The country with the highest murder rate in the world isn’t Iraq or Afghanistan. It’s Honduras, just a two and a half hour flight from Miami.
The tiny Central American nation has suffered the same dire problems for decades — poverty, corruption and gang violence — and things are getting worse.
The grasp on democracy in Honduras is also fragile. A coup removed one president in 2009, and elections on Sunday are already tarred with claims of fraud.
The blame for the dysfunction goes beyond the country’s borders, though. The U.S. plays an influential role there, giving upwards of $100 million per year in aid and serving as its top trading partner.
Here’s what the U.S. could be doing differently to help fix the crime epidemic in Honduras, according to Eric Olson, the associate director of the Latin American program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington, D.C.
1. Promote more government transparency
The Honduran government needs to combat corruption on its own, but the U.S. can push for more transparency.
In the election on Sunday, none of the candidates were required to make their donors public. That means no one knows how these campaigns were financed.
“No one knows where it came from, what kind of benefits were promised in exchange for it,” Olson said. “And it makes the system almost corrupt from the beginning.”
Drug gangs have entrenched themselves in the Honduran government and judicial system. And national police have been involved in extortion and corruption schemes, undermining criminal enforcement.
More financial oversight in politics would be a step toward fixing that.
2. Recalibrate the drug war strategy
Honduras has been a drug transit point for decades, but violent gangs have expanded in recent years.
Olson says that part of the problem is the U.S. drug war strategy, which has focused on taking down kingpins.
“It’s a little bit like spooning water out of the ocean,” he said. “For each one you take out, there’s more behind them.”
Instead, the U.S. government should put more effort into strengthening the judicial system in Honduras, Olson said.
3. Make sure aid programs are working
In 2012, the U.S. gave roughly $100 million in aid to Honduras. But the federal government needs to do a better job determining whether the programs it funds are successful, Olson said.
Take the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI). The program aims to “create safe streets” throughout the region, among other objectives, and roughly $1.2 billion has been spent on it since 2008
But a U.S.-government report in September found that the U.S. wasn’t doing a good job accessing the results of the program in respect to overarching goals in Central America.
Olson said that the U.S. should take a lead in setting objectives and making sure they’re realized.
“The U.S. and international community here should set very clear standards and outcomes that are acceptable to Honduras, and hold everybody to it,” he said. “A little bit of tough love at this point is really important.”
”AMERICA with Jorge Ramos” speaks to Washington Post reporter Nick Miroff about the elections in Honduras, Monday at 8 p.m. ET.