US Counterinsurgency Policing Tactics Ravage Honduras

Honduran media is ablaze with the latest in the constant stream of police corruption crises.

This time the Honduran newspaper El Heraldo published a leaked police investigation into the November 2009 murder of the chief of the anti-narcotics unit Julian Aristides Gonzales, and the related December 2011 murder of his advisor, Alfredo Landaverde.

The investigation indisputably shows that high level police commanders planned, and police officers carried out, the assassinations. The public is not surprised: this was common knowledge and is just the latest scandal involving top level police commanders in murder and organized crime.

In scandal after scandal, all that seems to change are the acronyms. This time ski mask clad agents from the one-year-old new unit of the Public Prosecutor’s Office, the Criminal Investigation Technical Agency (ATIC), swooped in to take the files on 136 investigations from the archives of the Directorate for Investigation and Evaluation of Police Careers (DIECP), amid calls to shut down the DIECP. The DIECP was created in 2011 to replace the Direction of Internal Affairs of the National Police after the October 2011 murder of the son of the rector of the national university, Julieta Castellanos, by police officers.

Each scandal spurs the reconfiguration of police, the public prosecutor’s office, and military security agencies, but the pattern of criminal activity by the police continues. Three days after the scandal broke, on April 7, President Juan Orlando Hernandez presented a law giving his administration the capacity to fire police officers at will with no formal process. The same measure had been taken in 2012 in the wake of the Castellanos police murder scandal. While press reported hundreds of police officers fired, the reality was that it was just a handful, and the credibility of the whole process fell apart when the man with the power to fire at will, then director of the national police Juan Carlos Bonilla, was accused of sending gang members to kidnap the son of a former National Police Director. Police reforms look like nothing more than redistributing power between organized crime networks.

The question this latest scandal provoked was: why now? The leaked report is seven years old. Renowned police reform advocate Maria Luisa Borjas commented that she believed the US Embassy had leaked the reports to open up the political space for another reconfiguration of security forces. Others comment that the crisis helps distract from the ongoing international outrage over the March 2, 2016, murder of indigenous rights activist Berta Caceres.

On April 5 President Hernandez stated that the National Police could be eliminated, provoking concern that the April 7 law facilitating the dismissal of police officers was the first step in a process intended to disband the National Police and replace it with the Military Police for Public Order (PMOP).

In January, the Security Ministry had announced it intended to give a renewed push to police reform, promoting a military-civilian joint task force, the Interinstitutional Security Force (FUSINA), and along with it promote the principal forces that participate in FUSINA, including the controversial PMOP which began operation in April 2014, and the TIGRES elite police unit that began operation in June 2014, along with the 2015 agencies of ATIC and the Directorate of Police Intelligence, likely in reference to its dependency, the Strategic Information Collection, Collation, Analysis and Archiving System, SERCAA.

In May 2015 the US Embassy announced FUSINA received training from the US Marines. While the US State Department has maintained that the controversial PMOP does not receive US training, on the ground reports claim it does, and given that PMOP forms part of FUSINA, the Marine training of FUSINA would seem to lend credence to local sources. In April 2015 it was announced that 300 specialists were arriving in Honduras to train FUSINA, including FBI agents.

ATIC’s public profile is quickly growing. In addition to the DIECP raids, along with its twin National Police intelligence agency SERCAA, it is leading the investigation into Berta Caceres’ murder. Both are known for their close relationship to the US Embassy in Tegucigalpa, and Department of Justice advisors accompany the agencies in their investigations.

TIGRES, PMOP, ATIC, SERCAA are all elements of a counterinsurgency policing model the US implemented in Iraq and Afghanistan and is trying to apply to Central America. The problem is there is no insurgency, and the criminal networks that run the state make Indigenous and campesinos who defend land and resource rights into enemies of the state.

Even the scandal following Berta Caceres’ murder has built up the figure of ATIC and SERCAA, as the State Department prioritizes making space for this as its newest project, over lending support to her family and her organization COPINH’s demands that the Honduran government allow the Inter American Commission for Human Rights to support and independent group of international experts to investigate the crime, following the model established for the investigation into the disappearance of 43 Ayotzinapa students in Mexico.

There is no doubt that this latest police scandal marks another surge in the militarized counterinsurgency policing model promoted by the US, in the guise of police reform. The question is what impact will it have on security in Honduras. Violence in security forces, not just the police but also the military, is chronic, and the public sees the security forces as a principal source of violence against the population. State involvement in Berta Caceres’ murder, and the murder of other human rights advocates, is widely suspected.

The public is tired of the dizzying parade of changing acronyms that only reconfigure power relations between organized crime networks. Police reform is meaningless, no more than a reconfiguration of criminal structures, without changes in the political structure. Yet, the US has always prioritized stable relations with the corrupt network of political and economic elites over real security for the Honduran population, wasting public money on lucrative contracts for security firms in an endless cycle corruption and violence.

The kind of investigation demanded by COPINH and Berta’s family could begin to uncover the political economic structures that manage violence in Honduras, but Honduran politicians, long the beneficiaries and participants in criminal actions, are refusing to allow independent investigators into the country. But the US Embassy is more interested in using the scandals to push through the counterinsurgency policing model than challenging the criminal networks that run Honduras.