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Honduras declares national emergency over gang extortion

November 26, 2022

The government announced a series of measures to help police recover lawless areas of the country from gangs who are extorting money from local residents.

Members of the Honduras's Police Military arrive to the penitentiary of Tela, Atlantida department, Honduras, on December 21, 2019
Gangs have begun charging a "war tax" on bus, truck and taxi driversImage: Str/Getty Images/AFP

Honduran President Xiomara Castro on Friday declared a national security emergency and began implementing a new plan to combat a rising tide of extortion by violent criminal gangs.

"To strengthen efforts to recover lawless areas in the neighborhoods, in villages, in departments, I declare a national state of emergency," said Castro.

Elected the country's first woman president in January, Castro, declared "war on extortion, just as we declared war on corruption, impunity, and drug trafficking."

What does the state of emergency entail?

Under the temporary measures, some constitutional rights in areas with a large gang presence have been suspended.

As part of the plan, Castro has deployed 20,000 police agents, placed new security controls on roads and imposed measures against money laundering.

The declaration also authorizes the Honduran government to make extraordinary use of public funds to combat criminal gangs known for involvement in illicit activities such as kidnapping and drug trafficking.

The plan must still be approved by Congress but has already taken effect.

Honduras President Xiomara Castro speaks during the launch of a plan to tackle gang extortions at the Presidential House, in Tegucigalpa, on November 24, 2022
Honduras President Xiomara Castro announced the state of emergencyImage: Orlando Sierra/AFP

Agence France-Presse reported a heavy presence of special forces and other officers in the capital on Friday.

Gangs turn from drugs to extortion

Gangs have recently been extorting ordinary citizens as they go about their business.

Residents and business leaders say the extortion — largely by the Mara Salvatrucha MS-13 and Mara Barrio 18 gangs — has worsened in recent months.

The emergency declaration comes just days after bus and taxi drivers protested in the capital Tegucigalpa over the imposition of a "war tax" by local gangs.

In exchange for the cash, gangs offer protection or say that those who pay up will not be killed.

The gangs have torched buses and killed drivers who did not pay the fee, prompting businesses and people to pay out of fear.

Extortion nears 3% of GDP

This extortion generates annual profits equivalent to $737 million (€708 million) for the gangs, nearly 3% of the country's gross domestic product (GDP), according to the Association for a More Just Society, a security-focused non-governmental organization.

Honduras, along with El Salvador and Guatemala, form the so-called "triangle of death" plagued by murderous gangs called "maras" that control drug trafficking and organized crime.

In 2020, there were 37.6 recorded homicides per 100,000 inhabitants.

Hundreds of people leave the country every day as a result of high poverty and unemployment, mixed with gang and drug violence.

Many of them head for the United States, where more than a million already live, most of them undocumented.

mm/jsi (AFP, Reuters)