Honduras has one of the highest homicide rates in the world, and some 75 percent of these homicides are committed using guns.[1] The world average is closer to 50 percent. Honduras is not alone in Central America. Just over 60 percent of El Salvador’s homicides and 81 percent of homicides in Guatemala — Honduras’ Northern Triangle neighbors — involve firearms.[2]

The circulation of guns does not necessarily lead to high homicides in all cases. Nicaragua has an abundance of weapons in circulation,[3] but a homicide rate that is just one-sixth that of Honduras. However, in a country where organized crime and gangs are rampant and security forces are regularly accused of corruption, the availability of weapons certainly facilitates violence.

This report attempts to track the sources of the weapons that are behind these homicides and that have made organized criminal groups and gangs such formidable forces in Honduras. It does this using various methods.

This article is part of a five-part investigation into arms trafficking in Honduras. Read the rest of the chapters here or download the full report here.

First, it draws from the best information available on gun seizures in the country. This gave us an understanding of what types of weapons are in circulation in the black market, where they come from, and who is circulating them.

Second, InSight Crime and our partner organization on this project, the Association for a More Just Society (Asociación para una Sociedad más Justa – ASJ) visited and interviewed representatives of the Honduran institutions responsible for procuring and selling weapons to the public, and managing the country’s gun registry for civilians. This allowed us to assess the regulatory system and its ability to monitor the dynamics of the black market.

Third, InSight Crime and ASJ interviewed various people who have taken part in the movement of illegal weapons and munitions. The cases they describe are illustrative of larger trends with regards to the illegal weapons trade in Honduras and the Northern Triangle as a whole.

Fourth, InSight Crime and ASJ consulted with numerous Honduran and foreign officials, as well as civil society experts, who track the illegal weapons trade. These experts helped point us in the right direction in terms of trends and theories regarding the trade.

Fifth, InSight Crime and ASJ complemented this work by reviewing news reports and other non-governmental, governmental and multilateral research on arms trafficking, firearms legislation, organized crime, and gang activities in Honduras and the region.

SEE ALSO: InDepth Coverage of Homicides

In sum, we have done a thorough review of the illegal arms trade in Honduras. It is, however, incomplete. That is because two of the main suspected sources of illegal firearms — the police and the Honduran Armed Forces — will not share information about their procurements, weapons sales, internal controls and cases involving members of the security forces. Until that happens, we will have to rely on publicly available information regarding cases that involve the security forces, and will not have a clear picture of the extent of leakage of these weapons.

Notwithstanding that limitation, the illegal arms trade in Honduras does seem to follow some fairly clear and consistent patterns. It features both small, individual players and large, sometimes institutional actors. It benefits from a poorly regulated market and a contradictory legal framework. In the end, there are so many gaps in the system that those participating in the trade demonstrate the old adage: opportunity makes the thief.

Major Findings

The United States is the origin of close to half of the unregistered weapons seized in Honduras. The main methods are in passengers’ luggage or hidden among legitimate imports. The latter is the preferred method for large criminal groups, who pay officials to allow the shipments through.

Honduras’ illegal arms also come from neighboring countries. Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador are important sources of trafficked weapons, often relics of Cold War-era conflicts. There is a preponderance of testimonies and various cases linking military and police with weapons leakage.

There are serious shortcomings in the firearms registration system. There are large backlogs in collecting ballistics data from weapons, and inappropriate storage procedures have caused the loss of several years of ballistics data. The ballistics information that is collected is not used to track criminals or make cases against them.

The legal framework on firearms control is contradictory and inconsistently applied. The duties of different institutions are not clearly set out, and some take advantage of these loopholes, or simply ignore the law. The laws on weapons possession have large gaps, including the failure to define key terms such as “firearms,” and do not regulate ammunition purchases.

There is a large illicit domestic market in weapons and ammunition. By law, only the Armory can sell these items, but InSight Crime and ASJ found ammunition for sale in department stores and weapons in pawnshops in the country. Evidence from interviews and research by other organizations shows these were not isolated cases. InSight Crime and ASJ also found the Armory sold munitions for weapons that are illegal.

There is a lack of transparency in Honduras’ weapons trade, as the military, police and private security companies do not release information on their holdings. This finding is particularly troubling, given the evidence that weapons seem to be leaking from Honduran military and police stockpiles, and that some current and former military and police officials appear to be active in the firearms and ammunition black market.

There are shortcomings in the rules governing the Armory, the only authorized arms dealer in the country. According to officials, they are not obliged to carry out criminal record background checks on gun purchasers. The fact that its weapons and ammunition sales are a major source of financing for the military pension fund could create a problematic incentive for the Armory to sell as many weapons as possible.

Arms trafficking has been insufficiently tackled. Those arrested for trafficking rarely received prison sentences, while customs officials routinely allowed guns through points of entry and failed to search for weapons concealed in luggage or containers.

Honduran gun owners are pushed into the black market by inefficient processes, low barriers to entry and few repercussions. Expediency and impunity, as much as criminal intention, helps drive the black market.

The explosion in private security companies has opened a door for the black market weapons trade. These companies are insufficiently monitored, and many are suspected fronts for organized criminal groups. There is also confusion around the type of weapons these companies can legally possess.

There have been significant efforts to tackle arms trafficking in recent years, with some success. This includes increased vigilance at points of entry to the country, crackdowns on illegal crossing points, and proposals to tighten Honduras’ gun laws.

* The InSight Crime team for this report was led by InSight Crime Co-director Steven Dudley and then InSight Crime Assistant Director Elyssa Pachico. Research was led by Steven Dudley and Mario Cerna, a long-time journalist from Honduras. The report was written by Steven Dudley. Special contributions were made by Mario Cerna. Translation into Spanish by Diego García and María Luisa Valencia. Editing and fact-checking by Mike LaSusa, Felipe Puerta and Victoria Dittmar. Graphics by Elisa Roldán. Top photo by Associated Press/Edgard Garrido. Report photos by Steven Dudley. InSight Crime would like to give special thanks to ASJ for its support and assistance.

[1]Observatorio de la Violencia, “BOLETIN Enero – Diciembre 2016,” no. 44, marzo 2017. Available at: https://iudpas.unah.edu.hn/observatorio-de-la-violencia/boletines-del-observatorio-2/boletines-nacionales/

[2] See “Homicide Monitor,” which draws from United Nations data, at: https://homicide.igarape.org.br/

[3] Claudio Damian Rodriguez Santorum, et al., “Transnational Organized Crime in Central America and the Caribbean: A Threat Assessment,” United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), p. 61. Available at: https://www.unodc.org/toc/en/reports/TOCTACentralAmerica-Caribbean.html

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Steven Dudley is the co-founder and co-director of InSight Crime and a senior research fellow at American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies in Washington, DC. In 2020, Dudley...