A couple grieves at the crime scene, where a taxi driver was shot dead by alleged gang members for refusing to pay them a "war tax", in Tegucigalpa on August 08, 2018

A year on, Honduras’ ‘Bukele-like’ approach to security is putting everybody in danger

By Adeline Neau, researcher for Central America at Amnesty International

When Honduras president Xiomara Castro was elected on 28 November 2021 on an anti-corruption platform, promising to tackle the country’s disastrous human rights record and sky-high homicide and extortion rates, hopes were running high. She committed to working with affected communities, listening to their needs and taking action. But the sense of optimism didn’t last long.

In December 2022, less than a year after taking office as Honduras’ first woman president, Castro declared a state of exception covering parts of the country with the highest crime rates. She said extraordinary measures were required to fight insecurity, particularly extortions.

Under the state of exception, authorities suspended constitutional rights including freedom of circulation and reunion. Military police were allowed to make arrests, which should  not  be part of their brief, and search homes without a warrant. In a country where security forces have an abysmal record, this level of extra power is nothing short of bad news.

The extraordinary measures were meant to be temporary. They were not. The state of exception hit its first anniversary in December – marking 12 months in which people in Honduras were open to abuses condoned by law.

President Castro is following the same strategy imposed by Nayib Bukele in El Salvador nearly two years ago, also with terrifying consequences.

Honduras has undoubtedly endured a very real, and extremely serious security problem with gangs terrorizing the population, including by limiting their ability to move from one area to another. But the militarization of security is putting everybody in danger.

Human rights organizations have documented a rise in arbitrary arrests, extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances across the country since the state of exception was declared. Activists told us the national police, working hand in hand with the military police, are particularly targeting young people from marginalized areas and accusing them of being members of criminal gangs – regardless of whether they have sufficient evidence, or any at all.

The Office of the National Human Rights Commissioner in Honduras received nearly 300 reports of human rights violations between December 2022 and September 2023 alone.

Several experts from the United Nations who have independently visited Honduras over the course of the year have described the situation as alarming.

Morris Tidball-Binz, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extra Judicial Executions, said that these continue to be a “generalized phenomenon” in the country and that despite numerous commitments from the authorities, justice is nearly non-existent due to the “limited investigative capacity and a culture of impunity, two factors that are fundamental to break the long cycle of violence.”

The situation is so bad that many people are moving from place to place around the country, in a big to escape both criminal gangs and the military police.

President Castro is following the same strategy imposed by Nayib Bukele in El Salvador nearly two years ago, also with terrifying consequences.

Rihanna Ferrera, an activist and member of the National Mechanism against Torture, a body made up by government officials and independent organizations, told us they have been documenting an increasing number of cases of young men from marginalized areas being detained without any firm evidence. She says the authorities are criminalizing poverty. She has documented cases of young men who are detained and then driven around to be beaten and abused before their arrest is even registered at the police station. She claims this is a way of encouraging forced confessions, to show authorities are doing something to tackle crime.

The situation in prisons has also deteriorated, with the military taking charge in June after 46 women died behind bars in a prison in Támara, near Tegucigalpa, as a result of a violent confrontation between two gangs.  

But activists say that instead of working to make prisons safe environments, authorities are punishing those held behind bars by withholding food and banning family visits – which for most are the only way to access basic products. Human rights activists are also being preventing from entering prisons, which opens the door for abuses to take place without anyone looking.

Those who have tried to report human rights violations have been, at best, harassed and subjected to smear campaigns, and at worst, targets of abuses themselves. It is not surprising many are scared to even speak up. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights documented 944 attacks against journalists and human rights defenders between January 2021 and September 2023, including the killing of 36 human rights defenders and four journalists.  

Even those who manage to report these crimes are unlikely to see justice, with most reports never investigated. Despite many promises, impunity is the norm in Honduras and the result of a combination of lack of sufficient resources and political will.

Honduras’ security challenges are real and extremely complex and will require multifaceted strategies to tackle. Cancelling basic human rights to try to solve one crisis, however, is only creating an even greater new one. A country that takes away basic rights such as that not to be arrested without a founded reason, only places everyone at risk. It also strengthens the criminal organizations that it claims to be fighting by creating a space where chaos and impunity reign.

Instead of continuing to promote a short-sighted approach to security, authorities should invest time and resources in developing a long-term security strategy that places respect for human rights at its core. A first step towards this is for Honduras to improve its judicial capabilities, with resources and staff to ensure that complex crime is investigated adequately and effectively and that those responsible for human rights violations face justice.  Measures must also be taken to tackle poverty and inequality, some of the underlying causes of crime.

Some of these steps will need internal changes. Most will require additional resources, including potential global support, but showing the pollical will, not only to commit to sustainable changes, but to actually implement them, would be an essential first step.