TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras – The U.S. government is withholding funds to Honduran law enforcement units directly supervised by their new national police chief until the U.S. can investigate allegations that he ran a death squad a decade ago, according to a State Department report released this week.
The report says the State Department "is aware of allegations of human rights violations related to Police Chief Juan Carlos Bonilla's service" and that the U.S. government has established a working group to investigate.
The U.S. had pledged $56 million in bilateral security and development assistance for 2012 in Honduras, where tons of drugs pass through each year on their way to the United States. Under the new guidelines, the U.S. is limiting assistance so that it only goes to special Honduran law enforcement units, staffed by Honduran personnel "who receive training, guidance, and advice directly from U.S. law enforcement and are not under Bonilla's direct supervision," according to the report.
Foreign operations law requires that 20 percent of assistance to Honduras be withheld until the Secretary of State certifies that Honduras is taking steps to improve human rights conditions and investigate allegations of abuses. In an unusual twist, the report certifies the Honduran government is meeting human rights requirements, but nonetheless says the U.S. government is withholding aid to agents working under Bonilla.
State Department officials reached late Friday and Saturday could not confirm how much funding was being withheld nor how they determined the conditions were met.
Honduran President Porfirio Lobo's spokesman Miguel Bonilla, who is not related to the police chief Bonilla, said Saturday that the administration has repeatedly pledged full support for the police chief and that under his leadership "there has been a real improvement in the security situation." Honduran officials did not comment on the funds being withheld but said the government "has an unconditional commitment to human rights."
Earlier this year, The Associated Press reported that Bonilla, nicknamed "The Tiger," had been widely accused of killings and human rights violations in a decade-old internal Honduran police report. The report named Bonilla in at least three killings or forced disappearances between 1998 and 2002 and said he was among several officers suspected in 11 other cases.
Chief Bonilla's spokesperson could not be reached for comment.
Only one of the allegations against the now-46-year-old Bonilla led to murder charges, however, and he was acquitted in 2004. The verdict was upheld by Honduras' Supreme Court in 2009. Bonilla took office in May.
Human rights abuses have persisted under a series of law enforcement leaders. In a 2012 human rights report issued in June, the State Department said Honduran law enforcement agents have murdered and tortured people, though it did not mention Bonilla.
"Among the most serious human rights problems were corruption within the national police force," the report added.
This week's decision came after a series of letters from Honduran and U.S. academics, activists and members of Congress were sent to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton asking her to reconsider security aid to Honduras because of alleged human rights violations. In recent years there have been reports of kidnappings and killings by law enforcement, more than 65 people killed during farmland conflicts and dozens of deaths of gay and lesbian activists.
"Combatting drug trafficking is not a legitimate justification for the U.S. to fund and train security forces that usurp democratic governments and violently repress our people," said the June 7, 2012, letter signed by hundreds of academics.
The U.S. suspended $31 million in assistance to Honduras in 2009 after a coup that ousted then-President Manuel Zelaya. Clinton resumed aid in 2010 after Lobo was elected.
Associated Press reporter Alberto Arce reported this story in Tegucigalpa and Martha Mendoza reported from Santa Cruz, California.