My reporting in Honduras in 2014 left me deeply pessimistic about the possibilities of positive change. The country has the highest homicide rate in the world. More than 90% of all murders are never investigated, much less prosecuted. I have always believed that the solution to our immigration dilemma lies primarily with addressing root causes of migration, eliminating the forces pushing people to leave their homeland.

Sonia on assignment in Honduras in July 2014.
Sonia on assignment in Honduras in July 2014.

As the Obama administration proposes tripling foreign aid to the Central American region in 2016 — a budget that will begin to be debated by Congress this week — I have come to believe that taxpayer money, spent wisely, with accountability and benchmarks, can help significantly improve conditions driving so many children to flee places like Honduras.

A recent dinner at my home in Los Angeles with a leader of a Honduran nonprofit, Kurt Ver Beek of the Association for a More Just Society (AJS), helped me understand how you and I can help transform Honduras, one of our most troubled neighbors to the south. With our support, there is reason for hope for Honduras.

AJS has been working in Honduras for 17 years. It started in a garage in Tegucigalpa. Kurt, a professor at Calvin College in Michigan who lives and teaches for the college in Honduras, helped found AJS, along with his wife, Jo Ann Van Engen, Carlos Hernandez, and a handful of Hondurans. AJS is now an organization with 80 employees and a $2.2 million budget–most of it from U.S. and European governments, foundations, churches and individuals.

Over dinner, Kurt laid out what needs to be done. In essence, Honduras must strengthen and cleanse key government institutions, which are incredibly weak and underfunded, so they can function effectively. The goal is to decrease corruption, impunity, insecurity and violence, and increase good governance and economic opportunities in Honduras. This is what the U.S. helped do in Colombia, to some success.

AJS has started this work already.

I am with Kurt Alan Ver Beek and Jill Van Beek, both leaders of the Association for a More Just Society (AJS), a Christian justice organization that has a specific focus on Honduras.
I am with Kurt Alan Ver Beek and Jill Van Beek, both leaders of the Association for a More Just Society (AJS), a Christian justice organization that focuses on Honduras.

Five years ago, AJS began tackling the corrupt, inept educational system in Honduras. The country was investing more in education as a percentage of gross domestic product than any other country in Latin America but had the worst performance in the hemisphere. Kids simply weren’t learning. Why? The corrupt Honduran teachers union had agreed to vote for presidential candidate Carlos Flores if he agreed to triple their salaries. He won, and salaries shot up to 75% of Honduras’ entire education budget. Many teachers got jobs through corrupt means, having sex with the right person or paying bribes, spent half the year on strike instead of in the classroom, and one in four teachers either never showed up to teach or went to schools other than ones they were assigned to, but nonetheless cashed their government checks.

All of this means that from 2000 to 2010, Honduras averaged 125 days of class per year instead of the legally required 200. One in four teachers [some 15,000 teachers!] never showed up to their assigned workplace. No wonder test scores were terrible. AJS formed a coalition called Transformemos Honduras and worked with the Ministry of Education to produce change. They brought transparency to the hiring process.

Children are spending more time in school, and test scores are going up.
Children are spending more time in school, and test scores are going up.

The approach produced dramatic results. Teachers have worked more than the required 200 days for two years in a row. Today, less than 1% of paid teachers are absent from their classrooms. In December, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) announced that Honduras’ third graders had moved from 15th place among Latin American countries in reading and math in 2010 to 10th place in 2013, an unprecedented shift in such a short time. Test scores shot up 20% in math and 18% in Spanish, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development. The Minister of Education has been invited to visit Colombia and Brazil and share how he did it.

AJS similarly tackled corruption in government purchases of medicines. The Honduras government spends some $40 million a year on pharmaceuticals. Nearly a third of that money was going to kick-backs and bribes, and many of the medicines being purchased were frauds or so substandard they were no better than a placebo, an AJS investigation found. AJS exposed the corruption and aided the prosecution of companies and government officials involved. It also helped create a system whereby a United Nations organization oversees government pharmaceutical purchases. Since it reduced the bribes, the UN can buy 40% more medicines with the same budget.

The violence in Honduras is a much more complicated problem, but it too has seen positive change. Of course, there is much that could be done in the United States to reduce violence in Honduras. We use more illegal drugs than any nation on earth. Our insatiable demand for cocaine and other drugs is what drives the cartels to battle for turf so they can get their supply from Colombia and Venezuela to our borders.

Cartels have always used airplanes to get drugs part of the way from Latin American to the States. In recent years, the U.S. has spent $8 billion to disrupt the drug flow up the Caribbean corridor. Beginning around 2007, narco cartels responded by re-routing cocaine flights. By 2012, four out of five U.S.-bound cocaine-filled planes were landing in Honduras; drugs went by land the rest of the way.

Honduras’ President Juan Orlando Hernández, who took office in January 2014 with just 37% of the vote and wanted to boost his popularity, bought three Israeli satellite systems and threatened to have Honduras’ air force shoot down unidentified planes suspected of carrying drugs. Colombian pilots increased fees to $500,000 from $100,000 per flight. With the help of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, President Hernández began to selectively arrest and prosecute the heads of some of Honduras’ most powerful narco families, the ones that collaborate with Mexican cartels to move drugs north.

The top graphic shows suspected drug flights in 2007 largely doing to the Caribbean. The bottom graphic shows the 2011 flights largely going to Honduras. Image is from the Joint Interagency Task Forth South.
The top graphic shows suspected drug flights in 2007 largely going to the Caribbean. The bottom graphic shows the 2011 flights largely going to Honduras. Image is from the U.S. Joint Interagency Task Forth South.

The number of drug flights landing in Honduras dropped from 20 or 30 a month to 2 or 3 a month. The flow of drugs has begun to revert to the Caribbean.

As a result, homicides in Honduras have dropped 23%, from 86 per 100,000 in population in 2012 to 66 per 100,000 in 2014, according to the Honduran National University’s Violence Observatory.

AJS has helped decrease violence by piloting Peace and Justice programs that hold people accountable for killings. Since 2005, AJS has hired non-corrupt ex-cops and lawyers who know non-corrupt prosecutors to help investigate and prosecute homicide cases. In Nueva Suyapa, the neighborhood where Enrique partly grew up, they have worked on 163 cases. Half the cases have concluded, and 95% of these resulted in guilty verdicts. They have kept witnesses safe, which has inspired more witnesses to step forward, reducing the culture of impunity. AJS has done the same in four other neighborhoods. While 4% of homicides nationwide are solved, the rate is 52% in Nueva Suyapa. Killers have gotten the message: Nueva Suyapa, a community of 30,000 people, had 42 homicides in 2005. Last year it had 11 homicides.

Violence has declined, but there is much more work to be done. The real test for the new president: Will he be willing to go further, to clean up the judicial branch, the attorney general’s office, and the police? Will the president really try to shut down narco operations and gangs like MS13 and 18th Street, or will he stop at a few high-profile arrests? Is he simply trying to get the message through that the drug business can continue as usual as long as the narcos stop killing so many people and making him look bad? Or does he want full-scale reform? And will he work on redistribution of wealth and growing employment and economic opportunities [six in ten Hondurans live below the poverty line] so desperate people looking to survive are less likely to turn to crime?

Honduras, Kurt says, needs to start taxing people, especially big companies that often evade taxes altogether, and using those revenues to fund significant changes in the law enforcement and justice systems as Colombia did. One of the reasons few homicides result in a conviction is because there just aren’t enough cops. For example, San Pedro Sula, the city with the highest homicide rate in the world, has 28 homicides a week but only 22 homicide investigators. Honduras also needs to pay police enough that they aren’t tempted by bribes. To further reduce corruption, Kurt says, Honduras must polygraph, drug test, and do asset assessments on every person working in law enforcement and the judicial system. It must spend money on watchdogs to track how U.S. monies are used, and tie future funding to tangible results.

But it is a promising beginning, and proof that change is possible in one of the most violent and corrupt places on earth.

Even more promising: Unlike with previous U.S. foreign assistance, this time the Obama administration wants 80% of new aid to go to civic institutions and economic development, not just to fund the military and police in Honduras, according to an analysis by the Washington Office on Latin America.

Please urge your congressional leaders to approve the $1 billion foreign aid request, and support the work of organizations that are making a difference like AJS!

2016 Addendum to this post: Congress approved $750 million in foreign aid to central america for 2016, more than doubling the amount approved in 2015.