What would convince a talented, promising young man to forsake a life of ease in the United States and Europe and return to his home country — a country that’s currently considered the murder capital of the world?
For Guillermo Peña Panting, the answer is simple: freedom.
Gullermo’s home country of Honduras is enduring a season of drug-induced crime. With a murder ratio hovering around 86 homicides per 100,000 in population, Honduras typically tops charts of the most dangerous countries in the world.
And Guillermo’s hometown, San Pedro Sula, is widely regarded as one of the most perilous locales outside of a war zone.
Gang warfare and the drug trade have destabilized the country, particularly following a coup in 2009 that deposed the Honduran president. The country is a major drug transit from South America to the U.S.
But while thousands were fleeing the country, Guillermo saw nothing but opportunity. He decided to move back, bringing his passion for free markets, the rule of law, and individual responsibility with him.
“There is so much more I can do in Honduras than I could ever do elsewhere,” he said.
Guillermo’s mission is simple: bring free-market reforms to his native country. Right now, corrupt government officials, weak institutions, and mercantilists dominate Honduras, Guillermo says.
“Nobody trusts politicians, nobody trusts the system,” he said. “We need to renew a sense of trust in Honduras; we need to show people there is a way to work up the economic ladder in a legal and moral way.”
A tradition of freedom
Guillermo’s love for free enterprise goes back several generations in Honduras. His great-great grandfather was a British immistories who came to Honduras to help build the railroads for the banana companies.
One of his great grandfathers had to leave his university studies to take care of his mother and sisters. Eventually, he became mayor of San Pedro Sula.
“I have a mentality for private-sector wealth creation and respect for the individual,” Guillermo said. “My grandfather taught me those principles. He was an extremely positive person.”
By age 10, Guillermo already was helping with the family business, pumping gas and selling car air fresheners at one of their gas stations.
“I learned the value of money early in life, and how powerful it was to break away from depending on others,” he said.
Later in life, Guillermo traveled to the United States to study political science at N.C. State University. He was an early member of the Society for Politics, Economics, and the Law at NCSU, a program largely made possible by financial support from the John William Pope Foundation.
It was at SPEL that Guillermo first came in contact with people he had only read about — most importantly Vernon Smith, winner of the Nobel Prize for economics in 2002.
He also interned in the research department at the John Locke Foundation, North Carolina’s premier free-market think tank.
It was through SPEL and JLF — but most importantly, through the influence of Roy Cordato, JLF’s Vice President of Research — that Guillermo says he became “officially hooked into free-market ideas.”
After a brief stint working in Spain for the International Policy Network, Guillermo eventually decided to return to his home country after the Honduran president was deposed in 2009.
“There are very few instances when a country reaches rock bottom and doesn’t have a civil war. Honduras was one case. It seemed like a really perfect time to come back and work for positive reforms. The window was open for fresh ideas,” he said.
‘A few good people’
Guillermo moved back to San Pedro Sula in 2012. In addition to working in the fields of biomedicine, health services, and real estate, he was instrumental in the creation of a think tank called Fundación Eléutera.
Through the think tank, Guillermo advocates for school choice and the importance of entrepreneurship. He also works to improve his country’s currently broken social fabric, caused by insecurity and lack of trust.
“The conditions are set for positive change. That’s why we came back,” he said.
Asked why he is choosing to serve Honduras rather than pursue a career elsewhere, Guillermo immediately brings the topic back to family.
“I hope to use my career to ensure that my daughter lives in a prosperous and free world,” he said. “Being ridiculously positive helps you not fall into the trap of hopelessness here. Many are leaving for the United States, Spain, or Canada out of fear and desperation. But if a few good people stay, I really think we can turn things around.”