Honduras’ Special Commission on Police Reform: Genuine Cleanup Effort or Yet another PR Scheme?

July 08, 2016

Laura Jung

In 2009, shortly after the coup d’état, the effects of which continue to be felt throughout Honduras, the country’s director of counternarcotics, retired General Julián Arístides González, was assassinated by unknown assailants. Then in 2011, a hit squad gunned down Aflredo Landaverde, another senior antidrug official. Despite much evidence of criminal activity by the Honduran police — including involvement in police brutality, extortion, rape, and sex trafficking and prostitution rings — investigative commissions made little headway. In fact, the Honduran government dismissed all advice from an independent police investigation commission created in 2012, before it was dissolved by the ruling National Party in 2014.

In August 2013, when current president Juan Orlando Hernández was president of Congress, he oversaw the creation of the Public Order Military Police (Policía Militar de Orden Público), a new branch of the Honduran Armed Forces. Since then, corruption scandals and allegations of abuses targeting civilians have continued unabated. The response from the government has been to further militarize law enforcement. In April 2016, news broke that high-level officials in the National Police had been involved in the assassinations of these antidrug officials and that evidence compiled in an internal report had passed through the hands of numerous police and Security Ministry officials without action.

These revelations came on the heels of massive public outcry over corruption scandals in other Honduran institutions, and the Honduran government was quick to create a new police reform commission. But there are reasons to suspect that the commission is really window-dressing aimed at ensuring continued international support.

Under US appropriations legislation, Congress has tied 75 percent of the tens of millions of dollars in assistance to Honduras (and Guatemala and El Salvador) to State Department-certified compliance with certain conditions, including “investigat[ing] and prosecut[ing] in the civilian justice system members of military and police forces who are credibly alleged to have violated human rights, and ensur[ing] that the military and police are cooperating in such cases.”

Under pressure to show results, the Honduran National Congress swiftly passed a decree on April 8 establishing the Special Commission for the Cleanup and Transformation of the National Police of Honduras (La Comisión Especial para la Depuración y Transformaciòn de la Policia Nacional). President Hernández named three civil society appointees to the four-person commission in addition to the minister of security, retired General Julían Pacheco, as commission president.

Last month, members of the Special Commission — General Julian Pacheco, Omar Rivera of the Association for a More Just Society (ASJ) and the Alliance for Peace and Justice (APJ), Jorge Machado (who acted as an alternate and proxy for the controversial anti-LGBT pastor Alberto Solórzano) of Confraternidad Evangelica (Evangelical Fellowship), and Vilma Morales — gave a presentation to a large audience at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC on the commission’s work. While a few academics and organizations like the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights were present, the State Department, current and former ambassadors and their entourages, and private contractors and security consulting firms were disproportionately represented in the room.

The commission members noted that 272 high-ranking officials in the police force have been investigated and of these, 110 have been dismissed or voluntarily retired. Though these numbers may appear impressive, the 272 officials amount to less than 3 percent of a police force widely believed to be “rotten to the core,” in the words of the late Alfredo Landaverde.

More problematic than the limited scale of this purging process, however, is the lack of prosecution. Though the Special Commission claims to have discovered definitive evidence of police involvement in illicit activities, including existing convictions, illicit accounts, and drug trafficking connections, the Public Ministry has not brought charges against the officers in question. If one of the goals of the commission, as stated by ASJ president and advisor to the Special Commission, Carlos Hernández, is to solve the “problems of impunity and corruption” in the police force, the lack of prosecution is particularly worrisome.

When asked about the judicial processes for officers found to have been involved in criminal activity, Hernández adamantly declared that the Special Commission’s role is limited to dismissing corrupt police, but that they do remit the offending personnel’s files to the Public Ministry so that the prosecutor’s office can investigate and decide whether to bring charges. However, to date, no information has been released regarding whether any dismissed officers have been charged or will face prosecution. Without any clear follow-up mechanism or assurances against impunity (i.e., guarantees of prosecution), the Special Commission’s role is purely administrative and inherently limited in its capacity to achieve its mandate.

The impartiality of the commission members has also been brought into question. During his presentation, Omar Rivera insisted that the Special Commission is nonpartisan and enjoys wide support “from all parties and factions in Honduras.” Both statements are false.

For example, perhaps the most problematic member of the Special Commission is Vilma Morales. Morales, a former Supreme Court justice and National Party stalwart, has found herself presiding over clean-up efforts at the state’s two most controversy-ridden institutions, the social security institute (IHSS) and the police. Implicated in a fraud case during her tenure at state phone company Hondutel and accused of having protected police and military implicated in crimes during her tenure as Supreme Court president, Morales is hardly a paragon of anticorruption. She appears to have been selected based on her favored position within the National Party elite. Morales played a key role in consolidating the coup in 2009, working as a member of coup president Roberto Micheletti’s negotiating team. In a 2009 cable made available through WikiLeaks, the US ambassador to Honduras at the time, Hugo Llorens, described Morales as “one of the June 28 coup’s most outspoken legal defenders,” adding that her “judgement” is “clouded by her partisanship.” This could explain why, as the head of the IHSS oversight commission, she has yet to act on the evidence that IHSS contractors were funneling money to the current president, Juan Orlando Hernández, and to the National Party in general.

Retired General Julian Pacheco, in addition to being security minister, is the president of the Special Commission. He may be the only commission member with relevant qualifications, but as security minister, it’s to his benefit that the Special Commission appear successful no matter what happens, posing a significant conflict of interest. The commission’s perceived success and verifiable evidence that the police are being effectively sanitized of impunity and corruption are conditions attached to millions of dollars in US funding. The Honduran government and military, and the US State Department all have an interest in making the commission look successful. Yet Pacheco’s exuberant description of police and military activities and the generous US government funding and training made clear that ending corruption and reforming the police are secondary to broader military and security goals.

Unlike other presidential commissions currently investigating the IHSS and the Supreme Court of Justice, among others, the Special Commission on the police has a substantial public relations machine, helped no doubt by Jorge Machado’s experience in marketing and public relations. Following the Special Commission’s visit to DC, its blog declared the trip a resounding success.

On June 29, the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) announced it had charged six Honduran National Police officers involved in drug trafficking. The officers are alleged to have worked with Fabio Lobo, the son of former post-coup president Porfirio Lobo Sosa. Astoundingly, the commission immediately released a press statement applauding its own efforts in firing, suspending, or investigating the six police officers named. Fabio Lobo was arrested in 2015, after introducing DEA sources to Honduran police officers as part of the operation. Lobo plead guilty to drug-trafficking charges in court on May 16, 2016 (just a month after the commission was created). The DEA already had the names and evidence against the officers independent of the commission as a result of their sting operation. In their press release, the commission noted that investigations are pending for three of the named officers (along with the remaining 97 percent of the police force the commission still has to review), and therefore cannot claim credit for these arrests. Moreover, the publicity stunt draws further attention to the fact that for over a year the DEA has known about these individuals, but none of them have been investigated or charged by the public prosecutor in Honduras.

None of these facts seemed to concern the vast majority of the audience at the presentation. In light of a recent State Department press briefing, it is no surprise that State Department representatives were blasé. Grilled about the evidence that military hit squads were involved in the killing of prominent environmental activist Berta Cáceres, spokesperson John Kirby repeatedly claimed that State has no credible evidence of hit squads or other human rights abuses perpetrated by either the Honduran military or police, which the US has been funding and training for decades — this despite that active duty military and two high-ranking retired military officers were arrested in connection with this political assassination.

Yet new legislation (HR 5474) drafted by the office of Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA), introduced on June 14, calls for the immediate suspension of security assistance to Honduras until human rights violations by security forces have been fully investigated and perpetrators brought to justice. The first 15 articles of the bill list evidence of police and military corruption and involvement in gross human rights violations with impunity, including Cáceres’ murder. If the official stance of the US State Department, with the US government as the primary funder and partner of Honduran security forces, civilian and military, is a variation on “nothing to see here,” then it is hard to imagine how the Special Commission can hope to succeed.

Until a much larger percentage of the police force is investigated and held accountable and individuals are prosecuted for their crimes, it is purely rhetorical (and inaccurate) to say the commission has made significant progress. Moreover, the commission’s purely administrative nature means it is ill-equipped either to address the institutional hurdles critical to effectively reforming the police — namely the ongoing militarization of the police and the US-backed counterinsurgency policing program — or preventing corruption before it happens. There are no mechanisms in place or currently being developed by the Special Commission to prevent police corruption in the future, something that is a predictable result of the strength of drug cartels and organized crime, in the face of poor police pay and lack of enforced institutional safeguards against it. Even if the Special Commission manages to purge a larger percentage of police than past commissions, Honduran citizens are unlikely to feel safer or consider the police “friendly,” as General Pacheco mused during his Wilson Center presentation. Honduran civilians, especially social activists, will continue to be targets, given the ongoing militarization and counterinsurgency orientation of policing and the fact that the Honduran justice system cannot be relied upon.

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