September 11, 2018
Chapter 2: Criminal Investigators Connect with Witnesses and Uncover Evidence
Investigators with AJS’s Peace and Justice Project accompany police officers as they investigate a crime, helping them identify suspects and know when they have enough information to issue an arrest warrant. Perhaps most importantly, they act as a trusted bridge between victims and authorities, giving witnesses the confidence to report crimes and share their testimony.
Mateo Gómez* is soft-spoken, with kind eyes and a ready smile. He’s also deeply passionate about his work as a criminal investigator, with decades of experience as a police officer in some of the most violent neighborhoods in Honduras.
Mateo joined AJS in 2014, when the Peace and Justice Project expanded to San Pedro Sula, Honduras’ most violent city. Barrio Viejo, the most violent region of San Pedro Sula, had suffered 195 murders the year before – not a single one had been investigated.
“Case files were a single sheet of paper,” Mateo says with disappointment. He pulls one from 2013 from a large binder. “Homicide,” the sheet said, noting the name, age, and occupation of the victim, but little else: “perpetrator unknown.”
With another investigator, Mateo began to do a careful study of the region, sending his discoveries to AJS’s information analyst. Five different gangs operate in Barrio Viejo, and they have divided the area into zigzagging territories with invisible but fiercely-defended borders. Mateo and the rest of the AJS team began to take photos, gather information, and carry out interviews about the criminal structures operating in the community.
This technical information would be essential to future victories in the community, but just as important to those victories was something often overlooked in police stations – the kindness and compassion with which AJS staff treated victims like Rosa and their families.
Soon after AJS began working in Barrio Viejo, Mateo visited the local police station, where he found officers speaking aggressively to a visibly-frustrated young woman. Mateo intervened and asked to speak with her.
“They’re treating me like a criminal!” she complained to him, insisting she had information to share, but continuing to talk in circles. Mateo listened patiently. “Okay, I trust you,” she said after almost an hour, “I’ll give you the information because I like how you’re treating me.”
The woman told Mateo she had seen a group of young men kidnap a teenage girl, who had been missing and presumed dead since the week before. She was willing to name names, and her testimony would be key to the arrest and conviction of three gang members in one of Peace and Justice’s first emblematic cases in the community. These arrests triggered a domino effect, unraveling that gang’s presence in the community. “And think,” Mateo says, “The police were going to turn her away.”
Much of Peace and Justice’s investigative work starts just by listening. Mateo doesn’t only see witnesses as sources of information, he listens to their fears and concerns, helps them to feel heard, and reassures them that their information is confidential and useful.
Mateo sees informants as long-term collaborators. “We don’t just talk to beneficiaries on the days we need something from them,” he says, “We’re always checking in with them, asking them how they are, how’s their family, how’s their neighborhood. It’s this treatment that makes the difference,” he says, “Seeing that people are more than another death, another number.”
People who don’t trust the police trust Mateo with reports of crime and violence, and the names of those responsible. In this way, Mateo acts as a bridge between government authorities and the community, helping both to learn how to work together.
In addition to helping the police make connections with witnesses, Peace and Justice investigators also serve an important role in accountability. “When there’s an arrest, our informants will let us know,” he says, “We’ll head right away to the police office, or call the officials there, and they know that we’re watching them. So if they let the criminal free without charging them, we will ask them why.”
But Peace and Justice does more than hold police accountable, they also help them to do their job better. In 2016, a police purge removed over 5,000 officers from the 14,000-member force, hiring new officers to replace them. This means that while Honduras’ police force is more transparent than it ever has been, it is also younger and less experienced.
New police officers particularly appreciate the input and expertise of the more-experienced criminal investigator. “They’ll take reports to us and ask ‘Is this missing anything?’” Mateo says, “We support them through the whole investigation.” While AJS investigators cannot formally collect information, they often accompany the police investigator to the crime scene, the morgue, or the forensic medicine unit, noticing anomalies and suggesting routes of investigation for the police officer to take.
Mateo and his colleagues are often instrumental to arrests and convictions, but they don’t like to take credit for themselves. “We don’t want people just to trust us, but ultimately to trust the police, the attorney, and the judges,” he says.
Peace and Justice works to build up community members’ trust in the police, while also building up police capacity so that they can deserve that trust.
The difference has been remarkable. In AJS’s first year in Barrio Viejo, they saw homicides drop by 50%. The area is still more violent than the national average, but attitudes are beginning to change.
“We are showing people that what they once felt was impossible, is now possible,” Mateo says.