The Honduran government is intensifying its anti-gang crackdown following recent outbursts of criminal violence, but its one-size-fits-all response fails to acknowledge the variety of organized crime dynamics at play.
President Xiomara Castro announced new security measures on June 22 and June 25, bolstering a state of exception in place since December 2022 that aims to curb gang violence and extortion.
The government put the military police in charge of the prisons and implemented curfews in Choloma and San Pedro Sula, the two largest cities after the capital Tegucigalpa.
Rafael Sarmiento, head of Castro’s party in Congress, also vowed to legally designate all gang members as terrorists.
The new measures followed two incidents of mass violence that police blamed on gangs.
Most recently, armed men dressed as police murdered 13 people, including four union workers from a soon-to-be-shuttered factory, on June 24 at a pool hall in Choloma.
The Choloma massacre came days after 48 died in a riot on June 20 at the country’s only all-women prison. Alleged Barrio 18 gang members set fire to a wing housing prisoners from the rival MS13 gang, and fired guns at other women, not all of whom were gang members.
InSight Crime Analysis
The government’s single-minded focus on gangs targets only one source of violence caused by organized crime in Honduras.
For example, the days between the prison riot and the pool hall massacre saw the apparently targeted murder of a possible witness in a high-profile drug trafficking investigation. Men dressed as police officers on June 22 shot dead Ericka Julissa Bandy García, the wife of a murdered drug trafficker alleged to have worked with former President Juan Orlando Hernández, who is currently facing drug trafficking charges in the United States.
By solely blaming gangs for Honduras’ violence, the government ignores the role of other actors, like drug trafficking organizations and corruption networks.
Honduras' government has seemed to draw inspiration from neighboring El Salvador, where an indiscriminate anti-gang crackdown has generated human rights complaints but also widespread acknowledgment that it has majorly disrupted gang activities and curtailed violence.
But the application of an El Salvador-style security strategy in Honduras has thus far failed to significantly curtail crime because of the countries’ differing criminal dynamics, Jennifer Ávila, director of Honduran news site Contracorriente, told InSight Crime.
In Honduras, "drug cartels play a fundamental role in territorial control, in the control of other crimes and in the politics of the country itself,” she said. “It is totally simplistic to copy [Salvadoran President Nayib] Bukele's propaganda of the 'iron fist' or 'war' against the gangs when in Honduras the criminal structures are more complex and diverse."
Despite El Salvador’s success in reducing crime, critics have argued the crackdown’s economic cost makes it unsustainable, and the failure to match it with programs targeting the root causes of crime, such as poverty, could lead to a rebirth of criminal structures. Honduras’ government’s mimicking of this model means adopting the same flaws. So even if ramping up security measures produces immediate results, the long-term effects may prove limited.