Central America´s Free-Fire Zone. Dramatic Crisis in Honduras Demands Action

Posted on January 24, 2012

Miami Herald, Editorial

The recent withdrawal of America ’s Peace Corps volunteers from Honduras is one more sign that the security situation in that Central American country has deteriorated to crisis levels not seen since the civil wars of the 1980s. The country is quickly turning into a disaster zone.

After the tide of civil war receded, the armies went back to their barracks and the insurgents laid down their arms. But then narcotics traffickers flooded in, and the violence has spiked dramatically ever since. The DEA estimates that 25 tons of cocaine move through the country every month heading north.

This time, however, there appears to be no effective U.S. strategy to combat the wave of crime and the gradual destruction of the country. To make matters worse in Honduras , there are indications that elements of the U.S.-backed government are complicit in the violence and criminality.

A report in Sunday’s Miami Herald by Frances Robles offers an eye-opening look at the rampant mayhem. Honduras has become a free-fire zone, with parts of Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula particularly dangerous. The murder rate of 82.1 per 100,000 residents (compared to 5.5 per 100,000 in Florida ), gives Honduras the highest homicide rate in the world. Nearly 7,000 homicides were recorded in 2011, a 250-percent increase in half a dozen years.

Security officials are accused of not only allowing the violence to go unpunished, but of acting as enforcers and bodyguards for drug traffickers. Despite occasional shake-ups in the hierarchy, there is little sign of a change in direction. A few courageous prosecutors and whistle-blowers, as well as news reporters, have spoken out, only to be killed. Journalists in particular have been targeted.

They and others have pointed the finger at top members of law enforcement, such as José Ricardo Ramírez del Cid, newly named director of the National Police. The head of the police department’s own internal-affairs unit said there are numerous reports of violations against the new director that have never been pursued.

Up to now, President Porfirio Lobo has seemed content to look the other way, but he cannot evade responsibility for Honduras ’ dire predicament. If he wants to lead the way toward improvement, he should start with a thorough housecleaning of the corruption-ridden National Police and other institutions, including the prison system. But it’s not just about the police — lawmakers and other members of the government are believed to be involved in corruption, as well.

Honduras has to become more active in combating drugs, including allowing extradition of indicted traffickers to the United States and taking other strong measures to combat crime. That includes establishing an effective witness protection program for those who report drug and corruption-related crimes, and allowing independent investigations of allegations of human-rights abuses against the Ministry of Security.

Nudging Honduran leaders to do the right thing hasn’t worked. Time for Washington to get serious and put U.S. aid on the line, starting with an accounting of where U.S. dollars have ended up. The U.S. government helped fund a program to train Honduran prison guards, but has since lost track of where those guards wound up.

Historically, the United States has been the biggest bilateral donor of aid to Honduras , but where’s the accountability? Congress should withdraw assistance if the Honduran government blocks reforms. This crisis requires more than tough talk.

SOURCE: http://www.miamiherald.com/2012/01/24/2606175/central-americas-free-fire-zone.html