The historic dispute in Central America for sovereignty in the Gulf of Fonseca (and why it is rekindled now)

View of Isla Conejo

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It is an old territorial dispute that is rekindled from time to time.

The Gulf of Fonseca, in the Pacific Ocean, has historically been a source of tension where Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua they make territorial claims.

Now, the Honduran council of ministers published a decree to “reaffirm national sovereignty in the maritime areas that correspond to Honduras in those waters.”

In the decree, the government of Honduras announces a development plan for the region.

But what exactly does this mean and why are there territorial disputes in this region?

Triple frontier

The 3,200 square kilometer Gulf of Fonseca has been the scene of territorial conflicts since the independence of Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua.

Unlike Nicaragua, which has 352 kilometers of coastline on the Pacific, and El Salvador, with 307 km, for Honduras the gulf is their only outlet to that ocean.

Gulf of Fonseca

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The main problem is the lack of delimitation of the waters, a matter that has reached the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague to settle a dispute between El Salvador and Honduras.

In a resolution in 1992, the ICJ determined that both states had exclusive sovereignty over a strip of 3 nautical miles from its coast, but awarded the administration of the rest of the waters of the gulf to the three countries that share it.

Isla Conejo, at the center of the dispute

Although it is barely a rock of less than 1 square km, Isla Conejo is the subject of a long dispute over its sovereignty between El Salvador and Honduras.

In the 1980s, when El Salvador was in the midst of a civil war, the Salvadoran military contingent that guarded the island returned to the mainland, and Honduran army troops took the opportunity to occupy the islet for the first time.

Then a diplomatic controversy between both countries. El Salvador argues that Honduras occupied the island illegally, and that the rock is his because of its greater proximity to the Honduran coast (about 600 meters).

The dispute almost always resurfaces in electoral campaigns. Honduras holds general elections on November 28.

Honduran soldier on Isla Conejo.

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Honduran soldier on Isla Conejo.

But why is there a dispute over an island of half a square kilometer?

The geographic location of its neighbors forms a kind of clamp at the entrance of the bay, which further closes free access since both have a sovereignty of 12 nautical miles according to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

If the Nicaraguan and Salvadoran authorities agreed to limit navigation in their territorial sea, they could isolate Hondurans.

Under these conditions, the islands in the Fonseca Gulf have a fundamental value, even an islet like Conejo.

For Honduras, the conflict was overcome with the ruling of the Court of The Hague in 1992 that recognizes the sovereignty of 3 nautical miles (5.5 km) from the coast of each nation.

While El Salvador argues that Isla Conejo was never part of the resolution, as it does not specifically mention it.

The resolution establishes sovereignty over other islands: El Tigre, which belongs to Honduras, and Meanguera and Meanguerita, to El Salvador.

In 2003, the ICJ rejected a request from El Salvador to review that resolution.

Honduran Marines raise the Honduran flag on Isla Conejo on September 1 to commemorate the Bicentennial of Independence.

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Honduran Marines raise the Honduran flag on Isla Conejo on September 1 to commemorate the Bicentennial of Independence.

What does the new decree of Honduras say

“Given the existence of dissonant voices that arise beyond our borders, we are sending to the National Congress a decree to reaffirm our sovereignty and the extension of our territory attached to the ruling” of the International Court of Justice, of 1992, he said in a Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández announced this week.

“Isla Conejo is Honduran territory, period. There is no discussion there”added the president.

The decree approved Wednesday by the Honduran council of ministers aims to “promote peace and sustainable development in the Gulf of Fonseca.”

“We provide a first-world logistics corridor at the service of Central America and promote development and the generation of thousands of jobs for the benefit of our nations,” Hernández tweeted.

The initiative includes the construction of the bridge to unite Amapala, on the island of Tigre, with the mainland, as well as “establishing the Institute for the Development of the Honduran Archipelago in the Gulf of Fonseca.”

Furthermore, referring to the ICJ judgments of 1992 and 2003, the decree “reaffirms” sovereignty over 25 islands and islets in the gulf, among which is Isla Conejo.

“The Honduran archipelago in the Gulf of Fonseca is made up of the following islands: Ramaditas, Conejo, Garrobo, Bean, Grande, Chocolatillo, Chocolate, Santa Elena, Tigrito, Zacate Grande, Güegüensi, Del Toro, Exposición, El Coyote, Violín, Inglesera, Sirena, el Tigre, el Pacar, Comandante, de la Vaca, de las Clams, de Pájaros, la Boca, los Thugs, “says the text.

The president insisted on the “pacifist vocation” of the decree, but added: “we have every right to defend our sovereignty and the security of the people. We are not going to give in or doubt what is our sacred duty to defend the homeland.”


El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele responded to Hernández’s Twitter thread with a “meme.”

However, Salvadoran opposition deputies indicated that any dispute that arises between El Salvador and Honduras over the decree would be a “smokescreen” to distract from the internal problems of each country.

René Portillo Cuadra, a legislator for the opposition Nationalist Republican Alliance (Arena), said it was “an excellent electoral issue for Honduras and a good smokescreen for the Government of El Salvador to hide the real problems,” according to the Efe news agency.

The deputy of the Vamos party Claudia Ortiz also indicated that rekindling the dispute over the island would be “a distraction from the important problems.”

Later Wednesday, Hernández tweeted again that the Gulf of Fonseca “will no longer be the object of conflict.”

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