Retired military General Julian Pacheco, who began serving as Honduras' new minister of security this year, faces some big challenges in the Central American country, the most violent in the region. But even with his military background, in an exclusive interview with InSight Crime, Pacheco says he is "not here" to teach Honduras' police "war tactics."
Pacheco is the first non-civilian to serve as security ministry since the department's creation in 1998. The ministry oversees law enforcement and policing in the country, and the selection of Pacheco -- who is the former head of an anti-crime, multi-agency task force known as FUSINA, and who also once worked in military intelligence -- formed part of a wider pattern of military appointments in civilian posts. This prompted some concerns that Honduras was leaning too heavily on its military when it came to citizen security issues.
InSight Crime recently talked with Pacheco in Honduras about his priorities as security minister, how he sees the state of organized crime in the country, and his views on how to best strengthen a police force that has long struggled with corruption.
The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. Click on the highlighted sections throughout the article to hear Pacheco speak.
What is your list of priorities in the security ministry?
The first is resolving the issue of criminal investigation, which is a problem that the country has, not the police. So we need to strengthen the criminal investigative police and that's priority number one. The second priority is the system of police intelligence, and more human resources for police intelligence. The third important issue is the logistical side of the police: more vehicles, more technology so that they can do their job. And the last would be a reclassification of their personnel. Those are the four priorities we've established.
There’s been some high-level drug trafficking cases [in Honduras recently]. How have you managed to achieve what previous governments weren’t able to do? What you have done differently that you haven’t done before?
When it comes to security, political decisions are a big factor. You can have an institution that’s very well equipped, very trained, very capable. But if there’s no political will to resolve a strategic, national problem like drug trafficking, you’re not going to go anywhere. That’s why it’s been the decision of this president to say, “We’re going to fight these criminal bands because they’re generating a lot of violence and a lot of bloodshed in the country.”
Have you encountered any resistance, any problems? What’s been the most difficult part of attacking these high-level groups?
Firstly, it’s been the vulnerability of security institutions: the police, the attorney general, the [Supreme] Court, the courts. It’s not news or surprising to anyone that in regions like the west (of Honduras), the prosecutor or the judge or the police officer who maybe doesn’t act in favor of the interests of these groups, they would be too afraid to do so. Because these groups have so many resources, they can be sure to take revenge for any kind of harm that a prosecutor or judge could do to them.
So that was why [the position of] the federal-level prosecutor was created. A prosecutor based in Tegucigalpa who has the power to act in the west. The federal judges as well….
So these [criminal groups] could buy off the local authorities, but they didn't have the national ones. And that unbalanced them, and they began to lose control, and that's what has permitted us to achieve the things that we have. And alongside that, the US government is supporting us with a lot of information, and that was also a political decision, to accept that aid.
Have you seen any changes in the dynamics of the underworld in the last 18 months?
Yes. The number of narco-flights arriving in our country have been noticeably reduced. The amount of drugs arriving by sea, by land, have been reduced as well. We know that drugs are moving through, we don't presume to defeat organized crime. What we want is to establish order in the country. And in establishing order in the country, we're going to push them out to find out routes. If the drugs are going to go through, it's going to go through, but we don't want this country to be a stage for drug trafficking, either nationally or internationally.
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Gangs and Violence
How can you confront the gang issue in Honduras?
Well, we've created special units. The country has an anti-gang unit run by the national police. There's an anti-extortion unit that specifically combats extortion, which is the main source of funding for the gangs. But on top of that we've created special units for prevention.
So we're going down two paths: undermining their control of physical spaces where they control the population, and also undermining popular support for these gangs, because it's also important to reduce the social base where they can recruit new members.
Have you been able to establish whether these same gangs have become more sophisticated in the past few years? Do they have better weaponry?
We don't think so, because we've taken down much of the logistical capacity they once had. We've fought them hard. We've fought the issue of arms trafficking, the issue of car robberies, and also the issue of gangs occupying civilian infrastructure in some parts of the country, we've recuperated whole areas.
It's still a problem, because the gang issue isn't one we're going to resolve in a year. It's a process that will maybe take several administrations, but this administration has started it.
Do you think gangs are responsible for the majority of homicides in the country?
A great deal. The other is the issue of drug trafficking and gang rivalries, the infamous "tumbes" [robberies] of drug shipments, the infamous lack of loyalty among gangs that brings about the infamous massacres. But then there's also [violence] generated by gangs specifically related to the drug issue – the control of territory for dealing drugs.
What's the relationship between gangs and transnational organized crime?
Well, more than anything it's one of high-impact assassinations. That's where you going to see the participation of a group of gangs – gangs that already have a certain amount of training and experience -- who become involved with drug trafficking gangs, or other criminal groups not necessarily involved in drug trafficking. And [the gangs] are paid to kill someone off, in what's known as sicariato.
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Police Reform and Militarization of Security
One primordial, ongoing issue is police reform. Honduras has been working on this issue for nearly two decades, and they just haven't been able to do it.
Well, I think I've been lucky enough to identify a group of police officials who want to recuperate their police force, because I'm a retired officer of the armed forces.
And these institutions [police and military] can only recover from these problems if the will comes from within – the commitment to do it. From outside it's impossible – why? Because these are hierarchal institutions that have a structure, internal codes that only they understand, and sometimes the people on the outside don't understand them. Why? Because this is a career. The police officer who enters the police academy knows he has 35 years of service ahead of him. So he fights for that. The military man is the same.
So what I've done is identify a group of officials who want to work with the Ministry on this issue of strengthening the police, saving the police, and recuperating the image of the police in the public eye.
One debate right now is that there's a lot of military and ex-military in leadership positions when it comes to citizen security. How do you see this, from the inside, when there's talk of the militarization of citizen security?
Looking at the police issue – why do presidents use ex-military on these issues? Because it's an issue of knowledge, experience, and loyalty to the country, and presidents see a military man as a technocrat, a technocrat in his work, in the specific areas that they want to improve. So I see this as an opportunity to serve the country in a transitional phase. Possibly in one, two, three administrations, the minister of security will be a police general.
Perhaps you're bringing broader experience than others, but the concern is that you're also bringing a military mentality. The idea that there should be more focus on prevention or occupation of territory rather than the investigative part. So the concern is that a military mentality will be imposed upon the police, which maybe needs a different mindset to confront the country's problems.
I do come with a technical mentality, that's true. In three ways – the first is the mentality of fomenting a hierarchy in the police, given that a hierarchy lets you foment discipline, institutional commitment, and solidarity between those very police.
The second is... creating connections between the base-level police officers, and the higher-ranking officers. So you're creating a connection between these ranks, so that there's a responsibility of leadership. So we are trying to recuperate the leadership of the police in such a way so that there's a link between the police general, and those who are out in the streets, because that hasn't existed before.
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And the other issue we want to look at is planning. There's a lot of inefficiency when it comes to police planning... long-term planning, planning of operations, and tactical planning too. So if you don't know how define your objectives, you don't really know where you're going. But if you can define objectives, then you have an order – an order for employing your human, financial, logistical and legal resources. So that's what we're trying to teach [the police] – I know they already have an order, but it needs to be structured.
And the other issue is one of logistics – how to adequately manage logistics in order to be functional, and so that your operations are successful. For example, this can involve things as basic as knowing vehicle maintenance -- as basic as knowing how much munitions the police need for training this year, how many weapons, what kinds of weapons they need. They don't need weapons of war because a policeman isn't a soldier. He's a civilian dressed in uniform who goes around with a rifle, with a badge, to serve the citizenry... I'm not here to teach them war tactics, or operational tactics, or aerial transport tactics, or special forces. Nevertheless, the police need special forces, but special forces with other characteristics, not the special forces that a military structure has.
You say that this is a transitory era, but at the same time there's talk of putting the military police in the constitution. So I don't know if those two things are compatible.
That's a political decision of the current president, but I'm going to give you an example. In Spain, there are three police bodies: there's the civil guard, which is a militarized police, there's the national police, and there's the investigative bodies. The civil guard is practically an army in Spanish. Argentina has one too, in the Gendarmerie. Brazil has its military police....
Having just one institution in charge of public security, we run the risk that what happened to our police over the past decade will happen again. [We need] another institution as a counterweight...At the end of the day what the public is interested in is that we give them security, that there's someone to look after them, someone to call during an emergency that will help them. If it's military police, a citizen isn't really interested – what he's interested in is getting a response when he wants help.
You used to manage FUSINA, you had a hand in intelligence, now you run the Ministry of Security. You also had access to phone wiretaps. Some from the outside might see pretty strong concentration of power here. How do you see it from the inside?
I don't think that's something worth worrying about. I don't have as much power as people credit me with because it's not true. Plus the only power I can have is the experience I've managed to accumulate over a 35-year career.