David Murillo waits patiently for an update. Next to him, a table overflows with piles of manila folders packed with documentation of murders, disappearances, and other human rights violations. Whenever he travels from his home in Olancho to the Honduran capital, he stops by the office of the Committee of Relatives of the Detained-Disappeared in Honduras to see if there’s any progress in his son’s case.
Murillo’s voice catches slightly when he talks about his son. Nineteen-year-old Isis Obed Murillo was shot and killed by a soldier a week after the June 28, 2009, coup, when hundreds of thousands converged on the airport, hoping to welcome ousted president Manuel Zelaya home. Now more than five years later, militarization is still on the rise, but David Murillo maintains his hope for justice.
“We continue to struggle, and we continue to hope for justice. We’re not going to let up until we see a window of opportunity for peace in this country,” says Murillo. His optimism wavers when he reflects on the current situation. “There’s no change, no transformation in the country. More than anything, what they’re doing is applying window dressing to the country,” he says.
The norm in post-coup Honduras
Militarization, impunity, and human rights abuses have dominated Honduras since the coup. Joining the regular national police force on the streets are soldiers, military police, and new militarized elite special police forces with U.S. and Colombian training. Canadian aid to security forces and investigative units has picked up, but some of it has produced more concerns than results.
Following the 2009 coup, Honduras shot to the top of the global list of per-capita homicide rates. Between 2000 and 2013, more than 60,000 homicides occurred — with 27,272 of the homicides taking place between 2010 and 2013. In a country of only eight million, more people were killed in the last 14 years than the entire population of Fredericton, New Brunswick, or North Bay, Ontario. Of the over twenty-seven thousand homicides between 2010 and 2013, only an estimated four per cent resulted in a conviction.
Support for police and judicial investigative capacities is a significant part of the Canada Initiative for Security in Central America, a $25-million, five-year initiative announced in April 2012, which builds on similar aid projects in the preceding years. Since 2011, Canada has provided the Northern Triangle (Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador) with $5 million in surveillance and criminal investigation equipment and training to investigate homicides and violent crimes, wrote Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development spokesperson John Babcock in an email to Ricochet.
“In particular, these provisions have been used to train police and investigation units in special methods of investigation, including advanced wiretapping, ballistic forensics, surveillance, and intelligence analysis capabilities,” wrote Babcock. Vancouver police and retired RCMP officers have provided some of the training as part of DFATD-funded projects implemented by the Vancouver-based Justice Education Society.
Given the alarming frequency of threats and attacks against human rights activists, farmworker movement participants, Indigenous leaders, journalists and others in Honduras, training in surveillance raises concerns. Bertha Oliva, coordinator of the Committee of Relatives of the Detained-Disappeared in Honduras takes it for granted that human rights activists and social movement organizations are under heavy surveillance.
“One can see how they’re ramping up actions against [human rights] defenders. There’s an impressive level of surveillance. We’re clear on the fact that all of our communications systems are tapped,” said Oliva.
Colombia on the scene
Another cause for concern regarding the Canadian regional security initiative was the involvement of Colombian security forces. In April 2012, DFATD and the Colombian Ministry of Foreign Affairs signed a memorandum of understanding for $1 million in security cooperation in Honduras and Guatemala.
“Listed within the document were training activities which the Armed Forces of Colombia and the Colombian National Police would provide to the security agencies in Guatemala and Honduras, such as the detection and interdiction — by land, sea and air — of drug trafficking and transnational organized criminal activity,” wrote Babcock.
Colombia’s Marines, Air Force, and police special operations forces have all been involved in training Honduran security forces in the past two and a half years, but the details, including which activities may have fallen under the memorandum of understanding with Canada, are unclear. Despite DFATD’s assurances that accountability and transparency clauses were incorporated, there is very little public information about Colombian security cooperation in Honduras.
According to Arlene Tickner, that’s par for the course. A professor of political science at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, Tickner is the author of Colombia, the United States, and Security by Proxy, a 2014 report from the Washington Office on Latin America. She has been researching Colombian security cooperation abroad for years.
The lack of information is her top concern. “In terms of transparency and democracy and accountability, I find it disconcerting that the whole thing is so secret, especially if what they’re doing is supposedly a good thing for security forces in the region,” Tickner told Ricochet. “The whole lack of oversight makes it very difficult to know what use is being put to the type of expertise being acquired.”
Approximately 80 per cent of Colombian security cooperation in some 40 countries has been carried out by police forces, and the remaining 20 per cent largely by the Colombian Navy and Air Force, as opposed to the army, according to Tickner. The army is by far the main perpetrator of human rights violations among state security forces, she said.
“Having said that, corruption, for example, is a huge problem [in the Colombian police], and so one wonders to what extent the vetting that the US does for human rights is actually able to uncover corrupt elements within the forces being trained by the Colombians — and to what extent the Colombians involved in the training have any type of record in terms of corruption,” said Tickner.
In fact, a case of corruption among forces trained by Colombian and U.S. forces and vetted by the United States recently came to light. The Comando Jungla special forces police from Colombia and the U.S. army’s 7th Special Forces Group trained the new Honduran TIGRES militarized special police force in 2014. In December 2014, 50 TIGRES agents and officers were suspended after a few of them confessed to the group’s theft of $1.3 million during a raid on a property belonging to suspected drug traffickers.
Fifty TIGRES agents and officers who participated in the raid were suspended, as were 23 members of the Sensitive Investigations Unit, a police intelligence and investigation unit. According to the Honduran Public Prosecutor's Office, charges will be laid in early 2015.
Future of Canada’s role unclear
The Canadian memorandum of understanding with Colombia for security cooperation in Honduras and Guatemala expired at the end of March 2014, but questions remain. There are still two thirds left of the five-year Canada Initiative for Security in Central America and little indication of what will be funded over the course of the remaining years.
Canada is also involved in security cooperation in the region through global and regional international institutions and coordinating bodies, such as the Group of Friends of Central America. Canada shares information and undertakes joint efforts with the United States, according to Babcock. The United States recently announced increased funding to its controversial Central America Regional Security Initiative, modelled after Plan Colombia.
On the ground, human rights activists say the results have been more militarization and repression.
“We see that the advances are minimal, and the deterioration in terms of human rights is alarming,” said Oliva. “In Honduras right now, we don’t have democracy. There is no democracy. What there is, what reigns, is violence and a heavy-handed crackdown as a response to citizens claiming their rights.”