Honduras Establishes Elite ‘Tigers’ Police Unit to Fight Urban Violence
By Dialogo July 08, 2013
The Honduran Congress has approved the establishment of an independent, elite police unit — with military and judicial backing — in a bid to curb rising levels of drug-fueled violence in Tegucigalpa, San Pedro Sula and other major urban centers.
The unit will be known as TIGRES (Tropa de Inteligencia de Respuesta Especial de Seguridad).
“This ‘Tigers’ unit will receive training from the Special Forces and will focus on providing citizen security and taking on the ‘narcos’ and organized crime,” Gen. René Osorio Canales, head of the Honduran Armed Forces, told Diálogo in a June 7 interview.
“The director will be named this month and we aim to have the unit operational by November carrying out missions primarily in Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula,” he added. “Later, they will also target emblematic cases on special missions in other rural areas of the country.”
When undertaking specialized missions, the ‘Tigers’ will work hand-in-hand with a range of experienced judges and local prosecutors, providing an integrated approach to tackling drugs and urban crime, Osorio said.
An integrated approach
Adam Blackwell, secretary for multidimensional security at the Organization of American States, said Honduras needs “an integrated, strategic approach to bolster state institutions on the one hand and bring in civil society and the private sector on the other.”
“[At the OAS], we’ve started work through the peace process with the gangs and we’re working with the legislatures and trying to get political pacts to at least maintain some level of continuity within the security sector,” said Blackwell, a former Canadian career diplomat with extensive experience in Honduras and El Salvador.
Adam Isacson, senior associate for regional security policy at the Washington Office on Latin America, said formation of the elite Tigers group is “a good first step” but that “you also need a regular police force that has links to judges and local prosecutors. When creating elite security force units in Central America, the biggest challenge has been to prevent them from being corrupted by organized crime groups.”
“Assuming that this unit works reasonably well and it’s going to have some impact in certain areas, you still have to be careful not to end up with the tip of the spear without the spear,” Isacson said.
Bridging the security gap
Gen. Osorio points to a few positive first signs within the security sector in fighting the country’s homicide rate, which at 85.5 per 100,000 inhabitants last year was the world’s highest, according to the National Autonomous University of Honduras (UNAH). Specifically, the northwestern city of San Pedro Sula registered 173 homicides per 100,000 in 2012, making it the world’s most violent metropolis outside a war zone.
“Vetted police will be heavily recruited to boost the Tigers, who will be specially trained in intelligence gathering by units such as the [U.S. SWAT-trained] Cobras, and the Armed Forces will also provide support where necessary,” he explained.
Regional groups like the OAS — along with the Honduran military — remain positive about efforts to chip away at the rising culture of violence on the coasts and in cities such as San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa.
Military on the move
Honduras participates in Operation Martillo, a multinational military effort that works to increase offshore monitoring along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, and coordinates with governments to intercept drug shipments.
“This year in particular, our Armed Forces have focused their efforts on identifying and destroying ‘narco’ airstrips on the Caribbean/Atlantic coast. In February alone, our naval forces bought two corvette warships and six speedboats from the Dutch government to boost our maritime surveillance and interdiction of drugs in these same coastal areas,” he said.
While these military-led initiatives are key to attacking part of the problem, Isacson points out the need for quick and simple protection mechanisms in urban areas.
“If you’re riding a bus, driving the roads, if you own any business you’re being robbed at gunpoint and extorted very frequently,” he said. “Somebody’s got to be able to put a stop to that, and in the short term the Armed Forces can do that. But even after a little while they too lose their effectiveness so they’ve got to be replaced by a police force that works.”
Isacson suggested that the Honduran police “need to change their training, recruit like crazy, drum out those who fail the tests, boost community policing, improve response times and increase investigative capacities. This is not about the big ‘narco’ shipments but simply about protecting people.”
Honduras aggressively moves on police reform
On June 5, Security Minister Arturo Corrales ordered the indefinite suspension of 1,400 police officers from the Honduras Criminal Investigation Unit (DNIC), representing close to 10 percent of the country’s overall police force, on suspicion of corruption.
“I know many Honduran police officers who are hardworking, doing miracles in a complicated environment,” Blackwell said. “I don’t think that we can start with the premise that 90 percent of them are bad.”
Osorio said this is exactly what he’s trying to achieve through the new Tigers force.
“The 300-strong unit will be highly professional, working closely with the local communities. They will come under the orders of the head of police and will have medical benefits and a 30 percent salary increase,” he said. “They will be housed under the Security Ministry as a rapid response unit to fight extortion, carry out investigations, gather intelligence and manage urban combat scenarios.”
Blackwell: ‘Not just a law-enforcement problem’
Osorio told Diálogo his government will ask the United States, Spain and Colombia for technical advice and support. In mid-2012, Colombian police began helping Honduras polygraph its police force to determine if any of its members have ties to organized crime.
The Honduran Armed Forces are also working closely with their counterparts in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua as well as the United States to exchange intelligence information and break down weapons and drug smuggling networks across borders.
At the same time, Blackwell explained that this isn’t just a law-enforcement problem.
“You also need to deal with some of the underlying economic and social issues, which is why we’re in this gang truce, so if we can get some more peace in the country we can look at better education, more investment and more jobs,” the OAS official said.
“These gangs didn’t grow up overnight and they’re not going to be solved overnight,” he added. “Most of the violence now is about micro-trafficking and competition between the gangs, who are not affiliated with the cartels, to carry out extortion and control territories.”