11/20/2013 10:34 am ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

Honduras: Mr. Villeda's Common Sense Approach to Security

One of the biggest security problems in Honduras is extortion. Organized crime syndicates and gangs take advantage of the fear, isolation, and virtually non-existent police presence within most neighborhoods in cities and towns to extort money from people in exchange for "protection" -- which in real terms means in exchange for not killing you or members of your family. The payment is called the "impuesto de guerra", or "war tax". Many, if not most, of the homicides in the country are the result of someone refusing to pay up. But it's hard to know for sure, because it's an underground world in which lots of bad stuff happens, and you're left to speculate whether it had something to do with drugs or politics. In many cases, though, it's extortion... and one way you can tell is by the growing number of neighborhoods and communities throughout Honduras that have been abandoned by their residents.

Gang members have moved into the empty houses and apartments and essentially set up their own little fiefdoms -- areas everyone knows you had better stay away from. These fiefdoms have a tendency to gradually expand and threaten nearby neighborhoods and communities. They are like a cancer spreading out of control. It is these fiefdoms that are supposedly now being targeted by the Military Police for Public Order (PMOP) which was deployed last month -- about a thousand soldiers who have received a little more training and better equipment than their peers and sent off to do battle with criminals and (hopefully) gradually take back all those gang-infested neighborhoods.

The problem is that there are an estimated 65,000 gang members in Honduras, and this number is growing daily. By comparison, there are only about 12,000 police officers -- most of them poorly paid and equipped, and some of them with ties to organized crime. There are approximately 20,000 members of the Armed Forces, from which the Military Police are recruited. So there are not enough government security personnel to patrol the streets, fight crime, and take back neighborhoods -- and, here's the key... hold them so that their former residents feel confident and safe enough to move back in and resume their normal lives.

The idea that the Military Police is going to actually deal with the security crisis in Honduras is a cruel myth. It raises the expectations of the Honduran people and gives them false hope. In the end, the Military Police is mostly used as a political prop to demonstrate that the government is doing something concrete to respond to crime and violence... while the situation continues to worsen.

The absurdity of the whole Military Police mythology is perhaps matched only by how little effort has been given to much simpler, more affordable, and potentially infinitely more effective crime-fighting strategies such as getting control of Honduras' national prison system. There are 24 prisons in the country, and most of them (if not all) are largely run by the inmates -- many of whom can escape if they want to, but often choose not to because they sense they're safer behind the prison walls than outside.

In other words, the prisons in Honduras are akin to home-bases for many gangs -- places where they can conduct business safely without having to worry too much about defending their turf or being pestered by patrolling police officers and soldiers. Inmates have cell phones, and so they're able to communicate with their friends and relatives. They are also able to send out commands and instructions as to who to kill or extort. So you ask, "Why doesn't the government simply go in and take away everyone's cell phones?" Or even easier, "Why doesn't the government just block all the cell phone signals in the vicinity of the prisons?" Even more to the point, "Why doesn't the government order the cell phone companies to cease providing services to phones within the prisons?" In one fell swoop, the government could isolate gang members within its prisons and keep them from orchestrating their operations -- making it a whole lost easier for regular police to do their jobs and minimizing the need for the Military Police outright. So why hasn't this happened?

One of Liberal Party presidential candidate Mauricio Villeda's proposals calls for doing precisely this. Mr. Villeda has said that, if elected, he would sign an executive decree to reduce extortion by restricting the telephone signals both within and outside of prisons. The law would also force the cell phone companies to register all calls going in and out of the prisons. It's not as high-profile a move as the Military Police, but it sounds like it would be more effective, and it would cost almost nothing to implement. Hmm. A modicum of common sense please.