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Honduras appoints Army general to run police force amid crime spike

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(Read caption) In this Nov. 28, 2014 photo, a member of Honduras's Military Police stands guard at the entrance of a school during the last day of class in the Canaan neighborhood of Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Street gangs control most schools in Tegucigalpa, where a lot of the students are gangsters, along with their parents.

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• InSight Crime researches, analyzes, and investigates organized crime in the Americas. Opinions are the organization's own.

 The Honduras government named Julian Pacheco, an active military general, as the head of its Security Ministry in Honduras, another sign of its reliance on military personnel to fill positions in domestic security and other state institutions.

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Mr. Pacheco, the current head of the multi-agency task force known as FUSINA, will begin serving as the minister of security on Jan. 15 of next year, reported La Prensa. The powerful post oversees the country's beleaguered 14,000 member police force, as well as administers data collection on crime and violence. Pacheco will presumably still exercise control over FUSINA as well.

This is the first appointment of an active duty general to head the ministry since its creation in 1998, according to Reuters, which, for some analysts, is a troubling sign.

"President [Juan Orlando] Hernandez does not trust in the police nor in the civilian population," said Julieta Castellanos, the head of the National Autonomous University of Honduras (UNAH), according to Proceso.

The announcement comes just a few weeks after the head of Honduras' national police, Ramon Sabillon, was removed from his post as part of an ongoing restructuring of the country's security forces. 

A militarized history

The decision to place Pacheco as the head of the police confirms the de facto reality in Honduras: that the military are officially in charge of all things related to citizen security. 

Even before he was named, Pacheco was heading up some of the most important security posts. He directed the military intelligence unit, and FUSINA manages, among other things, the powerful anti-extortion unit. That unit controls phone intercepts, which are also by default controlled by military intelligence. 

Centralizing control of information is dangerous in a place like Honduras, a country where there is no separation of powers and political blackmail is a sport. 

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More importantly, Pacheco answers directly to President Hernandez. Hernandez is Army reserve, and he attended military school. He also counts his brother, Amilcar, an active colonel in the Army, among his inner circle. 

The president has done everything in his power to militarize his administration since taking power in January. In addition to expanding Pacheco's control over civilian security services, intelligence collection, and citizen security reform – including the all important purging of the police forces – he has placed numerous military officials in civilian posts. These include the head of the penitentiary system, the customs chief, the director of civilian aviation, and the managers of the housing and social services agencies. 

Hernandez also recently called for the country's military police force (PMOP) to be written into the country's constitution, as 1,000 new members of the unit are set to begin patrolling Honduras' most dangerous urban areas.

"Military personnel now control state institutions that in the 1990s were taken from them," Hector Becerra, executive director of the Freedom of Expression Committee for the online newspaper ConexiHon, told InSight Crime. 

Other civil society groups in the country have also likened the increasingly militarized Honduran government to how state institutions were run before President Carlos Reina (1994 - 1998) put civilians in charge of agencies previously run by military personnel.

Police corruption

The appointment also confirms another reality: that the Honduran police have never escaped the military yoke in Honduras. The Honduran armed forces – which ran Honduras in the 1970s and held sway through the 1980s – relinquished control of the police in the early 1990s. But former military members have been named as security ministers in the past, and current police chiefs have found it hard to shake off their former masters' hands.

Former Police Chief Sabillon, for instance, may have been outed due to his opposition to the increasing militarization of the country's police force, according to reports in the Honduran media. The Honduran sociologist Eugenio Sosa told InSight Crime he believes Sabillon was punished for not agreeing to the "subordination and weakening" of the civilian police to the PMOP in the fight against organized crime in the country. 

Throughout the police have maintained a military mentality, prioritizing mass arrests over intelligence gathering and detective work, and shunning community policing programs even while the government beefs up the military police. The results are clear: Honduras solves but one percent of its homicides, according to a recent report.

The militarization of the Honduran government is similar to the one occurring in Guatemala under former general and now President Otto Perez Molina. Like Hernandez, President Perez Molina has placed numerous current and former military officials in civilian posts. The most prominent example is Juan de Dios Rodriguez, a former intelligence official who now runs Guatemala's Social Security Institute. 

Militarization of the civilian security services notwithstanding, Pacheco might be the only person who can do the job, especially given the embattled state of the police.

"Police corruption, the failure to purge [inadequate officers], and the confidence the population has in the Armed Forces are circumstances that justify the decision," Ms. Castellanos told InSight Crime in an email correspondence.