Caribbean & Central America - May 2013 (ISSN 1741-4458)

HONDURAS: Bonilla pushes to unleash his ‘Tigers’

The 26 July 2012 draft legislation for a new elite military-police unit called ‘Tigres’ (Tropa de Inteligencia y Grupos de Respuesta Especial de Seguridad - Intelligence Troop and Special Security Response Troop) is to be taken up for a second time by congress, prompting fresh concern about the militarisation of internal security in Honduras.

The new elite unit is the brainchild of the national police chief, Juan Carlos ‘El Tigre’ Bonilla as part of the reform and overhaul of the widely discredited national police force. Back in July 2012 the plan was to fire around 4,000 of the 12,000-strong national police force and replace part of it with the new elite Tigres, who would focus on providing citizen security and battling organized crime. The root and branch police reform has been very slow to get off the ground; to date the clear-out has not yet happened so now it appears that the new unit, which may be set up with a US$57m loan from the Inter-American Development Bank, would be in addition to the existing force. Los Tigres would receive military training and be stationed at military bases close to the country’s crime hotspots, including the main urban areas of San Pedro Sula and the capital, Tegucigalpa. The unit, to be staffed by young recruits aged 18-22, would be under the command of the security ministry but be independent of the national police. In times of war it would fall under control of the defence ministry.

Honduras already has an elite national police force, the Cobras, which receives training from US swat team experts. That begs the question as to whether there is concern in the security ministry that the Cobras also have been infiltrated by organised crime. Moreover, it is also the case that the government has already deployed the military onto the streets of the country’s most violent city, San Pedro Sula, using a state of emergency (recently extended to January 2014) under which the military is empowered to act in a policing role. (For further details see the April 2013 edition of our sister publication Latin American Security & Strategic Review.)

The national university rector, Julieta Castellanos, the leading advocate for police reform since her son and his friend were murdered by renegade officers, has expressed opposition to the idea of Los Tigres being under military command. Castellanos said she acknowledged the need for an elite police force with the capacity to tackle high profile crimes like drug trafficking, money laundering, extortion and kidnapping, but she questioned the need for it to sit under the military, noting that between 19636 and 1993 the police was under the control of the armed forces and was equally “corrupt and criminal”.

Meanwhile, the troubled police reform process continues to run into legal obstacles. On 14 May the pernickety supreme court, which in December 2012 already ruled parts of the police reform unconstitutional (prompting a major institutional crisis with the congress), ordered Bonilla to supply within 24 hours legal documentation in support of his decision to remove several police commissioners. The court warned that failure to present the documents would result in an automatic ruling in favour of the applicants. Over in the security ministry, however, the new ‘super minister’ Corrales is making waves, axing and re-assigning dozens of senior police officials since he took office on 1 May. The newly appointed head of the police purification unit (DIECP), Eduardo Villanueva, also said that the results of ‘confidence tests’ on the police leadership would be ready by end-month.

  • The US backs Bonilla

The tiger-in-chief, Bonilla, has himself been the subject of some concern, including by the US State Department, which in August 2012 suspended some law enforcement cooperation funds (worth up to US$3.0m) for Bonilla and his immediate agents pending an investigation into his human rights record. The allegations against Bonilla included claims that he ran a death squad in the period 1998-2002. He was acquitted (of murder) in 2004 in the only case filed against him ever to make it to court, with the verdict upheld by the supreme court in 2009.

After the news got out, the US embassy in Honduras on 13 August last year issued a statement seeking to downplay any rift in bilateral security relations: “US law authorising assistance for the armed forces and the national police of Honduras requires the Department of State to send to congress a report certifying that the government [of Honduras] is implementing policies to protect the freedom of expression and association and the due process of law. [It] must also mention if the government is investigating and processing… military or police personnel… allegedly involved in the violation of human rights, and whether the armed forces and the police are cooperating with the civil judicial authorities… This report must be submitted before 20% of the available funds for these institutions can be released”. Given that the state department report concluded that the Honduran government had complied, "the US has no plans to reduce or eliminate assistance to the Honduran armed forces or the police”, the embassy emphasised.

Ambassador Lisa Kubiske highlighted that a full 80% of the US law enforcement funds for Honduras (amounting to US$56m for 2012) were in place. The-then foreign minister, Arturo Corrales (now security minister), downplayed the issue: “They have asked for information and we have given it. What happened a decade ago for us is something that has already been adjudicated…We expect the investigation to be completed as quickly as possible”, he said. President Porfirio Lobo reiterated his full support for Bonilla, appointed just weeks earlier, calling him “a breath of fresh air”.

On 13 May the US Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, William R. Brownfield, said in a press interview that he “respected and admired” Bonilla’s “effective” work, and stated that he had not seen that the State Department had reached any conclusion in support of the accusations against Bonilla. “For reasons of prudence, we are working with those parts of the police force that do not report directly to the director general (i.e. Bonilla). But I understand that he has taken steps to clean up the police and professionalise it, and that he has been effective in putting a better force on the streets”. Brownfield intimated that the issue was largely procedural and was in the process of being resolved. “I want to make clear that I am working with the Honduran police”, he underlined.

  • TSE says no money for elections

On 13 May David Matamoros officially became the chief magistrate on the supreme electoral court (TSE). The TSE is due to call the November general election by 23 May, however some in the institution have complained of a lack of funds to organise the 2013 ballot. Matamoros said President Lobo had guaranteed him sufficient funds.

  • Which suitor suits best - Taiwan or China?

The Lobo government has recalled the Honduran ambassador to Taiwan for consultations, amid fresh rumours that Honduras is about to formally establish diplomatic relations with mainland China. It was also reported locally that Taiwan’s deputy foreign minister Simon Ko had been refused a meeting with President Lobo on a recent trip to Tegucigalpa. President Lobo has suggested that it is possible to have relations with both. There has been speculation that moves by Honduras to pivot its foreign axis towards Chinese-allies in the region like Ecuador and Venezuela, as well as the likes of Palestine and Russia, may be the prelude to formalising diplomatic ties with Beijing.

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