Honduras: The Secrecy Law

01/31/2014 06:23 pm ET | Updated Mar 30, 2014

When the National Congress, under the leadership of Juan Orlando Hernández, arbitrarily voted on December 12, 2012 to dismiss four of the 15 Supreme Court justices (Gustavo Enrique Bustillo Palma, Rosalinda Cruz Sequeira, José Antonio Gutiérrez Navas, José Francisco Ruiz Gaekel) for ruling in a manner it did not like regarding to modifications to laws (Decree 5-2012 and Decree 89-2012) guiding the operation of the National Police and the provision of due process right to its officers, and in short order (by the next day) had completed its "investigation" into the "administrative conduct" of the magistrates and voted to appoint four replacements, Honduras lost its independent Judiciary branch of government. For all practical purposes, the country ceased being even a "pretend democracy". Suddenly, the noble idea of three "separate but equal" branches went poof... leaving behind supposedly two separate but equal branches, the Executive and the Legislative.

At the time, Congressman José Alfredo Saavedra of the Liberal Party phrased it well when he said, "This sends a bad message nationally and internationally because it indicates that we in the National Congress want to subject one branch of government to the authority of others, and it truly violates, in a flagrant manner, what is set forth in the Constitution, specifically with regard to separate but equal powers [of the branches]."

Right around January 2012, partly in response to the growing revelations about the extensiveness of ties to organized crime within the National Police, we started hearing talk from Mr. Hernández about the possibility of creating a new rural police force aimed at fighting organized crime. Then, it was unclear exactly what Mr. Hernández had in mind, although the idea seemed to coincide with the visit of representatives of the Chilean National Police in town to advise on how to restructure Honduras' police. What was certain was that the Honduran police had lost the confidence of the Lobo administration and the Congress, and there was a desire by government leaders to expand the policing role of Honduran soldiers, who had already been assisting police officers with their street patrols for many months.

Two months later, in March, President Lobo proposed a constitutional reform that would give the military permanent policing powers. There were claims within the Congress that the US government had expressed support for the creation of a military police force. Liberal Party representative José Azcona Bocock told La Prensa that the US had "offered" to support the transformation of at least four army units into a specialized military police. By May 2013, Congress had begun debating the creation of a military police. The discussions went on through the summer. On August 22, 2013, Congress approved a law establishing the Military Police for Public Order (PMOP). On January 6, 2014, Congress amended the Constitution to have the PMOP form part of the Armed Forces and designated its duties.

So think about the significance of what happened in Honduras within a period of about a year. Four Supreme court justices are summarily dismissed by the Hernández-led Congress, thereby killing the independence of the Judiciary... and a military police is established to take over the really important policing functions, essentially relegating the normal police to traffic cop status. Hmm, a Judiciary that has been compromised, and police force that has been militarized. Those two things alone should give all Hondurans cause for a serious aha moment. In other words, where is this all leading to?

Suddenly, there is an extremely high concentration of power within the Executive and Legislative branches -- both of which are dominated by the National Party, and specifically people who are loyal and beholden to Mr. Hernández -- who, by the way, is the new President of Honduras. Some might say, "So what?" After all, Honduras has a massive crime problem. Gangs are taking over neighborhoods and running the prisons. Foreign drug cartels are expanding their operations. And organized crime syndicates have infiltrated key government institutions. Serious times call for serious measures, right?

Some would argue that the only way for a Hernández administration to effectively combat the threat Honduras is facing is through a "mano dura" (firm hand, hard fist, strong arm) approach, and this requires power -- the kind that allows for "short cuts" to be taken when it comes to observing normal democratic etiquette, legal procedures, and civil rights. But this is a slippery road to take, and it doesn't come without a huge price. Some might refer to the price as sacrificing a few freedoms for the sake of security -- a process people in the United States have been sifting through since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. People in Latin America might simply call it a "dictatorship".

When a central government controls the judges and the courts, it controls the mechanism that supposedly decides what you can legally and ethically (even morally) do. When a central government controls a super-charged and expanded police force, it controls the mechanism that enforces whatever it wants to do. That's a lot of discretionary power in the hands of the central government, namely the President. The only thing that's missing in order to potentially enable the establishment of a totalitarian state is the power to control information about what the government does. Because once you can hide from the public what you do and how you do it... well, then you're largely unstoppable. The public cannot react to what it doesn't know.

That's why the vote by Congress on January 13 to pass the "Law of Official Secrets and Classification of Public Information" is so damn scary. It represents strike three for Honduras. In short, what the law does is take away the authority from the Honduran Institute for Access to Public Information (IAIP) and transfers it to the individual ministries and other agencies of government. The reason the IAIP was set up was precisely to have a somewhat neutral and independent body within the government to determine what kind of reports and documents can be made available to the public and what kind -- for security reasons -- should be kept classified.

With the new law, the power to release or not to release information to the public will reside with individual institutions of government and their leaders, opening the way for obvious conflicts of interest and thus even greater tendencies for abuse and corruption. The Law of Official Secrets and Classification of Public Information is akin to passing a law in the United States revoking the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). If you go to the FOIA website at www.foia.gov, you'll see that the description reads: "The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a law that gives you the right to access information from the federal government. It is often described as the law that keeps citizens in the know about their government."

Being able to keep up with all the stuff the US government is doing domestically and abroad is hard enough even with FOIA. Think about what the US government might be tempted to do without FOIA. Same goes for the Honduran government... but to an exaggerated degree, because at least the US has a thoroughly independent Judiciary branch of government and professional and well-organized police departments. Honduras does not. Greater secrecy is just about the last thing Hondurans need from their government.