'The Tiger,' with fearsome rep colored by old death squad claims, is out as Honduras' top cop

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Honduras' national police chief, a man who intimidated many in this violent country with a fearsome reputation colored by allegations of having run death squads a decade ago, is out of a job.

Gen. Juan Carlos Bonilla was removed as chief Thursday by President Porfirio Lobo, who said he acted after consulting with President-elect Juan Orlando Hernandez, who takes office next month. No reasons were given, but the change had been widely expected because of the impending change in administrations.

While acquitted of 2002 charges that he directed the killings of criminals as a lower-level official, Bonilla was dogged by the allegations, and critics questioned why he was named chief of a police force often accused of abuses and corruption. Supporters praised Bonilla as the right man for the post, noting he has never been linked to organized crime.

The firing had been viewed as likely since the Nov. 24 election of Hernandez, who has argued that a cleanup effort failed to weed out corrupt officers and shake up the National Police, which is Honduras' only police force.

As president of Congress, Hernandez pushed through legislation this year to create a new military police force that has taken over many security duties in this Central American nation afflicted with crime.

It is also normal in Honduras for high-level jobs like Bonilla's to be changed when a new president comes in.

"We are making these changes now, because we are in the planning phase to have a successful start on Jan. 27" when the government changes over, Hernandez said.

As chief, Bonilla was the U.S. government's go-to man in Honduras for the war on drug trafficking, although the past charges have dogged him and the State Department denied it worked directly with him.

A solidly built 6-footer with a shaved head, Bonilla has a formidable appearance. Many Hondurans privately say they are frightened of the man whose nickname is "The Tiger."

He was indicted in 2002 on human rights charges that arose from allegations that he led a social cleansing campaign that killed criminals while he was a regional police chief. A court acquitted him of one alleged death squad killing, and Honduras' Supreme Court upheld the verdict in 2009. Other alleged killings were never fully investigated.

In August 2012, Lobo named him chief of the National Police department, which faces frequent allegations of beating, killing and "disappearing" people who are detained. Bonilla ran all policing, from planning operations to directing investigations.

Bonilla "was the only high-ranking official without known ties to organized crime," said Arabeska Sanchez, who is an investigator with the University Institute of Peace and Security and a teacher at the country's Police Academy. "He remains under suspicion because it is impossible to know if he has been implicated in state policies of human rights violations that have occurred close to him."

In an interview with The Associated Press earlier this year, Bonilla denied the accusations against him, and said he was in no way responsible for a rash of gang members who disappeared after being arrested while he was chief.

"I can't be on top of everything. Sometimes things will escape me. I'm human," the 49-year-old five-star general said.

Bonilla referred frequently to the support he receives from the U.S. Embassy for police operations.

The claim of a close relationship ran counter to a State Department memo sent to Congress shortly after Bonilla was named chief, saying it was aware of the human rights allegations against him. The U.S. government says it has no relations with him.

His replacement will be Commissioner Ramon Sabillon, who said he expected to talk to Bonilla about the job and the state of security in Honduras.

"We are ready to establish important and necessary communication with citizens so that they help us and we help them with respect to social needs and security," Sabillon said.

Corruption is rampant in Honduras, and it has one of the world's worst homicide rates. People scurry home before dusk, and cities awaken to discarded bodies, the handiwork of street gangs, extortion rackets, drug mafias and, apparently, the police.


Associated Press writer Alberto Arce in Managua, Nicaragua, contributed to this report.