Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
There were several reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. In general the killings took place during law enforcement operations or were linked to other criminal activity by government agents. Civilian authorities investigated and arrested members of the security forces accused of human rights abuses. Impunity, however, remained a serious problem, with delays in some prosecutions and sources alleging corruption in judicial proceedings. The Violence Observatory of the Autonomous University of Honduras (UNAH) reported 11 deaths involving security forces during the first six months of the year. These included nine deaths involving the Honduran National Police (HNP) and two involving the Military Police for Public Order (PMOP). Following the November 26 elections, protests, looting, and clashes between protesters and security forces occurred through the end of the year. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) claimed security forces used excessive force to break up protests and killed between 16 and 22 individuals. Additional deaths were reported not at the hands of security forces but possibly related to postelectoral violence. An improvised explosive device killed at least one police officer during the violence. Authorities publicly stated they would investigate alleged human rights abuses and hold accountable members of the security forces who committed such abuses. They were also investigating individuals not part of the security forces for acts of violence and other criminal activity.
On February 20, authorities arrested Lelis Wilfredo Aguilar Fernandez, an HNP officer assigned to the Police Intelligence Unit, for the February 20 killing of Josue Matias Deras. Witnesses claimed that Aguilar shot Matias in the back at close range during a search operation and then planted a weapon at the crime scene in an attempt to claim the killing occurred in self-defense. On February 24, a judge ordered Aguilar held in custody pending trial.
The government continued to investigate the March 2016 killing of environmental and indigenous activist Berta Caceres. On January 12, a seventh suspect was arrested in Mexico in a joint operation between Honduran and Mexican officials and returned to Honduras. On February 8, Honduran authorities arrested an eighth suspect. On June 13, a judge found sufficient evidence against the first four suspects, arrested in May 2016, to retain them in custody and continue to criminal trial. This included a suspect who was an active-duty military officer at the time of the killing. On November 20, authorities arrested one current and one former Honduran National Police officer for tampering with evidence in the case.
On February 28, a court convicted military intelligence officers Elmer Eliazar Mejia Aguilar and Jose Luis Melgar Deras, members of the Office of the Director General for Military Intelligence (C-2), of the 2014 premediated killings of siblings Ramon Eduardo Diaz Rodriguez and Zenia Maritza Diaz Rodriguez. A judge ordered two other suspects on trial released.
On February 13, prosecutors and investigators from the Public Ministry and its Technical Criminal Investigation Agency arrested Wilmer Samuel Alvarez Pagoada as a suspect in the 2013 killing of chief money-laundering prosecutor Orlan Arturo Chavez. Authorities also issued an arrest warrant for former police commissioner Mario Guillermo Mejia Vargas on suspicion of organizing the killing. In 2013 two men on motorcycles fatally shot Chavez. Alvarez, a lawyer and computer expert, and Luis Alejandro Castro Nunez, formerly chief of security monitoring for the Supreme Court and a member of the military, were the suspected shooters. Castro was already in prison on other charges. The Police Purge Commission removed Mejia from the police in 2016. He surrendered to foreign authorities in 2016 for drug trafficking and was on trial in a foreign country. A judge ordered Castro and Alvarez detained in a maximum-security prison pending trial.
On September 8, a court sentenced Marvin Noe Andino Mascareno to 17 years’ imprisonment for the attempted murder of Hilda Emperatriz Caldera, widow of murdered antidrug official Alfredo Landaverde. Andino was sentenced in January 2016 to 22 years in prison for Landaverde’s murder. Caldera was wounded in that attack, which occurred in 2011, but attempted murder charges against Andino were dismissed by the trial court. The Public Ministry appealed the dismissal, which the Supreme Court overturned, and the attempted murder case was returned to the lower court.
There continued to be reports of violence related to land conflicts and criminal activity in the Bajo Aguan region, but the overall level of violence in the area was far below its 2012 peak. Beginning on August 27, several agricultural worker groups occupied at least seven African palm plantations in the Bajo Aguan region. During the occupations one worker was reportedly shot and injured by a plantation security guard. Following the eviction on August 28 of a worker group from a plantation owned by the Dinant Corporation, two Dinant security guards were found dead. An agricultural worker was found killed on September 20. Two security guards were detained for possible involvement in the killing but were released following forensic tests. Authorities carried out several peaceful evictions of agricultural workers in August and September. As of September 25, authorities continued to investigate the new killings. Denis Ramon Mejia Castillo was arrested in September for the killings of Manuel Milla Ruiz and Allan Reynery Perez in 2016. No members of the security forces were reported to have been responsible for deaths related to the land conflict.
Organized criminal elements, including drug traffickers and local and transnational gangs such as 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 disproportionate rates of violence. The UNAH Violence Observatory reported that as of September, 84 individuals working in the transportation sector had been killed during the year, often for failing to make extortion payments. This represented a 52 percent reduction from 2016.
According to the UNAH Violence Observatory, as of September there was a significant reduction in the overall annual homicide rate compared with 2016, dropping from approximately 60 per 100,000 to an estimated 46.5 per 100,000. Reports linked many of these homicides to organized crime and gangs.
As of November the Public Ministry’s Bajo Aguan Task Force (created in 2014 to investigate cold homicide cases related to land conflicts), had obtained five convictions and four new arrest warrants, made five arrests, and referred six new cases for prosecution. The task force performed 20 exhumations. Since its inception, the task force obtained 44 arrest warrants, made 23 arrests for homicides related to the land conflict, and secured 11 homicide convictions.
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.
The government continued to make significant advances in combatting kidnappings by criminals. On September 23, authorities rescued journalist and opposition Liberal Party political candidate Victor Manuel Pineda, whose family reported him kidnapped on September 4. The HNP reported 22 kidnappings in 2016, a 45-percent decrease from 2015 and 76-percent decrease from 2013. The HNP reported that in 2016 it rescued 18 victims of the 22 kidnapped. Three more were freed through negotiations, and one was killed while a hostage. The HNP estimated that it prevented more than 56 million lempiras ($2.37 million) in ransom payments to kidnappers in 2016.
Although the constitution and law prohibit such practices, government officials received complaints and investigated alleged abuse by members of the security forces on the streets and in detention centers. As of September the NGO Center for the Prevention, Treatment, and Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture and their Families (CPTRT) reported one complaint against security forces for torture.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
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 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 Ministry of Human Rights, Justice, Governance, and Decentralization reported that, as of August 21, the total prison population was 18,950 in 27 prisons, a 10-percent increase over August 2016. According to the ministry, the system had designed capacity for approximately 10,600 inmates. This included two prisons that were opened in late 2016 with capacity for 1,600 inmates. In October and November, the government closed the San Pedro Sula prison and the Santa Barbara prison, two of the most overcrowded facilities and both located in city centers, and transferred the inmates to other facilities. Family members and NGOs complained that transfer to prisons farther away increased cost of visits and made it more difficult for prisoners to maintain family relationships. Local authorities were concerned about additional overcrowding and limited rehabilitation resources.
The National Prison Institute (INP) reported that as of August 28, 23 male inmates had died in prison, 16 from natural causes, and seven from violence. The INP reported no deaths involving prison officials. In contrast, the quasi-governmental National Committee for the Prevention of Torture, Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment (CONAPREV) reported that 19 prisoners died in altercations between inmates, three committed suicide, and four died from illness. In August and September, authorities discovered clandestine graveyards in the Tamara prison in areas controlled by MS-13 gang members following the transfer of gang leaders to a new high-security prison. Forensic authorities reported that some of the bodies had been buried more than four years.
As of August the Ministry of Human Rights, Justice, Governance, and Decentralization reported that the country’s four pretrial detention centers held 49 individuals. Three of these centers were on military installations, and the other was located at the HNP’s Special Operations Command (known as COBRAS). The government used pretrial detention centers to hold high-profile suspects and those in need of additional security. The military provided some support services to the three detention centers located on military bases, but neither administered them nor provided guards for the facilities. Instead, the INP oversaw them, as it did other prisons.
Due to overcrowding and lack of adequate training for prison staff, prisoners were subjected to serious abuse. Prisons lacked trained personnel to safeguard the psychological and physical well-being of inmates, and some prisons lacked sufficient security personnel.
There was pervasive gang-related violence, and the government failed to control criminal activity within the prisons. Many prisoners had access to weapons and other contraband, inmates attacked other inmates with impunity, escapes were frequent, 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 multiple prison riots and violent confrontations between gang members in prisons throughout the year.
The government took steps to control violence by transferring the highest-security detainees–primarily gang members and violent convicts–to two newer maximum-security prisons. High-security detainees complained that authorities confined them to their cells for long periods and restricted their access to family members and legal representation.
The government held approximately one-half of its estimated 355 female prisoners at a facility for mothers with young children and pregnant women. Others were housed in separate areas of men’s prisons. In the San Pedro Sula prison, for instance, approximately 70 women resided in their own wing of the prison but shared communal space with upwards of 2,900 men. Children up to age three could stay with their mothers in prison.
Authorities did not segregate those with tuberculosis or other infectious diseases from the general prison population; there was only limited support for persons with mental illnesses or disabilities. On September 21, officials reported that 201 prisoners were being treated for tuberculosis, including three inmates with drug-resistant tuberculosis under treatment at the national cardio-pulmonology institute. The officials also stated that tuberculosis-positive inmates received a monthly stipend to pay for special food. CONAPREV reported that every prison had a functioning health clinic with at least one medical professional, except for the National Penitentiary in Francisco Morazan Department. Basic medical supplies and medicines, particularly antibiotics, 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.
As of August the NGO Casa Alianza reported there were 574 minors (506 boys and 68 girls) in five juvenile detention centers, segregated by gender. This represented a 16-percent increase from 2016. NGOs expressed their concern that 45 minors, all of whom were gang members, were housed in the HNP COBRAS pretrial detention center. Casa Alianza reported 259 youths benefited from alternative sentencing outside the juvenile detention system (see section 6, Institutionalized Children). On June 1, one youth died due to injuries from a fire following a riot on May 23. On July 3, a 23-year-old prisoner was killed by fellow inmates after passing himself off as a minor. Civil society reported difficulty accessing some youth detention centers due to confrontations between inmates and authorities.
Administration: Prisoners could submit complaints to judicial authorities without censorship and could submit requests for the investigation of inhuman conditions to the director of the prison in which they were incarcerated. Directors could then transfer the complaints to the INP director. Prisoners also could file complaints with the INP’s Human Rights Protection Unit, the Public Ministry’s Office of the Special Prosecutor for Human Rights, and the Ministry of Human Rights, Justice, Governance, and Decentralization. The National Human Rights Commission (CONADEH) also accepted complaints and conducted investigations. The results of investigations by NGOs and government officials were available to the public. As of August the INP reported receiving no formal complaints for mistreatment of detainees. The Public Ministry reported receiving 22 complaints of excessive force, two for mistreatment, and four for torture by prison officials. The ministry conducted 36 investigations in 2016 and 16 as of September. CONAPREV reported there were three complaints of torture and mistreatment in detention centers as of September. NGOs reported that some prisoners were reluctant to file official complaints because they did not trust the authorities and there was no effective system for witness protection (see also section 1.c.).
Independent Monitoring: The government generally permitted prison visits by independent local and international human rights observers, including the International Committee of the Red Cross. CONAPREV made more than a dozen visits to juvenile detention facilities as of the end of August. The judicial system was legally responsible for monitoring prison conditions and guaranteeing the rights of prisoners.
Improvements: In January the congress passed legal reforms to the INP in an effort to professionalize the prison guard system. On September 27, the congress passed a law to allow some nonviolent pretrial detainees to use electronic monitoring systems to reduce the overcrowding of prisons. The government reported refurbishing six existing penal facilities, including maintenance and improvements to kitchens, libraries, workshops, and administrative facilities.
During the year the government improved health services for prisoners. As of August the government had 18 general practitioners, seven specialists, 49 nurses, and a budget of 54 million lempiras ($2.29 million) to provide health services in prisons. In addition CONAPREV reported an increase in technical personnel, including public defenders, psychologists, and social workers, available to assist prisoners.
The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention and provide for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his/her arrest or detention in court. Human rights NGOs reported that authorities at times failed to enforce these requirements effectively and used a policy of arbitrary detentions or arrests to inhibit protest. CONADEH reported 12 cases of arbitrary arrest as of September. The Committee of Relatives of the Disappeared in Honduras reported 23 illegal or arbitrary arrests: five by the PMOP, 13 by the HNP, and five by municipal police.
ROLE OF THE POLICE AND SECURITY APPARATUS
The HNP maintains internal security and reports to the Secretariat of Security. The Technical Agency for Criminal Investigations at the Public Ministry (Attorney General’s Office) has legal authority to investigate 21 types of crimes and make arrests. The armed forces, which report to the Secretariat of Defense, are responsible for external security but also exercise some domestic security responsibilities. Some larger cities have independent police forces that supplement the HNP and report to municipal authorities. The PMOP reports to military authorities but conducts operations sanctioned by civilian security officials as well as by military leaders. As of August the PMOP had approximately 4,000 personnel organized into eight of 10 planned battalions and was present in all 18 departments. The National Interinstitutional Security Force (FUSINA) coordinates the overlapping responsibilities of the HNP, PMOP, National Intelligence Directorate, Public Ministry, and national court system. FUSINA reports to the National Security and Defense Council. The president chairs the council, which includes representatives of the Supreme Court, National Congress, Public Ministry, and Secretariats of Security and Defense.
Civilian authorities at times did not maintain effective control over the security forces. The government took steps to investigate and punish abuses, but corruption and inefficiency resulted in impunity in many cases. The armed forces surrendered members accused of human rights violations to civilian authorities. The armed forces sometimes dishonorably discharged such individuals, even before a criminal trial. The Public Ministry, primarily through the Office of the Special Prosecutor for Crimes against Life, is responsible for investigating cases in which a government agent is allegedly responsible for killing a civilian. Prosecutors try such cases in civilian courts. Prosecutors and judges attached to FUSINA prosecute and hear cases related to FUSINA operations. A unit within the Office of the Special Prosecutor for Crimes against Life manages some cases of homicides committed by members of the security forces and government officials. The human rights office of the joint staff of the armed forces investigated allegations of human rights abuses by members of the armed forces.
The human rights office of the joint staff of the armed forces reported that in 2016 more than 7,000 members of the armed forces, including army, navy, air force, PMOP, and others, received training on human rights and use of force. More than 3,000 received gender training. The armed forces and various NGOs provided the training. As of August the Vice Ministry of Human Rights and Justice had trained more than 3,500 members of the armed forces on human rights.
Corruption and impunity remained serious problems within the security forces. Some members of the HNP committed crimes, including crimes linked to local and international criminal organizations. As of August the CPTRT reported 55 cases of corruption linked to members of the security forces, including 33 prison officials.
As of November 30, the Police Purge Commission reported that, since its creation in April 2016, it had reviewed the conduct of approximately 14,000 HNP officers and removed 4,445.
ARREST PROCEDURES AND TREATMENT OF DETAINEES
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. 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 then 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 a 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. 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 authorities did not always abide by these requirements.
Arbitrary Arrest: The Public Ministry reported 35 cases of illegal detention or arbitrary arrest as of October.
Pretrial Detention: Judicial inefficiency, corruption, and insufficient resources delayed proceedings in the criminal justice system, and lengthy pretrial detention was a serious problem. According to the UNAH’s Violence Observatory, as of July, 55 percent of the prison population had not been convicted. For crimes with minimum sentences if convicted 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. Pretrial detainees were often held with convicted prisoners. 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 constitution and law provide 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. Powerful special interests, including organized criminal groups, exercised influence on the outcomes of some court proceedings. The Supreme Court approved a National Plan to Eradicate Judicial Delay, aimed at reducing wait times for court cases. As part of that plan, the court established three new mobile justices of the peace in July and inaugurated new courts: one in July, two in August, and two in October.
On June 30, Teodoro Bonilla, former vice president of the Judicial Council, was found guilty of influence peddling for using his position in the judiciary to obtain dismissal of charges against two relatives facing criminal prosecution for engaging in organized criminal activities. On September 11, Bonilla was sentenced to serve six years in prison and to pay a fine of 200,000 lempiras ($8,470), the first ever conviction for influence peddling by a government official. The Public Ministry had requested the maximum sentence of nine years’ imprisonment and a fine of 300,000 lempiras ($12,700).
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 can receive free assistance of an interpreter, and the Supreme Court created a new public registry of interpreters in November to ensure that defendants had access to free interpretation. The law permits defendants to confront witnesses against them and offer witnesses and evidence in their defense. 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.
POLITICAL PRISONERS AND DETAINEES
There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.
CIVIL JUDICIAL PROCEDURES AND REMEDIES
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 constitution and law generally prohibit such actions, a legal exception allows government authorities to enter a private residence to prevent a crime or in case of other emergency. There were credible complaints that police occasionally failed to obtain the required authorization before entering private homes. As of June the judicial system reported three convictions in 10 alleged cases of illegal entry by government officials. The CPTRT reported five cases of illegal entry into homes by members of the security forces as of August. There were also complaints that security forces entered private homes without the required authorization during a 10-day state of emergency and curfew imposed in December.
Ethnic minority rights leaders and farmworker organizations continued to claim that the government failed to redress actions taken by the security forces, government agencies, and private individuals and businesses to dislodge farmers and indigenous peoples from lands over which they claimed ownership based on land reform laws or ancestral land titles (see section 6, Indigenous People).
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides for criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but authorities did not implement the law effectively, and officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. There were numerous reports of government corruption during the year. The government took steps to address corruption at high levels in government agencies, including arresting and charging members of congress, judges, prosecutors, current and former senior officials, mayors and other local authorities, and police officers. The quasi-governmental National Anticorruption Council had an investigative unit of 15 persons. The council receives government funding, which obliges it to disclose the names of its investigators, making them vulnerable to reprisals. Council staff reported credible personal threats and attempts at intimidation. NGOs said that some individuals who reported public corruption also received threats.
The MACCIH began operations in the country in April 2016 with a mandate to prevent and combat corruption, reform the criminal justice system, reform aspects of the political and elections legal framework, and improve public security.
Corruption: Prosecutions of public-sector corruption predominantly targeted low-level officials and focused on charges of abuse of authority and misconduct in public office, which were easier to prove but carried lower penalties than illicit enrichment, fraud, and money laundering. There were reports that the government’s anticorruption institutions did not take sufficient steps to contain high-level corruption and were unwilling or lacked the professional capacity and resources to investigate, arrest, and prosecute those involved. On September 11, new anticorruption courts staffed with 11 judges and magistrates began operating in Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula. In May 2016 the Supreme Court ordered the creation of these special courts in order to investigate crimes including corruption, bribery, misuse of public office, misappropriation of public funds, and falsification of documents. Funded by the security tax, the courts were initially provided an approximately 6.5 million lempira ($275,000) budget, and in January judges were selected by a commission that included representatives from the NGO Association for a Better Society and the MACCIH.
On June 19, a tribunal of judges returned guilty verdicts against five former public officials for using shell companies to divert more than 290 million lempiras ($12.3 million) from the Social Security Institute. The tribunal also found defendant Mario Zelaya Rojas, the former director of the institute, guilty on charges of abuse of authority and fraud, and defendants Jose Ramon Bertetty and Vivian Melissa Juarez Fiallos guilty of violation of duties of public officials and fraud. This was the fourth conviction obtained by the Public Ministry against Zelaya and brought total convictions obtained in the case to 15. One of the convictions against Zelaya resulted in a sentence of 15 years’ imprisonment, the longest on corruption charges for a former public official in the history of the country.
On July 13, the MACCIH announced the start of an investigation into the private energy company Desarrollos Energeticos, SA (DESA), partially owned by the Atala family. Civil society long maintained that DESA, parent company of the controversial Agua Zarca hydroelectric plant, had ties to the killing of environmental activist Berta Caceres and that government corruption contributed to the climate of impunity surrounding her death. One DESA employee and one former DESA employee were among eight suspects being prosecuted for her killing.
Financial Disclosure: Public officials are subject to financial disclosure laws but did not always comply. The law mandates that the Supreme Auditing Tribunal monitor and verify disclosures. The tribunal published its reports on its website and published the names of public officials who did not comply with disclosure laws. In January the congress passed a Campaign Finance Law that created a Financing, Transparency, and Accountability Unit to improve political campaign fiscal transparency. On May 30, the congress elected and swore in three magistrates to oversee the unit, which falls under the purview of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal. The new law and unit require political candidates and parties to open bank accounts and report all expenditures in an effort to increase transparency for elected government officials.