President of Honduras Offers Conflicting Messages on Police Militarization

Latin America and the Caribbean

According to El Heraldo newspaper, the President of Honduras told U.S. Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) that the country’s military would continue to have a role in law enforcement, but would be pulled off the streets in “two to three years,” an overall strategy the senator seemed to support.

Honduras has been increasingly relying on its armed forces for domestic security, particularly since 2013 when a Military Police unit (PMOP) was established. As in other Latin American countries that have chosen a similar approach, the use of the PMOP in Honduras has already led to human rights abuses. The body also lacks the ability to conduct proper investigations needed to reduce impunity.Source: La Prensa

During a recent trip to the U.S., President Hernández met privately with Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA), who then told Honduran newspaper El Heraldo:

There is a difference of philosophy. The United States doesn’t like to use armed forces for police, there is a great divide here between military and police, and Honduras has an important reality, which is violence.

Kaine added that the United States would monitor the work of Honduras’ military in the streets, “because for us, it is important to see to the success of this plan.” The senator went on to say that Honduras’ sky-high levels of violence called for military presence in the streets.  

Senator Kaine’s statements raise questions for (at least) two reasons:

1) Senator Kaine’s apparent support for Honduras’ use of the military for law enforcement seems in contrast to the official policy of the United States. The U.S. government has chosen not to support Honduras’ Military Police (PMOP) financially, due to concerns of human rights violations and greater concerns over the increasingly common use of the military for public security. In Guatemala for instance, the United States has conditioned part of its assistance on the government scaling back the role of the armed forces in domestic security.

2) President Hernández’s timeline for ending the military’s role in law enforcement is inconsistent with previous actions. Just this past January, Hernández attempted to enshrine the PMOP into the country’s constitution, to guarantee its permanence. The vote fell short in Congress, but Hernández sidestepped the legislature and immediately issued an executive decree to hold a referendum on the issue during the next election cycle in November 2017. So if the PMOP were voted into the constitution in 2017, it would seem then that the military would be involved in policing permanently.

As the Center for International Policy noted in a recent report with the Latin American Working Group (LAWG) following a trip to the country, the military is not just patrolling the streets but is in control of nearly every aspect of public security in Honduras. At the same time transparency, particularly with regards to security and defense, has diminished due to the passage of a bill known most commonly as the Law of Secrets, which allows officials to classify any document as “ultra secret” in the name of national security.

Swapping the military for police often leads to cases of torture, murder, assault and other abuses – these soldiers are taught to use whatever tactics necessary to defeat “the enemy.” This strategy also lacks the investigative aspect that would be necessary to prosecute crimes and stem crime and violence in the long term. In Honduras, the increased, veiled funds to the PMOP, has diverted resources away from civilian police reform, which appears relatively stalled. A special law is even in place preventing the Attorney General’s regular prosecutors from carrying out investigations and prosecutions for PMOP soldiers.

See here for a running list of abuses by the PMOP the Center for International Policy and Latin American Working Group maintain.

While it would be a welcomed development to see a reformed, civilian police force on the streets in violence-ravaged areas of Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, President Hernández’s actions do not point to progress towards this reality.