Monday, November 7, 2011

Honduras has a Police Problem

And, contrary to English-language media-- including the usually more critical BBC-- it is not taking effective steps to solve it.

If you read the Washington Post, you will be told that 176 cops were arrested "for alleged connections to kidnappings, extortion plots and drug trafficking". Quoting the highest level Honduran source, President Porfirio Lobo Sosa, the Post said
the mass arrest is part of a nationwide crackdown on corrupt police.

A spokesman for the National police, Silvio Inestroza, went further, claiming these officers had "links with drug gangs".

Drug violence is the one narrative about Honduras that US media seem to understand, so it is no surprise that Honduran authorities repeat it, and while disappointing, not even surprising that the US media parrot it back.

But in this instance, that is not in fact what is going on. To understand what is really happening, you need to ask, "Why 176 officers, and not others? Why those 176 police officers?"

As CNN International correctly notes, the 176 are the complement assigned to one police outpost in Tegucigalpa. So, not quite so sweeping a "nationwide crackdown" of the Honduran police force-- which totals around 11,000 members.

CNN's lead paragraph falls into the trap, describing the action as part of a "a campaign to cleanse its national police."

Buried far down in their story is the fact that this station is where four police officers worked who are suspected in the murder of two university students, including the son of university rector Julieta Castellanos.

The Washington Post managed to blur that one-to-one correspondence entirely, writing only that
The detentions late Wednesday came three days after the president fired six high-ranking officers following the release by police of four policemen who allegedly killed the son of a university chancellor.

The "detentions" not only came three days after-- the detained were the colleagues who worked with the suspected killers, and who let them walk out.

Castellanos, of course, was a member of the official "Truth Commission" on which the US State Department placed much of its hopes for national reconciliation, despite Honduran skepticism. So the murder of her son is international news.

Castellanos herself used the opportunity to point out that her son's murder is part of a pattern of police complicity in violence that extends beyond the children of the socially- and politically- prominent.

This is a pattern that English-language media have not covered particularly well. And the present stories are simply additional examples of what goes wrong in the reporting process.

CNN International presents the story exactly as the Honduran authorities would like. It takes the specific, and quite limited, investigations of 176 officers at one post as evidence of a commitment to cleaning up the police force, calling it "the latest of a series of steps" taken for that purpose.

CNN described the removal of police command officers as if the impetus for this originated from within, saying "Days after the incident, the national police shook up its top ranks". But the removal of officers came from outside the police force, as a product of political calculation in the Lobo Sosa government.

CNN writes approvingly that the Honduran Congress
rewrote the country's policing laws, stripping the national police of its internal affairs department, and handing over such investigations to a new, independent force.

This claim advances the argument that there are just a few "rotten apples" in the Honduran police, and adding more, separate, police units will somehow solve what in fact is a problem rooted of abuse of power, in impunity.

If you read these stories, you would think the police killing of the two university students was an anomaly, a product of police involvement in drug trafficking.

But Honduran reports suggest the killing was an arbitrary and unconstrained abuse of power: having wounded one of the students, the officers decided not to bring them in for medical attention, which would have triggered an investigation of the circumstances of the original shooting.

It is up to Fox News Latino to give a more credible account, in a story covering the protest following the police bungling of the case. It opens with quotes from Julieta Castellanos:
"There has been a process of tampering with evidence, there has been a process of obstructing the investigation. The police have engaged in double-talk."

"they intimidate the prosecutors, the investigators and the medical examiners."

Unlike the other English media, this story goes on to report fully on the skepticism about government actions. On the changes in officers, they note
critics said the move amounted to no more than "rotations" of officers between posts.

Most astonishing are the final few paragraphs of this story, unparalleled in other US media:

Lobo, who was elected in November 2009 in a process marred by violence, media censorship and low turnout, has so far failed on his promise to improve public safety.

Few murders are ever solved and Honduran authorities routinely ascribe violent acts to "score-settling" within and among the country's youth gangs and criminal outfits.

At the same time, many of the killings since Zelaya's ouster appear to be politically motivated, as victims are often associated with the resistance movement that sprang up in the wake of the coup.

The deposed head of state returned to Honduras five months ago under a pact brokered by regional leaders, but violence against his supporters and other activists continues.

So what actually happened in the recent events? Should we see any of it as even a tiny ray of light, set against this sobering-- and entirely accurate-- account by Fox News Latino?

The Honduran National Police released the four officers under investigation for the murder of the two university students, who promptly failed to turn up for further investigation. The Lobo Sosa government shuffled appointments of officials with oversight authority for the police, and used the opportunity-- again-- to use the Armed Forces in civilian policing, in violation of Honduran constitutional separation of the missions of these forces.

When outrage continued, the remaining police officers from the post where those responsible for this one crime were assigned were ordered to report to a different post, to be individually investigated. Detained for investigation, not arrested, as was reported in the English-language media. But arrested sounds so much more effective, doesn't it?

La Prensa Latina reports comments by the pro-coup Human Rights commissioner Ramón Custodio, and by Andrés Pavón of the Comité Nacional de los Derechos Humanos, who has often been opposed to Custodio since the 2009 coup, that demonstrate how widespread Honduran distrust of the police forces actually is.

Custodio said that
"the agents of the police have license to rob, kill, extort, and we cannot do anything, because the high command practices impunity, cover-ups and other crimes."

Pavón, in turn, said that
"there are so many extra-judicial deaths and by their characteristics it is known that the Police participate everyday in those horrendous crimes".

From both sides of the spectrum, it is clear to Hondurans that the problem of the police is a problem of impunity, and that it is not limited to one bad apple.

Or even 176 bad apples in a single barrel.

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