Honduras Opts For El Salvador-Style Gang Offensive
“No tenían pruebas, ninguna evidencia,” says the distraught father of an eighteen-year-old student arrested for illicit association in El Salvador earlier this year. He explains that the police gave no evidence for her detention and that by the end of December 2022, his daughter will have spent six months in prison. As President Nayib Bukele seeks to extend the state of exception (effectively suspending habeas corpus) that he introduced in March, the father says he fears for his daughter’s life and asserts that the security forces are “not interested in whether people are innocent or guilty.”
This month, Honduran President Xiomara Castro enforced a state of exception in Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula thought to be inspired by the mano dura (iron fist) gang policy of her Salvadoran counterpart. 20,000 police officers will be deployed to areas where major criminal gangs Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 are most prominent. The intention is to clamp down on what gang members call the impuesto de guerra (war tax) or, as it is more widely known, extortion. Extortion in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala (the Northern Triangle) is worth an estimated $1 billion – it refers specifically to protection racketeering (i.e. a gang forces a business or individual to pay for protection under threat of violence) and costs Hondurans roughly 18 billion lempiras (~£600 million) every year.
Castro’s state of exception is just one of a series of anti-extortion strategies and comes after protests by transport workers and local business owners demanding protection from the government – according to a research coordinator at Asociación para una Sociedad más Justa (ASJ), “There is certainly the perception of [surging extortion rates].” Other measures include a “follow-the-money” strategy to track extortion payments, restrictive regulations on selling SIM cards, and ensuring motorcycles’ license plates and helmets share matching numbers. How effective this will be remains to be seen.
The Northern Triangle is gripped by a crisis of extortion, according to a Global Financial Integrity report. Gangs in the region, principally MS-13 and Barrio 18 view extortion as a dependable source of income, especially when the leaders are imprisoned – today, prisons have become extortion headquarters. Between 2000 and 2014, the Guatemalan prison population tripled and now, as of 2020, 90% of extortion attempts (many conducted as telephone operations) are linked to prisons. More significantly, almost half of all extortion calls in the country were understood to have come from just one prison in 2019 where authorities and private security personnel who could have blocked calls and internet access, did not do so. Digital money transfers, through apps like TigoMoney, enable extortionists to demand faster payments which also look legitimate. Prison extortionists are often victims of extortion themselves (e.g. paying for safety or drinking water inside) in a repeating cycle of suffering. In the context of a migrant crisis overwhelming Central America, nearly 25% of Salvadorans who were considering migrating as of October 2022 were victims of extortion.
Corruption in government and law enforcement means only 1% of extortion cases get reported. Former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández (2014-2022) was extradited to the US on drug trafficking charges earlier this year. Fear of corrupt officers results in bank officials who are meant to report suspicious transactions to the Financial Intelligence Unit rarely doing so. Extortion has become very common, often differentiated from the ordinary “rent” payments already made to criminal groups. While MS-13 and Barrio 18 dominate the headlines, extortion has become a national epidemic, with smaller gangs and even police insiders exploiting the crisis – according to the ASJ researcher: “The other big group is so-called imitators. People who don’t necessarily belong to any gang use the notoriety and fear of gang membership to extort. Once you mention ‘I’m from Barrio 18’ or ‘I’m from MS-13,’ many people will automatically pay up.”
In El Salvador, extortion in the public transport sector has reduced by 70% since March 2022, according to two businessmen. On paper, Bukele’s mano dura crackdown has worked. With 60,000 arrests, homicide rates have continuously fallen. The policy is extremely popular with Salvadorans.
Following a military deployment to Comasagua in October, on 3 December, Bukele sent 10,000 troops and police officers into Soyapango, east of the capital. This was the fifth phase, called “Extraction”, in his “Territorial Control Plan”. Extraction intended to use advanced surveillance technology to help the military exert greater control of major cities in El Salvador. After two days, more than 140 alleged gang members had been arrested. Zero homicides were reported nationwide in the first five days of this month. Bukele has proclaimed these as great successes in his self-declared guerra contra las maras (war on gangs). On the night of the launch, he told troops: “Thanks to God and thanks to you, Salvadorans have true peace.”
Human rights activists and organised crime analysts have both highlighted the consequences of Bukele’s actions. Wrongful arrest is rampant as the state of exception means you can be held without charge for fifteen days. Frighteningly, anyone with any family affiliation to a gang member could be targeted typically to meet arrest quotas. The prison population continues to swell granting criminal groups free rein – unsupervised incarcerated gang members have effective control of most prisons. One analyst said the criminal groups “decide who sleeps where. They’re the ones who decide who gets beat up. They’re the ones who decide who can be killed or disappeared internally. All of that will significantly empower the gangs.” Previous mano dura regimes in El Salvador have seen gangs grow in power.
Backchannel dealings between Bukele’s government and gang members resulted in a pact to reduce crime rates, most observers agree. “You can’t have 86 homicides in two days and then drop to zero just by chance or good police work,” one analyst asserted, “I think that’s the clearest evidence there was a renegotiation – a rapid, very dynamic renegotiation.” Fear over how the mano dura will evolve and this pact may change worries many in the region.
Castro’s state of exception comes less than a year after she took office, beating Hernández in the 2021 election. Her husband, President Manuel Zelaya, was ousted in a coup in 2009. Amid some of the most restrictive female reproductive laws in the world, Castro campaigned on a promise to grant all women access to the morning-after pill and to legalise abortion (for victims of rape or in cases where the mother’s health is at risk). She promised to do so in her first 100 days in office. Nearly a year later, the morning-after pill has been made available for victims of rape only forcing many Honduran women to seek out unsafe abortions on the black market.
Statistics from 2019 show that, on average, thirteen people are murdered everyday in Honduras. Years of corruption and poverty have led many to call for a caudillo (strongman) figure, akin to Bukele, to step in and launch a vicious crackdown on the street gangs that torment so many Hondurans. While it is thought that Castro is trying to tap into that sentiment, the effectiveness of her new policies is yet to be seen and the potentially severe consequences for Hondurans, yet to be felt.