On August 2, a Honduran court convicted four police officers of murder and abuse of authority in the killing of 22-year-old Rafael Alejandro Vargas, son of Julieta Castellanos (head of the National Autonomous University of Honduras), and his 23-year-old friend, Carlos Pineda. The two young men were last seen being stopped at a police checkpoint outside Tegucigalpa, Honduras on October 22, 2011; their bodies were found the next day.
The case unveiled the level of deep-seated corruption in the police and caused a public outcry in Honduras, which eventually led to the creation of the Commission for the Reform of Public Security. The Commission was established to carry out an overhaul of the National Police, the Attorney General’s Office, and the judicial branch.
The fact that an investigation into the murders of the young men took place at all—much less led to the arrest and conviction of four police officers—is positive and certainly unusual in Honduras, where only 20 percent of homicides are investigated. However, the case is not yet closed: several of the police officers accused of involvement in the double murder remain at large, and Ms. Castellanos has indicated that high-level police officials should also be held responsible. Although the convictions are certainly encouraging, such isolated incidents of investigation and conviction unfortunately do not represent a long-term commitment to address the underlying issues of corruption and abuse of authority within the National Police. Even more concerning is the fact that current efforts to purge the police and create a trustworthy, professional, and accountable police force appear to be on the rocks.
Stalled Reform Efforts
The prospects for police reform were, ironically, brighter in the days and months directly following the murder of Ms. Castellano’s son and his friend. Police corruption and involvement in criminality stood revealed; in response, in November 2011, the Honduran Congress created the Directorate for the Investigation and Evaluation of the Police Career (Dirección de Investigacióny Evaluación de la Carrera Policial, DIECP). The DIECP replaced the ineffective and underfunded Internal Affairs Unit of the National Police and was directed to investigate crimes and misconduct committed by police officers, as well as to continuously evaluate police personnel to weed out corrupt officers.
Unfortunately, the DIECP has suffered from a lack of funds and personnel since its inception; while the Congress and the Lobo Administration felt impelled to create the DIECP, they have not followed through with the resources or political backing needed. Rather than leading investigations of police corruption or involvement in criminal activity, the DIECP has been reduced to merely carrying out “confidence tests”—a mixture of economic, toxicological, and psychological tests, as well as a polygraph test—that aspiring and current police officers are supposed to pass in order to either enter or remain in the force. It has faced heavy criticism for not requiring high-level officials to take the tests; for delays in administering tests; and for failing to dismiss those that have failed the tests. The failure to purge the police became evident when DIECP Director Eduardo Villanueva admitted in March 2013—more than a year after the Directorate’s establishment—that only 1,200 officers out of force’s roughly 11,000 members had been vetted. Of those, the 230 officers who had failed the tests remained in the force. In June, the United States withdrew funding from the DIECP, citing its “slow progress.”
The DIECP’s future is unclear. Villanueva tendered his resignation in April but remains in charge, as President Lobo has not named a successor. In the meantime, reports have surfaced that implicate members of the National Police in extrajudicial executions and social cleansing, and the U.S. government continues to withhold US$10 million in aid to the National Police due to human rights concerns.
Problematic Military Involvement
Like many of its neighbors, the Honduran government has repeatedly turned to the military to help address the spiraling levels of crime and violence. In February, the Lobo administration launched Operation Liberty with the deployment of 1,300 troops to Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula. Four months later, the National Congress approved a $4.4 million plan to add more military troops to combat organized crime. Most recently, Juan Orlando Hernández, President of the National Congress and presidential candidate for the National Party, proposed the creation of a new 5,000-member military police force.
While the military’s presence on the streets may satisfy public demands for action, relying on the military is highly problematic. Inviting the military to take on law enforcement functions not only blurs the lines between the structures and functions of the police and military, it also detracts attention and resources from the pressing urgency to reform the police and criminal justice institutions. Moreover, involving the military can also increase corruption and abuses in the army.
A Crucial Piece of the Equation
Police reform is a key part of improving the security situation. Cleaning up corruption and criminal activity inside the Honduran National Police and establishing effective internal control mechanisms to deter future problems is not an easy task, especially in a society confronting one of the highest homicide rates in the world. Yet it is an absolutely essential task, critical to establishing a credible, trustworthy, and accountable police force; to preventing police wrongdoing, abuse, and human rights violations; and to achieving meaningful citizen security and guaranteeing the rule of law.
If the Honduran government is seeking international support, it needs to establish its credibility by carrying out systematic investigations of police corruption and criminality in key cases that target high-level as well as rank and file officers, putting in place an effective and well-funded internal control system, and adopting concrete measures to reform the National Police.