I thought it would be appropriate to talk about Honduras, home to the ‘murder capital’ of the world, in view of our class on necropolitics, biopolitics and the homo sacer. In Honduras there are 90.4 homicides per 100.000 people, 95% of which go uninvestigated. The next most violent country outside of a war zone is Venezuela with an average of 50.3 homicides per 100.000 people. But who is killing whom? Who has the power to kill, why do they have it, how and what are the limits?
As with all situations, the Honduran one is complex: interlinking, tangled factors and a repressive state have created a highly militarized context where fear is so thick you can cut through it with a machete. Pistols and AK47s are the preferred weapons for killing in Honduras, however. In fact, it is estimated that there are about 2 million firearms floating around Central America. Mix that up with 80% of the United States’ cocaine supply passing through – some of which gets conveniently left behind and consumed as crack – stick it into the hands of unemployed, frustrated young men and you’ve got a pretty good taste of the plat du jour. (UNODC, 2013).
“God forsaken”  was the word that came to my mind after having been in San Pedro Sula for a few days. The military and private security forces conduct death patrols in their mission to eliminate the maras (gangs) one-by-one. They also specifically target and assassinate human rights defenders, leaders of women’s rights movements, journalists and members of the oppositional party. Military expenditure continues to grow, reports on women’s rights state that these efforts do nothing or worsen their safety. It is well known that the military and the police are corrupt and cannot be trusted. (Nobel Women’s Initiative and JASS, 2012) The people who can afford it build ever-higher walls topped with barbed wire for protection, migrate or are forced to adapt.
According to popular discourse it is the maras (gangs) that people are protecting themselves from (Rodgers, 2006). Maras coercively control whole communities, rival each other, racketeer, kill and murder. Indeed the violence that the maras commit is beyond most people’s imagination (there are some films, documentaries and ethnographies if you wish to explore further). However, by waging a ‘War on Gangs’ (sounds familiar right?) the state and their accomplices legitimise their right to kill by using the maras as scapegoats for grander plans.
In other words, the sovereign reduces the maras to bare life. The authoritarian regime following the military coup of 2009 made gang membership illegal (fortunately for the military the maras are pretty easy to spot since they tattoo their entire bodies and faces with gang slogans), legitimising mass arrests and tattoo searches (as pictured below) and death patrols leaving slain bodies in the ditches (will spare you of these images, but they are out there). (Rodgers, 2006).
In a recent term paper I concluded that it all boils down to the workings of a powerful Honduran elite pawned by North American ‘New Imperialism’ (you know, national interests, so on and so forth)(Velmeyer, 2013). They are the ‘Sovereign’; they have the power to kill. They set up military bases, trade weapons and sniff enough cocaine to keep the ‘war machine’ lubricated (Mbembé & Mientjes, 2003: 34). This ‘partnership’ allows North America to regain its economic and military foothold in the region (after loosing grips due to being slightly more preoccupied with other baddies in the Middle East). The Honduran elite gets a fat friend whose thirst for Coca-Cola, appetite for Chiquita bananas and need for under-priced XXXL T-shirts are not easily satisfied.
At the receiving end of this deadly circus are the Honduran civilians, stripped of political agency and reduced to ‘bare life’. They bottle our cokes, pick our bananas and sew our T-shirts. For instance, in the maquilas (assembly plants set up near borders or ports as a part of Structural Adjustment Programmes) that within 10 years came to employ over 100.000 people (Webber and Gordon, 2013), mainly grossly underpaid, overworked, non-unionised female workers. Similar to colonial Africa, maquila workers suffer a triple loss: “a loss of ‘home,’ a loss of rights over his or her body, and a loss of political status” (Mbembé: 21).
A crucial difference to the above notion of necropolitics, as Mbembé points out and which I would argue holds true in this particular case, is that due to the advent of globalisation and ‘new wars’ (more intra-state than between inter-state) it is not solely the state that has the right to kill, instead “a patchwork of overlapping and incomplete rights to rule emerges“, resulting in a ‘state of exception’ that is not clearly demarcated by boundaries distinguishing between the external and internal enemy, such as a concentration camp, but instead constitutes a ‘death world’ where entire populations are the target of the sovereign. (Mbembé: 30).
Agamben’s theory of the ‘homo sacer’ and Mbembe’s contextualisation to a more globalised world for me has provided the theoretical underpinning of why state violence and particular creations of the sovereign are not random or committed by irrational warmongers who can only think of firing bullets as a way to solve issues. Instead, they are Imperialistic, strategic forms of necropolitics with a clear aim, and a structure that can sweep aside the unfortunate side-effects of slaughtering street children, burning prisoners alive and killing women as the doings of unruly, violent groups. It has begged me to ask: when is the use of violence (il)legitimate for the sake of being unruly? Can we understand organised, violent crime as a form of resistance created by being reduced to bare life even though the perpetrators themselves don’t frame it as such?
 Ironically, an ethnography of a maras in Honduras showed that converting to the Evangelical Church is the only way out of the gang other than death (Brenneman, 2012).
 Known as the mano dura (iron fist) approach. See more: Jütersonke et al. 2009.
 There are two, they are bitter enemies, Mara Salvatrucha and MS-18. They originate from the United States comprised of Guatemalan and Salvadoran refugees of war, 46.000 of who were deported to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras in the 1990’s. They have since evolved into local orgnisations of mainly young men, typically from poor, urban milieux.
Agamben, G., 1998. Homo Sacer. In Homo Sacer – Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford University Press.
Mbembé & Mientjes, 2003. Necropolitics. Public Culture. 15(1), pp.11-40. Duke University Press.
Literature about Honduras and the Maras:
Brenneman, R., 2012. Introduction: JJ’s Second Marriage. In Homies and Hermanos. OUP. pp.3-20.
Gordon, T. & Webber, J.R., 2013. The Overthrow of a Moderate and the Birth of a Radicalizing Resistance: The Coup Against Manuel Zelaya and the History of Imperialism and Popular Struggle in Honduras. In Carr, B. & Webber, J.R. The New Latin American Left. Cracks in the Empire. Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield. pp.357-82.
Jütersonke, O., Muggah, R. & Rodgers, D., 2009. Gangs and Violence Reduction in Central America. Security Dialogue, 40(4-5), pp.1-25.
Rodgers, D., 2006. Living in the Shadow of Death: Gangs, Violence and Social Order in Urban Nicaragua, 1996–2002. Journal of Latin American Studies , 38(2), pp.267-92.