Violating Own Laws, US Backs Alleged Death Squads in Honduras
US support for Honduran security forces has skyrocketed since the military coup took place there in 2009. Washington’s own commando-style troops have been working closely with Honduran police in training and weapons procurement, even as reports of extra-judicial killings, disappearances and other human rights abuses have increased.
Recently, allegations that US-backed security forces are essentially running death squads have reached such a fever pitch that Washington was forced to respond. The State Department this week reassured the public that taxpayer money “only goes to specially vetted and trained units that don’t operate under the direct supervision of a police chief once accused of extrajudicial killings and ‘social cleansing,’” reports The Associated Press.
That police chief is one Juan Carlos Bonilla, who has been accused of, and in one case tried for, extra-judicial killings and disappearances of dozens of people. While US and Honduran officials promise US support doesn’t go to any forces under Bonilla’s command, evidence suggests otherwise.
Honduran law prohibits any police unit from operating outside the command of the director general, according to a top Honduran government security official, who would only speak on condition of anonymity. He said that is true in practice as well as on paper.
Celso Alvarado, a criminal law professor and consultant to the Honduran Commission for Security and Justice Sector Reform, said the same.
“Every police officer in Honduras, regardless of their specific functions, is under the hierarchy and obedience of the director general [that is, Bonilla],” he said.
Last November, forces that were “trained, vetted and equipped by the US government” chased down and murdered a Honduran teenager. In June, DEA agents and Honduran security forces killed a suspected drug dealer who allegedly reached for his gun when they came after him. And in May before that, DEA agents cooperated with Honduran security forces in the killing of four civilians, including two pregnant women, in an incident US officials later described as a mistake.
“Since early 2010,” writes Dana Frank in a piece at Foreign Affairs, ”there have been more than 10,000 complaints of human rights abuses by [US funded and trained] state security forces,” and “in many ways, Washington is responsible for this dismal turn.”
The AP reported on Sunday that two gang-related people detained by police in January have disappeared, fueling long-standing accusations that the Honduran police operate death squads and engage in “social cleansing.” It also found that in the last three years, Honduran prosecutors have received as many as 150 formal complaints about death squad-style killings in the capital of Tegucigalpa, and at least 50 more in the economic hub of San Pedro Sula.
Senator Patrick Leahy has been putting pressure on the State Department to account for this alleged backing of widespread human rights abuses. Indeed, he wrote up what is now called the Leahy Law, enacted in 1997, which prohibits US assistance to foreign military or security forces credibly accused of human rights violations. To meet this law’s restrictions, aid recipients don’t have to be proven human rights abusers – they don’t have to have been found guilty at The Hague – there just has to be credible allegations, a requirement which has clearly been met.
In June, a group of academics from around Latin America plus the US wrote a letter to the State Department protesting against the US military presence in Honduras and demanding that aid to the country’s abusive law enforcement apparatus be halted. They exposed the drug war as the farce it is, charging “we are the ones providing all the corpses in your war” and arguing that “combatting drug trafficking is not a legitimate justification for the US to fund and train security forces that usurp democratic governments and violently repress our people.”
So not only is Washington continuing its long history of supporting war criminals and death squads in Latin America, it is doing so in violation of its own laws. If laws were things that states abided by, instead of tools to subjugate their own populations, this might be a big deal.