TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) — The new chief chosen to clean up a Honduran national police force tarred with allegations of corruption and involvement in murders was accused by the department's internal affairs investigators of running a death squad when he was a top regional police official.
A 10-year-old report on Juan Carlos Bonilla Valladares, nicknamed "The Tiger," resurfaced in widely distributed emails and on a local website after he was named police chief May 21 as part of President Porfirio Lobo's efforts to reform a department that is widely accused of killings and human rights violations. The report named Bonilla in at least three killings or forced disappearances between 1998 and 2002 and said he was among several officers suspected in 11 other cases.
Only one of the allegations against the now-46-year-old Bonilla led to murder charges, however, and he was acquitted in 2004. The verdict was upheld by Honduras' Supreme Court in 2009.
Internal affairs investigators weren't able to substantiate many of the cases because of interference by top security officials, said Maria Luisa Borjas, who as head of the police internal affairs department at the time signed the investigation. She was suspended before she finished the report because she had called a news conference to complain about the obstruction.
"I said the investigation pointed to certain officials, that we had evidence and witnesses, but there was no desire on the part of any authority to process this case," she told The Associated Press, adding that she and her team at the time also received death threats.
Borjas said she documented a policy of killing gang members and crime suspects rather than bringing them to trial when Bonilla was regional police chief in charge of Copan, Santa Barbara and Ocotepeque provinces in western Honduras. He held that post from 1998 until September 2011. Borjas said she collected descriptions of cold-blooded killings in San Pedro Sula, Tegucigalpa and other parts of the country to try to establish what she called a pattern.
In one case, a witness said Bonilla sent a team of officers to track down a suspected leader of a kidnapping gang, Angel Maria Romero, in December 2001.
When they identified him, Bonilla said, "You've got him. Do what you have to do," according to a witness quoted in the report.
The witness, who was with Bonilla while talking to Romero on a cellphone, reported he heard thunderous gunshots, and then Bonilla said: "It's done. Let's go take a look"
They arrived at the scene to see Romero's body in a car that had crashed against a wall.
Bonilla, who serving as liaison between the national police and the army when Lobo tapped him as Honduras' police chief, said he is not granting interviews. The president's office is standing by him.
"He's clean," said Miguel Bonilla, spokesman for Lobo, who gave the new chief emergency powers to fire any officer who fails or refuses a background check. "He has the attributes to head the police and to lead an effective cleanup. We know we have problems and we have to clean up the police in a quick manner."
Honduras' human rights ombudsman, Ramon Custodio, who also participated in the 2002 internal affairs investigation, said he backs Bonilla's appointment, calling it "the best message Lobo could have sent on the issue of security."
After his acquittal, Bonilla built a reputation as a gregarious patriot who aggressively pursued drug traffickers in border states and reported other officers for corruption and unethical behavior, Custodio and others said.
"You can't keep persecuting him for something he was acquitted on," Custodio told the AP. When asked why he had changed his view on Bonilla, he said, "I don't have any other comment to make."
The appointment of Bonilla comes as the United States is paying special attention to the impoverished Central American country, which is a key drug-transport hub with one of the highest murder rates in the world. The U.S. State Department, which has cited repeated concerns about human rights abuses, appointed a special security adviser for three months and Vice President Joe Biden visited in March reiterating U.S. support for Lobo's administration.
The national police chief post has become a revolving door, with various scandals of alleged police involvement in high-profile crimes.
Bonilla replaced Ricardo Ramirez del Cid amid charges that police were involved in the May 9 kidnapping and murder of one of Honduras' best-known journalists, Alfredo Villatoro, a close adviser to Lobo. Villatoro's body was found six days after he was abducted. Ten people have been detained in the case, including a former police officer already incarcerated for another crime, police spokesman Hector Ivan Mejia said.
Ramirez had been appointed in November after charges that police were involved in the murder of Rafael Vargas, 22, son of Honduras National Autonomous University President Julieta Castellanos. Security cameras filmed men in police uniforms killing him and a friend. Some of the officers involved in the crime escaped after being granted weekend leave. The head of the municipal police division and its investigative section were removed and are also under investigation.
Borjas' 2002 internal affairs report coincided with a United Nations report that said Honduran police were conducting a campaign of "social cleansing," using killings to rid the streets of gang members.
In 2004, a State Department report noted that Bonilla had turned himself in as a suspect in extrajudicial killings and was out on bail. Three years later, the State Department said Bonilla was suspected but never charged in a series of killings.
In the 2012 human rights report issued last week, the State Department also said Honduran law enforcement agents have murdered and tortured people, though it did not mention Bonilla.
"Among the most serious human rights problems were corruption within the national police force," the report said.
Lisa Kubiske, U.S. ambassador to Honduras, wouldn't comment on the internal affairs report but told the AP that she thinks Bonilla's boss and others in the Lobo administration have "heightened awareness on human rights."
"We definitely hope this change in leadership really leads to effective, lawful cleaning up of the police," she said.
The internal affairs report lists 22 deaths or disappearances in San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa. The most direct allegations against Bonilla involve suspects or witnesses in the kidnapping of former Economy Minister Reginaldo Panting, who was found dead in 2001 after his family paid a ransom of $125,000.
Borjas told the AP she was ordered to conduct an investigation based on a complaint from Enelda Caballero, whose son disappeared in custody in June 2002. According to local news reports, Caballero knew of a band of kidnappers her son was involved with and gave the information to Bonilla. Instead of arresting them, he killed them, she said. She and her other children fled to Costa Rica after receiving death threats, having filed a complaint against Bonilla with the prosecutor and the human rights ombudsman.
At the time of the internal affairs report, authorities had already issued an arrest warrant for Bonilla in the June 6, 2002, killing of Jorge Luis Caceres, who was picked up for questioning by men in ski masks and was found riddled with 36 gunshots the next day. Bonilla was at the scene of his abduction, witnesses told Borjas.
Neither the security minister nor the police department "moved to carry through" in arresting Bonilla or ordering him to appear, the document said.
Borjas said she was hampered from the start by then-Minister of Security Oscar Alvarez, who took away her investigators, then gasoline for her cars, then the cars. Borjas called the news conference in September 2002 and was suspended that Nov. 28 for violating rules of confidentiality, she said. She delivered her report three days later.
The investigative report lists names and dates of the alleged killings, and in many cases a short paragraph describing how a victim was lured to a particular spot and then ambushed. Borjas said the interference kept her from producing more evidence.
Alvarez, who also was security minister under Lobo and now lives in the U.S., could not be reached for comment. A person who answered his phone said to call back later. Later calls went to voice mail.
In its conclusion, the report said the investigation "gives us the names of some police officials who allegedly are responsible for directing an intelligence team that has the responsibility for, or has had something to do with, the extrajudicial killings of young people in the country ... operating as a supposed death squad."
Associated Press reporter Katherine Corcoran reported this story in Tegucigalpa and Martha Mendoza reported from Santa Cruz, California. Associated Press Writer Alberto Arce contributed to this report from Tegucigalpa.