When Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina was forced to step down and arrested on corruption charges at the beginning of September 2015, few felt the political reverberations more than Juan Orlando Hernández, president of neighboring Honduras. As in Guatemala, President Hernández and some of his closest allies in the Honduran government are implicated in serious charges of malfeasance. A group of torch-bearing protesters, calling themselves “the indignant,” has maintained a weekly vigil since May 2015, calling for the President’s ouster.
While not denying the importance of the corruption allegations against President Hernández, since taking office he and his government have initiated creative policies that have made real progress against insecurity and narcotrafficking in Honduras. The northern tier country in Central America, is one of the most violent countries in the region, suffering from its geography as a natural transit corridor for drugs flowing from South America to the United States. Whatever President Hernández may have done, and whatever his ultimate fate, the initiatives of his team in the fight against gangs and drugs merit consideration by other countries in the region as a model, from which they could benefit.
In less than two years, murders in Honduras have fallen by 25 percent to 66.3 per 100,000, according to official figures, and the use of Honduras as a stopping point by narcotics flights has fallen dramatically. The head of U.S. Southern Command, General John Kelly, has praised Honduras for its progress in reducing violence, combatting corruption, and cooperating with the U.S. in areas such as extradition.
Possibly inspired in part by his formative years in a conservative military school in San Pedro Sula, and in part by a close relationship with his brother Amilcar, an accomplished military officer whose career was cut short by a debilitating parachute accident, President Hernández has given the military the leadership role in the fight against insecurity and narcotrafficking in Honduras. This includes a special role for newly created military police units in reasserting control over urban neighborhoods of San Pedro Sula, Tegucigalpa, and sister city Comayagüela, taking them back from the gangs including Barrio-18, Mara Salvatrucha, and emerging splinter groups such as Los Chirizos.
President Hernández has also given the military a lead role in interdicting drug flows and going after the leadership of family-based smuggling groups such as the Valle Valles and Cachiros. These groups move drugs through Honduran territory, generally at the behest of, and with funding from, Mexican cartels such as Sinaloa and Colombian criminal bands.
The cornerstone of the Hernández’ administration’s approach is the national-level inter-agency task force Fuerza Nacional de Seguridad Interinstitucional (National Interagency Task Force-FUSINA), brought into being by the president shortly after being sworn in. FUSINA brings together elements of the Honduran military, national police, investigators, judges, intelligence, and other relevant offices across the Honduran government to better coordinate the “whole-of-government” operations against organized crime and insecurity in the country.
Although a fundamentally military structure with day-to-day activities managed by a colonel-level military officer, FUSINA operates under the oversight of Honduras’ National Security Council (NSC), which includes the elected President, the head of Congress, and the Ministers of Defense and Public Security, among others. The NSC is consulted when FUSINA executes operations against “high-impact” personalities such as major narcotraffickers or political figures.
Consistent with the president’s “Inter-Agency National Security Plan,” FUSINA’s primary mission is “Operación Morazán,” a four-phased plan that contemplates task force operations across the national territory and a return of security operations to civilian control.
Below its leadership, FUSINA is organized into 18 interagency task forces, each of which integrate elements of the military and police and that have direct access to on-call prosecutors, judges, and other resources as necessary. These task forces generally correspond to the nation’s departments (states), with special additional task forces such as “Maya-Chorti,” whose mission is to control illicit flows along the border with Guatemala.
To date, FUSINA has effectively focused on two types of operations corresponding to the major challenges faced by the country: counternarcotics and urban security.
With respect to counternarcotics, FUSINA has supported the Hernández administration emphasis on interdicting the movement of narcotics through Honduran territory. This it does through a concept involving three interrelated “shields:” (1) an “Air Shield,” that focuses on controlling Honduran airspace, particularly in the remote and sparsely populated eastern part of the country; (2) a “Maritime Shield,” to protect the Honduran coast and inland waterways against the import of drugs, and their associated transfer to overland traffic via vehicles and persons (generally toward Guatemala); and (3) a “Land Shield,” associated with the control of the Honduran-Guatemala border, but also including the deployment of military forces throughout the country to impede the movement drugs from clandestine airstrips and coastal and river disembarkation points.
Critical to the “Air Shield” is a law, passed in January 2014, authorizing the Honduran military to shoot down aircraft making unauthorized incursions into the national airspace. The acquisition of three radars from Israel in late 2013 has helped troops keep an eye on the skies. The government also conducts an ongoing operation to identify and destroy clandestine airstrips which narcotraffickers race to rebuild.
“Maritime Shield” efforts have focused on conducting sustained detection and interception operations, principally along the Atlantic coast. In recent years, the Honduran navy has boosted its presence there from one operating base to seven, as well as expanding its control over inland rivers. The “Maritime Shield” is the domain where the U.S. has most extensively supported its Honduran counterparts, although the Honduran navy continues to be impaired by a relatively limited number of aging vessels.
With respect to the “Land Shield,” FUSINA has sought to cut off the numerous informal crossings along the Honduran-Guatemalan border (“pasos ciegos”), with attention to people who own adjoining territory on both sides of the border, as well as combatting the overland movement of illicit substances across Honduran territory in general. Nonetheless, traffickers continue to evolve their routes in response to government enforcement efforts. At the same time the difficult terrain and the number of people inspired to collaborate with the narcos because of the money involved continue to hamper effective control over this critical territory.
With respect to combatting urban insecurity, the key tool of FUSINA has been the Policia Militar del Orden Publico (Military Police for Public Order-PMOP), although the force has also been used, to some degree, in a counternarcotics role, as well as for security for important public events and escorting high-profile criminals to the airport for extradition.
The enabling law for the PMOP was designed and passed through the Honduran Congress in August 2013 by President Hernández himself, who, prior to being elected President, was head of that body. PMOP is intended to be a force free of the corruption that by passes the National Police, and that can legally and practically conduct difficult law enforcement operations, such as imposing order in urban neighborhoods dominated by the gangs and acting against narcotraffickers.
As of August 2015, PMOP had six battalions, each with 524 persons, as well as a canine unit, and is eventually anticipated to have ten battalions totaling 5,976 persons. Its enlisted ranks are selected from among volunteers of the Honduran Armed Forces, though officers are assigned to the unit, and persons with certain special skills relevant to police work are invited to join the armed forces specifically to be a part of PMOP.
Contrary to representation of the PMOP by its opponents as “unqualified soldiers” performing police duties, those accepted into the organization receive special training, including a two-month long “Military Police Operations Course” for officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs), and a four month “Basic Course” for enlisted, taught at the armored cavalry post in Choluteca. Only upon graduating are course attendees officially accepted as members of the military police. Some may also receive additional training in specialties such as forensic graphology, customs, crime scene investigations, the chain of custody, combat medicine, and human rights, taught by outside experts through the Training School for the Public Ministry.
To avoid the corruption that permeates the national police, the PMOP has a program of monitoring and confidence tests, including psychological evaluation and other screening upon entry, as well as polygraphs approximately every six months for those in the field. In contrast to the regular police, the military structure of PMOP also places its members under greater supervision, albeit at the cost of less intimate contact with the local people in the zones in which they operate. To date, FUSINA has deployed PMOP units to major urban areas such as Tegucigalpa, Comayagüela, and San Pedro Sula, patrolling public areas with notable successes, including restoration of security to the long-troubled Flor de Campo neighborhood in Tegucigalpa.
To avoid the corrupting influences of prolonged contact with the local population, FUSINA has adopted a policy of frequent rotations of personnel in PMOP and other forces under its control, although at the cost of imposing a significant logistical burdens on the organization and supporting units.
Obscured by the ongoing political crisis, the security policies of the Hernández government have achieved important successes in the fight against gangs and insecurity. The Honduras model, or at least selective aspects of it, merits greater consideration for selective adoption by other countries whose law enforcement institutions are overwhelmed by gangs and transnational criminal groups and paralyzed by corruption.
Yet in doing so, the risks of the approach must also be acknowledged. The coordinated “deployment” of police, prosecutors, and judges into the field in the name of efficiency raises questions and concerns regarding citizen rights and the separation of powers. Furthermore, the creation of a new military police to circumvent the existing, broken and unpopular national police, increases the possibility that the PMOP will become a permanent fixture of the Honduran system, coexisting alongside its gutted, marginalized civilian counterpart.
Finally, a comprehensive solution to the array of interconnected maladies confronting Honduras also requires confronting poverty, inequality and families broken by migration, drugs and violence, and an array of other issues. The Honduran government acknowledges, and has taken steps to address such issues, but to date, progress has been much more limited than in the security domain.
The U.S. has supported Honduras’ struggle against narcotrafficking and insecurity, and has promised to expand such aid in President Obama’s 2016 budget. Yet the U.S. has also been counterproductively selective in how it supports the country. It has avoided direct support to the PMOP, and has maintained distance from FUSINA, focusing instead on capacity building in civilian institutions, police reform, and the equipping and training of elite police units such as the “Tigres.”
While all such support is valuable, the United States should consider aligning its engagement in a manner more consistent with how Honduras’ presently elected government has chosen to confront its challenges, insofar as such activities are consistent with democracy and respect for human rights.
The approach represented by FUSINA and Operacion Morazán is not perfect. Yet despite its military character and the unrelated, but distracting, political crisis currently faced by the Hernández regime, the Honduran approach to the nation’s overwhelming security challenges is creative, credible, and home-grown; the U.S. has an opportunity to keep faith with a key ally in the region by supporting these initiatives.