Prosecutors in Honduras have launched a scathing broadside against the state's inability to protect witnesses in criminal cases -- a key but often overlooked factor contributing to the sky-high impunity levels that have exacerbated the country's security crisis.
The president of the Association of Honduran Prosecutors (AFH), Santiago Rene Moncada, slammed both the legislation and the government body designed to protect witnesses, telling El Heraldo they were not fit for purpose.
Moncada -- who described how he had personally taken a witnesses in for protection only for them to be murdered hours after police arrested the suspect in the case -- called for the Witness Protection Unit to be strengthened with personnel specially trained in security procedures.
The prosecutors' criticisms were echoed by the co-founder of the prominent justice reform non-governmental organization, the Association for a more Just Society (ASJ), Carlos Hernandez. Hernandez told El Heraldo that while the Witness Protection Law was adequate, the implementation was sorely lacking, with judicial bodies commonly putting witnesses in danger.
Sources from Honduras Public Ministry consulted by El Heraldo denied any witnesses participating in the protection program had been recently murdered, but one source said some had been killed after voluntarily leaving the program. The source added that other witnesses had been recently murdered, but technically they were not participating in the witness protection program.
InSight Crime Analysis
Protecting witnesses is a key aspect of prosecuting organized crime cases anywhere, but especially in countries such as Honduras, which often lack the technical capacity to gather evidence through other means, such as electronic surveillance or DNA testing, and depend on the witnesses to make their cases.
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The inability to protect witnesses can not only scupper individual cases, it also contributes to a broader culture of impunity by discouraging potential witnesses, or those who would like to file police reports, from coming forward. This situation is exacerbated by low confidence levels in security and justice institutions due to corruption and links to organized crime.
While much media and government attention focuses on police reform in Honduras, the lack of witness protection highlights the need for a more integrated approach. No matter how clean and effective the police are, if arrests do not lead to prosecutions and convictions the country's dire track record on impunity, and its security crisis are likely to continue.