‘Operation Lightning’ Makes a Dent on Violent Crime in Honduras
By Dialogo November 28, 2011
Violence in Honduras has reached historic levels. Between 2006 and 2010, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the country’s homicide rate nearly doubled, from 46 per 100,000 citizens in 2006 to 82 per 100,000 in 2010 – making Honduras the homicide capital of the world.
Put another way, says the Honduras National Commission for Human Rights (CONADEH), an average of 20 people are killed daily in Honduras. In 2000, the daily homicide rate was 8.7.
“We are facing an epidemic,” said Ramón Custodio López, the country’s national commissioner for human rights. “To think that in 10 years, the national average for homicides has grown by over 11 murders per day is harrowing. Our security systems have been simply unable to control the fierce escalation of crime caused by drug-trafficking and gangs.”
Faced with such alarming statistics, members of the Honduran government, National Police, Armed Forces, and Human Rights and Justice ministries have been creating alliances to combat crime in the country’s most violent-prone regions.
In San Pedro Sula, the country’s second largest city -- located near the Caribbean coast and the northern border with Guatemala -- President Porfirio Lobo earlier this month launched a crime-fighting initiative known as “Operation Lightning.”
As part of the program, the government assigned 2,000 army and 14,000 National Police officers to the region, as well as to the capital of Tegucigalpa, about 240 kilometers to the south.
“Operation Lightning will install a large police presence in the areas and sectors of high conflict,” said Lobo. “Hundreds more officers will be monitoring, supervising and evaluating these regions. Urgent action is required in this country and we hope Operation Lightning will provide a solution.”
In 2010, more 1,800 murders were reported in San Pedro Sula and the nearby Caribbean port city of Puerto Cortes. Crime is so bad in San Pedro Sula that Honduran media outlets have dubbed it the “Ciudad Juarez of Central America.”
In March, several “drug bodegas” were discovered in San Pedro Sula, including a cocaine processing lab located in the mountains just outside the city. In the house, Honduras national security forces recovered ten 100-kilogram bags of cocaine, equipment to manufacture the drug, eight M-16 guns with around 1,000 rounds, 30 military grenades, 25 rounds for a grenade launcher, AR-15s, AK-47s, and several different uniforms of regional armed forces. The cocaine processing lab was the first of its kind to be discovered outside South America.
The National Special Services and Investigation Organization (DNSEI), says crime in Tegucigalpa has fallen by more than 90 since the launching of Operation Lightning, while crime in San Pedro Sula has dropped by 50 percent.
“We have been able to diminish the number of violent deaths in Tegucigalpa significantly since launching Operation Lightning,” Lobo said. “It has only been a few days, but we are certain that in time, the population will begin to again have the confidence to walk through the streets of this country without the fear that they will be victims of crimes.”
Lobo added that Operation Lightning will result in “less pain and less tears” for the people of Honduras.
A week after Operation Lightning kicked off, members of the Honduran government, Justice and Human Rights Ministry, Executive Branch, National Autonomous University of Honduras (UNAH), the National Police, and Armed Forces announced the formation of a new organization known as the Truth and Reconciliation Committee (CVR). The committee aims to monitor sectors of the government and national security to limit inter-organizational corruption and assure that criminal acts are punished appropriately.
“One of largest deficiencies in our current legal and governmental system is that criminals in this country are improperly punished,” said Juan Orlando Hernández, chief of the National Congress. “They are arrested, given preventive prison and released without being punished, brought to trial or jailed for sufficient time. The purpose of this committee is to recognize those deficiencies to improve the way we handle delinquency in Honduras.”
Much of the impetus to create the committee stemmed from an incident in late October, when the 22-year-old son of the chancellor of UNAH, one of the country’s largest universities, was killed along with a friend by members of the National Police near Tegucigalpa. Four police officers were arrested on suspicion of involvement in the murder, though they were released three days later. They have not been heard from since.
Marco Tulio Palma, the director of the National Police, said in a press conference that it was known that “the four officers arrested were the authors of the murders,” but that assistance from fellow officers allowed them to be released.
“We as a country have to recognize that we are a part of very fragile society in Honduras,” said former security minister Alfredo Landaverde. “The country is penetrated by corruption across all sectors. It is rampant in the police, in business and in politics.” Within the past 12 months, 176 National Police officers have been arrested on suspicion of being linked to drug-trafficking organizations. The mission of the CVR is to reduce such instances of organizational corruption.
“This committee will be utilized to assure the moral authority of national leadership, as well as to assure that dialogue between government and security sectors are aligned in their commitment to the general interests of the country,” said Ana Pineda, the minister of Human Rights and Justice.
So far, the number of arrests made by National Police in November is on pace to be the highest this year. Drug confiscations have been consistent throughout the month in San Pedro Sula, including a bust made at a mailing company in the Suyapa neighborhood on Nov. 17. Early that morning, several DNSEI agents raided the building and found several kilos of cocaine packed into computer hard drives. The computers were intended to be shipped to the United States.
“We are starting to see some results from the initiatives we have put into action,” Lobo said. “But we still have a long way to go to make gains against the scourge of drug-trafficking in this country.”
During his Nov. 19 speech, Lobo said that the biggest challenge facing Honduras now is to restore peoples’ faith in the government and security forces.
“It’s undeniable that we need to recover the confidence of our people. We can’t lose faith,” he said. “The only thing that will revitalize the peoples’ confidence is to prove that crime can be controlled.”