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Teens' thievery turns tragic for Honduran cop

December 27, 2013
Associated Press

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) — Edwin Mejia didn't want to go out and steal that morning.

The $75 he and his buddy had made the day before from the stolen motorcycle felt like a fortune compared to the $5 a day he earned selling his mother's tortillas. The 15-year-old lay in bed inside the wooden one-room house he shared with his 10 brothers and sisters and told his partner, Eduardo Aguilera, that he wasn't in the mood.

"Hey, man, we have to go!" insisted Eduardo, also 15.

From yesterday's take, their first job, Edwin could buy a cellphone. If they did the same today, maybe Edwin could buy himself some sneakers. White Nikes were a favorite with the 18th Street gang members.

Edwin relented.

A few miles away, in downtown Tegucigalpa, Santos Arita was starting his 12-hour shift as a traffic cop. At 42, he'd spent most of his career working in small towns in the north. His new job in the capital made him nervous. He'd already been assaulted once by three gunmen on a bus. He was afraid, but nobody asked him if he felt like going to work that day.

With the highest murder rate in the world, Honduras is a dangerous country. Its capital is a city where people watch murders on YouTube, wake up to photos of the dead in the newspapers and drive by bodies dumped on the outskirts of town. It is a country where the disparaging concept of the "banana republic" was born, when U.S. fruit companies used the Honduran military to control labor, but it is not a nation that recovered from a legacy that favored the interests of the few over those of the many.

Honduras never developed the democratic institutions that would guarantee a rule of law. Instead, it is a largely lawless land where there are few choices for the poor, heroes are scarce, and violence is a given.

___

Edwin and Eduardo downed a breakfast of coffee and left their rough neighborhood, Sinai, one of many controlled by gangs where even the police did not venture without guns drawn or at least a warning that they were headed in.

It was almost lunchtime.

The boys would use the same strategy as the day before. Edwin would drive the motorcycle, Eduardo would ride behind him. When they found a target, Eduardo would hold up the mark, then drive away on the stolen bike. Easy.

The year before, Edwin had dropped out of school to help out his mother. Tortillas had to be sold before lunch, so he didn't have much choice. In a nation where 70 percent of people live in poverty, few could afford the luxury of school beyond sixth grade.

Many Hondurans had discovered that crime does pay, and the best way to commit one was with a motorcycle — for a fast getaway.

It was illegal, in fact, for two men to ride tandem on a motorcycle, a new law to cut down on drive-by shootings.

The boys ignored that law and made their way downtown. Oddly, amid the traffic chaos in one of the poorest cities on the continent and in a place where the law is rarely obeyed, what would bind the fates of Edwin and Eduardo with that of a humble traffic cop was a red light.

The boys stopped. They did not see Arita, helping a woman cross the street behind them. She carried an umbrella as a sunshade while Arita guided her through the traffic.

___

Arita had been reassigned to Tegucigalpa two months earlier and already had requested a transfer back home. He missed his family, and he talked with his wife every day by phone. His family lived in Ocotepeque, a seven- or eight-hour bus ride from the capital, but with his $400 monthly salary, Arita couldn't afford a ticket. He hitchhiked home every two weeks for just 24 hours — to see his wife and three children, go to church.

His home in Ocotepeque was not so different from Edwin's. It sat on a muddy street, a one-room with concrete floors, a tin roof that leaked and plywood walls. There was no running water, and the kitchen was just a wood stove. For furniture, they had two beds, a beaten sofa and a couple of tables with a bare bulb hanging from a wire.

It wasn't much, but it was paradise compared to the barracks he shared with dozens of other police officers when he was working in the capital. There was no running water for a shower, just a cup and a barrel. No heat for the chilly evenings, and, of course, no meals.

Arita had arrived in the city two days before that fateful afternoon at the intersection. He had come with $10 in his pocket after leaving $20 at home.

Many Hondurans, from the country's newly elected president to elementary school children, say the police are corrupt. The problem has reached such a crisis that Congress recently approved a plan to put the military on the streets while police ranks are cleaned up.

The problems are vast. Police have been accused of running death squads to eliminate gang members. The government does not know how many officers are on the National Police payroll — estimates range from 8,000 to 15,000.

One police general appeared on national television recently and accused another general of ordering the killing of his son. The boy was 17, ambushed along with his two special forces bodyguards in a restaurant shooting earlier this year.

On the street, many motorists are wary of the traffic police, who often stop them to extort money. It is hard to tell the difference between a bad cop, and a good one.

___

What happened on the afternoon of Aug. 7 was captured on a traffic camera, and on several others in the area.

As soon as Arita saw the two teenagers on their motorcycle, he left the woman with the umbrella and ran up to the boys.

He ordered the young men off the bike and, thanks to decades of experience, pulled out the bike's keys. He did not see Eduardo, dressed all in black, reaching for something tucked into his pants. A gun.

Eduardo fired off two shots before the policeman, miraculously unhurt, wrestled him to the ground and attempted to disarm him. Edwin, in a blue T-shirt, rushed to help his friend as he scuffled with the cop.

Drivers around them sped out of the way.

Although he would later insist that the day's plan marked only his second attempt at robbery, Edwin seemed skilled as he tried to grab the policeman's weapon. Eduardo managed to hand him the other gun. In the struggle, Arita fell down.

He was a middle-aged, paunchy man fighting with two tall and agile teenagers. As he tried to get up, Edwin shot him twice in the back of the head point-blank. Eduardo looked on. Arita collapsed, lifeless, on the pavement.

With an eerie calm, Edwin picked the bike keys up off the road, waited for Eduardo to climb back on, and sped off.

The entire exchange between the officer and the boys had lasted 42 seconds.

Later, the police would leak the CCTV video to a local paper.

___

What came next would last four hours.

The two teenagers, visibly nervous, ditched the bike and started running in the middle of a five-lane highway, desperately trying to stop anyone to give them a ride. They ran past a Clarion Hotel, a Burger King and a McDonald's. At one point, traffic video caught them trying to jump a moving bus, pointing their gun at the driver, who did not stop.

The fleeing pair was not such an unusual sight, running in broad daylight, in the middle of Tegucigalpa. Seasoned motorists knew to stay out of the way.

Two policemen finally caught the boys in a parking lot near the Marriott Hotel, in the same block as the presidential palace.

Police won't say what happened next, but according to public prosecutor Alexis Santos, 40, the police officers started beating both the boys, focusing on Eduardo, whom they thought had fired the gun.

"Immediately they started beating us, with their weapons, with their feet," Edwin said. "They'd hit me on the head with the back of the gun, and they kept telling us they were gonna kill us."

When officers realized people had gathered to watch, they took the young men, already badly hurt, to the headquarters of the transit police. The beatings continued — again in a parking lot — for three hours. At the time, Santos said, neither boy had been officially detained, which would have alerted a prosecutor.

Edwin doesn't know how many policemen took part in the beating. Santos later said soldiers were also there.

"One of the cops would grab me by the hair and hold me, while another one punched and kicked me," Edwin said.

The cops took pictures with their cellphones, something Honduran policemen often do when they catch a suspect. Graphic photographs of the beaten, the tortured and the dead are typically sent to reporters for publication — including to The Associated Press. La Tribuna published photos of the boys, showing Eduardo lying on the ground, shirtless, unconscious and covered in blood. Edwin slumped stunned against a wall, handcuffed, his left eye swollen.

He couldn't see past the blood in his eyes, and then he passed out.

Eduardo was taken to Hospital Escuela, a medical school. He died four days later.

The autopsy indicated the cause of death was more than 20 blows to the base of the skull with a blunt object — a gun, prosecutors say.

Santos calls the incident a crime, a public lynching. The charges were clear: illegal detention, torture leading to death, dereliction of public duty and a cover-up.

Accusations that police commit extrajudicial killings are nothing new here. At least seven times in the last few months, members of a street gang were killed or went missing after run-ins with police, the AP has reported, feeding charges that they were victims of federal death squads.

___

There is some justice in Honduras, but not much — 82 percent of the complaints filed to a prosecutor never reach trial. An attorney general testified before Congress in June that nine out of 10 crimes went unpunished. He was fired shortly thereafter.

People who talked to Santos about the case were mystified that he was frustrated by his inability to corral a chaotic criminal justice system.

"People say, 'Why are you going after the police, if the one they caught has killed a policeman?'" Santos said.

The video of Arita's killing and the boys' escape went viral after it was broadcast by the media, triggering hundreds of responses on newspaper websites.

But rather than demands for justice, the crime epidemic has created an "eye for an eye" culture.

"They are too dangerous to be allowed to live, these people should die," read a comment left on a local newspaper's website.

"Too bad the thugs didn't kill each other. I hope he gets raped and killed in prison," said another.

And a third one: "One less scumbag in the world."

Santos thinks the images of the policeman's killing were released to justify what happened afterward. Eduardo's death was a sort of "social cleansing."

The surveillance video of the beating in the parking lot was never released to the public.

Santos doesn't expect to find evidence that will indict the police. When he asked for the names of the agents who participated in the beatings, he was given more than 100 names. None of them are compelled to testify. The crime will just top his mountain of some 600 open cases — the average for a federal prosecutor.

The case was as good as closed since Santos had no assistant and no car to conduct investigations — or even a motorcycle.

Police director Juan Carlos Bonilla told the AP in an interview in September that "you should not have the slightest doubt that we will act according to the law, and we will do it fast."

Four months later, there were still no arrests. Bonilla was removed from his post. Santos was fired shortly after landing Edwin's case.

___

At the correctional center for minors outside Tegucigalpa, Edwin is awaiting trial.

His mother rarely visits. She can't afford the trip.

"If she comes, she can't sell tortillas, and if she doesn't sell tortillas, there's no money for food."

Why did he shoot Arita? He didn't really mean to, he insists. He panicked and went after the gun. "I regret it; of course I regret it."

Edwin faces eight to 15 years in jail. But he will be lucky if he lives that long. In September, he was admitted to a hospital for more injuries from a second police beating, this one in jail. During his first meeting with an AP reporter, he could not walk on his own.

One of the guards says that in Honduras, someone who kills a policeman "is carrying four planks of wood on his shoulder" — a dead man walking.

But Edwin has left his own legacy.

In the town of Ocotepeque, the son of the murdered traffic cop has a new set of dreams.

Joaquin, the oldest at 15, dropped out of school to sell paintings for $5 a day, to help the family make ends meet after his father's death. He is nurturing a slow vengeance. When he grows up, he said, "I want to be a policeman and kill those gang members."

 
 

 

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