Pubdate: Sat, 16 Apr 2016
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2016 The New York Times Company
Authors: Elisabeth Malkin and Alberto Arce


MEXICO CITY - More than a dozen conspirators gathered at the 
headquarters of the Honduran National Police just after 9:30 p.m. One 
of them clicked open a briefcase, and bundles of American dollars 
were distributed among the police officers - payment for the next 
day's hit job.

After everyone else filed out of the room, the three highest-ranking 
officers stayed behind to make a call.

"Keep watch over the news tomorrow, sir," one of them said, according 
to case files gathered by Honduran investigators. "We'll do it all in 
the morning, good night, sir."

They kept their word.

A day later, on Dec. 8, 2009, the top antidrug official in Honduras - 
the retired general Julian Aristides Gonzalez Irias - dropped off his 
daughter at school and was heading to work when he found his usual 
route blocked. A motorcycle carrying two men pulled up to his Nissan 
SUV. The one riding at the back pulled out a gun, killing the general.

Outrage at the assassination swept Honduras. The country was still in 
turmoil after the coup that ousted President Manuel Zelaya and turned 
Honduras into an international outcast. In a country riddled with 
corruption and division, the retired general was distinguished for 
his rectitude and efficiency. The authorities promised a swift investigation.

But the case quickly went cold.

At least that is how it appeared to the public. Behind the scenes, 
according to the case files, the police investigators took just three 
weeks to solve the murder. The chief suspects were a cell of 
high-ranking police commanders working hand-in-hand with drug 
traffickers. The conspiracy reached all the way to the chief of police.

The man at the other end of that evening's phone call was Winter 
Blanco, the head of a drug cartel based on the Caribbean coast, 
according to the investigators' files. Five months earlier, the 
antidrug czar had foiled the trafficker's plan to use the police to 
steal 143 kilograms of cocaine from a rival. The assassination was 
payback, investigators concluded.

Two years later, the antidrug czar's top adviser, Alfredo Landaverde 
Hernandez, was assassinated in exactly the same way, days after he 
publicly accused police commanders of allowing criminal gangs to 
infiltrate the police force. Once again, an investigation concluded 
that the chief suspects were the same commanders, aided by 
lower-ranking officers. A full report was sent to the police chief. 
But in public, the case remained unsolved.

Now, the details of the investigations - witness testimony, 
descriptions of videos, and phone call records - are emerging in 
Honduras, shaking the country once again. In terse language, the 
documents paint a chilling portrait of impunity at the very top of 
Honduras's police hierarchy: the unchallenged power to carry out 
assassinations and force a cover-up of the investigation.

The suspicion that the police were part of the murders has long 
nagged at Hondurans. But with the release of the case files - parts 
of which were published in the Honduran press before being obtained 
by The New York Times - the country is now confronted with a glaring 
example of top-level government corruption and collusion with drug traffickers.

The revelations come at a pivotal time in Honduras, just as an 
international commission backed by the Organization of American 
States is setting up in the country to help investigate corruption. 
At the same time, the Obama administration is in the process of 
sending about $750 million in aid to the region, hoping to address 
the chronic violence and lack of opportunity that has fueled a mass 
exodus of desperate people to the United States.

The effort to suppress the results of two of the country's most 
high-profile murder cases came to light only this month, when the 
newspaper El Heraldo revealed parts of the investigation's 
conclusions and published excerpts from the files, without naming any 
of the most powerful suspects.

Since then, the Honduran president, Juan Orlando Hernandez, has vowed 
a mass purge of the police force in response to the evidence, which 
helps peel back the layers covering the deeply entrenched networks of 
corruption feeding the country's violence and poverty.

Last year, Oscar Chinchilla, the Honduran attorney general, asked the 
United States for help in solving the assassinations and Washington 
provided advisers, Joseph Crook, a State Department spokesman, said.

But the newly obtained case files point to a cover-up. They include 
cover pages from the inspector general's office of the Security 
Ministry, which oversees the National Police. So if Mr. Chinchilla 
carries out a wide-ranging investigation to show that the government 
is serious about fighting corruption, it could end up ensnaring some 
of the president's allies in the National Party, which has been in 
office since the beginning of 2010.

"There was a type of pact of silence," said Thelma Mejia, a Honduran 
journalist. "These files passed through various police chiefs and 
they did nothing. They were known by various security ministers and 
they did nothing."

The early fallout of the scandal is beginning. Foreign Minister 
Arturo Corrales, who had also served as the country's security 
minister, resigned late Thursday. The first announcements of police 
firings are expected as early as this weekend. A civilian commission 
in charge of weeding out corrupt officers has asked for background on 
the nine top-ranked active generals in the police force, including 
Jose Ricardo Ramirez del Cid, a former police chief in 2011 who is 
named in the case files as the mastermind behind the assassinations.

According to the documents, Mr. Ramirez del Cid was one of the three 
who stayed behind the night before the antidrug czar was killed in 
2009 to place the call to the drug lord. Another was Jose Luis Munoz 
Licona, who was appointed police chief in 2010.

In interviews broadcast after the El Heraldo report, both officials 
denied any involvement in the assassinations. So did the police chief 
at the time of the antidrug czar's killing, Salomon Escoto Salinas, 
who is also named in the documents.

The case files leave little doubt that inside the police, at least, 
the results of the investigation were known. In May 2012, an official 
in the inspector general's office sent a copy of documents to the 
police chief at the time, Juan Carlos Bonilla, noting that he was 
acting under the orders of the security minister. At the end of 2013, 
Mr. Bonilla's replacement as police chief, Ramon Sabillon Pineda, 
ordered special guards to protect the case files on both 
assassinations, as well as documents on other high-profile killings.

In remarks to the Honduran news media, four of the security ministers 
in office since 2009 said that they were not aware of the documents. 
The fifth refused to comment.

Washington will be watching the police purge closely. It spent 
millions of dollars on the last effort to overhaul the Honduran 
police, which began in 2011, before finally giving up two years later 
when it was clear that only a handful of officers had been fired.

"Despite good intentions, I think our own officials, especially in 
the past, have sometimes been naive in the way they have supported 
the Honduran government's actions and inactions," Senator Patrick 
Leahy, who follows events in Honduras closely, said in written 
responses to questions.

Mr. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, successfully pressed Congress to 
impose human rights and anticorruption conditions on aid to Central 
American governments this year.

"There is no doubt that our aid is well intentioned," he wrote. "But 
despite some arrests of drug traffickers we've seen no real 
improvement in the Honduran justice system." And, he promised: "It is 
not going to be business as usual. We can't keep throwing money away."

The current Honduran president, Mr. Hernandez, has had his own 
approach to police corruption, creating a military police force that 
has supplanted much of the National Police force on the ground. The 
coming police purge is likely to strengthen its power.

The international anticorruption commission sponsored by the 
Organization of American States arrives this week to begin its work. 
Known by its Spanish initials, Maccih, it is a response to months of 
anticorruption protests last year across the country.

The demonstrators, who marched at dusk bearing torches in a challenge 
to the president, demanded a prosecutors' commission modeled after 
the one in neighboring Guatemala, which uncovered a customs bribery 
ring that brought down that country's president last year.

Mr. Hernandez resisted an accord that would create a panel with the 
same powers, and the commission he agreed to will not have 
independent investigatory authority. But the president may find that 
his control is limited.

In an interview, the director of the incoming group said that it 
would be up to his team, not the Honduran government, to choose the 
cases it will work on alongside Honduran prosecutors.

"There should be no doubt that the mission will be involved in cases 
where there are networks of corruption that harm the country," said 
Juan Jimenez Mayor, the former Peruvian justice minister who is 
leading the commission.

Within days, the commission will start work on its first case, the 
assassination last month of Berta Caceres, a prominent environmental 
and indigenous rights activist who was fighting a powerful Honduran 
company over a dam project on community land. Facing an international 
uproar, the government turned to the commission for help.

Even Hondurans who had been skeptical of the limits on the commission 
were hopeful that it will ultimately lead to widespread investigation 
into the police and their protectors.

"It is a special time in the country," said Mario Diaz, a judge and 
president of the Association of Judges for Democracy, a group that 
has been critical of the Hernandez government. "A lot of expectations 
have been generated."

Azam Ahmed contributed reporting from Washington.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom