The Key to Everything: Investigations and Justice in Honduras

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Author: Lisa Haugaard

In December 2014 the Latin America Working Group Education Fund (LAWGEF) and Center for International Policy (CIP) traveled to Honduras to investigate how the country is responding to the needs of its citizens.This is the fourth post in a series of seven detailing what we found. See here for the entire report. 

“This country needs to strengthen its capacity and will to carry out criminal investigations. That is the key to everything,” said an expert on violence in Honduras who had spent years working in justice agencies.  In a December 2014 visit to Honduras by the Latin America Working Group Education Fund and the Center for International Policy, we heard the assessment everywhere we turned.

To address Honduras’s widespread violence—which clocked the world’s highest per capita homicide rate in 2013—the government faces three challenges:  it must reform the corrupt and abusive police force, it must strengthen criminal investigations, and it must ensure an impartial and independent judiciary.

Rather than focusing adequately on the slow and patient work of building these institutions, President Juan Orlando Hernández’s administration has focused on a dangerous short cut: bringing the military into the streets.  And the government has cut off access to information about the rate of violence to the Violence Observatory, which is the key nongovernmental institution monitoring crime statistics.   

Police Reform:  Stalled

Police reform appears stalled. Following the 2011 killing of the son of the rector of the Autonomous National University of Honduras and his friend by police agents, a civil society movement galvanized momentum for police reform.  The Commission for Reform of Public Security produced a series of proposals to improve citizen security, including recommendations for improving police training, disciplinary procedures, and public security structure. However, in January 2014, during the lame duck period before President Hernández took office, the Honduran Congress dissolved the commission, and most of its recommendations remain unfulfilled.Source: Pulsamerica

“They could have purged and trained the police, during this time.  But instead they put 5,000 military police on the street who don’t know what a chain of custody is,” lamented the expert on violence.

The government contends that over 2,000 officers have been purged since May 2012, a significant percentage of the police force.  However, the lack of transparency makes it difficult to evaluate numbers or determine reasons why police have been dismissed. Moreover, human rights groups point to the lack of prosecutions—police are removed but not prosecuted.  Some even return to the force.  Human rights advocates stress that police reform should be transparent and eliminate corrupt elements from the top to the bottom, not the other way around.

One bright spot may be a new police curriculum, revised with input from civil society organizations. 

Judicial Reform: Complicated, Politicized, and So Far Ineffective

The independence of Honduras’ justice system is under assault. Politicization of judicial appointments, an obstacle to impartial justice, starts from the top down.  The election of the Attorney General by the Honduran Congress was moved up from March 2014 to August 2013 in order to prevent consideration by the more politically diverse Congress that was elected in November 2013, according to some analysts.  Four members of the Supreme Court were dismissed, reportedly over disagreements regarding use of polygraphs for police, in December 2012.

The Judiciary Council since November 2013 has dismissed 29 judges and suspended 28, without an appropriate process, according to a member of the Association of Judges for Democracy. “This means that judges feel intimidated, they feel if they rule against well-connected people, against politicians, they can be dismissed.”

Source: Correo del OrinocoTo try to improve investigations and prosecutions, special units have been created to investigate specific types of crimes, such as the Special Victims Task Force created in 2011 to tackle crimes against vulnerable groups, including journalists and members of the LGBT community, and a new unit for crimes in Bajo Aguán.  This strategy, which has been championed and funded by the United States, has potential, but the results are still unclear, as is whether success could translate to broader judicial system improvements.

A long-standing concern regarding Public Ministry was its reliance on police investigators rather than having its own investigative staff. This has been especially problematic for investigation of crimes in which police or other state actors were implicated.  The Public Ministry in 2014 opened the Agency for Criminal Investigation, with its own investigators for major crimes.  This could prove to be an advance.

On the negative side of the ledger, human rights organizations are roundly denouncing the fact that special prosecutorial teams which accompany the Military Police on their rounds will be the only officials permitted to investigate cases involving members of the Military Police.  The Attorney General’s regular prosecutors are now barred by law from investigating and prosecuting the Military Police.

Finally, security for justice operators is a daunting and tragic problem.  From 2010 to December 2014, 86 legal professionals were killed, according to information received by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights While some protection is provided by the state, protection budgets are not adequate. “In a country with the highest levels of violence and impunity in the region,” noted the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, “the State necessarily has a special obligation to protect, so that its justice sector operators can carry out their work to fight impunity without becoming victims in the very cases they are investigating or deciding.”

This blog is re-posted from the Security Assitance Monitor.