Facing the Giant of Impunity

  • October 30, 2015

How AJS is stepping up to a system that allows murderers to walk free

A recent AJS study clearly demonstrates the importance of tackling the problem of impunity.

Using sample data, the study found that only four percent of homicide cases in Honduras end in a conviction. That means that when someone commits a murder, there is a 96 percent chance that they will get away without being convicted.

homicide conviction chart

When the study focused on just three of Honduras’ main cities, the results were more disturbing — 99 percent of homicides went without a conviction.

When people can literally get away with murder, imagine how the effects of that ripple through other aspects of life as well.

The fight to help Honduras improve its criminal justice system is a battle with several fronts.

To start with, the police force needs more equipment and more staff. Another AJS study found that in one region of Honduras where a murder happened every two to three days, the police had only six detectives who cover every criminal case and their only vehicle was a single motorcycle. For victims of violent crime, justice has little chance when police lack resources and competence in their jobs.

Beyond these challenges lie others, including corruption and broken trust. The struggle is difficult, but many brave Hondurans are working together to make significant progress.

Fighting High-Level Corruption

When criminal organizations gain strength, they use that strength to threaten the police, judges, and others in the justice system. With a combination of threats and bribes, these criminals try their best to ensure that their drug trafficking, extortion, and other dirty business continues operating. With every success, the criminals gain more strength, leading to a vicious cycle of threats and bribery.

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The challenge becomes how to break the cycle — how to reduce the justice system’s vulnerabilities to corruption so that criminals don’t continue weakening it and so that Hondurans can trust it for protection. Low-level corruption is simpler to fight, but the greater challenge is protecting against corruption at the top of the system. Because organized criminals are so powerful, it can be dangerous to take a stand against them — but, for AJS, that’s our job.

Last year, AJS signed a major anti-corruption agreement with the Honduran government and the organization Transparency International. Just how major? In January, Vice President Joe Biden mentioned it in an op-ed piece for The New York Times as an example of progress in Central America.

One of the five focus areas of the anti-corruption agreement is “security and justice.” Through the agreement, AJS has access to an unprecedented amount of the Honduran government’s information and records that can be used to look for instances of corruption and weaknesses in the system that might open the way for corruption to take hold or grow.

The Honduran security minister has cooperated in this effort, disclosing to AJS contracts relating to a wide range of topics, from bulletproof vests to new office buildings, plus information on the hiring and training of new police officers and information on the investigation and firing of corrupt police officers.

This anti-corruption agreement has the power to stop corruption at some of the highest levels of Honduras’ security and justice system.

Repairing Bridges of Broken Trust

Another area of progress in AJS’s work is establishing trust between good police and Honduran citizens. When few murders result in justice, citizens stop trusting the justice system and refuse to provide information and testify in court. Thus, it’s very difficult for the already overwhelmed good investigators to find the witnesses they need to get a conviction.

AJS’s investigation found that in three of Honduras’ main cities, only eight percent of homicides even led to the opening of a criminal investigation file.

AJS is working hard in some of Honduras’ most dangerous communities to change this dynamic. With our teams of investigators, lawyers, and psychologists, AJS works to build bridges of trust between the good police and the witnesses and victims whose testimony can lead to convictions.

AJS’s approach has been highly effective, with our staff achieving an astonishing 95 percent conviction rate in homicide cases.

In 2015, the Honduran government began talks with AJS about how the approaches from this program could be replicated in more neighborhoods.

In the big picture, there are indicators showing that Honduras is making progress. For example, Honduras’ national homicide rate has dropped to its lowest level in six years. It’s the second year the rate has dropped, after climbing since 2005 to have the highest rate in the world.

One defining characteristic of AJS is that we always try to come up with solutions, not just point out problems. Our study on impunity received significant national and international attention, and now the public has important statistics that can be used to pressure officials. But beyond revealing the statistics, AJS is committed to improving them. Through our efforts to root out corruption and bring justice to victims of violence, AJS is standing up to the giant of impunity.

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