Tuesday, March 1, 2011


Honduras has a violent crimes problem and is struggling to find ways of combating it. Unfortunately, the imagination of the current government runs to authoritarian solutions which require changes in the law or the constitution to be legal. The proposed solutions fail to address the fundamental problem. Alvarez told the press
"We're not trying to throw out the Penal Code, rather to find a way to make it more efficient by reforming it as necessary, and with the support of Congress, we can make it happen."

Here's what's broken.

The problem they recognize facing is organized crime, by which they mean drug traffickers and gangs. The unacknowledged problem they face is the police lack credibility. This is not to say there are not good honest police officers in Honduras; there are. But there are also corrupt ones, and that's where the problem begins.

How do you identify a police officer in Honduras? Until last week the government kept no information on the individuals hired as police, except that required to pay them. There were no photo id cards, no fingerprints kept, no signatures even. Your uniform is the only indication a civilian had that you were a police officer, and uniforms are easily obtained by criminals. Only now is Alvarez starting a program to identify the motorcycle police by collecting this basic information.

Nor do the police always wear their uniforms. Various police groups involved in checkpoints are often in plain clothes, as anyone who looks at the photographs in the Honduran newspapers will have noticed. Its been this way for more than 30 years. You know they're police and you have to stop because they have rifles and machine guns, or at least, I assume that's how you're supposed to recognize them. They don't wear uniforms; they don't have identification (and don't bother asking them for it unless you want abuse).

Then there's the question of police corruption. Mordidas to get out of traffic fines, avoid arrests, the petty cost of living in Honduras is contrasted with really corrupt police who are criminals. Members of the anti-kidnapping unit have been arrested heading up kidnapping rings in the San Pedro area. Police have in the past six months been caught robbing banks and businesses. Police have been caught running extortion and blackmail rackets against businesses.

Without a systematic purging of the ranks of these corrupt individuals, it does not matter how many police there are. Alvarez needs to address police corruption before hiring more police.

Then there's the fact that there is no investigation of crimes. Only 2 percent of murders ever result in charges being filed. Robberies almost never get solved. The crime statistics are bleak. Alvarez would say its a lack of manpower, but really, its a lack of training. There is no investigative unit, at least, not one that can investigate crime in Honduras. Even the Public Prosecutor, Luis Rubi, noted that fewer than 48 percent of the cases he remands for investigation ever come back to him. Until Honduran police can effectively investigate crimes, the crimes will go unpunished. This will require training, manpower, and technology.

To investigate crimes, you need citizen confidence in the police. Papa Elvin Santos argued Thursday that you can't purge the police because they'll just go out and become criminals. Wrong. Without doing this, you have no public confidence in the police; and without public confidence, no information about criminals; you cannot investigate crimes. As Jorge Ortega, a member of the Alianza Democratica Nacional put it
"So for us to addrdess the violence first we have to have confidence in the Police and later, when that confidence exists, the citizens may go peacefully to denounce the actions."

Yesterday Porfirio Lobo Sosa held a meeting, on his return from visiting model cities in Asia, with Juan Orlando Hernandez, Jorge Rivera Avilés, Ricardo Maduro, Oscar Alvarez, Luis Rubi, Áfrico Madrid, Ana Pineda and Jose Luis Muñoz Licona to decide what to do about an ongoing problem that is the primary cause of dissatisfaction with his regime, street crimes.

Coming out of the meeting, Lobo Sosa ordered the military to resume joint patrols with the police, ignoring the fact that soldiers, especially Honduran soldiers, are not trained in policing. Note to Embassy: this should be the highest priority military aid for Honduras, training in military policing. If they're going to be out on the streets, train those units in how to be effective at it.

Instead of vowing to clean up and professionalize the existing police force, Alvarez has asked for budget authority to double the number of police under his command. This likely will lead to an increase in crime, as a percentage of the new officers become corrupt.

At the meeting they also discussed the problem of judges who don't apply the law (the assumption is that they're either too scared or corrupt themselves), and of establishing more severe penalties for violent crimes, 50 years or even life for violent criminals. They spoke of increasing the penalties for criminals who attack judges, police, and prosecutors. They spoke about changing the law so that raids can happen any time of day, not just after 6 am as current law allows. They talked about changing the law to allow for holding of individuals for 72 hours without charges instead of the current 24 hours. Teodoro Bonilla, head of the Association of Judges requested that judges get not 6 days, but 12 days after charges are filed to decide whether to release the person on bail or remand them to jail for trial.

As El Heraldo notes, the changes discussed involve changing the law, changing the Constitution, and even abandoning some international treaties. Ana Pineda's voice is missing from any of the press coverage. Was she silenced, or did she have no concerns about the proposed changes?

In any case, Alvarez needs to clean up the police before he can address organized crime head on. Failure to clean up the police means failure, regardless of what else Alvarez does.


phoenixwoman said...

What did you think of the ADN march in San Pedro Sula? The first words that popped into my head were "camisas blancas," but Heaven knows that's a shallow judgment.


RNS said...

I had pretty much the same initial reaction. However, the ADN marched for an end to violence in Honduras, and I have to support that goal. Marches were not just in San Pedro, but also in Tegucigalpa, and other cities.

RNS said...

Sandra Ponce, the Prosecutor for Human Rights has now listed her concers about deploying the military because of their lack of training in policing.
"The military don't have the training to interact with civilian authorities."

She fears the number of human rights cases is going to increase. Last year her office received some 100 complaints, only 50 of which have passed to the courts because of a lack of investigation by the DNIC.

Still no comments or concerns from Ana Pineda, the politician responsible for human rights.