The doctrine of national security imposed by the United States on Latin America, which fostered the dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s, is making a comeback in Honduras where a new law is combining military defense of the country with police strategies for maintaining domestic order. “We are back again with old national security concepts dating from the Cold War era in Central America, and the danger is that the former anti-communist rhetoric may be used against the ‘new threats’, such as allegedly criminal youth, dissidents against the regime, social protests or for the imposition of absolute powers,” said sociologist Mirna Flores.
(IPS) – The doctrine of national security imposed by the United States on Latin America, which fostered the dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s, is making a comeback in Honduras where a new law is combining military defence of the country with police strategies for maintaining domestic order.
The law created the National Directorate of Investigation and Intelligence (DNII), a key agency in the security structure that does not appear to be accountable to any other body, and does not appear to be under democratic civilian control.
“This bill unites or fuses military defense and internal security, which is dangerous, because one of the aims after the Cold War was to separate these fields, due to the negative effects (their union had) on systematic violation of human rights” in the region, sociologist Mirna Flores, an expert on the issue, told IPS.
“We are back again with old national security concepts dating from the Cold War era in Central America, and the danger is that the former anti-communist rhetoric may be used against the ‘new threats’, such as allegedly criminal youth, dissidents against the regime, social protests or for the imposition of absolute powers,” she said.
The approval of the law on Jan. 14 took human rights organizations, civil society groups and academic bodies by surprise, because of the rushed nature of the legislation, the lack of consensus-building and the skipping of two of the three debates necessary for passing laws in parliament.
Sergio Castellanos, a legislator for the left-wing Democratic Unification Party, was the first to react when the bill was introduced. He asked for time for a fuller debate, but was overruled by the large right-wing majority comprising representatives of the governing National Party and one wing of the Liberal Party.
The law was passed amid a whirlwind of parliamentary activity, along with constitutional reforms and other laws that have engendered controversy in the country, such as mining regulations and suspension of all tax exemptions, pending review.
The Intelligence Law has some loopholes consisting of a lack of conceptual definitions, included in modern legislation in order not to allow room for discretionary interpretations or decisions.
Roberto Cajina, a civilian consultant on security, defense and democratic governance, told IPS that lack of definitions and limits in the text of the new law could give rise to “temptations” for abuse.
“It must be clearly understood what is meant by investigation, intelligence, strategic action, privacy protection, national security, special units, covert operations, special agents, special protection measures, secret funds and special risks, to cite just the most important definitions that are lacking in the law,” Cajina said.
Article 28 out of the 33 articles in the law says the DNII may recruit active members of the armed forces and the national police, Cajina said. This is “a very delicate matter and should be studied with care,” he said.
“As it stands, it is a dangerous precedent. One could warn of possible ‘piracy’ of the DNII toward the armed forces and police. What kinds of intelligence do each of them carry out?” he asked.
“If this is not clarified, problems and serious contradictions will arise, and the scenario will change radically. It is necessary to demarcate the boundaries of the fields of action of each of them,” Cajina emphasized.
Flores, the sociologist, and Cajina concur that another vacuum in the law is the lack of a chain of command subjecting the DNII to the control of any civilian institution or authority. It is not clear to what body it is affiliated.
The law compels private bodies to “cooperate by providing information required of them in order to support intelligence efforts”.
The experts said there should be a clearer description of the kind of information that private companies are required to give, because the current text leaves too much room for discretion. “The DNII director could, with very little justification, pick any organization as a subject of interest which must provide the information (the DNII) demands,” they said.
“We are alarmed at this law that was tabled without ceremony, but also without debate, and furthermore, relying on old Cold War concepts,” activist Bertha Oliva, of the Committee of Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH), told IPS.
Oliva said she was concerned by some aspects of the law, especially the power it gives the DNII to create “special investigation and intelligence units” and to cooperate with “other state intelligence bodies”.
“Does that mean there are more? Which ones? Why do we know nothing about them? I think there are many loopholes that could lead to abuses,” she said.
In the 1980s, members of the Honduran intelligence corps created the so-called Batallón de la Muerte (death squad), which was responsible for the forced disappearance of 187 people for political and ideological reasons, according to an official report.
This history raises fears that a similar body could be recreated, since the executive branch is giving the armed forces and police wide powers to run an intelligence corps which by law was supposed to come under the rule of the Commission on Public Security Reform, a civilian body working on structural reform of the police, prosecutors and the justice system.
But according to Matías Funes, chair of the Commission on Public Security Reform, its proposals do not have the ear of the legislative and executive branches. “It’s as if there were a parallel agenda,” and the institutional environment and democratization of the country are not making progress, he said.