Estimates vary widely as to how many legal and illegal weapons are circulating in Honduras. There are many reasons for this. The government does not have a centralized database that tracks arms seizures, purchases, sales and other matters concerning arms possession, availability and merchandising. The laws surrounding guns also have numerous contradictions and place an unfair burden on often powerless and resource-strapped institutions. Inefficiency bolsters the black market. Rather than going through what can be an arduous, bureaucratic process, Hondurans often opt to obtain weaponry and munitions illegally.
To counter this, the government has granted various amnesties that allow those with illegal weapons to register them with the authorities without facing sanctions. The latest ended in December 2015. These have resulted in a large number of weapons being entered into the National Firearms Registry (Registro Nacional de Armas - RNA). During the initial months of a 2013-2014 firearms amnesty, a study by the University Institute on Democracy, Peace and Security (Instituto Universitario en Democracia, Paz y Seguridad - IUDPAS) found that 25 percent more weapons were logged each day at the registry, some 80 percent of which had been purchased in private deals. However, the police cannot keep up with this high demand to register weapons. When InSight Crime and ASJ visited the office in May 2015, the head of the RNA was unable to produce an exact count, saying only that his office had registered "about 550,000" weapons. But when we asked again in May 2017, the Ministry of Security communications director said the government had registered just 325,000 weapons.
The head of the RNA said this was due to delays in reporting from San Pedro Sula, the only other office that registers weapons, but the reality is that the database is not a reliable measure. The system has had numerous hiccups since it began in 2004, including a dispute with a private contractor, which caused the RNA to stop registering weapons for over a year. Other problems included registering the ballistics fingerprints of bullet samples into fiber casings; under the microscope technicians could not distinguish between the fiber and the bullets' ballistics fingerprints, and they lost nearly eight years of samples. During the time in which this investigation was done, the police had allowed the license for the sophisticated software used to manage these bullet samples -- known as the Integrated Ballistics Identification System (IBIS) -- to lapse. This means they frequently could not access the centralized database and upload the new microscopic images they had captured. We do not know if they have since renewed the license, as they did not respond to our request for this information.
Nonetheless, if the information provided by the RNA is accurate, and 344,755 arms have now been registered under the amnesty it would signal an increase in registered firearms since reports just a few years ago. In 2013, the Violence Observatory at the National Autonomous University of Honduras (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Honduras - UNAH) said there were about 250,000 registered guns. However, in 2014, a congressional commission said there were some 400,000 legally registered weapons.
Trying to determine the number of unregistered weapons is even more difficult. The Small Arms Survey estimated that there were 420,000 unregistered weapons circulating in the country. The UNAH estimated in 2013 that there were about 650,000 unregistered guns in circulation. Congress said that there were more than 700,000. La Tribuna said there were 1.2 million. And the Armory, or La Armeria -- the military body that is the only entity legally permitted to import and sell weapons and munitions in Honduras -- said there were well over a million weapons circulating in the country, only a small portion of which it had sold.
The size of the illegal market has become apparent during the country's various gun amnesties. The amnesties encourage people to come forward and register weapons that lack a receipt from the Armory or a registration slip from the RNA. According to an August 2014 report by Proceso, the police gun tracing office said that hundreds of people had come forward to register their weapons. Over 50 percent -- or some 240,000 guns -- had lacked receipts or been illegal, the report said. The head of the RNA told InSight Crime and ASJ that this trend continues, and that police were registering 60 to 80 guns a day in Tegucigalpa alone.
Flawed Regulatory Systems
There are many reasons why it is hard to get a handle on the number of weapons circulating in Honduras. To begin with, there is the lack of a centralized database to track weapons that enter the country, those issued to security forces, seized, held in military stockpiles, registered to civilians and military personnel or sold to the public. The various institutions tracking the movement of weapons include the armed forces, the Armory, the police (seizures at crime scenes and the RNA), customs and airport security (at points of entry), and the Finance Ministry (for taxes). But coordination and communication between them is poor, and there seems to be a problem of limited trust between the various institutions, a lack of professionalism, and accusations of corruption that hinder the work of consolidating the information.
In some ways, the problem starts with the confusing legal framework. While there is a hierarchy in terms of control and distribution, contradictions exist between the laws and the constitutional powers granted to the designated authorities. Meanwhile, other authorities take advantage of loopholes in the system to do whatever they want, or to simply ignore the laws altogether.
According to the Honduran Constitution, the Defense Ministry controls the manufacture, sale, distribution and export of all weapons. The military also controls storage, transportation and all purchase requirements. Those sales are managed through the Armory, which is part of the Military Pension Institute (Instituto de Provision Militar - IPM). The IPM is technically independent from the armed forces, but the reality is that it is under de facto control of the military. The Defense Ministry also has jurisdiction over explosives.
For their part, the police, and specifically the National Preventive Police Directorate (Direccion Nacional de la Policia Preventiva - DNPP), is responsible for implementing the laws concerning possession and carrying of firearms. The National Investigative Unit (Dirección Policial de Investigaciones - DPI) controls the National Firearms Registry, which is responsible for registering all guns in Honduras.
The law states that civilians can own up to five firearms at one time, and they can apply for a permit (which lasts four years) to carry the following weapons:
- Short arms (revolvers or pistols) up to .45 caliber or 11 mm.
- Rifles and bolt-action or semi-automatic carbines up to .308 caliber.
- Bolt-action or semi-automatic shotguns that are 10 mm, 12 mm, 16 mm, or 20 mm; .410 caliber, if the barrel is not more 46 centimeters or 18 inches long.
However, the possession laws leave gaps for malfeasance and abuse. The firearms law, for instance, does not provide a definition of firearm, ammunition or receivers; and the law categorizes explosives in terms of their action and use, not their type. There are also no rules concerning the purchase and possession of ammunition. Although technically the Armory is the only licensed dealer of weapons and ammunition, our researchers found ammunition for sale in department stores and weapons in pawnshops in the country.
Businesses take advantage of these loopholes in various ways. For example, InSight Crime and ASJ's investigator found in one store that Hondurans can legally purchase a receiver that converts a handgun into an automatic weapon prohibited by law. The receiver costs about $950 (21,100 lempiras). They are apparently very popular: The store attendant said they had received six in the two weeks prior to our visit and had already sold five of them.
(A receiver that turns handguns into automatic weapons. Photo credit: Steven Dudley)
The law does not specify how long civilians have to register their weapons with the RNA after purchase, but the limited number of RNA offices -- since the early 2000s, it has gone from seven offices to two (in Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula) -- has hindered the ability to keep up with demand, especially during amnesty periods. There are plans to open three more offices, officials said, without specifying when they would be opened. Police register weapons by appointment only. When InSight Crime and ASJ visited in May 2015, police said the first available appointment was not until September. In a subsequent visit in 2017, the office said that wait time was down to a month.
The amnesty process is costly, resource-intensive and slow. It involves the following: entering personal information into the database; checking criminal records; taking fingerprints; taking a picture of the person; taking a picture of the weapon; shooting four bullets into a water tank to register the gun's ballistic fingerprint; processing and printing a weapon ID card that, in addition to the photo and personal information of the person, has an electronic chip and a photo of the weapon on it. What's more, owners must have one ID card per weapon, the head of the RNA told InSight Crime and ASJ.
But that is only stage one. This information is then placed in manila folders within cardboard boxes where it awaits the second part of this process: entering the ballistics fingerprint into the IBIS digital database. IBIS is normally used as a way to identify weapons employed in multiple crime scenes, among other investigation techniques. In this case, however, it is the country's principal ballistics fingerprint registry. This is an incredibly slow, time-consuming, resource-intensive process. And to date, despite assurances from the RNA that the government had ballistics fingerprints of nearly all the weapons in the registry, the reality is that the government in 2015, when we visited, officials had only entered some 25,000 ballistics fingerprints into the registry, or about one in every 20 weapons it has registered in stage one of the process. A 2011 report by the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) on small arms in Honduras, obtained by InSight Crime and ASJ, says this amounts to an eight- to ten-year backlog on digitalizing these records.
To confuse matters, the Attorney General's Office has its own IBIS database. In operation since June 2013, that database has ballistic fingerprints of weapons and munitions seized or found in crime scenes. Prosecutors can cross this data with that of the police's IBIS, and the ballistics unit of the Attorney General's Office said that, as of mid-May 2015, it had about 230 hits. In theory, the ballistics unit should have been able to use the data the police were entering into its IBIS since 2010, to cross it with many more cases. However, the head of the ballistics unit said the data the police entered into IBIS from crime scenes was poorly or incorrectly handled, rendering it unusable in most cases.
(The IBIS computer rendition of a bullet's fingerprint at the Attorney General's Ballistic Unit office. Photo credit: Steven Dudley)
'Dissonance' in the Laws
The ATF report found that the law and the constitution in Honduras contradict one another in important ways regarding who should regulate gun sales, possession and explosives, and how these processes should be regulated. In the broadest terms, regulation of explosives is split between the Security Ministry and the Defense Ministry. And at certain junctures, customs and tax authorities are required to step into enforcement, regulatory and tax collection roles. But the distinctions are not always clear. The ATF report described these contradictions as a "dissonance."
"A conspicuous dissonance was observed amongst constitutional, statutory and operational activities of the various institutions (i.e., military and public security entities) involved in regulatory oversight relating to commerce in firearms, explosives and ammunition, wherein promulgated constitutional and statutory requirements either conflict with one another, and or are not in sync with the actual operational state of affairs," the report reads.
How this dissonance plays out in practice is worth noting. Technically, for example, the Armory is supposed to do a ballistics test for each of the weapons it imports before selling them. But the ballistics testing centers are in the hands of the police, and the Armory simply says that it will not pass its weapons through this arduous and time-consuming process, in effect ignoring the law.
The Armory's antagonistic relationship with the police plays out in other ways as well. The Armory, for instance, says that it still registers the weapons that enter the country, as well taking other personal information from those purchasing the weapons, which it says is not required by law. But, according to a representative, the institution does not share this information with the police or other authorities unless they specifically request it. Even worse, as we shall see in later sections, the Armory does not give the police information about sales to civilians, to the military or to private security companies. Each purchaser must willingly give this information to the police.
Other elements of this dissonance seem to be a result of a lack of attention to detail and could be easily fixed through reform of the law. There is, for example, no stated age requirement for weapon owners (although the de facto recognized age is 21 and over). And there is no information regarding which government entity keeps insurance records, records of private firearms transactions, or reports about stolen weapons. Regarding private transactions, there are no stated criteria for who can purchase a weapon. For example, the law does not require those making a private sale to inquire about the buyer's criminal record, though the Armory also says it does this without being required to by law.
In addition, the costs of possessing an illegal weapon are "assuaged" by petty sanctions, the ATF report says -- mostly fines ranging from one to ten times the highest monthly salary in the place where the weapon or weapons have been seized. Those who illegally manufacture, import, export, sell, use or traffic military-type firearms, explosives and ammunition can face sentences of between eight and ten years, and those who do the same with commercial weapons can get between two and five years. But those caught trafficking weapons rarely face stiff penalties.
"Arrests for firearms trafficking crimes and/or mere possession very rarely get prison time ... only fines," the ATF notes.
In addition, until recently, there was little understanding of the legal requirements for importing weapons into Honduras. Customs officials routinely allowed guns through airports and ports, numerous officials and experts told InSight Crime and ASJ, usually provided the carrier promised to register the weapon with the RNA. And the Armory routinely ignored US and international rules regarding arms imports. According to a 2003 US State Department cable, the Armory "continues to exhibit difficulties in complying with State Department guidance regarding the importation of commercial firearms" especially as it relates to "contracts of sale or purchase orders."
Furthermore, customs and border controls have few of the tools needed to detect these weapons, few incentives to do so, and are subject to bribes and other forms of corruption. In 2010, there was only one x-ray machine among the 17 ports of entry, according to the ATF (though this situation has improved, as noted below). The 600 personnel assigned to these ports did not actively check for smuggled firearms. The results were evident in the statistics: In 2009, Honduran officials told the ATF that they had seized between six and nine weapons all year, and those were seized by "accident, when they were checking containers believed to have misrepresented merchandise (i.e., new merchandise being declared as used or under different Customs codes)."
The onerous requirements needed to obtain and register a weapon also make off-the-books transactions more appealing, especially given the wide availability of unregistered weapons and the low risk of being penalized for possessing one. One restaurant owner, who sought a weapon for the majordomo of his family farm, told InSight Crime and ASJ he would have create a not-for-profit private security company in order to do this. It would involve a large amount of paperwork. In the end, he said it was too much hassle, and that he would simply go to the black market.
Type, Caliber and Brand of Firearms in Honduras
Honduran government statistics do not provide the origin of the weapons seized, but a sizeable sample of seizure statistics provided to InSight Crime and ASJ by various government officials illustrate similar trends across a long period of time in the types of weapons, their caliber and brand.
The most common weapon found in Honduras is the handgun. Honduran officials note two types: "pistol" and "revolver." Of the 2,912 guns registered in the ballistic unit's IBIS crime-scene database as of February 2015, 2,352 were pistols or revolvers, making up 81 percent of the total. The caliber of these weapons is also consistent over time. Of these 2,352 weapons, 1,001 were 9 mm, and 634 were .38 caliber. The make varies widely. Amongst the 9 mm, the Beretta, Taurus, Smith & Wesson and Glock are the most popular; "Czechoslovakia" -- presumably a reference to the Czech company Ceska zbrojovka -- is also well represented in the logs. On the .38, over half of the guns entered into the database were Smith & Wesson. The Philippine company Armscor is also well represented. However, the sample sizes for all of these brands is too small to draw broad conclusions.
The IBIS database had 321 long guns, representing 11 percent of the total. More than half of these weapons were 5.56 mm or 7.62 mm weapons. These included AK-47, AR-15, M16 and Galil. The rest were of a variety such as 12-gauge shotguns. The most popular brands for the AK-47 were marked "Russian" and "Chinese." The most common brand for the 5.56 mm weapons was Colt. These long guns are technically illegal and were presumably registered to private security companies.
A police database consulted by InSight Crime and ASJ shows similar trends. Of the 7,853 firearms seized by police between 1996 and 2010, 7,143 were pistols or revolvers, or 91 percent of the total. Of these, 1,003 were 9 mm, and 2,926 were .38 caliber. The police database had 710 long guns, representing 9 percent of the total. Of these weapons, only 53 were .223 caliber, 5.56 mm or 7.62 mm weapons -- i.e. the type used in the AK-47, AR-15 and M16. The makes of these weapons varied widely and were poorly categorized, making it a useless exercise to try to determine origin.
* 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/Fernando Antonio. Report photos by Steven Dudley. InSight Crime would like to give special thanks to ASJ for its support and assistance.
 Yuri Vargas, "Incrementa Importación de Armas de Fuego en Honduras," Presencia Universitaria, 13 August 2014. Available at: https://presencia.unah.edu.hn/investigacion-cientifica/articulo/incrementa-importacion-de-armas-de-fuego-en-honduras
 InSight Crime and ASJ interview, head of the National Firearms Registry, Tegucigalpa, 20 May 2015.
 InSight Crime and ASJ interview, Ministry of Security, Director of Communications, May 2017.
 InSight Crime and ASJ interview, police technicians, Tegucigalpa, 22 May 2015.
 Hector Calix, "Mas de un millón de armas en Honduras," El Heraldo, 31 July 2014. Available at: http://www.elheraldo.hn/inicio/733971-364/m%C3%A1s-de-un-mill%C3%B3n-de-armas-en-honduras
 InSight Crime and ASJ interview, Armory Director of Communications Alex Santos, Tegucigalpa, 21 May 2015.
 Yuri Vargas, "Incrementa Importación De Armas De Fuego En Honduras," Presencia Universitaria, 13 August 2014. Available at: https://presencia.unah.edu.hn/investigacion-cientifica/articulo/incrementa-importacion-de-armas-de-fuego-en-honduras
 The Honduran armed forces imported their own weapons until January 2014, when the Armory began to import, log and become the country's sole importer of all weapons, be they for commercial, individual or government usage.
 Constitucion de la Republica, Decreto No. 131, Articulo 292.
 Ley Constitutiva de las Fuerzas Armadas, Decreto No. 39-2001, Articulo 26.
 InSight Crime and ASJ interview, Armory Director of Communications Alex Santos, Tegucigalpa, 21 May 2015. See also: William Godnick and Helena Vasquez, "Small Arms Control in Central America," International Alert, June 2003, p. 27.
 Ley de Control de Armas de Fuego, Municiones, Explosivos y Otros Similares, Decreto No. 30-2000.
 InSight Crime and ASJ interview, store attendant who wished to remain anonymous, Tegucigalpa, 7 April 2015.
 InSight Crime and ASJ interview, member of the ballistics unit at the forensic medicine division of the Attorney General's Office, Tegucigalpa, 21 May 2015.
 InSight Crime and ASJ interview, Armory Director of Communications Alex Santos, Tegucigalpa, 21 May 2015.
 Note: This contradicts information the Armory gave to the ATF in 2010. See: US Department of Justice, "Honduras Small Arms Assessment 2011," Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Office of Field Operations, International Affairs Office, 2011.
 Ibid, p. 30.
 US State Department, "Defense Trade Controls in Honduras; Problems with La Armeria," released by WikiLeaks, 11 April 2003. Available at: https://wikileaks.org/cable/2003/04/03TEGUCIGALPA885.html
 InSight Crime and ASJ interview, restaurant owner who wished to remain anonymous, Tegucigalpa, 25 May 2015.
 The ballistics unit gave InSight Crime and ASJ data from its entries of weapons into the IBIS system, which included 2,944 weapons seized at crime scenes between 17 July 2013 and 17 February 2015. Investigators said about two-thirds of the seizures were related to illegal weapons charges; the other third were related to homicides.
 The database is a list of all weapons seized by the police between 1996 and 2010.