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Friday, July 5, 2013 - 12:00pm

In Honduran Crimes, Police Are Seen As Part Of The Problem

Updated: 1 year ago.
A soldier watches over public transport users during an operation in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, on April 18. The crime rate is soaring in Honduras, and corrupt and ineffective law enforcement is widely seen as part of the problem.

In the fight against drug trafficking, Central America has become a large recipient of U.S. aid, receiving nearly half a billion dollars over the past seven years. The money is being spent on strengthening police and military forces that are outgunned by the narcotics traffickers.

The goal is to repeat the kind of success that took place over time in places like Colombia.

But in Honduras, which has become a favorite haven for drug cartels, the security forces remain weak despite the inflow of money. And allegations of corruption, human rights abuses and murder are soaring.

The Deaths Of Two Sons

On Dec. 7, Sandra Chaves de Sosa's son Eduardo went out at night for a quick run to the store. He never came back.

Chaves says that at about 4 in the morning, she was woken up and told that her son's body was on a side street, tossed to the curb, with two bullets to his head. He had recently married and had a 6-month-old daughter.

"The pain is enormous for any father or mother whose son or daughter [has] been murdered," Chaves says. "We are plagued with questions. We want to know what happened, why it happened. And every day the suffering is larger."

No one knows why her son was killed, and Chaves says there has been no police investigation into the crime. Only 2 percent of crimes are solved in Honduras.

On the other side of the capital, Tegucigalpa, Wilfredo Yanes also mourns a son.

Yanes says his son, Ebed, made a grave error. He sneaked out of their gated community after midnight last spring; he wanted to go see a girl. On his way back, he discovered that the military had put up a checkpoint. Scared, Ebed ran through it. Yanes says soldiers pursued in a large truck, quickly catching up to him. The soldiers fired, and Ebed was shot in the back of the head. His body was found not far from the road up to his house.

Yanes knows all this because he has done most of the investigating; he found witnesses and helped identify the soldiers.

If he hadn't kept on the case, Yanes says, nothing would have happened. He says his son probably wouldn't even have been a statistic in Honduras' bloody death toll.

U.S. Funds Continue To Flow

That body count is alarmingly high so high, Honduras is now the most violent country in the world, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Critics say a portion of that violence can be linked to the police and military poorly equipped, poorly trained, and widely viewed as corrupt.

German Enamorado, the government's special prosecutor for human rights, says that in the first five months of this year, he has opened more than 400 cases into police abuse, misconduct and murder. Last year, he had 300 cases.

"What this tells you is the police have no supervision, no training," he says.

There are reports of torture, attempted murder and, he says, even rapes taking place inside police precincts.

Last year, the U.S. Congress cut direct funding to the Honduran police after allegations that its new leader had ties to death squads and a record of human rights abuses.

The State Department continues to fund the police, who are receiving $16 million this year. The State Department says the money only goes to units that have been thoroughly screened, with U.S.-conducted polygraph tests and background checks. Much of the money is going to build model precincts, filled with vetted officers trained in U.S.-style community policing philosophies.

We were allowed to visit a precinct in one of the roughest neighborhoods in Tegucigalpa. Eber Mejia Mejia, the national police liaison with the U.S. Embassy, was the only person we were allowed to record.

Mejia shows off repairs and remodeling plans for a formerly shuttered station. More than a dozen new, donated motorcycles line the front yard. He says there are only 65 officers patrolling this district of nearly 200,000 people.

Without the U.S. funds, Mejia says, the police would be very limited, at the mercy of the drug traffickers and gangs.

Corruption Continues

But human rights activists say that even if front-line officers are vetted, they still report to other high-ranking officials who are viewed as corrupt.

That concern is shared by 21 U.S. senators, who recently sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry pushing for a closer review of U.S. funding.

That's what Sandra Chaves de Sosa and Wilfredo Yanes want also. The two whose sons were murdered have taken to protesting to demand justice. Holding a sign with a picture of his murdered son, Yanes says the U.S. must take responsibility for the raging violence in Honduras.

The soldiers who pursued and killed his son were driving a Ford 350 truck, donated by the U.S., according to Yanes, who alleges that the officers implicated in the case were vetted by U.S. officials.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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