"US withholds funds to Honduran police"
Or, if you read the Washington Post, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, or a number of other papers, you might see the story under the headline
"US cites human rights concerns, withholds funds to Honduran National Police"
What is making the rounds is an AP story by Alberto Arce in Tegucigalpa, with Martha Mendoza in Santa Cruz. It says that funds are being withheld from
Honduran law enforcement units directly supervised by their new national police chief until the U.S. can investigate allegations that he ran a death squad a decade ago.
It's about time. The murky antecedents of Juan Carlos Bonilla Valladares, El Tigre, were well aired back when he was appointed -- in late May, more than two months ago.
We noted at the time that the appointment gave insight into what Porfirio Lobo Sosa thought made a good top cop: getting results quickly, at any cost:
Bonilla Valladares definitely has a history of getting results. But that history shows that the "results" came from his exercise of extra-judicial power.
We cited an interview by the Salvadoran media outlet, El Faro, which included this chilling exchange with Bonilla:
—Have you killed anyone outside legal proceedings?-- I asked him, while we left behind El Paraíso.
—There are things that one carries to the grave. What I can say is that I love my country and I am disposed to defend it at any cost, and I have done things to defend it. That is all that I will say.
As we noted at the time, State Department documents from 2004 acknowledged the accusations against Bonilla Valladares.
Now, according to the AP, the State Department has produced a new report (which we could not locate) that
says the State Department "is aware of allegations of human rights violations related to Police Chief Juan Carlos Bonilla's service" and that the U.S. government has established a working group to investigate.
This story is worth the coverage it is getting. But there are some subtleties here that are worth further comment. The AP report goes to say
Under the new guidelines, the U.S. is limiting assistance so that it only goes to special Honduran law enforcement units, staffed by Honduran personnel "who receive training, guidance, and advice directly from U.S. law enforcement and are not under Bonilla's direct supervision," according to the report.
"Direct supervision" is the operative phrase here, since Bonilla Valladares, as national police chief, is the commander of all the Honduran police. Does it really matter if there is an interposed subordinate officer between him and the units the US is still funding?
Or is the significant difference here that the US will still fund US trained, guided, and advised units which, while technically part of the Honduran police forces, would be expected not to follow orders from the national police chief?
Some Honduran drug enforcement agents already have direct connections to US FAST teams, although their training wasn't enough to stop a still-disputed massacre in the Mosquitia.
The most obvious candidate for funding under this exclusion is the new unit, named the Tigres, that Honduras has proposed to create to offer policing while in theory continuing to purge the national police of corrupt officers.
According to reports in Honduran press, by September Tigres (Tropas de Inteligencia y Grupos de Respuesta Especial de Seguridad, "Intelligence and Special Security Response Groups Unit") will be deployed independent of the National Police.
Juan Orlando Hernández, head of Congress (and presidential primary candidate in the right-wing Nacional party) is quoted as saying the Tigres would be
“a highly trained elite force that will have hi-tech equipment for fighting common and organised crime... This is not at all a force parallel to the police or the army. What we want is a rapid response team to tackle the insecurity in our country. Regardless of whether they like it, it will strengthen the response capacity to crime, because the Tigres will attack everything”.
La Prensa offers this characterization of the expected progress of the law that would authorize the Tigres, and their recruitment and training:
The law will be approved next week, in August the first stage of training and selection will come to an end since that process is already advanced, and in September the first contingent will appear.
That does not seem to allow much time for the purported training in human rights that, it is claimed, will keep this new force from committing the kinds of violations so common in existing Honduran security forces.
We have previously noted that selection and training of officers should legally follow approval of the law, which in a real democracy would not be taken as a fait accompli, but then, this is policing in Honduras today. Initial funding for the new unit will reportedly come from the Interamerican Development Bank.
This unit, with its novel reporting line (in times of peace, the Ministry of Security; and in times of emergency, the Ministry of Defense), is the one Honduran "police" force that could be characterized as outside the direct control of the impeached police chief, Bonilla Valladares.
Writing on the IPS news website, Thelma Mejía provides a thoughtful summary of what we know about the proposed Tigre unit, and its contribution to continuing to blur the line between policing and military actions. She cites Honduran sociologist Mirna Flores and social commentator Eugenio Sosa, reminding readers that
similar forces created in the 1980s ended in grave violations of human rights, the most recent example being the so-called "Red Car Gang", a paramilitary corps that carried out operations of "social cleansing" against young men in gangs from 2003 to 2005, and acted from within the police, according to humanitarian groups.
In other words, there is a history here of abusive action by such "elite" police groups given sweeping mandates to combat "violence".
Bonilla Valladares is part of that history; but his selection as police chief was not an error, that the US can simply avoid reinforcing. It was deliberate, despite this known history. The reaction of the Honduran government to the US withholding aid shows that: the AP story cites a Lobo Sosa spokesman Saturday supporting Bonilla Valladares, saying
the administration has repeatedly pledged full support for the police chief and that under his leadership "there has been a real improvement in the security situation."
There is one final subtlety worth underlining: the AP story gives credit for this modest reversal of the US support for militarization of civilian policing in Honduras to "a series of letters from Honduran and U.S. academics, activists and members of Congress". It quotes a June 7 letter "signed by hundreds of academics" that read, in part
Combatting drug trafficking is not a legitimate justification for the U.S. to fund and train security forces that usurp democratic governments and violently repress our people.
This letter was the culmination of the frustrated cry from the heart of scholars in Honduras, the US, and 28 other countries asking the US government to stop ignoring the on the ground reality in Honduras. Cautiously, we might conclude that finally this outcry is getting heard.