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Honduras copies El Salvador's playbook in anti-gang crackdown

A soldier patrols the Riviera Hernandez neighborhood in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, Tuesday, June 27, 2023.
Delmer Martinez
A soldier patrols the Riviera Hernandez neighborhood in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, Tuesday, June 27, 2023.

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — A crackdown in Honduras on gangs in the nation’s prisons is eerily similar to one carried out last year in neighboring El Salvador by President Nayib Bukele, observers said Tuesday.

Like authorities in El Salvador, police in Honduras who launched a prison sweep Monday have distributed dramatic videos of tattooed inmates being frog-marched around, though their videos have lacked Bukele's slick production values and media savvy.

“It's the same phenomenon,” said retired police commissioner Henry Osorto, but added that the crackdowns should be scrutinized to see whether "standards and international treaties are being violated.”

Rights groups in Honduras cited apparent abuses as prisoners were forced to sit spread-legged, half-naked and nestled against one another in open prison yards. And as they did in El Salvador, officials in Honduras angrily brushing off criticism, saying the street gangs abused civilians more.

READ MORE: Gang slaughtered 46 women at Honduran prison, officials say

“These criminals violate people's human rights, they kill, kidnap and extort money, who is defending those rights?” Honduran military police commander Ramiro Muñoz said in an interview with local media Tuesday.

That was strikingly similar to Bukele's dismissal of complaints from rights groups about El Salvador's prison crackdown in 2022, when he bragged that inmates were “sleeping on the floors, and eating two meals a day” after he took away mattresses, reduced food supplies and halted visits and internet service in prisons.

“They didn't say anything when the criminals killed dozens of Salvadorans, but they jumped when we started detaining them,” Bukele said of rights groups at the time.

Honduras also showed a bit of the same vengefulness: alongside the heaps of weapons found in prison raids, military police also seized inmates' guitars, musical devices and video games.

President Xiomara Castro has decreed a state of emergency in some provinces, and deployed soldiers to patrol the streets. The government distributed video Tuesday of police tearing down a cyclone fence that a gangs had erected in a town in northern Honduras to mark its territory.

And like El Salvador, two days of strict military-style searches of jails in Honduras turned up some surprises.

One heavily-tattooed leader of the violent MS-13 gang in Honduras was found in a prison different from the one he was officially assigned to. That, and the heaps of weapons found in inmates' cells, could only be explained by prison mismanagement and corruption.

“The prison system in Honduras is a corrupt school for criminals, and we are going to dismantle it and give people security,” Defense Minister Jose Manuel Zelaya Rosales wrote in his social media accounts. He is the nephew of former president Mel Zelaya, who is married to Xiomara Castro.

After inmates were forced to strip to their shorts and sit hunched over in a prison courtyard in one of the searches, military police went through their cells and found dozens of pistols, hundreds of rounds of assault rifles and grenades.

The prison sweep demonstrated the Honduran government’s resolve to crack down on gangs following last week’s gang-related massacre of 46 female inmates in the worst atrocity at a women’s prison in recent memory

The violence at the women’s prison in Tamara, northeast of Honduras’ capital, outraged the country and sparked raids, curfews and a crackdown.

In that massacre, female inmates belonging to the Barrio 18 street gang smuggled in guns, machetes and a flammable liquid. They subdued guards and burst into cellblocks housing members of a rival gang. They sprayed the victims with gunfire, hacked to death others and then locked their cells and set the victims on fire.

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