Honduras’ Gangs Overrun World’s Murder Capital

Honduras’ Gangs Overrun World’s Murder Capital

San Pedro Sula is the second largest city in Honduras and the country’s hub for industry. It also happens to have the highest murder rate in the entire world. In recent years, Honduras, the least developed country in Central America, has become a breeding ground for gang culture, extortion, narcotics trafficking and murder.

According to the United Nations, the murder rate in Honduras came out to an average of 91.6 murders per 100,000 people in 2011. No other country contends with this horrifying statistic. With lawlessness on the streets of Honduras, crowded prisons, a corrupt police force and a government lacking credibility (after the military coup in 2009), there is no mechanism in place to combat gang violence.

A little over a year ago, El Salvador, a country also saturated with gang violence, facilitated a truce between the leaders of warring gangs. The truce was so successful that the murder rate in El Salvador has since been halved. In an attempt to emulate this Latin American neighbor’s success, various players in Honduras, led by Bishop Romulo Emiliani, hope to foster a similar truce between the two biggest gangs in Honduras, MS-13 and Barrio 18.

Expectations are very high. Unfortunately, the chances of success are quite low. Unlike gangs in El Salvador, Honduran ‘maras’ are far less organized and centralized. Fractured cliques are therefore unlikely to heed the orders of their imprisoned leaders. In May 2013, the leaders of MS-13 and Barrio 18 made televised appearances from San Pedro Sula Prison, apologizing to the Honduran people and promising to end the incessant violence between them. The fact that these speeches were made at separate press conferences in separate rooms—for fear of an outbreak of violence—does not inspire much confidence.

In the event that the truce between MS-13 and Barrio 18 does reduce the violence on the streets, will this solve the crisis facing Honduras?

No. A truce, even with the backing of President Porfirio Lobo Sosa and the Catholic Church, does not address the root of the problem. It is no coincidence that the most dangerous and murderous country in Central America also happens to be the one with the worst state infrastructure and governing capabilities. Corruption in the Honduran government is so rife that tackling it has become an ongoing theme in the rhetoric of each candidate running in this year’s presidential elections. With elections due to take place in November, promises to persecute all forms of corruption to the full extent of the law are being made across the board. Again, the cause of corruption is not being addressed, just as that of gang culture is going untreated.

The government faces a multitude of challenges that require urgent attention. Healthcare in Honduras is appalling with hospitals frequently lacking essential medicine and equipment. The education sector, meanwhile, is of a very poor standard with an extremely high primary school dropout rate. Those paid by the government are rarely paid their wages on time or in full. For example, police officers often go months at a time without pay. Extortion goes unpunished every day, creating a threatening atmosphere, which permeates all levels of society.

During the press conference from San Pedro Sula Prison, gang leaders asked for the help of their government in finding employment once their terms have been served. Employment and wages are at the root of corruption and gang criminality. A truce may indeed reduce the frequency of vendettas, just as strict prison terms for corrupt police and government officials may offer immediate improvement. But these measures are too precarious and short-term in nature to have a lasting effect. The government needs to address these two vital issues by, first, reducing the level of unemployment and underemployment and, second, ensuring that people are paid in full and on time.

The Honduran government has a lot of work to do before the economic environment is sufficiently safe for investment from abroad. Policies aimed at improving the education system, opening up employment opportunities and implementing wage payment mechanisms are a good start. Gang violence and corruption are a result of deeply rooted problems that require long-term policies. Until Honduras targets the actual causes of criminality, corruption and gang violence, it will continue to be a hotbed of social and political chaos. If this is the case, then the truce between gangs will be a welcome hiatus but will only last so long.

Categories: Latin America, Security

About Author

Elizabeth Matsangou

Elizabeth works as International Account Manager for an environmental technologies company and has previously worked for a political consultancy company in Westminster and for Intelligence Squared, a forum for live debates. She received a BA in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from the University of Essex and an MSc in International Relations from the London School of Economics.