The Honduran Congress passed legislation doubling the prison sentence for extortion, among other measures, raising questions about the government's anti-gang tactics and the strain being put on the country's penitentiaries.
The new law, which will see the sentence for extortion increased from a maximum of nine years to 20 years, was passed by a unanimous vote, thus avoiding the two further debating sessions usually required in Congress. The sentence for homicide was also increased from 20 years to a maximum of life imprisonment and can now entail a fine of $16,000.
The deputy of the ruling National Party, Ricardo Diaz, told media, "The famous war tax charged by gang members will be part of the past because with this law we are responding to the cry of the people."
Mario Perez, another member of the National Party, also argued in favor of the new law, pointing to figures that suggest up to 6,000 businesses in Honduras have been declared bankrupt in recent years due to extortion, with some 200 people killed for refusing to pay.
During the same congressional session, instigated by President Porfirio Lobo who sent the bill to Congress six months ago, the sentence for blackmail was increased from a maximum of nine years to 12.
The new penalty for extortion is high in comparison with other countries in the region. In Guatemala, individuals charged with extortion face between six and 12 years in prison, according to EFE.
InSight Crime Analysis
Extortion is apparently on the rise in Honduras, with the National Criminal Investigation Directorate (DNIC) reporting 63 cases in 2012 so far, up from 42 for the same period last year. In one recent report, it was declared that over 500 schools in the capital Tegucigalpa are forced to pay extortion to local "maras," or street gangs. Authorities claim that criminals usually charge taxi and bus drivers around $80 per month, with the fee for small to medium businesses rising to $600 a month in some cases.
While the rise in extortion rates suggest a need to crack down on the crime, increased prison sentences may not be the right approach. Honduras' prison system is already under great strain, running at 60 percent over capacity, according to reports. The dangers of such overcrowding were brought to the fore with the devastating prison fire that killed 358 inmates in Comayagua. Creating an extra burden on the state, without addressing the need to finance improvements to the country's penal system, could be risky.
Furthermore, imposing harsh sentences for extortion across the board has its dangers, as some operations may be relatively low level and run by small-time criminals. Placing them long term in prison system opens up avenues for them to foster ties with higher-level criminals -- for example from the MS-13 or Barrio 18 -- and strengthen larger criminal networks.