No Time for Tigers in Honduras

The proposal to create a new elite police unit in Honduras called TIGRES (Tropa de Inteligencia y Grupos de Respuesta Especial de Seguridad) is a really bad idea. The acronym stands for Intelligence Troop and Special Security Response Groups, or "Tigers." Clever acronym, but dumb concept. Who comes up with this stuff, anyway. On July 26, 2012, legislation was introduced in the Honduran Congress to create an elite police force aimed at strengthening the National Police. It was expected that the bill would be approved within a week or two. It wasn't. (The bill is being debated by Congress this week.)

At the time, the director of the National Police, Juan Carlos "El Tigre" Bonilla, said he was planning to fire some 4,000 of Honduras' approximately 12,000 police officers. The plan was that the TIGRES would fill some of the lost positions within the police with highly-trained and better disciplined (styled after the military) officers, thus gradually improving the level of professionalism of the National Police. Of course, the 4,000 officers were not fired.

So now the plan supposedly would be for the TIGRES to be an addition to the current force. President Lobo has said he wants to have about 20,000 police officers. So the question is, "Where does Mr. Lobo and Congress expect to get the money to fund the TIGRES?" The answer seems to be from an Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) loan valued at $57 million. Fine, more debt for a country already broke and severely behind on its salary payments to its public employees, including its police -- most of whom receive the minimum wage of $350 per month or less (as low as $170) and are poorly trained, equipped, supplied, and housed... and overworked.

It is also unclear why the TIGRES are needed when Honduras already has an elite police force called the "Cobras" (trained by U.S. SWAT teams)... unless the Cobras, like the regular police, are believed to be infiltrated by criminal elements as well. If so, then a central question that must be addressed by the Lobo administration and Congress is, "If the Cobras can be corrupted, what's to prevent the TIGRES from also being corrupted? Are the TIGRES going to be a super elite police force immune to bribes, threats, and manipulation?

There is legitimate concern in Honduras that the TIGRES could be tailored after the infamous Battalion 3-16 unit, which was responsible for countless human rights violations, including hundreds of "disappeared people" during the 1980s. Do you truly want a commando force -- posing as police -- on the streets of Honduras? One that might just as easily be turned against the Honduran people as on criminals.

At the very least, the timing for the TIGRES is all wrong. Lately, there has been a rash of articles in the international press focusing on alleged state-sponsored "death squads" in Honduras. Creating the TIGRES would do nothing but feed into the talk of Honduran death squads and make it easier for people to say, "See, there... we told you so." And without having to prove anything. It instantly transforms the debate from one about how to effectively deal with crime and violence in Honduras to one about how the international community should punish the country.

There may be something to the death squad allegations, and they should be investigated. But the TIGRES program should not be used as unequivocal confirmation, because it is still only a proposal. In other words, there are no Tigers out there yet... and hopefully there won't be.