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The Implications of Central American Prison Reforms: Examining the Actions of El Salvador and Honduras

Photo: Al Jazeera

  • What is the catalyst led the Honduran military to take over the jail system?

On June 20th, gang members in a women’s prison killed 46 people at the Tamara prison in Honduras. Inside the prison, the gang members armed themselves with weapons. What this demonstrates is a lack of oversight within Tamara’s prison system. Gang members locked victims inside cells, burning them to death. Juan López Rochez, the chief operator of the National Police, stated gangs had planned the attack. The prison footage revealed characteristics of a coordinated attack. The police recovered various weapons inside the prison: eighteen pistols, an assault rifle, two machine pistols, and two grenades. Julissa Villanueva, the head of the Honduran prison system, showed deep concern for the attack. Villanueva suggested that the gangs attacked because of recent governmental crackdowns. Villaneuva assured that the government efforts would not diminish. The Honduran government will double down in its efforts to mitigate gangs.


  • Actions the Honduran government has made since the Tamara jail incident

President Xiomara Castro announced the military will have control of the prison system. This development is a huge shift from President Castro’s previous demilitarization stance. The military police have taken immediate action. They have posted pictures of shirtless male inmates with their heads shaved. The pictures resemble El Salvadorian government prison pictures shared earlier this year. The hope is to end prison corruption within the system.


  • The significance of Hondurans taking a similar prison approach as El Salvador

El Salvador has taken drastic measures against gang violence.  In 2015, the homicide rate in El Salvador was 103 per 100,000 inhabitants. By 2022, the homicide rate decreased to only 8 per 100,000 inhabitants. This considerable decrease is due to Nayib Bukele’s reforms. President Bukele's first step was to give power to the military to combat gang violence. Gang strength holds of MS-13 and M18 diminished in power. Thousands of arrests of these gang members occurred.  Furthermore, various states of emergency helped the government search homes without warrants. The justice system has had to be faster and harsher as there have been many more arrests. By using these same mechanisms, Honduras can decrease its homicide rate. Although, this does come with various costs.

  • How has Bukele’s rise affected democracy and human rights in El Salvador? What this could mean for Honduras?

Since Bukele’s reforms, two percent of all Salvadorians have been jailed. Many of these people have had their rights violated and not everyone is guilty of being a gang member. For example, barring lawyers from representing clients and improper trials are prevalent. Considering the increased arrests, the justice system still needs to ensure proper representation. Additionally, Bukele created a loophole within the Salvadorian constitution. With this loophole, Bukele can seek more election terms than previous limits. The way Bukele enacted this change was by declaring an emergency regime. By declaring an emergency regime to combat gang violence, Bukele extended his power. The fear with Honduras’s new actions is that democracy can also regress.

Source: ElDinero

  • What are the unforseen consequences of placing innocent people in jail? 

Placing innocent people in jail will lead people to become gang members in the future. Honduras and El Salvador have a tendency to place young, innocent people in prisons. Both of these countries have overcrowded prison systems. These young, innocent people will have to become gang members in prison to survive. Without connections inside prison, actual gang members will harm non-gang members. Eventually, these individuals will have to re-enter society or be forever detained. What this means is that crime could arise again in the future because of present actions. The alternative is to keep these innocent people forever detained which is inhumane. By eliminating current crime, Bukele's approach is attractive for Honduras in the short-run. Although, in the long-run there is too many unforeseen consequences that can arise.


  • What is El Salvador’s perception of Bukele’s actions?

The general population in El Salvador approves of President Bukele. One may think that the non-democratic actions he has taken would make him unpopular, but this is not the case. In fact, Bukele is considered to be one of the most popular presidents in Salvadorian history. Bukele's tenure has had a consistent approval rating of around ninety percent. The Salvadorian people value safety over personal liberty. Considering that  El Salvador has had prolonged safety issues, this attitude is understandable. Bukele's actions can be a precedent for other countries in the region. As seen, Honduras is beginning to take El Salvador's approach. Other Central American countries may follow if said approach works in Honduras.


  • What do Hondurans think of Bukele? 

To a certain extent, Hondurans think Buekele's approach should be implemented in Honduras.  Many Hondurans see Bukele as a strong leader and successful in reducing crime. Hondurans are tired of the high murder rates. In 2021, Honduras’s murder rate was 41.6 per 100,000 people. The global average is only 7.5 per 100,000 people. Moreover, President Castro is facing mounting pressure from Hondurans. Seventy percent of Hondurans believe President Castro is not doing enough against crime. Said pressure can help explain why President Castro is only now taking firm action.


  • If other Central American countries adopt El Salvador’s measures, is this a threat to the US?

Considering that the US is the biggest actor in Central America, it is important to take into account the US. Shifts in this region are vital for the US. Further democratic backsliding in exchange for safety might be too costly for the US. Bukele’s work is still in progress, so it is difficult to assess the long-term effects of his actions. There is a possibility other Central American countries cannot replicate El Salvador's model. El Salvador is the exception, not the rule. The biggest obstacle within the region is corruption. With corruption, the status quo is bound to remain. If the US wants to keep its interests in the region, it has to show a balanced stance. For one, it should support these countries' efforts in eliminating gang violence. However, it should also ensure that democracy is not endangered. There has to be a balance for proper diplomatic measures that balance US and Central American interests.

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