September 10, 2018
Chapter 4: Police Officials Partner with AJS Staff
AJS’s ultimate goal is to see government systems, including the police force, work well. The Peace and Justice project doesn’t try to do an end run around the National Police, but to accompany them, train them, and help them to do their job better. This attitude is appreciated by police officials, who welcome the resources and expertise that AJS staff offer – and the convictions that they are able to achieve together.
A thin, wiry man with glasses and a shock of white hair, Honduran National Police Commissioner Cesar Ruiz is director of the homicide and criminology departments of the investigative police in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. His job is not an enviable one. With over one million inhabitants, San Pedro is Honduras’ second-most-populous city; with a homicide rate of 59.2 per 100,000, it is also one of Honduras’ most violent cities.
Commissioner Ruiz is one of Honduras’ most senior police officers after the country’s recent police purge removed over a third of all police officers in the country, including two-thirds of the highest-ranking officials. In his decades with the force, he has fought to do his job as well as he can despite serious limitations in training and funding, and a widespread culture of corruption among his peers.
Thirteen years ago, in 2005, Ruiz was working in the homicide department of Honduras’ capital city, Tegucigalpa, when a former colleague from the police force came to him with what seemed like a crazy suggestion. He said he now worked for a nonprofit organization called the Association for a More Just Society (AJS) that wanted to help the investigative police solve murders in certain dangerous communities.
“When they first came, I didn’t know them. Who were they?” he remembers wondering, “What did they really want?”
Ruiz reluctantly accepted the support, and immediately began to see a difference. AJS investigators took on some of the most difficult cases in Tegucigalpa, and worked diligently to ensure they collected enough evidence to result in arrests and convictions.
“They helped us collect information on a lot of cases,” Ruiz remembers. “If we had mechanical problems with our vehicles, they would help to fix them. Or they would hire taxis for us to go do our criminal procedures. At that time, we never had enough cars.”
With additional resources and a more transparent force, Ruiz’s officers are better equipped to make progress on the as many as 2,000 cases that may be open at any time. As police officials do their job with excellence – by showing up when called, collecting forensic evidence well, or taking down testimonies with compassion – they gain a community’s trust.
This newfound trust opens the door for them to make more arrests, bring more cases to trial, and protect witnesses, informants, and the surrounding community.
As repeat offenders are taken off the street and it becomes clear that murder has a consequence, homicides in communities drop.
First in Tegucigalpa, and now in San Pedro Sula, Ruiz has seen this change first-hand. He notes that despite the changes, “people are skeptical,” he says, “People are affected by the media that says we are not doing our job. Now for people whose cases we resolve, they have a different idea. That’s maybe ten people out of a thousand. But that’s still ten, and they can spread the word and say, [the police] are people you can trust. At least that’s the mission.”
Ruiz recognizes that AJS plays a big role in helping them earn that trust, something he values greatly.
“It says in our constitution that the most important right is the right to life, and we need to care for the lives of people,” he says, “This organization helps us do that.”