Until the mid-1990s, it could be reasonably argued that Honduras ’s official political system was nothing more than window-dressing for the country’s true power broker, the armed forces. After taking direct power for the first time in 1956, the military maintained a watchful eye over civilian politicians, who, knowing the rules of the game, were careful not to tread on any boots. While technically under civilian authority, the military was in reality fully independent, answering to no one. Changes in military leadership, the result of behind-the-scenes maneuvering, were presented to surprised politicians as fait accompli, and the Congress duly ratified the new leader without question.
Nonetheless, this independence did not automatically lead to military repression. The Honduran military is a curious animal. The officer corps is not made up of wealthy elites, as is the case in neighboring countries. It’s much more egalitarian. In fact, in the absence of a strong homegrown elite, the military became an elite class itself, with its own interests and agenda sometimes quite different from the country’s politicians, business leaders, and landowners. For this reason, the military has never been as rabidly conservative or repressive as other regimes in the region. When in direct power in the early 1970s under Colonel Oswaldo López Arellano, the military actually embarked on a far-ranging agricultural reform program, a far more radical measure for the countryside than those considered by civilian politicians.
During the height of the U.S.-sponsored Contra war, the military assumed a more sinister role, engaging in torture and disappearances similar to the abuses in neighboring El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, but never on the same scale. Even opponents concede that fewer than 200 activists were killed by the authorities during the 1980s, compared to the tens of thousands elsewhere in Central America. But opposition to even these relatively few transgressions came from within the military itself, and with the winding down of the Contra war, complaints of military abuses declined.
The first steps taken to put civilians firmly in control of the Honduran military came from President Reina, who began by abolishing mandatory service in 1995, and then transferred the police to civilian authorities in 1997. The transition was completed on January 27, 1999, when President Flores demonstrated his control by replacing Armed Forces chief General Mario Hung Pacheco with Colonel Daniel Lopez Carballo, then appointing lawyer and journalist Edgardo Dumas Rodriguez as the new Defense Minister (Ministro de Defensa). While the position of Defense Minister had existed previously, changes in Article 15 of the Constitution effectively gave the minister power to control military leadership.
Although numbering only 13,000 soldiers, half the number it had reached at the height of the 1980s buildup, the military is still a powerful force in Honduran society. To cope with falling military budgets and the curtailing of U.S. military aid, the military has started to develop its own financial base. It has been so successful that its investment arm, the Instituto de Previsión Militar (IPM), is one of the largest investors in the country. The IPM owns hotels, shrimp farms, a cement factory, and a range of other holdings thought to be worth US$100 million. However, many of these holdings were put under civilian control in late 1999, and for the first time, the army now has a civilian paymaster.
One ominous tendency in recent years is the increasing incidence of military personnel involved in drug-trafficking, robberies, and the executions of street children and gang members. Officers have been implicated in drug-running, and in January 2000, a sergeant was caught red-handed holding up a taxi in Tegucigalpa . In 2006, members of the national police executed two environmental activists in Olancho.
Military support was also critical to the ousting of Manuel “Mel” Zelaya in June 2009, when soldiers arrested the president and put him on a plane to Costa Rica.