I really like this excerpt (4 1/2 minutes, English subtitles added) of a late October Honduran National University TV program with María Luisa Borjas, who briefly served as the internal affairs director of the Honduran National Police. (See this profile of her in Ms. Magazine.)
Borjas absolutely nails what is so awfully wrong with the Honduran government’s hastily rolled-out new Military Public Order Police (PMOP)—a brand-new branch of the armed forces that exists just to fight crime. Created by a law passed on August 23rd [PDF], the PMOP now has about 1,000 members and is authorized to grow to 5,000. (By contrast, the Honduran Army has about 7,200 members [PDF].)
The August law authorizing the PMOP (which defines any form of extortion, blackmail, or intimidation as “terrorism”) says nothing about where Honduras would find the money to pay for an additional 5,000 soldier-police. Nor does it address the kind of training that PMOP members should receive, or how this training would be distinguished from police training. Basically, as Ms. Borjas says in the video, it allows combat-trained soldiers to go directly to the streets.
And that is what has happened. Starting on September 6th, 980 active-duty soldiers began what would be about five weeks of training. According to a Honduran Armed Forces news release, the soldiers’ rapid recycling consisted of training in “personal defense, urban operations, protection of dignitaries, searches” and “intelligence and counter-intelligence.” All in a bit more than a month.
By October 14, reported Spain’s EFE wire service, “In Tegucigalpa, the military police, supplied with automatic weapons and with their faces covered, made a surprise arrival in the Flor del Campo neighborhood on the city’s margins.” It continues, “They will remain at that site for several days, and its residents are asked to approach them to denounce the criminals who are operating in the zone.” Finally, “once the zone is cleaned of criminals, the [civilian] National Police and the residents will coordinate security actions in the neighborhood.”
So Honduras, which has failed to reform its deeply corrupt security and justice institutions, has chosen to give a greater crimefighting role to the armed forces. And it has done so in a matter of weeks, with only the vaguest outlines of a plan for training and oversight.
The obvious conclusion: this won’t end well.
The Obama administration—so far at least—seems to agree. State Department officials say that they do not favor assisting the PMOP. In a recent meeting, a U.S. military official mentioned that the Hondurans had requested support for the new force, but the office of Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), who chairs the Senate subcommittee that appropriates money for foreign aid, made its opposition clear.
But this isn’t over. In the slow vote count from last Sunday’s presidential elections, the candidate who has an “irreversible” lead—in the words of Honduran electoral officials—is a conservative from the ruling National Party who helped to originate the PMOP. While serving as president of the Honduran Senate, Juan Orlando Hernández proposed the original legislation to create the new military police force. Then, as a candidate, he helped guide it through Congress and, earlier this month, proposed and promoted a constitutional amendment (which hasn’t passed yet) to make the PMOP permanent.
Hernández has made clear that he wants Honduras’s armed forces to play a big role in policing. He refused to sign a document on public security, signed by all other candidates, because it didn’t specifically endorse a role for the military. “Don’t see this from an ideological point of view,” Hernandez said, “like the radical international left that wants to destroy countries’ armed forces.”
"On November 24," he said, referring to last Sunday’s election day, “the Honduran people have the opportunity to raise their voices and say whether or not the Military Police should continue.” The Honduran people have spoken, and with 81 percent of the vote counted they appear to have given Juan Orlando Hernández 35.85 percent of the vote, nearly seven percentage points more than his nearest challenger Xiomara Castro, the wife of former President Manuel Zelaya, who was deposed in a 2009 coup that Hernández supported. Honduras does not hold second-round runoff elections, so 35.85 percent may be enough for Hernández to win.
If Juan Orlando Hernández does become Honduras’s next president, it will pose an extra challenge to the Obama administration. One of his first requests of the U.S. government may be that it support the troubled and troubling new military police force that he helped to create.
Some in the administration may want to agree to that request, backing the Military Public Order Police as a show of goodwill to the newly elected President. “We must give him the benefit of the doubt,” they may say.
That would be a big mistake. Sending more combat-trained soldiers into the streets to act like police, in the absence of meaningful reform to the civilian police and the judiciary, is a textbook recipe for disaster. The U.S. government must continue to resist calls to aid the PMOP.