With Honduras set to build its first ever maximum security prison, the government is wrestling with some serious questions: will the prison itself become a hotbed for crime? And if Honduras is ready to make improvements to its prison system, will a proposed security tax raise enough money to pay for it? 

Up to 200 convicts will be held in the new prison, which the government says will be a marked improvement from the country’s overcrowded and violent penitentiaries. All of the police officers working there will be trained in the United States. Inmates will not be allowed to use cell phones, conjugal visits will be prohibited, uniforms will be required and inmates will be allowed outside on a patio once a day.

Honduras’ prisons have been filled to breaking point over the last decade, as the country has concentrated its scarce resources in an aggressive law enforcement approach. The campaign, popularly known as “Mano Dura” or “Iron Fist,” has saturated prisons with gang members, often locked up simply for associating with the gangs.

Gang members often continue their activities from within prison. Honduras authorities recently said that almost half of all extortions carried out in the capital city Tegucigalpa originate in that city’s Marco Aurelio Soto jail. Sometimes, prisoners escape altogether. In June 2009, some 18 members of the gang Barrio 18, or M-18, escaped from prison in the city San Pedro Sula via a tunnel. Various similar plots were stopped by prison authorities in recent years, one in which prisoners had managed to dig a tunnel 100 meters long before being discovered.

Violence is rife in Honduras’ prisoners, which are populated by members of gangs who often have a history of bitter rivalry, such as the Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13) and Barrio-18. Eighteeen gang members died in a prison fight in 2008.

Officials say that with the new prison “we’re going to live in a safer country.” But many are asking how well the new prisons will function when the courts are having a hard time sentencing dangerous criminals and the police cannot investigate or resolve the majority of the crimes committed in the country.

Inmates often have to be released without a conviction, as the overburdened police and court system are unable to bring them to trial.

At least two more prisons like this one are planned, and their construction will largely be funded by a security tax that the Honduras government wants to levy on wealthy individuals and large businesses. The tax would go to the Ministry of Security, to help fight soaring rates of crime in the country. Authorities hope to raise some 1.5 billion lempiras a year ($79 million).

Security Minister Oscar Alvarez has argued that the private sector should back the idea because they would benefit from a more secure business environment. He pointed out that private companies already pay millions on private security, and said that the government wants to “have more public security and less private security.”

But the private sector’s response has been mixed. Some business leaders say that private industry, not the government, should administer the funds. They complain about the lack of transparency in collecting and spending the tax, and say that in Colombia, where a similar tax was followed by a large reduction in violence rates, business had a role in managing the funds.

The same questions are facing Honduras’ neighbors in the region, particularly the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador and Guatemala. According to the World Bank, crime is costing Central American economies eight percent of GDP. As InSight has noted, the region is facing a serious challenge from organized crime, without having the funds to seriously combat it. Tax collection data from the World Bank shows that the region’s tax revenue relative to GDP is very low, averaging around 12 percent of GDP in the Northern Triangle.

El Salvador has already proposed a new security tax, modeled on a similar tax Colombia used to raise over $800 million. And as Honduras’ prisons continue to fill up, the question of who will pay for the fight against crime will only become more acute.

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