WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas


22 Feb 2023 | Commentary

States of Exception: The New Security Model in Central America?

Governance that limits constitutional guarantees under states of exception is the normalized model in several areas of El Salvador and Honduras. The governments of both countries have made use of public force, including militarization, to implement security policies that guarantee political and territorial control.

The situation of violence and citizen security in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador has been one of the main challenges to human rights and democratic governance for decades in these countries. Crime rates, including homicides and femicides, are among the highest in the region. The causes of violence and its perpetrators – which include state agents – are complex, as both organized crime and gangs are structures that have become sophisticated and strengthened over time.  

For years, the state’s response to the scourge of violence has been to promote punitive policies of repression known as “mano dura” (iron fist) rather than comprehensive prevention that, through justice, would reduce impunity and create safe environments for the population. During the times of supposed strengthening and professionalization of the security forces in each country, there have still been failures and improvements have not been sustainable; these bodies have been plagued by internal corruption, insufficient training programs, and the continuation of abuses perpetrated by members of state security forces. 

Governments in northern Central America, characterized by fragile institutions and lack of compliance with international human rights standards, have failed to provide effective and sustainable responses. In this context, limiting constitutional guarantees such as freedom of movement, the right to association, and due process has been the populist model adopted on a permanent basis. 

El Salvador: Reduction of Violence by Negotiation with Gangs or by State of Exception?

The downward trend in homicide figures has been a constant since at least 2016. In 2020, the year Nayib Bukele took office as president, a study by the International Crisis Group attributed the 60 percent reduction in homicides in 2019 to a decision by the gangs rather than an achievement of government policies. 

According to investigations by the Salvadoran Attorney General’s Office and the US task force Vulcan, in 2020 the Bukele administration entered a pact with the MS13 and Barrio 18 gangs to maintain that reduction and, in general, to gain electoral and governance benefits in a country where gangs control large portions of territory. That pact unraveled in March 2022 for reasons so far unclear, and provoked a violent response from the gangs that left at least 87 dead in one weekend. 

Bukele’s government, in turn, responded with an emergency regime that was decreed in the Legislative Assembly on March 27 and has already been extended 10 times. Next month, El Salvador will mark a year in which those who have been detained and accused of crimes such as illicit associations and other gang-related crimes have not been afforded minimum constitutional guarantees of defense and due process. Bukele has shared data from the National Civil Police, via Twitter, claiming that El Salvador is now the safest country on the continent. In January, the Security Ministry published that the homicide rate per 100,000 inhabitants had been 7.8 in 2022, a significant drop from the previous year’s 17.6 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants and the lowest in recent decades. Several analysts, however, have pointed out that it is impossible to independently contrast these figures because the Salvadoran government has completely blocked access to public information. In addition, it is important to note that the Bukele government has changed what types of deaths are included in the homicide totals, eliminating, for example, the deaths of suspected gang members in confrontations with police.  

In early February, a report in the digital newspaper El Faro concluded that the Bukele government had dismantled the gangs with the state of emergency at great democratic cost. President Bukele took the opportunity to defend the limitation of constitutional guarantees as an effective citizen security policy despite the fact that it undermines Salvadoran democracy. 

Concern has grown that El Salvador’s experience with states of exception will create a security model in Central American countries and that the constant violations of human rights and the scourge of democratic values will become normalized. In an editorial entitled “Without gangs and without democracy“, El Faro reports that the results of Bukele’s policies are based on massive human rights violations in which thousands of innocent people remain unjustly detained in overcrowded prisons, and dozens have died in detention.

In late January 2023, Human Rights Watch published a report, based on a leaked Salvadoran government database, confirming that massive human rights violations occurred in El Salvador during the state of emergency. In addition, the state of emergency has paved the way to consolidate a governance defined by corruption and a lack of transparency and judicial independence. 

During the duration of the state of emergency in El Salvador, the State has imprisoned some 64,000 people, of which 80 people have died in unclear circumstances as of September 2022. None of these detainees have had proper defense and most have been detained without seeing a judge within two weeks of their arrests, all of which is allowed by the limitations to the constitutional guarantees that were approved.

In this scenario, the human rights situation has only worsened in El Salvador. On November 18, 2022, the United Nations Committee against Torture expressed “deep concern” about what is happening in the country and about “the serious human rights consequences of the measures adopted by the authorities in the framework of the emergency regime.” In a report presented that day, the committee lists at least six violations of fundamental rights committed during the emergency regime.

President Bukele has paid little attention to these concerns of the international community and has chosen instead to deepen the militarization of security. 

Honduras: Replicating a Model? 

Like El Salvador and Guatemala, Honduras has high rates of homicidal and femicidal violence and structural impunity for most of these crimes. 

On the same day that Bukele made public the fifth phase of the Territorial Control Plan, which he called Extraction and which consists, in essence, of sending the military to surround communities to arrest suspected gang leaders, President Xiomara Castro announced her war against gangs in Honduras.

The Honduran government decreed on December 6, 2022, states of emergency in 162 neighborhoods, mostly in San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa. The measure, according to civil society organizations, was accompanied by decrees that limit constitutional guarantees.

The measures are part of an open war against gangs, extortion, and organized crime in the country, which has given security forces all resources to combat extortion, one of the crimes that most affects Hondurans. The resources include the use of the army in public security tasks, something that is already standard policy in Guatemala and El Salvador, the other two countries of Central America’s Northern Triangle, despite the fact that the constitutions of these nations limit the use of the Armed Forces in these cases.

On February 21, 2023, the Honduran government extended the state of emergency until April 6, without clarifying in exactly which neighborhoods it applies

An effective policy or a vicious circle?

Chamelecon has been, since the beginning of the century, one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in San Pedro Sula. One day before Christmas Eve in 2004, a paramilitary death squad mowed down 28 people in a bus, in an event that criminologists later labeled as social cleansing. After that, in the last two decades, the Honduran state has used special army and police commandos to try to control the criminal groups that run the drug business in this huge neighborhood that stretches from the Sula River to the CA-5 highway at the foot of El Merendón hill, the country’s financial capital. 

The army’s controls never quite worked: Chamelecon remains a huge neighborhood on the fringes of development on the outskirts of Honduras’ most prosperous city, where poverty and stigmatization are variables that explain the violence.

After the destruction wrought by Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and the massive migration from the devastated countryside in the Sula Valley and the Bajo Aguán area that followed, Chamelecón grew without urban planning or state investment. For years, the Honduran state neglected thousands of young people from the barrio who began to migrate to the United States or to be recruited by Mara Salvatrucha 13, Barrio 18 or other gangs in the colonia that have emerged and disappeared over the years.

After the 2004 bus massacre, the Honduran government, then in the hands of Liberal Ricardo Maduro, blamed the gangs and decided to respond as all his successors would: with the iron fist implemented by special units of the Armed Forces and the National Police.

After the 2009 coup d’état, the National Party governments, under Porfirio Lobo first and Juan Orlando Hernández later, continued with the repressive practices of the iron first model. But, while they incarcerated thousands of young people and their governments continued to fail to address the root causes of marginalization, violence, and the growth of crime in Chamelecón, gang leaders strengthened their drug trafficking operation, which grew between 2013 and 2019, during the Hernández administration. The violence never stopped.

When Xiomara Castro assumed the presidency, the situation in Chamelecón remained the same as ever: drugs, massacres and marginalization. In July 2022, the new government launched yet another police onslaught to try to stop another chapter of violence attributed to gangs. Again, it was a stopgap: in October of this year, a new shooting, half a block from a police post, ended the lives of three people.

In announcing the new measures, President Castro attributed full state responsibility for the crime to her predecessor, former President Juan Orlando Hernandez, who is imprisoned in the United States and awaiting trial on drug trafficking charges. The operations of organized crime and gangs grew during the Hernandez administration, but dismantling this immense criminal apparatus, often embedded in the state, takes time. The use of the army in police work and limitations on constitutional guarantees are not responses that have worked before, given the accusations of links to drug trafficking, corruption, and human rights violations.

The police and military onslaughts in Chamelecón sometimes brought short periods of calm, but almost always came with violations of the basic rights of those who live there, and never led, in the long term, to an effective solution. Today, Chamelecón is once again under a state of exception; under a public security formula that, at least in Honduras, has not worked.

It is still unclear whether President Castro’s strategy in Honduras will be enough to keep homicide figures down. In El Salvador, although it is very difficult to give exact figures because of the government’s lack of transparency in handling violence figures, the decline in homicidal violence appears to be pronounced due, in part, to the fact that the emergency regime has limited the gangs’ ability to exert violence in the territories. In both cases, however, maintaining public security policies based on the restriction of constitutional guarantees will generate situations that are not sustainable over time. These policies facilitate human rights violation and are detrimental to democracy.