Honduras's paradox: A narco-state where the majority does not see drug trafficking as the main problem

Illustration by ContraCorriente depicting former president Juan Orlando Hernández on trial in New York for drug trafficking. Used with permission.

This article was written by Célia Pousset for ContraCorriente on May 29, 2024. An edited version is republished on Global Voices under a media partnership agreement.

“It is interesting that drug trafficking does not appear as a major problem for the country, in the year of the trial of Juan Orlando Hernandez, and even when the population identifies him as a drug trafficker,” said Jesuit priest Ismael Moreno, member of the Reflection, Research and Communication Team (ERIC-SJ), when interpreting the results of the latest public opinion poll in Honduras.

Nearly three months after the conviction of the former president for drug trafficking offenses in a New York court, the publication of the survey sheds light on a great paradox in Honduran society: even though drug trafficking is still perceived to have “a strong presence” in state institutions (as 48 percent of the 1,522 people surveyed said), only 1 percent place it as the biggest problem the country is currently facing.

The population's biggest concerns continue to be unemployment, the economic crisis and crime, or insecurity, but “more associated with gangs than with drug trafficking,” said Elvin Hernández, of ERIC-SJ, explaining this discrepancy. “The maras and gangs are presented as the big problem, while drug trafficking is not as much of a concern because it is the economic support of many communities in the country,” he added.

Ismael Moreno pointed to the low levels of schooling, the trust in the churches and the weak institutions in Honduras: “What people are anxious about is solving their immediate needs, like employment, the economic situation and citizen security, that's their biggest concern.”

Who resolves it and how is not what's most important, including whether if it is an apocalyptic evangelical pastor or a drug trafficker, a populist or a democratic politician, that is not the main problem. This indicates low levels of schooling and a level of consciousness that does not allow them to identify what is best for them as a person and as a society.

Priest Ismael Moreno during the presentation of the ERIC-SJ Public Opinion Poll, in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, in May 2024. Photo by Fernando Destephen for ContraCorriente, used with permission. 

However, the people that the population identifies as responsible for the existence of drug trafficking within the state are also the ones with the lowest levels of trust. For example, deputies are those most frequently cited (17.5 percent), and more than 70 percent of the surveyed population has “no” or “little” confidence in the National Congress. More than 84 percent do not trust political parties.

These data show disappointment in institutions. In the trial of Juan Orlando Hernández, beyond judging a man, it a trial of the state in which congressmen, mayors, businessmen, police and military officers cooperated and made use of public resources to enrich themselves by trafficking cocaine to the United States.

Citizens also point to the police, the military, judges, magistrates, businessmen and prosecutors among those responsible for the continued presence of drug trafficking in state institutions. Two security forces are among the institutions perceived as the most permeable to organized crime, so it is not surprising that when asked “In which of the armed forces of the state do you have more confidence?” 33 percent of the population answered “none.”

In contrast, the most trusted institutions are religious or welfare institutions. According to the survey, the first place is held by the Evangelical Church, followed by the Ministry of Education and then by the Catholic Church. Public schools offer daily school meals and churches are often the only place of sociability and support in communities abandoned by the state.

In regions controlled by drug traffickers, the capos (drug lords) also carry out social work to win over the population. This could explain why, even though the ERIC poll took place during Juan Orlando Hernández's trial in February and March 2024, 21.4 percent of those surveyed think the former president did not do any harm to the country.

“The trial of Juan Orlando revealed the mechanisms of public corruption and how organized crime operated at all levels of power. It is a warning that people believe is still there,” said ERIC-SJ researcher Mercy Ayala.

Lack of employment and opportunities are the main concerns of the population, and also the reasons why almost half of the people surveyed thought about or wished to leave the country. 55.9 percent mention the lack of employment to generate income and 29.6 percent point to the country's economic situation.

Such concerns that have not been resolved by the current government lead to low satisfaction with the administration of President Xiomara Castro. Almost 46 percent consider that the country is doing worse, and this year's score was even lower than the previous year. On a rating scale ranging from 0 to 10, Castro's government got a score of 4.23 in 2024, in contrast to the 4.46 it got in 2023.

Now in its 13th year of publication, the ERIC national survey, which covers 16 of the 18 provinces of Honduras, shows broad trends, such as the strengthening of the Evangelical Church and the loss of faith in state institutions. For Ismael Moreno, the results show an “anxious, fragile and polarized society” where anti-democratic political projects could have room, as long as they present political offers that embrace people's needs.

“The danger of last-minute preachers, such as a Milei (the current president of Argentina), in a fragile society like Honduras, is possible,” he predicted.

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