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TEGUCIGALPA, Sep 4 2013 (IPS) - Human rights defenders and members of the opposition in Honduras see a new elite military unit created to engage in policing as a drastic setback for the demilitarisation efforts that began two decades ago.
The Military Police of Public Order will be launched in October, initially with 900 officers, to be built up to 5,000 by early 2014.
It was created to carry out law enforcement duties in shantytowns and other poor neighbourhoods where the civil police force has pulled out, overwhelmed by the greater organisation and firepower of common criminals and organised crime.
It will also have powers to call up military reservists and engage in domestic intelligence activities.
The new unit’s intelligence efforts will be in addition to the work carried out by the National Intelligence Directorate, created six months ago, the Anti-Drug Trafficking Directorate and the anti-drug prosecution service.
Ramón Custodio, the national human rights commissioner or ombudsman, said he was staunchly opposed to the new body on the grounds that it violated the constitution and virtually ensured the demise of the national civilian police, re-established 15 years ago when the military began to yield power to civilians.
To use reservists, a special law would be needed declaring a state of emergency or of war, “but this is not included in the law approved Aug. 21,” Custodio told IPS, calling the decision “an enormous setback.”
In contrast, congressman Celin Discua of the governing right-wing National Party said the foundation of the elite corps was a historic event that restored to “the military the power that had been taken from them … Now we will be safer.”
Twenty people a day are murdered in this impoverished Central American nation of eight million, which is considered one of the most violent countries in the world.
According to experts, the police purge is moving forward too slowly, and only an estimated 30 percent of the police force’s 12,000 officers can be trusted, Discua said.
Congressman German Leitzelar, of the social democratic Innovation and Unity Party (PINU), claimed the law in question is “unconstitutional and confuses the spheres of defence and security, which are two different things that in the long run may clash and result in human rights violations.”
As part of a strategy for strengthening ties with the armed forces, the government of right-wing President Porfirio Lobo issued a decree on Aug. 13 granting the military the right to carry out commercial forestry projects on land under military control.
The income from timber sales will go towards the military pensions institute (IPM – Instituto de Previsión Militar), which was in charge of managing business enterprises for the armed forces until two decades ago.
The IPM sold off its businesses when Honduras embarked on a demilitarisation process that stopped it from competing with the private sector for state funds.
But now the process seems to have gone into reverse. “The military are allowed into nearly every area of the country’s development, and they are creating the future conditions to return to the business sphere. Civilians may not like it, but they will not be able to get them out,” sociologist Eugenio Sosa told IPS.
Soaring levels of violence and the spread of organised crime have created a climate that favours the growing involvement and presence of the armed forces, in the midst of the campaign for the November elections.
The National Autonomous University of Honduras (UNAH) Observatory on Violence reported that the number of homicides rose from 7,104 in 2011 to 7,172 in 2012, equivalent to 85.5 per 100,000 population – one of the highest murder rates in the world.
Although most of the killings were the result of gunshot wounds, a bill to regulate firearms possession has languished in Congress for three years.
For the last nine years, the most dangerous areas of the country have been the central province of Francisco Morazán, which includes Tegucigalpa, and the northern provinces of Atlántida and Cortés, although more ecently, organised crime has spread along the entire Caribbean coast.
Among the high-profile murders blamed on the police are those of two university students in 2011, one of whom was the son of Julieta Castellanos, president of UNAH and an expert on security and governance issues, who fostered strong social pressure for the reform of state security.
A month ago four of the eight police officers implicated in the murders were convicted, but the masterminds have not been identified.
The case led to the final lifting of the veil hiding police corruption, which includes kidnapping, connections with drug trafficking mafias and other serious crimes.
Political analyst Miguel Cálix told IPS that legal reforms were necessary before powers were granted to the armed forces to carry out logging and sales of timber. He also said the revenue obtained from these activities should go into the state coffers, rather than directly to the military.
What is being given in return for all this? Cálix asked. In Honduran society, “a militaristic viewpoint prevails in spite of the 2009 crisis,” he said.
On Jun. 28, 2009, then-president Manuel Zelaya was taken from his home at gunpoint and put on a plane to Costa Rica, still in his pyjamas. The coup was backed by Congress, which appointed Roberto Micheletti as acting head of state. Lobo was elected in December 2009.
Nevertheless, according to opinion polls, out of Honduras’ fragile institutions, public confidence in the military still puts it in third place, after the churches and the media.
In the face of the insecurity, people have been in favour of the soldiers being put on the streets, originally alongside the civilian police, but now with autonomy enjoyed by their own special unit.
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