Sunday, February 26, 2012

Leticia Salomon: "The fire in Comayagua is evidence of the collapse of the system"

Leticia Salomon, a sociologist at UNAH, provided some of the most rapid and most insightful analyses of the 2009 coup; we linked to these and discussed them (here, here, and here) in the early months of the de facto regime.

Now Diego Jimenez, writing in Costa Rica's La Nación, gives us Salomon's response to the prison fire in Comayagua.

That fire exposed the shameful facts of Honduran policing: prisons overcrowded with populations not yet tried, let alone convicted, many there as a result of laws targeting expressive behaviors by young people, primarily men, said to be indicators of gang membership and thus bases for incarceration (as well as making these individuals targets of extra-judicial death squads); and rising numbers of murders, most uninvestigated or questionably attributed to convenient targets.

The interview is worth reading in full (although it seems to end so abruptly that we thought it might be part of a longer piece).

Salomon touches on the failure of the entire judicial system; the reason why guns are so pervasive in Honduras today (which we continue to think is an under-appreciated part of the reason that the murder rate is rising); and the fact that youth gangs-- maras-- became a focus of security policy for political reasons, and are not the main reason for the situation on the ground today.

She characterizes the situation as one in which the police "don't just cover for those that commit crimes, rather they are part of the organized bands" who commit the crimes; a system biased toward the rich, where the entire justice system is "deficient", something far exceeding even the excesses of past political struggle or repression: a total breakdown, in particular, without accountability for increasing funding justified for "security".

Not, one would say, where the US should invest more security funding.

What is the present profile of violence in Honduras?

There has been a change in the origins of violence. The old rivalries among political parties no longer translate into battles with wounded and dead, nor does the violence that the State exercises on the citizenry through violation of rights and the persecution of dissidents proliferate.

”Now, instead, society itself is what generates a host of problems, that run from social conflicts that are completely valid, to the organization of bands, gangs (maras and pandillas), drug trafficking organizations, and so on”.

What is the state of the Honduran justice system to confront the problem?

The Honduran system of justice presents characteristics that are very deficient to guarantee due process. I refer to all the offices of justice: preventive police, investigation police, solicitors, judges, defenders, the penitentiary system and including norms in problems of security.

"Criminality rises despite the legislative and executive branches approving budgetary increases. Since there is no horizontal rendering of accounts, it is not asked of the authorities that they should say what they are doing with those funds and they continue in the same circle without producing positive results.

”There is also involvement of the authorities with common and organized crime. The denunciations of recent days, including about the fire in the Comayagua jail, as well as the assassination of two university students, show the breakdown of the system of justice. The police don't just cover for those that commit crimes, rather they are part of the organized bands [of criminals]".

How much have policies of mano dura of recent years influenced the deterioration of the Honduran judicial system?

It has influenced it a lot. The fire in the Comayagua jail places in evidence the collapse of the system of justice to confront a real problem to which the authorities have never paid the necessary attention. The topic of penitentiaries has not been incorporated in the agenda of any government.

”They have simply dedicated themselves to sending to the jail everyone that they seize, many of whom never are definitively sentenced. There are many in jail for very minor things, such as having a tattoo, and they serve more than the time stipulated by the law while the judge is still deliberating."

What happens with those that commit crimes of great gravity?

There are persons that have the greatest resources, great political influence in the country, and that when they are detected in some problem of great crime, enjoy almost total impunity. In general, these persons neither are cited, nor investigated, and if they take a decision to imprison them while they are investigated, there are privileged systems within the jail, that they can pay for as if it were a hotel.

”So they can live with a TV, sound system, with a larder...., with everything, as if it were a hotel. And what is worse: they can go out however many times they want with the complicity of the custodians. They can observe the weekends in the discotecs, in their houses, or even taking classes".

The statistics say that the average number of guns in Honduras is five per person. Why is it so easy to get guns in Honduras?

This is an question that we have had since the National Congress approved the topic (in 2010). When it was supposed that what was recommended was to have a gun, and that with the greatest restrictions, the legislative decision did not put limits on carrying [guns]. I feel that this was a great concession to the businesses and people that have private security. The result is the existence of a potential use of violence to be able to solve any minor conflict.

How much do maras affect the level of violence of the country?

The maras are delimited in marginal neighborhoods of the city and they have the defense of their territory as a raison d'etre. That's to say, they are easily located, they do not proliferate in all the city.

”In the period of [the presidency of] Ricardo Maduro (2002-2006), this topic was placed as the focus of attention in the area of security. This responded to an actual problem, but it was made larger to distract attention of the citizenry and to disregard other topics.

”That persecution translated into the capture of the small-time leaders, who were put away in the penal centers, and many of them, on encountering other maras, entered into conflict and the violence that they had carried on outside was reproduced. There were many deaths of mara members within the prisons because the prisons were not prepared to guarantee security.

”Today, the maras continue to exist but that is not such a relevant problem as it was some years ago. However, they have gone on to other stages, such as drug trafficking on a local level".

Note: the use of quotation marks is precisely as in La Nación; it is unclear to us if the sections outside quotation marks are paraphrases, but the use of first person pronouns suggests they are also precisely what Salomon said.

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