Honduras: US ‘drug war’ aid linked to death squad

Officially, US State Department aid to the Honduran National Police must bypass units under the direct supervision of the force's overall commander, Director General Juan Carlos Bonilla AKA "El Tigre"—who in 2002 was accused of three extrajudicial killings and links to 11 more deaths and disappearances in so-called "social cleansing" operations. He was tried on one killing and acquitted; the other cases were never fully investigated. But an investigation by the Associated Press, based on interviews with unnamed Honduran officials, finds that all police units are actually under Bonilla's direction. Speaking on record was Celso Alvarado, a criminal law professor and consultant to the Honduran Commission for Security and Justice Sector Reform, who said the same. "Every police officer in Honduras, regardless of their specific functions, is under the hierarchy and obedience of the director general," he said.

The claim was contested by the Honduran government. "The security programs that Honduras is implementing with the United States are under control of the ministers of security and defense," said Foreign Minister Arturo Corrales.

But the anonymous officials said the contradiction is inevitable in a country gripped by a security emergency. With 91 murders per 100,000 people, Honduras is considered the world's most violent country, as well as a transit point for some 40% of all cocaine reaching the US. An estimated 87% of cocaine smuggling flights from South America pass through Honduras, says the State Department.

The allegations against Bonilla and other human rights concerns prompted the US Congress to freeze an estimated $30 million in Honduran aid last August. Most has been restored following agreements with the State Department on the monitoring of Honduran operations receiving US money. The agreement doesn’t specifically mention Bonilla, but Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) said in an e-mail to the AP: "No units under General Bonilla’s control should receive US assistance without credible information refuting the serious allegations against him."

Leahy has raised concerns for years about abuses and rights violations by the Honduran police, a force of 14,000 officers that is considered among the world's most corrupt. The AP reported on March 17 that two gang-related suspects detained by police in January have "disappeared," rekindling long-standing charges that the Honduran police operate death squads. AP also found that in the last three years, Honduran prosecutors have received as many as 150 formal complaints about death squad-style killings in the capital Tegucigalpa, and at least 50 more in the industrial hub of San Pedro Sula. The country's National Autonomous University, citing police reports, counts 149 civilians killed by police in the last two years, including 25 members of the notorious 18th Street Gang (Barrio 18).

Under an amendment that bears Leahy’s name, US law requires the State Department to vet foreign security forces receiving aid to make sure recipients have not committed gross human rights violations. If violations are found, moneies must be withheld. The State Department in a report last August said Honduras met the provisions of the Foreign Operations and Related Programs Act. On March 18, the State Department announced another $16.3 million in support to Honduran police and prosecutors. (AP, March 23)

Colombia's National Police announced March 24 that its agents in the Caribbean port of Cartagena had discovered 500 kilograms of cocaine bricks disguised as a cargo of real bricks bound for Honduras. Neither the name of the shipping company nor any criminal organization was released, with police saying investigation is ongoing. (El Heraldo, Tegucigalpa, March 24)