Feeding the Monster: Militarization and Privatized Security in Central America

The United States is advancing a regional security strategy which apparently is oriented toward the militarization of Central America and the participation of private security contractors in policing, a strategy also being promoted for the region by the Inter American Development Bank (IDB) and former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe.

Last week, the Honduran National Congress passed a law allowing the military to perform police functions, and Assistant Secretary of State Maria Otero visited Honduras with Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, Todd Robinson, to promote security initiatives.

The United States is advancing a regional security strategy which apparently is oriented toward the militarization of Central America and the participation of private security contractors in policing, a strategy also being promoted for the region by the Inter American Development Bank (IDB) and former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe.

The murder of a Honduran national university rector’s son by police officers touched off the biggest crisis in Honduras since the June 28, 2009 military coup. Headline grabbing government shuffles and actions purporting to purge the police have occurred, however the same career officers responsible for creating one of the most corrupt police forces imaginable are still in charge, while the politicians overseeing the process were the key actors in the military coup.

This occurs as the System for Central American Integration, SICA, launches the Central American Regional Security Strategy, an initiative strongly promoted by the US State Department and the IDB which already had placed on the agenda the creation of new police forces in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

In June, 2011 Hillary Clinton announced that this year the SICA initiative is expected to manage a budget of a $1 billion with a $300 million donation from the US. As it is reported that the IDB alone has 22 loans lined up for the project, it is probable that much of the billion dollars is in loans.

IDB and State Department officials are promoting the Colombian police reform as the model for Central America, while former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe tours the region advocating for ‘decentralization’ and public-private partnerships in policing, sponsored by the northern Virginia-based security contractor Continental Security and Interactive Solutions (CSI).

Apparently the Central America Regional Security Initiative, a program that initially was part of the Merida Initiative, the Mexican version of Plan Colombia, has been folded into the SICA-CARSS. Apparently the SICA initiative is following the Colombian and Mexican models in promoting militarization with the direct participation of US and Colombian military forces and private security contractors.

While the stated objective of the program is to combat the extreme levels of violence in Central America, in Honduras it is already clear that militarization is being focused on areas with significant, historical conflicts over control of land and resources, and given the strength of the LIBRE political party born from the Resistance movement, maintaining political control of the nation is extremely important for those behind the 2009 military coup.

Police Implicated in Murder of Honduran University Rector’s Son

On October 22, 2011 the son of the Rector of the National Autonomous University of Honduras was killed, along with a friend, Carlos David Pineda Rodríguez, as they drove home from a birthday party. Vargas Castellano’s mother, Julieta Castellanos, coordinated an investigation into her son’s murder through the national university in conjunction with a group of prosecuting attorneys. The investigation found that as the young men drove home National Police officers opened fire on their car, wounding them. The police then executed the two university students.

The results of the investigation were made public on October 27 but police had allowed the four officers responsible for the double murder to escape. The four have not been located but on October 29 a different set of four officers, who reportedly had been called in for back up by the four identified in Castellano’s investigation, were arrested.

Julieta Castellanos is a well-known figure close to many in the community of politically influential academics and NGOs figures. Following the June 2009 coup, Castellanos had been criticized by the Resistance movement for allowing the military into the University and participating as a Commissioner on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission installed by President Porfirio Lobo and strongly backed by the United States, a commission not recognized by the Resistance movement.

During her visit, Assistant Secretary Otero met with Julieta Castellanos and staff at the national university, who earlier last week had announced they were formulating a proposal for an international commission to oversee the police reform program.

Shock Doctrine Police “Reform” and Militarization

While the killing rocked the nation, unfortunately it was not surprising. The homicide rate in Honduras has skyrocketed over the past two years; currently the world’s highest at approximately 85 per 100,000. While Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras share a disturbing high level of violence, Honduras stands out at double Guatemala’s current murder rate of 42 per 100,000. The Honduran human rights organization COFAEH reports that they have received 10,000 reports of police abuses, mostly involving crimes, since 2009.

The fact that violence and police corruption are well known and have been ongoing for years does not make the situation any less of a crisis. Hondurans cannot tolerate the excessive levels of violence and are demanding change. However, there is widespread concern that, at worst, the Honduran police “reform” is just one more battle in the struggles between organized crime networks, and at best just one more in a series of ineffectual “reform” initiatives that does not address the underlying problems of impunity and the political decisions that generate impunity.

But it would appear that the measures being implemented are not so much a reaction to the scandal surrounding the recent police killing as “shock doctrine” style implementation of existing plans that are part of a regional strategy.

On November 2 the Internal Affairs unit of the police was disbanded and a new law was passed to expedite professional review of police officers, replacing the Internal Affairs unit formerly charged with investigating police corruption with a new unit, the National Direction for Investigation and Evaluation of the Police Career (DIECP).

Sources report that the law was created by government functionaries very close to the US embassy. The measure is similar to a law proposed by former Minister of Security Oscar Alvarez after a series of meetings with Janet Napolitano, Director of Homeland Security, and a move reportedly done without consultation with the president, which led to his dismissal in early September. In early November a similar law was passed to allow the President and Congress control of hiring and firing judges.

On November 1, during Carlos David Pineda’s funeral, Lobo announced Operation Relampago (Lightening), a series of large scale joint military and police operations in ‘hot zones,’ an operation Lobo claimed was discussed with President Obama during his October 5, 2011 meeting at the White House.

Violence and Police Corruption Pave the Way to Militarization in Central America

Operation Relampago was soon followed by calls for the military to take on police functions, and on November 29 the national congress passed a law temporarily granting the military police functions such as conducting arrests, searches, etc.

Extreme police violence has been ongoing for years. However the Honduran military has also been implicated in egregious acts of violence and corruption, massive stealing of weaponry, implication in moving drug planes and submarines, not to mention the June 28th military coup and the legacy of the military governments and crimes against humanity perpetrated in the 1980s.

Militarization and new police forces are not just on the table in Honduras. Guatemala’s president-elect, former General Otto Perez Molina – himself implicated in war crimes like genocide and torture from the 1980s and reportedly once a CIA asset – has announced he will use military special forces in combating drug trafficking. It is widely known that former Guatemalan Special Forces have been constantly implicated as forming part of the infamous Zetas narco-trafficking organization.

In El Salvador, reportedly after years of pressure from the US State Department, President Funes asked for the resignation of a former FMLN commander Manuel Melgar, who had served since June 2009 as Minister of Justice and Security, and replaced him with a former general, the first time since the signing of the peace accords in 1992 that a career military officer has occupied that position. At the time Melgar was named in 2009, State Department officials reportedly argued that Melgar’s removal from that position would be a prerequisite to Merida Initiative (now CARSI) funding for El Salvador.

Militarization with U.S. And Colombian Security Forces

Many analysts reason that Honduras’ strategic location for military operations in Central America may have been a strong motivating factor in the 2009 military coup, and a number of US funded anti-narcotics bases have opened over the past couple years. Direct military and security presence of the United States in Honduras is ongoing. US Army Rangers trained the controversial 15th Battalion implicated in death squad style killings of campesinos, and there are widespread reports the Rangers have had a direct presence in the Mosquitia.

A November 10th article reports that the US Border Patrol is acting in policing activities in the tense Aguan region in the North Coast. Another article reports that on November 20 US Marines arrived for 2 weeks of training of Honduran military in the Puerto Castilla, Colon.

Another widely reported foreign security presence in Honduras is the Colombian security forces. The first international agreement signed by President Porfirio Lobo was a so-called security cooperation agreement with then Colombian president Alvaro Uribe. Since that time there have been frequent reports of the presence of Colombians in security operations.

The objective of militarization appears to be detaining protests, targeting rights defenders with violent repression and consolidating territorial control where there are important economic interests, such as in the Bajo Aguan region and the Mosquitia, where business interests such as palm oil production, hydroelectric dams and petroleum concessions are at odds with the rights of local farmers and indigenous communities.

On December 6, 2011 the Panamanian Minister of Security announced that Panama, the United States and Colombia have signed an agreement to jointly install a regional police training academy. While a civilian academy, the project brings up bad memories of Fort Gulick in the Panama Canal Zone, the original home of the School of the Americas which trained military forces from throughout Latin America many implicated in crimes against humanity.

Coup Criminals in Charge of “Reform”

On November 1, Lobo announced the replacement of four of the top police command positions. Most were shifted between existing high level posts, and the only top ranking officer to remain in his post was the infamous commander Danilo Orellana, well known as the top police commander in defacto president Micheletti’s ‘crisis room’ that managed the 2009 military coup and associated repression, illegally detaining and torturing thousands of Hondurans, actions now being investigated by the International Criminal Court.

On November 2 all 176 members of the Police Precinct 1-6 “La Granja”, where Vargas Castellanos murderers were posted, were ordered to report for professional screening tests. Over half of the unit decided to not show up, while international news sources widely reported that 176 police officers had been arrested, a gross distortion. It was reported in the national press that all of Tegucigalpa’s police precincts would be intervened in a similar manner, this has not occurred.

In mid-November the National Council of Internal Security [CONASIN] was given the task of designating the new director of the DIECP and a new Deputy Director of the National Police in charge of police reform. CONASIN is comprised mostly of people deeply implicated in the military coup and in corruption in the justice system, including the Attorney General Luis Rubi, the President of the Supreme Court, Jorge Rivera, Human Rights Commissioner Ramon Custodio, Security Minister Pompeyo Bonilla and Interior Minister Africo Madrid.

On November 30 congress approved CONASIN’s appointment of Oscar Manuel Arita Aguilar as head of the new DIECP, a strong supporter of the military coup while in his former post as President of the Court of Appeals for the Department of Tegucigalpa and Eduardo Villanueva Sagastume as the new Deputy Director of the Police.

Police and Military Aid – Feeding the Monster

The police reform team’s first public statements focused on the need for funding, which they should be well positioned to obtain since Villanueva’s previous job was as a consultant to the IDB. In addition, the same day they were installed US Assistant Secretary of State Maria Otero arrived in Honduras with a senior official from State Department’s Bureau on International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, the agency charged with administering the Central American Regional Security Initiative [CARSI] funds.

In the beginning of November Julieta Castellanos called for an end to police and military aid, explaining that international support for those extremely corrupt institutions only ‘feed the monster.’ Just days after Castellano’s call to suspend military and police assistance, the IDB announced it planned to release a $60 million loan to Honduras designated for police assistance. This loan is a bilateral loan. The vast majority of security assistance will filter through to the countries of Central America through the Central America Regional Security Strategy administered by the Central American Integration System, SICA.

SICA has been spearheaded by the US State Department and the IDB that, in April 2011, formed a ‘Group of Friends’ of the Central America Regional Security Strategy consisting of the US, the IDB, the World Bank, the Central American Bank for Economic Integration, the Organization of American States, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, the European Union, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Finland, Germany, Holland, Italy, Israel, Mexico, South Korea, Spain, and the United States.

In June 2011 Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attended a regional security meeting in Guatemala, and pledged $300 million in funding for the initiative this year from the United States, noting that the program would have a total initial budget of $1 billion this year. The US has promoted the creation of a security tax in each of SICA’s member states to support the cost of the Strategy and repay loans.

In 2008 then Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere John Negroponte toured Central America accompanied by then Ambassador to Colombia and current Assistant Secretary for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement William Brownsfield in a major diplomatic effort to promote the Merida Initiative, which was launched that year in Mexico, a year the homicide rate almost doubled compared to 2006. But the Merida Initiative never got off the ground in Central America, to the point that in 2010 the US created the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) with its own initial appropriations of $165 million.

It appears that this year CARSI has been folded into SICA’s Central American Regional Security Strategy. The Merida Initiative ramped up the ‘drug war’ or Calderon’s war, which Mexican activists claim has cost approximately 40,000 lives since 2006, and in that time frame the murder rate rose 260%.

Drumming Up Business for Private Security Contractors

Since August 2011, former Colombian president Uribe has held a series of conferences around Central America sponsored by the Northern Virginia based Continental Security Interactive Systems (CIS), alternately convoking presidents and mayors. He is promoting the Colombian model of policing, also promoted by the IDB, a program called Secure Departments and Municipalities (DMS). Uribe discusses ‘decentralization’ and ‘public-private partnerships’ in policing. What exactly that would mean is not entirely clear, but there has been a strong focus on electronic surveillance through cameras, cellular phones, and satellite technology.

It is ironic that Uribe is promoting an electronic surveillance contracting company when, while in Honduras in November 2010, he met secretly with Panamanian president Martinelli to request asylum for his former head of the Colombian intelligence service, María del Pilar Hurtado. She was being prosecuted for using surveillance technology to spy on human rights defenders, many of those targeted with repression.

Uribe is rumored to be living in Honduras, a convenient base of operations to launch into the private security business in the new market generated by SICA’s Central American Regional Security Strategy.

A London School of Economics online article reported that 55% of the $1.3 billion dollars that the US pumped into Plan Colombia over approximately 10 years went to private security contracting companies, the vast majority undoubtedly based in the United States. In a similar way, it is reported that the majority of Merida Initiative funds have not left the United States, where they are awarded to weapons producers and private security contractors.

If the Central American version of Plan Colombia follows suit, we could expect hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts for private security companies to work in Central America this year alone.

Privatizing Crimes Against Humanity

The use of private security contractors by the State Department, the Department of Defense and the Central Intelligence Agency has skyrocketed since September 11, 2001.

A two year Washington Post investigation published in July 2010 showed that just in the CIA one third of all employees, approximately 10,000 people, actually worked for private security contractors. Defense Secretary Robert Gates explained that he has not been able to get a number on how many private contractors work in the Secretary of Defense.

Blackwater, among the largest and best known government contractors, was founded in 1997 in McLean Virginia, home of the CIA, the same year that an internal directive limited the possibility of the use of torture by informants on the CIA payroll, and the same year approximately 1,000 CIA informants, at that time reported to be a third of the CIA employees, were purged from their payroll for participation in crimes following controversies that exposed involvement in drug trafficking, torture and murder.

Many known human rights abusers have been involved in the private security industry. Billy Joya, a former member of the 1980s Honduran death squad Batallion 3-16, is reported to own private security companies in Central America, and founded a company in the US in 1997. He was also sighted in the 15th Batallion near Tocoa, Colon in March 2010, a date that coincided with the birth of a death squad reportedly operating out of the 15th Batallion which, to date, has been implicated in close to 50 assassinations.

In September 2011 Joya appeared on the Honduran national news program ‘Frente a Frente’ with a strange cost benefit analysis of police in Honduras, apparently promoting the argument that the police are expensive and inefficient, the inevitable discourse that proceeds privatization of any state enterprise.

The AUC Colombian state-sponsored paramilitary forces, deeply implicated in massacres, murder, torture and drug trafficking, have long been connected to private security companies. Chiquita Brands Fruit Company is currently being sued by the surviving families of Colombian unionists murdered by the AUC after Chiquita made payments in 2004 to AUC affiliated private security companies.

There is no doubt that private security contracting companies are a means of facilitating impunity for States and corporations by contracting out repression and other dirty business. Lawsuits forced Blackwater to change its name to Xe and move its headquarters to the United Arab Emerites.

The birth of denationalized mercenary armies, contracted for military and police functions, and involved in heinous crimes, is a real threat to the rule of law on a global scale, and it looks like Honduras and Central America may already be their next big theater of operations.

Calls for International Commissions

The measures undertaken thus far demonstrate no real commitment or capacity to achieve effective reform. In reaction, in early November, Julieta Casetallanos put out a call to form an international commission to intervene in the police and carry out a reform process. Real reform and international observation is urgent, especially as Honduras enters a volatile yet potentially transformative electoral process while at the mercy of deeply corrupt and violent state institutions controlled by people put in place by a military coup and willing to do anything to retain political control of the nation.

After the 2009 military coup, a proposal surfaced to create an office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights in Honduras, but few advances have been made in establishing one, and the mandate of a UNHCR office would not be broad enough to encompass the need to oversee a purge of state institutions.

In early 2010 the proposal surfaced to install a Honduran version of the Guatemalan International Commission Against Impunity (CICIG), a UN sponsored special unit of the Attorney General’s office dedicated to prosecuting organized crime networks. It was unclear where the proposal came from, first announced by President Lobo, but it was later reported to have originated in the hawkish, US dominated United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Human rights organizations were divided, many felt that the extreme degree of corruption in the Honduran Attorney General’s office would not allow a CICIG to prosper and would only contribute to public relations efforts to whitewash the coup government. This point was driven home by the dramatic resignation of CICIG’s director Carlos Castresana in July of 2010, protesting that the extremely corrupt, newly appointed attorney general had effectively destroyed the CICIG’s capacity to function in Guatemala.

Recently President Lobo’s spokesperson announced the visit of a United Nations delegation to review security cooperation scheduled for December 11, 2011 relating the visit to a request Lobo made for the installation of an international commission to assist in police reform.

Ironically, as ‘security’ budgets in the region skyrocket, CICIG, one of the most successful initiatives in the region, has been left without sufficient budget and recently fired a large portion of its staff.

Many Hondurans distrust the United Nations, especially given the terrible example of the “Blue Helmets” peacekeeping force in Haiti, and feel more inclined to look to the newly emerging multilateral forums emerging in South America. UNASUR is planning a first electoral observation mission for the Venezuelan elections next year, though its scope of action thus far seems limited to South America. But on December 2 the inaugural summit of Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELACS), a forum of all 33 Latin American and Caribbean nations, began in Caracas.

An International Commission to Control International Intervention and Crime Networks?


There is no doubt that international participation in a police reform process is an extremely delicate issue, especially given that individuals associated with the United States intelligence networks have historically participated in the creation of parallel networks within the police and military forces throughout Latin America. These networks have been key in all kinds of destabilization actions.

The most recent Latin American coup attempt in Ecuador on September 30, 2010 was led by the police. President Correa denies evidence of US participation in the coup attempt, while observing: “When we came into government, our intelligence services, entire units of the Police, depended on the Embassy of the United States, totally depended: investigation costs, salaries, double salaries. We prohibited that these contacts continue. [This occurred] even without the knowledge of the very government of the United States and of the Embassy. You know that the CIA and its agencies act with their own agenda, and that we cannot exclude.”

It is not a coincidence that Central America’s most effective and respected police force, Nicaragua’s, was created without the ‘assistance’ of the United States.

If Honduras hopes to carry out an effective police reform process it must draw on the experience of its neighbor Nicaragua and countries like Ecuador that have had important and sovereign experiences in police reform, and it is critical any police reform process today be carried out with extreme caution, particularly given the potential role of private security contractors with shady histories in SICA’s Regional Security Strategy.

Annie Bird is co-director of Rights Action. Since 1995, Rights Action has been funding and working to eliminate the underlying causes of poverty, environmental destruction, repression, racism and impunity in Guatemala and Honduras, as well as in Chiapas (Mexico) and El Salvador. The Canadian Rights Action Foundation, founded in 1999, is independent from and works in conjunction with Rights Action (USA) that was founded originally in 1983.