TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras – The newest top cop who President Porfirio Lobo is giving the responsibility of cleaning up the national police force has faced questions in the past about his record on human rights.
Lobo swore in Juan Carlos Bonilla Valladares, a veteran law enforcement official known as "El Tigre" or "The Tiger," late Monday to replace Ricardo Ramirez del Cid, who held the job for little more than six months.
Assistant Communications Minister Mario Mejia Alas said that he didn't know the reason for the change and that Security Minister Pompeyo Bonilla praised Ramirez's performance in announcing his replacement Tuesday.
The national police chief position has become a revolving door under recurring allegations of police officers being involved in drug trafficking, murder and kidnapping in this small Central American country, which has one of the world's highest murder rates. Drug trafficking has spiked in recent years in remote, lightly patrolled regions along the Caribbean, where planeloads of cocaine from South America land on clandestine airstrips.
Ramirez was appointed in November during a scandal over alleged police involvement in the murder of the son of Honduras National Autonomous University President Julieta Castellanos.
His replacement by Bonilla comes amid current controversy over possible police involvement in the May 9 kidnapping and murder of one of Honduras' best-known journalists, Alfredo Villatoro, a close adviser to Lobo. Villatoro's body was found six days after he was abducted.
Bonilla promised to try to improve the public's confidence in the police.
"We will take immediate actions," he told reporters Tuesday. "There is a plan in place; we just have to follow it."
A 2007 U.S. State Department report on human rights said Bonilla was suspected but never charged in a series of killings when he was the nation's jails inspector. Bonilla, an assistant chief before his promotion, couldn't be reached for comment on the State Department report.
The country of 8 million people is also reeling from a fatal shooting by an anti-drug police helicopter attack that killed innocent riverboat passengers May during a U.S.-backed mission tracking a cocaine shipment in Honduras' northern region that is home to the Miskito Indians. The police, who were operating in U.S. helicopters with DEA advisers on board, said they were shot at first and their return fire killed four civilians and wounded four others.
Honduran police units working with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration were specially vetted, the State Department said.
The U.S. can withhold foreign assistance to countries if there is there is evidence of gross human rights violations by police or security forces. No such aid is being withheld from Honduras, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Tuesday.
Former Security Minister Oscar Alvarez called the national police "air traffic controllers" for the drug traffickers before he resigned last fall and said he tried to clean up the force but didn't have support. He has since left the country.
Associated Press writers Matthew Lee in Washington and Martha Mendoza in Santa Cruz, California, contributed to this report.