State of Exception in Central America: A Distraction Tool for Failing Leaders

State of Exception in Central America: A Distraction Tool for Failing Leaders

By Jorge Paz Reyes; Image by UPI

On November 14, Honduras’ President Xiomara Castro declared a national emergency over growing concerns regarding extortion and organized crime. Castro announced a set of plans to address extortion and declared the suspension of constitutional rights in neighborhoods with the highest crime rates.

Last year, Xiomara Castro, made news after winning the presidential elections and becoming Honduras’ first female president. Her victory marked a turning point in Honduras politics, replacing a 12 years old conservative regime led by former President Juan Orlando Hernandez and the country’s National Party. Hernadez is currently awaiting trial in the Southern District of New York for drug trafficking charges

The Castro government which self-identifies as a social democracy, began this year focused on the “refoundation of the state”. Her presidential campaign centered on advocating for marginalized communities and dismantling the narco-state that was built during Hernandez presidency. One of her main goals was to de-militarizing public safety and center Honduras’ police force on community values. However, almost a year after the presidential elections, her efforts to reform Honduras’ public safety have failed. Crime in Honduras has gradually increased and connections between the police and drug trafficking continue to emerge

The decision to implement a state of exception – the suspension of habeas corpus- did not come as a surprise in Honduras given the recent security trends of the region. In El Salvador, President Nayib Bukele introduced a state of exception back in March and has arrested more than 50,000 Salvadorean since then.

The suspension of constitutional rights in El Salvador re-sparked the conversation of mano dura -tough-on-crime- policies and the rise of authoritarianism in the region. Humanitarian organizations and international bodies have expressed their concerns about El Salvador and the rise of human rights violations. In a press release in November, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) highlighted the multiple human rights cases of abuse committed during the state of exception and called on the Salvadorean government to abide by inter-American standards of human rights. 

But for many Salvadoreans, Bukele’s strategy has seemed to work. According to the Salvadorean government, the country has experienced a total reduction in homicides in the seven months of the state of exceptions. The approval rating of President Bukele has remained high throughout the year and the National Assembly has approved the suspension of constitutional rights eight consecutive times since March. The suspension of constitutional rights seems to have created a new reality for many Salvadoreans, one that many Hondurans wish to emulate at home. 

The story of mano dura, however, is not new to Honduras or El Salvador. Central America, as a region, has had its fair share of authoritarianism and militarized approach to public safety. Indeed, Honduras public safety is being monitored by the military. Nevertheless, the state of exception sounds appealing to many Central American because it instantly creates a sense of action and safety. The popularity that emerges around tough-on-crime policies is often built on frustrations and perceptions. According to a study done with data from Vanderbilt University’s Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), the popularity of mano dura is not related to crime victimization or ideology but rather to emotional factors. Communities in El Salvador and Honduras are tired and afraid of the rising crime and a state of exception addresses those feeling head-on. 

For the government, the state of exception also provides an opportunity to relieve pressure on the system. Almost a year into her term, President Castro has done little to accomplish her election campaign goals. Environmentalists have not received any concrete protection, women are still waiting for the legalization of plan B and other contraceptives, and crime just continues to rise. Thus, a state of exception was the perfect opportunity for the Castro administration to appease the public. 

In regards to Bukele, the story is similar. In El Salvador, the suspension of constitutional rights came after secret negotiations between the government and gang members fell through and 74 people were killed in one weekend. President Bukele took advantage of the killings and immediately convinced the National Assembly to institute a state of exception. The scandal about the negotiations between his government and gangs was never addressed. 

In his Twitter account, which dabbles between bitcoin content and propaganda videos, President Bukele continues to praise himself for the reduction of crimes. However, different international and independent journalists have pointed out that the national crime reports are inaccurate. Academics and journalists have pointed out that despite the government’s reports on zero homicides, there are inconsistencies in the reports since the National Police does not report on the killing of gang members. Additionally, the Salvadorean National Police announced that they have stopped reporting on the number of people who disappeared due to confidentiality protocols. 

The reality is that the security situation in El Salvador has a lot less to do with the suspension of rights and more with perception and abuse. Bukele’s authoritarian populism is creating a reality that Salvadoreans want to hear.

In the case of Honduras, the situation is similar, the crime problem is not about rights and legal processes. President Castro is following a dangerous path and only time will tell if Honduras will be consumed by lies and abuse. 

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