Police have stepped up their presence on the streets of Honduras after President Xiomara Castro declared a state of emergency to quash a rise in gang activity in the Central American nation.
A photographer with the AFP news agency reported a heavy presence of special forces and other officers on Friday in the capital, Tegucigalpa.
Castro, who took office in January as Honduras’s first female president, declared a state of emergency on Thursday and urged police to recover public spaces “assaulted and controlled by organised crime and its gangs”.
She also asked police to identify hotspots where “the partial suspension of constitutional guarantees” would be necessary.
“To strengthen efforts to recover lawless areas in the neighbourhoods, in villages, in departments, I declare a national state of emergency,” Castro said as she announced the measures during a live television broadcast.
Police chief Gustavo Sanchez said he would dedicate more funds and at least 20,000 officers to the efforts to stamp out gang activity.
The state of emergency also would allow new security controls on roads and include measures against money laundering, with Castro saying her government was declaring “war on extortion, just as we declared war on corruption, impunity, and drug trafficking”.
Congress must still approve the suspension of constitutional rights, though the security plan came into force on Thursday.
The move came just days after hundreds of truckers protested in the capital to demand the government take steps to stop gangs from extorting a “war tax” from them.
Honduras has long been plagued by poverty, gangs, and violence linked to drug trafficking, but gangs – most notably the Mara Salvatrucha MS-13 and Mara Barrio 18 gangs – have recently been extorting Honduran citizens.
In exchange for the “war tax”, gangs offer protection or say that those who pay up will not be killed. The gangs have torched buses and killed drivers who did not pay the fee, prompting businesses and people to pay out of fear.
This extortion generates annual profits equivalent to $737m for the gangs, the Association for a More Just Society, a security-focused NGO, has reported.