Authorities in Honduras will suspend constitutional rights as part of an effort to combat an apparent rise in extortion, raising fears of human rights violations and warnings of creeping authoritarianism in Central America.
Under the plan, which will come into effect late on Tuesday and will be in effect for at least 30 days, thousands of security forces will be deployed to 162 gang-infested neighborhoods in the country s two largest cities, San Pedro Sula and the capital, Tegucigalpa.
The plan was announced on 1 December by President Xiomara Castro, which said that extortion is one of the main causes of insecurity, migration, displacement, loss of freedom, violent deaths and the closure of small and medium-sized businesses. This government of Democratic socialism declares war on extortion, with the comprehensive strategy against extortion and related crimes announced today by the national police. Castro's announcement drew comparisons with the hardline policies of neighboring El Salvador, where President Nayib Bukele partially suspended constitutional rights for the last eight months during a crackdown on gangs that have resulted in more than 55,000 arrests and a slew of alleged human rights violations.
Experts doubt that Castro's government will take measures to the same extreme as its Salvadoran counterpart. Tiziano Breda, a Central America security analyst for the International Crisis Group, said he was really struggling to see them go as far as Bukele. Human rights violations would threaten to alienate a key faction of the coalition that brought Castro and her center-left Libre party to power just a year ago. Although El Salvadoran is a smaller country in both territory and population, it has more military and police officers as well as prison capacity. Finally, Castro's party has not yet taken control of the judicial branch, whose compliance would be essential.
Human rights activists are concerned that the partial suspension of constitutional rights could lead to the kinds of abuses alleged to have taken place in El Salvador, including arbitrary detentions of innocent people, excessive use of force and torture.
Instead of generating positive expectations, it generates enormous worry, said Ismael Moreno, a leading human rights activist in Honduras, who noted the poor record of Honduran security forces and the lack of accountability that they have historically been subject to.
Moreno is worried about the number of people calling for such hardline policies in Honduras. The government is going to find widespread support, and that is very worrying because we can move towards regimes like the ones in El Salvador or others that are sustained by force, that are sustained by threats and are sustained by the irresponsible application of the law, he said.
The decision to suspend constitutional guarantees and deploy thousands of police and military forces in troubled neighborhoods has overshadowed other pragmatic measures at the heart of the Honduran government's plan to combat extortion, which experts believe are more likely to have a long-term impact.
A series of legal reforms and resource upgrades are intended to dismantle gang leadership structures and attack their money-laundering activities, as opposed to simply capturing foot soldiers who collect extortion payments and are easily replaced.
With some of the most crime-ridden cities left out of the decree, the possibility exists that more neighbourhoods could be added in the future, as well as that the duration could be extended beyond the original 30 days.