There are already concerns that Honduras' fledgling efforts at police reform are doomed to fail. But the other proposed approach -- giving the military permanent policing powers -- seems like an even worse prospect.
Last week, the Honduran government extended an emergency decree, first declared in November 2011, allowing the military to conduct arrests and carry out searches without a warrant for another 90 days. Now, President Porfirio Lobo has proposed a constitutional reform that would give the military permanent policing powers.
This implies that the prospect of comprehensive police reform is so hopeless in Honduras that it is more effective in the long term to shove the military in a permanent policing role. US interests may disagree. A large bloc of US lawmakers recently signed a letter calling for a pause to all security aid to Honduras, unless the country demonstrates progress in confronting human rights violations committed by the military and police. Meanwhile, the deputy undersecretary of defense for the Americas, Paul Stockton, recently told Congress that deploying the military to fight crime in Latin America is a major concern, due to the risk of human rights violations, declaring, "The challenges of security are better faced by institutions responsible for public safety.”
There are claims from within the Honduran Congress that the US government is willing to support the creation of a military police force in the country. Liberal Party representative Jose Azcona Bocock told La Prensa that the US government had “offered” to support the transformation of at least four army units into a specialized military police. Such a measure may prove controversial, but as Azcona argued, it would mean Honduras would no longer have to deploy the entire military in a permanent policing role.
Much of the concern surrounding the permanent deployment of the military onto the streets is due to the nature of their training. Unlike the police, the military are not trained to protect civilians or conduct criminal investigations. Other lawmakers in Honduras have argued that involving the military in domestic policing could expose the army to “contamination” from the drug trade, although the military’s record is already questionable.
The question is whether there are other ways Honduras can confront police corruption without putting the military in charge of law enforcement. Congress has already passed several reforms intended to do just that, approving the creation of the Public Security Reform Commission on January 31. The independent commission will be responsible for purging the police of corrupt officers, and may also be given the power to oversee a proposed reform of the Interior Ministry. It will supervise a police body known as the DIECP, charged with investigating suspect officers.
The commission will inspect the entire police force from the top down, handling cases ranging from bribery to human rights violations. It has also been granted extensive authority to review the finances of police officers. This would involve comparing the income of police officers as far back as 10 years, examining both their material and non-material assets, including those of household and family members.
But these efforts at reform are already facing problems. Oscar Manuel Arita stepped down from his position as director of the DIECP on March 1 for reasons he said were “strictly personal and family-related.” An anonymous source close to Arita told EFE that the director resigned due to a lack of the political and economic support necessary for the institution to operate successfully. His resignation may have been related to the directorate’s accidental exclusion from Congress’ 2012 budget. Even if this was just a clumsy omission by Congress, it shows the government is paying little attention to the DIECP, and supports the argument that this latest wave of reforms are primarily for show.
Honduras has already taken some key steps towards confronting the widespread crime and violence plaguing the country. But even if the current campaign at police reform gets nowhere, granting the military permanent policing powers looks like a solution that would only cause more trouble.