The kidnapping and murder of Alfredo Villatoro may be proving to be a watershed of realization for the Honduran government. The details surrounding the investigation of the Villatoro case have shown the weakness and vulnerability of the government of President Porfirio Lobo. On a wider scale, the Villatoro case is again proving that without the rule of law free speech is threatened and indeed the crucial infrastructure of the democratic system crumbles without the support free speech provides.
The Villatoro case comes as somewhat of an embarrassment to President Lobo. The case revealed the lack of information the police and other authorities had despite arresting suspects attached to Villatoro’s kidnapping. (For more on the origins of the case please see, “Media Danger Zone: Honduras on the Edge.”) Hours after the president announced Villatoro was alive and that authorities were doing everything possible to work the case, the journalist’s body was found. Villatoro had been shot execution style in the head. His killers had dressed him in the uniform of the Honduran National Police. While Honduran authorities said this symbolic message showed drug cartels were behind the murder, the president’s office scrambled to contain the image of a country where the cartels could act with impunity.
Lobo convened two special sessions with the media after the murder. First he called the directors of the country’s major media outlets for a face-to-face meeting and afterward the president held a special discussion with members of the international media. He also appeared on national television to give an update about the case and offer an reward. However, this was not enough to contain the criticism. Media managers demanded the state provide more protection for journalists and prominent international broadcaster Radio Netherlands ran stories criticizing the government for the lack of general security in the country and for the atmosphere of impunity regarding murders of journalists.
The problem in Honduras, much like in Mexico (please see “Mexico’s Violent Cycle” and “Mexico: The Dangerous Climate for Free Speech” for more), is that the government increasingly cannot guarantee security in large swaths of the country. The drug cartels have set themselves up as a competing authority. Honduras, like Mexico and other parts of Central America, seems to be slowly losing the Drug War.
Honduras has no rich tradition of democracy: it suffers from weak democratic institutions and a thin civil society. Even the legitimacy of the Lobo government has been undercut by how the country’s 2009 coup was settled. The governing tradition in Honduras has been one that reveres the strong hand of the military or a tough president, not one that respects justice or a system of laws. Given that atmosphere, free speech has always been a tenuous right in the country. Now, with the Drug War raging here (the U.N. says the country has the world’s worst homicide rate) even the most prominent journalists like Villatoro are threatened.
Perhaps Honduras, and Mexico too, must follow the long slow road that Colombia is still traveling to lift itself out of the Drug War: root out corruption; retrain the police and military; prioritize how and where to challenge the cartels and push them to the margins; and finally regain control of the security situation. Because without security and the rule of law, little else matters in any system attempting to move to a truly democratic norm. And if free speech is what connects the governed to the governing in such systems, then guaranteeing citizens and journalists can practice that basic right without fear is indeed essential.
(The photo is an official photo from the Honduran government and is in the public domain.)