Honduran President Xiomara Castro declared a state of exception as extortion cases reached uncontrollable levels, raising fears she may be inspired by controversial but widely popular measures in neighboring El Salvador.
The measures will suspend some constitutional rights in urban areas with a significant presence of criminal groups, deploy 20,000 national police officers, and institute security checks on roads, among other steps to clamp down on gangs, reported Reuters.
Most of the authorities will be placed in neighborhoods across Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, where the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18 have a strong presence and carry out high levels of extortion, according to El Heraldo.
The state of exception is part of a larger anti-extortion strategy announced in a press conference on November 24. Other measures included creating stricter regulations for businesses selling SIM cards for cellphones, tracking phone numbers used by extortionists, and requiring motorcycles to have a license plate and helmet with matching numbers.
During the press conference, the government also announced plans to implement a "follow the money" strategy, not to prosecute low-level collectors but to trace extortion payments and how they are laundered into the formal economy, investigating involved businesses.
Nonetheless, the plan to employ these harsh measures comes after days of protests and marches in which taxi, bus, and truck drivers, transportation sector businessmen, and local business owners demanded protection, according to CNN Español.
Only about 1% of extortion cases are ever reported, making estimates about changes in extortion rates challenging to verify, according to Andreas Daugaard, a research coordinator at Asociación para una Sociedad más Justa (Association for a More Just Society - ASJ), the Honduran chapter of Transparency International.
"There is certainly the perception of [surging extortion rates], and that is the message the transport sector is sending. However, since so few cases are ever reported, we don't have any numbers to estimate the size of a current surge in extortion," Daugaard, who co-authored a recent report detailing extortion in Honduras, told InSight Crime. Survey data cited in the report suggests extortion rates stand at the same level as they did in 2018.
Hondurans lose approximately 18 billion lempiras (roughly $737 million) a year to extortion fees, according to the ASJ report.
The forceful crackdown on gang activity in Honduras follows El Salvador President Nayib Bukele's highly controversial but broadly popular "mano dura" (iron fist) anti-gang policy.
InSight Crime Analysis
While brazen extortion schemes devastating Honduran businesses and workers have caused Castro to implement the state of exception, the popularity of Bukele's campaign to seize power from gangs could be another motivating factor.
The term impuesto de guerra (war tax) is how criminal groups in Honduras refer to their extortion schemes, particularly the MS13 and Barrio 18. Groups forcibly demand someone or a business to pay for "protection" while threatening them with violence.
Yet, while the traditional narrative is that the MS13 and Barrio 18 are responsible for virtually all the extortion happening in Honduras over the last ten years, this is not the current reality, according to Daugaard.
"There are a lot of groups involved in this. Local, smaller local gangs, insiders within the police, within the judiciary," said Daugaard. "The other big group is so-called imitators. People who don't necessarily belong to any gang use the notoriety and fear of gang membership to extort. Once you mention 'I'm from Barrio 18' or 'I'm from MS13,' many people will automatically pay up."
Extortion schemes have also become easier to carry out as digital money transfers become more commonplace in Honduras. Using apps like TigoMoney, extortionists can demand faster payments that appear in the banking system as legitimate transactions. No electronic payment extortion cases end up in court, only extortion involving cash, which is becoming far less frequent, according to Daugaard.
Additionally, an ASJ report found that criminal groups have adapted their extortion schemes to offload risk. For example, instead of sending collectors around to demand payments, extortionists force bus drivers to gather payments from their colleagues and transfer the money directly.
While some of the newly announced anti-extortion measures will do well to fight the changing extortion schemes in Honduras, it is unclear whether the militarized state of exception will be successful. Imprisoning thousands of gang members tends to entrench gang culture and embolden or strengthen groups instead of eradicating them.
Still, the Honduran president has watched as Bukele has pummeled gangs into submission with his mano dura policy, reducing homicide rates and remaining one of the region's most popular leaders. The fear that Honduras may follow suit is a credible one.
"Extortion has an enormous impact in Honduras, financially and socially, but the perception is the state is not doing anything, and often rightly so," said Daugaard. "The idea of a 'strong man' coming in saying we're going to deal with it, and putting tens of thousands of supposed gang members in prison is super popular in El Salvador, and it's super popular in Honduras. I think it's clear that that's what Castro is tapping into."