Honduras plans to build a 20,000-capacity 'megaprison' for gang members as part of a crackdown

President of Honduras Xiomara Castro waves as she arrives to attend President Nayib Bukele's inauguration ceremony, in San Salvador, El Salvador, Saturday, June 1, 2024. (AP Photo/Salvador Melendez)

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) — The president of Honduras has announced the creation of a new 20,000-capacity “megaprison," part of the government's larger crackdown on gang violence and efforts to overhaul its long-troubled prison system.

President Xiomara Castro unveiled a series of emergency measures in a nationally televised address early Saturday, including plans to strengthen the military's role in fighting organized crime, prosecute drug traffickers as terrorists and build new facilities to ease overcrowding as narcoviolence and other crimes mount in the nation of 10 million.

Left-wing Castro's “megaprison" ambitions mirror those of President Nayib Bukele in neighboring El Salvador, who has built the largest prison in Latin America — a 40,000-capacity facility to house a surging number of detainees swept up in the president's campaign of mass arrests.

Honduran security forces must “urgently carry out interventions" in all parts of the country now witnessing "the highest rates of gang violence, drug trafficking, money laundering” and other crimes, Castro said in her midnight address.

Authorities plan to immediately construct and send dangerous gangsters to a 20,000-capacity prison near the rural province of Olancho, in the country's east, said Maj. Gen. Roosevelt Hernández, the army chief of staff.

Escalated police raids have driven up the Honduran prison population to 19,500 inmates, crammed into a system designed for 13,000, the Honduran national committee against torture, or CONAPREV, reported last year.

The government has rushed to build new detention facilities. Last year, Castro announced plans to construct the only island prison colony in the Western Hemisphere — an isolated 2,000-capacity prison on the Islas del Cisne archipelago about 155 miles (250 kilometers) off the country’s coast.

The Honduran defense council also demanded that Congress change the penal code to allow authorities to detain suspected gang leaders without filing charges and carry out mass trials, as they do for alleged terrorists.

The raft of measures marked the latest example of Castro's hard-line stance on security that intensified amid a surge of narcoviolence in 2022, when she imposed a state of emergency to combat the bloodshed and suspended part of the constitution — a page straight from the playbook of Bukele in El Salvador.

Like Bukele's anti-gang crackdown that has restricted civil liberties in El Salvador, Castro’s tactics have drawn criticism from human rights groups that accuse her government of taking its tough-on-crime tactics too far.

But Bukele’s success in eradicating gangs that once terrorized large swaths of El Salvador has won him admiration across the region, including in Honduras, where a weary public wants to see results.

Last week, Honduran Security Minister Gustavo Sánchez announced that the government recorded 20% fewer homicides in the first five months of 2024 compared to the same period last year.

Yet critics remain skeptical that the Bukele model can deliver results in Honduras, where gangs remain powerful and corruption entrenched, despite the recent drop in homicides.