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COHA: Honduras’ Operación Trueno

Council On Hemispheric Affairs
Monday, October 16th, 2006
Press Releases, Honduras

Honduras’ Operación Trueno: An Audacious Proposal That Must Be Reformed and Renovated

• President Manuel Zelaya Rosales’ Operación Trueno aims at curtailing crime by utilizing private security forces
• Preventive measures such as thorough background checks and a re-evaluation of incentives must take place in order not to provide a license to kill by untrained and often unethical private operators
• Inevitability of corruption and the prospective threat to civil rights resulting from the anticipated misuse of power, pose a serious hindrance to the success of Operación Trueno

Operación Trueno (Operation Thunder) is Honduran President Manuel Zelaya Rosales’ daring new initiative to fight the criminal organizations and bands of social misfits (“maras”) that have increasingly been dominating the country’s streets over the past decade. The just launched program will integrate 30,000 to 60,000 often untrained and mainly unregulated private security guardsmen to combat the ubiquitous insecurity that haunts the Honduran population. Introduced on August 30, this mano dura (“iron fist”) approach could pose a serious threat to the population’s personal guarantees, as it expects unqualified private security forces to bolster 10,000 experienced and usually better-trained Honduran armed service personnel as well as 8,000 police officers who are now thinly spread across the country.

The integration of a trilateral force of police, military and private-sector security personnel merged into one security body might be the antidote that Hondurans are looking for. However, it is important to recognize that various conditions need to be met in order for Operación Trueno to have any prospect of being successful. Early negative indicators, such as the miscommunication between Honduran Defense Minister Aristides Mejia (who stated that 30,000 individuals worked for private security companies) and the Presidential Advisor in Legal Affairs, Enrique Flores Lanza (whose estimate was twice that figure) have already endangered the program’s credibility. Such discrepancies are deplorable and cannot be tolerated. Some are already accusing President Zelaya’s administration of drafting a plan of action that, if irresponsibly implemented, could result in a cacophonous backlash.

Increasing Crime

Criminal activity is a daily fact of life for the Honduran population. Since the 1990s, a majority of the now rampant criminality throughout the country can be attributed to members of maras (or “mareros”). Due to the nature of these street gangs, an exact estimate of the number of mareros in Honduras is difficult to obtain. Nevertheless, the worrying statistics throughout Central America illustrate the scale of the problem with organized crime in Honduras. In 2005, the head of U.S. Army Southern Command, General Bantz Craddock, estimated that 70,000 mareros operated in Central America. Today, conservative estimates start at 100,000 and many speculate that Central America might even accommodate up to 300,000 active mareros.

The rising estimates of gang member activity directly correlate with the increasing wave of violent crimes blanketing Honduras. The Honduran Committee for the Defense of Human Rights reports that in the first half of 2005, 1,468 crime-related deaths were recorded. This year, during the same period, there were 1,547 fatalities, indicating a 5.4 percent increase. Furthermore, eighteen kidnappings of children from affluent families have been reported in 2006, compared to the three kidnappings that were accounted for in all of 2005.

Pervasive Corruption

Corruption stands above all else in presenting itself as the greatest logistical hurdle for the effective implementation of Operación Trueno. The omnipresent corruption permeating the national police is probably the major factor behind the unsuccessful crackdown on crime in Honduras. Even the Honduran Secretary of Security, Alvaro Romero Salgado, was quoted earlier this year admitting that “organized crime has infiltrated the police.” On August 26, Walter Hall Micheletti, the nephew of the president of Honduras’ Congress, was murdered by assailants who hijacked his vehicle as he was driving in the city of El Progreso. Mr. Michelleti’s car was later found nearly 150 miles away in Tegucigalpa, the nation’s capital, with at least 27 bullet perforations and a cracked windshield. Those familiar with Honduras know that the highway connecting El Progreso and Tegucigalpa has numerous police check points. Common speculation suggests that police units at these checkpoints were bribed to facilitate the crime.

Then, on September 13, the Honduran newspaper El Heraldo reported the arrest of Jorge Echeverría, a member of the Honduran National Police and a participant in Operación Trueno who was accused of committing murder and robbery. He was found guilty after police found stolen credit cards amongst his belongings. Unfortunately, the success of programs on the streets depends on corrupted security personnel to change their ways. Events such as these bolster the widespread negative perception of police integrity and represent an imposed and almost insurmountable obstacle for the success of Operación Trueno.

Government-sponsored Environment for Widespread Abuses

Another concern is that the administration’s haste to incorporate private security guards is very likely to backfire. In the absence of an accurate registration of private security personnel, a unified and certified training program, and an effective public regulatory mechanism, renegade members of the private security forces will easily ship into fraudulent, possibly criminal operations of their own under the guise of carrying out a legitimate mandate. A similar worry is that in Honduras, many ex-military and ex-police officers, who were dishonorably discharged or fired from their former institutions for rogue behavior, were then almost immediately hired by private security companies.

Adding to these troublesome factors is the fact that President Zelaya’s initiative grants private security personnel the right to use any means necessary to deter assailants from committing criminal acts. While allowing armed individuals to protect innocent victims who are being robbed, assaulted, or kidnapped is acceptable, the fact that the government is allowing private security firms to exercise unchecked and wide discretion in deterring suspected perpetrators has to be cause for alarm.

Still, the most disquieting component of Operación Trueno is that it includes an incentive system in which these para-vigilantes receive bonuses for hunting down presumed criminals and mareros. This mercenary scenario will without question encourage private security personnel to act according to personal financial interests rather than concern for upholding law and order.

By not drawing clear rules of engagement and presenting them to the general public, government officials have created a gray atmosphere of lawlessness in which private security guardsmen can operate irresponsibly. In doing so, the government has given these private operators a license to kill.

Sadly, various sectors of society will most likely use this unchecked approach to take matters into their own hands. For instance, Honduras has recently fallen victim to “social cleansing” organizations, which carry out gruesome assassinations of suspected mareros in hopes of “cleaning” the streets. Operación Trueno undoubtedly will stimulate these death squads to continue their contract killing eradications. On May 29, Honduras’ National Commissioner on Human Rights, Ramón Custodio, declared that even policemen were carrying out these unwarranted executions of presumed mareros. Casa Alianza, an NGO based out of New York, estimates that since 1998, 3,300 suspected mareros have been executed by death squads. Since President Zelaya took office, 320 of such executions have been recorded, a shocking average of 40 deaths per month. It is therefore clear that certain individuals, including businessmen and professionals, are prepared to pay to rid Honduran streets of both petty and major criminals, even if it means hiring paid assassins.

Necessary Prescriptive Measures

In order to minimize potential wrongdoings, including, but not limited to, the operations of death squads, government officials would be wise to take the following steps to build a suitable framework for Operación Trueno.

First, the government should closely involve the media in order to adequately inform the general public about Operación Trueno. For instance, a well-crafted media campaign will instruct the general public on how to correctly identify and assist the authorized private security guardsmen, if they are engaged in lawful activities. This in turn will increase the population’s willingness to cooperate with the authorities and boost Hondurans’ acceptance of Operación Trueno, but only if Zelaya’s program runs in lawful channels.

Second, it is crucial for government officials to determine the exact number of individuals working for private security companies, with reports widely oscillating between 30,000 to 60,000 persons. If the government authorities do not know the exact number of armed security guards patrolling the streets of Honduras, a viable system of accountability cannot take place.

Third, all private security employees must undergo background checks before joining the anti-crime operation. The government could perhaps seek assistance from well-respected independent firms to screen each prospective private security personnel’s employment history, personal background, and relative expertise. By hiring a politically independent firm, Hondurans would be guaranteed that the government is taking the necessary steps to develop a legitimate and lawful force.

Finally, it is imperative that the Zelaya administration require all members of Operación Trueno, especially inexperienced private security personnel, to employ sound judgment and discretion. In this case, a disincentive, that might influence members of the armed coalition to think twice before resorting to the use of force, could prove highly providential. The administration still has time to implement the necessary adjustments to ensure the operation’s success, but it would be wise to begin by revoking the bonus system that they have foolishly introduced.

Prospect of Success

If these concerns and their respective reforms are not addressed, Zelaya’s attempt to tackle the country’s present perilous law and order system will fail. Knowing that the streets of Honduras’ most populated cities will be patrolled by a coalition of police officers, military, and private security forces might engender fear within those groups responsible for the current crime wave. However, the possibility of a coalition, comprised mainly of inexperienced and unrestrained private security employees, can incite as much fear on the part of the innocent citizenry as the criminal elements. The prospect of increased civil rights violations and bureaucratic venality are among the main threats that could undermine the success of Operación Trueno. Nevertheless, the Zelaya administration has designed a basic plan that, if properly regulated and supervised, should not necessarily be a ticking time bomb, if President Zelaya is as much interested in substance as rhetoric.


This analysis was prepared by Research Associate Eytan Starkman
October 16th, 2006
Word Count: 1700

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