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US aids Honduran police despite death squad fears

Saturday - 3/23/2013, 9:48pm  ET

FILE - In this undated file image obtained by the Associated Press on Feb. 14, 2013, a man lies on the ground surrounded by unidentified people. On Jan. 9, 2013, neighbors of Kevin Said Carranza Padilla, 28, known in the gang world as "Teiker," saw police come and take him and his girlfriend without a shot. The next morning, Jan. 10, Honduras' major newspaper, El Heraldo, reported that police had captured Carranza in connection with the murder of a police commander months earlier, publishing this photo of a shirtless, tattooed young man lying on the ground, his hands behind his back, his face partially wrapped in blue duct tape, the roll still attached. Carranza's mother, Blanca Alvarado, recognized him from his tattoos. (AP Photo, File)

Associated Press

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) -- The U.S. State Department, which spends millions of taxpayer dollars a year on the Honduran National Police, has assured Congress that money only goes to specially vetted and trained units that don't operate under the direct supervision of a police chief once accused of extrajudicial killings and "social cleansing."

But The Associated Press has found that all police units are under the control of Director General Juan Carlos Bonilla, nicknamed the "Tiger," who in 2002 was accused of three extrajudicial killings and links to 11 more deaths and disappearances. He was tried on one killing and acquitted. The rest of the cases were never fully investigated.

Honduran law prohibits any police unit from operating outside the command of the director general, according to a top Honduran government security official, who would only speak on condition of anonymity. He said that is true in practice as well as on paper.

Celso Alvarado, a criminal law professor and consultant to the Honduran Commission for Security and Justice Sector Reform, said the same.

"Every police officer in Honduras, regardless of their specific functions, is under the hierarchy and obedience of the director general," he said.

The official line from Honduras, however, is that the money does not go to Bonilla.

"The security programs that Honduras is implementing with the United States are under control of the ministers of security and defense," said Foreign Minister Arturo Corrales, who negotiates the programs with the State Department.

But the security official attributed the contradiction to the politics necessary in a country in the grip of a security emergency.

With 91 murders per 100,000 people, the small Central American nation is often called the most violent in the world. An estimated 40 percent of the cocaine headed to the U.S. -- and 87 percent of cocaine smuggling flights from South America -- pass through Honduras, according to the State Department.

The allegations against Bonilla, along with other concerns about police and military killings, prompted the U.S. Congress to freeze an estimated $30 million in Honduran aid last August. Most has been restored under agreements with the U.S. Department of State over the monitoring of Honduran operations receiving U.S. money.

The agreement doesn't specifically mention Bonilla, but Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, who has led a Congressional group that has questioned human rights violation in Honduras, said last week that he made his intentions clear:

"No units under General Bonilla's control should receive U.S. assistance without credible information refuting the serious allegations against him," Leahy said in an email to the AP.

That information so far has not been provided by the State Department, and the AP's findings have prompted more questions.

"Senator Leahy has asked the State Department to clarify how they differentiate between what they told the Congress and what is being said by those within Honduran police units under his authority," Leahy aide Tim Rieser said Friday. "Sen. Leahy, like others, made clear early on his concerns about Gen. Bonilla and the conduct of the Honduran police."

Dozens of U.S. Congressmen, Leahy chief among them, have been raising concerns for many years about abuses of authority and human rights violations by the Honduran police, a force of 14,000 officers that is considered among the most corrupt in the world.

The AP reported on Sunday that two gang-related people detained by police in January have disappeared, fueling long-standing accusations that the Honduran police operate death squads and engage in "social cleansing." It also found that in the last three years, Honduran prosecutors have received as many as 150 formal complaints about death squad-style killings in the capital of Tegucigalpa, and at least 50 more in the economic hub of San Pedro Sula.

The country's National Autonomous University, citing police reports, has counted 149 civilians killed by police in the last two years, including 25 members of the "18th Street" gang, one of the largest and most dangerous in the country.

California Rep. Sam Farr sent the AP report to every member of Congress on Friday, saying, "I share the concerns outlined in this article about the continued lack of investigations into human rights violations at the hands of Honduran law enforcement officials."

U.S. law, according to an amendment that bears Leahy's name, requires the State Department to vet foreign security forces receiving U.S. aid to make sure the recipients have not committed gross human rights violations. If violations are found, the money is withheld. The State Department in a report last August said Honduras met the provisions of the Foreign Operations and Related Programs Act, which requires that the secretary of state provide Congress proof that Honduras is protecting freedom of expression and investigating and prosecuting all military and police personnel accused of human rights violations.

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