In April, 2016, a team of six individuals was given the enormous and unenviable task of evaluating all 14,000 of Honduras’ police officers and determining which of them could stay in the new force, and which had to go.
The Commission, made up of two AJS staff members and two AJS board members, alongside a former Congressman and a former Supreme Court justice, has spent the past year doing careful analysis, making difficult decisions, and pressing forward in the effort to reform Honduras’ broken police force to a robust and trustworthy institution.
This work comes with many challenges and few personal rewards – none of the Commission members receive pay, and most work a “day job.” Alberto Solórzano, an AJS board member, pastors the largest evangelical church in Honduras. Omar Rivera leads government advocacy for AJS, while Carlos Hernández is president of the growing organization, managing dozens of different studies, programs, and initiatives in pursuit of a more peaceful and transparent Honduras.
For a year, these brave volunteers have continued wading through thousands of allegations of crime and corruption, meeting with government and international leaders, and designing changes to the police force that will keep it more efficient and accountable.
In Tegucigalpa, in a house-turned-office that serves as one of AJS’s overflow workspaces, a small team is helping to make this work possible.
In a converted bedroom that still has a clothes rack in the closet, boxes of files and documents carpet almost every square foot between the desks of Mario Cañas and Russlan Espinal, two legal experts who lead AJS’s technical support for the Police Reform Commission.
As the Commission evaluates hundreds of officers at a time, Cañas and Espinal perform the essential work of revising and summarizing dense legal documents for the Commission’s review. They regularly convert roughly 500 pages of legal background into concise one-to-two-page summaries with specific recommendations for action.
To assist in their evaluation of officers, the Commission requested information related to active officers from civil and criminal courts, the Attorney General’s office, as well as disciplinary records and personnel files from the police and Ministry of Security.
It’s likely, Espinal notes, that this is the first time this information has all been in one place.
Due to weak information management systems, a police officer could be accused of robbery in a criminal case, domestic violence in a civil case, and illicit enrichment in a government auditing court – without any of these cases ever finding their way to his personnel file. As AJS collects, organizes, and streamlines this information, it creates a foundation not only for determining whether officers should be fired, but also a useful social auditing tool to hold police accountable in the future.
In the evaluation process, having an independent entity like AJS in charge of summarizing information for the Commission has been critical.
“These are very delicate themes,” said Cañas, “they require discretion and trust, and the Commission cannot trust everyone in the Ministry of Security”.
Previously, incriminating information went “missing” before making it to review, or was sometimes guarded, by supervisors’ orders, under lock and key.
This is why AJS’s role in Police Reform is so essential – as an independent organization without ties to the government, they can ensure that no information is being distorted or hidden.
In addition, “This gives us more freedom in the summaries we are making,” said Cañas, “We aren’t worried about how this is going to affect members of the police, and that gives us more freedom to express everything that we find.”
Cañas has worked for years as a human rights lawyer, and, in his past, has worked with the police, the courts, and the Attorney General’s office. While he “suspected” much of what is now coming to light, what shocked him was the realization that rather than specific cases of corruption, that “the police were part of the very structure of organized crime.”
One report came to ALAC of a certain high-ranking officer who, “participated and conspired with the head of the MS-13 gang, and gave him weapons from the police storehouse.”
In another instance, a major drug trafficker travelled around in Honduras protected by his own police escorts.
“There were criminals in charge of the investigation of criminals,” said Cañas.
For AJS, uncovering the depths of past corruption can be discouraging, but discouragement is far outweighed by the hope that through current reforms, the police force will be completely transformed.
“I believe that we’re supporting Honduras,” says 21-year-old Edwin Flores, part of the team that scans and compiles information on police officers, “We know that this work implies risks, but we also know that we’re doing our piece to change the country.”
BUILDING HOPE – GROWING JUSTICE
AJS staff work diligently on this task because they believe in the importance of police reform and its role in creating a country that can adequately respond to high levels of crime and violence. “We would do this work in any place,” said Espinal. But, he also noted, “We’re not working in the best conditions,”
“The nature of our work requires a lot of privacy,” Cañas added, “which is different from other programs that require constant contact with beneficiaries. We need places to speak with people privately.”
In the converted house where they work, the only meeting spaces have windows that open out to the entrance, which means “it’s difficult to talk freely,” particularly as staff from other programs enter and leave the building.
Confidentiality of the documents they’re working with is another concern. A locked file cabinet serves as a temporary home for the most sensitive documents, but they’re worried about the level of security, particularly as other groups host meetings in the same building.
We dream about a building that offers privacy, security, and collaborative space for sensitive work like this.
After receiving death threats, and even an attempt on their life, Commission members like Carlos Hernández and Omar Rivera require special measures of protection for their office and meeting spaces. These special needs are also shared by other collaborators such as witnesses, informants, and legal experts who are supporting the reform process.
Our new office will include office space designed for the unique needs of all of our different programs. Security features including access cards and monitoring cameras will restrict access to more sensitive spaces and add an extra layer of protection for AJS beneficiaries and staff.
The new office will also include protected spaces to store sensitive documents, and meeting spaces with separate entrances for individuals who need to protect their identity.
This building will directly facilitate the difficult technical work of police reform, providing an adequate space with the ability to bring people together comfortably and safely as they develop a police force that will protect and serve their country.