Will Honduras’s Election Lead to Mass Migration?

Repressive rule, and the utter despair that follows, has already had a significant impact on people fleeing to the United States.

By , a writer and independent journalist based in Honduras who covers social struggle in Central America.
Honduran migrants who are part of a caravan heading to the United States get on a truck in southern Mexico.
Honduran migrants who are part of a caravan heading to the United States get on a truck in southern Mexico.
Honduran migrants who are part of a caravan heading to the United States get on a truck near Pijijiapan, in southern Mexico, on Oct. 26, 2018. Guillermo Arias/AFP via Getty Images

On Sunday, Hondurans go to the polls to elect the president of a country that has come to be recognized as a “narco-dictatorship.” Nasry Asfura, the right-wing mayor of the capital of Tegucigalpa and close associate of current President Juan Orlando Hernández, will square off against Xiomara Castro, a progressive populist whose husband, former President Manuel “Mel” Zelaya, was ousted in a military coup 12 years ago.

For many Hondurans, Sunday’s elections will be a kind of referendum on the chaos that has ensued since the 2009 coup, during which time Hernández and his predecessor, Porfirio Lobo Sosa, have been implicated in drug trafficking, violence has risen dramatically, and migration out of the country has soared.

Yet voter confidence is low following a wave of violence against opposition candidates and the deterioration of an already weak democracy. Many fear the pattern of election fraud followed by violent state repression and then mass exodus, played out on an extreme scale in 2017, will repeat itself. As ground zero for undocumented Central American migration to the United States, the election has implications that go far beyond Honduras.

On Sunday, Hondurans go to the polls to elect the president of a country that has come to be recognized as a “narco-dictatorship.” Nasry Asfura, the right-wing mayor of the capital of Tegucigalpa and close associate of current President Juan Orlando Hernández, will square off against Xiomara Castro, a progressive populist whose husband, former President Manuel “Mel” Zelaya, was ousted in a military coup 12 years ago.

For many Hondurans, Sunday’s elections will be a kind of referendum on the chaos that has ensued since the 2009 coup, during which time Hernández and his predecessor, Porfirio Lobo Sosa, have been implicated in drug trafficking, violence has risen dramatically, and migration out of the country has soared.

Yet voter confidence is low following a wave of violence against opposition candidates and the deterioration of an already weak democracy. Many fear the pattern of election fraud followed by violent state repression and then mass exodus, played out on an extreme scale in 2017, will repeat itself. As ground zero for undocumented Central American migration to the United States, the election has implications that go far beyond Honduras.

Hernández’s repressive rule has already had a significant impact on the numbers of people fleeing to the United States. In 2012, while president of Honduras’s National Congress, Hernández led a purge of four of the five Supreme Court justices overnight, filling the empty positions with loyalists from his National Party. Later, as president, he stewarded the creation of several elite military police forces, which have gained a reputation for repressing—and often firing at—those who protest the conditions driving migration out of the country.

During the country’s last elections, in 2017, Hernández, whose loyal Supreme Court changed the constitution two years prior to allow for a second term, faced off against the popular television presenter Salvador Nasralla. After a suspicious glitch in the voting machines, Nasralla lost his lead. A contentious month of protests and deadly repression followed, after which Hernández was declared president.

It’s unclear whether the United States and its proxies in Honduras would be able to stem a tide of migration.

At least 30 people—but likely more—were killed by state security forces in the wake of the election fraud, according to Honduran human rights organizations, a number of them by military death squads. Many Hondurans left the country over the following months. Utter despair was a driving factor in their decision—if a government so corrupt could get away with stealing an election, they figured, there was little to no hope for a better future in Honduras. Since the route north via Mexico is dangerous, swarming with criminal groups, many migrants spontaneously banded into caravans to have protection in numbers.

After the election, illegal migration to the United States spiked. (The number of Hondurans apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol along the southwest border rose from fewer than 50,000 in fiscal year 2017 to more than 250,000 in 2019.)

In a recent poll, 50 percent of Hondurans said they believe that a similar fraud will take place this year. More than 40 percent believe that if fraud does occur, there will be similar—or worse—post-election violence. The University Institute on Democracy, Peace, and Security of the National Autonomous University of Honduras has warned that “there is a high probability that the features of the 2017 electoral process will be repeated” this year.

It’s unclear whether the United States and its proxies in Honduras would be able to stem a tide of migration. Washington has collaborated with Honduran security forces on a consistent basis for decades and, in recent years, has increasingly depended on that collaboration to stop migrants from illegally entering the United States.

In the 1980s, the Defense Department expanded several U.S. military bases in Honduras to serve as a bulwark against leftist insurgencies in the region. Those bases, still some of the largest in Central America, continue operating today to combat the so-called war on drugs. Historically, Washington has been willing to overlook human rights violations by Honduran forces so long as they maintain stability and adhere to U.S. foreign-policy interests—including quashing leftist insurgency and maintaining regional influence—from the CIA’s assistance of Battalion 3-16, a Honduran army death squad that executed hundreds of dissidents in the 1980s, to the continued support of security forces that engage in extrajudicial executions.

In recent years, U.S. collaboration with Honduran security forces has centered on stopping illegal migration—something Hernández agreed to in order to cull favor with the Trump administration. Yet while they’ve broken apart caravans, they haven’t been able to stop migration significantly

Though U.S. President Joe Biden ended the Trump administration’s notorious “safe third country” agreements, which sent asylum-seekers back to dangerous countries in the so-called Northern Triangle, his administration has collaborated with the government in other ways. In April, the Biden administration announced that it had come to an agreement with the Honduran government, alongside Guatemala and Mexico, to deploy 1,500 Honduran security forces to the country’s northwestern border in an attempt to stop migrants from fleeing to the United States. (Critics, however, argue such militarization won’t end migration but will make it more difficult and create a market for smugglers.)

Sunday’s presidential election, regardless of the results and the potential for ensuing violence, is unlikely to dissuade the Pentagon and other U.S. government agencies from pursuing overarching policy goals in the region.

For now, the lead-up to the election has already been marked with violence: Thirty-one politically motivated assassinations, largely of opposition candidates, have taken place in the past year. The daughter of assassinated Indigenous leader Berta Cáceres, Berta Zúñiga, survived an attempt on her life. In July, Carolina Echeverría, a lawyer and candidate for the opposition Liberal Party, was assassinated by gunmen dressed as medical professionals.

It’s unclear if the entrenched problems of underdevelopment, corruption, and violence will be done away with if Castro, the progressive candidate, wins. (Significant problems existed before the 2009 coup, after all.) But if Asfura wins and the status quo of the last 12 years remains, people seeking refuge in the United States—one-fifth of whom were Honduran this fiscal year, according to official statistics on U.S. Border Patrol encounters—will continue showing up in ragged clothes at the banks of the Rio Grande or the Sonoran Desert. If, that is, they can make it there in the first place.

Jared Olson is a writer and independent journalist based in Honduras who covers social struggle in Central America. His reporting has appeared in the Intercept, the Nation, VICE World News, and El Faro English, among others. Twitter: @jolson321

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