive gang-related violence and the government’s failure to control criminal activity within the prisons. Prisoners suffered from overcrowding, insufficient access to food and water, violence, and alleged abuse by prison officials.
Physical Conditions: Prisoners suffered from severe overcrowding, malnutrition, lack of adequate sanitation and medical care, and, in some prisons, lack of adequate ventilation and lighting. The Secretariat of Human Rights reported that as of September 2, the total prison population was 21,675 in 25 prisons and three detention centers. According to the secretariat, the system had a designed capacity for approximately 10,600 inmates.
The National Prison Institute (INP) reported 12 violent deaths. On June 11, alleged members of the 18th Street gang in the National Women’s Penitentiary in Tegucigalpa killed six alleged members of the MS-13 gang.
As of September the Secretariat of Human Rights reported the country’s three pretrial detention centers held 79 individuals. These INP-administered centers were on military installations and received some support services from the military. The government used pretrial detention centers to hold high-profile suspects and those in need of additional security. Long periods of pretrial detention remained common and problematic, with many other pretrial detainees held in the general population with convicted prisoners.
The government failed to control pervasive gang-related violence and criminal activity within the prisons. Many prisons lacked sufficient security personnel. Many prisoners had access to weapons and other contraband, inmates attacked other inmates with impunity, and inmates and their associates outside prison threatened prison officials and their families. These conditions contributed to an unstable, dangerous environment in the penitentiary system. Media reported prison riots and violent confrontations between gang members in prisons throughout the year.
In response to the pervasive violence in the prison system, the government declared an emergency in the National Penitentiary System in December 2019. The emergency decree instituted the Interinstitutional Force as an auditing commission for the penitentiary system. This force is composed of active members of the army and national police. Despite the emergency decree, CONAPREV reported that violence in the prison system continued unabated.
Authorities did not generally segregate those with tuberculosis or other infectious diseases from the general prison population; as of September the INP reported 153 prisoners were being treated for tuberculosis. The lack of space for social distancing combined with the lack of adequate sanitation made prison conditions even more life threatening during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights reported 1,695 cases of COVID-19 in 25 prisons as of September, including cases among medical personnel, security personnel, and administrators. CONAPREV reported 27 prisoner deaths due to COVID-19 through August. There was only limited support for persons with mental illnesses or disabilities. CONAPREV reported every prison had a functioning health clinic with at least one medical professional, but basic medical supplies and medicines were in short supply throughout the prison system. In most prisons only inmates who purchased bottled water or had water filters in their cells had access to potable water.
Administration: The judicial system was legally responsible for monitoring prison conditions and providing for the rights of prisoners. The government tasks CONAPREV with visiting prisons and making recommendations for protecting the rights of prisoners. CONAPREV conducted more than 84 visits to adult prisons as of the end of August. Media reports noted that family members often faced long delays or were unable to visit detainees.
Independent Monitoring: The government generally permitted prison visits by independent local and international human rights observers, including the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Improvements: Through August, CONAPREV trained 494 technical, administrative, and security personnel on topics including prison management and human rights.
The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) reported that authorities at times failed to enforce these requirements effectively.
The law provides that police may make arrests only with a warrant unless: they make the arrest during the commission of a crime, there is strong suspicion that a person has committed a crime and might otherwise evade criminal prosecution, they catch a person in possession of evidence related to a crime, or a prosecutor has ordered the arrest after obtaining a warrant. The law requires police to inform persons of the grounds for their arrest and bring detainees before a competent judicial authority within 24 hours. It stipulates that a prosecutor has 24 additional hours to decide if there is probable cause for indictment, whereupon a judge has 24 more hours to decide whether to issue a temporary detention order. Such an order may be effective for up to six days, after which the judge must hold a pretrial hearing to examine whether there is probable cause to continue pretrial detention. The law allows persons charged with some felonies to avail themselves of bail and gives prisoners the right of prompt access to family members. The law allows the release of other suspects pending formal charges, on the condition that they periodically report to authorities, although management of this reporting mechanism was often weak. The government generally respected these provisions. Persons suspected of any of 22 specific felonies must remain in custody, pending the conclusion of judicial proceedings against them. Some judges, however, ruled that such suspects may be released on the condition that they continue to report periodically to authorities. The law grants prisoners the right to prompt access to a lawyer of their choice and, if indigent, to government-provided counsel, although the public defender mechanism was weak, and authorities did not always abide by these requirements.
Arbitrary Arrest: In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the government instituted a national curfew, suspending constitutional provisions and limiting the free movement of individuals. Peace Brigades International (PBI) reported more than 34,000 persons were detained for violating the curfew. The Human Rights Board condemned some of these arrests as arbitrary under the guise of curfew enforcement. According to the Center for the Investigation and Promotion of Human Rights, on March 24, police arbitrarily detained Evelyn Johana Castillo, sub-coordinator of the Women’s Network of Ojojona and member of the National Network of Defenders of Human Rights. Castillo was returning from the market at 3:30 p.m. when a police officer arrested her for violating the curfew, even though the curfew did not start until 7:00 p.m. Castillo said the arrest was a reprisal for an encounter a few days previously, when Castillo confronted the officer who was attempting to expel a vendor from a park. The Public Ministry reported 15 cases of alleged illegal detention or arbitrary arrest as of November.
Pretrial Detention: Judicial inefficiency, corruption, and insufficient resources delayed proceedings in the criminal justice system, and lengthy pretrial detention was a serious problem. For crimes with minimum sentences of six years’ imprisonment, the law authorizes pretrial detention of up to two years. The prosecution may request an additional six-month extension, but many detainees remained in pretrial detention much longer, including for more time than the maximum period of incarceration for their alleged crime. The law does not authorize pretrial detention for crimes with a maximum sentence of five years or less. The law mandates that authorities release detainees whose cases have not yet come to trial and whose time in pretrial detention already exceeds the maximum prison sentence for their alleged crime. Even so, many prisoners remained in custody after completing their full sentences, and sometimes even after an acquittal, because officials failed to process their releases expeditiously.
The law provides for an independent judiciary, but the justice system was poorly funded and staffed, inadequately equipped, often ineffective, and subject to intimidation, corruption, politicization, and patronage. Low salaries and a lack of internal controls rendered judicial officials susceptible to bribery, although the Supreme Court significantly raised salaries during the year and made improvements in transparency. Powerful special interests, including organized-crime groups, exercised influence on the outcomes of some court proceedings.
The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial; however, the judiciary did not always enforce this right.
The law presumes an accused person is innocent. The accused has the right to an initial hearing before a judge, to ask for bail, consult with legal counsel in a timely manner, have a lawyer provided by the state if necessary, and request an appeal. Defendants may receive free assistance from an interpreter. The law permits defendants to confront witnesses against them and offer witnesses and evidence in their defense. Defendants may not be compelled to testify or confess guilt. Authorities generally respected these rights.
Credible observers noted problems in trial procedures, such as a lack of admissible evidence, judicial corruption, widespread public distrust of the legal system, witness intimidation, and an ineffective witness protection program.
There were no credible reports of political prisoners or detainees.
The law establishes an independent and impartial judiciary in civil matters, including access to a court to seek damages for human rights violations. Litigants may sue a criminal defendant for damages if authorized by a criminal court. Individuals and organizations may appeal adverse domestic decisions to the Inter-American Human Rights System.
Although the law generally prohibits such actions, a legal exception allows government authorities to enter a private residence to prevent a crime or in case of another emergency. There were credible complaints that police occasionally failed to obtain the required authorization before entering private homes.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, with some restrictions, and the government generally respected this right. An independent press and a functioning democratic political system combined to promote freedom of expression, including for the press.
Freedom of Speech: The law includes a provision to punish persons who directly or through public media incite discrimination, contempt, repression, or violence against a person, group, or organization for reasons of gender, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, political opinion or affiliation, marital status, race or national origin, language, nationality, religion, family affiliation, family or economic situation, disability, health, physical appearance, or any other characteristic that would offend the victim’s human dignity.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without restriction. A small number of powerful business magnates with intersecting commercial, political, and family ties owned most of the major news media.
The government allocated a budget of nearly 12.6 million lempiras ($526,000) for the continued operation of a protection mechanism that included provision of protection to journalists. By August it had provided protection to two journalists, among other types of activists and human rights defenders. Some nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) expressed concern about weak implementation of the law and limited resources available to operate the government’s protection mechanism. Civil society organizations criticized the government’s failure to investigate threats adequately.
The HNP’s Violent Crimes Task Force investigated crimes against high-profile and particularly vulnerable victims, including journalists as well as judges, human rights activists, and members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) community.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Media members and NGOs stated the press self-censored due to fear of retaliation from organized-crime groups or corrupt government officials.
Libel/Slander Laws: Citizens, including public officials, may initiate criminal proceedings for libel and slander. No cases were reported during the year.
Nongovernmental Impact: Some journalists and other members of civil society reported threats from members of organized-crime groups. It was unclear how many of these threats were related to the victims’ professions or activism. Several anonymous social media sites, possibly linked to political parties, criticized journalists (as well as activists and civil society organizations) who were critical of the government or opposition party policies.
On July 1, unknown assailants on a motorcycle shot and killed television journalist German Vallecillo and cameraman Jorge Posas in La Ceiba. Police arrested Ramon David Zelaya Hernandez on July 4 and Edward David Zalavarria Galeas on July 6 as the two main suspects in the killings. Both suspects were alleged members of a criminal organization involved in drug trafficking.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.
The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association. The government limited freedom of peaceful assembly under the national curfew imposed in reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The law provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, and the government generally respected this right. The law requires a judge to issue an eviction order for individuals occupying public and private property if security forces have not evicted the individuals within a specified period of time. Some local and international civil society organizations, including students, agricultural workers groups, political parties, and indigenous rights groups, alleged that members of the security forces used excessive force to break up demonstrations. The IACHR reported the government at times used a policy of arbitrary detentions or arrests to inhibit protest. Under the national emergency and corresponding curfew, the government suspended the constitutional right to peaceful assembly. The curfew severely limited freedom of movement and banned large gatherings.
COFADEH reported an increase of complaints regarding the use of excessive and disproportionate force by security forces under the national curfew. During April, the first full month of the curfew, COFADEH reported 11,471 complaints of arbitrary actions by security forces, mainly abusive detentions for curfew violators. The PBI reported an incident on April 23 near Tela, Atlantida Department, involving the alleged use of live rounds by police in response to a protest, injuring two individuals. On May 5, the DIDADPOL director noted his office had not received a formal complaint, and he asserted two official police reports from the incident did not corroborate the PBI’s account.
The law provides for freedom of association, and the government generally respected this right. The law prohibits illicit association, defined as gatherings by persons bearing arms, explosive devices, or dangerous objects with the purpose of committing a crime, and prescribes prison terms of two to four years and a moderate fine for anyone who convokes or directs an illicit meeting or demonstration. There were no reports of such cases during the year, although authorities charged some protesters with sedition. Public-sector unions expressed concern about some officials refusing to honor bargaining agreements and firing union leaders. The law prohibits police from unionizing (see section 7.a.).
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. The national curfew instituted in response to COVID-19, however, severely limited the freedom of internal movement.
In-country Movement: Under the national curfew from March 16, the government limited freedom of movement by allowing individuals to move outside their homes one day every two weeks. Starting November 9, the government temporarily suspended the curfew to facilitate Tropical Depression Eta response efforts. Unrelated to the curfew, there were areas where authorities could not assure freedom of movement because of criminal activity and a lack of significant government presence.
In 2019 the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center NGO estimated there were approximately 247,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the country due to violence. Internal displacement was generally caused by violence, national and transnational gang activity, and human trafficking. Official data on forced internal displacement was limited in part because gangs controlled many of the neighborhoods that were sources of internal displacement (see section 6, Displaced Children).
The government maintained the Interinstitutional Commission for the Protection of Persons Displaced by Violence and created the Directorate for the Protection of Persons Internally Displaced by Violence within the Secretariat of Human Rights. Both the ministry and the commission focused on developing policies to address IDPs. Under the Regional Integral Framework for Protection and Solutions, with significant support from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the government continued to build capacity to provide services to key population groups, including IDPs, those at risk of forced displacement, refugees, and returned migrants, through 14 commitments and 28 specific actions between 2018 and 2020.
The government cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations that provide protection and assistance to refugees and other persons of concern.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Transiting migrants and asylum seekers with pending cases were vulnerable to abuse by criminal organizations. The legal framework for granting international protection fails to establish long-term safeguards for recognized refugees, since they are issued the same residence permit as other migration categories.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status. The government had a nascent system to provide protection to refugees. The shutdown of government offices in response to the COVID-19 pandemic caused a substantial delay in the processing of asylum cases, with no cases fully adjudicated of 53 new applications received through August. The Refugee Commission suspended operations shortly after the onset of the pandemic but began reviewing applications again as of June. The National Migration Institute secretary general, responsible for final case determinations, had not resumed this function as of October.