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Graft, greed, mayhem turn Honduras into murder capital of world

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras -- Sitting in the plant-filled patio of his home outside the capital, anti-corruption crusader Gustavo Alfredo Landaverde uttered what few people have the courage to say out loud in this poor Central American nation:

“We are rotten to the core,” he said of the drug-related graft infecting virtually every layer of law enforcement in Honduras. “We are at the border of an abyss. These are criminal organizations inside and out.”

The soft-spoken, bespectacled former deputy drug czar had been fired, sued for libel and saw his last boss murdered. “I have asked myself: ‘Why am I still alive?’ ”

Two weeks later, the 71-year-old security expert was dead. Hit men on motorbikes approached him at a traffic light Dec. 7 and peppered the driver’s side window of his Kia sedan with bullets.

Landaverde has become another tragic figure in the country’s ongoing struggle with corruption that threatens nearly every major government institution in Honduras.

It’s a country where the son of a university president was gunned down by cops, where prisoners are forced to leave the jail to run drugs and are then shot down, and where the Peace Corps has pulled out, saying conditions are too dangerous to carry out its mission.

Honduras, a nation of 7.6 million, now has the highest homicide rate in the world — 82.1 murders per 100,000 residents, compared to 5.5 per 100,000 in Florida.

Landaverde was one of few who dared to say that elements of the Honduran National Police are closely tied to drug cartels which, in turn, are protected by politicians, judges and prosecutors. According to Honduran law enforcement, military and human rights sources, crimes committed by authorities here range from murder to extortion to car theft. Even drug operations are often run by police, with complicity of their bosses who drive luxury cars and live outside their means.

When one congressman was carjacked last year, he found the culprits — when he went to file a report at the police station, a leading human rights investigator said. The last Minister of Security publicly accused police of being “air traffic controllers” for drug planes.

Landaverde was one of only a handful of people willing to be quoted by name in this story. Other high-ranking police officials, a military intelligence officer, top law enforcement investigator and human rights activists insisted that they not be identified, lest they be killed.

“It never occurred to me when I took over this ministry that inside police stations there were people committing crimes and acting against human life,” said Security Minister Pompeyo Bonilla, named recently to lead a sweep of law enforcement. “We have a serious problem.”

A murder, arrests and then the suspects go free

Despite rampant mayhem, it was not until October — when police officers murdered the son of a highly respected university president and then tried to clean up the evidence — that the department truly came under intense scrutiny. That killing, and subsequent release of the now fugitive suspects, shocked the nation and led to a shake-up that cost the director of the National Police and dozens of others their jobs.

The killers’ police station was raided and 40 people were suspended. Every week, investigative reporters publish more stories about missing caches of police weapons and top police officials tied to drug traffickers. Congress created a special government office to “evaluate police careers” and purge the 14,000 member police force.

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