Complaining about the police is somewhat of a national pastime in Honduras, and on the Bay Islands in particular. With nationwide crime rates setting world records, the National Police are naturally under a great deal of scrutiny and pressure. But it is only fair to examine with what resources and under what conditions we are asking those in blue to protect us.
Interviews with members of the National Police stationed on Roatan, conducted by an independent correspondent in June and shared with the Voice in July, reveal a force that feels demoralized, frustrated, underpaid, under-equipped, under-appreciated and alienated from the community it is assigned to protect.
The interviewed police, all of whom requested anonymity for fear of reprisal, said that none of the roughly 110 police assigned to the Bay Islands comes from the islands. They are recruited from the Honduran mainland, many from as far away as Danli on the Nicaraguan border, and usually leave family behind. They are rotated frequently, usually spending no more than two years on the islands, so they do not establish roots or become too familiar with the people. Most do not speak English, the preferred language of many island residents. In that sense, serving as a policeman on the Bay Islands is more like foreign military duty than conventional police work.
A typical patrolman earns the Honduran statutory minimum wage, even though living costs on the islands are significantly higher than on the mainland. They typically work 20 days without a break, sleeping on bunks in the stations they are assigned to, then get 10 days leave to visit their families, at their own expense, although Galaxy Wave gives them a discount on the ferry to La Ceiba.
The police said the government provides them weapons but they must buy their own ammunition, as well as handcuffs, and even motorcycle helmets if none are available. They are issued two uniforms and one pair of boots every three years. They must pay to launder them. Likewise, they are provided a bunk but must clean their own sheets, and they find the food they are provided of such poor quality that many pay to eat on the outside. They have no dedicated health clinic.
Although the Bay Islands police detachment, headquartered on Roatan, is responsible for policing an insular area, it has no watercraft or aircraft. If police need to respond to an incident on another island, they must rely on the kindness of strangers (often with an interest in the matter) to get there.
Local businesses donated eight refurbished patrol cars from the US, as well as communication equipment, three years ago, according to the Roatan Rotary Club, and Rotary provides substantial ongoing support to the police, including for vehicle maintenance. But police interviewed for this article said most of the vehicles they have are decrepit, they have no in-house mechanic to keep them running, and communications equipment is inadequate, such that many police pay for cell phones out of their own pockets to be able to communicate while in the field.
They said the only transport available to the detachment at Oak Ridge, which is responsible for policing the entire eastern half of Roatan, is a broken-down car that must be hotwired to start it.
The crime investigation unit (DNIC), based in Coxen Hole, has no functioning vehicles at all other than those it confiscates from suspected criminals.
Of the police facilities on Roatan, only the main station outside Coxen Hole is property of the National Police. The detachments at Monte Placentero (Los Fuertes) and Oak Ridge occupy buildings owned by the respective town councils (patronatos). The buildings were neither designed as nor are they appropriate for police stations. The former detachment at West End was in a private house that was leased by the Municipality of Roatan.
Police interviewed for this article said they were doubly frustrated at the lack of support they receive from the Honduran Government in light of reports of large sums being allocated to fight crime nationally. The US Government has announced hundreds of millions of dollars of support for law enforcement through the Central American Regional Security Initiative. The Honduran Congress recently approved Lps. 3.47 billion (US$177 million) for fighting crime this year, according to the national press. That does not include the reported Lps. 400 million in the trust fund from the security surtax (tasa de seguridad). Police on Roatan are also aware that the Bay Islands contribute many millions to the national treasury through international tourism – tourists they are expected to keep safe. They wonder why so little of that money seems to be trickling down to them.
Since they cannot get what they need to do their jobs from official channels, police say they have felt “obliged” to request contributions from local authorities and business owners on the islands for everything from construction materials to make their barracks liveable to the aforementioned patrol cars to, in the case of the shuttered Tourist Police station in West End, paying the electric bill (see “Lights are Out; Nobody’s Home” in the June Voice or at www.bayislandsvoice.com). Those interviewed professed embarrassment at having to make such requests but claimed they had no alternative.
There is no guarantee better equipment, training and working conditions would make the local police a more professional, motivated and effective force. However, as long as the police feel neglected by their capital and alienated from the community they serve, one should not expect much improvement in law enforcement on the islands.
Most research for this report was done by Isis Martinez, an interior designer who moved to Roatan from Tegucigalpa 10 years ago and has many friends and relatives who are police officers. This is her first foray into journalism.