October 18, 2011

Security measures, Honduran style (Crime Part II)

Honduras police operativos
Police Operativo
Images: La Prensa, Honduras

Several months ago a well-respected pastor was senselessly murdered in San Pedro. Initially it was reported that he was killed while walking his dogs by thieves who wanted his two Schnauzers, which reportedly have a value in Honduras of about US $500 each. Later it was reported by a witness that he was killed merely for his cell phone.

Honduras President Pepe Lobo's first anniversaryThat murder seemed to be the straw that broke the camel's back — for a few moments in time anyway. Thousands came out a week later in a silent protest to demand that something be done about crime. Journalist, attorney, and business associations, among others, also made strong demands of officials.

The pastor's murder was followed by the assasination of a couple of attorneys and the surviving brother of a congressman who was himself assasinated a few months previously. At least two mayors have been murdered and other attempts have been made against mayors this year. Forty-plus police officers have been murdered, including the head of the organized crime/narcotrafficking unit of the police. Journalists continue to be murdered. A judge who ruled against invasionistas in the controversial Bajo Aguan dispute was murdered. Those are only some of the most notable assasinations, only a taste of news, which is usually complete with gruesome photos and video that we are subjected to every single day in Honduras, where an average of 20 murders per day, or one every 72 minutes, are committed.

"New" security measures

A week after the pastor was killed, Minister of Security Oscar Alvarez announced that new measures would be taken to combat crime. For a few minutes, I was joyful to hear that serious action was finally going to be taken. But it turned out that the planned operativos were only more of the same ineffective nonsense: road stops that harass all citizens instead of targeting criminals and high crime areas. This tactic has been used for decades and is commonly known in Honduras as a "show" (yes, in English), and Alvarez was commonly called the "showman".

The news showed the Minister, along with what appeared to be about 50 police officers, in a one block area where they were stopping all motorcycles and other assorted drivers (photo at top). Most of the police were doing nothing but standing around. Certainly that one block area would be crime-free for the hour or two or four that the police might be there — only the most stupid of criminals would commit a crime there. Only the most unalert criminal would not turn off and find another route or toss their gun out the window.

News video showed that only some vehicles and all motorcycles were being stopped and searched, so unless a criminal happened to be carrying unregistered guns, drugs, or stolen goods, I'm not sure what the police hoped to accomplish. Even then, with evidence in the vehicle, given the quality of the police investigation and documentation abilities, I'm not sure that they could make a case anyway. No computer system is used by the police to check whether there are warrants out for the driver and passengers or whether the vehicle was stolen. These large police operativos were performed in the major cities of the country ... for a couple of days. To Alvarez's credit, in our experience, the police have been more professional in recent years and less apt to ask for bribes.

During those few days of operativos, thousands of tickets were given for not carrying a current car registration or drivers' license and other vehicle "irregularities". Does that combat crime? I don't think so. Honestly, where are the priorities? With the highest murder rate in the world, with robberies, muggings, and burglaries rampant, who cares whether anyone is driving with an expired license? Criminals have access to all the false or "legitimate" paperwork in the world. Expired documents do not kill and rob people. Honduras has much more serious things to worry about than drivers' licenses and up-to-date vehicle registrations.

Some unlicensed guns were confiscated but that could be at least partly blamed on the government, too, as the gun licensing system disappeared a few years ago and now is only available in the major cities of Tegucigalpa and San Pedro. So, the government makes it difficult to impossible to follow the law and then gives you a ticket for not following it. I'm not sure even how to transport an unlicensed gun to San Pedro for registration without having the gun confiscated and/or being arrested for carrying it along the way. It is one of those Honduran Catch 22s: You can't carry a gun unless it is registered, but you can't register it unless you can carry it to some far off city.

Honduras police operativosTraffic operativos are nothing new. They happen all the time. On our last trip to San Pedro Sula from La Ceiba in September, we passed five operativos, only slightly more than usual. We were waved through on two of them, one time we were stopped but when we rolled down the window, the officer waved for us to move on. In two stops, our paperwork was checked and once they asked us if we were carrying guns (but didn't search the car). Once the officer asked us to roll down the back windows and he took a fleeting glance at the back seat which was packed full of stuff. My point is that we could have been wanted criminals, we could have been carrying guns or drugs, but the police did nothing except determine that our paperwork was in order.

Back in March, the military was also put out on the streets (as they are sometimes when the population becomes publicly incensed about crime) at an estimated cost of L.10 million per month. But mostly they weren't put out in the high crime areas — they were out performing the same operativos, stopping traffic and asking innocent citizens for their paperwork. I'm not complaining about 'inconvenience'. I think most would happily give up our right to free circulation and wouldn't mind being stopped every mile if we thought it would actually have an effect on crime and not merely traffic. But now, after the airport massacre, citizens have the added worry that any operativo might actually be criminals in disguise.

If we wait, the criminals will come

Really? How has that philosophy been working for you for the past 10, 20, 40 years? What can the government possibly hope to accomplish with traffic stops, except to give a lot of tickets and maybe catch one in a thousand vehicles that have weapons or drugs? Do they think the criminals will burst into a spontaneous confession? Do kidnappers take joy rides with their captives? Are criminals carrying drugs or guns not smart enough to turn off the road when they see a road stop ahead?

Honduras police operativos
I think the above cartoon illustrates the reality. While police are routinely pestering innocent citizens for no other reason than there are a lot of criminals out there and they might get lucky, the real criminals go merrily about their business.

Some of my Honduran friends think that these operativos do have some effect on crime, but traffic stops just seem so misguided to me considering the amount of manpower put into them. Why not regularly put police in the high crime areas? [Spanish] Why not regularly put one or two in plain clothes on the buses to areas that get robbed so often? Why not regularly put police on foot in markets, shopping areas, and high crime colonias, not just the tourist areas, so that people can feel a little safer? Here is a novel idea, how about putting security forces out at night, when most crimes are committed? And most of all, whatever you are going to do, why only put on a show for a couple of weeks or a month and then go back to business as usual, citing vehicle irregularities?

Other security measures

Assasinations (and muggings) are often committed by two men on a motorcycle; one is the driver and the other is the shooter. A motorcycle allows them to manuever quickly through traffic to make their escape, while helmets eliminate the possibility of identification. (You learn about such things in Honduras.) A huge added advantage — provided by the government! — is that there are no identifying license plates for new motorcycles in Honduras. The government has been out of plates since sometime during the Zelaya administration, making witness identification of the driver or the vehicle impossible.

So, illogically, rather than providing a budget to issue motorcycle license plates as requested by the DEI (tax collection agency), which was estimated to cost about L.400 million (about US $21 million) and which might provide an means of identification, an additional measure discussed once again in congress was the prohibition for two people to ride on a motorcycle. This would be a huge hardship for many young workers and families who have a motorcycle as their only means of transportation. Many assasinations are committed by two or more people in a car as well. Why not pass a law outlawing more than one person in a vehicle, too? More than a few assasinations are committed by a person(s) in a taxi. Should we outlaw taxis?

Recently the military requested to purchase a fleet of Tucano 'star-wars' equipped super jets to aid in fighting organized narcotrafficking to US cocaine consumers, at an estimated cost to Honduras of as much as US $100 million. In a country where the entire security budget is only about US $150 million, where there is no money to buy gas for police cars, where the technical knowledge of the necessity to keep oil in a vehicle engine is beyond most the police departments, and where even the 'new' science of fingerprinting crime scenes is not generally employed, we can only shake our heads again at the priorities. To put the security budget in perspective, the combined 2011 budget [Spanish] for the Presidency and the Secretariat of the Office of the Presidency is about US $170 million, increased from about US $82 million in 2010.

Congress has revised the new security tax on citizens and businesses, expected to generate about US $79 million per year, probably as a result of the US demands that devastatingly poor countries like Honduras "do more" in the fight against narcotraffickers which feed the heavy user demand for cocaine in the US. So ironically, in addition to Honduran lives lost to narcotrafficking, the people of Honduras will be paying in cash for US's addiction problems. Congress has approved an increase in the 2012 security budget [Spanish] to about US $215 million.

President Lobo has lately put forth the idea of combining the police and military forces, which, in some way that I don't understand, would then somehow magically improve the crime situation. Then he decided that he wouldn't combine them. Then he would combine the two ministries under one "super minister" but not actually combine the forces. Then ... well, honestly, I have no idea what the latest is on this. Like so many ideas thrown out there on a whim, there seems to be no study of the legal, constitutional, or logistical aspects beforehand.

There have been other suggestions which get a lot of publicity for a day or a week and then fade away. Former Minister of Security Oscar Alvarez made some very strong statements about corruption within the police department, including that at least 10 police officials were acting as "air traffic controllers" for the narcos. The last statistic that I heard was that some 100 proven-to-be-criminal police officers were removed during his 17 month watch, but he has also complained that the courts have forced him restore some of them to their jobs.

Minister Alvarez himself was removed shortly after he proposed that he be allowed to fire corrupt police police officers directly — what a concept! Apparently that wasn't popular with the police forces, or the narcos who control them. The new Minister of Security Pompeyo Bonilla [Spanish] says that he doesn't have any idea of who those "air traffic controllers" might be but he talks of purifying the police department with no specifics given about how that would be done.


Another measure discussed then and being tossed about again now [Spanish] is a general disarmament — all guns would be prohibited, except for police and security companies, I presume. But the simple fact is that criminals and organized crime will always have access to guns, illegal or not, and sometimes with the collusion of the US government as in "Fast and Furious". Most of their weapons are already illegally imported, like AK-47's and M-16s. Honduran port authorities have confiscated several incoming shipments of illegal guns 'missed' by US port authorities.

I've never been a right-to-bear-arms activist and never owned a gun in my life until we came to Honduras. After being crime victims, which sent me into a spin in which it was more than a year before I could sleep normally, we bought a gun. We know from personal experiences that the police will never protect us. It crystal clear to me and most citizens of Honduras that it is up to us to protect ourselves, because no one else will.

Calls to the police in most parts of the country result in being told that there is no gas for the police vehicles, or the cars aren't running, and others have experienced delays of hours if the police ever do show up. Generally, if you want the police to come, unless you are in one of the major cities, you have to go pick them up. It's true, it can't be denied, and it is another reason why crime statistics are understated.

When I saw a TV poll that showed 88% of the callers agreed with a general disarmament, I literally had a panic attack. Does anyone really believe that the criminals and gangs and narcos will simply turn in their already illegal guns? Does another law make it any more likely that police will actually confiscate more illegal weapons or that the weapons won't later disappear from evidence rooms in police, Ministerio Publico, or judicial offices? In my opinion, all this will do is to change law abiding citizens who need to protect themselves into law breakers and provide even less security than the average citizen has now.


It seems apparent that the Honduran government just has no sense of priorities. The congress has discussed spending hundreds of millions on a new ID card system and millions more will be spent on promoting the Charter City concept. Now the government is planning to spend US $100 million on jets to fight narcoplanes.

False promises - HondurasThese are not the priorities that Pepe Lobo promised voters when he was elected. One of his major campaign promises was more security for the people — in that, the statistics show that he has failed miserably. But what the public can't forgive him for is that his priorities for the past 18 months have been focused primarily outside the country trying to appease every whim of the "international community" instead of focusing on the primary concern of his people — their ability to live in peace without fear. What can be more important for a government than protecting the lives of its people?


This is part II of a multi-part article on Crime in Honduras.

Part I: Crime is out of control in Honduras

Part III: Drug trafficking in Honduras

Part IV: Crime in La Ceiba, Honduras
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