El Salvador might have started a trend in Latin America with Mega Prisons

Honduran President Xiomara Castro recently announced plans to build a “mega prison” capable of housing 20,000 people to manage the country’s crime problem. This initiative reflects a growing trend in Latin America, where countries are adopting harsh carceral measures to combat drug trafficking and gang violence. However, these strategies often undermine the rule of law and create human rights issues, raising doubts about their sustainability as long-term solutions.

El Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele has gained attention for his similar approach, which includes a massive prison and anti-gang initiative that has significantly reduced homicides. His policies are extremely popular; he won reelection in a landslide earlier this year and now holds a supermajority in the legislature. However, Bukele’s methods have also bypassed the rule of law, disregarding civil rights and weakening democracy.

Despite these issues, several Latin American leaders, including Ecuador’s Daniel Noboa and Chile’s Gabriel Boric, are inspired by Bukele’s approach. Honduras, plagued by extortion, narco-trafficking, and violence, is desperate for a solution. Castro has promised that her new facility on Great Swan Island, along with additional measures such as militarizing the police, classifying drug traffickers as terrorists, and holding mass trials, will bring a new era of safety.

However, Honduras differs from El Salvador in its political structure, legal systems, topography, and the sources of revenue for its criminal groups. These differences cast doubt on the potential success of Castro’s plans in reducing crime or sustaining her political popularity. Additionally, historical evidence from countries like Colombia and Mexico shows that militarized approaches to gang and drug-related violence can worsen the problem in the long run by causing criminal organizations to factionalize and fight for dominance.

El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala have struggled for decades to contain brutal gang violence. In El Salvador, the violence has persisted since the late 1990s due to the instability left by the civil war, which ended in 1992. Successive presidential administrations have adopted the “mano dura” (iron hand) approach, but this has often backfired. Bukele’s approach, though harsh, appears to have reduced gang violence and boosted his popularity, inspiring other leaders who seek similar success.

Bukele’s methods come with high costs. Press freedom in El Salvador is non-existent, and the Bukele regime does not provide transparency about prison management or efforts to address the root causes of organized crime. The government has detained around 76,000 people without evidence, denied them due process, and left many families in limbo. Reports of human rights abuses, including torture and deaths in prison, have emerged since Bukele implemented his policies in 2022.

Other Latin American leaders, such as Ecuador’s Noboa, are following Bukele’s lead. Ecuador, a major hub for narcotics trafficking, has seen a rise in violence. Noboa declared an “internal armed conflict,” ordering the military to control gangs, classifying them as terrorists, and intensifying military involvement in policing. Reports of human rights violations are already surfacing.

Honduras is embracing Bukele’s “mano dura” style policies, but its success is uncertain. Castro’s measures, including suspending parts of the constitution, have not significantly reduced crime. The government has arrested thousands, but most have been released due to lack of evidence.

Critics argue that the “mano dura” approach is not sustainable. Alternatives like Colombia’s “Paz Total,” which seeks to negotiate with armed groups to reduce violence and eventually demobilize them, offer a longer-term solution. Building the capacity of the state to prosecute criminals and punish corrupt officials is crucial for lasting security and protecting civil rights. Such policies, though less immediate and visually striking, are necessary to break the cycle of violence and authoritarianism.

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