Honduras plans to build the only island prison colony in the Western hemisphere and send its most-feared gangsters there, tearing a page from neighbouring El Salvador’s unforgiving approach to murder, robbery, rape and extortion.
Honduras’s progressive president once promised to address gang violence through systemic reforms to governance and the criminal justice system.
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Now, President Xiomara Castro plans to build an isolated prison for 2,000 gang leaders on the Islas del Cisne archipelago 250km (155 miles) off the coast, part of a larger crackdown following the gang-related massacre of 46 women in one prison.
Island prisons once were common across Latin America, with facilities in Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico, Panama and Peru. Deadly riots, brutal conditions and bold prison escapes captured filmmakers’ and authors’ imaginations before the last island prison closed in Mexico in 2019.
In Honduras, authorities are betting that a return to the past will help stem the wave of violence, but sceptics say such moves are little more than optics and fail to address the root causes of endemic violence.
“A new prison is quite useless if you don’t first regain control of the others you already have,” said Tiziano Breda, a Latin America expert at Italy’s Istituto Affari Internazionali. “Criminal gangs have shown throughout their history that they can adapt.”
Last month, 46 women were killed in a fight between gang members in one prison. Many of those killed were sprayed with gunfire and hacked to death with machetes. Some inmates were locked in cells, where they were doused with flammable liquid and burned in the worst atrocity in a women’s prison in recent memory.
Castro said she would “take drastic measures” in response and crack down on the Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, gangs that have terrorised the nation for years.
The only way to communicate to the Islas del Cisne is by satellite, Jose Jorge Fortin, the head of Honduras’ armed forces, said in an interview with The Associated Press. Officials hope that will prevent gang leaders from running their operations from inside the prisons. Escape would be difficult as the island takes about a day to reach by boat from the mainland.
“It’s the farthest away they can possibly be, so these gang leaders feel the pressure once they’re on the island,” Fortin said. “The idea is that they lose contact with everything, contact with all of society … and they can really pay for their crimes.”
Fortin would not specify the cost of the project or when officials expect it to be complete but said Castro ordered the facility built as quickly as possible.
Since the bloodshed, Castro’s social media has been speckled with images of weapons seizures and men with gang tattoos sitting spread-legged, half-naked and hunched together on the ground surrounded by heavily armed police.
The images mirror those from neighbouring El Salvador, where President Nayib Bukele has imprisoned one in every 100 people in the country, throwing thousands into a “mega-prison”.
Bukele has said inmates will never again see the light of day even as human rights group Cristosal estimates that only 30 percent of prisoners have clear ties with gangs, raising allegations of human rights abuses and democratic decay.
Sharp dips in violence in El Salvador have spurred on a sort of populist pro-Bukele fervour across Latin America.
“If another country has done something well, why not copy it?” Fortin said. “We’re not going to let this … atmosphere of terror go on.”
But Breda, the Latin America expert, said the move is inching the country away from policies such as stamping out corruption, demilitarising and community policing that could make a long-term difference in addressing the root causes of gang violence.
Honduras’s security policy “has become even more reactive and short-sighted, mimicking what’s going on in El Salvador to contain damage to their public image”, Breda said.
The proposed measures are being well-received by many Hondurans, like 30-year-old biologist Said Santos, who said, “Ending the crime problem once and for all here in Honduras would be ideal for this country.” But, he added, the government should proceed with caution.
Meanwhile, regional biologists worry the project will come at the expense of the island’s highly biodiverse ecosystems at a time when the effects of climate change are already ravaging the Caribbean.
Largely uninhabited, the prison site has been designated as an environmentally protected territory for more than three decades. Last week, the Honduran Biologists Association released a statement calling the facility a “threat” to nature on the island, where lush landscapes and glowing blue waters teem with life.
“A prison is incompatible with the ecosystems, species, scenic beauty and climate conditions of the archipelago,” the organisation wrote.
Lucky Medina, Honduras’s secretary of natural resources and the environment, told the Associated Press that the maximum security penitentiary will be built “in harmony with nature”. He added that officials will follow environmental protections but the facility will definitely be built.
“It is totally viable,” he said.