The state of exception in Honduras has now been in place for six months. But contrary to government claims and National Police figures, the policy has done little to reduce criminal activity in the country.
President Xiomara Castro first implemented the state of exception in December 2022 and has since extended it twice. It will last until at least July 5. The policy aims to decrease crimes like extortion, dismantle criminal groups, reduce gang violence, and lessen insecurity facing many Hondurans.
The homicide rate for every 100,000 inhabitants decreased from 41.2 in 2021 to 35.8 in 2022, with the majority of killings committed by criminal groups like MS13 and Barrio 18. But Honduras still has the highest homicide rate in Central America and the second highest in all of Latin America.
According to the National Police, the state of exception “has enabled the capture of more than a hundred members of criminal groups connected to gangs.” They also said that the decrease in the homicide rate per 100,000 inhabitants last year was the greatest in nearly two decades, with “a homicide index of 24% less than in 2022.”
In Choloma, a municipality of San Pedro Sula, which has a strong organized crime presence, people feel safer thanks to the state of exception, said Lourdes Reyes, a member of a local neighborhood community board. “It has decreased delinquency and violence," Reyes added.
However, civil organizations have questioned data provided by the police. A report on human rights and the state of exception by the National Commission on Human Rights (Comisionado Nacional de los Derechos Humanos - CONADEH) from earlier this year pointed out a lack of information, complaints of unnecessary use of force, and figures that do not coincide with those provided by the police.
The incongruities between data from the police and the report have created doubt around how effective the state of exception has actually been in the fight against organized crime, and suggest that the government lacks clear, tactical, and comprehensive strategies for reducing violence and insecurity. The policy has been particularly inadequate in two areas: mitigating violence among gang members in prisons and reducing extortion.
But the government has persisted in the hope that the state of exception will bring about peace. In an interview with InSight Crime, journalist and security analyst Douglas Farah said that the state of exception “could bring about a temporary peace, but it will destroy the social fabric of civil society and generates authoritarianism that has long-term consequences.”
Following El Salvador’s Model
Castro’s approach has been compared to that of President Nayib Bukele, who has managed to reduce the high crime and homicide rates in El Salvador through an extended state of exception that began in March 2022. Bukele has faced allegations of using authoritarian tactics, but he has boasted of their effectiveness, claiming on February 14 that El Salvador “has had 300 days without homicides.”
Bukele also built the Terrorism Confinement Center (Centro de Confinamiento del Terrorismo – CECOT), a mega-prison that can hold 40,000 inmates. Under the state of exception, more than 60,000 alleged gang members have been arrested, making El Salvador the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world.
Bukele’s “mano dura” (iron fist) strategy has successfully dismantled the country’s gangs and decreased levels of violence. His approach has also received recognition for its effectiveness, but some of that recognition is a result of his efforts to control the perception of his policies and generate attention about them.
Castro seems to believe that by “imitating Bukele, she can recover [her] popularity,” Farah said. Like Bukele, Castro used the military for surveillance and raids.
But Bukele has also been widely criticized for the unnecessary use of force and other violations of human rights by the military. His government has lost international credibility by committing human rights abuses and distorting the justice system, said Farah.
Andrés Daugaard, research coordinator for the Association for a More Just Society (Asociación para una Sociedad más Justa - ASJ), said that Bukele's success stemmed from the lack of political opposition he faced. “Bukele controls the judicial, executive, legislative branch to a much greater degree than [Castro] in Honduras."
There is a clear difference in the ability of each country to enforce their states of exception, Daugaard told InSight Crime: “Basically, El Salvador's police and army are double [that of Honduras], and they have a bigger budget. In Honduras, Xiomara has prioritized the [policy's] implementation less.”
According to a recent ASJ report, other difficulties for Honduras include the deactivation of police surveillance cameras, a shrinking police force, and a strike by workers in the Attorney General’s Office.
Extortion and Other Crimes Continue
The state of exception in Honduras has done little to detain the gangs that extort the transport sector. In some parts of the country, like San Pedro Sula, two new extortion gangs have appeared in recent months.
“The groups that carry out these criminal practices are no longer just the main groups, MS13 and Barrio 18,” Nelson Fernández Toro, president of the Transportation Association of Honduras (Asociación de Transporte de Honduras), told InSight Crime. “Now more gangs have joined, like the M1 and the Illuminati.”
Even with the state of exception, truck drivers across the nation continue to live in fear because “they make complaints about the extortion that they face but there is no adequate response from the authorities,” Toro said.
Daugaard spoke with a bus owner in Tegucigalpa who was being blackmailed. One of his buses was burned last month as punishment for not paying his extorters.
Fernández also pointed out that there are no police patrols or military contingents monitoring the areas and neighborhoods of San Pedro Sula included in the state of exception.
So far this year, around 50 people have been killed in at least 12 massacres during the state of exception. A police deputy inspector was killed by members of Barrio 18, while local media reported the murders of 27 transportation sector workers in 2023.
Violence in Prisons
Throughout the state of exception, gangs have rioted in an attempt to gain control of all or parts of prisons. In April, riots occurred -- almost simultaneously -- in four prisons, demonstrating the efficient communication channels that exist between gangs, the high levels of coordination in different penal centers, and the power these criminal structures maintain. In April, gangs managed to overrun prison authorities and take control of the National Penitentiary in Támara.
In response, the government has implemented a 10-point intervention plan to reduce violence in prisons. The plan, which has been criticized for its similarity to Bukele’s methods in El Salvador, outlines actions like removing all weapons from prisons, blocking cell phone signals, and evaluating all prison staff to remove corrupt officials.
The Honduran government has also considered grouping members of the same gang together in prisons. Past investigations by InSight Crime have shown that while this tactic decreases violence, it also strengthens gangs internally by facilitating communication and organization between leaders and members.
Ultimately, Honduras has not made sustainable progress in its fight against organized crime groups. In prisons, violence between gangs continues. In the streets, new groups have emerged, and extortion of the transport industry has expanded to the point that truck drivers say that the state of exception “has not had any positive results.”
Dauugard suggests other strategies like “providing opportunities and alternatives to youth, like access to education and healthcare,” would do more to reduce criminality in the country.
It is also necessary, he said, to change the police’s investigative approach for better results. Currently, the police pursue and imprison “the people who move extortion money in cash, thus only catching the lower ranking members and never reaching the leaders." Instead, Dauugard recommended “using the follow-the-money approach, as there are large amounts of money being moved by criminal groups.”