Honduras Police Chief Firing Highlights Tensions over Militarization and Police Purge

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Latin America and the Caribbean

The Honduran National Police are currently in a standoff with the Ministry of Security after Police Chief Ramón Antonio Sabillón was dismissed last week, allegedly for opposing government-backed militarization of public security and a purge of the police force. His removal signals militarized policing is here to stay in Honduras.

Sabillón’s dismissal was foreshadowed in a November 14 article from Proceso Digital. Sabillón had become the spokesman for the civilian police force, visiting national media outlets to express the force’s discontent and demands. The police chief had been protesting the institutionalization of the Military Police and had denounced the lack of support for the national force, noting low salaries and describing the government’s decision to militarize security as a mistake.

For two years military and police have been holding coordinated actions (teleSUR/Gerardo Torres)Security Minister Arturo Corrales denied any friction with Sabillón and instead compared his removal to a soccer game. “When a coach removes a midfielder it does not mean he’s no good, but rather that another strategy is required,” Corrales said.

The strategy to which Corrales is referring is President Juan Orlando Hernández’s favored crime-fighting approach: using soldiers for law enforcement. The government has also publicly pushed a renewed focus on enforcing new vetting measures for the National Police, which Sabillón refused to pursue, as they would result in the firing of several officers and inflame existing tensions within security forces.

Félix Villanueva, Sabillón’s replacement, is a known supporter of the government’s militarized, strategic security plan. Prior to his new post, Villanueva was the assistant director of the National Police in charge of the Criminal Investigations unit.

In spite of his removal, Sabillón has refused to leave office, and with the help of other National Police officers, has taken control of police headquarters. The officers are openly protesting the government's support for the Military Police, which they believe has pulled resources away from the civilian police and hampers their ability to function. In solidarity, some civilians have taken to the streets in support of the National Police, protesting what they see as the “illegal” dismissal of Sabillón.

While the militarization of public security has undercut civilian law enforcement, a “deep cleansing” of the National Police would be welcome, as officers have been implicated in a number of cases of torture, kidnapping and extrajudicial killings that have largely gone unchecked.

The broader concern is whether the same standards would be applied to the Military Police, who have also been linked to intimidation, excessive use of force and other abuses. The Honduran Congress authorized the creation of the Military Police in August 2013, despite the military’s legacy of abuse.

While sending soldiers to the streets might produce short-term political popularity and some security improvements, it has not provided a long-term solution to violence for any of the governments in Latin America that have relied on this tactic. When deployed, military personnel trained to kill enemies in combat often use this excessive force against citizens. These forces lack the training and community-level ties critical to preventing these human rights abuses and carrying out criminal investigations.

After years of exposure to violence, organized criminal activity, police corruption and declining citizen security however, the Honduran population has become increasingly accustomed to military involvement in traditional policing. In 2013, only 27 percent of Hondurans expressed any confidence in the civilian police and 73 percent thought the military should be involved in policing efforts.

With overwhelming support from the government and a majority of citizens, Honduras plans to add 1,000 new recruits to the Military Police next year, increasing the size of the current force by about 50 percent. In spite of frequent reports of security force human rights violations, the United States has continued to provide support for the Honduran government’s ramped up militarization of law enforcement.

Since 2011, Honduras has received over $10 million per year in U.S. military and police aid, in addition to aid received through the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) for law enforcement cooperation, capacity building and prevention programs. U.S. funding currently supports military training for new elite police task forces like the TIGRES (Tropa de Inteligencia y Grupos de Respuesta Especial de Seguridad). These special units have been criticized for their lack of coordination and information sharing, as well as for dispersing limited resources across more agencies, often weakening existing units.

Some U.S. assistance has been withheld based on human rights conditions. In FY2014, the U.S. congress increased the amount of aid withheld from Honduras from 20 percent to 35 percent, pending a certification from the Secretary of State that Honduras is complying with conditions related to human rights. A 2013 State Department report on Honduras determined that “[c]ivilian authorities failed at times to maintain effective control over the security forces” and that “corruption and impunity continued to be serious problems.”

These conditions on security assistance to Honduras differ from those enforced in neighboring Guatemala, where 100 percent of army assistance is to remain frozen until the State Department certifies that “the Government of Guatemala is implementing a credible plan to build a professional, accountable police force and end the army’s involvement in internal law enforcement.”

While the enforcement of police “cleansing” under the new National Police Chief Villanueva could be a step in the right direction, it remains to be seen whether the firings will mark a change of pace for the National Police, or just provide a pretext to cut National Police funding further and continue shifting law enforcement control to the military.