Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

HONDURAS: Cabinet Shake-Up Raises Questions on Influence of Cartels

Thelma Mejía

TEGUCIGALPA, Sep 16 2011 (IPS) - The dismissal of Óscar Álvarez as minister of security in Honduras, after he proposed a bill that would have allowed him to purge the police force of corrupt elements, has raised suspicions about the political influence of drug cartels.

Government spokespersons said Álvarez and his two deputy ministers were sacked as part of a reshuffling carried out by President Porfirio Lobo to improve the battered image of his administration. Opinion polls show that the president’s approval ratings have plunged from 70 percent to just 20 percent in the 18 months he has been in office.

Álvarez, who has a reputation as a crusader against police corruption, was replaced by retired Captain Pompeyo Bonilla, a lawmaker of the governing right-wing National Party and a former assistant to General Oswaldo López Arellano, who led dictatorships from 1963 to 1971 and from 1972 to 1975.

Lobo said Álvarez’s dismissal, like the removal of foreign minister Mario Canahuati and other ministers and deputy ministers, was designed to “oxygenate” his administration and make it more dynamic, and was not a sign of division among his political supporters. He also hinted that there would be further changes in his cabinet.

Political analysts say the president had been planning for the past six months to remove officials like Canahuati and Oswaldo Guillén, head of the DEI, the country’s tax revenue service, due to political differences and pressure from the private sector.

What was apparently not expected was the dismissal of Álvarez, considered one of Lobo’s closest advisers, who had already held the post of security minister in the government of Ricardo Maduro (2002-2006).

Along with his fight against police corruption, the former minister was known for his “zero tolerance” policies against crime, which have failed to curb the rise in violent crime in a country with one of the highest murder rates in the world.

An average of 17 murders are committed every day in this impoverished Central American country of 7.5 million people, and the projected homicide rate for this year is 86 per 100,000, compared to 13 per 100,000 in neighbouring Nicaragua, for example, and to a global average of just over eight per 100,000, according to the World Health Organisation.

Human rights groups say a number of murders, of journalists, activists, trade unionists and others, have been politically motivated.

Poverty, which affects nearly 70 percent of the population according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), and corruption are other serious problems in Honduras. In 2010, Honduras ranked 134th out of 178 countries on the Corruption Perceptions Index published by the Berlin-based global anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International.

Bribery of police is common, and members of the police have been arrested for running kidnapping rings and extortion rackets, and for robbing banks.

One of the causes of the spiralling violence is the growing presence of drug trafficking groups, which use the country as a springboard to the lucrative U.S. market – the world’s leading consumer of drugs. In addition, Honduran territory “is being disputed by Mexican and Colombian cartels, which have strong political and economic connections,” a security forces agent who asked to remain anonymous told IPS.

To that is added the endless war over land which pits large landowners and agribusiness interests against small farmers and members of rural cooperatives, and which has escalated in recent years to the point that in the last two weeks of August, 14 people – including the leader of two peasant movements – were murdered, apparently by hired gunmen.

With respect to politically-motivated homicides, the latest case with international repercussions was the Sep. 8 murder of Medardo Flores, a reporter close to ousted president Manuel Zelaya.

Flores was also a leader of the Broad Front for Popular Resistance (FARP), which has emerged as the political arm of the National Front for Popular Resistance (FNRP), the broad-based movement that arose from protests against the Jun. 28, 2009 coup d’etat that overthrew Zelaya.

Flores was the fourth reporter murdered this year in Honduras and the 16th killed since the coup.

Álvarez was sacked just two weeks after he met in the United States with Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and other anti-drug officials, and after he denounced that nearly a dozen high-ranking police chiefs in Honduras had ties to organised crime, to the extent that they had become “air traffic controllers” for clandestine landings by drug planes.

The former minister also said he had discovered two other police officials who headed a band of car thieves that used police stations in Tegucigalpa to hide the vehicles and take them out of the city later along routes cleared of all police.

Although he never gave names, his statements sent shock waves through the ranks of the police, according to local media reports.

Víctor Meza, who runs the Honduran Documentation Centre (CEDOH), a think tank, told IPS that Álvarez’s removal was the result of “a tussle for power, where the mafias obviously made their move and neutralised President Lobo when they saw that their business was threatened by the law on discretionary powers proposed by the then minister.”

Meza said there was talk about a meeting among supposed corrupt police chiefs and the so-called “Group of 14” purportedly linked to organised crime and to “political players who allegedly influenced people close to the president, who chose not to confront them but to sacrifice Óscar Álvarez instead.”

Sources with Honduras’ anti-drug prosecutor’s office told IPS that the Group of 14 and the Atlantic Cartel are the two leading organised crime groups fighting for control over drug trafficking routes. Both of them are well connected politically and economically, said the sources, who asked not to be identified.

Germán Leitzelar, a legislator with the opposition Innovation and Social Democratic Unity Party, who oversaw the transfer of control of police from military to civilian authorities in the late 1990s, said “Álvarez’s abrupt departure raised doubts about whether the good guys or the bad guys won.”

Leitzelar told IPS that although Álvarez “wasn’t as fortunate as when he was in the post the first time around, he was interested in tackling the police mafias that questioned his authority, especially when parliament was going to approve the law on discretionary powers – which after he resigned was withdrawn at the request of the executive branch.”

Sources close to the president told IPS that President Lobo was annoyed because he was not consulted by Álvarez, who sent the bill to Congress without showing it to the president, which precipitated the minister’s fall.

Former police commissioner María Luisa Borjas, who lost her job eight years ago for denouncing police corruption, commented to IPS that the shake-up in the security ministry “is a realignment of forces, in which I couldn’t say who were the good guys or the villains, although it’s obvious that there was an internal power struggle.”

One of the police officials who IPS found out was going to be removed by then minister Álvarez is the director of the national civil police, José Luís Múñoz, who has been reaffirmed in his post and who denied forming part of a plot against his former boss.

The new minister, Bonilla, announced that the new security strategy was aimed at bringing bring down crime rates and “cracking down relentlessly on organised crime.”

Álvarez left for the United States 24 hours after handing in his resignation, saying his life was in danger. The popular politician said he was “reflecting” on his future, lamented that he was unable to purge the police force, and did not rule out a return to politics, this time as a candidate for the presidency in the 2014 elections.

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