New Powers for Honduran Military Will not Clean Up Law Enforcement

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Honduras has granted policing powers to its military, a controversial move which could damage rule of law in the country, where the armed forces already have a tendency to overreach their remit.

On Tuesday, the Honduran Congress voted to approve a new interpretation of the constitution which would grant policing powers to the country’s armed forces. This gives the military legal authority to stop, search and arrest individuals suspected of engaging in criminal activity. Previously, the military could only serve as an auxiliary force to the police during routine patrols and targeted counter-narcotics operations.

The latest measure comes as an official endorsement of an emergency decree backed by President Porfirio Lobo, who earlier this week called on lawmakers, media outlets and civil society organizations to support military involvement in internal security “so that Honduras may find peace and tranquility.” According to the Honduran government, the move is necessary in order to end the surge of violent crime.

While Honduras has long served as a significant base for drug trafficking organizations, their influence was heightened in the chaotic period following the 2009 coup that removed then President Manuel Zelaya from office. During Micheletti’s five months in office, security analyst James Bosworth estimates that up to 1,000 tons of cocaine may have passed through Honduras.

This has had a massively impact on street crime. According to a recent report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Honduras has the world’s highest homicide rate, with 82.1 murders per 100,000 inhabitants.

To make matters worse, the Honduran police are notoriously corrupt, a fact which was illustrated recently by the revelation that police have “lost” thousands of confiscated weapons, many of which ended up on the black market. Lobo holds this corruption up as further justification for the military to take on law enforcement responsibilities. The military’s role will be over, he claims, when the police have been purged of corrupt elements and able to effectively administer the rule of law.

But the strength of the government’s commitment to police reform remains unclear. The Lobo administration framed the arrest earlier this month of 176 police officers on charges of connections to kidnapping plots and drug trafficking as part of a national crackdown on police corruption, when, in fact, they were all assigned to the same police station in Tegucigalpa. This is the station where police are suspected of having murdered two university students, meaning that their arrest was likely more related to the case than part of a nationwide purge of the country’s 11,000 police officers.

More recently, El Heraldo reported that the President Lobo was in the process of gathering a “black list” of police officials with questionable backgrounds, but the 40 or so names on the list are likely to only scratch the surface.

Given, then, that the police have been infiltrated by criminal elements, the argument is that the military could do a better job of fighting crime. This is a common incentive for the militarization of citizen security in the region, and the governments of Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela have all recently begun to involve their armed forces more heavily in law enforcement.

However, this policy has a number of drawbacks. For one, the Honduran military’s reputation is far from spotless. In addition to its controversial role in the harsh post-coup crackdown, the armed forces have been the subject of corruption allegations. According to a U.S. diplomatic cable leaked last spring, elements of the army apparently sold light anti-tank weapons to criminal organizations in Mexico and Colombia.

The other major problem is that the duration of the military’s new powers has been left rather vague. The new law will be in effect for “at least” 18 months, but because Honduran law allows for emergency decrees to remain in place indefinitely, no one knows how much longer it could be applied.

Such indefinite use of the army for policing could compromise its political insulation, tempting military officers to use their position to influence the political process. This was one of the main reasons that such a strong barrier between the police and military was put in place in 1986, after the country had been under military rule for the preceding decade.

There are signs that the barrier between military and civilian power is already weakening. According to El Heraldo, Romeo Vasquez, the general in charge of the post-coup crackdown, is gearing up to run for the presidency in 2013.

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