With the departure of Honduran Security Minister Oscar Alvarez, an outspoken foe of police corruption, the country is facing an uphill battle as it grapples with attempts to reform its notorious police force.
In a surprise move, the administration of President Porfirio Lobo announced late Saturday night that it had accepted Mr. Alvarez's resignation. Up until now, he had been seen as one of the president’s closest and most influential advisers. While officials are claiming that the resignation was voluntary, Alvarez was joined by Foreign Minister Mario Canahuati as well as several other ministers and deputy ministers, suggesting they were dismissed as part of a major shake-up.
Indeed, on September 9, Mr. Lobo had announced that he would be making changes to his government, due to his "concern" about the country’s deepening security crisis. The president said that he planned to involve himself “directly in the subject of security with much more energy and force.”
However, the politics behind the move suggest something different entirely. According to La Tribuna, an anonymous source claims that Alvarez's departure was the result of tension between his office and the leadership of the National Police. Allegedly, the top officials in the police force threatened to quit en masse if Alvarez was not forced out of office.
This was likely sparked by Alvarez’s repeated attempts to purge the police of corrupt elements, something which he has become known for in recent years. Indeed, in February 2010, Alvarez shared his doubts over the integrity of the police force in person with InSight Crime. According to him, the police are now more thoroughly infiltrated by criminal groups than at any point in history, as evidenced by the fact that there have been several cases of police working for local mafia groups.
The tone of his rhetoric on police reform has become more and more confrontational. He made waves on August 17 by announcing that there was high-level corruption in the police, which he followed up by presenting a draft law to Congress to allow the immediate removal of police suspected of corruption. But perhaps his most outspoken indictment of the police force came on September 1, when he publicly called on National Police director Jose Luis Muñoz Licona to fire 10 police officials who he claimed were acting as “air traffic control men” for drug flights.
Such aggressive proclamations fueled tension between Alvarez and the police leadership, and doubtlessly contributed to his removal. Alvarez himself insinuated as much in the press conference following his resignation. "I didn't have the economic support," Alvarez said. "I was affecting big interests of drug trafficking, money laundering, and kidnapping." According to the Associated Press, when a reporter asked Alvarez if he was stepping down because of pressure from police against his anti-corruption drive, he responded: "Those of you who are good investigative journalists should find out.”
With Alvarez gone, the administration has lost its largest crusader against police corruption, an extremely pressing issue for Honduras. Bribery is a common feature of the country's police forces, and many Hondurans are accustomed to paying extralegal fees, known as “mordidas,” to resolve traffic fines and other issues. On top of this, police have been implicated in far more serious crimes, often with links to organized crime. Members of the police have been arrested for running kidnapping rings, robbing banks, and organizing extortion rackets which prey on local businesses.
However, there appear to be other forces in play. Alvarez is very popular in Honduras, and is considered to be a potential presidential candidate for the 2013 elections. Within 24 hours of his resignation, the ex-minister had fled the country to the United States, because, he says, he fears for his life. While his departure from office seems clearly to have been sparked by his tensions with the National Police, it is not clear how much he is actually at risk, or what else may be behind the story.
--- Geoffrey Ramsey is a writer for Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region. Find all of his research here.