Honduras: Cold War revived by intelligence law

The doctrine of national security imposed by the United States on Latin America, which fostered the dictatorships of the 1970s and '80s, is making a comeback in Honduras. A new law is combining military defence of the country with police strategies for maintaining domestic order.

The law created the National Directorate of Investigation and Intelligence (DNII), a key agency in the security structure that does not appear to be accountable to any other body, and does not appear to be under democratic civilian control.

Sociologist Mirna Flores, an expert on the issue, told Iinter Press Service: “This bill unites or fuses military defense and internal security, which is dangerous, because one of the aims after the Cold War was to separate these fields, due to the negative effects on systematic violation of human rights.

“We are back again with old national security concepts dating from the Cold War era in Central America, and the danger is that the former anti-communist rhetoric may be used against the ‘new threats’, such as allegedly criminal youth, dissidents against the regime, social protests or for the imposition of absolute powers.”

The approval of the law on January 14 took human rights groups by surprise, because of the rushed nature of the legislation, the lack of consensus-building and the skipping of two of the three debates necessary for passing laws in parliament.

Sergio Castellanos, a legislator for the left-wing Democratic Unification Party, was the first to react to the bill. He asked for time for a fuller debate, but was overruled by the large right-wing majority comprising representatives of the governing National Party and one wing of the Liberal Party.

The law was passed amid a whirlwind of parliamentary activity, along with constitutional reforms and other controversial laws, such as mining regulations and suspension of all tax exemptions, pending review.

The intelligence law has loopholes consisting of a lack of conceptual definitions, included in modern legislation in order not to allow room for discretionary interpretations or decisions.

Article 28 out of the 33 articles in the law says the DNII may recruit active members of the armed forces and the national police, Cajina said. This is “a very delicate matter and should be studied with care,” Roberto Cajina, a civilian consultant on security, defense and democratic governance, told IPS.

“As it stands, it is a dangerous precedent. One could warn of possible ‘piracy’ of the DNII toward the armed forces and police. What kinds of intelligence do each of them carry out?” he asked.

“If this is not clarified, problems and serious contradictions will arise, and the scenario will change radically. It is necessary to demarcate the boundaries of the fields of action of each of them,” Cajina said.

The law compels private bodies to “cooperate by providing information required of them in order to support intelligence efforts”.

Cajina and Flores both said there should be a clearer description of the kind of information that private companies are required to give, because the current text leaves too much room for discretion.

They said: “The DNII director could, with very little justification, pick any organisation as a subject of interest which must provide the information (the DNII) demands.”

Bertha Oliva, of the Committee of Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH), told IPS: “We are alarmed at this law that was tabled without ceremony, but also without debate, and furthermore, relying on old Cold War concepts.”

In the 1980s, members of the Honduran intelligence corps created the so-called Batallon de la Muerte (death squad), which was responsible for the forced disappearance of 187 people for political and ideological reasons, according to an official report.

This history raises fears that a similar body could be recreated.

[Abridged from Inter Press Service.]

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