The Honduran National Congress meets Tuesday to vote on controversial changes to the country’s penal code that human rights advocates fear will criminalize protests and give immunity to police and the military, instead of carrying out their intended purpose of battling criminal networks and extortion.
Reforms will see that state authorities, including police and the military, will be given increased immunity that will protect them from prosecution for use of firearms in the line of duty. The U.N. Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights said that the change could open the door for impunity of the arbitrary use of force, including extrajudicial killings and torture by authorities.
There is also significant concern over the reforms that will deem anti-government protests — already highly criminalized in Honduras — as acts of terrorism. One part of the reform would make illicit association with Honduras’ notorious gangs an act of terrorism, in a similar reform to El Salvador’s plans to tackle gangs.
Organized crime groups, in particularly the Barrio 18 gang, have been known for running widespread extortion operations in the country which are commonly met with impunity. The penalty for extortion will be lifted to a sentence of 20 years to life in prison and will be defined as an act of terrorism.
To be deemed as a crime of extortion, money will not have to be fully delivered. Instead, a phone call, message or letter demanding extortion payments would be considered a danger to the target and his family and would constitute extortion.
Jose Tomas Zambrano, the president for the special commission on the reforms, said that security forces within the country are pleased with the proposed reforms. Honduran President Juan Hernandez is pushing for the reforms to be passed.
In recent years, Honduras has been one of the most violent and insecure countries in the world and has struggled to combat violence perpetrated by criminal gangs. The 2009 U.S.-backed coup that removed democratic socialist President Manuel Zelaya from power has been a large factor in the ongoing instability.