Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

HONDURAS: The Society of Fear

Thelma Mejía

TEGUCIGALPA, Dec 30 2011 (IPS) - As the new year rolls in, Honduras is feeling more than ever the challenges posed by soaring rates of violent crime, police corruption, the penetration of the police by organised crime, and a wave of selective killings of journalists and experts in the fight against drugs.

The growing insecurity prompted the U.S. Peace Corps to announce that it would withdraw all of its volunteers from this Central American country. It will also stop sending new recruits to neighbouring Guatemala and El Salvador.

Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, which make up the so-called Northern Triangle of Central America, have some of the highest homicide rates in the world: 82, 66, and 49 per 100,000 population, respectively, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), compared to a global average of 6.9 per 100,000.

Although Peace Corps members have not specifically been the targets of violence, the 158 volunteers in Honduras will be withdrawn in January, because of safety concerns.

The decision, announced Dec. 22, “deals a major blow to the government and a political class that have not grasped the gravity of the security problem and the need for reforms of the police,” political analyst Juan Ramón Martínez told IPS.

Martínez said the Peace Corps measure is even more serious for Honduras’ image than the cut-off of Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) assistance for failing to live up to its requirements in the fight against corruption and impunity for human rights violations.

The MCC is a bilateral U.S. government foreign aid agency set up in 2004 to fund poverty reduction programmes in areas such as agriculture and irrigation, transportation, water supply and sanitation, and access to education.

But this month, the MCC board selected Honduras as eligible for a Threshold Programme in recognition of recent steps by the government “to address corruption through improved fiscal transparency.”

Through the Threshold Programme, the country will once again be eligible for between two and 20 million dollars in grant funding. And if Honduras meets the MCC’s requirements, it will become eligible again for some 240 million dollars in assistance.

The withdrawal of Peace Corps volunteers “obviously affects us and should serve as a call for reflection. But the world must understand that we are shoring up our institutions, because we gain nothing by trying to downplay the impact,” said Foreign Minister Arturo Corrales.

Corrales told IPS that “there is no time for crying, and it is time to bring about the necessary changes in the area of security, whether we like it or not. Our job is to guarantee people’s safety.”

Pressure from the U.S. was stepped up after several recent high-profile murders: of two university students, a radio show host, and a former security minister.

One of the students was the son of the chancellor of the National Autonomous University of Honduras (UNAH). The two young men were chased by two police cars as they drove home from a birthday party the night of Oct. 22. The police shot at them and wounded one of the young men, who were forced to pull over. The police then killed them and dumped their bodies in a ravine on the outskirts of Tegucigalpa.

The Dec. 6 murder of radio journalist Luz Marina Paz by gunmen, meanwhile, brought the number of reporters killed in the last two years in Honduras to 17, making this the second-most dangerous country for media workers in Latin America, after Mexico.

And former security minister Afredo Landaverde, an outspoken critic of police corruption, was killed on Dec. 7, when he was preparing to testify as a protected witness in the case of the December 2009 murder of former anti-drug czar General Julian Arístides González.

Sources at the prosecutor’s office told IPS that González was apparently killed by the police to keep him from revealing the names of high-level security forces officers involved in the drug trade.

Before he was killed by gunmen, Landaverde, who had close ties to the U.S. embassy, made explosive comments to the press about police corruption and the extent to which organised crime is embedded in the police. He even publicly called on President Porfirio Lobo to create a new police force.

In the last two months, there have also been incidents involving military police operations in the northeastern province of Olancho aimed at capturing two drug barons, who were tipped off by the police themselves and managed to escape.

But two of the drug lords’ deputies were captured. However, they were later found hanged in the country’s main prison.

This came on top of the murder of a police firearms expert who was apparently a witness in the case of 300 FAL assault rifles and more than 300,000 munitions that went missing from a military warehouse in the capital in August or September.

Sociologist Eugenio Sosa said the country is facing a dangerous expansion of the power of organised crime, with the latest deaths “targeting not only journalists, but also witnesses who dare to speak out about police corruption and its ties with transnational crime.

“There are attempts to impose a society of fear, and without a doubt 2012 will be a decisive year in terms of security,” Sosa told IPS.

The violence is partly connected to the presence of Mexican drug cartels like Los Zetas and the Sinaloa cartel, which according to recently published accounts operate throughout Central America, but especially in the Northern Triangle.

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