Dec 8, 2022 - World

Strong-armed tactics against Central American gangs may backfire, experts say

two soldiers in full tactical gear stand in front of a row of men who have their hands up against a red wall

Honduran military forces frisk men as part of anti-gang operations under a state of emergency, Dec. 6. Photo: Johnny Magallanes/AFP via Getty Images

Honduras has become the latest Latin American country to take a strong-armed approach to deal with gangs, declaring a state of emergency that human rights groups warn will likely be ineffective and could lead to rights abuses.

The big picture: The partial state of emergency in Honduras, which went into effect on Tuesday, follows a similar controversial, yet popular, move by Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele earlier this year.

  • Gang and cartel violence have plagued Central America and Mexico for years, and it's becoming a growing problem across South America.
  • That's led to some Latin American leaders saying strong-armed crackdowns are necessary, even if they suspend some constitutional rights.

State of play: Under Honduras' state of emergency, authorities can arrest people and search homes without warrants in two of the country's largest cities. Some of the neighborhoods will also be under curfews.

  • Honduran President Xiomara Castro said the crackdown, which is set to last a month, was needed to combat the extortion of citizens by gangs.

In El Salvador, Bukele declared a state of emergency in March after a record number of homicides. Nearly 60,000 people have since been jailed indefinitely.

What they're saying: Experts say a policy of mass roundups or increased militarization has done little in the long term to curb the gang problem, and has in some cases exacerbated violence.

  • These tactics may seem attractive to leaders "because they project an image of strength," César Muñoz, associate director for the Americas at Human Rights Watch, told Axios.
  • But they show weakness because "they avoid actually dealing with the underlying causes of crime," Muñoz added.

A sustainable strategy would be to dismantle the criminal groups through strengthened justice systems and laws targeting the gangs' sources of income, even if results would take longer, he said.

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