Police Death Squads in Honduras Then and Now

March 20, 2013

An important new investigative report from the Associated Press’ Alberto Arce describes the apparent ongoing activities of death squads within the Honduran police, reporting that:

In the last three years, the AP has learned, Honduran prosecutors have received as many as 150 formal complaints about death squad-style killings in the capital of Tegucigalpa, and at least 50 more in the economic hub of San Pedro Sula. The country’s National Autonomous University, citing police reports, has counted 149 civilians killed by police in the last two years, including 25 members of the 18th street gang.

The AP report also describes a now-infamous and disturbing video (posted here) that appears to show the extrajudicial, cold-blooded murders of two young men in city streets “by masked gunmen with AK-47s who pulled up in a large SUV” – consistent with the police death squad modus operandi as described in the article.

Arce writes that “Even the country’s top police chief has been charged with being complicit,” going on to summarize charges against Juan Carlos “El Tigre” Bonilla, now the National Chief of Police, for involvement in extrajudicial killings and disappearances back in 2002. Arce notes that “Last year, Bonilla was chosen to lead the national police force despite unanswered questions about his past. The U.S. Congress decided to withhold State Department funding to the police while they investigated the 2002 internal affairs report.”

A confidential 2003 State Department cable made available by Wikileaks reveals that State Department officials wanted Bonilla (then a fugitive) arrested at the time, and also were concerned with “extra-judicial killings of youth” – in which Bonilla was implicated:

¶12. (C) In his meeting with Minister of Public Security Oscar Alvarez, [Western Hemisphere Affairs Deputy Assistant Secretary Dan] Fisk urged Alvarez to take action against corrupt police, to send a strong signal about impunity by arresting fugitive policeman Juan Carlos “Tiger” Bonilla, and to act carefully against whistle-blowers, such as ex-Chief of Police Internal Affairs Maria Luisa Borjas. He also encouraged Alvarez to address the problem of extra-judicial killings of youth and trafficking in persons.

In a post last year when Bonilla was named National Police Chief, Insight Crime examined “El Tigre’s” sketchy past:

before his incarnation as an anti-corruption crusader, Bonilla was accused of being a member of a death squad that patrolled the streets of the country, executing suspected criminals — some of them minors. The group was known as “Los Magnificos,” the Spanish title for TV series “The A-Team.” He was charged with an extrajudicial murder in 2002, and went on the run. He handed himself in some months later, as the State Department documents, and in 2004 was then found innocent. Honduras Culture and Politics notes that the prosecutor in the case quit mid-trial.

As AP reported at the time, a report “named Bonilla in at least three killings or forced disappearances between 1998 and 2002 and said he was among several officers suspected in 11 other cases.”

AP went on to cite Maria Luisa Borjas – the “whistle blower” “ex-Chief of Police International Affairs” also mentioned in the Wikileaked cable:

Internal affairs investigators weren’t able to substantiate many of the cases because of interference by top security officials, said Maria Luisa Borjas, who as head of the police internal affairs department at the time signed the investigation. She was suspended before she finished the report because she had called a news conference to complain about the obstruction.

“I said the investigation pointed to certain officials, that we had evidence and witnesses, but there was no desire on the part of any authority to process this case,” she told The Associated Press, adding that she and her team at the time also received death threats.

Considering the allegations raised in the new AP report, Bonilla’s new “incarnation” may actually be more of a re-branding. Despite apparent past State Department concern over Bonilla, since he has taken over as Honduras’ National Police Chief it is members of the U.S. Congress who have raised concerns with the State Department about Bonilla’s history. While congressional pressure has led to a portion of U.S. police assistance to Honduras being suspended – for police under Bonilla’s command – State Department officials appear publicly unconcerned about other ongoing police aid to “vetted units.” According to Arce:

Roberta Jacobson, assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs, said last week that the department is constantly reviewing information about people and institutions receiving support in Honduras, and so far, the state department can and will continue funding and training the Honduran police.

In remarks to World Politics Review, Bertha Oliva, founder of the Committee of Families of the Detained and Disappeared (COFADEH) called for

“a dramatic change in U.S. policy toward Honduras,” ahead of the country’s 2013 presidential elections. “It is also important that important actors in the U.S. are monitoring the situation, to help moderate the behavior of the revived death squads, which are alive and extremely active in Honduras right now.”  

Oliva also noted that “there is ‘more focused and targeted violence and more complete impunity’ in Honduras now than when she founded the group,” and that the June 2009 coup against the democratically-elected government of Manuel Zelaya had resulted in “an intensification of violence that is growing dramatically.”

Simultaneous with publication of the new AP report, Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs William Brownfield traveled to Honduras over the weekend, and police and gangs were at the top of his agenda. According to a State Department press release, Brownfield and the Government of Honduras were to “inaugurate the Major Crimes Task Force (MCTF), a new initiative to better support police and prosecutors investigating serious crimes in Honduras,” to which the U.S. would commit “up to $6 million.”*

But extra-judicial killings of drug suspects in the Moskitia region – and infamously of four civilians – have raised questions over protocol, procedure, chain of command and the precise nature of U.S. government cooperation with Honduran police and military forces in anti-drug trafficking efforts elsewhere in Honduras. It was “vetted” police that were involved in the killings of the civilians. A recent report [PDF] from Rights Action examines the activities of death squads in the Bajo Aguan region as well.

CEPR’s Alex Main explained to World Politics Review’s Catherine Cheney that vulnerable sectors with no known links to drug trafficking are the object of increasing attacks:

Opponents of the government or of powerful figures linked to the government have also been victims of what appear to be targeted assassinations, Main said, as have journalists, gay rights activists and others.

*Update March 20, 2013 3:00pm EDT: According to press materials from the State Department and Honduran press reports, the U.S. government is committing an additional $10.3 million to help train and equip police, including for anti-gang activities, for a total of $16.3 million.


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