Crime in Honduras
Crime in Honduras has long been a problem. Crime is orchestrated mainly by gangs, including the two most powerful in the country, Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18. Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world, with 90.4 homicides per 100,000 people. The international average intentional homicide rate, by comparison, is 6.2 per 100,000 people, as per the UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime)
Crime by type
Illegal drug trade
Honduras is considered a major drug route to the US. Smuggling is said to have increased after the US suspended anti-drug support following the 2009 Honduran coup d'état. Weak domestic law enforcement institutions, combined with Honduras's long coastline and relatively sparse population distribution, make Honduras a popular point of entry for drug routes travelling through Central America.
Jaime Rosenthal is one of the most powerful political and economic elites in Honduras. His family owns Banco Continental, the eighth largest bank in Honduras, which on October 7, 2015, had its assets frozen by the United States under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act on charges that they laundered money for drug traffickers. Rosenthal has refuted these charges, claiming, “we are sure that we will prevail in the trial because the accusations are false." The Rosenthals have an extensive fortune worth $690 million which they have amassed through their management of Grupo Continental, a massive conglomerate of businesses which includes the Banco Continental, a meat packing plant, and an alligator skin export company, among others. Specifically, the Rosenthal family has been accused by the United States for dealing with Cachiros, one of the largest drug transport clans in Central America. The Cachiros group was run by the Rivera Maradiaga family who went on the run after being specifically targeted by the United States Department of the Treasury and in early 2015, turned their top members in to US authorities. Jaime Rosenthal, at 79 years old is currently under house arrest in San Pedro Sula, Honduras awaiting trial in the United States.
Gang presence is rampant in Honduras, especially in big cities such as San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa. In these cities, territory is controlled by members of rival gangs, the most powerful being the Mara Salvatrucha and the 18th Street Gang (Barrio 18). These gangs use violence and threats to enforce their power. Members of the community who do not pay their "war taxes" to the gangs for protection are threatened and often times killed simply for their disobedience. It is partly due to the gang culture in Honduras that many young people have risked illegal immigration to the United States, where it is estimated that 82,000 Hondurans reside illegally, and out of that number, 57,000 are minors.
Mano Dura Laws
Because gang violence is such a problem in the country, the government has taken measures to combat the influence of the gangs. In 2003, the Honduran government introduced the Mano Dura (Iron Fist) laws, which were zero-tolerance in nature and aimed to reduce social violence and restore public security. These Mano Dura laws allowed gang members to be incarcerated simply for their association with the gang. Honduran police officers can arrest and subsequently place in prison anyone at all related to gangs through indicators such as tattoos, baggy clothing, or even typical gang positions on street corners. To avoid being detected by police officers, members of gangs have been forced to change their territorial strategies. Since tattoos are such an easy way to identify a gang member, gangs have been forced to wear clothes covering their tattoos and to adopt a more casual appearance. Tattoos are significant to gangs because they mark each member as property, just as graffiti marks a group's territory in the context of cities. Each tattoo tells a gang member's story and each has its own meaning, but the appearance given off serves to indicate dominance, which explains partly why these men can be so influential.
Although these laws were introduced with the intention of reducing gang violence, there is little evidence to suggest that they have been effective. Aside from an initial reduction in crime, the laws have not managed to significantly address the problem. In fact, the Mano Dura laws have had some unintended consequences. First, the zero-tolerance policies have forced many gang members to seek protection with members of their gang in other countries such as El Salvador. Transnational gang relations have grown tremendously since the implementation of these laws, as evidenced by Mara Salvatrucha's extensive reach, spanning through the United States and even reaching cities in Canada. The Mara Salvatrucha have taken to public violence to express their opposition to the laws. On December 24, 2004, a year after the introduction of the Mano Dura, members of MS-13 shot up a bus, killing 28 people and wounding 14. The perpetrators left a note not only claiming opposition to the death penalty, a major campaign issue in the upcoming presidential election and a large compontent of Mano Dura, but also promising more violence, warning that "people should take advantage of this Christmas, because the next one will be worse." Outbursts such as these suggest that zero-tolerance policies have promoted further extremism in a country shrouded by gang violence.
Another reason the Mano Dura policies have struggled to accomplish their goals is that the prison system in Honduras is not built to accommodate the increased volume of incarcerated individuals. Individual prisoner confinement is absent from the Honduran penal code, and this facilitates the grouping of prisoners and overcrowding of prisons. Prison overcrowding has in some ways made it easier for gangs to function because in many prisons there are not enough guards to safely monitor the prisoners. According to the CPTRT (Center for Prevention, Treatment and Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture and their Relatives) in 2004, there were 1,272 prison guards to attend to 10,300 inmates, which gives each guard the impossible task of tending to 131 inmates. To maintain a basic level of security, the guards and inmates have agreed upon a prison order which allows prisoners a surprising amount of freedom but at the very least keeps them inside the confines of the prison. With more freedom inside the prisons, gang leaders can control the sale of food, commodities, and even the reception of visitors. In addition, given the relative security of their position in prison, they can safely organize and plan their criminal strategies. Another concern raised about these laws is their potential to be arbitrarily manipulated by law enforcement officials. Since people can be arrested for simple tattoos or hand gestures, police have to be trusted to correctly and fairly prosecute gang members. This process has clogged the judicial system to the point that the defendants are not always afforded fair trials.
The Francisco Morazan Department is said to be one of the most violent areas in Honduras. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime has called the border regions between north-west Honduras and south-west Guatemala "some of the most dangerous places in Central America".
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