A report spread around the world today smears (wrongly, in my opinion) Juan Carlos Bonilla Valladares, the new Honduras police chief. It throws into relief two great problems in Latin American police forces, corruption and vigilante justice. When faced with an absolute breakdown of the justice system and prisons overflowing with violent gang members, some cops have taken the law into their own hands. The bullet-ridden bodies of gang members routinely appear in the capital with as much less press coverage than the average thunderstorm.The general public, more concerned with their own survival than with the human rights of criminals, silently applaud.
Bonilla was put on trial for at least two cases of vigilante justice, and acquitted. The article implies his acquittal was due to corruption in the Honduran justice system. But ironically, Bonilla’s reputation is one of honesty and reporting acts of corruption by his own co-workers.
As a Honduran, I confess that my heart is with the vigilantes, even though I can see why they are wrong. Because of the memories of the cold war disappearances, and hushed up massacres, which came to their climax in the 80s, leftist activists have been afraid of vigilante injustice for decades, and rightly so. (Loudly too) Stories of extra-judicial killings have increased greatly after Congress and the Supreme Court removed President Zelaya from office. But the type of victim has changed dramatically. Journalists in Honduras and Mexico are now being murdered in numbers never seen before. The reaction in this and many other articles is to blame the old enemies.
But, the cold war is over, and the drug war has replaced it. I don’t think the killing of journalists is being done by ultra-right-wing death squads, but by the drug cartels, who are known to react swiftly and violently to media attention on their crimes. The same violence is being waged in Mexico, where I live now. There is a blanket media silence here since journalists have begun to appear hanging from overpasses in border cities, mutilated. The media are self-censoring now.
The police in Mexico are even more corrupt than that in Honduras. The reason is depressing: for many officers corruption is the only way to survive. Corruption is being spread with dollars or gunfire. When the cartels come calling, you either obey, and often profit, or be powerless to prevent you or your family from becoming the next victims of extortion, torture or brutal murder. There cannot be an honest police force in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras until the narco cartels are powerless to bribe or kill them.
This will not happen with vigilante justice, but sadly, with the end of the drug war.
[Photo, Washington Post]