Honduran President Puts “Tigers” Police Force on the Streets

TEGUCIGALPA, Aug 7 2012 (IPS) – The Honduran government’s plan to create a new rapid response police force, as part of a strategy to militarise the fight against crime, is dangerously vague, experts say.

The creation of the elite “Intelligence and Special Security Response Groups Unit” (whose acronym is Tigres, which means “tigers”) would undermine the process of demilitarisation of society that got underway in this impoverished, crime-ridden Central American nation 15 years ago.

The new force would be a step forward by the right-wing government of President Porfirio Lobo in the plan it launched a year ago to merge the work of the ministries of security and defence, with the stated aim of making the fight against violent crime and organised crime more effective.

Honduras is one of the most violent countries on earth. According to a United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report, there were 82 homicides for every 100,000 citizens in 2010, the highest homicide rate in the world. (In comparison, the United States had five homicides per 100,000.)

But experts consulted by IPS warned that the government plan was ambiguous, because the new force would fall under the ministry of security, but its training and centres of operations would be in the armed forces battalions, which answer to the ministry of defence.

The Tigres, according to a draft law sent to Congress on Jul. 26, marked for approval within 15 days, would answer to the ministry of security “in normal times”, but “in times of war” would be under the aegis of the ministry of defence. It would reportedly have the technological tools to double its reaction capacity and effectiveness, and would also play an intelligence role.

But who will decide what are ‘normal times’ and what aren’t? was the question raised by experts who spoke to IPS. They stressed that the ambiguous nature of the plan could be dangerous, when the government attempts to resolve political or social conflicts with repression.

“It’s a hybrid force that implies the militarisation of the police forces, a trend that has been growing stronger in our country in response to the huge flaws in the police,” sociologist Mirna Flores told IPS.

Flores, a university professor who specialises in security issues, said the greatest shortcoming in the proposal was that it “explicitly states that the police forces are incapable” of doing their job, and grants the military “a prominent role in matters that are not of their concern, blurring the boundaries between the functions of security and defence.”

While the police are in charge of law enforcement and crime-fighting, which are internal matters, the military are trained to attack and to protect national sovereignty, Flores said.

The president of Congress, Juan Orlando Hernández, said the Tigres would be “a highly trained elite force that will have hi-tech equipment for fighting common and organised crime.”

“This is not at all a force parallel to the police or the army. What we want is a rapid response team to tackle the insecurity in our country. Regardless of whether they like it, it will strengthen the response capacity to crime, because the Tigres will attack everything,” he said.

The Tigres will be made up of 200 men who will be deployed in Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, the second biggest city in the country, located in the north.

The members of the force will receive training in human rights, “to prevent them from committing serious violations, and they will receive assistance from Chile’s Carabineros police and from the Honduran armed forces,” said Augusto Cruz, a Christian Democrat legislator.

The Tigres are to be ready to begin operating by the end of the year. The unit’s initial budget will be 65 million dollars, provided by a loan from the Inter-American Development Bank, the authorities reported.

But Yuri Sabas, a lawmaker with the opposition Liberal Party, told IPS that the creation of the Tigres should be studied in depth. “A few years ago, we created another elite force in the police named Cobra, which has now been implicated in criminal activities,” he said.

“We have to think this over; we mustn’t reach hasty decisions and make the same mistakes,” Sabas added.

Mistakes that in the view of analyst Eugenio Sosa could unleash an uncontrolled elite armed force, “which at any time could get out of hand.”

“This is a country with so much impunity and such weak institutions that it is a risk to distort the objectives of these forces,” he said.

Sosa told IPS that Honduras is a society with an authoritative culture, where the military have once again moved to the fore, gaining key public posts in sectors like telecommunications, migration and housing.

In fact, he said, “if you analyse in detail the decree creating the Tigres, it is clear that we’re talking about a greater militarisation of society.

“Tigres is a first step towards the merging of security and defence issues,” he added.

Both Sosa and Flores, the sociologist, pointed out that similar forces created in the 1980s ended up committing serious human rights abuses.

The most recent of these was the so-called “red car gang”, a paramilitary force that carried out “social cleansing” operations against youth gang members between 2003 and 2005, as a death squad working from within the police, according to human rights groups.

While attempting to bring down the levels of violent crime in Honduras, Lobo is also fighting to purge the police, since collusion between members of the police and organised crime and drug trafficking groups came to light.

The heads that have rolled in the last six months included those of three police chiefs. Today the police are headed by Juan Carlos “El Tigre” Bonilla, a veteran police officer with a military background who was accused of being involved in human rights violations in the 1980s and 1990s, but was absolved by the courts.

In his effort to improve security, President Lobo has granted increasing power to the military once again, which not only patrol the streets with the police now, but also control the recently created Civil Intelligence Directorate, and have taken the lead in the fight against drugs.