Honduras' Minister of Education has claimed that local street gangs are directing ongoing students protests -- a dangerous statement, given the nation's current security situation.
"We have information that certain gang leaders are giving instructions to some young people, to keep up the protests, with the goal of maintaining gang territory," Minister of Education Marlon Escoto was quoted as saying by La Tribuna.
High school students in Honduran capital Tegucigalpa have been protesting since early March over proposals to extend school hours. Protestors say extended hours are unsafe as they force students to return home from school late at night.
Escoto has previously said as many as 30,000 gang members are enrolled in Honduras' public schools. As reported extensively by the Associated Press last year, gang control in Honduran schools is a serious problem, with gang members extorting teachers and recruiting students.
The report by La Tribuna also quoted a former school director and a public security spokesperson, who both agreed that gangs had infiltrated Honduran schools and that non-students were participating in some of the recent protests.
In contrast, an unnamed student at a Tegucigalpa high school told La Tribuna that local gang members had instructed students not to protest in the area, in order to avoid an influx of police.
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While it is undeniable that many younger Honduran gang members use schools for extortion and recruitment purposes, Escoto's claim that gangs are directing student protests is highly questionable. Unlike El Salvador's 2012 gang truce, Honduran gangs have shown little interest in gaining political power. Gangs are arguably more likely to see the protests -- and the resulting attention from security forces -- as a challenge, not an opportunity to gain leverage. The fact that no Honduran gang has released a statement related to the protests speaks to this as well.
A more probable scenario is that gangs provide Escoto with a convenient scapegoat. Instead of engaging in dialogue with students, Escoto has attempted to delegitimize their concerns over traveling after dark in one of the world's most violent countries. Escoto also reportedly approved the firing of school faculty accused of working with protestors.
Escoto's comments are particularly irresponsible in the context of Honduras' security situation. At least four students were killed after reportedly participating in the protests, although the Honduran government has not yet investigated the matter. Depicting student protestors as gang members may incite further violence in an already precarious situation.
Watch La Tribuna's video report on allegations that gangs are involved in student protests below.