An hour later we returned to our hotel and the murder scene was still active. I walked down a narrow sidewalk to get a closer look. In my rudimentary Spanish, I asked a young man selling avocados "Qué pasó?"
The young man replied, "Muerto."
I understood. No translation required.
Last week in Honduras.
About a week or so ago, I was in Tegucigalpa, Honduras with one of our strategic partners the Justice Education Society (JES) of Vancouver, British Columbia.
So while I was there, I went online to check out the latest U.S. Department of State, Travel Warning for Honduras, dated June 17, 2013. What follows here are some excerpts from that document:
The Department of State continues to warn U.S. citizens that the crime and violence levels in Honduras remain critically high.
Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world. These threats have increased substantially over the past several years and remain high. Incidents can occur anywhere.
The Government of Honduras lacks sufficient resources to properly investigate and prosecute cases, and to deter violent crime.
In practice, this means police may take hours to arrive at the scene of a violent crime or not respond at all. The police often lack vehicles or fuel to respond to calls for assistance. As a result, criminals operate with a high degree of impunity throughout Honduras.
The Honduran government is in the early stages of substantial reforms to its criminal justice institutions.
It doesn't paint a pretty picture.
That said, I did see some credible signs that the government in Honduras is striving very hard to switch to a different canvas.
We were in Tegucigalpa to follow-up on an effort which began there a year ago to develop a sustainable protocol for the collection, processing and sharing of IBIS data between the National Police and the Ministerio Publico (MP) in order to be most effective at solving firearm related crimes.
The folks at JES indicated that the protocol would need to bridge an institutional gap that currently allows valuable information to fall through the cracks of the criminal justice system in Honduras – a gap which benefits only armed and violent criminals.
Bridging gaps to facilitate the efficient and effective sharing of ballistics data in order to generate information and evidence to stop armed criminals is exactly what IBIS helps governments do.
Little progress had been made but in all fairness, the MP only recently received its IBIS system so not much work could have been done anyway. Furthermore, some of the key decision makers now sitting at the table were new replacing predecessors who were no longer part of the initiative.
In any case, it was time to stop talking and start working to make Honduras a safer place. I knew that the crime gun and evidence processing protocol was a best practice that made sense and would contribute very positively to the violence reduction efforts underway. What I didn’t fully appreciate on this second trip was just how important they really are and why.
The Honduran stakeholders sitting around the table in the hotel conference room with my colleagues and I were the ones to whom these important tasks will fall. As the meeting went on we talked about stakeholder management, the integration of programs, and the importance of formal implementing policies.
We discussed the collection of fired evidence from crime scenes and test fires from seized firearms and the importance of getting it all processed through IBIS in a timely manner all for the sole purpose of putting valuable crime solving leads in the hands of the investigators for follow-up.
We touched upon all of the 13 Critical Tasks involved in the inside-out approach to solving more gun crime.
Just before we ended the workshop - we asked each attendee to share their thoughts about next steps and their vision for the immediate future - as we went around the table I heard the same words repeated over and over again: "We need to – stop the impunity".
Impunity - it's the same word used in the State Department's Travel Warning - I had read right over it.
The idea that criminals may be operating with impunity wasn't resonating with me. I think it's because it's something we don't experience much in our U.S. criminal justice system. I needed to learn more about Honduras. My lessons would come quickly.
The following morning my JES colleagues and I visited the MP's brand new, nearly-operational crime lab. It's a bright, spanking new building located in place that is – well – just the opposite.
At the lab, we met two very dedicated and committed women - the Director of Forensic Sciences Julissa Villanueva and her Deputy Mildred Alvarenga. They showed us the IBIS Lab, which was one of two forensic disciplines in operation on the third floor. There, inside a cool and air conditioned room sat the various elements of an IBIS TRAX-3D hub - a juggernaut ready to roll on fired cartridge cases and bullets and crunch them into pieces of crime solving puzzles.
Ms. Villanueva spoke about the new lab, and although my Spanish skills are muy poco, I was able to piece together a combination of words and body language. She said she saw the building as a symbol of justice and the government’s power to stop criminals from acting with impunity – a symbol of a better future and in english she added - for the people.
It was becoming clear to me that while the protocol we had worked on was a step in the right direction there needed to be many more steps taken across the criminal justice system to achieve the future state of being envisioned by so many people – to stop the impunity.
When I returned to my hotel I noticed that a large crowd was gathering outside, just down the street from where a shooting had occurred: a motorcycle had up pulled next to a white pickup truck stopped in traffic. The passenger on the bike fired a machine gun through the driver’s side window of the pickup killing the driver. The suspects fled.
Leaving the drama and gridlock behind us, we left the hotel in a cab to keep an appointment at the National Police. A couple of blocks from hotel and the crime scene we came upon a motorcycle down on the street involved in an accident. A small crowd had gathered around a man sitting on the curb.
My first thought was that the downed bike could be THE bike involved in the shooting two blocks away and that its operator had lost control and crashed while making a hasty getaway. I would have liked to follow up on that - then reality set in. I dont do that anymore. In any case, there were no cops around and our cab was making quick progress getting us to our appointment and soon we were far away from that bike laying in the roadway and any potential suspects.
About an hour later we returned to our hotel. The murder scene was still active and we walked down the narrow sidewalk to get a closer look. As we got close, I saw vehicles and t-shirts bearing the names and logos of the very organizations that we had been meeting with for the last few days - I wondered which protocol they would be following.
Perhaps more telling is what I did NOT see.
- I did not see the number of uniformed and plainclothes officers in and around the area that I would expect to see if this happened in, say, New York.
- I did not see the look of shock and dismay on the faces in the crowd that you would expect considering the circumstances. Circumstances in which a man had just been machine gunned to death at the start of rush hour in broad daylight on one of the busiest thorough fares in the city – one leading to the President’s Palace.
- In fact, the faces on the people in the crowd seemed mostly unfazed and non-judgemental as if they were watching a routine fender bender without injuries.
For us it was different - we were drawn toward the crime scene tape, angling for the best view. Back in the day, we would have never let people like us get so close to the bullet ridden truck still containing the victim. We were much too close.
Instinctively we began to snap photos with our iPhones– until I realized that we weren’t in Kansas anymore - we were in a crowd of hundreds of people in a place deemed among the most dangerous on earth where criminals act with impunity - a place where you can just as easily get killed for your cell phone as you could for angering a cartel.
We then made a deliberate retreat across lanes of stop and go traffic back up the narrow walkway past the guy selling avocados toward the sanctuary of our hotel.
On the flight home I thought of the State Department Travel Warning and how it – like the ghosts who appeared to Ebenezer Scrooge – provided me with a snapshot of the reality we were facing.
I get it now - criminals operating with impunity - it’s not a matter of getting away with murder. It’s a matter of never even being pursued as a suspect because of the gaps existing within the major elements of the criminal justice system. Gaps that affect enforcement, forensics and prosecutions.
I give my most sincere good wishes to the people of Honduras in their efforts to stop the impunity. I hope that IBIS and the supporting crime gun protocol will bridge some of the gaps and contribute in a most meaningful way toward a better future for Honduras - for the people.