Tensions between Honduras and El Salvador are increasing after the Council of Ministers of El Salvador signed an executive decree which reclaimed sovereignty over Isla Conejo, a 0.5 km.-long island in the Gulf of Fonseca in the Pacific Ocean. The conflict gained public notoriety following a Twitter spat between Nayib Bukele, President of El Salvador and Juan Orlando Hernández, President of Honduras.
The Salvadoran decree was accompanied by Bukele’s announcement to increase the country’s armed forces from 20,000 to 40,000. Honduras sees the move as a threat to the 1992 ruling of the International Court of Justice which granted the country sovereignty over Isla Conejo. Since then, Tegucigalpa considers it a strategic land spot as the Gulf of Fonseca represents the country’s only access to the Pacific Ocean.
An executive director of Coexport in El Salvador was concerned, “Neither country would benefit from a conflict – the principal trading partner of El Salvador is Honduras! What they should be focusing on is improving the condition of the port in El Salvador to compete with Costa Rica. Today, Central America is really integrated and interdependent, any conflict will damage the whole region and closing the borders would be unthinkable!”
“Neither country would benefit from conflict – the principal trading partner of El Salvador is Honduras!”
Executive director, Coexport, El Salvador
Encouragingly, Honduras has opted for a diplomatic approach favouring dialogue. Hernández passed a decree which stated that the government in Tegucigalpa would promote peace and sustainable development in the Gulf of Fonseca while, at the same time, it reaffirmed the country’s sovereignty over its territory, including Isla Conejo.
Sovereignty rows over the islands in the Gulf of Fonseca are common in the months before major electoral events in Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua. Bukele’s populist stance vis a vis its neighbours and the upcoming 28 November presidential elections in Honduras have given this clash larger media attention than on previous occasions.
A Salvadoran General and former Deputy Minister of Defence commented, “A war with another country unifies the population, even if the cause is uncivilised. Honduras has elections coming and the society in El Salvador is fragmented so this dispute helps both Presidents.”
“A war with another country unifies the population, even if the cause is uncivilised. Honduras has elections coming and society in El Salvador is fragmented so this dispute helps both Presidents.”
General and former Deputy Minister of Defence, El Salvador
What if war was to break out? The General, with one foot in the trenches, was already running through scenarios, “In numerical terms, Honduras has more active soldiers than we do but we have a greater number of reserves. Honduras have always had a better air force than us. They have F-5s from the US and we only have Dragonfly A37s. Since their territory is much larger than ours, supersonic jets are justified, a supersonic plane is not appropriate for us because it would cross the entire country in a few minutes. As some theorists say, ‘Rifles are the best political force’, and that is why both Hernández and Bukele may be considering war.”
Meanwhile, the less trigger-happy political opposition in both Honduras and El Salvador have denounced the ruling parties in their respective territories arguing that they are trying to distract the local population from more pressing domestic issues. Thus, in the current situation of economic crisis aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic, any clashes between the countries would continue to deepen the economic problems of both.