The brief refusal of Honduran police to enforce a curfew in the wake of violence over disputed presidential elections stunned observers this week and was celebrated as a rare sign of democratic restraint in a country notorious for police brutality.
It also sparked debate as to whether the police action could partly be attributed to a multi-million dollar U.S. government program to train Honduran police to better combat drug and gang-fueled violence that has stained the country with one of the world’s highest murder rates, as well as provoking a massive wave of migration to the U.S.-Mexico border.
In an effort to slow the migration, the former administration of President Barack Obama created a regional initiative that has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to improve law enforcement training, violence prevention, counter-narcotics and judicial systems in Central America's so-called Northern Triangle: the violence-plagued countries of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
Last year alone, the U.S. Congress approved $200 million in funding for Honduras in 2016, mostly for justice and law enforcement training, violence prevention and counternarcotics. A share of that went to training of elite police units who were at the forefront of this week's police rebellion.
“We want peace, and we will not follow government orders – we’re tired of this,” a police spokesman told reporters outside the national police headquarters on Monday night. “We aren’t with a political ideology. We can’t keep confronting people, and we don’t want to repress and violate the rights of the Honduran people,” he added.
Crowds of anti-government protesters greeted the announcement with cheers. Extraordinary scenes were broadcast on TV of people singing - and even praying - with police.
The police were disobeying orders by the government of president, Juan Orlando Hernández, to enforce a curfew designed to quell anti-government protests after suspicions of fraud over the Nov. 26 presidential election. An initial partial vote count had shown opposition candidate Salvador Nasralla ahead by 5%. But after the vote count was briefly halted by an unexplained computer glitch, Hernández, had suspiciously taken the lead.
Ironically, Hernández is a close ally of the United States and his government has closely cooperated with Washington on law enforcement and migration policy. But his presidency has been marred by allegations of corruption.
Educated in Chile, Nasralla, 64, is a popular TV game show host and sportscaster of Palestinian descent, part of a large and wealthy Honduran-Arab business community. A political novice, making his first bid for public office on a vague anti-corruption platform. Considered a showman and entertainer, critics question his leftist leanings and lack of coherent policies.
"There's a lot of pent up anger against Hernández, the corruption and his concentration of power," said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington DC think tank, referring to the way in which Hernández had the constitution changed to allow him to seek re-election.
Before the election The Economist magazine obtained a tape of what appears to be a training session for poll workers with Hernández’s National Party, in which they are instructed on various fraud techniques.
Electoral authorities on Tuesday announced the final vote count had Hernández ahead by 1.5%, but declined to declare a winner due to a recount of disputed ballots.
"There's a lot of ground for suspicion. It doesn't smell good the way it was done," said Shifter.
Hernández sought to head off the police discontent by ordering election overtime payments on Wednesday as well as pledging to increase basic salaries. Police returned to normal duties on Tuesday night, though curfew was cut back from 6pm to 8pm, until 5am.
To be sure, pay and work conditions (especially exhaustion after days of protests) were a factor in the police decision to stand down. But it was unclear how much financial questions were at the root of the police strike.
Speaking at the gate to a police special forces base, Javier Diaz of the national police told AFP, "the only interest of the low-ranking police was respect for the rights of all Honduran citizens." He added: "We are not going to repress the people. We are going to prevent Honduras from falling into chaos."
Earlier a member of the Cobras anti-riot squad told reporters: “This is not a strike, this not about salaries or money. It’s that we have family. We are tired. And our job is to give peace and security to the Honduran people, not repress them. We want all Hondurans to be safe.”
The police also said they were angry about injuries suffered by colleagues shot while they were enforcing the curfew on Sunday night.
"We have done a lot of training to bring these units up to speed in their capacity and human rights," said Frank Mora, director of the Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University (FIU) and a former deputy assistant secretary at the Pentagon in Obama's first administration 2009-2013. "I like to think that all the training had an effect. they seem to be acting in defense of the people."
The training included human rights, crime scene management, community policing, and police combat training, he said. While it was funded through the State Department's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL), training was carried out by Colombia's crack police anti-narcotics commandos, known as the 'Junglas'.
Part of the solution
"For several years, U.S. sponsored assistance to the Honduran National Police has focused on strengthening their ability to effectively serve the communities they work in and on reforming the institution so that they are part of the solution for Honduras' problems," a State Department spokesperson for Western Hemisphere Affairs told Univision News.
"All U.S. training programs for the Honduran National Police incorporate respect for civilians and human rights as essential functions of the police," the spokesperson added. "We believe this training has led to an improved response by the national police in the current situation."
U.S. officials cite the example of one U.S.-supported elite police unit, the TIGRES, a Quick Reaction Force. "The TIGRES are known for exercising restraint when conducting high-stress operations, a product of U.S.-sponsored training," the spokesperson said. They also receive first aid training and act as first responders at protests.
The Honduran police revolt began when more than 200 members of the elite U.S.-trained Cobra riot police. A statement issued in the name of the National Police said the officers were upset with the government over a political crisis that they had no wish to be drawn into.
“Our people are sovereign,” a member of the COBRAS told Reuters, reading the statement. “We cannot confront and repress their rights.”
The extent of the police action was still unclear, said Adriana Beltrán, with the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), who monitors judicial reform and policing. "There are unconfirmed reports of some units tear gassing other units," she said.
Honduras has been implementing a purge to clean up police ranks and some of those who joined the strike action were young, recently graduated officers who would have gone through the U.S.-funded training program, she said. "There have also been complaints of low salaries," she added.
The police action potentially turned the tables on Hernández and came shortly after international observers called for Honduran voting authorities to carry out a recount.
A preliminary report by the 82-member observer team from the Organization of American States (OAS) found a series of anomalies in the election, from incomplete voting data to failure to observe correct protocols to secure the election returns. "The tight margin of the results, as well as the irregularities, errors and systemic problems that have surrounded this election, do not allow the Mission to hold certainty about the results," the OAS announced on Tuesday.
U.S. members of Congress also began to weigh in this week. "The process has been so lacking in transparency, so fraught with irregularities and inexplicable delays, and coupled with reports of excessive force by the Honduran police and military against peaceful protesters ... There is too much suspicion of fraud, and too much distrust," said the Senator for Vermont, Patrick Leahy, who keeps a close eye on Latin America.
He also questioned whether the United States could continue to provide funding to Honduras if the political crisis was not resolved.
Human rights report that as many as 12 Hondurans have died the protests. Most of those deaths are attributed by human rights groups to a military police force created by Hernández which the U.S. has boycotted from funding.
"Honduras faces a defining moment in its modern history. How the government resolves this crisis will determine the path of the country for the foreseeable future. It will also determine the extent of validity and support the next government receives from the United States," Leahy added in a lengthy statement.
"It puts the U.S. in a real bind," said Shifter. "The last thing they want is for Nasralla to win, but all he talks about is fighting corruption."
The Trump administration has said little about the crisis and currently has no ambassador there. It's top diplomat in Honduras, Heide Fulton, issued a statement saying the embassy was monitoring the situation closely and urged "transparency."
Despite the apparent success of police training under Hernández, critics say the U.S. had been short-sighted about his failings and should distance itself from him.
"He governed like any other caudillo. He stacked the Supreme Court and manipulated the Electoral Tribunal, just like (Daniel) Ortega (in Nicaragua) and (Evo) Morales in Bolivia," said Mora.
"We should say the same thing about Hernández. The Trump administration has demonstrated a double standard."