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A wave of immigrants to the U.S. from Honduras has been fueled largely by drug and gang-related violence and a surge of violence against women. They're all problems that Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez is trying to address. Special Correspondent John Carlos Frey reports.
JOHN CARLOS FREY:
In 2009, a coup brought down the elected president of Honduras. For the past six years, instability, poverty, and gang-and drug-related crime have plagued this Central American nation of eight million people.
In 2012, Honduras had the most murders per capita of any country in the world – 90 homicides for every 100 thousand people.
Stopping the violence is the top priority of 46-year-old president Juan Orlando Hernandez, who was elected in 2013 and took office last year.
I sat down with him at his office in the nation's capital, Tegucigalpa.
PRESIDENT JUAN ORLANDO HERNANDEZ, HONDURAS:
"We unfortunately come from being the most violent country on the face of the earth as consequence of drug trafficking that is produced in South America and is consumed in North America."
Formerly head of the Honduran legislature, President Hernandez has deployed the military police nationwide to combat and arrest drug gangs as a first step in stemming the violence.
"So we began there, extraditing drug traffickers, prosecuting gangs, local and external traffickers."
President Hernandez says those actions have tamped down the violence — the murder rate here has modestly declined in the past two years.
Still, last summer, gang-related violence was part of the reason tens of thousands of Hondurans, many of them women and children, tried to flee to the United States.
"The number of children migrating has decreased dramatically in comparison with the rest of the northern triangle of Central America. Honduras has been most effective in that. But we have begun to work because we accept that it's not just the responsibility of the government but also all Hondurans."
President Hernandez is also trying to address a growing problem in Honduras — domestic violence against women. Thirty percent of Honduran women say they've been abused, and the murder rate among women more than doubled from 2005 through 2013.
"We are committed particularly in the case of women who are often the victims of these conflicts between the gangs, and those gangs in turn have connections to drug trafficking. We're also working on aspects of prevention, in the schools and churches, with art and culture. It's a complete program, and it will take time."
As an example, President Hernandez points to a policing project with greater community outreach near the nation's second largest city, San Pedro Sula, partially funded by the United States.
A Vanderbilt University study last year found the program has reduced crime and increased public trust in the police.
Still, the president has faced weekly protests over government corruption – considered endemic here — and concerns that money meant to aid the Honduran people is getting siphoned off by corrupt officials.
I asked the president about those corruption allegations, particularly that money meant to help battered women isn't reaching victims.
"It stops with the government. Even aid that may come through this country."
"Our administration decided to launch a campaign even before taking office, not just to patch up laws passed by previous congresses, but also to implement programs that will provide transparency and put up a full frontal assault against corruption."
But the president's critics say despite those efforts, little is being done to address the epidemic of domestic violence.
Anna Cruz manages a privately-financed shelter for abused Honduran women, providing services, she says, the government does not, including helping victims file criminal complaints.
ANNA CRUZ, SHELTER DIRECTOR:
"Honduras doesn't care about women's issues. So like in our case, we do not receive any assistance from the government."
Cruz houses a dozen women at a time, but she says at least 200 women in the capital need a safe place to hide from their abusers.
"The government should inject money for programs against violence instead of just military men on the street everywhere. All that money spent on the military should be spent on violence prevention programs."
For more than 30 years, Gladys Lanza has run an organization dedicated to ending violence against women in Honduras. She says domestic violence is as much a cultural problem as a policy issue.
GLADYS LANZA, WOMEN’S MOVEMENT FOR PEACE AND VISITATION PADILLA:
"It's a macho, patriarchal mindset that puts women into a kind of second class. You go to the authorities and they say, but more men are murdered than women. And then you have to wait for an investigation."
Lanza says she is hopeful for change, but the continuing violence is still motivating women to leave Honduras with their children.
"The majority of the women left precisely because they were fleeing violence — the violence in their homes with their partners; the violence in the community with authorities, with gangs in their neighborhoods, and even contract killings. There are so many areas of violence in which we women live."
Maria Mercedes Bustillos is the country's special prosecutor for the protection of women. Appointed by President Hernandez, she's critical of the government's approach to stopping gender-based violence.
MARIA MERCEDES BUSTILLOS, CHIEF SPECIAL PROSECUTOR FOR THE PROTECTION OF WOMEN:
"What happens to a victim who is suffering extreme poverty on top of the beatings, the injuries, the confinement, the isolation, the manipulation? What happens? You have a person unable to change her life and overcome on her own, unable to provide food for her children. There has to be a system to empower her, to make the decision to get away from the violence."
I asked President Hernandez why the country has so few places for women to seek refuge.
"We have a couple of pilot programs at the national or central government level. We're working with municipal governments in the case of women, children and adolescents. I believe we've found the formula, and how to produce that on a larger scale is coming next."
"Is it the government's responsibility, the Honduran government's responsibility, to stem the violence and to protect women?"
"Yes, of course. It is the responsibility of the government and society as a whole. It's an issue that concerns us all. That's the awareness we're trying to create in the Honduran people."
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