Honduras: Military Police as a Major Electoral Issue

October 31, 2013

The deployment of a new military police force, an initiative first proposed by National Party candidate, and president of the National Congress Juan Orlando Hernández, has emerged as an important contextual issue in U.S. media and analysis of Honduras’ fast-approaching presidential elections. Catherine Cheney, for example, wrote recently for World Politics Review:

Last week, in the midst of a political campaign that has focused heavily on public security, authorities in Honduras deployed 1,000 military police as part of an effort to address drug violence and organized crime in this Central American country, home to the highest homicide rate in the world.

The new police force is a demonstration of a central Hernández political campaign position in response to one of the biggest issues in the elections: soaring crime rates, and Honduras’ now infamous status as the “murder capital of the world.” As Henry Tricks wrote for The Economist:

…Mr Hernández has made security the central issue, even though polls show that the economy is just as much of a concern for most citizens. In relentless publicity slots, he accuses [LIBRE presidential candidate Xiomara] Castro of wanting to demilitarise the fight against crime (she denies this, saying she wants to use the military to secure the borders against drug traffickers). In contrast, he has put his weight behind the creation of a 5,000-strong military-police force, 1,000 of which have been deployed on city streets during the campaign.

Cheney cites experts who see the militarized police force as both poorly-trained and having a misplaced focus:

[Mark Ungar, a Latin America expert and professor at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center] said militarizing the police is harmful to both security and human rights, and diverts attention from reforming the police. “They’re not trained for security. They don’t know how to do criminal investigation or community policing. They’re trained to shoot,” Ungar said of the military police.

Furthermore, the military police were deployed without adequate training or public consultation. “The idea was that the military police would be trained for a couple months before being deployed, but apparently they were deployed almost immediately,” Ungar said. “There was very little due process in terms of hearings, or opportunities for criticism, or debate over how [the military police would be] structured and what the role is going to be. So not only do I think it is a bad idea, but the way it was rolled out was not done very well or with any element of transparency.”

The lack of training was something that the Honduras Culture and Politics blog warned about prior to the force’s deployment, in an August post:

General Rene Osorio Canales says the new force needs training and vetting, but will be ready in October.  (How much training can they get in a month?)

This proposal stirs up memories, and not good ones. Honduras used to have a militarized police force, called the Fuerza de Seguridad Publica. It had an awful reputation for human rights violations and corruption.  Its National Investigation Directorate [DNI in Spanish], responsible for “investigating” crimes, was useless.  They merely sat in the office and took crime reports (and solicited bribes) from victims.

It was actually worse than that.  Ineffectual in dealing with crime, the DNI was good at something: violence against the Honduran population.

The controversial military policing option is countered, on the other hand, by a community policing initiative, favored by Castro, as Seth Robbins described in an article in the Christian Science Monitor.

Anthropologist and historian Dana Frank warned of the dangers the new militarized force poses to human rights, as cited by Cheney in WPR:

“The deployment of the military police is extremely alarming,” said Dana Frank, a professor of history at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in an email interview. “Not only is the military controlled by the ruling party candidate, but he is building his campaign around promoting this further dangerous militarization of the country.”

“The military police have already committed alleged human rights abuses, and the regular military is documented to have committed widespread human rights abuses with impunity,” she added.

Nor is the military free from corruption. As the Pan-American Post wrote earlier this month:

[T]he Honduran army is not immune from criminal infiltration either. Current and former Honduran military personnel have been implicated in a range of illegal activities in recent years. In March 2012, for instance, Mexican officials arrested two former Honduran soldiers accused of providing military training to the Zetas. In November 2010, a plane seized in a drug trafficking operations was “stolen” by military personnel from an army base in San Pedro Sula. Eleven soldiers were arrested in connection with the incident, including a handful of mid-level officers and a lieutenant colonel.

As the elections near, troubling incidents of military police actions have emerged that suggest a politicized aspect of their role. A new article from the human rights organization Committee for the Families of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH) describes a military police raid on the home of a labor leader. As Brigitte Gynther of School of the Americas Watch summarized the article in English:

Military Police forc[ed] their way into the house of union leader Marco Antonio Rodríguez, Vice-President of SITRAPANI (the National Child Welfare Agency Workers Union) on October 10th at 5am.   The hooded Military Police were accompanied by people in civilian clothing.  The Military Police forcibly removed Marco Antonio and his son from the house with guns pointed at their heads, forced them to lay face down in the street, and handcuffed them.  When he asked for a search warrant, the Military police responded “what search warrant, here we can do whatever we want.” 

The military police also raided the home of a well-known member of the resistance movement against the coup and LIBRE campaigner, last week, as Honduras’ Tiempo reported.

As Tricks noted, an October 15 letter from U.S. Congressmen Grijalva, Mike Honda and Hank Johnson “said the militarisation of the police threatened civil liberties.” The letter mentioned some specific recent examples as well:

Honduran media reported that the military blocked peaceful marches of the opposition this past Independence Day, September 15, and members of the Army’s Engineers’ Battalion shot and killed an indigenous activist, Tomás García, at a peaceful protest in July.

Hernández, as Honduras Culture and Politics pointed out, has spoken out about criticism of the human rights record of the Honduran security forces, but “Not, unfortunately, in the way one might hope, given Honduras’ human rights failings.” As they described it:

During a campaign event in northern Honduras, he reportedly said

“I am conscious that if a public official, a police officer or a soldier should commit a crime you have to protect human rights, but the problem is that they don’t talk about the rights of the victims.”

In other words: in order to protect crime victims, Hernández would like the police and military to have some leeway on those expectations of observing human rights.

As CEPR Co-Director Mark Weisbrot noted in a Guardian column this week, Hernández also “supported the 2009 military coup” against democratically-elected president Manuel Zelaya, Xiomara Castro’s husband.

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