Did the AP Catch State Department Officials Lying to Congress About Honduran Death Squads?

March 25, 2013

Associated Press reporters Alberto Arce and Katherine Corcoran have written a follow up article to Arce’s investigative feature last week on the continuation of death squad activity by the Honduran police. The new article, which appeared in the New York Times and various other media over the weekend, suggests that U.S. State Department officials may have deceived members of Congress in order to illegally fund Honduran police units even though some police – under the command of National Police Director General Juan Carlos “El Tigre” Bonilla – may be involved in death squads.

The article begins:

The U.S. State Department, which spends millions of taxpayer dollars a year on the Honduran National Police, has assured Congress that money only goes to specially vetted and trained units that don’t operate under the direct supervision of a police chief once accused of extrajudicial killings and “social cleansing.”

But The Associated Press has found that all police units are under the control of Director General Juan Carlos Bonilla, nicknamed the “Tiger,” who in 2002 was accused of three extrajudicial killings and links to 11 more deaths and disappearances. He was tried on one killing and acquitted. The rest of the cases were never fully investigated.

Honduran law prohibits any police unit from operating outside the command of the director general, according to a top Honduran government security official, who would only speak on condition of anonymity. He said that is true in practice as well as on paper.

Celso Alvarado, a criminal law professor and consultant to the Honduran Commission for Security and Justice Sector Reform, said the same.

“Every police officer in Honduras, regardless of their specific functions, is under the hierarchy and obedience of the director general,” he said.

Congress has already withheld some funding ($30 million) to the Honduran police under the Leahy Law over concerns about Bonilla’s alleged past death squad involvement, but the State Department has continued with some other funding and just announced a new $16.3 million commitment to the Honduran police during a visit to Honduras by Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs William Brownfield last weekend. AP noted that “Some of the U.S. money will go to the Gang Resistance Education and Training program under the director of community policing, who also told the AP that he reports directly to Bonilla.”

As the AP article states, “U.S. support goes to Honduran forces working with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration on anti-narcotics operations, and anti-gang, anti-kidnapping and border-security units, according to an embassy official who was not authorized to speak on the record.” We have detailed how U.S.-assisted counternarcotics operations have involved the killings of civilians and what seems to be a “shoot first, ask questions later” approach by some Honduran forces in the past that led to the U.S. to temporarily suspend radar assistance to Honduran authorities.

Arce and Corcoran note that they tried to ask Brownfield questions regarding the police assistance when he was in Honduras, but Brownfield declined to answer.

The AP article includes additional statements from Honduran officials regarding the chain of command, which goes up to Bonilla:

When asked by AP if the specially vetted Honduran police units working with the U.S. Embassy still report to Bonilla, the Honduran security official said: “Yes, that’s how it works, because of personal loyalty and federal law.”

“I only report to the director general, all of the programs of the Honduran police are directed personally by him,” said Otoniel Castillo, a police sub-commissioner. “He has a personal and intense closeness to all projects of international cooperation, especially because of his good relationship with the U.S. Embassy.”

In the wake of the AP’s revelations, the big question is how will Congress react? While State Department officials are likely to claim plausible deniability or a different interpretation of Honduran law and how it relates to police supervision and accountability, State Department officials’ past responses to Congress indicate that human rights concerns may be less of a priority than they are for the members of Congress who have spoken out on this issue. The unwillingness of senior officials such as Brownfield to answer questions from reporters also does not signal credibility.

Arce and Corcoran noted that the State Department has not been forthcoming with information to Congress that would explain the discrepancy:

That information so far has not been provided by the State Department, and the AP’s findings have prompted more questions.

“Senator Leahy has asked the State Department to clarify how they differentiate between what they told the Congress and what is being said by those within Honduran police units under his authority,” Leahy aide Tim Rieser said Friday. “Sen. Leahy, like others, made clear early on his concerns about Gen. Bonilla and the conduct of the Honduran police.”

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