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America Continues to Fund Death Squads in Honduras

The U.S.-funded Honduran National Police are dispatching summary justice to gang members.

A police officer in Honduras.
Photo Credit: Zack Clark/Wikimedia Commons


A resurgence of death squad activity targeting suspected gang members and others is exacting a mounting toll in Honduras, a country already wracked by violence and impunity. As documented in a series of AP investigative reports, it is increasingly apparent that US-funded Honduran National Police are dispatching summary justice to gang members, in a policy of "social cleansing", with complete impunity.

Since evidence has surfaced linking the Honduran police to death squad activity, US support for the police would violate the " Leahy Law", which mandates withholding aid to foreign security forces when credible evidence exists that they have committed human rights abuses.

Most notably, the director of the Honduran Police, Juan Carlos "El Tigre" Bonilla, is suspected of previous involvement in death squad activity, including three homicides, and is allegedly linked to 11 other deaths and disappearances.  

Despite the US' position that funds are carefully administered to avoid supporting human rights abuses, a March AP  investigative report found that the US was sending aid to Honduras in contravention of the restriction. Yet the US State Department continues to claim that funding only flows to specially-vetted forces outside of Bonilla's control.

Even though under Honduran law all  police operate under the aegis of the director general, the US government has refused to take any remedial measures. US legislators have expressed concerns for years about human rights abuses associated with Honduran security forces.

In March 2012, 94 members of Congress  asked the State Department "to suspend US assistance to the Honduran military and police given the credible allegations of widespread, serious violations of human rights attributed to the security forces". Less than a year later, 58 members of Congress  asked for an investigation of four civilian deaths in a joint US-Honduran counter-narcotics operation gone awry. 

disturbing follow-up to the initial AP reports reveals even more incriminating evidence linking the Honduran police to ongoing death squad activity. Witnesses have provided additional testimony, backing up their claims with credible evidence, such as the fact that perpetrators of extrajudicial killings were outfitted with police identification badges. A spokesman for the Honduran National Police dismissed witness reports by claiming that gangs kill each other disguised as police officers, an allegation that strains credulity. 

When serving as the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last year, John Kerry suggested that the US should exercise prudence in limiting the administration of funds to forces under Bonilla until he is cleared of wrongdoing. Yet under Kerry's watch, Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs William Brownfield seems to be circling the wagons, embracing instead of distancing the administration from Bonilla.

Seeming to contradict the approach previously articulated by his boss, Brownfield recently expressed his respect and admiration for Bonilla's effective police work. Although members of the US Congress and human rights groups have repeatedly expressed concern about Bonilla's human rights record, Brownfield said he had  yet to see any conclusive evidence linking him to misconduct.  

Bonilla has not been convicted, but the credibility of the allegations levelled against him raised enough concern to trigger a prohibition on US aid to forces under his control. Notorious corruption in the judiciary and legendary impunity minimise the significance of Bonilla's acquittal on the murder charges, and suspicions about Bonilla have never been thoroughly investigated, by either US or Honduran authorities.  

Maria Luisa Borjas, the head of the police internal affairs department  in charge of Bonilla's case, said that internal police investigations were impeded by top agency officials, and noted that she was subsequently terminated when she complained about the obstruction. 

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