Effort to clean up Honduras police force stalls


TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) — In the midst of a scandal over the police shooting of a university president's son, the government of Honduras launched an unprecedented effort last year to clean up a U.S.-backed police force widely seen as deeply brutal and corrupt.

One by one, hundreds of police officers were called to a hotel in the capital and subjected to polygraph tests administered by Colombian technicians funded by the U.S. government. "Have you received money from organized crime?" they were asked in a series of questions about wrongdoing. "Have you been involved in serious crimes?"

Nearly four of every 10 officers failed the test in the first five months it was administered, some giving answers that indicated that they had tortured suspects, accepted bribes and taken drugs, according to a U.S. document provided to The Associated Press.

Then, despite the clear indications of serious wrongdoing, the police cleanup effort went nowhere.

By April of this year, the Honduran government said it had dismissed a mere seven officers from the more-than-11,000-member force, a vivid illustration of the lack of progress in a year-old effort aided by the U.S. to reform police in a country that's swamped with U.S.-bound cocaine and wracked by one of the world's highest homicide rates.

Some of the seven officers have since been reinstated, the minister of public security told congress. He said bureaucratic mix-ups had foiled efforts to dismiss more police.

Honduran rights groups say, however, that the government is either afraid or unable to confront the aggressive and well-organized police officers, whose strength was on display last week when dozens of officers simply refused to accept a mass polygraph exam, seizing a police building until the government backed down.

"Every day that passes without a cleanup of the police, a high price is paid in human lives, in sisters, mothers and sons who lose their loved ones because of the state's inability to guarantee security in the country," said Josue Murillo, coordinator of the Alliance for Peace and Justice, a coalition of civil society activists.

The U.S. Embassy told The Associated Press last week that it had suspended funding for the police cleanup effort in March. The single-sentence emailed statement was the first public confirmation that the Obama administration had suspended the initiative — a program so vital that a key U.S. State Department official said the rest of the $26 million in annual U.S. aid designated for the Honduran police is worthless without it.

"We have determined that we want to continue working with the police in capacity-building and training, but in reality the process of cleanup and police reform is one of the most important things, because without it the aid that we can offer doesn't work," Roberta Jacobson, the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, said at a news conference in Washington on March 7.

The State Department declined to provide the specific date when police clean-up aid was suspended and did not say whether Jacobson knew of the suspension at the time she made her comments.

Among the most serious accusations against Honduran police is that some are working in secret death squads, killing suspected gang members outside the bounds of the judicial system. At least five times in the last few months, members of a Honduras street gang were killed or went missing just after run-ins with the national police, the AP has determined.

Last year, the U.S. Congress withheld direct aid to Honduran police chief Juan Carlos Bonilla after he was appointed to the top law enforcement post despite alleged links to death squads a decade earlier. Bonilla, nicknamed "the Tiger," was accused in a 2002 internal affairs report of involvement in three homicides and linked to 11 other deaths and disappearances. He was tried in one killing and acquitted. The rest of the cases were never fully investigated.

The State Department has resumed funding to the Honduran police, but said the money supports only units vetted by the U.S. So far this year, the U.S. has provided $16 million to the police force, and argues that the money isn't sent directly to Bonilla or any of his top 20 officers.

According to the U.S. document on the results of the police tests, which was provided by a high-ranking Honduran police official, 142 officers failed out of 373 who took the test between May 2012, when the program started, and November, when a Honduran law authorizing the tests expired. The tests were conducted by Colombian police polygraph operators in a program financed by the U.S.

Among the indications of wrongdoing revealed either by officers' confessing, or appearing to lie on the tests, were three cases of torture, seven of cocaine consumption and nine of accepting bribes, according to the document. Most of the others who failed were found to have lied on the polygraph on questions that were not specified.

Apparently none of those were fired.

Honduras, meanwhile, also carried out its own tests at the same time, by the country's agency responsible for evaluating police. The chief of that agency, Eduardo Villanueva, told a Honduran congressional hearing in April that it had tested 230 agents and 33 had failed.

Villanueva told congress that the results were sent to the Ministry of Public Security, which had the authority to fire the officers who flunked. Then-Security Minister Pompeyo Bonilla apologized to congress for not acting on the results, saying that they had been received a week before the legal period allowed for that police cleanup expired, and that they had been sent to the police chief. Most of the officers involved were on sick leave, and thus could not be notified in time as legally required, he said. Of the seven who were dismissed, some were later reinstated by a judge, he said.

Villanueva formally resigned in April, though he is still in de-facto control because the police evaluation agency has no new director. Pompeyo Bonilla has been named as President Porfirio Lobo's private secretary.

"The process is stuck in place. There's no political will to move forward and the government is the principal accomplice in the fact that the police cleanup hasn't taken place," said Julieta Castellanos, director of the National Autonomous University of Honduras. The slaying of her son by police last year prompted her to lead a movement demanding cleanup of the force.

Security Minister Arturo Corrales insisted at a congressional hearing on Monday that the cleanup is going forward, with some 60 to 100 police tested each week, even if none so far has been fired.

"We are working with intelligence (agents) on personnel, applying tests of confidence, staying the life record and curriculum and all those parameters that help us take decisions," he said.

That effort itself hit a snag last week when Corrales announced the temporary suspension of 1,400 investigators in the National Directorate of Criminal Investigation, the body responsible for investigating nearly all serious crimes in the country, including homicides, drug trafficking and gang-related crimes. The division had become so deeply corrupt that every member needed to be taken off duty and submitted to the four-part test, he announced.

The next day, dozens of armed officers occupied the headquarters of their division and said they wouldn't leave until the government backed down.

"We aren't against reliability tests; they should come and do them, but notifying us in writing, one by one, not suspending the entire work" of the division, said Roberto Suazo, an investigator and de-facto spokesman for the protest.

The protesters stood down the next day and Corrales said that even though the investigative division's operations were suspended, its members remained part of the police.