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TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) — The U.S. State Department, which spends millions of taxpayer dollars a year on the Honduran National Police, has assured Congress that money only goes to specially vetted and trained units that don't operate under the direct supervision of a police chief once accused of extrajudicial killings and "social cleansing."
But The Associated Press has found that all police units are under the control of Director General Juan Carlos Bonilla, nicknamed the "Tiger," who in 2002 was accused of three extrajudicial killings and links to 11 more deaths and disappearances. He was tried on one killing and acquitted. The rest of the cases were never fully investigated.
Honduran law prohibits any police unit from operating outside the command of the director general, according to a top Honduran government security official, who would only speak on condition of anonymity. He said that is true in practice as well as on paper.
Celso Alvarado, a criminal law professor and consultant to the Honduran Commission for Security and Justice Sector Reform, 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 official line from Honduras, however, is that the money does not go to Bonilla.
"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, who negotiates the programs with the State Department.
But the security official attributed the contradiction to the politics necessary in a country in the grip of a security emergency.
With 91 murders per 100,000 people, the small Central American nation is often called the most violent in the world. An estimated 40 percent of the cocaine headed to the U.S. — and 87 percent of cocaine smuggling flights from South America — pass through Honduras, according to the State Department.
The allegations against Bonilla, along with other concerns about police and military killings, prompted the U.S. Congress to freeze an estimated $30 million in Honduran aid last August. Most has been restored under agreements with the U.S. Department of State over the monitoring of Honduran operations receiving U.S. money.
The agreement doesn't specifically mention Bonilla, but Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, who has led a Congressional group that has questioned human rights violation in Honduras, said last week that he made his intentions clear:
"No units under General Bonilla's control should receive U.S. assistance without credible information refuting the serious allegations against him," Leahy said in an email to the AP.
That information so far has not been provided by the State Department, and the AP's findings have prompted more questions.
"Senator Leahy has asked the State Department to clarify how they differentiate between what they told the Congress and what is being said by those within Honduran police units under his authority," Leahy aide Tim Rieser said Friday. "Sen. Leahy, like others, made clear early on his concerns about Gen. Bonilla and the conduct of the Honduran police."
Dozens of U.S. Congressmen, Leahy chief among them, have been raising concerns for many years about abuses of authority and human rights violations by the Honduran police, a force of 14,000 officers that is considered among the most corrupt in the world.
The AP reported on Sunday that two gang-related people detained by police in January have disappeared, fueling long-standing accusations that the Honduran police operate death squads and engage in "social cleansing." It 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 of Tegucigalpa, and at least 50 more in the economic hub of San Pedro Sula.
The country's National Autonomous University, citing police reports, has counted 149 civilians killed by police in the last two years, including 25 members of the "18th Street" gang, one of the largest and most dangerous in the country.
California Rep. Sam Farr sent the AP report to every member of Congress on Friday, saying, "I share the concerns outlined in this article about the continued lack of investigations into human rights violations at the hands of Honduran law enforcement officials."
U.S. law, according to an amendment that bears Leahy's name, requires the State Department to vet foreign security forces receiving U.S. aid to make sure the recipients have not committed gross human rights violations. If violations are found, the money is withheld. The State Department in a report last August said Honduras met the provisions of the Foreign Operations and Related Programs Act, which requires that the secretary of state provide Congress proof that Honduras is protecting freedom of expression and investigating and prosecuting all military and police personnel accused of human rights violations.
The department "has established a working group to examine thoroughly the allegations against (Bonilla) to ensure compliance with the Leahy Law," the State Department report to Congress said. "While this review is ongoing, we are carefully limiting assistance to those special Honduran law enforcement units, staffed by Leahy-vetted Honduran personnel who receive training, guidance, and advice directly from U.S. law enforcement, and not under Bonilla's direct supervision."
When asked by AP if the specially vetted Honduran police units working with the U.S. Embassy still report to Bonilla, the Honduran security official said: "Yes, that's how it works, because of personal loyalty and federal law."
U.S. support goes to Honduran forces working with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration on anti-narcotics operations, and anti-gang, anti-kidnapping and border-security units, according to an embassy official who was not authorized to speak on the record.
On Monday, the State Department announced another $16.3 million in support to Honduran police and prosecutors to battle violence and money laundering and to improve border security. Some of the U.S. money will go to the Gang Resistance Education and Training program under the director of community policing, who also told the AP that he reports directly to Bonilla.
"I only report to the director general, all of the programs of the Honduran police are directed personally by him," said Otoniel Castillo, a police sub-commissioner. "He has a personal and intense closeness to all projects of international cooperation, especially because of his good relationship with the U.S. Embassy."
Assistant Secretary of State William R. Brownfield, who appeared on Monday with the country's vice president to announce the new funding, did not answer questions.
"The United States undertakes stringent vetting procedures, as required by U.S. law, to ensure U.S. assistance doesn't go to individuals or units in the Honduran police and military if there is credible information they're linked to human rights abuses," said William Ostick, a spokesperson in the Western Hemisphere Affairs Bureau of the State Department. "We're in close communication with the U.S. Congress and Senator Leahy on this issue. Promoting human rights and the rule of law is, and will remain, central to our engagement in Honduras."
Alberto Arce on Twitter: (at)alberarce
Katherine Corcoran on Twitter: (at)kathycorcoran