Purging and Transformation of the Honduran National Police Force

  • February 18, 2019

Context, Progress, and a Vision for the Future

Read the full report here.

Distrust in the Honduran National Police

Civilian trust in the Honduran National Police has plummeted over the past few decades as rates of crime and corruption have soared. In 2010, Honduras’s homicide rate reached a record high of 86.5 homicides per 100,000 people. Between 2010 and 2014, Honduras topped the list of the world’s most dangerous peacetime nations. This violence, seemingly unchecked by government intervention, has led to low trust in government institutions, particularly in public security.

Mistrust in the police stems in part from perceptions of the National Police as a weak institution.

Honduras has the lowest ratio of police to population size in Central America, at just half the international standard set by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime UNODC. The Honduran National Police has not had sufficient resources to outfit its officers with equipment such as patrol cars and weapons. The weakness of the institution left it vulnerable to corruption, which infiltrated the National Police at every level from the highest-ranking directors to low-ranking patrol officers.

As police reports in 2016 confirmed, low-ranking officers accepted bribes to ignore crimes ranging from traffic violations to murder. Officers hijacked cars from citizens, dealt drugs for gangs, and lent out their services as hitmen.

Several emblematic cases of police corruption demonstrate the criminal activity and impunity that historically flourished in the National Police In 2011, university students Carlos David Pineda and Rafael Alejandro Vargas Castellanos, son of the Chancellor of the National Autonomous University of Honduras, Julieta Castellanos, were murdered by patrol officers when the officers attempted to hijack their car.

High-ranking officials of the National Police have been involved in international drug trafficking and have planned and executed high-profile murders, which were sometimes carried out by other police working as hitmen. Their crimes included the assassination of prosecuting attorneys Orlan Chávez in 2013, and Marlene Banegas and Olga Patricia Eufragio in 2014. In 2009, police officers ambushed anti-drug czar Arístides González on his morning commute just months after he had arrested twelve officers for their involvement in a cocaine deal. Hitman attacked and killed organized crime expert Landaverde on the same street in 2014.

The National Police not only failed to respond to the security needs of its citizens, it was itself a danger to society. To make matters worse, the orchestrators and perpetrators of crimes committed by the police were well known to the public.

No one led any significant effort to investigate or prosecute the widespread corruption within the police force. With the protectors of society acting as perpetrators, the nation desperately required a radical transformation of its police force.

Historical Context: Three Attempts at Police Reform

Since 2000, the Honduran government has made three major attempts to respond to the pressing issue of police corruption and ineffectiveness by reforming the National Police. Former Secretary of Security Gautama Fonseca carried out the first attempt to eradicate police corruption. He removed 2,090 police. However, Fonseca did not conduct the reform within the legal framework of Honduras’s labor law.

Some of the officers who had been removed successfully sued the State for a lack of due process and more than three hundred police were reinstated into the police force. The State was forced to pay L.480 million ($20,772,027 USD) for lost wages.

In 2012, the National Congress created the Commission to Reform Public Security (Comisión de Reforma de la Seguridad Pública – CRSP) to revise both the security and justice systems. The Commission proposed reforms, including seven major legal proposals, to various public ministries including the National Police, the Public Prosecutor’s Office, and the Supreme Court of Justice.

It was unable, however, to translate the proposals into action. The State spent a total of 41 million lempiras (USD $1,784,936) on the efforts of the commission, Nonetheless, the program closed in 2014 without having removed a single police officer and without acquiring approval for any of its legal reforms.

From 2012 to 2015, the Department of Investigation and Evaluation of the Police Force (Dirección de Investigación y Evaluación de la Carrera Policial – DIECP) set out toward the same goal of reforming the police under the direction of Eduardo Villanueva and in 2016 under the direction of Óscar Vásquez Tercer. In four years, the DIECP evaluated 8,546 police.

However, the evaluation process resulted in the removal of only 227 police, all of whom were low-ranking officers. Their efforts cost the State a total of L. 180.9 million (USD $7,875,489). Furthermore, as the majority of the police removed were low ranking, the orchestrators of major crimes and corruption in the police force remained untouched.

The Scandal that Broke the Camel’s Back

In April 2016, the New York Times published an article on a Honduran police scandal that revealed the deep corruption of the National Police before an international audience. The reports, which included investigations and evidence from the previous seven years, implicated two active generals and 25 active police officers in the 2009 murder of antidrug czar Julián Arístides González, among other crimes.

Transcripts from interviews as well as footage from a surveillance video showed blatant evidence that the Director of the Police Jose Ramírez del Cid and the head of Police Analysis José Rigoberto Hernández Lanza casually planned out the heinous crime with the participation of 25 uniformed police officers in the office of Del Cid. Drug trafficker Winter Blanco hired the police to kill Arístides Gonzáles at the price of just L. 400,000 ($20,000 USD).

Investigations confirmed the connection of high-level police to a number of other high-profile murders that had remained in impunity for up to five years.

Among them were the assassinations of attorneys Orlan Chávez, Marlene Banegas, and Olga Patricia Eufragio. Reports also confirmed that police were responsible for the murder of Carlos David Pineda and Rafael Alejandro Vargas Castellanos.

Police were responsible for a number of other crimes including massacres, murders, kidnappings, extortion, arbitrary arrest, armed robbery, carjacking, and attacks on the media. Investigations connected at least 38 high-ranking police and 43 patrol officers with the MS13 gang, 18 of who were involved in the murders of Aristídes González and Gustavo Alfredo Landaverde.

Members of the National Police were also responsible for crimes of public corruption. For example, police patrol car driver Ramón Edgardo Luque was lending money to other police far beyond the capacity he should have had as a driver. In 2015, a court sentenced Luque to five years in prison for the illicit enrichment of L. 10.3 million ($443,700 USD).

The Special Commission for Police Reform

The international scandal pushed the administration of President Juan Orlando Hernandez to respond to the flagrant corruption. The administration proposed to Congress the creation of a special commission for the purging and reform of the National Police. Congress passed the legislation and gave the Special Commission for Police Reform one year to evaluate the police force and make recommendations for change.

The first major decision of the Commission was to begin an investigation at the very top with the highest-ranking police officers and work their way down to the bottom. In doing so, they would avoid the mistakes of previous attempts at reform that failed to assess high-ranking officers and of corruption. Throughout the process, the Commission has been careful to follow the legal framework of the labor code.

The Commission began the process at the top by reviewing nine generals. They removed six. Over the next two months, they reviewed 418 police in the next four highest ranks of the National Police and removed 155 high-ranking officials.

By September 2018, two years after the process began, the Commission had removed 5,635 officers from the police force, 47% of whom were high-ranking officials. The only cost for this thorough process has been severance pay for removed police, which has totaled L.800 million (USD $32,523,600).

Besides removing thousands of evaluated officers in the force, the Special Commission for Police Reform also removed police who were involved in high profile crimes including those who had planned and carried out the murders of Arístides González, Vargas Castellanos, Marlene Banegas, and Olga Patricia Eufragio. About seventeen officials and seven patrol officers have also been removed from the police force for their involvement with the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang.

The Commission seeks to not only purge but also transform the national police force. As such, it has incorporated 9,823 new officers under new strict requirements and improved training. The Commission also helped pass two new laws that improve the human rights focus and hiring processes for police officers. The Commission’s mandate was recently extended until January 2019, ensuring that these reforms will take root in Honduras.

Read more about the diagnosis of problems and our proposals for solutions in the full plan.

Published November 2016; Updated February 2019