When Honduras’s new president, Juan Orlando Hernández, took office a little more than a month ago, he promised to apply mano dura — the iron fist — against criminals. His plans include granting police officers more freedom to arrest suspects and greater use of the army for public safety. This strategy is a continuation of the hard-line policies of the last few years, which have done nothing to change the fact that Honduras still has the world’s highest homicide rate.
The country’s police forces, plagued by corruption, continue to act as if public safety can be manhandled with a combination of bravado and religion. This is a country whose Public Safety Office website says: “All people shall obey the governing authorities, because there is no authority other than God, and those in place have been established by God.”
In July 2011, while reporting a story about organized crime on the Honduran border, I found myself in a pickup truck with El Tigre, on the trail of a band of tractor thieves. This was before he was named chief of the national police. He was the regional police chief in charge of the three western districts on the borders of Guatemala and El Salvador, and therefore on some of the principal routes that cocaine travels in its voyage northward.
El Tigre, to show me that he wasn’t afraid of the criminals, had organized an operation to enter El Paraíso — one of those drug-lord-run border towns with unpaved streets and a heliport. But nothing happened; it was like a ghost town. So we left, and that’s when El Tigre caught wind of a robbery — a truck carrying a tractor had been stolen. We tracked down the abandoned truck, but the tractor was long gone. Two policemen arrived on the scene and aimed their M-16s into the darkness. El Tigre, a man well over six feet tall whose head recalls the colossal Olmec stone heads, carried two pistols and two rifles. Wordlessly, he offered me one.
Of course, I refused, and we got back in the truck. That’s when I asked El Tigre the question I had been waiting to ask: “Have you ever killed someone outside the framework of the law?”
In 2002, the Honduran police department’s internal affairs unit had accused El Tigre of participating in a death squad called Los Magníficos in San Pedro Sula, one of the most violent cities in the world. The group supposedly comprised policemen who killed suspects instead of bringing them to trial. El Tigre paid a $5,000 fine. Many people say that the investigation was fixed, for the person who led it, the former head of internal affairs, was relieved of her duties in the middle of the proceedings. In the end, El Tigre was found innocent.
This is how he answered my question: “There are things a person takes to his grave. All I can say is that I love my country and I will do whatever it takes to defend it, and I have done things to defend it. That’s all I’ll say.”
There are many ways to say no, to say that it was all hearsay, fantasy, nonsense. El Tigre used none of those strategies. If you ask me, his answer was a lot closer to yes than no.
Three months later, in October 2011, the country’s police force fell apart in scandal. Eight officers were accused of kidnapping and killing the son of Julieta Castellanos, the rector of the national university, and a friend. An investigation discovered the existence of criminal gangs inside the police force, and high-ranking officials, including the national police chief, were dismissed. A new chief was appointed, Ricardo Ramírez del Cid. But he lasted only around six months. In February 2013, his son was murdered — a crime Mr. Ramírez believed was planned by corrupt police officers — and he fled to the United States.
El Tigre was next in line.
It was clear to me that my article on the Honduran border — in which I had tried to expose the clumsiness with which organized crime was fought and the questionable reputation of the regional police chief — had done little good in convincing those in power that El Tigre had no business on the national stage. But then I began hearing a strange rumor. The first time I heard it I dismissed it, but by the third time I started to believe it. People were saying that my article had actually been used by El Tigre’s supporters to help get him elected.
The article, in which El Tigre never denied his participation in illicit murder, the same article in which he acknowledged that so far that year he had been unable to stop even one grain of cocaine from traveling through the districts under his charge, had aided his ascent.
When I asked why, they all said the same thing: because, in the eyes of the Honduran authorities, it showed that “El Tigre is macho.” That was all that mattered.
Today, Honduras has a new police chief: Ramón Antonio Sabillón, who has already graced us with tough mottoes similar to those that made El Tigre famous: “If God is with us,” Mr. Sabillón likes to say, “who can possibly be against us?”
Despite a new president and a new chief, Honduras appears to be on the verge of showing the world, yet again, its governing class’s incredible inability to learn from the past. Pressure from the United States may have removed one macho man from his post, but more are ready and waiting to ascend.
Óscar Martínez is a reporter for the online newspaper Elfaro.net. This essay was translated by Kristina Cordero from the Spanish.