Honduras: Congress resurrects military police force

Honduras’ National Congress voted on Aug. 21 to approve a law creating the Military Police of Public Order (PMOP), a new 5,000-member police unit composed of army reservists under the control of the military. This will be in addition to a 4,500-member “community police” force that the government is forming, according to an Aug. 12 announcement by Security Minister Arturo Corrales. Although he called the move a “change of course,” Corrales failed to explain the difference between the community police, which to be operative by September, and the existing national police force.

The government’s plan to raise the number of police agents by 9,500 is clearly meant to respond to the dramatic increase in crime in Honduras; according to the United Nations, the country now has an annual murder rate of 84 for every 100,000 people, the highest in the world. Police corruption is a major problem, and police agents have been convicted of high-profile crimes. The current police force had 14,472 agents on the payroll as of May, but in a new police scandal, only 9,350 agents could be found at work during July. 

The police changes come as candidates prepare for Nov. 24 general elections, which will choose a new president, the 128 members of Congress, the 20 representatives to the Central American Parliament (PARLACEN), and local mayors. The main force behind the new military police is Juan Orlando Hern├índez, who has resigned from his post as president of the National Congress to run as the presidential candidate of the center-right National Party (PN)ÔÇöthe party of current president Porfirio (“Pepe”) Lobo Sosa, who has governed Honduras since January 2010 without being able to contain the crime wave.

Human rights activists strongly oppose the proposed military police unit. “In no part of the world have the soldiers resolved security problems,” Omar Rivera, who directs the Alliance for Peace and Justice (APJ), a coalition of civil society, organizations, told the French wire service AFP. He added that a serious fight against crime would require a fight against impunity. Bertha Oliva, the coordinator of the Committee of Relatives of Disappeared Detainees in Honduras (COFADEH), called the creation of the new force “a step backwards in the demilitarization of society and the democratization of the country.” “The soldiers in the streets have only left more death and mourning, because they aren’t prepared for being guarantors of security,” she said. The national police were removed from the military and put under civilian control in 1997. Death squads operated by the military and the police were implicated in the killings of 184 government opponents in the 1980s.

Critics also asked how the government would be able to pay for two new police units that would double the current number of active agents. Jos├ę Sim├│n Azcona, a legislative deputy from the centrist Liberal Party (PL) who supported the measure, suggested that the US would pay. The US government “offered collaborationÔÇŽunder the previous administration” for the conversion of four military battalions into police units, he said. (It is unclear whether he was referring to a previous administration in Honduras or in the US.) (El Nuevo Diario, Nicaragua, Aug. 12, from ACAN-EFE; Honduras Culture and Politics, Aug. 22; El Heraldo, Tegucigalpa, Aug. 22; La Naci├│n, Costa Rica, Aug. 23, from AFP, EFE; Prensa Latina, Aug. 24)

In other news, on Aug. 14, Berta C├íceres, Aureliano Molina and Tomas G├│mez were required to testify before a judge in La Esperanza in the southwestern department of Intibuc├í. The three, who are leaders of the Civic Council of Grassroots and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), face charges of land usurpation, damage to private property and coercion in connection with protests by indigenous Lenca communities against the Agua Zarca dam. They remain free, but they have to report to a judge every 15 days. Another hearing is scheduled for Sept. 12-13. (Rights Action, Aug. 24)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, August 25.