The uniform of criminals and the state of emergency in Honduras

These are screams or whispers from people who have been abused, robbed, kidnapped, tortured and disappeared by alleged police officers during the state of emergency in Honduras. Authorities claim they are not to blame but rather criminal groups who impersonate police officers. However, victims hold the State responsible, and both the National Human Rights Commission (CONADEH) and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) have documented hundreds of complaints against State security forces.

Text: Célia Pousset
Photography: Fernando Destephen 

Translation: José Rivera

 

When Heidy goes to sleep at night, she dreams that her disappeared son returns home. In her dreams, he says, “Mom, give me something to eat. I’m hungry.” But when she gives him food, he disappears again. She’s alone holding a plate full of food. Then she wakes up and remembers. She remembers quite well; the time, the dates, the license plates on the police patrol, the yelling and the insults, the plantain chips and fried chicken she bought before it all happened. She gives a detailed account of the events over and over again as if a movie were constantly playing in her head. It’s a way of holding on to what she lost and staying strong.

First, she counted the days, then the weeks and now the months. We met Heidy in a city in Honduras exactly one year after the disappearance of her son, whose whereabouts remain unknown. A group of men wearing the uniform of the Police Directorate against Gangs and Organized Crime (Dirección Policial Anti Maras y Pandillas Contra el Crimen Organizado – Dipampco) kidnapped him.

That evening, Heidy was in the bathroom getting ready for church when she heard someone loudly knock at the door. Her 18-year-old son asked, “What’s going on, officer?” and a man on the other side said, “Open the door, you son of a bitch.” Then they heard loud noises. The older son left his room and tried to protect his brother. They heard insults again, and a man said, “Authorities are untouchable.” Heidy was petrified and didn’t leave the bathroom because she had not taken any clothes with her. She heard a struggle and the voice of the officer, “Let’s go, this son of a bitch knows who we are.” A car drove away. “Mom! They took Julio,” her 18-year-old son yelled. She got out of the bathroom; one of her sons was missing, the other one had his hands severely damaged, and her seven-year-old son was hiding and nervously touching the collar of his shirt.

Neighbors say that four men wearing brown vests with Dipampco’s yellow insignia got out of a gray pickup truck with no license plates. A police patrol had driven by the house two minutes before. Heidy’s son said he recognized one of the officers when his ski mask fell to the ground. She looked for her other son at a nearby police station and at Dipampco’s offices and filed a denunciation at the Directorate of Police Investigation (Dirección Policía de Investigación – DPI).  Authorities did not comment on the raid. Officers at a nearby police station made fun of her behind her back, “She should look for him on the sugar plantations, right?” one of them said.

Heidy expanded the search and visited hospitals and morgues but to no avail. At the same time, police began harassing her family. Patrols drove by her house looking for the son who witnessed the events. One day, Heidy’s husband angrily yelled at them, “Isn’t it enough that you kidnapped one of my sons?” A police officer responded, “You’ll see. Be careful.” Three months after Julio’s disappearance, hitmen murdered Heidy’s husband at her house. Then the police arrested the son whose hands sustained severe damage. He was accused of being part of a criminal group and sent to prison and is now awaiting trial.

Since December 2022, Honduras has been going through a state of emergency that has been extended every 45 days. The Secretariat of Security boasts about positive results such as a reduction in homicides by 17 percent. However, constitutional rights, including the inviolability of the home, are not respected, and the government is trying to hide a series of arbitrary actions and crimes under these alleged results.

The day when the state of emergency began, Gustavo Sánchez, then head of National Police, said the goal is to weaken criminal groups but with respect for human rights, “affecting only one percent of the population.” Sánchez is now secretary of security and maintains that the suspension of rights affects only “criminals.” CONADEH told Contracorriente that 2,147 denunciations of abuse of authority, incrimination with false evidence, death threats, inhumane and cruel treatment, forced disappearances, theft and murder have been filed against State security forces since December 2022.

A raid carried out by the Military Police in the Villanueva neighborhood in Tegucigalpa, Honduras’ capital, in May 2023. Photo CC/Fernando Destephen

In addition, a reform of the National Police failed, and authorities have only given an ambiguous discourse about the presence of criminals within institutions. Sánchez issued a statement in mid-March, saying, “Drug traffickers utilized institutions during the administration of former President Juan Orlando Hernández, and it’s a serious issue not to mention it.” He also said that 2,531 officers were removed from the National Police between 2022 and 2023. However, he didn’t comment on the crimes for which these officers were purged or if these are related to denunciations of violent acts filed by the population. On the contrary, he complained that it’s not fair that the police are blamed for all the corruption and problems in the country.

“They come almost every day to our house to hurt us”

Sofía, 25, and Carmen, 23, live in Honduras’ Central District. Six months ago, alleged members of Dipampco began regularly arriving at their house to beat them up and to force Sofía to sell drugs for them. They threatened to “sell” her to the Barrio 18 gang or sent her to prison to die “like the women from PNFAS,” alluding to the massacre that took place in the National Women’s Penitentiary for Social Adaptation (Penitenciaría Nacional Femenina de Adaptación Social – PNFAS) on June 21, 2023, when 46 inmates died, most of whom were identified by the police as members of the MS-13 gang.

Only women and minors live in the house. Visits by Dipampco agents used to occur once every two weeks but now every other day. Visits can take place in the morning, in the afternoon or in the evening and can last several hours.

“More than eight men come. They cover their faces and wear brown vests with yellow letters. They show their badges when they come in. They tell us to take off our clothes except our underwear and to do squats. It’s embarrassing. They tell us to take off the baby’s diaper to make sure we’re not hiding drugs there. They put black bags over our heads and tighten them to torture us. If we scream, they take us to prison and the children to the Directorate of Childhood, Adolescents and Family (Dirección de Niñez, Adolescencia y Familia – Dinaf). They tell the children that they are going to be raped there, so they cry when they hear that,” Sofía said with a tired voice.

Agents of the Police Directorate against Gangs and Organized Crime (Dipampco) during a raid in Tegucigalpa in May 2023. Photo CC/Fernando Destephen

Sofía has dark circles under her eyes because she hasn’t slept well for months. The persecution she has experienced has led her to poverty; she has had to sleep on the streets to not put her family at risk. The police are specifically looking for her as if it were a sick game of cats chasing mice where she’s not captured but at the same time she cannot escape. The women who live at that house were identified as members of the MS-13 gang because their relatives died in the massacre of June 21. “They tell us, ‘Bitches, you are going to prison, where your sisters were burned alive,’ ” she said.

“Stop hitting them or we’ll call HCH (a Honduran news outlet),” neighbors said once, trying to intervene, but the police wrote down their names to scare them. Sofía and Carmen don’t know why those officers are so cruel or where they could go to escape from them. But they believe their connection to the victims of the prison massacre makes them a target, or the police are trying to meet arrest quotas in their neighborhood required by the state of emergency.

According to data provided by CONADEH, since the state of emergency began, State security forces have been allegedly involved in 10 forced disappearances, 21 murders, 18 homicides, two femicides and 14 forced displacements. Furthermore, CONADEH’s report on gender violence during the state of emergency points out that Dipampco is the first institution suspected of violating the rights of girls, adolescents and women. The report describes the case of a woman who was kidnapped by Dipampco agents for 24 hours. According to her testimony, police officers forced her into the patrol and demanded money from her. The report also reveals that petitioners usually ask for help finding relatives who have been arrested during the raids but whose whereabouts are unknown.

Military Police of Public Order (Policía Militar de Orden Público – PMOP) agents during a night raid in Tegucigalpa in May 2023. Photo CC/Fernando Destephen

According to Iliana Licona, investigator at CONADEH, the state of emergency exposes girls and women to State violence because the inviolability of the home is suspended. “Police are allowed to go inside houses when they carry out raids even without an arrest warrant. Most of the time women are alone or with minors, as they usually take care of household chores. Most women who file denunciations live alone and in a state of vulnerability because their partners have been arrested. One of the victims who filed a denunciation says that after her partner was arrested, police officers returned to her house and sexually abused her in the presence of minors,” Licona said.

A social worker at a juvenile court agreed to talk to us on the condition of anonymity. She said she has seen people, mostly young men arrested during the state of emergency, with clear signs of torture. “I have seen young men whose nails have been removed or with cigarette burns on their skin. There is a pattern of torture since many claim to have been suffocated with plastic bags and sometimes with lime while being hit in the stomach,” she said.

“Police officers are carrying out the tortures and they bring young men to the court with a report from the Prosecutor’s Office, who I think are accomplices because they never ask about the minors’ health. No one is stopping the abuses and the violence, as if it were completely normal,” she added.

Reports on abuses during the state of emergency are still coming out. The United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner  (OHCHR) published the report Situation of Human Rights in Honduras on March 19, 2024. The report states that at least seven forced disappearances, five extrajudicial killings, four cases of torture and one of sexual violence were documented by the office in 2023. Complaints of illegal detentions, abuses during forcible entries without court orders, especially in the departments of Cortés, Yoro and Francisco Morazán, were also documented.

The social worker who talked to us confirmed the data from the report. She noticed “inconsistencies” in statements from the police, particularly the circumstances that led to the arrests that she processed. “They already know what to say; they always give the same account, ‘We were patrolling the area when we suddenly noticed a male suspect dressed in a certain way who tried to run as soon as he saw the police.’ It’s a lie,” she said. In fact, when she interviews the alleged offenders, she realizes that they were arrested in their houses past midnight after the police break the doors.

Heidy found out that the report on the arrest of her son who had recognized the officer was not accurate. The report was submitted to the Prosecutor’s Office and stated that her son was arrested at 9 a.m., but the arrest in fact took place at 3 a.m.

Heidy hasn’t trusted the police for a long time, but when her husband was murdered, she became more suspicious. She’s convinced that the National Police are involved. 

On the evening of the murder, she and her sons went out to buy candy at a nearby store, and her husband stayed in the house alone. Half a block away from her house, she heard gunshots, and the neighbors yelled, “They killed Heidy’s son!” But he said, “No, I’m right here!” She ran back to the house and found her husband dead. The police arrived two minutes later like “angels coming to our rescue,” Heidy said with irony in her voice.

The police said they were patrolling the area when they heard the gunshots. They made the report and stayed at Heidy’s house while she and her sons took him to the hospital. When she returned, she noticed some things had been stolen.

One vest and too many crimes

At Dipampco’s main offices in Tegucigalpa, Mario Fu, spokesperson for the institution, stood up and showed the bulletproof vest, “Look, our vest is different. It’s similar but not exactly the same.” He had just shown a video from June 2023 in which men wearing the institution’s vest got out of a pickup truck to rob a business in the February 21st neighborhood in Tegucigalpa. “You can see that they were not properly trained by the police,” he said, referring to their awkward movements.

Fu firmly denies any involvement of Dipampco agents in acts of violence against the population. “We have been issuing warnings for weeks about a group that’s using similar uniforms. Criminal groups are trying to discredit our institution,” said Fu, who has been spokesperson for Dipampco since it was called the National Anti-Gang Force (Fuerza Nacional Anti Maras y Pandillas – FNAMP) and was led by the military. Fu says they received six denunciations of forcible entries allegedly conducted by members of the institution in Tegucigalpa in a one-year period: one case in La Laguna, two in the village of La Cuesta, three in sector Emmanuel and Río Abajo. “These cases are being investigated, but Dipampco was not involved in any of them,” he added.

Dipampco agents carrying out a raid in Tegucigalpa as part of the state of emergency in Honduras, May 2023. Photo CC/Fernando Destephen

In one case, victims said that the alleged Dipampco agents arrived at their house and acted “aggressively” while looking for family members without “presenting an arrest warrant.” Fu insists that there are criminal groups in the areas where these events take place. He says it’s very easy to obtain military or police equipment in stores, and criminal groups could rent pickup trucks similar to those of the police. He affirmed that they’re investigating “individuals who obtain police apparel, on which they add a homemade embroidery to make it look authentic.”

At Police Honduras, a store located in Tegucigalpa and owned by a DPI agent, police apparel and equipment is sold. One of the sales representatives said that products are available to civilians, but if they want to purchase police hats, insignias and name tags, they should identify themselves as members of the police. Any citizen can buy pants, boots, brass knuckles, the Punisher logo (used by the “Tigres,” a special military police unit), and bulletproof vests, which are thinner, have a low neckline and are different from those of the police.

Silence from authorities and the usual explanation that “criminal groups are posing as State security forces” doesn’t stand scrutiny when new cases are investigated and reported by the press. For instance, the murder of Wilson Pérez and the kidnapping of a trans woman (by alleged members of Dipampco), both in San Pedro Sula, or the massacre at a billiard hall in Choloma, a crime attributed to the Barrio 18 gang in which arrested perpetrators had Dipampco apparel in their possession.

When asked about the police abuse, Sánchez said that the National Anti-Gang Force (Fuerza Nacional Anti Maras y Pandillas — FNAMP), led by the military, are responsible for actions carried out by purged police officers and not Dipampco, which is led by the police. He mentioned the murder of Wilson Pérez in San Pedro Sula, although when it took place, the institution was led by the National Police and not the Armed Forces.

Serving and protecting crime

On March 12, 2023, around 150 former police officers gathered outside the Presidential Palace with banners, demanding a meeting with Honduran President Xiomara Castro. “The commission responsible for purging the police played a key role in dismissing officers who obstructed activities of the Hernández Cartel,” one of the banners read. The group is just a handful of the 6,000 police officers removed from their positions by the Special Commission for the Purging and Reformation of the National Police (Comisión Especial para la Depuración y Transformación de la Policía Nacional) in 2016.

The police reformation was pushed after active members of the National Police committed various murders. For example, the son of Julieta Castellanos, then president of the National Autonomous University of Honduras, and Arístides González, “the anti-drug czar of Honduras,” who was murdered at a police station. Although this process is necessary, it was corrupted and questioned for not following established procedures to correctly determine the responsibilities of purged police officers. Pretrial hearings were not allowed and only a few cases were submitted to the Attorney General’s Office for further investigation. Sánchez says it’s a maneuver by Tigre Bonilla to get rid of the competition. Bonilla is the former head of Honduras’ National Police who pleaded guilty to drug trafficking charges in New York in February 2024.

Members of the Organization of Illegally Dismissed Police Officers (Organización de Policías Despedidos Ilegalmente – OPDI) are taking advantage of Hernández’ conviction in the U.S. and say they are “victims” of law enforcement policy implemented by drug traffickers. They demand that the Supreme Court addresses pending denunciations and the National Congress discusses a draft bill presented by congressional representative Eduardo Díaz Velásquez that would supposedly restore their rights.

The group of purged police officers are by no means “saints,” as they themselves have acknowledged. But it’s perhaps one of the few groups that accept police corruption and connections to organized crime. We spoke to a former commissioner who had been working for more than 22 years when he was dismissed. He says that the police provide uniforms and guns to criminal groups, who take care of the dirty work for them. He mentioned an interesting case that involves two heavyweights of organized crime: Los Cachiros and Tigre Bonilla.

According to the former commissioner, Hernández wanted to kill the Rivera Maradiaga brothers, leaders of Los Cachiros, in 2013. National Police gave uniforms and weapons to Los Cachiros’ rival cartel, the Atlantic Cartel, to carry out the killings. But the operation did not go according to plan because he and other police officers seized a pickup truck full of police and military uniforms of different ranks and military-grade weapons in northern Honduras. They apprehended the driver, a member of the Atlantic Cartel known as Misko. “Three days later, Tigre Bonilla called me to his office in Tegucigalpa. He asked me if I thought I was in charge of the National Police and if I wanted to die,” the former commissioner recalls. Bonilla also asked him why he was not informed of the operation and why the case was forwarded to the Prosecutor’s Office if they were not ordered to do so.

The former commissioner understood that Tigre Bonilla was threatening him. Two police officers who participated in the raid were murdered. Misko was released and asked the U.S. embassy for help to leave the country.

The State, which has been protecting criminals, reached the highest level of corruption during Hernández’ two presidential terms. But corruption is still present. Criminal groups’ choke hold on the National Police remains, and authorities hesitate to admit the depth of such a systemic problem, which goes beyond the arrest of Tigre Bonilla, Mauricio Hernández Pineda and other former police officers serving time in the U.S.

We met with an active member of Dipampco in a coffee shop in Tegucigalpa. He’s dressed as a civilian, is wearing sunglasses and seems a bit mistrustful. The conversation shifted between how proud he is of his work and feeling resignation about the “corruption” within the institution. He admits that he cannot trust his colleagues because “nobody knows who’s working for criminal groups. We all suspect one another. I pretend to be part of a criminal group to find out more about my colleagues…” He doesn’t finish the sentence. He’s looking for something on his phone but cannot find it. He continues, “A few months ago, a photo of us was leaked. We found it on the phone of a gang member we had arrested.” The photo was taken at the office and showed the faces of police officers who were cleaning. The investigation to determine who released the photo was inconclusive. He says that when there’s suspicion about an agent, they’re simply reassigned.

Before joining Dipampco, the police officer was in another division in a different part of the country. He led a unit there. He told us that a leader of the MS-13 gang offered him 40,000 lempiras (around $1,600) per week in exchange for not meddling in the gang’s activities. But he never responded to the gang leader. They seized a cocaine laboratory that belonged to that gang a few months later. “Criminal groups always try to bribe high-ranking officials, and that’s why some of them are part of those groups. When high-ranking officials are involved, there’s not much that can be done. We are either part of the institution or without a job. We follow orders and sometimes conduct raids in locations where it doesn’t make sense in order to allow drugs through,” he explained.

The trail of impunity is long. The Dipampco officer said that two police officers and an official “kidnapped and murdered” a young boy in San Pedro Sula a couple of years ago. The perpetrators were sent to prison, but that is not always the case. “Sometimes police officers are arrested and they say they know the prosecutors and the judges, who are going to release them,” he said. According to the officer, it’s necessary to create a unit in the Attorney General’s Office that independently investigates police officers and vice versa.

We asked Sánchez about the current collusion between members of the National Police and organized crime, and he responded, “We’re not denying the corruption, but the problem is across the board and affects multiple institutions in the country. It’s a mistake to assume the National Police is solely to blame.”

Cases piling up at the Attorney General’s Office

A group of more than 30 campesinos gathered outside the Attorney General’s Office on February 12, 2024. Not so much fear but indignation could be heard in their voices. They come from Río Abajo, a village close to Tegucigalpa, to file a denunciation at the Attorney General’s Office. A few days before, individuals wearing the Dipampco uniform broke into the farmers’ cooperative and stole money from several members of the community.

A group of campesinos from the village of Río Abajo filing a denunciation at the Attorney General’s Office in Tegucigalpa in February 2024. Photo CC/Fernando Destephen

The alleged police officers knocked on the door of María Elena’s house at 5 a.m. She asked them to wait so she could get dressed but they didn’t listen to her. They entered the house and told her, “You whore, where do you keep the drugs?” They thought she was a “leader of the MS-13 gang” and told her to sit down for an interrogation. She wasn’t properly dressed and had to cover herself with a towel. They didn’t find anything. They went to her sister’s house and stole the money she had saved for her children’s school supplies. Then, they broke into another house of the farmers’ cooperative and stole more than 7,000 lempiras (around $280).

 

“Madame President, who are the individuals robbing the population with weapons and uniforms from the State? Do you pay them? Do you pay them to rob the money we earn from work and save in order to survive? Madame President, I’m 53 years old, and this is too much for me. Authorities say they’re looking for gang members and people who extort, but you’re looking in the wrong place because the real criminals are those who were appointed to protect the population. Please get rid of those corrupt police officers who steal and torture. Our children are terrorized and they cannot see a police officer without shaking in fear. I ask wholeheartedly that you purge corrupt police officers!” demanded María Helena when we talked to her at her house, which is located between plantain and corn fields. Other people whisper but she yells. And she’s not the only one.

A campesina narrates the events that took place during a raid by alleged State security forces in Honduras’ Central District. February 2024. Photo CC/ Fernando Destephen.

Denunciations against members of State security forces are piling up at the Attorney General’s Office. Between 2023 and 2024, the Office received 295 denunciations (243 in 2023 and 52 in 2024) that hold State security forces responsible for “abuse of authority, threats, theft, cruel and degrading treatment, falsely reporting crimes, attempted homicide and attempted rape.”

Of the 295 denunciations, most were filed against police officers of different ranks and divisions, and 63 were filed against military officers. Two officials at the Human Rights Directorate of the Secretariat of Defense (Dirección de Derechos Humanos de la Secretaría de Defensa) told Contracorriente that they are unaware of those denunciations and of the 125 complaints filed at CONADEH by civilians against members of the Armed Forces since December 2022.

Such denunciations rarely lead to changes within the National Police and Armed Forces or to a judicial process. Only 28 members of State security forces were indicted in 2023 and none in 2024.

Last year, María Helena filed another denunciation of abuse against alleged police officers, but authorities didn’t follow up on the case. On the official denunciation of January 2023, the account is similar to what she experienced again one year later: “The victim says that members of the National Police and Dipampco forcibly entered her house, breaking the front door, yesterday at around 5:40 a.m. They went into the rooms and looked through the clothes. The victim asked if they had a court order, but they said they didn’t need one and they could come and go as they please.” She filed another denunciation on February 12, 2024. Both events took place during the state of emergency.

Mario Fu knows about the case of the farmers’ cooperative and firmly maintains that the attackers are not members of the institution but individuals posing as such. He explained that the area is of strategic interest to “criminal groups” because it leads to the only highway that connects to the department of Olancho, where “weapons trafficking has a significant presence.”

Since there’s no clear response by institutions, María Helena’s perception remains the same: police officers are criminals, and criminals are police officers. At the very least, they both act the same.

Heidy and her seven-year-old son recently moved to a new house. The walls inside are pink. She wakes up every day without understanding why God allowed her family to be taken away. Sometimes she doesn’t want to wake up, but she has to take care of her younger son, who now pulls the collar of his shirts to calm his anxiety. Heidy got him a dozen t-shirts, and he ruined all of them. They are both experiencing the grief of forced disappearances, murder and persecution. They take refuge and hide from the police at this house to avoid becoming witnesses under threat. This is yet another Honduran family torn apart by violence.

The names of the victims were not disclosed to protect their identities.

This investigation was carried out in collaboration with the Consortium to Support Independent Journalism in Latin America (CAPIR), which is led by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR).

Sobre
Journalist recently graduated from Sciences Po Rennes School of Journalism (France), I have worked on issues of gender, justice and inequality in Guatemala and El Salvador, I have ventured into the radio documentary in France on migration.

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