TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras – In a capital accustomed to daily bloodshed, the man in charge of law enforcement is as feared as the criminals. Few dare speak his name above a whisper.
Five-star Gen. Juan Carlos Bonilla was accused a decade ago of running death squads and today oversees a department suspected of beating, killing and "disappearing" its detainees. He is the top cop in the country that serves as a way station for most South American cocaine bound for the United States and beyond.
Bonilla is also the U.S. government's go-to man in Honduras for the war on drug trafficking.
Though the State Department officially keeps the 49-year-old chief at arm's length over his dubious past, Bonilla embraces the U.S. government as his "best ally and support." If the U.S. wants to fight drug trafficking in Honduras, it has to work with Bonilla.
"I am the director general, and I don't delegate that responsibility to anyone," Bonilla said during his first interview with a reporter since 2011.
In a wide-ranging conversation with The Associated Press that started over lunch at his favorite Tegucigalpa restaurant and ended after a late dinner at his well-appointed home, Bonilla denied he once led a social cleansing campaign, that his police force is as criminal as those it arrests, or that he is in any way responsible for a rash of gang members who disappeared after being arrested. Two of them later turned up dead on the edge of town.
"I can't be on top of everything. Sometimes things will escape me. I'm human," Bonilla said.
Honduras is a country under siege with one of the world's highest murder rates, where corruption is rampant and the rule of law weak. Its citizens scurry home before dusk in the capital. The sound of automatic gunfire peppers the night, and cities awaken to discarded bodies, the handiwork of street gangs, extortion rackets, drug mafias and, apparently, the police.
By law, Bonilla runs all policing in Honduras, everything from planning operations and directing investigations, to approving travel abroad for training and vehicle repairs. He oversees a troubled force where there is no consistent account of how many officers are on the payroll or how many show up for work, only estimates ranging from 8,000 to 15,000.
The police routinely are accused of civil rights violations. Between March and May, the AP reported at least five cases of alleged gang members missing or killed after being taken into police custody in what critics and human rights advocates call death squads engaged in a wave of social cleansing of criminals. In July, a man died of a burst liver after he was arrested for disorderly conduct and beaten by police, according to a prosecutor's file. In August, a gang member was beaten to death after being arrested for shooting an officer, a crime captured on surveillance tape that went viral on the Internet.
Bonilla said he is aware of the charges and insisted that every complaint is being investigated. Excesses "happen, yes. We investigate them and act," he said. "You cannot use a word like 'death squads,' because there is no chain of command or an order by me, never, under any circumstances, to act illegally."
He defended the institution where "I've spent my whole life. I am loyal to it."
Bonilla is a formidable figure, solidly built at 6 feet, with a shaved head and large nose set in a ruddy face. His voice is like a windstorm rising from the depths of a cavern, his words come slowly at first and then accelerate to a dizzying onslaught.
Throughout the afternoon and evening, Bonilla returned frequently to the support he receives from the U.S. Embassy for police operations. In one case, he ordered a subordinate to track a police commander with possible ties to drug traffickers. "I want to know where he is now. Find their phones and tap them. I will ask the Embassy for help," he said.
The close relationship runs counter to an August 2012 memo issued by the State Department to Congress shortly after Bonilla was named police chief, saying it was "aware of allegations of human rights violations related to Police Chief Juan Carlos Bonilla's service a decade ago."
A 2002 report by the Honduran police department's internal affairs section accused Bonilla of three killings or forced disappearances starting in 1998, when he was a regional police chief. It also linked him to at least 11 other cases. He was tried on one of the charges and acquitted. The others were never fully investigated.
The State Department decided to conduct its own review, meanwhile, and said in the memo that it was "carefully limiting assistance to special Honduran law enforcement units ... not under Bonilla's supervision." In March, Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield reiterated, "We have no relations with him; we don't give him so much as a dollar or even a cent."
Bonilla said there are no police units beyond his supervision. Fourteen months later, the U.S. investigation has not been completed. U.S. officials say there is no law against talking to Bonilla, and that it is necessary to do so in a country where an estimated 87 percent of all cocaine smuggling flights departing from South America land. Of $30 million in U.S. aid that was held up by the Senate Appropriations Committee because of concerns about human rights, impunity and Bonilla, two-thirds has since been released.
"Our diplomats talk to lots of people because they are in positions of authority, not because they like them," said an aide to Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, who wrote the provisions requiring human rights vetting for U.S. aid. The aide was not authorized to speak on the record. "What matters is not that they talk to him, but what the Honduran police are doing. Are they protecting the people, or are they protecting the drug traffickers? As far as his saying the U.S. is his biggest ally in counterdrug operations, our ally is Honduras, not the chief of police."
The jury is still out on Bonilla's success in fighting drug trafficking. In September, a joint Honduran-U.S operation targeted "Los Cachiros," the cartel that controls an estimated 90 percent of the clandestine runways in the country. U.S. and Honduran officials first touted that Operation Neptune yielded some $500 million in assets, including real estate, a mining company and a zoo. But then the director of Honduras' Office of Seized Property said that 71 bank accounts seized were empty. Corrupt authorities had alerted the traffickers ahead of time, said Director Humberto Palacios Moya, though he did not implicate anyone specifically.
Bonilla says he hails from humble indigenous origins and was forcibly recruited into military service at age 12, where he gained the nickname "El Tigre," or the Tiger. He transferred to the National Police when it was created 1998. Much to the dismay of international human rights groups, he was tapped as police chief in May 2012 after his predecessor was fired, presumably for two high-profile criminal cases involving police. In one, a prominent journalist close to President Porfirio Lobo was assassinated. In the other, civilians were shot dead during a joint Honduran- U.S. anti-drug operation in the remote Moskitia region, where most clandestine cocaine flights from South America land.
Bonilla "was the only top police commander without known links to organized crime," said Arabeska Sanchez, researcher and founder of Honduras' University Institute for Peace and Security who, as a professor at the National Police Academy, taught Bonilla in many classes. "But he still comes under suspicion because it's impossible to know if he was involved in state-sponsored human rights violations that evidently happened very close to him."
Dressed in a crisp, dark blue uniform, Bonilla moves about in an armored car in a city where gunmen travel by motorcycle for a quick kill and getaway. He keeps a loaded M-16 by his seat and says he would not hesitate to use it if attacked.
In private, many Hondurans say they are terrified of Bonilla. In the interview, however, he was unwaveringly gracious, smiling even when answering the most pointed questions. He showed off his library of hundreds of books on drug-trafficking, history and philosophy, underlined or marked with colored Post-it notes. The feared general liberally quotes French social theorist Michel Foucault and Austrian writer Stefan Zweig.
Among his books, Bonilla keeps a leather-bound copy of the indictment against him and says the death squad charges are not only false, but the stigma still haunts him.
"It's very painful as a human being for your family, your children, your children's schoolmates, your father, your friends or a woman you just met to ask you if you are a murderer," he said.
At the end of the day, Bonilla asked his bodyguard to bring him a book from the glove compartment of his car. It was an annotated edition of "The Art of War," by Sun Tzu, a Chinese general who lived 2600 years ago.
He read an underlined paragraph in the introduction: "We live in a culture of simulation, in which nothing is what it seems and the image that reigns has no reference to the real world."