The Honduran congress voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to send out the armed forces to combat Mexican drug trafficking organizations. The vote gives the military broad domestic policing powers, including additional powers in the fight against the cartels.
According to the United Nations, Honduras has the world's highest murder rate, with more than 82 murders per 100,000 people last year. By comparison, Mexico, where more than 45,000 people have been killed since President Felipe Calderon deployed the military against the cartels there five years ago, has a murder rate of 18 per 100,000 and the US 4.8.
About 20 people a day are murdered in Honduras, and most accounts blame most of the killings on drug cartels smuggling cocaine from South America. Under pressure in their home country, the Mexican cartels have expanded operations throughout Central America. El Salvador and Guatemala are also finding themselves running up against brazen cartel gunman.
The crime problem is aggravated by the existence of violent street gangs, and the national police have proven both ineffectual and corrupt. The move to involve the military in policing comes just after President Porfirio Lobo was forced to begin a purge of the national police, of whom 167 have just been arrested for charges ranging from corruption to murder.
While the Honduran military had already been involved in operations against the cartels, it had been limited to assisting police and could only go on joint operations with police. Soldiers did not have the power of arrest, nor could they collect evidence or send cases to prosecutors.
That has now changed. The military has full domestic policing powers, including making arrests, doing searches, and executing warrants in law enforcement matters. But armed forces spokesman Col. Alcides Flores said the military is not displacing the police, nor is it imitating Mexico, whose armed forces have been sullied by accusations of corruption and human rights violations during its campaign against the cartels.
"The new decree authorizes the armed forces to make captures without a police presence, but we are just augmenting the capacity of the police," he said. "At no time are we replacing the police. And we are not following the Mexican model. We are making a Honduran model," he said.