The new military police are better armed than the civilian police they will replace in this mission. For example, they will be armed with Israeli Galil ACE 21 assault rifles carrying 35-round magazines, capable of firing 700 rounds per minute. The prospect of these boots on the ground treating neighborhoods in Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula as battlefields should be troubling, even to those who applaud this latest move in the name of increasing security, including the US State Department, which Liberal party congress member Jose Azcona said in July had encouraged the formation of such a force during the previous presidential administration.
As of late last week, the first contingent of the new Policía Militar del Orden Público (Military Police for Public Order) was approved for active duty in Honduras. Ironically, despite the emphasis on how this new military presence in the streets of Honduran cities should change the security situation, a command decision was taken not to announce when these troops will actually be on patrol in their war against…what?
That remains the question. When you change policing of civilian spaces into a military mission, you change how policing is conceptualized, from crime prevention or criminal investigation and prosecution, to carrying out some kind of campaign. Policing, it might be said, is tactical, responding to developments. On the other hand, military action ideally is strategic, formulated with a goal in mind. So what are the strategic goals that justify reversing one of the actual achievements of elected government in Honduras after the end of military rule in the early 1980s?
In other words: who’s the enemy here?
The rhetorical claim is that this new force, drawn from the ranks of the army, will “recover and maintain public order in those neighborhoods that are dominated by delinquents,” as La Prensa wrote on October 3. The draft law called for the new force to “carry out the takeover of zones, neighborhoods, residential developments, and human settlements or public spaces where gangs or organized crime exercise their illegal activities.”
The new military police are better armed than the civilian police they will replace in this mission. F or example, they will be armed with Israeli Galil ACE 21 assault rifles carrying 35-round magazines, capable of firing 700 rounds per minute. That may help them against criminals reported to have not only automatic weapons, but such exotic items as grenade launchers. But the prospect of these boots on the ground treating neighborhoods in Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula as battlefields should be troubling, even to those who applaud this latest move in the name of increasing security, including the US State Department, which Liberal party congress member Jose Azcona said in July had encouraged the formation of such a force during the previous presidential administration.
When everyday people live in battlefields they can die as “collateral damage”. That prospect is not likely to be fended off by the minimal training the new force received on human rights, reportedly one week. Even Ramon Custodio, the Human Rights Ombudsman for Honduras who lost much of his credibility through his support for the 2009 coup, is raising alarms about what might happen, sending a letter to the Honduran Congress warning that the new force will contribute to “the weakening of the institutions of State and the remilitarization of public administration,” and not incidentally, arguing the law was unconstitutional.
Pressure on Honduras to improve the “security” of its cities has come from many directions. The identification of Honduras, and San Pedro Sula in particular, as the place with the highest murder rate in the world has been a thorn in the side of Porfirio Lobo Sosa. While the independent Observatorio de Violencia has documented a downturn in murder rate over the past year, the Lobo Sosa government still has an appalling record on actual investigation and conviction of those responsible. The much vaunted process of purging the civilian police of corrupt members has hit so many roadblocks that it seems clear the main thing it is doing is showing that there are precious few good apples in the barrel of Honduran policing.
Hence the magical solution: build a new police force without ties to the old one. In order to accomplish this, the Honduran Congress passed a law in August sidestepping the constitutional separation of the armed forces and civilian policing. As outlined in a draft published in La Tribuna on August 2, the new militarized force will extend a limited constitutional role of aiding the civilian police in emergency situations. This is the same logic that allowed the de facto regime of Roberto Michelleti to call out the army against the people in the wake of the coup of 2009, by declaring virtually continuous states of emergency. The difference is, there appears to be no requirement to bother declaring a state of emergency for this force to operate.
Thus, the legacy of the 1990s was reversed, when civilian policing was removed from military control. In 1993, the Honduran government took away investigative powers from the existing militarized police, the Fuerza de Seguridad Publica (FUSEP), and gave investigation over to the Public Prosecutor’s office. After political struggle, in 1997 the national police force was formally separated from the military and put under civilian control for the first time since the 1940s. In 1998 the Honduran Congress passed a law creating and regulating the present civilian national police force.
The armed forces members recruited to patrol the cities will be very well paid by Honduran standards, receiving double salary and a 20 percent bonus. La Prensa gave an example that adds up to 10,780 lempiras a month (about $527). Low wages are one of the factors that open the civilian police up to bribery. The Honduran security minister, who under the current government has consolidated control of both civilian policing and the military, was able to draw on 24.5 million lempiras ($1.2 million), the proceeds of a new “security tax” on bank transactions to finance his new elite urban soldiery until it can become a line item in the future president’s budget.
There is no political pressure to take a less hostile approach to urban crime. Most polls show that majorities of the Honduran public want military police in the streets, presumably imagining this will cure crime without bringing the kind of violence against bystanders that critics fear. For many election cycles, a staple of presidential campaigns has been claiming that your party will improve security; for the Partido Nacional, which according to a recent poll is locked in a statistical tie with LIBRE for the November election, getting the troops out provides a visible sign of how decisively they will act if elected–unlike the current president, also from the Partido Nacional, seen by Hondurans as completely ineffective, and thus an impediment to the election of his party’s candidate, Juan Orlando Hernández, the motive force behind this new law.
Which brings us back to the actual deployment of the first 1,000 of a projected 5,000 new militarized police, rushed into service in just over a month, serving as political propaganda if nothing else. If the target size is ever reached, the new force will be one-third the size of the existing civilian police. Better paid and better armed, these new forces may well change the game in cities where the civilian police have been ineffective. However, there are already signs that their missions may take a more troubling turn even then making some of Honduras poorest neighborhoods fire-fight zones.
In an interview published on September 16 in Honduras’ La Prensa, one officer, Mario Israel Martínez, said that in order to “combat crime” the new force will have “specific objectives” guided by its Intelligence unit. Martínez described his troops training for “actual situations that the military police will confront in the streets”: ranging from complaints of inebriation, assaults, and robbery, standards of civilian policing, to “riots and raids”. La Prensa added that the soldiers were receiving specific instruction in “how to disband takeovers of the streets and sidewalks, and violent demonstrations.”
Those last few bits of training strike an odd chord against Martínez’ characterization of their mission to “combat the criminal groups” in the cities of San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa. La Prensa enthusiastically describes the equipment provided for the new troops to “clear buildings”. This is one of the specific tasks assigned the “civil disturbance squadron”, “which will concentrate on actions to repel takeovers of the roads, sidewalks, and bridges and violent protests.”
Defining a segment of the people that protest the government as an enemy is what happened in the aftermath of the 2009 coup, when the de facto regime ordered troops to fire on demonstrators, killing and injuring Honduran citizens exercising their rights of free speech and assembly. Including training for that purpose in the preparation of the new militarized police fulfills the worst fears of Honduran scholar Leticia Saloman, a sociologist specializing in policing, and of constitutional law scholar Edmundo Orellana. Meanwhile, experiments in community policing, a strategy that might well work to improve conditions in Honduran cities if given enough training, resources, and support, seem to be abandoned.
On October 6, Honduran media reported on the symbolic presentation of “batons of command” to the first two commissioned members of the militarized police, to mark the “Day of the Honduran Soldier”. Speaking on the occasion, La Prensa reports, Porfirio Lobo Sosa praised the “new role of Honduran soldiers, not only in the defense of national sovereignty, but also their participation in the fight against scourges such as drug trafficking and organized crime.”
Someone needs to get the story straight: who is the enemy here, really?