Honduras police commander Juan Carlos Bonilla, "El Tigre"

A revealing interview with Honduras' police chief has illustrated the bind the United States finds itself in when fighting the drug trade in collaboration with Latin American governments and institutions, where corruption is endemic.

Juan Carlos "El Tigre" Bonilla, who is accused of running death squads ten years ago, today runs a force accused of similar crimes, and is so feared within Honduras that "few dare speak his name above a whisper," reports the Associated Press.

However, in an eight-hour interview with the AP, Bonilla spoke repeatedly of his close relationship with the US diplomats working in the country. The US government is his "best ally and support," he said. The notion that US aid money only went to Honduran police units not under Bonilla's direct command, as claimed by US Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield last March, was dismissed by the police chief, who said there were no units beyond his supervision.

Off the record, a US aide to Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, who led efforts to attach human rights conditions to US aid, said diplomats had to talk to a lot of people they did not like: "As far as his saying the US is his biggest ally in counter drug operations, our ally is Honduras, not the chief of police."

InSight Crime Analysis

Perhaps most revealing in the AP piece is a comment from Arabeska Sanchez, founder of Honduras’ University Institute for Peace and Security who taught a younger Bonilla as a professor at the National Police Academy. When Honduran authorities were deciding who to appoint as police chief in 2012, Bonilla “was the only top police commander without known links to organized crime,” said Sanchez.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Police Reform

Indeed, the two police chiefs who predated him were both fired after being accused of overseeing murder within seven months of each other. Crime and corruption are rife within the force and attempts at reform have floundered. This is to be expected in a country where institutions are notoriously weak and the profits available from the drug trade so high.

The reality is that if the United States wants to conduct and assist counternarcotics efforts in Latin America it has no option but to work with at best partially compromised security institutions. It is, as the Bonilla case illustrates, often a choice among the least worst option. 

Investigations

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
Prev Next

Where Chaos Reigns: Inside the San Pedro Sula Prison

Where Chaos Reigns: Inside the San Pedro Sula Prison

In San Pedro Sula's jailhouse, chaos reigns. The inmates, trapped in their collective misery, battle for control over every inch of their tight quarters. Farm animals and guard dogs roam free and feed off scraps, which can include a human heart. Every day is visitors' day, and...

Nariño, Colombia: Ground Zero of the Cocaine Trade

Nariño, Colombia: Ground Zero of the Cocaine Trade

The department of Nariño in southwest Colombia is the main coca-producing area in the country and in the world. It is a place scarred by poverty and years of armed conflict between guerrillas, the state and paramilitary groups. Perhaps nowhere else in the country are the challenges...

'MS13 Members Imprisoned in El Salvador Can Direct the Gang in the US'

'MS13 Members Imprisoned in El Salvador Can Direct the Gang in the US'

Special Agent David LeValley headed the criminal division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) Washington office until last November 8. While in office, he witnessed the rise of the MS13, the Barrio 18 (18th Street) and other smaller gangs in the District of Columbia as well...

The Prison Dilemma: Latin America’s Incubators of Organized Crime

The Prison Dilemma: Latin America’s Incubators of Organized Crime

The prison system in Latin America and the Caribbean has become a prime incubator for organized crime. This overview -- the first of six reports on prison systems that we produced after a year-long investigation -- traces the origins and maps the consequences of the problem, including...

The Lucky ‘Kingpin’: How ‘Chepe Diablo’ Has (So Far) Ridiculed Justice

The Lucky ‘Kingpin’: How ‘Chepe Diablo’ Has (So Far) Ridiculed Justice

José Adán Salazar Umaña is the only Salvadoran citizen currently on the US government's Kingpin List. But in his defense, Salazar Umaña claims is he is an honorable businessman who started his career by exchanging money along the borders between Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. He does...

The MS13 Moves (Again) to Expand on US East Coast

The MS13 Moves (Again) to Expand on US East Coast

Local police and justice officials are convinced that the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) has strengthened its presence along the East Coast of the United States. The alarm follows a recent spate of violence -- of the type not seen in a decade -- which included dismembered bodies and...

How the MS13 Tried (and Failed) to Create a Single Gang in the US

How the MS13 Tried (and Failed) to Create a Single Gang in the US

In July 2011, members of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) attended a meeting organized in California by a criminal known as "Bad Boy." Among the invitees was José Juan Rodríguez Juárez, known as "Dreamer," who had gone to the meeting hoping to better understand what was beginning to...

Homicides in Guatemala: Analyzing the Data

Homicides in Guatemala: Analyzing the Data

In the last decade, homicides in Guatemala have obeyed a fairly steady pattern. Guatemala City and some of its surrounding municipalities have the greatest sheer number of homicides. Other states, particularly along the eastern border have the highest homicide rates. Among these are the departments of Escuintla...

Colombia's Mirror: War and Drug Trafficking in the Prison System

Colombia's Mirror: War and Drug Trafficking in the Prison System

Colombia's prisons are a reflection of the multiple conflicts that have plagued the country for the last half-century. Paramilitaries, guerrillas and drug trafficking groups have vied for control of the jails where they can continue to manage their operations on the outside. Instead of corralling these forces...

Homicides in Guatemala: Collecting the Data

Homicides in Guatemala: Collecting the Data

When someone is murdered in Guatemala, police, forensic doctors and government prosecutors start making their way to the crime scene and a creaky, antiquated 20th century bureaucratic machine kicks into gear. Calls are made. Forms are filled out by hand, or typed into computers, or both. Some...