In Santa Bárbara Prison, a maximum-security penitentiary known as “El Pozo” (The Pit), evidence of numerous armed confrontations that erupted between the 18th Street and Mara Salvatrucha gangs from March to June 2023 is still visible. “There were nineteen confrontations in total,” says an employee of the prison. One inmate insisted this was exaggeration, though he did admit that fights between 18th Street —the largest gang in Honduras— and MS-13 had become increasingly common at the prison this year. The violence communicated an implicit demand: that the gangs be separated and given their own exclusive prisons.
“Everything is calm” since authorities agreed to the demand and carried out the transfers, several inmates told me. The only prisoners left in El Pozo are MS-13 gang members and allies, and “La Tolva” (The Hopper), another maximum-security prison, has been left to 18th Street and their allies. To say “allies” in this context can mean a range of things: from gang collaborators and sympathizers, to relatives of gang members, to people who simply had the misfortune of living in an area controlled by one gang or the other. In the end, it is the authorities and chance that decide who is a gang “ally” — a label that can mark a person for life.
A similar tragedy occurred at the Women’s National Penitentiary of Social Adaptation (PNFAS), a maximum-security women’s prison in Támara: 46 prisoners died during a brutal riot in June 2023. Now, the facility only holds women tied to 18th Street, as well as women with no gang affiliations who have no conflicts with the gang. This was not the case before.
At the center of the prison stands a monument to misfortune: The walls are stained black from fire. The roof is shattered. The site is surrounded by an impenetrable metal grate, and though abandoned, is still guarded by an armed officer. In that place, 46 female MS-13 collaborators, who had been serving sentences for selling drugs, were massacred by 18th Street members convicted of contract killing and illicit association.
Like the society that creates them, gangs are macho organizations, but in the case of 18th Street, women take on a number of significant responsibilities. This, in fact, is why the Honduran press would often describe female members of the gang as “las diablas”: because they, too, acted as assassins, as sicarias, wielding weapons and killing in the name of La 18.
In the case of female members of the Mara Salvatrucha, it stands to reason that they are better known for administering the gang’s assets or selling drugs, because MS-13 has increased its drug trafficking operations while relegating extortion and contract killings. Despite the fact that women live under unequal and patriarchal conditions within the gang, there is one thing they never question: their gang identity, and their loyalty to it. This is why not a day goes by in a neighborhood controlled by two gangs without a violent confrontation where the stronger side wins; likewise, and following this same logic, a prison cannot hold gang members without the stronger massacring the weaker.
Almost no one anticipated the massacre of 46 women at PNFAS, despite the fact that prison tragedies have been a recurring theme in Honduras in recent years, especially as governments institute iron fist regimes and maximize criminalization and military repression in the name of fighting crime. The mass killing at the women’s prison in Támara was one more macabre spectacle in a country commonly classified as a narco-state, where social and environmental conflicts have claimed the lives of hundreds of land- and human rights defenders, where agrarian conflicts continue to result in murder, where the number of violent deaths suffered by women increases each year, and where there are more armed private security guards than police. Every time the government changes hands, it’s déjà vu all over again. Only this time, the government has a friendly face, tied to the rise of social media and the popularity of the neighboring president, Nayib Bukele, who appears to be marketing his model of repression to all of Central America, and to the entire world.
Before he was extradited, former President Juan Orlando Hernández —who now faces trial in the United States on drug trafficking charges— paid a lobbyist in Washington, D.C. to create strategies to mitigate the danger posed by Bukele’s expansionist intentions in Central America. He was concerned by the significant growth of the Salvadoran Army. From his perspective, a nation the size of Olancho, one of Honduras’ 18 departments, should not have a larger military than its neighbor, especially given the history of confrontations between the two countries. This concern was amplified by other anxieties related to statements made by Bukele about his intention to lead Central American unification and retake control of Conejo Island, a tiny piece of disputed land in the Gulf of Fonseca, off the Pacific Coast — intentions unacceptable in the eyes of the country of Francisco Morazán.
Hernandez’s lobbying efforts ended the day before President Xiomara Castro’s inauguration, and no one talked about the matter again. People in Honduras, however, eagerly awaited Bukele’s arrival at the inauguration of the president-elect; Hernandez’s jealousy aside, Bukele is a very popular figure in Honduras. During the pandemic, several mayors went to visit him to ask for donations of vaccines — Bukele obliged, to much media fanfare.
Adapting the Bukele model
There were many warning signs. In June 2022, Honduras’ vice minister of security, Julissa Villanueva, stated publicly that the Castro administration was looking at the possibility of adopting Nayib Bukele’s “territorial control plan” — the policy that has led to the imprisonment of over 70,000 Salvadorans without due process, under the auspices of a state of exception that has now lasted more than one year and seven months. The plan, Bukele boasts, has allowed El Salvador to completely rein in the gangs and lower the homicide rate to levels never before seen in the country.
He has thus transformed himself into a president that rules with an iron fist, restricting freedoms and violating human rights. Salvadorans have come to accept these restrictions on their democratic liberties as necessary for ensuring security, one of the most pressing issues the country has faced for many years.
In Honduras, however, popularity is precisely what Castro lacks. During the November 2021 elections —which saw the largest voter turnout in recent history— people voted against Hernández more than they voted in favor of Castro and her socialist platform. After taking office and presenting herself to the public as a shadow of her advisor and husband, former president Manuel Zelaya Rosales, and presenting their children as important figures in her government, Castro’s popularity has fallen little by little each month. Bukele’s highly successful publicity machine is something the Zelaya-Castro government desperately seeks.
Thus, despite initial actions fulfilling her promise to demilitarize public security, the president soon followed the trend: punitive populism. She then took her first steps toward instituting this style of rule. Gang pressures on the streets manifested in the burning of buses and the murder of taxicab and public transport drivers. Other violence erupted around the country, especially in rural areas, with land conflicts leading to massacres, and an increase in the violent deaths of women.
In December 2022, the government declared a state of exception, with the National Police under command of Ramón Sabillón, the first police officer appointed as minister of security. But plans to present an improved police force were interrupted in June 2023 by the largest massacre in the history of the country’s women’s prison — though this is not saying very much, in a country where fires, massacres, and confrontations have claimed the lives of some 700 inmates in 10 different prison tragedies. Sabillón was immediately dismissed following the incident at Támara, and Castro ordered the militarization of the country’s prison system.
Just 17 days before the Támara massacre, and with the vice minister of security confirming the possibility that Honduras would copy Bukele’s anti-gang initiative, Héctor Manuel Zelaya Castro, the private secretary and son of President Xiomara Castro, met with Carlos Marroquín, the director of El Salvador’s Directorate for the Reconstruction of the Social Fabric (Dirección de Reconstrucción del Tejido Social), and one of the officials involved in the Salvadoran government’s secret negotiations with gangs, according to revelations by El Faro and later reiterated by the United States government. Whatever agreements were made during that meeting were never made public, since Zelaya Castro does not consider himself an official representative of Casa Presidencial. As he would have it, he is merely the president’s private secretary, and therefore his meetings are not of public record.
“Good Hondurans have nothing to fear”
The state of exception was implemented in Honduras to a mantra of General Gustavo Sanchez, then-police director and now minister of security: “Only bad Hondurans should be worried.”
Under the state of exception, the government has made mass arrests, but has not incarcerated massive numbers of people, and the rate of prosecutions has remained relatively low. Several prison system authorities confirmed that in spite of the state of exception, prison occupancy has not increased. Nor has it decreased, they say, because the justice system tends to move slowly in carrying out pre-release processes for the hundreds of eligible prisoners who have either served the majority of their sentences, or are up for release on good behavior, illness, or age.
But inmates at the women’s prison in Támara say that on several occasions, women arrested on extortion charges have been brought into the prison in handcuffs and kept for brief six-day periods. Then they are released. Rihanna Ferrera, an advocate for LGBTQI prisoners in Honduras, told me that one of the constant complaints that her organization receives is of unjustified detentions that later become administrative processes in which detainees must pay fines to the state, in addition to paying for lawyers. “They’re using the state of exception to do business,” she says.
Rihanna has been the victim of stigmatization and harassment on social media for denouncing torture and human rights violations committed by the police and military in the prison system. She was one of the first people to warn that a massacre was imminent in Támara, and that immediate action should be taken to prevent it. No one listened to her.
When I asked Ramiro Fernando Muñoz, commander of the Military Police for Public Order and director of the prison system following its takeover by the military, why the government has accused human rights organizations of being gang accomplices and obstructed them from continuing their work in the prison system, he claimed to have evidence that human rights organizations communicate and collaborate with gang leaders. Commander Muñoz has been one of the most fervent officials to insist that “good Hondurans should not be afraid of the [military] intervention or the state of exception.”
Human rights defenders and journalists who report what is happening in the country are also targeted and threatened. In its latest country assessment, the Honduras Office of the U.N. Human Rights Commission reported 372 cases of threats, criminalization, and murders of human rights defenders, environmentalists, and journalists so far in 2023. Of these, 105 of the victims were journalists. Of the total reported incidents, there were fifteen activists and one journalist murdered. Given this reality, silence and a lack of organizing in defense of free expression, access to information, and human rights is commonplace in Honduras — even more so when it comes to the rights of prisoners, in a country under a state of emergency, with a militarized public security apparatus.
In these circumstances, accessing information is no simple task. To enter prisons in Honduras as a reporter, I submitted several requests to Commander Muñoz, the director of the Military Police agency created by Juan Orlando Hernández. Muñoz controls how the press can cover information about the prison system, along with everything else related to the state of exception and the government’s fight against organized crime. His power also comes with resources: the military budget for 2023 totals 11.162 billion lempiras (roughly $451 million USD), almost three billion lempiras more than the last budget approved by Hernández. Of this increase, one billion lempiras are specifically earmarked for military intervention under the state of exception, including in prisons. “There’s enough money as long as no one steals,” Muñoz says, echoing a popular phrase of Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele, which has resonated across Honduras.
Despite this immense deployment of military, police, and public relations resources under the state of exception, people on the streets say they have not seen much of an impact, and that they wish Honduras’ state of exception was more like Bukele’s.
It’s better to never leave
In the PNFAS prison in Támara, where the military and 18th Street now rule, one “peseta” (a retired gang member, or alternatively, traitor) tells me she is afraid to leave. She is close to being granted parole, but says that as soon as she sets foot outside, the gang will kill her. The entire area around the prison is controlled by 18th Street; when the MS-13 survivors of the massacre were still in PNFAS, they, too, feared that they would be killed if they left.
The woman has survived two attacks in the prison by fellow inmates. During the first assault, they stabbed her for her alleged betrayal and then moved her to the general population, where prisoners not associated with gangs are held. Then again, on the morning of June 20, women from her former gang attacked her during the massacre of 46 members of MS-13. This time, she ran and climbed over a wall. When she fell down on the other side, she broke her ankle. Now she walks with a cane, and has several screws in her bones.
It is unclear why her gang refuses to let her retire. There are many cases of male “pesetas” who left the gang to submit their life to God and, in this way, are granted permission to live. Why couldn’t she leave, I ask, considering that she, too, claims to have accepted Christ? She says women aren’t allowed to leave because they are considered weaker and more likely to talk once on the outside —about everything they did in the gang, how the gang operates— and that’s why they kill them. The woman is trapped in limbo: she is not safe with MS-13 members in the prison where she has now been transferred, and she can’t be in PNFAS, which is under control of 18th Street. She hopes they will transfer her to a prison in a rural town somewhere, and that way, when it’s her turn for pre-release, no one will notice.
According to figures from the Women’s Rights Center, a Honduran advocacy organization, 317 women have been murdered so far this year in Honduras, and in the 32 multiple homicides or massacres that took place up to August 31 of this year, a total of 170 people lost their lives, of which 70 were women, with another four whose gender has yet to be identified.
In The Pit, the MS-13 inmates tell me they hope the military intervention in the prisons doesn’t end, because they don’t want to be sent back to PNFAS, where the women of 18th Street will be waiting for them — waiting to complete their mission to exterminate them. They also dream of leaving, but they have come to accept that the country outside has little to offer. It is likely, several of them say, that when they do leave, the only job opportunity available to them will be the one offered by the gangs: selling drugs. Several of the women indicate that with criminal records, no one will give them a job, and women who have been convicted of extortion, even after serving their sentence, are restricted from even entering convenience or corner stores, because of the stigma they carry with them as potential extortionists.
“Some compañeras were granted release and then killed before they got out; others were killed once they got outside. This country has no opportunities,” says a survivor of the massacre.
And what country waits for you when you leave?” I ask a group of eight women who have circled around me to talk.
“The United States,” they respond in unison.
*This article by Jennifer Ávila, director and co-founder of Honduran digital outlet Contracorriente, was translated by Max Granger.