Authorities in Honduras will partially suspend constitutional rights as part of an effort to combat an apparent rise in extortion, raising fears of human rights violations and warnings of creeping authoritarianism in Central America.
Under the plan, which will come into effect late on Tuesday and will be in effect for at least 30 days, thousands of security forces will be deployed to 162 gang-infested neighborhoods in the country’s two largest cities, San Pedro Sula and the capital, Tegucigalpa.
“[Extortion] is one of the main causes of insecurity, migration, displacement, loss of freedom, violent deaths and the closure of small and medium-sized businesses,” said Xiomara Castro, the president, while announcing the plan on 1 December. “With the comprehensive strategy against extortion and related crimes announced today by the national police, this government of democratic socialism declares war on extortion.”
Castro’s announcement immediately drew comparisons with the hardline policies of neighbouring El Salvador, where President Nayib Bukele has partially suspended constitutional rights for the last eight months during an unprecedented crackdown on gangs that has resulted in more than 55,000 arrests and a slew of alleged human rights violations.
Experts doubt that Castro’s government will take measures to the same extreme as its Salvadoran counterpart. “I really struggle to see them going as far as Bukele,” said Tiziano Breda, a Central America security analyst for the International Crisis Group, who listed three main reasons for his conclusion. First, widespread human rights violations would threaten to alienate a key faction of the coalition that brought Castro and her center-left Libre party to power just one year ago. Second, although El Salvador is a smaller country in both territory and population, it has more military and police officers as well as prison capacity. Finally, Castro’s party has not yet taken control of the judicial branch, whose compliance would be essential.
Human rights activists are nonetheless concerned that the partial suspension of constitutional rights could result in the kinds of abuses alleged to have taken place in El Salvador, including arbitrary detentions of innocent people, excessive use of force and torture.
“Instead of generating positive expectations, it generates enormous worry,” said Ismael Moreno, a leading human rights activist in Honduras, who noted the grim record of Honduran security forces and the lack of accountability that they have historically been subjected to.
Equally worrisome for Moreno is the number of people calling for such hardline policies in Honduras. “The government is going to find popular support, without a doubt, and that is very worrying because we can move towards regimes like the one in El Salvador or others that are sustained by force, that are sustained by threats and are sustained by the irresponsible application of the law,” he said.
The decision to suspend constitutional guarantees and deploy thousands of police and military forces in troubled neighborhoods has overshadowed other, more pragmatic measures at the heart of the Honduran government’s plan to combat extortion, which experts such as Breda believe are more likely to have a long-term impact.
This includes a series of legal reforms and resource upgrades aimed at dismantling gang leadership structures and attacking their money-laundering activities as opposed to simply capturing the foot soldiers who collect extortion payments and are easily replaced.
With some of Honduras’s most crime-ridden cities left out of the decree, the possibility exists that more neighbourhoods could be added in the future, as well as that the duration could be extended beyond the original 30 days.