[Translation of an article from El Faro of San Salvador, El Salvador, for December 1. See original here.]
By José Luis Sanz
To be a police officer in Honduras these days is to be looked at with fear and, above all, and this is new, with scorn. Last October 22 police agents killed two university students. Two more bodies in a country whose murder rate is the highest on the continent – 88 for every 100,000 inhabitants – and in which for years civil society organizations like the Centro de Prevención, Tratamiento y Rehabilitación de las Víctimas de la Tortura (CPTRT – Center for Prevention, Treatment and Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture) denounce systematic abuse of authority committed by the National Police, the influence of drug trafficking in its ranks and the operations of uniformed extermination groups.
But this time the open secret became front-page news. One of the students killed was Rafael Vargas Castellanos, son of Julieta Castellanos, rector of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Honduras (UNAH), an academician respected by the left and the right in a country tremendously polarized since the coup d’état of 2009, and who since 2009 has led a violence monitoring group. Castellanos and the UNAH demanded a thorough investigation and unleashed a scandal that could result in a deep purging of the ranks of the police only two months after the mere suggestion of such an undertaking was to cost then Minister of Public Security Óscar Álvarez his position.
On Septembr 10, Álvarez, prime mover since the ‘90s of the iron-fisted policies of the country, was removed by President Porfirio Lobo. Days earlier, Álvarez said he had discovered at least 20 police commanders who worked for international drug traffickers and accused them, without naming names, of having become air traffic controllers for the small planes that land in Honduras loaded with cocaine. He asked for greater power to fire these officials. He was the one fired. Several political sources in Tegucigalpa claim that strong pressure from the police barracks influenced the fall of the minister.
Now the current has reversed directions. UNAH, in a report carried by Honduran news media last week, states that the National Police of Honduras is “the most dangerous criminal organization in the country,” and asked for a restructuring of the body. On Wednesday, November 30, a new Security Commission created a few days ago, of which Julieta Castellanos is a member, was to submit to the president a list of between three and five names to head the new independent institution which, Porfirio Lobo announced, will be in charge of investigating and evaluating police agents.
In the last few days, aware that the population fears and mistrusts the peace forces, the government has let it be known that any police roadblock of a highway should be made up of at least eight agents with a patrol car. The implicit message? If a police agent signals your car to stop and you are not sure that it is a legitimate roadblock, don’t stop, accelerate.
Although international observers doubt the real scope of the plans for a purge promised by the current president, Honduran Human Rights Commissioner Ramón Custodio applauds the initiative. “A police force with absolute power had been created and, within it, corruption was absolute,” he says. “It is a fact that the current police force is incapable of fullfilling its constitutional responsibility of providing security to the public.”
A call to the army
While it is being decided how to remake the police, Lobo has already announced his path toward a solution: the Army. On Monday, the 28th, he offered to Congress and to the news media – he asked journalists explicitly to help him convince the public of the benefits of the measure – a constitutional reform that would allow the armed forces to take on police duties with the same authority and independence the National Police now has.
Article 274 of the constitution of Honduras establishes that the armed forces “will cooperate with the executive power in literacy campaigns, education, agriculture, conservation of natural resources, roadways, communications, health, agrarian reform and emergency situations.” Lobo hopes Congress will make a broad interpretation of his text and will take into account that another article, number 272, includes among the responsibilities of the armed forces “to keep the peace, the public order,” so they will approve the reform.
On Monday, Lobo asserted that the United Nations Development Program in Honduras had offered their collaboration in training the military for their new duties in public security. Yesterday, Tuesday, however, sources in the United Nations told El Faro that the offer was never made and that it is probably a matter of the president’s “misinterpretation.”
Porfirio Lobo won the presidential elections in November, 2009, in the midst of a crisis following the coup d’état against Manuel Zelaya, and since he assumed office in Jaunuary, 2010, he publicly took on the responsibility of reweaving the political and institutional fabric of the country during his mandate. To this end, hand in hand with the United Nations, he promoted the work of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission and arranged the return of Zelaya to the country so he could create a new party. Now he is proposing that the armed forces, which in June, 2009, were the executing arm of the coup d’état, and which the Honduran left still considers supportive of the coup, make decisions in the struggle against crime, without being subjected to civilian authority.
This implies a radical change in the practice, in effect in Guatemala and El Salvador as well, of groups in joint efforts, in which the military do patrol work and participate in operations against crime, but always under the authority of a civilian police official.
Lobo want to do away with that subordination. And he even proposes that instead of having two ministers, one for public security, the other for defense, there be from now on a single functionary in charge of public safety and protecting sovereignty, with the two bodies, the Police and the Army, in his charge.
Representatives of civil society have declared themselves to be against this last measure and have described it as regressive. Until 14 years ago, there was no public security minister in Honduras and the police were directly under Defense. The tendency in the region, with international support, of leaving the tasks of public security in the hands of civilians resulted in a separation in 1993 of the investigating police from the rest, being placed under the interior ministry, and in 1997, toward the end of the administration of Carlos Roberto Reina, in the creation of a ministry of public security and having the police units joined together under civilian control.
In Honduras, however, few security ministers have been civilians. Five of the eight who have held the position since 1997 have been former military, including Álvarez and the current minister, Pompeyo Bonilla, who retired from the military as a captain.
Human Rights Commissioner Ramón Custodio sees no problem in having the armed forces on the streets with no connection to civilian police authority and shows full confidence in the integrity of the Honduran military in confrontation with the police, whom no one in Honduras defends these days and who have been accused of as many as 96% of the homicides. “At times corrupt police control has led the armed forces into complicated situations,” Custodio says.
During the last two months, in the three countries that make up the northern triangle of Central America, retired military have reinforced the presence of the armed forces in positions of command directly linked to the job of public security. If retired military officers are at the head of security ministries in Honduras and El Salvador, in Guatemala ex-General Otto Pérez Molina, who has been accused by several civilian organizations of committing human rights violations in the ‘80s in the indigenous department of Quiché, won the presidential election after a campaign centered on the hardening of measures to combat crime. Pérez has already announced that the security ministry will also have a military officer at its head.