November 1, 2011

Shake up in Honduras police

Police announce promotions, Honduras
Press conference of Security Minister Pompeyo Bonilla
Photos: El Heraldo, Honduras

Sunday night acting director of the Honduran national police, Marco Tulio Palma, and Danilo Orellana, director in charge of the prison system, were guests on the popular 30/30 television show in a very poorly executed attempt at damage control. Their remarks about the situation that led to the "escape" of the four police officers suspected of murdering two university students [in English] sent the Honduran Twitter world on fire with outrage. Excuses and weak platitudes did nothing to reassure the Honduran public.

Commisioner Palma has referred several times to "abuse of authority" in an apparent effort to downplay the fact that the case in question is a case of a cold-blooded double murder.

Palma said it would have been a violation of the suspects' rights to detain them, while at the same time saying that there is no doubt that they were the perpetrators. He blamed the Ministerio Publico (MP - prosecutor's office) for not issuing the warrants. However, on other occasions he has been quoted as saying that there was not sufficient evidence to hold the suspects.

Ministerio Público (attorney general) Luis Rubí called in to the television show to bluntly state that the police were lying, that the MP had not received the official police report or sufficient evidence to issue the warrants. He stated that the fiscales have had to do their own investigations because of the inability of the police to provide theirs.

Minister of Security Pompeyo Bonilla also called in to the show to state that he had personally ordered that the four officers not be released.

Julieta Castellanos, mother of one of the victims and rector of the state university system, called in to the show to say that she had been in personal and constant contact with the President, the Minister of Security, the MP, and various officers involved in the investigation. She asked, if orders of the top official of the police can be so blatently ignored, just who is it who is in charge of the police, apparently referring to the possibility that organized crime has more influence over police actions than the minister.

Honduras News (who has been covering this case in English) has a good translation of Julieta Castellanos many statements. Additionally, Fredín Fúnez, Director of the Association of Attorneys of Honduras , [in Spanish] said "Today we have undercovered the ring of corruption in the police and the minimum that President Lobo should do is to suspend all of the police leadership."

The suspects

wanted police in HondurasIn the early morning hours on Monday, the arrest warrants for the four officers were issued. They have not yet been located or recaptured. Today rewards of L.50,000 [in Spanish] (about US $2,600) per head was announced for information leading to the capture of the four missing police.

Even more surprisingly, another four police agents [in Spanish] were arrested early Monday for the same crimes and transported to Tamara prison for holding. Police statements of the past week had never even hinted that there were more police involved.

Departmental shake up

Late Monday afternoon, a big shake up in the police department [in Spanish] was reported. Commissioner General of the Police José Luis Muñoz Licona, Jorge Barralaga, the police chief who granted "free days" to the original four suspects who since disappeared, Marco Tulio Palma, Commissioner of DNIC (criminal investigative unit) mentioned above, and the commissioner of the national preventative police were among the most notable functionaries replaced.

Coralia Rivera was named as the new Vice-Minister of Security to fill a slot which had not yet been filled after the recent replacement of former minister Oscar Alvarez, who had been very vocal about corruption within the police, with Pompeyo Bonilla.

Oscar AlvarezFormer Minister Oscar Alvarez calls the personnel changes "rotations" [in Spanish] and says that is not enough. The officials in question are said to have been merely transferred within the police department to administrative positions but still wear the uniform and hold the rank. He pointed to the need for a new law to allow depuration of the department. Alvarez had proposed such a law just before he was removed as Minister of Security. He also pointed out that the Ley Orgánica de la Policía allows officials to detain police accused of crimes for eight days to allow time for a thorough investigation — something that has never been mentioned by any current officials.

Police arms and ammunition missing

In another blow to the image of the police department, El Heraldo [Spanish] was tipped off that a large cache of automatic weapons and large-caliber amunition was reported missing [story in English] from the custody of the Cobras, a special operations unit of the Honduran police. Police officials had apparently been trying to cover up the theft which may have occurred as long ago as 2009. A similar theft reported in 2007 has gone unpunished with no clues as to the persons involved.

Ex-Minister Oscar Alvarez, who returned to Honduras today, stated that former Commissioner Muñoz Licona had never informed him about the theft of arms.

Purification and intervention

Minister of Human Rights Ana Pineda [in Spanish] and many others have called for a purification of the police department from the top to the bottom, as well as offered suggestions for civilian and/or international oversight or intervention. President Lobo has stated that there will be no intervention [in Spanish] because the Minister is new and needs a chance to work. Lobo recognized the need for more cooperation and coordination between the police, the fiscales, and the courts. He also stated that the president of the Supreme Court has expressed his frustration with judges whose decisions have clearly not been made under the law.

In La Ceiba yesterday, the accused murderer of journalist David Meza [English] was found not guilty by the court. This is one of the only, if not the only, case that has been brought to trial for the murder of 17 journalists in the past two years. During the trial, hundreds of friends and taxistas had protested the innocence of the accused. The accused, known as El Unicornio, was not released as he is being held for several other charges including illegal possession of weapons.

Operación Relámpago

Operación Relámpago [in Spanish](Operation Lightning Bolt), announced previously at the funeral of Rafael Vargas Castellano, commenced today. In a joint police-military operation, the country has been divided into 8 sections, each with a police and a military commander. According to Minister of Defense Marlon Pascua, foot and vehicle patrols will be performed along with police stops in higher crime areas. Approximately 400 soldiers have been assigned throughout the entire territory. The operation will continue until further order by President Lobo who noted in a national televised speech that it is imperative that the security forces recuperate the confidence of the public.
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