Corrupt officers in the Honduras police force have reportedly moved far beyond taking bribes or tipping off criminal gangs; they have been accused of acting as killers and enforcers for the country's criminal interests. At this point, is reform even possible?
The pervasive role of the Honduran police force's contribution to rising crime levels was the subject of a recent Miami Herald article by Frances Robles. Among the cases cited by Robles, from the murder of a university president's son and his friend, to the carjacking of a congressman, arguably the most alarming example of police misconduct is that of Celin Eduardo Pinot Hernandez, a leader of the Barrio 18 gang who ran drug operations from prison in collusion with the prison director.
According to the Herald, the gang leader was released from the prison at least two days every week over a period of two and half years, in order to traffic drugs and weapons for the prison's boss. On the day he finished serving his nine-year sentence and was released, he was gunned down, allegedly by police officials. The officer who used to accompany Pinot on his trafficking "duties" was also killed in an apparent attempt at a cover-up.
Unfortunately for Hondurans, these examples of police participating in, and in some cases directing, criminal operations are far from isolated. In July last year, the vice president of the Honduran Congress, Marvin Ponce, claimed that up to 40 percent of the country's police force were tied to organized crime. Last November, the country's human rights comissioner echoed Ponce's finding, stating that the temporary drop in crime rates was not because of the government's security surge, known as Operation Lightning, but because police were too occupied by the government initiative to commit crimes themselves.
Particularly unique about the dynamics of police corruption in Honduras is the reported involvement of so many police in violent crime. While a comparable country like Colombia has a longer history of dealing with large criminal groups and has also confronted high levels of police corruption, the police force was rarely a direct threat in itself to the public, as appears to be the case with Honduras.
Corrupt police officials in Mexico, Colombia and Guatemala, for example, on the whole have a far less direct role in criminal activities, receiving bribes from gangs to look the other way, allowing criminals or drug shipments to pass through checkpoints unchecked and/or tipping off gang members to potential sting operations. Rarely have they co-opted, or been co-opted by, gangs to act in a violent fashion towards enemies or public figures deemed a threat.
Brazil is perhaps the only other country in Latin America that exhibits a similar dynamic in its police corruption. A recent New York Times article highlighted how in some areas, retired and active-duty police function as a "criminal offshoot of the state," organizing militias, extorting money from the public and carrying out extrajudicial killings. Not only do these police militias kill hundreds every year in cities like São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, but on-duty police commit thousands of murders, categorizing them as "resistance" deaths in which the victims tried to resist arrest. A 2009 Human Rights Watch report put the estimate at one person killed for every 23 arrests in Brazil; in contrast, the figure is one to every 37,000 in the United States.
In both Brazil and Honduras, the allegations are that police are deeply embedded in the very criminal structures they are tasked with dismantling. But while Brazil has taken on a hugely ambitious (and to some degree, successful) project at police reform, Honduras is smaller, poorer, more politically troubled, and far more important as a transit country for the shipment of cocaine. All this will make police reform in Honduras a far more difficult task.
Thanks to its geography, Honduras has become a major transit point for cocaine in Central America, with InSight Crime estimating that over 140 tons of cocaine pass through the country annually. The sheer size of the cocaine trade raises the economic stakes: there is more money to be made, and more incentive for corrupt elements in the security forces to get involved. This is especially true considering the starting salary for police in Honduras is only $250 per month.
More importantly, the precarious state of Honduran politics and the judiciary since the 2009 coup will make reform of the police incredibly difficult. Police Internal Affairs Commissioner Santos Simeon Flores told the Miami Herald that as of November 2011, his unit received 1,000 complaints against the police for the year. But only 28 percent of these cases were then forwarded onto the judiciary, with the majority of those still ending up being dropped by prosecutors.
Honduras had problems with impunity long before the coup. A 2003 report by the International Commission of Jurists found that extreme partisan polarization of the judicial system was a major hindrance to justice. However, this polarization has been exacerbated by post-coup politics, with the government of Porfirio Lobo doing little to block politically motivated appointments and removals in the Supreme Court. This sets a poor precedent, intimating that the government is more concerned with securing its power base than installing any functioning model of justice.
Furthermore, this politicization has permeated down to the police level, with 34 members of the opposition having been disappeared or killed, and roughly 300 people murdered by state security forces according to Honduran human rights group Cofadeh. This points to an especially troubling characteristic of police corruption, in which the authorities are used to enforce state-sponsored repression, as academic Dana Frank recently argued in the New York Times.
All of this taken together -- the degree to which police are embedded in criminal operations, the inept judiciary, the reported use of the police to protect the government's political interests -- will make reform hugely challenging, no matter the tough rhetoric espoused by President Porfirio Lobo.
Efforts to create a fully independent police monitoring body to aide in the purge of corrupt officials is a step in the right direction. However, given the apparent lack of sincere political will to tackle the problem, and the power of the corrupt police as evidenced by their success in forcing the resignation of the country's security minister last year, it remains to be seen how far this bill will get, both in the legislature and in practise. As analyst James Bosworth asked: "What's the answer when the police refuse to reform and the political system can't or won't force them to do so?" This question will likely remain unanswered for a while yet.