TEGUCIGALPA – Joint military-police patrols entered the toughest neighborhoods of the main Honduran cities Tuesday at the start of a crackdown in one of the world’s most violent countries.
Defense Minister Marlon Pascua told reporters the joint patrols were part of “Operation Lightning,” an effort to restore government authority to high-crime neighborhoods.
The operation was launched after President Porfirio Lobo fired the five most senior police commanders after four officers suspected of killing two college students were released from jail.
The suspects were freed three days after they were detained on condition that they return on Sunday, but none of them came back, said police spokesman Silvio Inestroza.
One of the students killed was the son of the head of the National Autonomous University of Honduras, Julieta Castellanos.
“Operation Lightning intends to guarantee the presence of authorities in high-conflict areas,” Lobo said late Monday.
By the end of 2011, Honduras is likely to have the highest murder rate in the world – 86 per 100,000 inhabitants, according to the Violence Observatory in Tegucigalpa, a UN-backed monitor. On average there have been 20 violent deaths a day in 2011, 85 percent of them caused by shootings.
In Honduras, a country slightly larger than Portugal with a population of 8 million, violence has soared since a June 2009 coup toppled the country’s leftist president. But little has changed under Lobo, who took office in January 2010.
Aside from political violence, Honduras has become a transit point for cocaine from South America heading into the United States. Drug gangs are better armed than the police, and have cash to bribe law enforcement and politicians.