Militarized police forces are at the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic in Honduras. Yet after more than a decade building a formidable state security arsenal, is the country's law enforcement up to the task of peacefully enforcing the lockdown?
On April 24, in the small seaside town of El Paraíso in the northwest of Honduras, brothers Marvin Rolando Alvarado, Héctor Arturo Alvarado and Ronald Alfredo Alvarado left their home in defiance of the country’s mandatory lockdown to sell bread. On their return, they were reportedly stopped by members of the Maya Chortí Task Force, a division of the Military Police of Public Order (Policía Militar de Orden Público – PMOP).
According to press reports, the PMOP agents severely beat and shot at the brothers. Marvin Rolando was left in critical condition from a gunshot wound and later died in a hospital in the nearby city of Puerto Cortés.
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The attack was roundly condemned by El Paraíso locals and the Alvarado family alike, who blocked the CA-13 highway with makeshift barricades in protest. In an interview with HCH News, relatives of the brothers denounced the apparent complicity of local authorities, who allegedly refused to accept a formal complaint against the Maya Chortí. “The military police are here to protect the people, not to treat them like animals,” said María Alvarado, the victims’ sister.
Hours before the shooting, National Police spokesman Jair Meza addressed the use of force during the country's mandatory lockdown that began March 16.
"If we do not use force in some cases, [coronavirus] will continue to spread,” he told reporters, according to Proceso Digital.
Other stories of overwhelming police enforcement of the quarantine include the setting up of a security ring on March 17 in Colonia Lincoln, a poor neighborhood in Tegucigalpa, after the first outbreak of coronavirus there.
And one report described police allegedly beating people who were detained for breaking quarantine in the El Paraíso department. Detainees were also allegedly shocked with electric prods and had their faces covered in towels soaked in tear gas.
Human Rights Watch Americas Director José Miguel Vivanco warned that security forces enforcing lockdowns "must be subject to strict control, and be held accountable if they commit abuses, given their history, past and present, of committing serious violations of human rights."
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Honduran authorities, particularly the PMOP, have come under fire on numerous occasions for the excessive use of force. Yet now in the middle of a pandemic, the flaws in a public security apparatus built around meeting violence with more violence are further exposed.
The PMOP is one of the most controversial groups within Honduran security forces, created amid a wave of violence in 2013.
Since then, the PMOP has been implicated in human rights violations, most notably violence against election protesters in 2017. In its report on the unrest, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights found that the PMOP and the military responded with “excessive force, including lethal force, to control and disperse protests, leading to the killing and wounding of protesters as well as passers-by.”
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The Maya Chortí Task Force -- established in 2015 as part of an agreement with Guatemala -- is tasked with securing part of the border between the two countries from criminal groups.
After the shooting death of his brother, Danilo Alvarado told a Tegucigalpa-based human rights group that the Maya Chortí Task Force commits “daily human rights abuses” against the people of El Paraíso and other neighboring communities.
In a country where 76 percent of people work informally like the Alvarado brothers, enforcing a mandatory lockdown inevitably brings the poorest Hondurans who cannot earn a living without leaving their homes into conflict with law enforcement. To make matters worse, handouts of food and other essentials have been hampered by corruption, with 292 of the country’s 298 municipalities reporting allegations of the misuse of emergency funds.
Successive administrations have used the military police like a hammer for organized crime. Now, during the coronavirus lockdown, everything is starting to look like a nail.