Monday, October 31, 2011

Police Shakeup

The head of the National Police, José Luis Muñoz Licona is out. Today the Secretary of Security, Pompeyo Bonilla, replaced him with José Ricardo Ramírez del Cid. There's no surprise here. Over the weekend, the four officers who are suspected of killing the two university students disappeared.

It came out over the weekend that the head of the Tegucigalpa Police, Jorge Alberto Barralaga Hernández, told them to take a few days off and report Sunday, releasing them from custody. Naturally, they disappeared. El Heraldo says they know that setting the police free was a "strategy" because they were innocent and the investigation had no physical evidence to tie them to the crime. When the four policemen failed to report Sunday, Barralaga Hernandez lost his job. Today the head of the National Police lost his job over the same issue.

In the meantime, four more policemen suspected of involvement in the killing were captured, and 300 FAL rifles and 300,000 cartridges for them disappeared from the Police Special forces (a.k.a. the Cobras) arms locker.

Bonilla also named a new Vice Minister of Security, Coralia Rivera, who previously was the Inspector General of the National Police.

Corruption: The Verdict on the Lobo Sosa Government

Honduras is going the wrong way, or so say 80 percent of respondents to a CID-Gallup poll conducted October 14-18, 2011. The poll reports the results of 1238 interviews, with a margin of error of 2.8 percent.

Terra, an Argentinian news source, reports that 52 percent of Hondurans think that the government of Porfirio Lobo Sosa is the most corrupt in Honduran history. Only former President Carlos Roberto Reina had a more negative public opinion during his time in office.

The people surveyed identified violence and crime as the most serious problem (79%), with the same number reporting that crime had increased in the last four months. A majority believe that the current situation is worse than it was last year. One in three reported that they, or someone in their home, had been a victim of assault or robbery in the last four months.

The cost of living and unemployment was the next most serious problem, cited by 63% of those polled.

The poll shows that Porfirio Lobo Sosa has become terrifically unpopular in Honduras, with 63% saying he never, or almost never does what is best for the people of Honduras.

Quite a record to have built up in less than two years.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Gold and Heritage

The El Puente archaeological site, one of Honduras' few archaeological parks open to the public, now has a foreign owned mine site located within a half kilometer.

Not that there's any press coverage. We learned about the new mine from the public statements of residents of small towns around the archaeological park who feel their environment is threatened by the development.

They write:
Considering: That in the areas around our communities there have been discovered deposits of iron and other metals that they wish to exploit without the consent of nearby towns.....

Worldwide supplies of iron ore are tight, with the biggest demand for ore coming from China. Over the last five years, iron ore prices have increased from around $31/metric ton to $177/metric ton. So iron ore might motivate international exploitation.

However, the logistics of the supply chain would argue that it is going to be uneconomical to develop iron ore deposits in Honduras for the foreseeable future.

Gold is another possibility. Gold prices have increased from $550/troy ounce to $1770/troy ounce over the last five years, making exploitation of mines potentially more profitable.

Most mines in this part of Honduras tend to be open pit gold mines, with open cyanide leach fields. They use explosives to blast the rock, then crush that rock, mound it in the leach fields, and cover it with cyanide to extract the gold.

Gold mines in Honduras don't have a good record of containing the cyanide. The San Andres mine, just beyond Santa Rosa in the Department of Copan, suffered a massive cyanide spill into the Lara river, a tributary of the Higuito river which forms the main water supply for Santa Rosa de Copan. 18,000 fish and everything in that stretch of the river was killed when the cyanide spilled.

El Puente opened to the public on January 20, 1994 and has a visitor's center and administrative offices in addition to nine restored buildings built between the 6th through 9th centuries A.D.

Open pit mines with their regular use of explosives and vast amounts of dust that they produce, are not something you would want near to a restored archaeological site like El Puente; at least, not if you want it to remain standing and attractive to tourists, which, after all, is why the park was developed.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Currusté Archaeological Park Abandoned?

Earlier this month La Prensa published a story indicating that the Archaeological Park of Currusté, officially opened to the public in December, 2008, is reportedly abandoned by both the Instituto Hondureño de Antropología e Historia (IHAH), and the city government of San Pedro Sula.

Currusté, an archaeological site within the city limits of San Pedro Sula, became the country's fifth archaeological park when it opened on December 12, 2008. Prior to that it had been protected by IHAH, but closed to the public. Archaeologists first investigated the site in 1972 when archaeologist George Hasemann mapped the site and excavated in and around some of the largest structures at Currusté.

Under Dario Euraque's leadership, the IHAH formed a partnership with the city of San Pedro and the US Embassy to develop the park. Under IHAH guidance, the park was cleared, archaeological testing of the area destined to be a visitor's center, and of several of the structures was carried out, interpretive trails were built, signs were installed, and it was opened to the public. The city was supposed to pave the road leading to the site entrance, and build a visitor's center/museum on site.

Currusté was a popular location for field trips for school groups from the neighboring cities.

The coup in 2009 disrupted the plans for Currusté.

First, in July of that year, the de facto government removed the Mayor of San Pedro, Rodolfo Padilla Sunseri, who had been a party to the overall agreement for developing the park and replaced him with Micheletti's nephew, William Franklin Micheletti. Padilla Sunseri later fled to the US.

Then the de facto government removed Dario Euraque as head of IHAH that September. After the November, 2009 elections, when a new Mayor took office, he found the city badly underfunded and in debt. The funds for the visitor's center at Currusté were silently diverted to other projects.

La Prensa reports that today the park is closed to the public, and overgrown. The guard, they report, quit because he wasn't being paid.

Only the sign out on the main road remains; that and the mosquitoes.

Police Suspected of Murdering University Students

The Police in Barrio Granja are now the chief suspects in the death of two students at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Honduras early Saturday morning. The students were Alexander Vargas Castellanos and Carlos Pineda Rodriguez. Vargas Castellanos was the son of the rector of the University, Julieta Castellanos.

Crime scene technicians descended on the Police post in the Barrio Granja of Comayaguela and impounded three of the post's patrol vehicles and began collecting the records of who was patrolling Saturday morning when the two students were killed execution style.

The two students were killed in the early hours of Saturday morning after having been intercepted coming home after a birthday party for a friend. They were taken from their car and driven in another vehicle south of Tegucigalpa, where they were both killed.

Their vehicle was found later that day with four bullet holes from a 5.7 mm "mata policia (cop killer)" pistol. One shot, fired from behind the student's car, passed through both the back seat and driver's seat of the car, probably forcing them to stop. Such guns are illegal in Honduras, but were part of the ATF's Fast and Furious project which gave guns to criminals in Mexico, and were also part of the Operation Castaway where the ATF is alleged to have provided weapons to Honduran gangs.

Operation Castaway, run out of the Tampa Bay ATF office, was shut down in 2010, with the arrest of Hugh Crumpler III, Ramon Lopez, and others, but had been allowed to ship more than 1000 weapons (AK-47, AR-15, Fabrique Nacional Herstal 5.7mm "mata policia" pistols, and glock semi-automatic pistols) to the gangs in Honduras, among other destinations. Many of the weapons were later used in crimes in Central and South America and Puerto Rico.

Security Minister Pompeyo Bonilla confirmed to the press that the the material evidence points to renegade police as the suspects in the death of the two students. Police Commander Jose Luis Muñoz Licona, however said he would prefer to confirm the police were involved once they've arrested someone.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Supreme Blessing on the Coup

The coup of 2009, in which Manuel Zelaya was forcibly removed both from office and from the country, was officially blessed in an unappealable decision today by the Honduran Supreme Court.

In a case initially heard by Chief Justice Jorge Rivera Aviles, the Public Prosecutor had sought to charge the former heads of the military Joint Chiefs (Romeo Vasquez Velasquez, Venancio Cervantes, Carlos Antonio Cuéllar, Miguel Ángel García, Luis Javier Prince, and Juan Pablo Rodríguez) with forcibly removing Zelaya from the country, a violation of the Honduran constitution, and with abuse of authority. In their defense, they did not reject that it had happened, but claimed it was out of necessity. Rivera Aviles then dismissed the charges.

The Public Prosecutor then appealed to the Constitutional group of the Supreme Court, which voted 4 to 1 to uphold Rivera Aviles's decision, but because it was not a unanimous decision, the Public Prosecutor could and did appeal it again, this time to the full Supreme Court.

El Heraldo reports that HRN radio reported that the vote was 12 to uphold the original decision, three against.

Too Many Generals

The Honduran armed forces are restless because for the last two years, the Honduran Congress has sat on the promotion of officers.

This is unprecedented in Honduran history.

Like in the United States, in Honduras, once you get above a certain grade, the military proposes career advancement, and the legislative branch (in Honduras, the Congress; in the US, the Senate) ratifies the promotion.

The US Senate routinely fails to promote officers proposed by the armed forces, for a variety of reasons. Now the Honduran Congress is using its authority to do the same in Honduras.

Among proposed advancements now under consideration are the Head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Brigadier General René Osorio Canales (to Major General) and Coronel Wilfredo Oliva Lopez (to Brigadier General). Left over from last year are Coronel Marco Vitelio Castillo (Air Force), General Jose Gerardo Funtes Gonzalez, and General Javier Prince Suazo.

Congress has said that some of these promotions don't make sense because the individuals will shortly retire (Fuentes Gonzalez, for example).

The advancement of Vitelio is rumored to have been withheld as a punishment for the theft of an airplane in San Pedro Sula while it was under the control of the Air Force there.

General Prince is clearly not in good regard; he was removed from the Joint Chiefs council and installed instead as Auditor of the Armed Forces last year.

Whatever the truth is about the motivations for not advancing these officers, the large number of pending promotions draws attention to a peculiarity of the Honduran military: it is top heavy.

In 1993 it had as many senior officers as the Salvadoran Army (about 250), yet the Salvadoran army was, at that time, double the size of the Honduran one.

The Honduran military is still top heavy today. Honduras has 12 flag officers (Generals and Admirals) for around 11,000 troops (2009 data), or about 1 General for every 916 soldiers. In contrast, the United States has 1.4 million troops, and 919 Generals (and Admirals), or one General for every 1536 troops (2009 data).

What that means in day to day practice is worth further consideration. Meanwhile, the excess generals-- and other high officers-- are getting restless as the Honduran congress appears less motivated to grant what once were automatic advancements.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Military Mission Creep 2: Give Us Police Powers

General Rene Osorio, head of the Honduran Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Armed Forces, suggested today that he would like constitutional changes that would give the military some police powers, like the ability to stop and search anyone, the general ability to search property, the ability to legally carry out raids, and other unnamed police powers.

The granting of police powers to the military would require constitutional changes, to make these part of the mission of the Armed Forces. Osorio said:
"We're not putting ourselves in the place of police; we want to help and support them with our own troops and our intelligence work."

But that's exactly what Osorio is proposing, that the military mission be changed, added to, and that training be supplied to his troops so that they do things in a legal fashion, like arrest and hold people.

As Osorio said, all of this will require changes to the constitution, the laws, changes to the military charter, changes to international treaties, all because Porfirio Lobo Sosa wants a single point of contact to coordinate the actions of the Police and Military, "to make them more effective and successful against delinquency."

Lobo Sosa grew up in an era where the Police and Military were the same thing in Honduras. This proposal to return to those days does not appear to bother him in the slightest; but it bothers those concerned with human rights and democracy in Honduras from all sides of politics.

Thus we have statements from the Rector of the National University, Julietta Castellanos opposing any unification of police and military, and the Judges' association saying its illegal.

German Leitzelar, who presided over the original separation of the Police from the Military, thinks a single Ministry with authority over both is OK so long as there's no unification of their actual operations. In contrast, General Jorge Estrada, ex-judicial auditor for the military, said that
"We have to be clear that from the point of view of the functions and strategies, to join the police with the Armed Forces would be a step backwards, to resort to the past, and we all know how that turned out."

The problem is that the Armed Forces aren't Police; what police do is not part of the mission or training of the armed forces. Osorio asking for police powers for the Armed Forces is troubling given the military's history of human rights abuses, such as extrajudicial killings and the illegal detention of Honduran citizens.

To merge them in the midst of international condemnation of violence against Honduran citizens by security forces is, at the least tone-deaf, and just possibly, one of the more obvious signs of rejection of opinion in the international community.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Chorti seize Copan (Again)

Members of the Consejo Nacional Indigena Maya Chorti (CONIMCH), a Maya speaking indigenous group, have seized the archaeological park of Copan to protest a planned police action to remove them from lands they claim in the small town of Nueva Estanzuela.

Their claim is to 350 manzanas (about 245 hectares, or 604 acres) where, in May of this year, they asked the government yet again to give them title. INA has done nothing, according to them, and today they understood there was a police operation planned to remove them from the land; a court order obtained by the land owners.

CONIMCH leaders blame César Ham, INA's boss, for being totally focussed on the problems in the Bajo Aguan and ignoring the rest of the country.

The Chorti have used the strategy of taking over the park repeatedly since 2005 in order to get the Honduran government's attention.

A US Embassy cable from 2008 notes that the Chorti in Nueva Estanzuela (then about 10 families with 52 individuals) were invited by the government to take over a property of about 3.75 hectares there in 1991, and then the owner declined to sell it to them. The land was then sold to a new owner who wanted the Chorti evicted. And so it continues leading to the takeover yesterday of the archaeological park.

Ambassador Ford concluded in 2008:
As the descendants of the Maya who built Copan, the Chortis have been smart to play on this link and lend legitimacy to their takeovers of the archaeological site. Each time the site is taken over, the area suffers financial hardship, and the reputation of Honduras is tarnished, so the Government of Honduras knows it has to work with this group to keep them happy.....We can expect to see more Chorti protests in the future.

CONIMCH expected more supporters from Ocotepeque to arrive later today to reinforce their indefinite takeover of the archaeological park.

Taking Marbles, Going Home

Oswaldo Canales has made good on his threat to remove the evangelical church confraternity from the Consejo Nacional Anticorrupción. Yesterday he sent a note to the new head of the council, Dulce Maria Zavala, announcing their withdrawal.
"[Oswaldo Canales] was not at the meeting, but he sent a note of the withdrawal. What it reveals to us is that this is an infantile attitude, that which our partner has, and this is what we demonstrated and this is what they want to discuss now. He is a member of this group and it is important that he be present in the CNA, but through a note he made official his withdrawal,"

Zavala told La Tribuna. She noted that the CNA replied to the note, asking them to reconsider.

Zavala also revealed that the Catholic church would be returning to the CNA after a one and a half year absence.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Bishop Santos's Presidential Bid

Bishop Luis Santos Villeda of Santa Rosa de Copan will turn 75 in November and must submit his resignation as bishop to the Pope. At that time, he will ask the Pope to allow him to run as a presidential candidate of the Authentic June 28th movement of the Liberal Party.

Its not that he wants to be president:
"I don't aspire to be president of Honduras. This isn't my idea,"

he told the Catholic News Service.
"Why do I get involved in politics? Because it is politics that has screwed the poor.... But it's politics that makes people poor, that leaves the clinics and hospitals without medicine, that robs money from the villages. It's politics that supports the rampant corruption in Honduras,"

he is quoted as saying. The press report adds:
"I can't be disinterested in the health and education of the children, the least of my sisters and brothers...I'll do it for the common good, the good of Honduras."

Santos made his original announcement of his candidacy on September 16.

That announcement brought a mixed reaction from within the Liberal Party, where some, such as Lino Tomas Mendoza, were excited by its potential to reunite the Liberal Party.

If the Pope grants his request, Bishop Santos will have to compete with a large group of candidates for the Liberal Party nomination. These include Edmundo Orellana, Mauricio Villeda, Yani Rosenthal, Wenceslao Lara, and Esteban Handal, to name but a few of the announced candidates.

Monday, October 10, 2011

One Minister to Rule Them

Porfirio Lobo Sosa came back from his trip to the United States and ordered that a new law be written to abolish both the Ministry of Security, which oversees the civilian police, and the Defense Ministry, which oversees the military.

Instead he wants a single civilian ministry to coordinate both functions, with three vice ministries, one each overseeing the police, the military, and the new investigative police that he hopes to create at the same time.

The UN Human Rights Relator, Frank Larue, said of this idea:
"absurd, it should not happen in any country on earth."

But Lobo Sosa will go ahead with it because, as he explained, he finds it difficult to coordinate the two services.

Maybe that's because he has the military doing something it should not be doing, policing the civilian population.

Lobo Sosa tried to argue that the move would also save the government money, but since he proposes to increase the budgets of both, and form a new police investigative unit, there's no real savings here. The bureaucracy actually gets bigger, not smaller.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Not Too Sexy After All

Two days ago, the censorship commission of the Ministry of the Interior ruled that the Ricky Martin concert on October 16th would potentially damage the mental health of Honduras's youth and they therefore set age restrictions on who could attend.

Porfirio Lobo Sosa returned to Honduras Saturday and overruled them. Anyone may attend the concert without respect to age.

This has, all along, been a battle between the conservative religious movements of Honduras, of which Interior Minister Áfrico Madrid is a member, and human rights, as recognized by Honduran law and international treaties signed by Honduras.

Lobo Sosa first intervened when Madrid made noises like he was considering not giving Ricky Martin a visa to enter Honduras to perform the concert. At that point Lobo Sosa ordered that Martin be admitted saying that anything less would be a violation of Martin's human rights.

Now he's made it clear that the age restrictions were wrong as well.

So Ricky Martin is just sexy enough for all of Honduras to enjoy the show.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Ricky Martin: Just Too Sexy?

Today Porfirio Lobo Sosa, in Washington, D.C., ordered his government to make sure Ricky Martin was allowed to enter the country to perform his concert in Honduras.

The message was conveyed by his Human Rights Minister, Anna Pineda. On the morning television program Frente a Frente, she said:
"The official position of the government has been to respect human rights and trying to keep in line with that policy, it has has been arranged, through the Secretary of Justice and Human Rights, that the singer Ricky Martin can enter and perform his show."

She pointed out that Martin was coming as a UN good will ambassador for UNICEF, with a message against sexual abuse, and that as that representative, he would not have an act that caused harm to anyone, and even less to children.

Nonetheless, the official government censorship committee has put age restrictions on attendance. No children under 15 admitted because of "erotic content". Alberto Espinal, director of the the group that made the decision to restrict attendance, said:
"We take this measure to protect the mental health of the youth of Honduras....Martin is offering eroticism."

Martin's show is called Music, Soul, Sex.

Maybe they should look to what's on Honduran television before saying this show was too erotic for Honduran youth.

Losing Democracy, or Military Mission Creep

Militarization in Honduras is expanding, muddling the constitutional mission of the armed forces of Honduras.

The recent suggestion by Porfirio Lobo Sosa and Minister of Defense, Marlon Pascua, to abolish the Minister of Security position and make it a Vice Ministry under Defense, is further retrograde motion. Surprisingly, the current Security Minister, Pompeyo Bonilla, is in favor of abolishing his job.

In 1997 Honduras made the leap to separate the Police from the Military. This involved several changes to the constitution and created the separate Minister of Defense and Minister of Security positions. This was also when, for the first time, the President was designated as the Commander in Chief of the armed forces.

The next phase in the separation of the Police and Military was to be the removal of elections from the list of responsibilities of the armed forces, who currently are charged with guarding the ballots, a circumstance that means any Honduran citizen voting is under the scrutiny of the armed forces.

In 1998, the military lost control of HONDUTEL, the Merchant Marine, and Immigration. Then-president Carlos Flores said
"The changes we are making are necessary and inevitable if effective democracy is to become a reality."

Yet all these changes are being rolled back under Porfirio Lobo Sosa.

Only under the military dictatorships have there been more ex-military men in charge of the state institutions than in the present administration.

Currently, retired military offices direct the Merchant Marine, Immigration, Hondutel, several branches of Foreign Relations, Health, Education, and the Honduran equivalent of FEMA.

The military also receive 70% of the congressionally budgeted money to protect forests from illegal logging, rather than the civilian branch of Forestry which has that as its responsibility.

All of this, dare I say it, points to a resurgence of military involvement in the democratic institutions of government not seen since before 1994. It's a regression to the way things were, when Honduras was a protected democracy.

Unifying the Defense and Security Ministries, the police and armed forces, under one leadership would be another step backwards in time, and another step away from democracy in Honduras.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Definitive Verdict: Final Answer?

Remember when Romeo Vásquez Velásquez and the other generals were "tried" for kidnapping President Zelaya and forcibly sending him to Costa Rica back in 2009? The Public Prosecutor eventually lodged a case against them, and that case was heard by the Chief Justice, Jorge Rivera Áviles, who found them not guilty.

Well, that case is back.

The case was brought after Porfirio Lobo Sosa assumed the presidency in January 2010, and heard last January. Rivera Aviles handed down a definitive verdict of "not guilty".

The Public Prosecutor, Luis Rubí appealed, lost, and appealed again and got a split decision. The Supreme Court appeals panel that heard the case, the 5 judges of the Constitutional branch of the court, could not agree on a verdict. Four voted to uphold the verdict, and 1 voted to reject it. They had to be unanimous in their decision to reach a verdict.

So the case moves to the entire Supreme Court for them to try and reach a verdict. Today the entire Supreme Court will meet and vote on this case. Tomas Arita Valle, the judge who issued the arrest order for Zelaya, will preside over this hearing. The court can issue a definitive and final verdict, or remand the case to a panel to study the options and make recommendations.

The Supreme Court split, 10 to 5, on the issue of punishing the judges later fired for supporting Zelaya. I can't imagine the decision today will be all that different.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Solar Powered Wedge against Chavez?

There's a lot of renewable energy projects being authorized, or coming on line, in Honduras in the last month. But I've never seen one described as a wedge against the political power of Hugo Chavez, of Venezuela, before today.

Onyx Services and Solutions, Inc., a solar power contractor that "focuses on energy solutions that empower our democracy and its allies’ strategic national and international energy policies", will expand into Honduras, building an 18.5 megawatt solar generation station on the island of Roatan. The project consists of installing approximately 65,958 280 watt panels and connecting them to the island's power grid at a total cost of $84 million.

Now this company is a strange bird. As recently as its November 2010 SEC 10K filing, its principal business was the ownership of a small network of ATM machines in Onondaga County in upstate New York. It obtained its capital by selling shares of stock, which expanded from 309,000 shares in November 2010, to over 4 million by April of 2011. As late as July, 2011, its business was the Automatic Teller Machines network in upstate New York.

It has no cash, no employees other than officers, according to its audit reports.

But then, in August of this year, it replaced its CEO and CFO with Malcom Burleson who previously ran a company called Solar-nomics, which he founded in 2009. Now Solar-nomics is a Centennial Colorado company founded in the category "Repair shop and related services" with 3 employees. Their mailing address is a PO Box in Aurora, Colorado. They don't list a phone contact anywhere on their website, which is filled with stock photography and generic solar information.

The first thing he did at Onyx was acquire Southern Geopower for a stock swap, with the help of Blackstone Equity Partners, who end up owning 78.5 % of the issued stock. Southern Geopower was developing a "unique wireless power transmission technology," but had no customers and was no longer a going concern. On September 13 they filed a stock registration statement with the SEC, proposing to compensate directors, officers, and consultants, with a pool of 5 million more shares of Onyx stock.

In September 2011, they wrote a proposal to be the lead contractor for an ENEE photovoltaic installation on Roatan. You can read the proposal (with the pricing data redacted) on their website here. Other than the price, there are no specifics in this proposal, only generalities about what they might do. No guarantee about whose panels, which inverters, what substation components, only suggestions about what they might use. They say they source their panels and inverters from Optimum Solar, a Chinese solar manufacturer. Yet on September 28, ENEE selected them to install the project.

Onyx writes in their description of the Roatan project:
"Many nations of Central America, South America and the Caribbean find themselves being squeezed by the need for power coupled with the temptation to use Venezuelan diesel for electrical generation. While this solution has provided a quick supply of power - it comes with a very high cost to the sovereignty and free will of these nations. .... Without power projects that reduce reliance on Venezuelan diesel, prices can be raised and lowered at will to force leaders of these nations to bend to the will of Hugo Chavez."

Someone better tell the poor of the US northeast not to use CITGO home heating oil, or CITGO gas, as CITGO is a wholly owned subsidiary of Venezuela's state owned oil company. CITGO has been working with states in the northeastern US to provide free or reduce cost home heating oil to poor families through groups like Citizen's Energy.

Perhaps Onyx needs to wage a campaign for solar contracts closer to home, in the northeast United States.