A new investigative feature by award-winning Associated Press correspondent Alberto Arce probes deeper into recurring police death squad activity in Honduras. Following up on his reports in March, Arce details the cases of several gang suspects who have disappeared after being taken into police custody, as well as what witnesses have described as the gunning-down, in cold blood, of suspects in the streets. The article reveals that:
At least five times in the last few months, members of a Honduras street gang were killed or went missing just after run-ins with the U.S.-supported national police, The Associated Press has determined, feeding accusations that they were victims of federal death squads.
In March, two mothers discovered the bodies of their sons after the men had called in a panic to say they were surrounded by armed, masked police. The young men, both members of the 18th Street gang, had been shot in the head, their hands bound so tightly the cords cut to the bone.
That was shortly after three members of 18th Street were detained by armed, masked men and taken to a police station. Two men with no criminal history were released, but their friend disappeared without any record of his detention.
A month after the AP reported that an 18th Street gang leader and his girlfriend vanished from police custody, they are still missing.
As we have previously examined, Arce has noted that U.S. support for the Honduran National Police while some officers engage in death squad activity would seem to violate the Leahy Law. Rather than proceed with greater caution or reexamine ongoing policy, the U.S. State Department has responded defensively. Arce quotes Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs William Brownfield as saying
“The option is that if we don’t work with the police, we have to work with the armed forces, which almost everyone accepts to be worse than the police in terms of the mission of policing, or communities take matters in their own hands. In other words, the law of the jungle, in which there are no police and where every citizen is armed and ready to mete out justice,” U.S. Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield said in Spanish during a March 28 video chat.*
Brownfield has taken a PR offensive to the Honduran and Latin American press as well. But there, rather than describe the U.S.’ Honduran police partners as police partners as an “evil” a sort of lesser evil, an EFE article yesterday reports that Brownfield said that he “respects” and “admires” the “effective work” that notorious Police Director Juan Carlos “El Tigre” Bonilla has done, and that
"I want to make it very clear that I am working with the Honduran police, and supplying aid through programs, because everyone in Honduras agrees that they are suffering a problem of violence, homicides, and drug trafficking. And to solve them we have to work with the police,” he concluded.
The comments represent a doubling-down by the State Department in the face of growing congressional pressure and concern about human rights violations committed by Honduran police and other authorities. While Brownfield -- who has been the State Department’s point person regarding the Bonilla controversy -- has previously defended ongoing U.S. support to the Honduran police, neither he nor anyone else at State seems to have previously been willing to praise Bonilla while members of Congress point fingers at him regarding past and current death squad activity.
In another sign of doubling-down and lashing back, Brownfield also dismissed what he described as “some groups’” claims regarding Bonilla and other suspect cops: “I haven't seen that any conclusion has been reached that supports the accusations of some groups about the history of the leadership of the Honduran police,” and he reiterated his misleading claim that some Honduran police units are not under Bonilla’s control:
"As a precaution, we are working with those parts of the police that do not report directly to the director general. But I understand that he has taken steps to purge the corrupt members of the police and to professionalize it, and he has been effective in delivering a better police force to the community and streets of Honduras,” he affirmed.
While Honduran officials have previously denounced statements by “groups” and individuals regarding rights violations and corruption in Honduras, it seems to be a departure from recent practice for the U.S. State Department to do so. And as we have previously noted, Bonilla’s activities a decade ago were at the time cause for great concern from the State Department. A 2003 cable made available by Wikileaks reveals that then-Western Hemisphere Affairs Deputy Assistant Secretary Dan Fisk had urged Honduran authorities “to send a strong signal about impunity by arresting fugitive policeman Juan Carlos “Tiger” Bonilla.”
While Bonilla did go to trial for murder charges in one case and was found innocent (when the prosecutor quit mid-trial), Bonilla was suspected in over a dozen others. The head of the police internal affairs department at the time, Maria Luisa Borjas claimed that her investigation was obstructed by authorities and that she received death threats.
Part of Brownfield’s PR counter-offensive focuses on aerial operations, citing this as an area in which Leahy Law restrictions were hampering police counternarcotics operations:
Brownfield assured today that the restrictions that come from the US Congress are applied fundamentally to “the country's aviation program.”
“That is due to issues that are outside the question of the national police,” he underscored. “We are in the process of resolving this issue, and if we can resolve it we will be able to supply more aid to aviation for the Honduran national police for its security operations in isolated areas of the country,” he added.
(Coincidentally, Honduran armed forces chief, general René Osorio Canales, gave an interview to Honduras’ La Tribuna newspaper today in which he described in detail areas in which he says the air force has a need for upgraded planes and helicopters.)
Various Honduras observers and authorities in Honduras have described the involvement of the Honduran police and other authorities in the drug trade.
The Honduran National Police, meanwhile, have predictably also reacted defensively to the report. Arce reports:
Honduran National Police spokesman Julian Hernandez Reyes denied the existence of police units operating outside the law. He asserted that the two gangs are murdering each other while disguised as law enforcement.
"There are no police death squads in Honduras," Hernandez said in an interview. "The only squads in place are made of police officers who give their lives for public safety."
But while Hernandez claims it is gangs dressed as cops who are committing the murders, Arce notes that plain clothes officers may also be gunning down suspects.
* May 20, 2013: This quotation, and the sentence that follows, have been changed to reflect a correction made to the original Associated Press article.