January 7, 2012

Big brother comes to Honduras

Update, January 9: President Lobo has just announced that he is suspending the sanction of this decree pending review. No mention yet what this will mean for the new migration measures.


Just yesterday, we surprisingly learned that another 'travel tax' was approved on December 14, 2011 (in the middle of the night, says El Heraldo), adding $17 to the cost of a airline ticket for each international passenger on entry and exit, for a total of $34. The tax is to provide for new migratory control security measures which will be put into force not only at the airports but at all immigration checkpoints in Honduras.

Last month, a law was passed by congress to increase Honduras' exit fee from US $37.80 (for foreigners) to US $60.20 but ultimately was vetoed by President Lobo because of public outcry even though it was Lobo's own decree. It was felt that the tax would have a detrimental effect on tourism and voluntourism, already suffering from the crime situation in Honduras, especially so since Honduras' tax is not hidden in the airline ticket price as many countries are, but must be paid separately at a bank in advance or by standing in line at the airport which tends to leave a bad taste in some visitors' mouths. So now instead of the $22 increase, air travelers will be facing a $34 increase in their travel costs. I don't know if the original plan was to increase air travel taxes by a total of $56 to $94 (!) or if the right hand didn't know what the left hand was doing.

The new tax is in addition to the security tax law [in English] passed in September last year which primarily affects businesses and citizens and residents of Honduras who have bank accounts or credit cards. This law, which was initially expected to generate some L.4.5 billion (about US $237 million) over 5 years for strengthening the justice system and crime prevention, still hasn't gone into effect. Some people, like President of Congress Juan Orlando Hernández, are asking why implementation has been delayed.

Honduras has contracted for 10 years with a US company called Securiport whose president is Enrique Segura, and in which a majority ownership is held by the ENSE Group. This was another one of those "emergency" situations where public bidding wasn't required and apparently not even the congress was really aware of it. Two of the three congressmen contacted by Proceso Digital didn't know anything about the new tax and the third voted against it.

Africo Madrid, Honduras Secretary of InteriorSecretary of the Interior and Population Áfrico Madrid said that the content and details of the contract can't be given to the public because he could incur civil, administrative, and criminal penalties since this is a matter of security. Reporters were only asking why there wasn't a public bidding process, not details of the company's patented technology, so I think that Madrid is really stretching this secrecy thing to avoid being transparent, as usual. Passing the law in the middle of the night when many congressmen were not there and keeping it under wraps for three weeks also makes it look like there is something fishy going on.

As part of the deal, Securiport will make an investment of US 31.6 million in equipment. Translated from La Tribuna, under Decreto 252-2011, Securiport will ...

"provide and install in all of the windows of migration attention, a system of control of the entrance and exit of the persons to and from the national territory, which includes the scanning equipment, computers, programs, training of migration personnel, adaptation of installations and server requirements for the digitalization of the images, archives, obtaining and comparing of fingerprints of said persons. This also includes the installation of equipment and programs based on the same technology to control the access of persons to the zones reserved to the Dirección General de Migración y Extranjería. The technology referred to is supported in the employment of ultrasound scanner developed by Ultra Scan Corporation, strategic partner of Securiport."
The decree refers to Executive Accord 29-2011 dated March 24, 2011, in which the Secretary of the Interior was authorized by the President to directly contract with Securiport for the operation of system of control of the entrance and exit of persons to or from the national territory at any of the international airports and the 22 land and maritime frontier points of the country. It also states that Securiport will be paid directly by the airlines collecting the taxes. That was a wise move by Securiport or they might have ended up like the company who formerly provided the gun registration technology to Honduras.

Secretary Madrid stated, "The charge of US $34 will serve to avoid the free circulation and entrance of persons related to organized crime, narcotraffickers, assassins, kidnappers, money launderers, and arms traffickers that have utilized the country as a center of operations due to the lack of a modern and scientific system of migration control". He went on to say that the tax would be charged only to foreign citizens. Madrid is also quoted as saying, "we don't have the economic resources so someone has to pay for it".

El Heraldo unfortunately published an article quoting at length the President of CANATURH (tourism business association) Epaminondas Marinakys who apparently did not have his facts straight. He says that all who enter Honduras will pay the $17 tax on entry and exit, that he supposed that bus passengers would be off-loaded to pay at the frontier, and even that the one million annual cruise ship passengers would pay $34 for the privilege of setting foot on Honduras soil for a day. Either Madrid is lying or Marinakys did not actually see the decree and was only supposing based on what he had heard.

Better migration controls (if they can be enforced) is probably a good thing. Based on the number of people who have been captured with 10s of thousands of dollars strapped to their bodies or hundreds of thousands in their suitcases, there have probably been lots more who got away. There is a lot of corruption in Immigration, where many agents seem to make up their own rules as they go, and where official 90-day visa renewal stamps in passports can be bought for varying prices — there is legally no such thing as a 90-day visa renewal. I've heard from various people that in San Pedro a stamp allowing someone to stay an additional 90 days costs L.2,000 (about US $105) and in Roatan about US $150. Not all immigration agents are corrupt, but many are, especially those in the outlying areas. A bigger issue than perpetual tourists are the wanted criminals who are able to get away even when there is a migratory alert out for them.

It sounds like those who have been living 'undocumented' in Honduras might need to get their paperwork in order. Or maybe not. You never know how these things will work out in practice in Honduras. Where there's a will (bribe), there's a way. If only some of the brain power used by corruptos in thinking of ways to lie, cheat, and steal was put to use pulling Honduras out of poverty instead!

On a final ironic note, with these new measures, Honduras may be protected from its criminal visitors, but who is going to protect its visitors from Honduras?
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