Defining ‘Failure’: It’s in Eye of the Beholder
On Balance, Compared with its Peers, Honduras Gets a D, not an F

April 25th, 2013
by Robert Armstrong

This year’s Devolution Day, commemorating the relinquishment of British claims to the Bay Islands in 1860, has given islanders more than usual cause to ponder the ties that bind them to the mainland.

Just days before the annual parade through Coxen Hole, the special prosecutor for money laundering crimes was gunned down in Tegucigalpa. No prize for guessing who had him killed. This followed the admission by the Attorney General that only one in five murders in Honduras is ever even investigated. Meanwhile the fiscal situation in the capital appears to be going from bad to worse, teachers are talking about another strike, and it’s no wonder many islanders are concluding the mainland is coming apart at the seams. Even the Mayor of Roatan remarked to us the mainland had become “a big anchor to haul.”

Alfonso Ebanks looks at this situation and concludes Honduras is a “failed state,” or close to it.  He is not alone. Tiempo, one of the mainland’s major daily newspapers, has taken to using the term “estado fallido” in its editorials.

Ebanks notes there is no agreed definition of failed state. But the term is normally reserved for the world’s true basket cases, places where governmental authority has all but disappeared, where there are essentially no public services and anarchy reigns – places like Somalia. In Honduras the government is still functioning, just not very effectively. The state is still providing basic public services, just not very well. The financial situation is bad, but other places are far worse. The economy is growing, but too slowly to reduce poverty. This would argue that the Honduran state has not “failed,” it’s just not having much success.

What do the numbers show?

Crime and Devel Chart-webThe latest UN Human Development Report ranked Honduras 120th out of 187 countries. Its Human Development Index of 0.632 was considered “medium” by the UN and put Honduras in the same ballpark as its neighbors Guatemala and Nicaragua. The worst countries had indices about half that.

Transparency International’s latest Corruption Perceptions Index ranked Honduras 133rd out of 176. Again, not good but not the worst, and about the same as its neighbors.

Where the Honduran state is clearly failing is at protecting its citizens from crime. Here the UN ranks Honduras dead last, with a murder rate of nearly 90 per 100,000 inhabitants (some say higher if you take into account that a million or so Hondurans don’t actually live here). This ranking does not include the truly failed states, where civil wars are raging and/or there is no functioning government to count the corpses. But that is small consolation. The crime situation here is undeniably out of control.

The question is, is that because the state has “failed,” or is it because the state is, to quote the Tommy-Lee Jones character in No Country for Old Men, “overmatched.”

As we have written here before, the Honduran criminal justice system is weak, corrupt, inefficient and dysfunctional. But it had basically the same system in 1990, and back then its murder rate was about the same as the US. Since then the US rate has fallen by half and Honduras’s has increased eight-fold. What happened?

Perhaps we can find the answer in the latest US State Department International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, which estimates 87 percent of all cocaine-smuggling flights from South America to the US make a stop in Honduras.

Drug trafficking, or rather the prohibition thereof, inevitably brings with it massive crime and corruption. When Americans decided to amend their constitution to outlaw alcohol in 1919, the smuggling of liquor from Canada through the Great Lakes turned Chicago into the legendary mob capital of the 1920s, immortalized in countless Hollywood gangster flicks and later in the 1950s television series the Untouchables. Federal authorities were ultimately able to jail that era’s smuggling kingpin, Al Capone, for income-tax evasion. But the violence didn’t really abate until prohibition was ended.

Fast-forward two generations and the prohibited narcotic of choice had become cocaine. Colombian cartels were smuggling it by plane and boat into South Florida, Miami became the nation’s new murder capital, and Hollywood gave us Miami Vice. The Feds cracked down again, this time by disrupting the cartels’ cash flow through anti-money laundering laws. But the cartels simply changed their route, moving the stuff through Central America and Mexico, and Hollywood gave us No Country for Old Men.

The recent history of the “War on Drugs” indicates that, through concerted effort and expenditure of blood and treasure, you may not be able to get rid of the problem, but you can at least get the traffickers to go somewhere else. Barring legalization, that’s probably the best Honduras can hope for at the moment – make it somebody else’s problem. That’s going to require a lot of outside help. But it starts with cleaning house at home. Regardless of their opinions about sovereignty, islanders must know they cannot be mere spectators in that process.

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