Militarization Ramped up in Honduras

On February 8, 2013, the Honduran government announced that it would be sending its military to patrol the streets of its two largest cities: San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa, the capital.1 With a murder rate of 92 per 100,000, Honduras far exceeds its nearest competitor (El Salvador, with a rate of 66 per 100,000) as the most violent country on the planet.2 In Tegucigalpa, the front pages of local, daily newspapers bearing gruesome photos of corpses riddled with bullet holes are blown up and pasted on the walls around town providing a disturbing display of the brutal violence.

President Porfirio Lobo has been lashing out at the press for Honduras’s violent reputation,3 specifically in the wake of surveillance footage released by one of Honduras’s main newspapers that depicts the execution of two brothers, aged 18 and 20. In the video, taken at 9 pm in the Comayagüela section of Tegucigalpa, the brothers are seen walking home as part of a group of five when eight armed men in bullet-proof vests emerge from two vehicles and open fire. Three of the youths ran for their lives, but the two brothers could not get away and, after being placed face down on the pavement, were shot in the back of their heads at close range.4

Just over a week after troops were deployed, on February 17, the son of the former Director of the National Police was gunned down in a restaurant along with his three armed body guards at 8:30 p.m. on a Sunday evening in the south of Tegucigalpa.5 His father has since accused the current Director of the National Police, Juan Carlos Bonilla, of being responsible for the murder.6 Bonilla also faces accusations regarding alleged ties to death squad activity,7 for which units under his control are ineligible to receive US aid under the Leahy Law. However, a recent Associated Press report reveals that under Honduran law, as Director of the National Police, all police units in Honduras fall under his control. Members of U.S. Congress are now asking the State Department to explain what appears to be a violation of the Leahy Law. 8 Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield maintains that no money goes to Bonilla or those directly below him in order to maintain “two degrees of separation”.9

According to the Associated Press, the government is on the brink of bankruptcy: due to lack of government funds, teachers haven’t been paid in months, surveillance cameras in the capital have been turned off, stolen manhole covers aren’t being replaced, and even many soldiers have now gone months without being paid.10 Add to the mix last year’s failed depuration of the national police11 and December’s “technical coup” against the judiciary,12 and you begin to get the picture of a country that doesn’t just have a few problems, but rather is in the midst of a serious crisis. Hence, the government’s solution: put soldiers on the streets.

Deploying soldiers to patrol the streets is not without precedent in this country that less than four years ago suffered a military coup, bringing to an end less than thirty years of civilian rule. Thousands of soldiers have been deployed in the Aguán region of the Colón department since at least April of 2010 when 7,000 soldiers were dispatched to the area under Operation Trueno, which was then replaced by Operation Tumbador, and then Xatruch Task Force, currently in its third incarnation.13

In November 2011, the Honduran Congress altered the constitution to allow the military to fulfill police functions, and within a few short months, the military could be found in city streets, on inter-city buses, and performing a wide range of anti-narcotics and police operations.14 Since then, the order giving the military these police powers has been re-approved three times.15 It is merely, then, the latest incarnation which places some 1,200 soldiers on the streets of the country’s two most important cities.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Freedom of Opinion and Expression recommended that the armed forces not assume police functions.16 The military checkpoints instituted previously in the Honduran capital faced strong criticism last year after soldiers chased down and killed a 15 year old boy, Ebed Yanes.17 The Special Forces unit responsible for the murder had been trained by the U.S. and even vetted as free of corruption and involvement in human rights violations. Lieutenant Coronel Reynel Funes, a graduate of the infamous School of the Americas, has been accused of covering up the murder, ordering his subordinates to lie about what had happened, remove evidence from the scene, and exchange their weapons. One of the soldiers involved is now a protected witness.18

The new troops, recently deployed, are not merely patrolling the streets, but also performing certain “operations”. To give a few examples of what these operations look like, the other day, as I was walking along the only pedestrian thoroughfare in Tegucigalpa, I witnessed a group of six or seven soldiers randomly selecting men to search and had placed about ten men against the wall with their legs spread; soldiers entered a high school and cut male students’ hair19 .

At the same time as the military presence is being ramped up throughout the country, the commander of the Xatruch III Task Force recently called a press conference to denounce human rights defenders, accusing them of launching a “disinformation campaign” against the armed forces.20 Human rights organizations widely condemned his statements, calling them an attempt to silence concerns regarding militarization,21 making Honduras less secure,22 and in fact of committing human rights violations themselves.23

The situation is only expected to grow more tense leading up to national elections in November.

18Ibid.

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