Lawmakers in Honduras are considering copying a recent decision by authorities in El Salvador to label gangs as terrorist groups, raising questions about what such a move would actually accomplish in the ongoing fight against gang violence in this Central American nation.
Thomas Zambrano, president of the Congressional Commission for Security in Honduras, said that lawmakers will be able to propose changes to the national penal code that would classify gangs as terrorist organizations, reported El Heraldo. Zambrano’s comments come just days after El Salvador’s Supreme Court ruled that the MS13 and Barrio 18 gangs operating in that country constitute terrorist groups.
Zambrano was quick to note that any proposed changes to the penal code might not survive the revision process that will take place before there is a final vote on the legislation.
In July of this year, Honduras’ Congress passed legislation known as the “anti-gang law” that increased penalties for gang members and leaders. The legislation calls for prison terms of between 20 and 30 years for convicted gang members and up to 40 years for gang leaders. Under a terrorism designation, any gang member, regardless of leadership status, could face a prison sentence of up to 40 years.
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It is unclear what a move to reclassify Honduran gangs as terrorist organizations would achieve. Both Honduras and El Salvador have had strict anti-gang laws on the books for years, yet neither country has managed to significantly diminish the proliferation of gang activity. Implementing tougher legislation is an ineffective way to tackle gang violence as long as the institutions implementing these laws remain corrupt and inefficient.
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The proposal to update Honduras’ legal code would reportedly define terrorism as any premeditated violent act committed by a criminal organization that is meant to intimidate society at large, the government, or an international organization. Political motivation would not be a prerequisite for a terrorism designation.
Nonetheless, the justification for labeling the Barrio 18 and MS13 as terrorist organizations is highly questionable, and may in fact backfire by conferring some degree of political status on these criminal groups. The US Department of State’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations only includes illegal armed groups in Latin America that were formed within a political context, such as Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in Colombia and the Shining Path in Peru. In contrast, the political motivations behind the gangs’ criminal activities remain in doubt.