Militarization of law enforcement in Honduras

Last week, we posted a run-down of the militarization of policing in Guatemala. Today, we are looking at similar developments in Honduras, a country with a strong military tradition (pdf)

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that spent much of the 1990s trying to reduce the institution’s power. However, recent deployments of troops to the streets have highlighted concerns that the country is increasingly militarizing its fight against organized crime – and it appears as though soldiers will remain on the streets for the foreseeable future.

Earlier this month Honduran President Porfirio Lobo announced there had been nine days in 2013 (albeit not consecutive) without a recorded murder in Tegucigalpa. He lauded the statistic as “historic,” saying, “before we were always talking about two digits; there were more than 30 murders. Today we have many days at a national level with only one digit.” He attributed this to military presence and police reform, which he claimed was “pushing out those who ought to be pushed out” of the police, despite reports that only seven members of the 11,000-member force have been fired. “How am I going to take the military off of the streets if the work they have done is extraordinary?” he asked journalists.

However, it is unclear if there has been much of a change. According to the National Autonomous University Observatory of Violence, from the start of the year through May 31 of 2013 there were an average of 20 murders per day in the country. The Honduras Culture and Politics blog used this average to calculate projected murders for the whole year and found the country could expect 7,140 murders for 2013 if the rate remains constant. This would yield a murder rate of about 85 or 86 per 100,000 (depending on population growth), about the rate that the Observatory found in 2012. For 2013, the University’s Violence Observatory predicted that the homicide rate could fall by six percent, although, as InSight Crime noted, the prediction had more to do with population growth than a decrease in violence.

Some recent uses of military for law enforcement:


  • In February, the Honduran government launched “Operation Liberty” with the deployment of 1,300 troops — 800 to the streets of Tegucigalpa, the capital, and 500 to San Pedro Sula. The armed forces will remain on the streets until January 2014.Two months into the operation, an official from the 105th Brigade claimed crime had dropped 60 percent, while the police department claimed crime had fallen 10 percent. Similar claims of drops in homicides and capture of gang leaders were reported again in June. However, sources failed to explain what kind of crimes they referred to and over what time period they were reporting.
  • In early June, Honduras’ Congress approved a $4.4 million plan to add 1,000 more troops to fight organized crime, money that some members of Honduras’ Congress thought would be better spent on police.
  • Also, in June Honduras’ Congress approved the creation of an elite high-technology military police force known as the Tigers – TIGRES in Spanish and an acronym for: Tropa de Inteligencia y Grupos de Respuesta Especial de Seguridad. (Intelligence Troop and Special Security Response Groups)
  • On June 7, the line between military and police became even more blurred when the Congress merged the responsibilities of the Ministry of Defense, which controls the military, and the Ministry of Security, which controls the police. The vice minister of security is also a retired member of the military, as are a number of security advisors in the government.


Institutional implications

In addition to worries of corruption and human rights abuse, analysts have expressed concern over the institutional implications of involving the military in domestic security. The Congressional Research Service’s latest report on Honduras (pdf) highlighted worries that the military has started to play a larger role (again) in domestic politics. Before 1982 the armed forces repeatedly took control of the country and only in the late 1990s were they subordinated to civilian leadership.

The military has also played a central role in major recent political shuffles. It led the 2009 coup of President Zelaya and in December 2012, troops guarded the National Congress when it voted to dismiss members of the Supreme Court. The day after, military commanders appeared publicly with President Lobo. In 2011, members of the Honduran Congress approved a reform to the constitution allowing soldiers to assume police duties and be used “on a permanent basis in the fight against drug-trafficking and terrorism, weapons-trafficking and organized crime.” As noted above, several former military members now hold high office within the government.

Human rights concerns

Honduras’ military has been cited as worse than the police for its human rights violations, as it has been linked to extrajudicial killings, kidnappings, drug and arms trafficking and extortion. One such example can be seen in the Army’s 15th Battalion, which receives U.S. assistance, that has control over the rural Bajo Aguán region, where over 60 people fighting for campesino land rights have been killed in the past three years.

Because of the military’s history of corruption, murder, and links to organized crime, experts have warned that putting boots on the streets could increase corruption in the institution by giving soldiers greater opportunity to become even more involved in narcotrafficking. This is compounded by the fact that there is almost near-complete impunity for state security forces in a highly-politicized judicial system.

In mid-June 21, U.S. senators sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry asking that the State Department “conduct a thorough review to ensure that no U.S. assistance is provided to police or military personnel or units credibly implicated in human rights violations,” as it questioned the release of aid to Honduras in 2012.

As with the military, there is also substantial evidence that members of Honduras’ notoriously corrupt police force have participated in extortion rackets, are involved with organized crime, and have carried out several extrajudicial killings. According to a March 2013 Associated Press report, “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.”

Despite these alarming statistics, the United States continues to fund the police (and military). William Brownfield, Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, rationalized continued aid, saying, “Although the national police may have its defects at the moment, it is the lesser evil,” according to the Associated Press. The statement came following several Associated Press reports on Honduran police corruption that also document U.S. funding for police units, which has reached about $16 million this year.

Former U.S. Southern Command head, General Douglas Fraser, noted in his 2012 posture statement (pdf) that using the Honduran military for internal security “is a necessary initial step to help curb the rising tide of violence,” but maintain that such an approach “is unsustainable in the long term.”

Currently, Congress is holding up $10.3 million in funding to Honduras because of security forces’ questionable human rights record. While there is legislation that puts some human rights conditions on military and police aid to Honduras, as Lisa Haugaard, Executive Director of Latin American Working Group pointed out in an interview with Free Speech Radio News, there is a large loophole: the conditions do not apply to funding for counternarcotics assistance to fight drug trafficking and related violence. In a country like Honduras, through which 40 percent of cocaine that reaches the United States is said to be trafficked, it is difficult to classify which episodes of violence are linked to drugs and which are not.

As lawmakers in both the Senate and House debate the appropriations bill that will determine foreign aid spending for FY2014, human rights advocates can only hope that some of the above will be taken under consideration.