October 7, 2010

Afraid of the traffic or afraid of the traffic police?

On Monday, 13 members of the Honduran La Chicas Sambas band were killed in a traffic accident. Weekly, if not daily, on the Honduran news, we see the mangled remains of horrendous beyond belief traffic accidents, in which an average of three people are killed per day. Often a bus or truck driver was drunk or otherwise impaired and usually traveling at a great rate of speed. Almost always cited as to blame is the poor condition of the truck or bus, such as the brakes or steering not functioning, or the recklessness of the drivers, such as speeding, passing on blind curves, and/or driving drunk. It is a common sight to see vehicles driving on the highway at night without tail lights or even headlights.

As is normally done immediately after some particularly tragic accident, an announcement was made that bus inspections would be performed in Tegucigalpa starting October 15.

In 2009, 1,200 persons were killed in traffic accidents in Honduras. Of this number, 646 pedestrians, the vast majority over 65 years old, were killed by being run over by vehicles. (The linked report also discusses the 5,265 homicides and other crimes in Honduras, but that is a whole different topic.)

What do the Honduran traffic police do? They harass and extort innocent citizens. That's pretty much it. Roadblocks in which drivers are hassled are the daily norm. In most areas, there are no vehicles or gas money to send the traffic police out to where they could actually do something to make the roads safer. Instead, as a team, they form roadblocks and stop cars to check paperwork, driver's licenses and auto registrations. Frequently, these checks are just an excuse to extort bribes, not just from those who appear to be able to afford it, but from the poor as well.

One of the most common things is to say that the driver is in violation because their vehicle is not carrying 'triangles', those fluorescent markers that one might put on the street when a car breaks down. No matter that the vehicle doesn't have functioning brakes, lights, or turn signals. No matter that a truck may be so overloaded that the brakes won't work on the mountainous roads. Got your triangles? You're good to go. Don't have them? Put a little refresco money in the officer's pocket and you're good to go. Don't pay the bribe and your driver's license and possibly even your vehicle may be confiscated, depending upon the trumped up charge.

What to do?

We are told that we should report any bribery attempts or misconduct of the police. Hah! Sure, go ahead, if you want to be harassed, beaten up, arrested on a trumped up charge, or murdered. Often the top police officer in that location is fully involved in the misdeeds and/or gets his cut of the bribe money, or at a minimum, looks the other way at what the police under his command are doing. Complaints carry a name and address of the complainant and will probably never be addressed by the Fiscál anyway.

El Jefe's experience

We aren't talking about anything new or the occasional roadblock. El Jefe says that he gets stopped by the police virtually every single time he goes out, sometimes up to four times in the same day, and sometimes by the very same officers who have checked his license and registration three times already!

The worst time, however, was one that gave me nightmares for weeks. El Jefe was coming home from a class about 9 p.m. He stopped for the police roadblock in a dark area on a deserted road. Tired and hungry, he made a comment something to the effect that they should be out looking for criminals instead of stopping innocent people and wasting their time. At that, the police told him to get out of the car, made him spread-eagle on the car — with guns drawn— while they searched him and the car. The officer in charge made jokes (?) to the other officers that they could easily take him out into the country and 'disappear' him. When you have a gun to your back, comments like that can only be taken seriously. Just before, J had pulled out his wallet to get his driver's license and had left it car. The officer who searched the car robbed him of his cash!

Pretty terrible, you might be thinking. However, it gets worse. The same police officers showed up at our (isolated) house about 10 p.m. the following night! They hollered for El Jefe to come out. I begged him not to go out. I was terrified they would shoot or abduct him. He told me to stay inside and keep the doors locked, but instead I got the gun and went to the upstairs terraza to watch. To this day, I'm not entirely sure what their purpose was. El Jefe thinks that, based on where we live, they had second thoughts and were worried that we were 'important' people who would get them into trouble. They seemed to be trying to downplay what had happened the night before. I don't know about El Jefe, but I was thoroughly intimidated and didn't even consider my usual gringa stance of complaining about the injustice.

Attempts to change the system

Oscar Alvaréz, Minister of Security, has been trying to purify the police department. He has made efforts to attract new recruits and focus on ethics and human rights in their training. More than 100 bad police officers have been fired and even arrested for crimes. Just yesterday, the jefe of Transit inspectors was arrested in San Pedro Sula for illegally releasing confiscated vehicles and bribery. In the past few months, we seem to be seeing some improvement in the professionalism and ethics of the police. They seem more polite, and El Jefe has only once been extorted for a bribe (which he did not pay). That was by a well-known alcoholic cop who feeds his habit with the money he extorts from honest citizens. While I believe that Minister Alvaréz is headed in the right direction, there is a long, long way to go. Corruption is so ingrained in the police department and as long as police cover up for each other, nothing will change.

An event yesterday

The following story was sent to me today by an American who runs a charitable group, a home for children. I have changed the names of the people involved and the location as their NGO status or their lives could literally be in danger if it was known that they complained.

Dear La Gringa,

I, like you, am concerned about the direction of our beloved adopted country. This morning my Honduran wife María sent her brother José to [unnamed city] to pick up some food for the precious children in our care. He was stopped on main street, by a uniformed policeman, who asked to see his driving license. Then the officer demanded a 1,000 lempira bribe. When José told him that, if he had violated any law, he should be given a citation, which he would pay at the bank (the normal procedure in Honduras).

He also told the policeman that it was a crime, under Honduras law, to ask for or pay a bribe. At that, the policeman dragged José out of my truck, with pistol drawn. It was feared that José would be murdered by the rogue cop. Two of our school teachers, three of our older children, and another man were with José, and heard and saw everything. Then José was handcuffed and thrown in the city jail nearby.

When María and I were notified, we were outraged, and immediately drove to the police station in that town. Upon arrival, we learned that the report was true. José was jailed for, in effect, attempting to uphold the law of Honduras. I told the officer in charge that 1) I would not pay even one Lempira; and, 2) I demanded José's immediate release.

You know the drill — we went around and around for an hour or two. The arresting officer lied rapidly. Our six witnesses all gave the true account of events. At last were told, "go home, and José will be released tomorrow." We replied that our group, which had grown by then, would leave only with José.

I returned home with the intention of loading all of the children, including babies, on our bus, and take all of them to the station to wait for José's release. Before I could load all of them, María phoned, and reported that José had been freed.

My questions are:

1) How many Innocent people are in Honduras jails and prisons, because they do not have family or friends who support them?

2) What is the hope for the future of this beautiful country and people, when corruption is rampant in the system, or corruption is the system?

That is why many Gringos, like you and I, are living here in our adopted country helping rear up a new generation who have respect for God, morals, and the rule of law.

We won this round, but I was told to be careful, because the authorities may target me for reprisal. My response is that I have One with me who is more powerful than they.

May God bless you, for your tireless efforts, for the future of Honduras.


'John' later added this:

I pray the honest police in Honduras will police their own ranks. Perhaps your reports will reach the person or persons who will take up this needy cleansing.

I believe that there are many honest people in law enforcement in Honduras. I gained a great respect last year, when they, and the brave military, stood in the streets and took much abuse from Mel's thugs in order to prevent mob rule in Honduras. I usually thank the officers, who stop me and check my license and registration, for their service to protect the public.

Two things I can add to the original account. 1) María phoned the mayor of [town], who called the police station. 2) A friend of our family contacted someone in law enforcement in Tegus, and reported the incident. I think that person phoned the police in [town]. One, both, or neither may have impacted the decision to free José. I personally believe they did it to get rid of me, and our very vocal group.


Human rights violations in Honduras? Sure. There always have been, and not, as the international media and Human Rights groups would have you believe, only against the Resistance. Politics have nothing to do with this. Bad cops are equal opportunity offenders. I don't believe this is a concerted effort on the part of the government — not this government, not the last one, and not the Zelaya or Maduro administrations before them. However, through neglect or lack of will or just plain incompetence, these sorts of things go on and on, and the final blame has to rest with the government for not effectively addressing the problems and prosecuting the criminal cops.

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