Fighting for Reform in Honduras, Murder Capital of the World

Mark Ungar

Brooklyn College

Professor of Political

“Honduras represents
a concentrated place
struggling with all the
problems the world
faces: poverty, crime,
inequality, violence,
unemployment, youth
drugs and even
climate change.”


On a recent trip to Honduras, Brooklyn College Political Science professor Mark Ungar witnessed a judge gunned down in the middle of the afternoon in front of a bank.

The day before, while Ungar lectured at the law school of the National Autonomous University of Honduras, a student was fatally shot at the school.

The blatant shootings in broad daylight illustrate the escalating violence in Honduras, which is now known as the murder capital of the world. According to the National Autonomous University, the murder rate in Honduras in 2012 was 85.5 per 100,000 in population, the highest in the world.

In addition to the bloodshed, corruption runs rampant in the Honduran National Police with allegations of extortion, torture, and death squads that kill hundreds of gang members. Homicides and drug crimes are rarely reported as most Honduran citizens live in fear not only of gangs and drug cartels, but also of the police who are charged with protecting them. And if reported, even serious crimes are unlikely to be investigated.

In November, when Honduran voters headed to the polls to elect a new president in the first national election since a coup in 2009, crime was the big issue. The governing party’s candidate, Juan Orlando Her-nández, has been declared president-elect.

“Honduras represents a concentrated place struggling with all the problems the world faces: poverty, crime, inequality, violence, unemployment, youth disenfranchisement, drugs and even climate change,” said Ungar, who is also a faculty member in the Criminal Justice Doctoral Program at the CUNY Graduate Center.

“It’s also a warning for the world of what could happen if these problems go unsolved,” he said.

Earlier this year, Ungar was tapped to serve on a new six-person Commission for Security Reform. Honduran human rights activists sought out Ungar because of his years of research on police reform and his book, Policing Democracy: Overcoming Obstacles to Citizen Security in Latin America.

Other members of the commission include: Edgar Gutierrez, the former minister of justice of Guatemala; Jose Ugaz, prosecutor in the Fujimori-Montesinos trials in Peru; Joaquin Mejia Rivera, a human rights lawyer; Rick Bandstra, former assistant attorney general of Michigan; and Nick Seymour, of Transparency International in the United Kingdom.

The commission, which meets in Honduras every three months, was established to overhaul the National Police, the attorney general’s office and the Honduran court system.

So far, Ungar said, the commission’s efforts on police reform have seen mixed results. To purge the police force of corrupt officers, the commission ordered that all police be subjected to a four-part evaluation, including psychological and polygraph testing, as well as drug and financial tests. But the process stalled when hundreds of officers who failed the test were never fired.

“On one hand, it was the first time they had the tests. The first time we had documentation that all these police had failed these tests … so that was huge progress. On the other hand, nothing has happened.”

“It’s an example of improvement, but then power reasserts itself,” Ungar said.

At the next meeting in February, the commission will focus on a proposal by the president-elect to create a 5,000-member military police force. But the commission opposes the plan because the military is not trained for community policing.

“Can you imagine taking a soldier and putting him on the street? You can’t do that. They’re not trained for policing. They’re trained to shoot to kill,” he said.

More importantly, Ungar said the plan fails to address the real problems: poor coordination, police violence, endemic corruption, nearly nonexistent criminal investigation and systemic organized crime.

“We’re talking about a country where courts don’t work. People are being terrorized. At crime scenes, police don’t collect bullets. They don’t talk to witnesses. Detectives fight with each other,” he said. “So you can’t just create this great new force that’s going to be a military. You have to have an infrastructure.”

Despite opposition to the military-police plan, Ungar has hope that the new president will work with the commission on reform efforts and be recognized as cooperative with international and socially supported efforts.

And while some might view Honduras as a country paralyzed by poverty, crime and corruption, Ungar remains inspired by the citizens who remain committed to reform.

“In such conditions, the real heroes are the human rights activists, journalists, judges, women’s rights activists and others who risk their lives for change,” he said.