Monday, June 9, 2014

US Crew Runs Afoul of Honduran Gun Laws

US attitudes towards guns are notoriously different than those elsewhere in the world. And despite the well-promoted image of Honduras as inherently "violent", it is aligned with the rest of the world in restricting access to guns.

Now that difference has tripped up a ship's crew from Aqua Quest International, a self-described "Ocean Exploration and Archaeological Recovery Corporation " out of Tarpon Springs, Florida, that has landed itself in jail in Honduras by being ignorant of Honduran gun laws. Unfortunately, the news media in the US are not doing a very good job of understanding the actual laws involved, being too ready to accept another ready-made image: that of the corrupt foreign officials. While sometimes that definitely fits the Honduran case, this seems to be an exception: the Honduran legal system is working the way it is supposed to.

The Aqua Quest International crew was on its way to take a contract with the town of Ahuas, where a DEA supervised helicopter murdered 4 Honduran citizens including a pregnant woman in a botched drug interdiction.  The contract was to dredge the lower Patuca river, recovering sunken mahogany and ceder logs worth thousands of dollars.  Aqua Quest would get 30% of the sale price of the logs recovered.

It is not uncommon for ships sailing in US coastal waters, and even in the Caribbean, to have guns on board, but the Captain must be aware of local laws concerning guns before entering a port.  In many countries, Captains with guns have to sink a container with the guns onto the ocean floor, in international waters, marking the location, and retrieve them after leaving port.  This is a complicated, and not always successful project.  But local laws apply when a ship enters a port, and that includes gun laws.

But the captain and crew from Aqua Quest International entered Puerto Lempira not knowing Honduran law, and apparently not knowing that they were breaking it.  They declared their guns to the military vessel that checked them as they entered Honduran national waters, and were expecting the Port Captain to decide if they could keep their guns or needed to have them locked up.  Instead they were met by, and arrested by, the local police.

Their lawyer, Armida Lopez de Arguello claims this is a violation of maritime law.

It is not.

Honduran law is very clear. 

If you want to bring a gun into Honduras by sea, air, or land, you better already have a permit issued by Honduras.  Any attempt to bring a gun in without such a permit, aboard ship, via air, or overland, will get you arrested and thrown in jail.  Wikipedia mentions it, and cites a section of the US State Department website on Honduras. 

Under the heading "Firearms" the State Department website clearly states:
Firearms: No one may bring firearms into Honduras, except for diplomats or individuals participating in shooting or hunting sport events who have obtained a temporary firearm importation permit from the Honduran Ministry of Security prior to their travel to Honduras.
Firearms for personal safety or for purposes other than those mentioned above must be purchased locally through a store named “La Armería.” These stores are regulated by the Honduran Armed Forces and are located throughout Honduras.

It's even on the Honduran Embassy website, albeit in the Spanish language FAQ. 

A little research on the internet might have saved the ship's Captain and crew from its current predicament.

The ship had two shotguns, two handguns, and a semi-automatic "sports rifle" that resembles an AK-47.  Shotguns and hand guns can be easily permitted in Honduras, but that semi-automatic "sports rifle" cannot. Possession of such a rifle in Honduran territorial waters is itself a criminal act.

Despite easy access to the facts of Honduran law, most of the English-language media seem perplexed as to why the crew were arrested. 

Fox news used the phrase "trumped up changes", echoing the words of Stephen Mayne, the company's chief operating officer, brother of the ship's Captain, Robert Mayne, Jr., who is also the company's CEO. 

NPR covered the story this week without mentioning Honduran law. 

Stephen Mayne told the Macon Telegraph that:
“They shouldn’t be (in prison). (The crew) did everything by the book. They’ve been detained unlawfully by officials with suspect motives.”

Only a few media outlets got the facts right, and it makes for some strange bedfellows.

A New York Times article quotes a government prosecutor in Tegucigalpa as saying that the men should have had a permit for the guns because they had entered Honduran waters. The Voice of Russia reports that "the Honduran armed forces said the crew was arrested because they didn't have permits to possess guns in the country."

It's pretty clear that the actions of the US group were due to ignorance of Honduran law.  A Honduran appeals court will decide if they will continue to be held for trial, or can be released awaiting trial, later this week.

Meanwhile, we can hope that in the interim, more of the English language media can learn the facts, and begin to explain them to a US public that at times really doesn't understand that in other countries, being casual about firearms is not acceptable.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Whose Observatory of Violence?

Who controls the crime statistics?  Honduras has an Observatorio de Violencia, long a part of the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Honduras (UNAH).  The Security Ministry has outsourced its collecting and reporting of crime statistics to a private company,  Ingenieria Gerencial, owned by the Security Minister, Arturo Corrales.  Just about no one believes the crime statistics Corrales has been peddling.

So in February, Corrales announced the formation of 30 separate municipal Observatorios de Violencia, modeled after the successful program in Colombia, the  Observatorio para la Prevencion de Violencia y Lesiones de Colombia.  This program, and the existing Observatorio at UNAH, both owe their existence to pilot projects done by the CISALVA institute of the Universidad del Valle de Cali, in Colommbia 2002-2004, financed by Georgetown University and USAID.

In 1996 the Organization of American States Pan American Health Organization recognized that violence was a health problem, and in 2008 published a manual of best practices derived from what was learned in the Colombia pilot program.  The manual was written as part of a project to roll this program out in several Central American countries.  Ultimately Panama and Nicaragua were part of the initial pilot program.

Honduras was considered for that pilot program, but because of internal political considerations, was dropped.  The OAS wrote in the methodology manual for these municipal observatories in 2008:
It should be noted that Honduras was selected for the first phase [of the roll out by the UN], and later postponed for political reasons, in actuality the methodology has been successfully implemented developing a national observatory and a local observatory in the capital city of the country, founded in the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Honduras, UNAH, with the technical aid of the UN Development Program (PNUD in Spanish) and financed by the Swiss Agency for International Development.
So basically, the OAS/Pan American Health Organization is saying in 2008 that Honduras already has a national program that follows the best practices methodology they're promulgating, and doing it successfully.

So why is Arturo Corrales rejecting the Observatorio de Violencia at UNAH and proposing to supplant it with 30 municipal Observatorios doing the same work?  Corrales falsely claims you cannot do this at the national level:
The objective for establishing these municipal observatories of violencis is to characterize the causes of death and this can only be done at the local level, not the national level.
But the OAS, who after all, wrote the best practices manual, just said that the methodology was successfully being implemented at the national level in Honduras by the UNAH Observatorio de Violencia, so either Corrales is unfamiliar with the actual program and methodology, or he's being disingenous.

The irony here is that the UNAH Observatory already has proposed to do exactly this, almost a month ago.  For the last several years it has been establishing local observatories of violence in selected municipalities.  On March 27,   they announced the creation of a local observatory in Tela and said they sought to extend this to the whole country.  In fact, there already are local observatories in Comayagua, Choluteca, San Pedro Sula, Choloma, La Ceiba, and Juticalpa.  At least some of these are places Corrales intends to install his own observatories.  Maybe instead of developing a competing program, Corrales should embrace the existing one?

Why should Honduras spend money on setting up municipal violence observatories when everyone including Corrales agrees the UNAH program is exemplary? Migdona Ayestes, head of the UNAH Observatorio de Violencia, thinks it may be that Corrales doesn't understand the mission and function of an Observatorio de Violencia.  She arranged to meet with him  to explain it to him.

However, there seems to be two other  answers here.  On the one hand, these would be the "Official" observatories that would collect and disseminate statistics through the Security Ministry.  That should give everyone pause.

Corrales, though, went on to say that they would be more inclusive, involving more of civil society, and let them be able to take local preventative action and measure the results of such actions through their local statistics.  So its also about decentralization, taking the responsibility for crime fighting decision making from the Security Ministry and making responsibility for devising strategies to fight crime the responsibility of Mayors and their local observatory.

This kind of local decision making is a part of what is envisioned in the OAS best practices manual.  How that will translate in Honduras, where the police force is nationally controlled by the Security Ministry remains to be seen.
It has the benefit of taking responsibility for crime statistics away from the national government and puts it on municipalities, which Corrales must like.  Currently his job performance is evaluated by the national crime statistics, hence his investment (and profiting) from producing and reducing them.

There's no explanation for where the funding for these local observatories is coming from.  The OAS manual calls for an IT professional and a computer to host the database and map server/gis system that registers and displays crimes, and these cost money.  There is not necessarily such a person already in every municipality who can be freed up to support such a program.  The computers need to allocated, and the specified software packages installed and configured on them.  Presumably Corrales is freeing up money from some other part of his budget to cover the expenses of such a program roll out and operation.  It certainly wasn't in his 2014 budget.

So right now it looks like Honduras will have competing Observatorios de Violencia for the forseeable future.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Constitutional Branch Defends Itself

The Constitutional Branch of the Honduran Supreme Court attempted to defend its actions in declaring a winner in the municipal elections of San Luis, Comayagua a week ago. The notice they released makes it clear they're responding to pressure on social media.  Their defense is akin to stamping their foot and saying "because I said so".

The court reaffirmed its belief in the rule of law, and stated that its decision in this case was well founded in the constitution and laws of Honduras.  It also reaffirmed its right to hear the case, claiming dominion over the Tribunal Supremo Electoral (TSE).  It further wished to point out to the public that it was Santos Zelaya Chacón who sought to appeal the TSE's decision claiming his due process rights had been violated.  So its not the Supreme Court's fault that they had to hear this case, its Santos Zelaya Chacón's according to their logic.  The court argued that tossing a coin does not strip one of one's rights to appeal the election, except that it does in the TSE rules to which all candidates agree when running for office.

The court went on to allege that the Municipality of San Luis was notified not to allow anyone to assume office, that the case had been admitted, but that the Municipality ignored the court.  Finally, the court says its decision was firmly based in law and the constitution, without providing any backing for that claim.  They have not released a written judgement and this decision may never be published.  They simply assert they did the right thing. 

This branch of the court, packed by Congress with supporters of the neoliberal policies advocated by Juan Orlando Hernandez, you will recall, voted to install the National Party candidate, Santos Ivan Zelaya Chacón as Mayor of San Luis despite the Tribunal Supremo Electoral ruling that the election was a tie.  Tie runoff procedures in Honduras call for both candidates to agree to settle the tie by the toss of a coin.  Both candidates agreed, a coin was tossed, and Lenny Hernandez, the Liberal Party candidate won.  The Tribunal Supremo Electoral awarded him a certificate of election, and on January 27, 2014 he assumed office.

The TSE is supposed to be the ultimate election authority, but of course, that is no longer the case in post-coup Honduras. The hierarchy now goes Congress -> Supreme Court -> Tribunal Supremo Electoral.

In the meantime, Santos Ivan Zelaya Chacón decided to appeal to the Supreme Court claiming his due process rights had been violated.  The Constitutional Branch of the court took the case, and issued a 5-0 decision agreeing with him, and awarding him the election.

Since then, the Liberal Party filed a challenge appealing the decision; their appeal was apparently rejected by the Supreme Court with the statement that they have no standing.  The Constitutional Branch ruling is threatening the pact between the National and Liberal Parties in Congress.  The TSE then voted to affirm the Constitutional Branch ruling, and the very next day, the building housing the Mayor's office burned down in Sal Luis.  The same week a Liberal Party leader in San Luis was murdered.

Edmundo Orellana, admittedly a partisan of the Liberal party, wrote yesterday that:
Everything that has happened is the fault of the Constitutional Branch; none of these things would have happened in this municipality if they hadn't stuck their noses where they shouldn't.  This is a political problem and the Supreme Court is not authorized by the Constitution for this.  The magistrates have violated the Constitution of the Republic and thereby are exposed the consequences of this violation.

We happen to agree with Orellana, that the court took an ill considered and  unreasoned political decision, not a legal one.  We do not choose to question the court's assertion that Zelaya Chacón's due process rights were violated, but rather question why they themselves trample on the due process rights of the opposing candidate and the voters by appointing Zelaya Chacón as Mayor, unilaterally, and without any offered justification, other than that the TSE denied him his due process rights. The TSE's alleged error in denying Zelaya Chacón his due process rights does not merit the court ignoring the rights of the voters, and the rights of the opposition candidate, Lenny Flores.

Congress in the meantime is working on a compromise solution in which there would be a new election.  Yes, for once the Honduran Congress is making sense.  Both the legitimately aggrieved Liberal Party and even the voters of San Luis itself have called for a special election to determine the outcome, but Zelaya Chacón says he will not recognize the outcome of any such special election, arguing that only he had his rights trampled on by the TSE.

Cooler heads have prevailed.  The threat of the Liberal Party to break its alliance with the National Party over this issue worked, after they meet with the leaders of the Anti-Corruption Party and Libre to present a unified front in Congeress calling for a new election, which the National Party rejected.  The compromise solution arrived at, preserving so far the fragile Liberal-National Party coalition, has been for both candidates to irrevocably resign from candidacy to the office.  This probably will force a new election for Mayor in San Luis, Comayagua, but the Tribunal Supremo Electoral isn't saying that, as yet, preferring to wait for the paperwork and "study" the issue.

The only way Hondurans found to preserve anyones rights after the Supreme Court acted was to preserve no ones rights.  Lenny Flores and Santos Zelaya are now out of it, but the political parties will probably get a chance to propose new candidates for Mayor, and the people of San Luis might finally get a chanced for representation that they voted for, instead of representation imposed on them by a fully politicized Supreme Court.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Nice Work If You Can Get it!

The press has blown the whistle on waste in Coalianza, the government commission that negotiates and regulates the sale of government assets to the private sector, and forms government - private partnerships in Honduras.

It seems that the 3 commissioners of Coalianza recieved a pay raise when they took office in January.  Two of them, Miguel Ángel Gámez and Erasmo Virgilio Padilla had their pay raised from roughly 150,000 lempiras monthly ($7142.86) to 199,000 lempiras a month ($9576.19).  The third commissioner, Zonia Morales, received a raise from 111,800 lempiras ($5323.81) to 159,000 lempiras a month ($7571.43).  By comparison, the President receives a salary of 86,000 lempiras monthly ($4095.24).

The commissioners acknowledge the raise, but claim it was authorized in 2013 and figured into their budget.  When asked why they continued to accept these overly large salarys, Gamez told the press that in fact, they hadn't yet had a chance to have a meeting!  For the last three months, the time they've been collecting these salaries, they've done nothing.  When asked why that was, Gamez redirected blame back on the current government, stating:
They still have not named the Executive Secretary of Coalianza.  This looks to me like a bad intention and far from benefiting, it damages the institution.

So, Gamez is throwing it back on the government, which he says hasn't named his boss, so they could not meet and roll back their enormous salaries.  Boo Hoo.

Luckly Juan Orlando Hernandez did just that today, acting to roll back all three salaries to 150,000 lempiras a month.  They still have not met.  They still have not done anything.  They just keep collecting some of the highest salaries in the government for sitting on their hands.

That's government waste of slightly over $80,000 in salaries in this one small agency.  Nice work if you can get it.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Public Prosecutor: ZEDEs Are Legal

It will come to no surprise to anyone keeping track of anything to do with model cities in Honduras that the Public Prosecutor's office has issued an opinion just before Easter finding that the law enabling the new Zonas Especiales de Desarrrollo y Empleo (ZEDE) is legal.  The position paper, requested by the Constitutional Branch of the Supreme Court came from the Office for Defense of the Constitution.

The Supreme Court admitted a case challenging the ZEDE law as unconstitutional because in order to pass it Congress changed some of the supposedly unchangeable articles of the Honduran constitution.  The argument is that Congress, in modifying Articles 294, 303, and 329 violated Article 374's provision that prohibits modification of Articles of the Constitution related to the territory and form of government of Honduras, the so called "stoney" articles.  The Constitutional changes  modify clauses that define the territory and form of government of Honduras.

On accepting the case, the court followed procedure in requesting a legal opinion from the Public Prosecutor's office.  It skipped over the step of asking Congress for its documentation, however, putting this appeal on a fast track.

The Public Prosecutor, Oscar Chinchilla was formerly a member of the Constitutional Branch of the Supreme Court and was the sole member of that branch to find the original Model Cities legislation constitutional.  His four fellow justices were summarily dismissed (illegally) by the same Honduran Congress that later appointed Chinchilla as Public Prosecutor.

Thus, the opinion in favor of the ZEDE law was never in doubt.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

These Are Not The Pilots You're Looking For.....

As quickly as they came into custody yesterday, they left.  Yesterday Honduran authorities at Ramon Villeda Morales airport in San Pedro Sula arrested two Americans asserting they were the pilots of the Gulfstream jet allegedly abandoned on April 1 in Roatan.  Temporary held were Luis Felipe Parra, a naturalized US citizen born in Colombia, and US citizen Hector Manuel Guerra.  Guerra is a licensed pilot according to the FAA database, but Parra is not.

Both were released this morning, supposedly at the disposition of the Dirección de Lucha Contra el Narcotráfico (DLCN) of the Public Prosecutor's office, but both immediately boarded a flight to Miami and left the country.

Elvis Guzmán, spokesperson for the local Public Prosecutor's office stated that the two were released because all their paperwork was in order.  They had both the proper immigration stamps in their passports and had filed a valid flight plan with permission from the Honduran Civil Aviation Authority to land in Roatan.  In the flight plan they had even requested that the plane be allowed to remain at the airport for two weeks; hence it was never abandoned.  There were no indications the plane had been used to transport drugs.  Therefore there was no crime here and they had to let them go.

Apparently InterAirports, the company that has the concession to run four international airports in Honduras, was the one that complained that the jet might be abandoned.  Either they had no access to the flight plans, which seems unlikely, or they're just incompetent, which is much more likely. 

While responsible for airport security they let millions of dollars in drug money pass through security "undetected", including $7 million in cash carried in 6 suitcases by 4 individuals on a flight from Honduras to Panama.  Panamanian authorities detected the cash and arrested 3 of the 4 individuals traveling with the bags.  Interairports was either complicit in letting the cash leave the country, or more likely, wasn't actually screening luggage since that would have cost them money.

Honduran authorities still have offered no explanation as to why they repeatedly told the press that the pilots they were looking for were Mexican citizens named Erick Emanuel Mejia Montes and Darimel Guerrero Ríos.

Apparently nothing to see here, except incompetence.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Dead Man Flying

A nice older executive jet landed at Roatan airport in Honduras on Tuesday, April 1.  Honduran authorities reported that the pilots, Darimel Guerrero Ríos, and Eric Emanuel Mejia Montes walked out of the airport and never returned to the jet.  Honduran authorities didn't notice this for a few days, however.  The two pilots have reportedly disappeared, probably having left Honduras.

We might be able to clear that up for the Hondurans. 

Eric Emanuel Mejia Montes was reportedly killed the very next day,  April 2,  in Torres, Venezuela when the Venezuelan air force shot down a Cessna with Mexican registration.  Two burned bodies were found in the wreckage of the plane, and one of them was identified as Mejia Montes, apparently through his passport.   What we know is that on April 1, someone purporting to be Mejia Montes flew a jet into Roatan airport, and the very next day someone identified as the very same Mejia Montes was shot down and killed in a Cessna in Torres, Venezuela while supposedly running drugs.

The jet in Honduras may or may not be an American registered Gulfstream II with registration N707KD.  Early versions of the story said the plane had a Mexican registration and showed a picture of a jet with Mexican registration MTX-01 on the engine.  The Honduran press is often unreliable on details, often attaching unrelated pictures to articles.  That appears to be the case here.

Later versions of the story alleged an American registration and showed a picture of N707KD and reported that as the registration of the jet.  Furthermore, an El Heraldo story supported Mexican registration, but gives flight details and an aircraft description of N707KD in the text of this article.  The plane pictured parked at Roatan in this La Prensa article is clearly N707KD.  Everyone agrees the jet is a Gulfstream IISP with two engines.  This jet, according to the FAA, can haul up to 12,500 pounds of cargo, or carry up to 22 passengers.  This plane is 37 years old and still flying, and belongs to a company in Florida. 

According to FlightAware, N707KD last flew out of the US from a general aviation airport in Miami to Torreon, Coahuila, Mexico on March 8.  This is a similar flight profile to a similar Gulfstream abandoned in Roatan just over a year ago.  That plane, N951RK, was abandoned by its Mexican pilots on Roatan March 22, 2013, and later reclaimed by its American owners Aero Group, without problems.  It had tested positive for cocaine.

So who really flew the current Gulfstream jet to Roatan, from where, and why?  If it is the American registered jet, what, if anything, does the owner know about who rented it, and for how long? These are questions that the DEA doesn't ever seem to ask.  US planes continue to fuel the flow of drugs through Central America.