Honduras: Sliding Toward State Failure

The Economist magazine recently introduced a pair of articles on Central America as follows: “In the first of two reports on the threat of rampant violence to Central America’s small republics, we look at the risk of Honduras becoming a failed state.” It is premature to declare Honduras a failed state, but the magazine is right to warn about the gathering storm clouds in this corner of Middle America.

If physical insecurity is the foremost quality of a failed state, as argued by Robert Rotberg, Honduras is most definitely a failing state. Gang and drug-related violence is pushing Honduras in a very negative direction, despite some recent economic growth. The article in The Economist provides the terrible details about the country’s world-leading murder rate. For comparison, South Africa – a very violent society – now has a murder rate that is less than one-fifth that of Honduras, and declining.

Hondurans would be right to cast some blame for their plight on the United States and Mexico for external pressures related to illicit drug flows. Even so, it is very telling that the neighboring states of Guatemala and El Salvador are both seeing gains in physical security, as is Mexico.

Sadly, despite the country’s democratic trappings, the rule of law is breaking down in Honduras. The Economist article echoes a section from the 2012 Human Rights Watch annual report: “Violence and threats against journalists, human rights defenders, political activists, and transgender people continued [in 2011]. Those responsible for these abuses are rarely held to account.” Beyond these particular groups, ordinary citizens – and especially young adult males – are routinely the victims of crimes that are never investigated or prosecuted.

At some point, investors will no longer tolerate the lawlessness, and they will leave for other markets. Honduras simply does not have enough economic leverage to keep that capital within its borders.

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The Relevance of U.S. State Department Travel Warnings

The U.S. Department of State has active “travel warnings” for 32 of the world’s 193 states, or just over 15 percent of the world’s countries. The State Department strongly urges Americans to avoid all non-essential travel – to selected areas or whole countries – for those states with an active warning. Below is the list of warning states, grouped by regions of the world. Some have been on the list for a decade or more.

Latin America (3 states):  Haiti, Colombia, Mexico

Sub-Saharan Africa (16 states):  Republic of South Sudan, Guinea, Sudan, Mali,  Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, Kenya, Nigeria, Somalia, Mauritania, Cote d’Ivoire, Burundi, Eritrea, Mali, Niger, Chad

Middle East and North Africa (12 states and territories):  Syria, Libya, Israel, The West Bank and Gaza Strip, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Algeria, Iran, Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan

Asia, other (2 states):  Philippines, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (a.k.a. North Korea)

For readers of this blog, there are many familiar names: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Mali, Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire, and Haiti. It is worth noting here that the State Department may issue a travel warning based on the limitations on U.S. diplomats and consular staff to offer assistance in particular countries (e.g. Iran, North Korea). Even with this qualification, the vast majority of these states either have active armed conflicts or are marked by significant state weakness or state failure.

How should we evaluate these travel warnings? Some largely disregard these travel warnings as irrelevant propaganda. Governments of countries with warnings often loudly protest this designation. Kenya, for example, has a substantial tourism sector that is reliant on foreigners, and official travel warnings are obviously not helpful to that sector. So, while the U.S. State Department warnings can tend toward alarmism, it is important to recall the main reason why these bulletins are issued. Contrary to what many cynics believe, these travel statements are primarily posted to keep Americans (and other foreigners) safe abroad. In the pursuit of this goal, the individual assessments do offer a fairly high degree of objectivity. As such, these periodically updated bulletins do provide relevant information on the world’s most troubled lands.

Below is a small sampling of excerpts from current travel warnings.

Nigeria:

Violent crime remains a problem throughout the country and is perpetrated by both individuals and gangs, as well as by persons wearing police and military uniforms. ….. Travel by foreigners to areas considered by the Nigerian government to be conflict areas should not occur without prior consultation and coordination with local security authorities. The Nigerian government may view such travel as inappropriate and potentially illegal, and it may detain violators. ….. Law enforcement authorities usually respond slowly or not at all, and provide little or no investigative support to victims. U.S. citizens, Nigerians, and other expatriates have experienced harassment and shakedowns at checkpoints and during encounters with Nigerian law enforcement officials.

Philippines:

U.S. citizens should defer non-essential travel to the Sulu Archipelago, due to the high threat of kidnapping of international travelers and violence linked to insurgency and terrorism there. ….. Security and safety conditions in the urban centers of Davao City, General Santos City, and Cagayan de Oro City in Mindanao are generally more controlled. Nevertheless, official U.S. Government visitors and Embassy employees must receive special authorization from the Embassy to travel to any location in Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago, including these urban centers.

Haiti:

The Department of State has issued this Travel Warning to inform U.S. citizens traveling to or living in Haiti about the security situation in Haiti. This replaces the Travel Warning dated August 8, 2011, to update information regarding the crime level, the prevalence of cholera, lack of adequate infrastructure – particularly in medical facilities – seasonal severe inclement weather, and limited police protection. The United Nations’ Stabilization Force for Haiti (MINUSTAH) remains in Haiti. ….. Haiti’s infrastructure remains in poor condition and unable to support normal activity, much less crisis situations. Medical facilities, including ambulance services, are particularly weak. Some U.S. citizens injured in accidents and others with serious health concerns have been unable to find necessary medical care in Haiti and have had to arrange and pay for medical evacuation to the United States.

*** Did you like what you read here? You might be interested in the new book by this blog’s author, Failed States: Realities, Risks, and Responses.