Police Death Squads Contribute to Honduras’ High Homicide Rate

Honduras is the homicide capital of the world (.pdf). This is due in part to widespread and growing gang violence, but recently there have been reports that Honduran police themselves are organizing death squads.

“Organized crime linked to drug trafficking is rampant, and it would appear that the Honduran police and judiciary are not just ineffective in addressing the problem, they are actually making it worse,” Alexander Main, senior associate for international policy at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, told Trend Lines in an email interview.

Recent reports show the Honduran police operating “more like assassins than law enforcement officers,” he said. Such state-run death squads have appeared in Honduras before. National Police Chief Juan Carlos Bonilla allegedly ran police death squads more than a decade ago, and since re-emerging they appear to be carrying out extrajudicial executions of suspected drug traffickers.

Main said these rogue police forces “are likely responsible for a significant portion of the surge in homicides of the last few years.”

Main also said that the police death squads may themselves have links to drug trafficking organizations, and that “the killings perpetrated by police death squads appear in many cases to be linked to internal rivalries within the police and other institutions where various factions compete for control of the drug trade.”

Opponents of the government or of powerful figures linked to the government have also been victims of what appear to be targeted assassinations, Main said, as have journalists, gay rights activists and others.

Bertha Oliva, general coordinator of the Committee of Relatives of the Disappeared and Detained in Honduras, was in Washington last week to draw  attention to the deteriorating human rights situation in her country.

After her husband was kidnapped as part of the “forced disappearances” carried out by death squads in the 1980s, Oliva founded the committee in 1982 along with other women “who are searching for their loved ones.”

But Oliva said there is “more focused and targeted violence and more complete impunity” in Honduras now than when she founded the group.

She said the Honduran government has embraced a militarized response to the country’s high murder rate, and that such militarization, while justified as a necessary response to drug trafficking, “is often carried out to repress legitimate demands of the citizenry for their rights.”

Both Oliva and Main pointed to the 2009 coup that ousted President José Manuel Zelaya as one source of many of the problems Honduras now faces.  

“The 2009 coup led to a severe breakdown of rule of law in Honduras and to the political empowerment of Honduran military and police forces at the expense of the country’s civilian institutions,” Main said, explaining that many officials involved in the coup were not punished but rather promoted or appointed to civilian institutions. “The result has been an escalation of violence throughout the country and an increasing sense that social and political tensions are being dealt with through violence rather than through normal legal processes.”

Oliva said the coup’s perpetrators had enjoyed complete impunity, adding, “Persons intimately responsible for the coup are now running for political office, including the post of president.” She said the coup had resulted in “an intensification of violence that is growing dramatically” as well as the collapse of the political and judicial systems.

Oliva advocated “a dramatic change in U.S. policy toward Honduras,” ahead of the country’s 2013 presidential elections. “It is also important that important actors in the U.S. are monitoring the situation, to help moderate the behavior of the revived death squads, which are alive and extremely active in Honduras right now.”

Main explained that the U.S. government continues to provide aid to Honduran security forces, “despite the increasing evidence that they are a central part of the crime problem in the country.”

Describing the risks of regional spillover if Honduras continues what the Economist has dubbed the country’s “march backward,” Main said the country is “a model of corruption and institutional failure” attractive to corrupt security forces as well as drug trafficking groups.

“As the U.S. continues to increase military funding and training throughout the region, in the name of the so-called war on drugs, there is an increasing risk that security forces are better placed to seek to perpetuate the Honduran model elsewhere if no significant checks on their influence are established,” he said. 

Written by: Catherine Cheney, on 18 Mar 2013, Trend Lines