Wednesday, October 30, 2013

REVISED: Another American Drug Plane Down in Honduras

Update: Our post (below) is based on Honduran news reports. A comment from MJZ (published below) calls into question the registration reported by the Honduran press. Also relevant is the comment by Kevin Porter who called into question the identification. We have removed the specific details about the registration identification made in the Honduran press. This does not mean that the general point we are making-- that older US planes are often making their way to Honduras in an afterlife as highly disposable drug planes-- is any different; simply that in this case, we do not know the registration, and cannot verify the origin of this plane.

Another American plane loaded with narcotics landed in Honduras yesterday.  The plane landed near Limones at a dirt landing strip on someone's farm, a strip the owner reportedly thought he had disabled.  It landed at night, with the strip lighted by a generator, and unloaded its drugs into waiting pickup trucks.  The plane was then burned.

Sources differ about the registration of the plane.  International sources, like, report the plane was Venezuelan, while El Heraldo and others report it to be American. [Deleted information from Honduran news reports that has been contested.]

[Deleted discussion based on Honduran reports of registration.]

It was unusual that the Honduran military were not notified of this flight by the US radar operators from the Southern Command in Tampa, Fl. or by the US radar operators in Puerto Castillo.  Under a joint agreement the US supplies radar sightings to the Honduran military, who then try to intercept and interdict the plane.  This service was briefly interrupted last year when Honduran pilots twice shot down suspected drug planes in violation of their agreement with the US.  After a brief closure, the service was reinstated after the Honduran military reluctantly agreed to reinforce the agreed-upon protocol with their pilots.

[Deleted final paragraph referring to the plane as of known US origin.]

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Last Polls in Honduran Presidential Election: Dead Heat

In Honduras, it is illegal to poll the last month before the presidential election.

Today El Heraldo published the results of the latest, and last, CID Gallup poll in the presidential race.

Their headline: At one month before the elections, JOH one point advantage over Xiomara.

Our headline: Honduran Presidential Election Enters Final Stage in a Statistical Tie.

Based on polling conducted October 6-15, the CID Gallup poll reportedly finds voters who intend to vote breaking 28% for the Partido Nacional (Juan Orlando Hernández), 27% for LIBRE (Xiomara Castro), 17% for the Partido Liberal (Mauricio Villeda), and 9% for the Anti-Corruption Party (Salvador Nasrallah), with 3% each for the candidacies of Andres Pavon and Romeo Vasquez Velasquez, and a reported 3% "do not know/declined to respond".

The absolute numbers in these Gallup polls are always higher than those in other polls, apparently because they are not including the voters who say they may not vote. The trends are clear when we look at the Gallup polling data over time: Nasralla continues to slide down; Villeda has drawn a small number of voters as the Anti-Corruption party declined; but the main increase tracking the decreases in the Anti-Corruption Party is in the institutional Partido Nacional.

There is evidence in this latest poll, as there was previously in the fine grained data from CESPAD, that party affiliation is breaking down. While the Liberal Party was identified as the party affiliation by 22% of those polled, Villeda draws only 17% of the vote. Similarly, while Hernández has a reported 28% of the intended vote, 35% of those polled identified as Partido Nacional members.

CID Gallup doesn't let us speculate on where those other Partido Liberal and Nacional voters are going; CESPAD, though, showed in August that 23% of Liberal Party voters then favored LIBRE, as did 7.6% of Partido Nacional voters not favoring Hernández, with almost the same number then planning to vote for Nasrallah.

El Heraldo's story reports on a number of other polls, some of which, like Paradigma, we have been steadily tracking. These minor polls range from one by Opinión y Analísis that has Hernández at 28.1%, Castro at 23%, and Villeda at 20.1%; to TecniMerk showing Castro winning with 31.9%, Hernández at 22.8%, and Villeda at 13.2%.

While these two minor polls should be questioned due to the wide margins of victory they project, not seen in other polls, they are at least consistent with the other polling that shows LIBRE and the Partido Nacional running head to head. A third minor poll mentioned by El Heraldo, from a firm called Inteligence, seems anything but credible, as it is alone in having the Partido Liberal ahead, with 34.8% of the vote, leading the Partido Nacional at 28.33% and supposedly showing LIBRE in third place at 16,15%. It is almost as if this poll inadvertently reversed LIBRE and the Partido Liberal.

One of these candidates will receive the most votes in November. If election monitoring prevents fraud-- a big if in Honduras-- that same candidate will become the next president.

The current polling data do not allow identification of a clear leader, but do tell us that the traditional two party system has been effectively challenged for the first time in Honduran history: LIBRE and the Partido Nacional are the clear leaders vying for control of the presidency, and one of these did not exist at the time of the last election.

Whatever the outcome, the political landscape has changed in Honduras.

Monday, October 21, 2013

October poll from Paradigma

Presidential poll results just published on the Paradigma website show Partido Nacional candidate Juan Orlando Hernández pulling ahead of LIBRE party candidate Xiomara Castro de Zelaya for the first time in the presidential race, 25.7% to 22.2%. The margin of error is indicated as +/- 1.54%.

Where are these additional voters coming from? Two possibilities present themselves.

The number of voters answering "none of the above" declined 2.8%. At the same time, the number declining to state a preference went up by 1.3%, so it is quite possible that what we are seeing in those two categories is mostly the same pool of uncommitted voters, answering the pollsters slightly differently.

The more interesting possibility we see here is that the slight movement to Juan Orlando Hernández-- if it is real, and not just statistical noise-- is coming from Liberal Party voters who know that Mauricio Villeda is not viable, and find the pro-business, pro-security centrism of Hernández more acceptable than the mild social democratic progressivism of LIBRE. In the latest poll, Villeda declined 1.3%, from 12% in September to 10.7% now.

It isn't particularly surprising that LIBRE's support has flattened-- actually, it is surprising it hasn't been more badly affected by the negative campaigning going on. Whether it is distributing fake LIBRE flyers that make exaggerated claims that LIBRE will make Honduras into another Cuba, or Oscar Alvarez in El Heraldo portraying LIBRE as a threat to people's safety because the party opposes the militarized police, or the republication of Roger Noriega's insane argument that constitutional reform would "open the country to drug trafficking", this is a dirty contest. And then there's the string of assassinations of LIBRE candidates and activists, documented by Rights Action.

So it might be worth making two last points, before this very modest difference between the two lead candidates is interpreted as definitive.

First, the Partido Nacional claims they have a private poll showing their candidate 7 points ahead, not reflected in the latest poll. This is especially interesting because today Oscar Alvarez specifically was quoted as claiming,
various polls such as Paradigma place JOH very far above the candidate Xiomara Castro.

Must be some other "Paradigma", because this one has this race continuing to be closely contested.

The candidate for one of the two traditional parties, enjoying all the advantages of organization, control of the entire government, and benefiting from a media campaign to demonize his competitor, is struggling to pull past the candidate of a new party with none of those advantages.

Second: 30.8% of the respondents still either declined to state a preference or declared an intention not to vote for any of the listed candidates.

So the leading candidate in this historic election remains "None of the Above".

Friday, October 18, 2013

Juan Orlando Hernández: Let's Rethink Human Rights

Proceso Digital reported Thursday that the candidate for president from the Partido Nacional thinks it is time to reconsider the concept of human rights.

Not, unfortunately, in the way one might hope, given Honduras' human rights failings.

No, Juan Orlando Hernández thinks we are doing a little too much coddling of people with that old-fashioned concept. During a campaign event in northern Honduras, he reportedly said
“I am conscious that if a public official, a police officer or a soldier should commit a crime you have to protect human rights, but the problem is that they don't talk about the rights of the victims."

In other words: in order to protect crime victims, Hernández would like the police and military to have some leeway on those expectations of observing human rights.

We wish this were not really what he said. Actually, it is worse.

The candidate was trying to explain why he was the only one of eight contestants for President who failed to sign a "security pact" promoted by the CRSP-- the state Comisión de Reforma de la Seguridad Pública.

This is the independent commission set up by legislative mandate to address the corruption and poor performance of the Honduran government bodies that should be responsible for investigating crime and prosecuting criminals. CRSP proposed that all parties subscribe to a plan that "would guarantee a profound transformation in the system and improve the results of the Secretaría de Seguridad, Ministerio Público and Poder Judicial".

Juan Orlando Hernández said he did not sign because
“I do not agree with this pact, it seems to me that is lacking a lot. It is unacceptable that it isn't clear that the Armed Forces should play a role as protagonist in recovering the peace and tranquility of the country, that does not appear right to me".

The pact goes further than that: it calls for reaffirmation of the civil role of the national police and the revamping of police on a community policing model. Since Juan Orlando Hernández was the principal architect of the new Policia Militar, it would be a bit awkward to endorse repudiation of that approach.

So the candidate of the Partido Nacional goes into the last weeks of the race as the only presidential candidate who did not agree, if elected to enact the core commitments of the CRSP accord:
  • to undertake a comprehensive reform of the system of Public Security
  • to completely revamp the entire police system to create a true Community Police "close to the community, transparent in its performance, efficient in its functioning, respectful of human rights and the basic norms of the State of Law"
  • to reaffirm respect for the strictly civil and nonpartisan nature of all the National Police, and of the professional, independent, and apolitical character of the attorneys and judges
  • to promote prevention of violence and crime through education, recreational programs, and employment for youth
  • to promote civic participation in community security and violence prevention
  • to maintain a constant fight against corruption of the offices of justice
  • to consolidate the respect for human rights, government transparency, and accountability
The signed document shows the neatly typed signature block for the Partido Nacional candidate, devoid of his endorsement, contrasting with the signatures of all the other candidates.

Maybe Juan Orlando Hernández knows something no one else does, and believes that standing up for militarized police will give him the edge he needs to take the lead.

But as it stands, his breaking ranks simply underlines that his is the candidacy of militarizing everyday life. And if his opponents pursue the point, it could raise awkward questions about his lack of commitment to anti-corruption, pro-accountability policies.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

"The freedom and fairness of this election is very much at risk": US Congress members

In a letter dated October 15, Representatives Mike Honda, Raul Grijalva, and Hank Johnson urge Secretary of State John Kerry to speak out against factors that they argue make "the freedom and fairness" of the Honduran presidential election questionable.

You can read their press release for their comments on why they wrote. The headline singles out "Militarization of Civil Society Ahead of Honduran Election".

They note that the new militarized police was a signature policy of the presidential candidate of the Partido Nacional. They express concern about the consolidation of control over all branches of government by the same ruling party-- including control of the electoral process.

We agree that the integrity of the electoral process must be a concern.

But even more troubling, the congress members draw attention to a pattern of assassinations of candidates for office from the LIBRE party. They cite sixteen "activists and candidates" murdered since June 2012. Anthropologist Adrienne Pine reports a similar number, and comments that
LIBRE has been focused on keeping the campaign positive, and so the official reaction to all the targeted assassinations...has been near silence.

The congress members express concern that the US Embassy in Tegucigalpa
has not spoken more forcefully about the militarization of the police under the impetus of one of the candidates, expressed concern with the National party's concentration of institutional power through illegal means, and condemned the ongoing intimidation against the members of the opposition.

The letter ends with a polite yet firm indictment of the US for taking a premature position on the election in 2009-- when the country was under intermittent states of siege, with a government repudiated by the entire world in control of the presidential elections-- and declining to take a stronger position today. They write:
We are of the opinion that our government would lose credibility in Honduras and the region should it be perceived as taking sides in the election or turning a blind eye to fraud and unfair electoral conditions....It also appears that the State Department has largely countenanced the concentration of institutional power in Honduran government in the past year, in the hands of the ruling party candidate, through illegal means.

That leads to the letter's final request that the US State Department
use every available means to ensure free and fair elections... to guarantee a level playing field in the weeks preceding the election,... and to be entirely neutral in its public and private messages to this country. In addition, we request the Department of State to speak forcefully against the pattern of concerted attacks targeting human rights defenders and the opposition.

"To be entirely neutral in its public and private messages to this country".

As these Congress members note, the US State Department has come out as neutral in the election, and willing to work with whatever candidate wins. One would have hoped that went without saying, but the implication is that at least some political actors in Honduras may think the US government is tacitly or quietly or privately favoring specific candidates-- those that represent the traditional political hierarchy of the Partido Nacional and Partido Liberal. To be neutral shouldn't require assurances that you will work with whoever is elected (implicitly, however repugnant their policies might be). Neutrality is interpretable in this context as hoping LIBRE doesn't pull ahead.

As the writers of this letter note,
many in the region are well aware that in the past, the United States government has indeed supported specific candidates in Latin American elections, particularly in Central America.

They cite in particular the 2009 election in Honduras when the US announced it would recognize the outcome of the Honduran election, literally while people in Honduras were living under conditions suppressing their freedoms of speech and assembly, and despite the lack of any clear path for independent international observation of the election in 2009. That premature announcement derailed negotiations that might have led to the 2009 election being held with the elected president restored to office; instead, the 2009 election was seen by a wide sector of the population as illegitimate.

Read the letter for yourself. These are serious concerns by serious people paying attention. As this tight election heads into its final weeks, the range of tactics used by the Partido Nacional is already becoming ugly. Maybe the US is irrelevant in Honduras; but no one I know believes that.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Honduras seeks $250 million in US Capital Market

Honduras will seek to sell $250 million in sovereign bonds in the United States in December. 

To that end, it  dispatched a team of government dignitaries to the United States to discuss the markets and the feasibility of placing the bonds.  María Elena Mondragón, head of the Banco Central de Honduras, and Wilfrido Cerrato, the Finance minister, will meet with Representatives of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to talk about the possibility of placing these bonds at an acceptable rate.  The funds raised will be used to support 2013 government spending.

The last time Honduras sought to place bonds, they found the 10% interest rate that would have been required too high.  That seems unlikely to be much better now. In August,  S&P reduced Honduras's debt rating to practically junk levels. 

The Lobo Sosa government has been chronically late in paying government employees and contractors.  Just today it reported that it had 5,900 million lempiras (about $295 million) backlog of payments owed, a backlog that it currently cannot pay.

Part of that debt is due to inefficiencies in collecting taxes owed the government. Collections are running about 2,000 million lempiras ($100 million)  behind projections and have been since April.  The other part is due to spending more that was even projected to come in through taxes and other forms of income.

The bonds Honduras seeks to place in the US capital market are not all it needs to close out the year.  It will also seek to place a further 3,000 million lempiras ($150 million) in bonds internally.  The Honduran government projects that if it places all these bonds, it will close the year with its debt equal to about 40.7 % of the Gross Domestic Product, better than the 45% of GDP predicted at the beginning of the year.

Honduran government monetary policy, especially the tactic of not paying segments of the workforce, has resulted in numerous public employee strikes.  Last week it was the transit police, who were owed two months salary.  This week it's the doctors, janitors, nurses, and medical staff at government hospitals, who are owed more than three months of back salary. 

The police settled their strike after receiving one month's back pay.

Instead of paying the medical workers part of their back pay, Lobo Sosa had their strike declared illegal

There is no money to pay these government workers without placing bonds, in part because of the $18.7 million payment made mid-September on the existing $500 million in bonds.

Do we need to say it: Honduras is broke.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Operation Neptune Leaked

When Honduran authorities announced they had taken down over $800 million belonging to Los Cachiros, a drug trafficking organization in Honduras, in conjunction with DEA operatives as part of "Operation Neptune", there was one problem:  Los Cachiros knew the government was coming after them. More than a month before the raids they had disposed of most of their liquid assets.

Operation Neptune was the Honduran name for the effort to seize assets identified as belonging to Los Cachiros in Honduras. In the several days of raids, the operation reportedly seized 64 bank accounts, real estate, businesses, and cars-- and a private zoo and eco-park.

Now we find that someone with knowledge of the planned seizure tipped off Los Cachiros at least a month before the raid, according to the director of the Oficina Administradora de Bienes Incautados (OABI), Humberto Palacios Moya, who told the press:
"They leaked information about Operation Neptune... with at least a month's notice... There was a leak of information, what that means is that the investigative entities of the State did not have... it's what is said all the time, that they are penetrated."

Palacios Moya says the leak wasn't from the police or the anti-narcotics unit because they didn't know about the raid that far in advance. He added
"In my view, it wasn't the Dirección de Lucha, nor the Dirección Nacional de Investigación Criminal, nor the Police, but rather another type of committee that is being formed, neither is it the TIGRES, nor the others (Policía Militar)".

The identity of that "other committee", that La Tribuna called a "Committee of Toads" in a subheadline, may be unclear, but the implication is not: there is an internal leak in the Honduran government that helped Los Cachiros evade most of the financial losses intended by Operation Neptune.

Something similar happened with the attempts to seize the assets of Chepe Handel on April 9th.  Somehow it took the Honduran authorities a week from the time the US Treasury added him to the list of drug kingpins, to their attempts to seize his assets.  In the meantime all the related bank accounts were cleaned out, and houses emptied of belongings, and the family "disappeared", all done in that week between the US Treasury announcement and the Honduran police operation.

Once warned, Los Cachiros reportedly cleaned out bank accounts, removed all the commercial stock from stores, cleaned out their possessions from the houses, and sold off heavy machinery belonging to the construction and mining companies later seized. They sold off all the cattle in their ranching operation. They removed all the business records that would have allowed tracing their suppliers and customers.

They even tipped off a man renting one of the houses that he needed to find a new place to rent because the government was going to seize it.

They couldn't sell the real estate without tipping off the government that they knew of Operation Neptune, so significant, valuable assets were seized. The OABI has not put a final value on the assets seized, and is still making an inventory.

What is clear is that the cash is gone, and that much of the value beyond the real estate was liquidated before the government seized properties.  Palacios Moya put the value of the real estate at around $64 million dollars.

So Operation Neptune leaked about $736 million. But don't expect any government press releases owning up to the mistake.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Murder By The Numbers

The Lobo Sosa government and the independent Observatorio de Violencia disagree on the number of murders in Honduras in the first six months of 2013.

The difference is substantial.

The government says there have been 2,629 murders.  The Observatorio de Violencia recorded 3,547 homicides during the same period.

The difference?

The government says there isn't paperwork or bodies to substantiate 918 homicides counted by the Observatorio. The Observatorio says it has paperwork and bodies for all of them, and that it got that information from the same government sources the Minister of Security and Defense, Arturo Corrales, says don't have them.

There is an explanation.

Corrales admits that when he was appointed, he ordered a change in the methodology of the way homicides were counted, applying a new Sistema Regional de Indicadores Estandardizados de Convivencia y Seguridad Ciudadana (Standard Indicators of Living Together and Citizen Security), promulgated by the Banco Interamericano de Desarrollo (BID).  This is a way of standardizing social statistics, including the measure of homicides, between countries to allow comparison.  This new protocol to standardize how countries report crime statistics is described in an article (linked above) published in the 2012 edition of the Revista Panamericana de Salud Publica.

So Corrales asserts that the difference in count is because the Observatorio de Violencia is not following the proper methodology.  For Corrales to count a death as murder, he requires both that there be an autopsy, and a coroner's report calling the death homicide.  Corrales says that those 918 cases are only "possible homicides" because either they lack the body, or the coroner's report declaring it a homicide.

Reality check: coroners work in, and autopsies are only performed, in Tegucigalpa, La Ceiba, and San Pedro Sula. Many families do not allow autopsies to be performed, reclaiming the body for burial almost immediately.  Thus any statistic that requires both an autopsy and coroner's report will significantly undercount homicides in Honduras.

The Observatorio de Violencia has been following internationally recognized procedures since 2004, using the same approach to accumulate data from the national police and the investigative police, as well as the coroners.

Migdonia Ayestas, the Observatorio de Violencia coordinator, said of Corrales:
If the Secretary of Security does not incorporate all the homicides attested to in his files, there is a problem with his analysis.  The police report says "dead", says by firearm, and gives a name and surname.

Of the 918 disputed cases, all have a police report; 786 of them have a cause of death indicated in the report; and only 135 lack the name of the individual.  Ayestas says there are about 400 cases where the police have not declared the death a homicide, and that the Observatorio does not count those cases.

Why is this a problem? Changing methods impedes assessing trends over time.

Corrales wants to assert that the current homicide rate in Honduras has fallen dramatically, to 70 per 100,000 population from the reported 85-91 per 100,000 in 2012.  The Observatorio de Violencia agrees that the homicide rate has fallen slightly, to about 80 per 100,000. The difference is that the Observatorio de Violencia is comparing two numbers calculated the same way; Corrales has changed the rules, so really we cannot compare the 2012 and 2013 numbers. One way the murder rate fell about 18-23%; the way the Observatorio has always used, by 6-12%.

The takeaway here is that the government is no longer following the same procedures it was following for counting murders, and therefore the numbers it gives out from now on will be incommensurate with the homicide rates it reported before. The Observatorio de Violencia is following the same procedures, so its current and past numbers will be comparable.

Or, put another way, Corrales is prepared to change the way he counts homicides so that it looks like the Lobo Sosa government is being much more effective against crime than it really is.  To do so he invented a methodology that because of how things work in Honduras, will significantly undercount the homicide rate.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

September Poll from Paradigma is out

Paradigma has now published its September polling, and it will come as no surprise: the race is a dead heat between LIBRE and the Partido Nacional. With the margin of error at +/- 2%, Xiomara Castro registers support from 22.8% of those intending to vote; Juan Orlando Hernández stands at 21.9%.

Paradigma concludes their short summary of the election outlook with the statement that
the undecideds continue to be the determining factor for next 24 of November.

That storyline, though, seems less clear when we look at their own data. If we interpret "indecisos" as meant to correspond to the category marked NS/NR in their poll-- which means declined to state/no response-- then in the most recent period, they have settled down at around 11%, up one percent (e.g. within the margin of error) since the previous poll. The big movement there seems to be over; from August to September this category contracted, declining 7%. Yes, the remaining NS/NR could swing the election if they all, or most of them, went for one of the two leading candidates. But when we look at how the 7% decided between July and now, assuming they went for one of the two leading candidates, then we can see that they are splitting fairly evenly: from July to August Castro and Hernández both gained about 3%; Hernández added an additional 2% and Castro registered almost even from August to September, but these fluctuations are within the margin of error.

We still think the election is going to be decided by voters for the Partido Liberal and Anti-Corruption Party: if they stick with their sinking ships, then it is anyone's guess what will happen. But if significant numbers of supporters of either Mauricio Villeda or Salvador Nasralla defect systematically to the leading candidate closest to their own interests, they could change the race completely.

The other notable thing about the new Paradigma poll: for the first time since April, "none of the above" is no longer clearly in the lead. At 21.3%, this third option is also in a statistical tie with Castro and Hernández. That's 6% of voters who have decided between August and September to settle on one of the existing candidates.

Overally, the beneficiaries of movement in the poll are the two traditional parties, the Partido Nacional up 2%, and the Partido Liberal up 2.6%. That may be comforting for those in the traditional power structure who equate any challenge to the two-party dominance of Honduran politics with anarchy. So it is worth underlining how unusual this picture actually is: despite moving up in the polls, the Partido Nacional is just tied with an entirely new party, one that has seen Honduran media working hard to demonize it.

The actual end game here is likely to come down to how the voting process is managed. But whichever party wins this election, the old system is gone.