Honduras becomes murder capital of the world

The Miami HeraldJanuary 23, 2012 

Sitting in the plant-filled patio of his home outside the capital, anti-corruption crusader Gustavo Alfredo Landaverde uttered what few people have the courage to say out loud in this poor Central American nation:

“We are rotten to the core,” he said of the drug-related graft infecting virtually every layer of law enforcement in Honduras. “We are at the border of an abyss. These are criminal organizations inside and out.”

The soft-spoken, bespectacled former deputy drug czar had been fired, sued for libel and saw his last boss murdered. “I have asked myself: ‘Why am I still alive?’ ”

Two weeks later, the 71-year-old security expert was dead. Hit men on motorbikes approached him at a traffic light Dec. 7 and peppered the driver’s side window of his Kia sedan with bullets.

Landaverde has become another tragic figure in the country’s ongoing struggle with corruption that threatens nearly every major government institution in Honduras.

It’s a country where the son of a university president was gunned down by cops, where prisoners are forced to leave the jail to run drugs and are then shot down, and where the Peace Corps has pulled out, saying conditions are too dangerous to carry out its mission.

Honduras, a nation of 7.6 million, now has the highest homicide rate in the world — 82.1 murders per 100,000 residents, compared to 5.5 per 100,000 in Florida.

Landaverde was one of few who dared to say that elements of the Honduran National Police are closely tied to drug cartels which, in turn, are protected by politicians, judges and prosecutors. According to Honduran law enforcement, military and human rights sources, crimes committed by authorities here range from murder to extortion to car theft. Even drug operations are often run by police, with complicity of their bosses who drive luxury cars and live outside their means.

When one congressman was carjacked last year, he found the culprits — when he went to file a report at the police station, a leading human rights investigator said. The last Minister of Security publicly accused police of being “air traffic controllers” for drug planes.

Landaverde was one of only a handful of people willing to be quoted by name in this story. Other high-ranking police officials, a military intelligence officer, top law enforcement investigator and human rights activists insisted that they not be identified, lest they be killed.

“It never occurred to me when I took over this ministry that inside police stations there were people committing crimes and acting against human life,” said Security Minister Pompeyo Bonilla, named recently to lead a sweep of law enforcement. “We have a serious problem.”

A murder, arrests and then the suspects go free

Despite rampant mayhem, it was not until October — when police officers murdered the son of a highly respected university president and then tried to clean up the evidence — that the department truly came under intense scrutiny. That killing, and subsequent release of the now fugitive suspects, shocked the nation and led to a shake-up that cost the director of the National Police and dozens of others their jobs.

The killers’ police station was raided and 40 people were suspended. Every week, investigative reporters publish more stories about missing caches of police weapons and top police officials tied to drug traffickers. Congress created a special government office to “evaluate police careers” and purge the 14,000 member police force.

But Miami Herald sources say those tapped to head the department have some of the worst reputations in Honduran law enforcement and are notorious for taking bribes, ordering hits and offering protection to drug traffickers.

“I have seen suitcases filled with cash, and I have seen that on two or three occasions,” one law enforcement official told The Herald. “When I was going to file a complaint, my men told me: ‘No, boss, don’t. They’ll kill you.’ ”

Added a military intelligence investigator: “You write a report, give it to your boss and then realize it was him who was committing the crimes. I have friends who are criminals and hit men. It’s the police, the army, the security ministry — it’s not just police or armed forces. It’s even prosecutors.”

Once, he and his unit saw a caravan of 15 Toyota Prados rumble past, filled with men carrying AK-47s.

“We stood there and let it go by like nothing,” he said. “I can be sitting on the best information, and I won’t report it. The honest people I know were given administrative jobs where they are not in charge of anything.”

That was the case with María Luisa Borja, the former head of police internal affairs who was sidelined eight years ago after repeatedly denouncing high-ranking police brass.

“The minister of security took away my gas budget so the cars couldn’t move. I started paying my own gas,” she said. “So he took my car.”

Eventually her office was stripped of files and she was suspended for leaking information. The people she accused of murder and evidence-tampering were promoted, one of them to vice minister of security.

Another ranking police investigator told The Herald he discovered that his supervisor allowed members of the special forces squad to double as bodyguards for drug traffickers. That supervisor is now a commissioner, the highest rank in the police department.

“Maybe the ratio of honest to corrupt in the police is 10 to 1. But it doesn’t help that nine are clean if the one who is dirty is in charge,” the investigator said. “In this country, bosses are named to specific posts with the purpose of facilitating the entry and exit of drugs.”

Every case the investigator probed that led to a police officer, soldier or politician crumbled, he said. He often conducted undercover drug investigations only to find the traffickers already knew who he was.

The most controversial name in law enforcement is Commissioner José Ricardo Ramírez del Cid, the newly named director of the National Police.

In a hierarchal institution, two senior classes of police administrators were oddly passed over when Ramírez was named to his post. U.S. embassy officials, Honduran government authorities and prosecutors acknowledge that even in a nation rife with nasty rumors, the allegations whispered against Ramírez are worse than most.

“That’s the first I hear of that,” Ramírez said when asked about his reputation in the department. “If they named us to our posts, it’s because they trust us. There’s a lot of common talk. Show proof.”

The head of the police department’s internal affairs unit said there are at least four cases and multiple boxes of reports against Ramírez, involving allegations such as abuse of authority that have never been probed.

“I was surprised when he was named, because I saw people of higher rank who were passed over and I thought, ‘why weren’t those people named? What’s happening here?’ ” said internal affairs Commissioner Santos Simeon Flores. “We are going to reactivate those cases. We really shouldn’t have cases up in the air like that.”

He said internal affairs received 580 complaints against police officers in 2009. By November 2011, the year’s tally had ballooned to 1,000. About 28 percent were forwarded to prosecutors but many cases got dropped, either by prosecutors or judges, he said.

Ramírez, the top cop since late October, said he has not had enough time on the job to purge the police of all its ills. He insists that the murder rate is down since he took office. Cynics scoff that that’s because the police are under so much heat that they have stopped killing people.

“We don’t deny that there are problems,” he said. “We are firing officers daily, constantly. Little by little, we are going to straighten this ship and take it to safe port.”

Many Honduran activists have called for the United States to intervene and help run the police. American technical security experts will head to Honduras soon. Colombia and Chile have sent teams to help investigate high-profile cases, and the Organization of American States sent a mission to figure out what role that diplomatic organization can play.

“There’s no question we’re very concerned. It’s important for the Honduran government to do this cleaning-out process and do it willfully and effectively, as quickly as they can manage,” U.S. Ambassador Lisa Kubiske told The Herald. “The police do not enjoy the confidence of anybody in the country right now.”

Law enforcement reaps millions from the U.S.

The security issue is so important that Honduran President Porfirio Lobo, his security minister and the president of Honduran Congress met Wednesday in Miami with top U.S. National Security Council and State Department officials to discuss that and a proposed constitutional change that would allow extradition.

After the meeting, Washington praised Honduras’ steps toward reform, such as appointing judges with national jurisdiction, approving a security tax, authorizing wiretapping and reestablishing a dormant police advisory board.

The U.S. government has given Honduras some $50 million since 2008 to fund law enforcement projects, for things like training prison guards. The embassy has since lost track of those guards, and U.S. officials acknowledge that on joint jail raids and drug busts, the bad guys already knew they were coming.

The U.S. aid allocation included $2.5 million to help fund a maximum security prison. Among the inmates who were sent there: Celin Eduardo Pinot Hernández, aka “Cabeza,” leader of the notorious 18th Street Gang.

For an inmate, Pinot had pretty good perks. He had a cellphone and was regularly let out to run drugs and visit his various girlfriends. Photos show him at the lockup in a police uniform, gripping a gun.

“For the past two and a half years, he was always let out at 9 a.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays and, if not, on weekends,” a childhood friend of his told The Miami Herald. “He was doing business for the boss — drugs, weapons. He would deliver drugs and bring money.”

“The boss,” his friend says, was the high-ranking cop who runs prisons.

In Honduras, managing prisons is one of the most lucrative jobs in the hierarchy of the National Police. Inmates pay bribes for everything from phones to freedom and are let out to commit more crimes at the behest of their captors, people familiar with the practice say.

After spending his nine-year sentence doing illegal bidding for police buddies, Pinot, 30, was released on Oct. 13. He was immediately gunned down, felled by gunshots a few hundred yards from the prison gate.

Two women who had come to pick him up and take him home that evening told human rights activists that they saw police officers do it. A few days later, the officer who accompanied Pinot on his get-out-of-jail outings was murdered. Then one of the witnesses to Pinot’s killing was stoned to death. The other vanished.

“It’s very difficult to investigate the jails,” said human rights prosector Sandra Ponce. “They tend to self-govern. There are inmates with de facto authority.”

Ponce said her office is looking into Pinot’s death, because there were enough “irregularities” to suggest law enforcement involvement, including the fact that he was released from prison at night, an unusual move that helped make the surprise attack easier.

Leak to narcos brings brutal double killing

Prisons director Danilo Orellana insisted he has cleaned up the jails and that escapes, murders and crime are all on the decline, despite widespread overcrowding and a lack of resources. He said he had heard rumors that Pinot was sometimes let out, but denied that prisoners regularly go on drug runs.

“I can tell you that during my term, it isn’t happening. The jails have changed a lot,” Orellana said.

Since this is Honduras and murder is so common, Pinot’s death didn’t cause a ripple in the news media. The killing of Fernando Zelaya Maldonado never made the front page either.

Zelaya, 32, was a lieutenant in the army counter-intelligence unit who in 2010 was dispatched to his hometown, Olancho, to solve the kidnapping of President Lobo’s cousin.

Two law enforcement sources told The Herald that Zelaya irked corrupt members of the police and military, because his team not only killed the kidnappers but recovered both the hostage and the ransom money. Someone close to the operation leaked his name to the drug traffickers responsible for the kidnapping, a law enforcement source said.

He was ambushed and shot dozens of times just before Christmas 2010. His 20-year-old sister Johana in the passenger seat suffered the same fate.

“Authorities know very well who the narcos are, and they do nothing about it,” Zelaya’s father, Francisco, said. “Everybody has been bought.”

Someone apparently believes the elder Zelaya, 56, is out for revenge. A month after the death of two of his children, another of his sons, 36-year-old Javier, was also gunned down. In November, the Zelaya home was attacked with grenades. Protected by a single soldier in their current hideaway, the family was denied visas to travel to the United States.

“There will come a day,” Zelaya said, “when they will find us here.”

To read more, visit www.miamiherald.com.

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