Friday, June 1, 2012

What Makes a Good Chief of Police?

Honduras' president, Porfirio Lobo Sosa, isn't saying. At least not in words.

But we now have plenty of actions on which to reach some conclusions about his criteria.

Way back in October 2011, Lobo Sosa bid goodbye to then-chief José Luis Muñoz Licona after the four police officers suspected of killing a group of university students (including the son of Julieta Castellanos) went missing. His minister of security, Pompeyo Bonilla, reshuffled all the top security officers, bringing us Ricardo Ramírez del Cid.

Then just a little over a week ago, Lobo Sosa-- newly returned from consultation in the US with unnamed representatives of the US government-- removed Ramírez del Cid, replacing him with Juan Carlos "el Tigre" Bonilla Valladares.

The apparent pressure for the change came from the recent murder of prominent radio broadcaster (on the national HRN) Alfredo Villatoro, whose body was recovered dressed in a police uniform. Villatoro's death brings to 24 the number of Honduran journalists killed since the 2009 coup.

Press reports yesterday say that, unlike the preceding 23 cases-- including the immediately preceding, and still under-reported death of LGBT and Libre party primary candidate Erick Martinez Avila-- there have now been already multiple arrests in the Villatoro case. At least one of those arrested is reputed to be a police officer.

So it seems like Lobo Sosa finally has what he wants in a police chief: someone who gets results quickly.

Which should give everyone pause. Bonilla Valladares definitely has a history of getting results. But that history shows that the "results" came from his exercise of extra-judicial power.

New coverage by the AP has explored this history, which led to Bonilla being tried for a 2002 murder. As the AP article correctly notes, he was acquitted in 2004, a decision that was ultimately reaffirmed by the Honduran Supreme Court in 2009. But being acquitted is not the same thing as being innocent. In Honduras, the rule of law fails because the entire system is corrupt: original evidence is not collected, contaminated, or lost, investigators are prevented from completing their work or are threatened if they do so honestly, evidence is lost, witnesses flee or die.

The victims in the cases where Bonilla was accused of involvement were young men, targets of murder in Honduras under the ideology of mano dura for their known or suspected involvement in gangs.

The AP story includes crucial information from Maria Luisa Borjas, the head of internal affairs in the Honduran police who was charged with investigating that case, and who was suspended when she went public with complaints about interference in her investigation.

An investigative story on a Salvadoran news site,  El Faro, published in August of 2011, gives a first-hand view of Bonilla Valladares, based on shadowing and interviewing him, that adds to the testimony of Borjas:

In 2002, the Internal Affairs Unit of the Police accused El Tigre [Bonilla Valladares] of participating in a death squad for supposed delinquents in San Pedro Sula... This included having a witness that said he had been present at one of the executions by this death squad formed, supposedly, by police and called "Los Magníficos". El Tigre had to pay a 100,000 lempiras (more than $5,000) bail for his liberty during the trial. Afterward, in proceedings that many paint as rigged, where the principal promoter of the denunciation, the ex-chief of the Internal Affairs unit [Borjas] was removed from her job in the middle of the case, Bonilla was exonerated.
—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.

El Faro adds more from the statement by Borjas to Honduran media that got her suspended by then Minister of Security Oscar Alvarez. In those exchanges Borjas quoted Bonilla Valladares as saying
—If they want to send me to the courts as the sacrificial lamb this Police force is going to rumble, because I can tell the Minister of Security [Oscar Alvarez] to his face that I am the only one that complied with his instructions.

Oscar Alvarez, remember, was the author of mano dura in Honduras, the minister of security when the extrajudicial killing of young men became rampant, under whose watch such crimes were not prosecuted or prosecutions were interfered with so badly that the cases failed.
Lobo Sosa's solution for violence and police corruption in Honduras is a police chief with intimate experience with impunity, with a record of accusations of imposing his own view of morality through the use of force, and a self-righteous belief that what he does is good for the country.

Now we know what makes a good chief of police in the eyes of the Lobo Sosa administration.

And that seems to be just fine with the US government as well; the AP quotes Ambassador Lisa Kubiske as saying
"We definitely hope this change in leadership really leads to effective, lawful cleaning up of the police."

Which is, we are sure, exactly what she would say if a police officer who wouldn't deny having carried out extrajudicial executions were appointed to a jurisdiction in the US. As long as he was patriotic and willing to follow whatever orders his superior gave.

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