“Historic reduction in the homicide rate,” the Honduran government tweeted in a thread celebrating security achievements during President Xiomara Castro’s first year in office. The country’s official rate of 36 murders per 100,000 people in 2022 (down six points from 2021) still places Honduras among Latin America’s — and the world’s — most violent countries. But it represents clear progress since the early 2010s, when the impoverished Central American country seemed caught in a spiral of violence linked to street gangs and drug traffickers, with rates topping 85 murders per 100,000.

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A military police officer in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, Nov. 17, 2018. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)
A military police officer in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, Nov. 17, 2018. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)

Can these declines be sustained? And does this mean the Honduran government is finally prevailing over the gangs that dominate many impoverished urban neighborhoods?

The Honduran government credits its citizen security policies, including a state of exception that began in early December 2022. It cites statistics showing that murders fell dramatically that month compared to the same period in previous years as security forces deployed to high-crime neighborhoods in the cities of Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula. The aim of the emergency measures, Castro said, was to “eradicate extortion,” a racket that has enriched the notorious gangs that dominate many of the country’s poorest urban communities.

USIP’s Arturo Matute explains why the Honduran government decided to declare an emergency, what the government’s overall security strategy entails, and how the United States can support effective, humane and sustainable policies to protect the Honduran people from criminal violence.

What led to President Castro’s decision to declare a national security emergency?

Gang violence, often linked to the crime of extortion, has long plagued impoverished urban neighborhoods in Northern Central America. Victimization surveys suggest that more than 200,000 Honduran households were victims of extortionists in 2022, though 99 percent of these crimes went unreported. In Honduras, as in neighboring El Salvador and Guatemala, gang leaders often make extortion calls from prison, using members on the outside to collect the so-called “impuesto de guerra” (or “war tax”) from individuals, households and businesses. Young recruits can serve as bagmen or enforcers, threatening those who fail to pay and battling rivals who encroach on their criminal territory. A 2022 study estimated that the annual proceeds from extortion in Northern Central America exceed  $1.1 billion.  

Among those hardest hit are bus and taxi drivers who in November 2022 blocked streets in Tegucigalpa to demand security. According to transport union leaders, the number of gangs extracting payments has increased, forcing drivers in some neighborhoods to make multiple payments. Gangs have killed about 60 drivers over the past year, they said, and thousands more have stopped working in public transport.   

The Security Ministry responded by announcing its “Integral Plan for the Treatment of Extortion,” which proposed legal reforms, technological and institutional improvements, community programs, prison reforms and mechanisms for institutional coordination. Castro then announced that the government was declaring a national security emergency, which would suspend certain constitutional guarantees in communities affected by gangs, drug traffickers and other criminals.

Under this “partial state of exception,” which began December 6 after its approval by congress, the government can suspend rights in 162 sectors of Tegucigalpa, and San Pedro Sula, the country’s two largest cities. It extended the emergency for 45 days in early January, expanding its scope to municipalities in 16 departments, including some on the country’s northern Atlantic coast, an important trafficking hub for U.S.-bound cocaine, which arrives in Honduras from South America via boats and airplanes.

The Salvadoran government also declared a state of exception in March 2022 to combat powerful street gangs. Is Honduras taking a page from the same playbook?

Nayib Bukele, the president of El Salvador, declared an emergency in March 2022 after a surge in gang-linked killings. His aggressive anti-crime policies are widely popular: Bukele’s approval ratings in recent months have hovered around 85 percent. In January 2023, Salvadoran legislators renewed the state of exception for the tenth time.

So far, the Honduran government’s crackdown differs from El Salvador’s in both degree and tone. 

During the first month, Honduran police said they had arrested at least 650 suspected gang members. In contrast, Salvadoran security forces detained more than 16,000 suspects during the first month of the emergency. By the end of 2022, total arrests there exceeded 60,000.

Moreover, the Honduran government has largely avoided the demonizing rhetoric used by Salvadoran officials, who refer to gang members as “terrorists.” Instead, Honduran officials, such as Public Security Secretary Ramón Sabillón, have stressed the importance of addressing the root causes of crime. The “Integral Plan” released in November refers to extortion as a problem requiring “treatment” not simply enforcement.

Human rights groups argue that the state of exception is not only unnecessary but potentially counterproductive. The government should fight extortion by “strengthening police intelligence” and “implementing scientific criminal investigative methodologies,” said an analysis by Cristosal, a rights group associated with the Episcopal Church, not with “measures that infringe community rights.” Instead of building trust in marginalized communities, the measures threaten the rights of “thousands of people who have no links to organized crime.”

But Sabillón — a former police chief known for capturing high-level drug traffickers — acknowledged in an interview that tough anti-crime policies were popular: “People don’t like preventative measures. They want an iron fist.”

Why is it so difficult for Honduran authorities to fight gang crimes like extortion?

Castro faces the challenge of balancing short-term measures to demonstrate commitment to addressing violent crime with a long-term strategy that strengthens security and justice institutions while upholding human rights. Her government’s integral security plan includes essential reforms, but it will take time to show results. And it will take considerable resources, especially for a heavily indebted government in a country with one of the highest poverty rates in the hemisphere, second only to Haiti.

Extortion is a complex crime, involving a variety of actors who have grown increasingly sophisticated, according to a recent study by the Association for a More Just Society (or ASJ for its Spanish initials), a Christian non-profit. Street gangs, or maras, remain the most visible perpetrators, though imitators have also joined the lucrative racket, including corrupt police officers. To avoid detection, extortionists have diversified their methods: using digital rather than cash payments, demanding their victims buy clandestine lottery tickets or forcing them to sell illegal drugs.

Police investigative techniques have not kept pace with these criminal innovations. Nearly all of the judicial cases examined by ASJ involved bagmen caught collecting marked bills. Those responsible for directing the racket — and reaping most of the illicit gains — are rarely prosecuted, the researchers found. Nor has the government prevented gang leaders from directing their criminal enterprises from prison, where they reportedly operate extortion call centers.

The Honduran National Police have undergone multiple reforms, including restructuring in the mid-2010s that ousted several thousand officers, many for alleged corruption, though few faced judicial charges. Castro’s predecessor, President Juan Orlando Hernández, (now on trial in the United States for drug trafficking), invested in the armed forces, putting military police in charge of its anti-gang forces and using military guards in the country’s penitentiaries.

Castro has removed military officers from anti-gang operations and the prisons. According to some critics, Castro has moved too fast, dismantling the anti-gang task force before its replacement was ready to take over their investigations, for example. Others suggest she’s moving too slow, reneging on campaign promises to demilitarize the country's institutions. Her government faces the difficult task of disengaging the military from its crime-fighting tasks without creating a security vacuum.

How should the United States and other donors help Honduras address criminal violence without endangering human rights?

Weak institutions and widespread corruption lead to impunity, empowering the powerful criminal organizations — from drug traffickers to street gangs — that have turned Honduras into Central America’s most violent country. It has also been the least politically stable. The 2009 coup and the disputed 2017 elections left a legacy of polarization and mistrust, evident today in the partisan controversies over the selection of supreme court justices.

But there are bright spots. Castro won the presidency in 2021 elections generally regarded as free and fair. The transfer of power was peaceful. And Castro has moved to fulfil campaign promises to fight corruption, signing a preliminary agreement with the United Nations to establish an international anti-corruption commission. Her government faces the challenge of transforming Honduras from an alleged “narco state” to one where officials are held accountable for corruption and abuse.

The Biden administration has made better governance a central pillar of its “Strategy to Address the Root Causes of Migration in Central America.” It can build upon lessons learned in recent decades from donor-funded programs designed to support at-risk youth and promote civil society engagement. It can also reinforce efforts to professionalize police in the investigative methodologies needed to dismantle complex criminal networks and help them develop effective deterrent strategies oriented to the needs of communities.  

Stronger law enforcement need not sacrifice human rights. Research suggests that “hot spot” policing can decrease levels of lethal violence, especially when combined with targeted socio-economic programs. “Problem-oriented” policing that actively involves local communities in identifying threats and resolving conflicts can reduce violence and increase trust.

The United States should also support greater regional cooperation. Officials, practitioners and business and religious leaders should share lessons learned about how to prevent at-risk youth from joining gangs, how to rehabilitate those in prison and how to rebuild communities, taking into account the rights of victims.

The Honduran government’s integral security strategy shows that it is open to reform. The United States can help the government move beyond short-term, reactive policies — such as the state of exception — toward sustainable, long-term efforts that strengthen institutions and protect the country’s most vulnerable citizens.

Arturo Matute is a senior citizen security expert for the U.S. Institute of Peace

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