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."
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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.
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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.