According to official records, there were 54 murders in Honduras on Christmas Eve. With a violent death every 74 minutes, a rate that more than doubled over Christmas, the country is four times more dangerous than Mexico. In 2012, 7172 murders were recorded. That’s nearly one per thousand inhabitants, by far the highest murder rate in the world.
Alejandro Fernández lives in Tegucigalpa. On 23 December he and his wife were supposed to have lunch with their daughter’s teacher but he cancelled because he had to visit the family of a pupil whose father had just been murdered. Dinner on 25 December was interrupted by a phone call from their friend Aleyda. Three young men had tried to burgle a house and were surprised by the owner, who shot them down as they ran past Aleyda and her nine-year-old son in their car. On 28 December the television news had a story of a 12-year-old who’d accidentally killed his 10-year-old sister with a shotgun. On 29 December, a visit to another friend was interrupted by the news that a neighbour, a taxi driver, had been mugged and shot.
The activities of death squads are revealed by a CCTV video that has been circulating over the last few weeks. It shows a group of young men surprised in a shopping street by gunmen who pull up in SUVs. Most of them run off, pursued by shots from AK-47s. The two who raise their arms in surrender are made to lie down and are executed. Police are still ‘investigating’ the crime; the motive clearly wasn’t robbery since the assailants simply drive away.
The former police chief General Ricardo Ramirez del Cid lost his job last May amid accusations that he was involved in the murder of the journalist Alfredo Villatoro. A purge of the police began, hundreds of background checks were made but only 33 officers were expelled before the process was halted by the constitutional court.
On 17 February, Ramirez’s son was killed in a shootout between his bodyguards and ten hooded men who entered the restaurant where they were eating. Ramirez accused the new police chief, Juan Carlos Bonilla, of orchestrating the crime. A US State Department report in 2007 said that Bonilla, known as ‘El Tigre’, was suspected of involvement in a number of murders, but never charged.
In the last two years, 149 people are known to have been killed by the police. On 9 January, a gang leader known as ‘Teiker’ was taken with his girlfriend from their home by masked men travelling in SUVs. He was photographed by the press in police custody, alive but lying on the ground, his face partially wrapped in duct tape, his half-naked body recognisable from tattoos. Two months later, police say they have no idea where either he or his girlfriend is, and deny pursuing any case against them.
The US government meanwhile continues to send aid to Porfirio Lobo’s government and pays only lip service to the fight against police corruption. Instead the violence is blamed on drugs, to which the response is an intensified drugs war. According to William Brownfield, an assistant secretary of state, ‘the bloodshed tends to occur and increase when these trafficking organisations… come under some degree of pressure.’
Human rights and social justice campaigners have suggested other, more cynical motives. First, the US is having difficulty maintaining its military bases in Latin America: Rafael Correa, for example, said he’d allow bases to be kept in Ecuador if he could set one up in Miami. Honduras however remains compliant and continuing violence provides a ready justification, allowing the US to train Honduran security forces and mount deadly joint operations.
Second, elections are due this year and Xiomara Castro, the wife of the deposed president Manuel Zelaya, is leading the opinion polls. She is standing for the overtly left-wing party LIBRE. The continuing violence could convince voters to support hardliners; it may also provide cover for political murders which can be dismissed as related to robbery or drugs. Carlos Fabián Velázquez, one of LIBRE’s mayoral candidates, was killed last week.
Third, if the police are seen to fail, it’s possible that martial law could be declared, cancelling the elections and turning law enforcement over to the military, who have the closest ties to the US.
After Hugo Chávez died, Zelaya said that when he had met George W. Bush a few years ago, the only topic that interested the US president was Zelaya’s relationship with Chávez. If Nicolás Maduro wins Venezuela’s April ballot, everything possible will be done to prevent him from regaining an ally in the Honduran elections in November.