- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 9, 2002

SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras It was only several years ago that steamy, palm-speckled San Pedro Sula was safe and tranquil.

Today, soldiers in camouflage patrol the city's crime-ravaged streets. Some business executives and their families go out in armored cars, others with an escort vehicle full of bodyguards tailing them. Some people here have more personal security than the country's president.

Honduras, especially San Pedro Sula, has been experiencing a crime wave since the late 1990s. But the last straw, many here say, came about a month ago with the slaying of a former economic minister.

After collecting their ransom, the kidnappers dumped the rope-bound body of Reginaldo Panting on a dead-end street, two weeks after they had ambushed him at the gates of his vast San Pedro Sula estate.

After this high-profile crime, authorities have given the police more powers to search private homes. Congress is debating further steps to increase police power and is considering suspending citizens' constitutional liberties in the San Pedro Sula area.

The actions have provoked a debate between those clamoring for the government to be tough on crime and human rights activists who fear a slide back to the dark era of the 1980s and 1990s, when military units accused of kidnapping and "disappearing" Marxist suspects operated with impunity.

"I am very worried about this," said Ramon Custodiao, the government's human rights ombudsman. "The police can't do their job right, and the government wants to give them more resources and power? There is no guarantee that they are going to combat crime more efficiently, and there is the danger that they will commit abuses."

Unlike Guatemala and El Salvador, which have long been plagued by gang violence and organized crime, Honduras had until recently enjoyed low crime levels.

San Pedro Sula is the country's industrial and commercial center and home to its wealthiest people. It has long been a beacon of development and optimism in this poor nation. But today, it is equally as well-known as the focal point of crime including gang violence, bank robberies and kidnappings.

"We are all very worried. Every day, you go out wondering if you are going to make it home alive," said San Pedro Sula businessman Tito Guillen. Crime has yet to reach the levels of neighboring Guatemala and El Salvador.

Nonetheless, the increase in crime has Hondurans worried. A recent poll showed that Hondurans consider crime to be the No. 1 problem facing the country, topping poverty and unemployment.

Of all crimes, kidnappings have shown the most dramatic rise during the past several years from 3 in 1997 to 37 last year and this has the country's rich and powerful increasingly concerned.

The 1997 kidnapping and killing of current President Ricardo Maduro's only son in San Pedro Sula shocked the nation. It ignited a massive protest in this north coast city to demand that the government address the growing crime problem.

About four years later, Mr. Maduro's promise to get tough on crime catapulted him to the highest office in the land.

The legacy of the nation's authoritarian past and process of democratization are widely considered to be at the root of the crime problem.

While Honduras shifted from military rule to democracy in the early 1980s, it was only in 1994 that the government began the process of separating the police force from the military, a process that took several years to complete.

A tainted past of police human rights violations resulted in low budgets and little government support or interest in strengthening the fledgling civilian police force. Many say that the investigative unit of the police was so debilitated in the transition that there developed an intelligence vacuum, which became an open invitation for organized crime to set up shop in Honduras.

U.S. government aid for the police, some say, was limited by similar concerns. While the United States pushed for the creation of a civilian police force, an American Embassy official says, it was reluctant to aid a police establishment with a spotty human rights record.

While in Washington recently, Mr. Maduro made a plea to U.S. authorities for more support for the fight against crime. In the opinion of the embassy official, supporting the creation of a modern and professional police force would be the best investment the United States could make in Honduras.

"The syndrome of the Cold War affected us all, and we wanted to put an end to anything and everything related to those times. We wound up leaving ourselves unprotected," said Congress member Pompeo Bonilla.

Some here worry that Cold War battles against Marxist insurgencies are not far enough in the past at least when it comes to the police. They fear increasing the powers of a police force that has yet to shake what they call a military mentality.

In January, there were 400 police officers in San Pedro Sula, a city of roughly 600,000 people.

Mr. Maduro took office that month, promising to crack down on crime. He put the army on the streets in joint patrols with police, increased the number of police officers and raised police salaries.

The moves were well-received by Hondurans, and common crimes that mostly affect lower-income neighborhoods have dropped.

Mr. Maduro's administration has increased the police force in San Pedro Sula to 1,005 officers, but authorities say more are needed.

There are 7,000 police officers in a country that authorities say needs 26,000.

Security Vice Minister Oscar Alvarez agrees with government critics that the solution is not simply more police, but better police. To that end, he says, the Maduro administration has upped salaries, beefed up the security budget and is modernizing the police-training program.

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