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AP Exclusive: Honduras chief denies death squads

Sunday - 11/3/2013, 6:16am  ET

In this July 24, 2013 photo, Honduras Police Chief, Gen. Juan Carlos Bonilla, speaks to the press in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. The five-star general was accused a decade ago of running deaths squads and today oversees a department suspected of beating, killing and “disappearing” its detainees. He also is the top cop in the country that serves as a way station for most South American cocaine bound for the United States and beyond. Bonilla is also the U.S. government’s go-to man in Honduras for the war on drug trafficking. (AP Photo/Fernando Antonio)

ALBERTO ARCE
Associated Press

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) -- In a capital accustomed to daily bloodshed, the man in charge of law enforcement is as feared as the criminals. Few dare speak his name above a whisper.

Five-star Gen. Juan Carlos Bonilla was accused a decade ago of running death squads and today oversees a department suspected of beating, killing and "disappearing" its detainees. He is the top cop in the country that serves as a way station for most South American cocaine bound for the United States and beyond.

Bonilla is also the U.S. government's go-to man in Honduras for the war on drug trafficking.

Though the State Department officially keeps the 49-year-old chief at arm's length over his dubious past, Bonilla embraces the U.S. government as his "best ally and support." If the U.S. wants to fight drug trafficking in Honduras, it has to work with Bonilla.

"I am the director general, and I don't delegate that responsibility to anyone," Bonilla said during his first interview with a reporter since 2011.

In a wide-ranging conversation with The Associated Press that started over lunch at his favorite Tegucigalpa restaurant and ended after a late dinner at his well-appointed home, Bonilla denied he once led a social cleansing campaign, that his police force is as criminal as those it arrests, or that he is in any way responsible for a rash of gang members who disappeared after being arrested. Two of them later turned up dead on the edge of town.

"I can't be on top of everything. Sometimes things will escape me. I'm human," Bonilla said.

Honduras is a country under siege with one of the world's highest murder rates, where corruption is rampant and the rule of law weak. Its citizens scurry home before dusk in the capital. The sound of automatic gunfire peppers the night, and cities awaken to discarded bodies, the handiwork of street gangs, extortion rackets, drug mafias and, apparently, the police.

By law, Bonilla runs all policing in Honduras, everything from planning operations and directing investigations, to approving travel abroad for training and vehicle repairs. He oversees a troubled force where there is no consistent account of how many officers are on the payroll or how many show up for work, only estimates ranging from 8,000 to 15,000.

The police routinely are accused of civil rights violations. Between March and May, the AP reported at least five cases of alleged gang members missing or killed after being taken into police custody in what critics and human rights advocates call death squads engaged in a wave of social cleansing of criminals. In July, a man died of a burst liver after he was arrested for disorderly conduct and beaten by police, according to a prosecutor's file. In August, a gang member was beaten to death after being arrested for shooting an officer, a crime captured on surveillance tape that went viral on the Internet.

Bonilla said he is aware of the charges and insisted that every complaint is being investigated. Excesses "happen, yes. We investigate them and act," he said. "You cannot use a word like 'death squads,' because there is no chain of command or an order by me, never, under any circumstances, to act illegally."

He defended the institution where "I've spent my whole life. I am loyal to it."

Bonilla is a formidable figure, solidly built at 6 feet, with a shaved head and large nose set in a ruddy face. His voice is like a windstorm rising from the depths of a cavern, his words come slowly at first and then accelerate to a dizzying onslaught.

Throughout the afternoon and evening, Bonilla returned frequently to the support he receives from the U.S. Embassy for police operations. In one case, he ordered a subordinate to track a police commander with possible ties to drug traffickers. "I want to know where he is now. Find their phones and tap them. I will ask the Embassy for help," he said.

The close relationship runs counter to an August 2012 memo issued by the State Department to Congress shortly after Bonilla was named police chief, saying it was "aware of allegations of human rights violations related to Police Chief Juan Carlos Bonilla's service a decade ago."

A 2002 report by the Honduran police department's internal affairs section accused Bonilla of three killings or forced disappearances starting in 1998, when he was a regional police chief. It also linked him to at least 11 other cases. He was tried on one of the charges and acquitted. The others were never fully investigated.

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