October 30, 2011

Two university students

Rafael Vargas Castellanos (1989-2011) with mother, Julieta Castellanos
Rafael Vargas Castellanos (1989-2011) with mother, Julieta Castellanos
Photo: La Prensa, Honduras

In the early morning hours of Saturday, October 22, two university students, Rafael Alejandro Vargas Castellanos (22) y Carlos Pineda Rodríguez (24), were found shot to death in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, their bodies thrown in a 30-foot ravine which El Heraldo described as being used for a garbage dump for bodies of late.

One victim was the son of the rector of the state university system (UNAH). Julieta Castellanos is a notable figure in Honduras, often in the news. She served on the OAS Truth Commission as well as many other commissions.

This was one of those crimes that grabs attention. Two seemingly innocent university students coming home from a birthday party gunned down for no apparent reason. Photos of Dra. Castellano's raw, grief-striken face at the funeral pounded home the tradegy of losing a son, as well as the fear that this could happen to anyone.

Promises were made by President Porfirio Lobo and the Minister of Security Pompeyo Bonilla to personally see that the perpetrators were caught and punished. Five teams of investigators were assigned. Extreme pressure was put on the police to investigate quickly and thoroughly. Meetings were held between the President, the Minister of Security, the Attorney General. The medical faculty of UNAH was put in charge of the forensic investigation to avoid possible manipulation of the evidence.

Initially there was speculation that Dra. Castellano's politics or her strong rule of the university system might have had something to do with the murders. By Monday, however, it was widely reported that police were thought to be involved in the killings.

Investigators announced that the caliber of bullets was that used by the police. The victim's car showed evidence of three bullet holes that had been shot through the back of the vehicle and through the seats. A private security video was said to show a police vehicle chasing the victim's car. Inspection of the patrol vehicles of that unit was performed. One of the vehicles was found to contain traces of blood and hair that may have been from the victims.

On Friday, La Tribuna reported confrontation between the police and Ministerio Público (attorney general's office), with a source within the MP informing them that the police have known since Monday the names of the three suspected police and one sub-inspector but had taken no action to capture them nor had they presented an official report. It is unknown whether the suspects continued to work as police officers during that week.

A police spokesman said previously that day on television that the MP already had all that was needed to take action. La Tribuna also reported a dispute between the two agencies in which police wanted one agent treated as a protected witness, which was denied by the MP because the agent was considered to be a suspect in the case. The article implied that the police were trying to protect the subinspector.

The same article reports that reporters and camera men have been intimidated by having had their photos taken on cell phones and threatened with being investigated by members of the police unit in La Granja. Dra. Castellanos denounced that journalists, investigators, and fiscales (prosecutors) were being intimidated and coerced by the police.

Investigations are underway in La Granja, where a ring of corrupt police are said to be associated with assasinations, vehicle thefts, charging "impuesta de guerra" (war tax), armed assaults, and drug dealing while using police radio communications to determine the locations of other police patrols.

Finally a week after the crime, four police were taken into custody and their names were released. Incredibly, Saturday, eight days after the events and after heavy rains, more investigators were sent to the scene of the crime to "collect data".

One theory was that the police shot the victims for failing to stop at an "operativo" and then tried to cover it up by taking them to a remote location, shooting them several times again so that it would appear to have been a gang shooting. Neighbors in the area where the bodies were found reported the gunshots about 2 am on Sunday. Later one of the police agents confessed that Rafael Vargas Castellano was the target of a planned kidnapping by a police official.

What is clear is that the vast majority of murders do not get this kind of attention (all the way up to the President) or the manpower that has been devoted to this investigation. And that makes us wonder how many similar crimes by the police go undetected and unpunished. Even in this high profile case, it appears that police still attempted cover up and still felt free to intimidate reporters. What should also be clear to everyone is why citizens are afraid to report crimes or abuse or corruption on the part of the police.

News flash:

On Sunday, October 30, Proceso Digital reported that all four police officers "escaped". It seems that the policemen, though accused of murder, were given a "free day", permitted to leave by sub-comissioner Jorge Barralaga Hernández on Friday, with the promise to return on Sunday. They did not.

No comment has yet been made by President Lobo or Minister of Security Bonilla.

Only in Honduras.

Update 7 pm:

Acting director of the national police Marco Tulio Palma stated that all they need is the warrants issued by the prosecutor's office. He says he is "bereaved" by the escape of the suspects and "we don't know if they have fled to another country".
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