Corruption and organised crime have swept like a plague through Mexico and Central America, threatening to bring governments to their knees. There has been little hope of improvement in the region, and the atmosphere has been one of impunity and fear. This week, however, Honduras has led the way to a possible solution by launching a crackdown on police corruption. 176 Honduran police officers have been arrested on charges ranging from drug dealing to murder and kidnap. It is at once shocking that such criminal activity was so widespread and encouraging that the authorities have decided to take action.
The arrests took place in the midst of public outcry at the release of four police officers accused of murder, who subsequently went into hiding. This has been a major political scandal, which prompted President Porfirio Lobo to sack his top police commanders on Monday. On the same day also launched a military campaign, known as “Operation Lightening” in those areas which are effectively controlled by criminal gangs. This sent out a clear statement that the situation had become untenable and that this criminal behaviour would no longer be tolerated. This message was reaffirmed on Wednesday evening as the news broke that 176 officers had been detained.
A UN report revealed that in 2010 Honduras had the highest murder rate in the world, and much of the killing was associated with criminal gang violence. Honduras is clearly a seriously troubled nation, and one could legitimately ask why this hasn’t happened sooner. One obvious answer is the prevalence of the corruption and the power of those responsible. This is one of the major explanations for the continued violence in countries such as Mexico. Government officials are thought to be amongst those responsible, but they will not impugn themselves.
Mexicois still being ravaged, but the healing process had to begin somewhere, and it could be that the Honduran arrests will help. Honduras is known to be on one of the key drug trafficking routes from South America to Mexico and the United States. If the traffickers can be stopped at that point then it would both frustrate their ultimate aim (and potentially act as a deterrent) and prevent them from fuelling the Mexican drug wars. However, this would depend upon the Honduran measures proving effective, which is far from guaranteed.
First of all, it is impossible to tell at this stage whether this crackdown has been exhaustive. There could be yet more guilty police officers who have not been fired, who could continue to commit crimes and influence their colleagues.
Secondly, these arrests and dismissals will have left a significant police deficit, and although this is temporarily being addressed by the army, a longer term solution will need to be found. The Honduran authorities will need to be very cautious about police recruitment, and devise strong safeguards to prevent the situation from repeating itself.
This process has already begun. Congress is now debating a new law reviewing the police force, with a specific emphasis on targeting corruption. This is an unparalleled opportunity for Honduras to build a police force with integrity, and restore public confidence. It would be unforgivable if they did not take full advantage of this – for the sake of their own country and the whole of America.