How to reduce crime in the world’s most violent country

An international commission against impunity could lower sky-high murder rates and thwart graft in Honduras.

inside story amerricas
Honduras has the highest rate of intentional homicide in the world [Getty Images]

As is well known, worsening drug trafficking, organised crime, corruption, institutional dysfunction and the deterioration of the country’s finances in the years since the June 2009 coup have made Honduras the most dangerous country in Latin America and the world when measured in terms of homicides per capita.

Recent reports have documented the murders of police officers, campesinos , lawyers, journalists, taxi drivers, homosexuals, democracy, land and human rights activists, and gang members.

Things have gotten so bad that a bomb was thrown at President Porfirio Lobo’s residence at the beginning of the month. To no one’s surprise, the perpetrator escaped without a trace. Days later, 17 people, including some women and children, were killed in a shootout between two alleged drug trafficking gangs. Three inmates died days after the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights published a report stating that inmates were running all of the country’s prisons.

While the announcement of a gang truce in May might help to provide some respite from the daily violence – though it hasn’t so far – Honduras and the international community might want to consider the creation of an independent, international body to support the country’s battle against organised crime’s infiltration of the state, similar to what exists in Guatemala. While Guatemala’s experiment has not been a total success, there have been several important improvements from which Honduras could benefit should it agree to a similar commission.   

Progress in Guatemala

Honduras in 2013 is in some ways similar to 2006 Guatemala. Organised crime infiltrated the government. The police were outmanned, outgunned, and all too corrupt. Individual prosecutors and judges could not, or would not, do their jobs because they were corrupt, threatened or simply overwhelmed by the challenges. Congress did not provide the courts and the police with the legal means to prosecute crime. As a result, the Guatemalan government and the international community agreed to the creation of a unique hybrid domestic-international commission.

Since the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) began work in 2007, it has helped to solve a number of important crimes, including the 2009 murder-suicide of a prominent lawyer that nearly brought down the government, the 2011 homicide of Argentine folksinger Facundo Cabral, and the killings of 16 travelers from Nicaragua in 2008.

On Thursday, Guatemala’s High Risk Court convicted  four men, including the former head of the police’s criminal investigation unit, of participating in the extrajudicial execution of 10 prisoners in 2005 and 2006. Given the court’s ruling, it now appears as if authorities will step up efforts to prosecute a former minister of the interior, former director of the police, former deputy director of criminal investigation of the police, former director of the prison system, and the former minister of national defence. In the judges’ ruling, they accepted that these men were present at the prison during the extrajudicial executions. The successful prosecution of these high-level figures would be one of CICIG and Guatemalan prosecutors’ most significant accomplishments.

Inside Story Americas – Guatemala: Struggling for justice

More than 2,500 corrupt police officers have been removed from their jobs in Guatemala. While police corruption remains an ongoing problem and will be for some time, today’s police are better trained and equipped than they were before CICIG’s arrival. The government has opened investigations into 13 of 18 judges who CICIG identified as protecting criminal groups and corrupt officials from prosecution, and for making questionable rulings in favour of impunity. CICIG also provided several legal reform proposals and technical assistance to Congress to help it pass laws to strengthen the criminal justice system.

The work of Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz and Judge Jasmin Barrios, who have received so much well-deserved national and international recognition, would not have been possible without CICIG’s direct and indirect support. Paz y Paz and her office’s ability to pursue high-profile charges against former presidents, money launderers, drug traffickers, and officials accused of extrajudicial execution is possible because of the environment that CICIG has helped create.

Judge Barrios, on the other hand, recently oversaw the conviction of Efrain Rios Montt on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity in the High Risk Court that CICIG helped establish. While the trial against Rios Montt is a sign of how far the justice system has progressed, the Constitutional Court’s reversal of the conviction on an alleged due process violation is a sign of how far Guatemala still has to travel. Rios Montt will most likely have another day in court next year.

When CICIG arrived, an estimated two percent of all murders resulted in convictions. Today, the conviction rate in Guatemala stands closer to 10 percent. Outgoing CICIG commissioner Francisco Dall’Anese recently claimed that impunity has fallen from 95 percent to 70 percent since its arrival. After peaking in 2009, homicides have decreased for three consecutive years. While the limited progress that Guatemala has experienced in recent years is not all the direct consequence of CICIG’s work, it has nevertheless played an important role. Guatemala is slightly better than it was before CICIG’s arrival and might have been in an even better condition had not the media, private sector, and certain government and non-government officials undermined its efforts.

Impunity in Honduras

Today, Honduras is in need of similar international support. Organised crime has infiltrated the government. Too many police and military are corrupt and trigger-happy. The political and economic elite continue to operate with impunity. The US government is being pressured to halt assistance to police units that report to Chief of Police Juan Carlos Bonilla, suspected of having ties to death squads. Instead, the US government has promised that police aid would only go to specially vetted units and that US officials would not work directly with Bonilla or with those directly beneath him in order to maintain “two degrees of separation”.

Inside Story Americas: Honduras probe ‘quashed’ by US authorities?

But this is a disingenuous promise, because tehcnically all police units report to Bonilla. Instead, the US recently suspended all aid that it was providing to the unit responsible for vetting police because progress was too slow. However, the problem obviously goes beyond Bonilla. Eight former top-ranking police officials are also under investigation for alleged graft.

Twenty-one US senators expressed their reservations to Secretary of State John Kerry that the Honduran government was doing enough to ensure free speech, due process and the prosecution of authorities who commit human rights-related crimes. The US Congress had resumed some aid to the Honduran government only after the Obama administration had claimed there had been improvements in these areas. The US Congress was sceptical at the time and is even more so today.   

Recently, the Honduran Congress investigated the health minister and the attorney general. The commissions created to oversee the two offices found corruption, waste and mismanagement in each division. The health minister and the attorney general both resigned before congress could act. However, the two officials claim  they were singled out because of their battles against government corruption, which threatened other government officials.

It is nearly impossible to distinguish between politically inspired witch-hunts and honest, evidence-driven investigations and prosecutions of government and police officials. 

A way forward

The Obama administration wants to assist the Honduran government and police in the fight against organised crime, corruption and drug trafficking. It is in both countries’ interests. However, the US does not appear to have a plan as to how to do so when there are so many police and government officials involved in illegal activities.

Fault Lines: The US and Honduras

An international commission against impunity in Honduras would not be able to replicate the Guatemalan model, but it could provide a blueprint. It would be an international commission supported, staffed, and financed by the United Nations and not the US government. The commission would recommend to Honduras’ congress and executive branch reforms to the criminal justice system to reduce impunity. The commission would help vet police, prosecutors, and judges. Finally, the commission would provide needed protection, training and support to Honduran officials to investigate and prosecute crime.

Guatemala’s CICIG has not worked miracles. Even with three years of lower murder rates, it is still among the world’s highest. Impunity is lower but the chances of getting away with murder or corruption are still very high. And the two commissioners the UN has appointed to oversee CICIG have been run out of town by the country’s political and economic elite, some of whom fear losing their privileges. They never wanted CICIG there in the first place.

However, an anti-impunity commission could give the US, the international community, and the Honduran government and people an opportunity to improve the dire situation in Honduras. Such a proposal should be a key point of debate in the run up to November’s presidential election.

Given that the mandate of the international commission in Guatemala is set to expire in 2015 – prematurely, in my opinion – the international community and the Honduran government should transfer the skills and knowledge that have been so important to giving the Guatemalan people a fighting chance to Honduras so that they may have the same opportunity.

Mike Allison is associate professor in the Political Science department at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania. You can read his blog here

Follow him on Twitter: @CentAmPolMike