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Honduras' New Top Cop Comes with Dark Past

Honduras’s new police chief, “El Tigre,” has a particularly mixed record: he is a one-time fugitive from justice, accused of being part of a death squad. Still, the government human rights commissioner, and others, say he is the best man for the job.

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Juan Carlos Bonilla Valladares, known as "El Tigre," was appointed to head Honduras’ police on May 21, becoming the fourth person to hold the post in the last five years. His predecessor lasted only six months, losing his job amid allegations that police were involved in the murder of high-profile radio journalist Alfredo Villatoro.

Like his predecessor, and indeed the police chief before that, Bonilla comes to office pledging to clean up the institution. He says that working with the Public Security Reform Commission, created in January to inspect the entire police force for corruption and illegal acts, will be one of his priorities, and has promised to solve the murder of Villatoro. Since his appointment, he has spoken out in strong terms against corruption:

"We cannot allow officials who imbibe alcoholic drinks with drug traffickers to stay in their posts," he told a local television station. "To the officer who does not fulfil his duty, we are going to apply the law."

Indeed, Bonilla does have a record of opposing police corruption. As he pointed out in remarks after his appointment: “Up to this moment, the work I have done is reporting acts that my colleagues have committed that lowered the reputation of the institution.”

In 2010, he submitted a report detailing allegations that two of his colleagues were collaborating with organized crime by handing over weapons and returning confiscated money to criminal groups.

Bonilla can also claim experience fighting the drug trade, having served as regional police chief for three provinces on the border with El Salvador and Guatemala. This was detailed in a piece by El Faro (that was translated by InSight Crime), which painted a vivid portrait of Bonilla as a no-nonsense hardliner.

"'El Tigre' is a colossal, fat man, almost 1.9 meters tall, with a hard face, as if it were sculpted out of rock, which reminds you of the Mexican Olmec heads. Among his colleagues he is famed for his bravery, and he likes to be known in this way," the report said. "'Everyone knows you don’t mess with me,' he says often ... 'El Tigre' does not trust his police officers. He says that he only trusts one of those in his zone -- himself."

Many accounts note his distinctive appearance. La Prensa described him as “muscular, with a pronounced nose and a serious face,” known by colleagues as a “rough and rustic” man. When asked why he is called “The Tiger,” he told the newspaper that people had named him that out of affection, and for his “correct and dynamic” way of working. But, he said, “We are going to work like lions against crime.”

Bonilla has also received praise from Honduras' National Commission of Human Rights (CNDH). Commissioner Ramon Custodio told La Prensa last year that the organization had received Bonilla’s report on police corruption, and “Since then has accompanied this brave and honest official.” Last week, he said that Bonilla's appointment was "the best message" that the president could possibly give to the Honduran people. (Custodio, it should be noted, has his own baggage, coming under fire during the 2009 coup for defending the military and police crackdown on protesters.)

However, before his incarnation as an anti-corruption crusader, Bonilla was accused of being a member of a death squad that patrolled the streets of the country, executing suspected criminals -- some of them minors. The group was known as “Los Magnificos,” the Spanish title for TV series “The A-Team.” He was charged with an extrajudicial murder in 2002, and went on the run. He handed himself in some months later, as the State Department documents, and in 2004 was then found innocent. Honduras Culture and Politics notes that the prosecutor in the case quit mid-trial.

Extrajudicial killings are common in Honduras, and few officers have been convicted for the crime. In a 2003 report Amnesty International said that 1,500 youths and children were thought to have been murdered between 1998 and 2002, nearly a quarter of them reportedly by police, or people acting with the implicit consent of the authorities.

Even though Bonilla was acquitted of the crime, it is noteworthy that in public statements he has not always troubled to distance himself from this type of killing. When questioned by El Faro last year about extrajudicial killings, Bonilla replied: “There are things that one takes to the grave. What I can tell you is that I love my country, and I am ready to defend it at all costs, and I have done things to defend it. That is all that I will say.”

This suggests that, even if Bonilla is prepared to do battle with drug trafficking in the force, he is not likely try to stamp out vigilantism. The killings have not stopped. Last year the NGO Casa Alianza reported that the “epidemic” of murders of young people was still growing in Honduras. The recently released State Department report on human rights notes that, in 2011, “Police and government agents committed unlawful killings,” and that there were reports of “police beatings and other abuse of detainees” as well as “arbitrary arrest.”

The policy may have tacit support all the way to the top of Honduras’ security apparatus. Police Commissioner Maria Luisa Borja, who led the investigation against Bonilla, reports that he told her that if they tried to make him a “scapegoat,” he would be able to “say to the security minister himself, to his face, that the only thing I did was follow his instructions.”

The new police chief will soon have the chance to prove himself. Congress has granted Bonilla and Security Minister Pompey Bonilla temporary special powers to dismiss any police suspected of corruption -- they are expected to fire 5,000 officers in the 180-day emergency period.

Some have suggested that Bonilla’s appointment was imposed by the US government -- President Porfirio Lobo went on a mysterious visit to Washington earlier in the month, shortly after calling for more US aid to fight crime. However, it is a sign of how bad things are in Honduras that Bonilla might actually be the best man for the job.

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