Honduras fires top cop dogged by death squad claim

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Associated Press

Posted on December 19, 2013 at 11:32 PM

Updated Thursday, Dec 19 at 11:35 PM

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) — President Porfirio Lobo on Thursday fired Honduras' national police chief, who has long faced accusations he ran death squads when he was a lower-level officer and whose force has been hit with frequent abuse claims.

Lobo said he made the decision to remove Gen. Juan Carlos Bonilla in consultations with President-elect Juan Orlando Hernandez, who takes office Jan. 27.

Neither Lobo nor the incoming president explained the reasons for the firing. But the step had been expected with the change in administration as Hernandez has expressed skepticism of efforts to weed out corrupt officers and shake up the National Police, which is the only police force in Honduras. Bonilla also indicated he was interested in leaving.

"We are making these changes now, because we are in the planning phase to have a successful start on Jan. 27," Hernandez said.

As chief, Bonilla has been the U.S. government's go-to man in Honduras for the war on drug trafficking, although the past charges have dogged him and the State Department denied it worked directly with a man also known as "the Tiger."

Bonilla was indicted in 2002 for alleged human rights violations stemming from accusations he led a social cleansing campaign that killed criminals while he was a regional police chief. A court acquitted him of one alleged death squad killing, and Honduras' Supreme Court upheld the verdict in 2009.

In August 2012, Lobo named him chief of Honduras' National Police department, which faces frequent allegations of beating, killing and "disappearing" people who are detained. Bonilla has run all policing, from planning operations to directing investigations and even approving travel abroad for training and vehicle repairs.

Bonilla "was the only high-ranking official without known ties to organized crime," said Arabeska Sanchez, who is an investigator with the University Institute of Peace and Security and a teacher at the country's Police Academy. "He remains under suspicion because it is impossible to know if he is implicated in state policies of human rights violations that have occurred close to him."

In a wide-ranging conversation with The Associated Press earlier this year, the 49-year-old five-star general denied the accusations against him, and said that he was in no way responsible for a rash of gang members who disappeared after being arrested.

"I can't be on top of everything. Sometimes things will escape me. I'm human," Bonilla told the AP.

Bonilla referred frequently to the support he receives from the U.S. Embassy for police operations.

The claim of a close relationship ran counter to a memo sent by the State Department to Congress shortly after Bonilla was named police chief, saying it was aware of the human rights allegations against him. The U.S. government says it has no relations with him.

His replacement will be Commissioner Ramon Sabillon, who said that he expects to talk to Bonilla about the job and the state of security in Honduras.

"We are ready to establish important and necessary communication with citizens so that they help us and we help them with respect to social needs and security," said Sabillon.

Honduras serves as a way station for most South American cocaine bound for the U.S. The deeply poor nation of 8 million people has one of the world's highest homicide rates. Corruption is rampant and the rule of law is weak.

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Associated Press writer Alberto Arce in Managua, Nicaragua, contributed to this report.

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