10.06.11

A D.C. Fix for Honduran Murders?

Visiting Washington for the first time since the 2009 coup, President Porfirio Lobo tells The Daily Beast he made the usual courtesy calls with Obama and Holder, but his most interesting mission might have involved the D.C. cops.

Usually the District of Columbia police department collides with international politics only when there is a scandal. But Honduran President Porfirio Lobo made the city’s cops a special focus of his visit to the capital this week as he seeks solutions for the murder rampage in his own country.

During discussions with Attorney General Eric Holder, Lobo embraced the D.C. cops and their successful campaign to reduce the city’s murder rate as a potential model.

“We addressed something in particular, our interest in order to follow the Washington, D.C., experience in order to be able to reduce the crime rate from 500 murders a year all the way to 100 murders a year,” Lobo said in an exclusive interview.

Holder has some experience dealing with D.C. crime. Between 1993 and 1997, when violent crime was at its peak, he was the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia. In 1993 there were 454 homicides in the district. By 2009, the latest year for the statistic to be published, that number had dropped to 143.

By contrast, the murder rate in Honduras has nearly doubled in recent years. In 2004, the murder rate in Honduras was 30.7 murders per 100,000 people. In 2010 that number jumped to 77.5 murders per 100,000 people. Honduras is a corridor in Central America for gunrunners and drug traffickers, the main cause of the high murder rate.

So impressed was Lobo with Holder’s presentation on Washington crime prevention that he told his national security cabinet, which was traveling with him, to stay on an extra day in Washington to meet with top D.C. law-enforcement officials.

“Prevention, deterrence of crime—it would be a holistic approach in our fight against crime,” Lobo said Holder explained in the meeting. “The fact of getting criminals and sending them to jail is no solution. We felt this experience to be something very interesting.”

A senior Justice Department official said Holder and Lobo “discussed, among other things, the attorney general’s experience in dealing with gang and street crime as the U.S. attorney for D.C. and superior court judge in D.C.”

The official added, “Noting the progress made against violent crime in D.C., the AG offered to provide information about the strategies that had been pursued in D.C. and other U.S. cities, including community policing and community prosecutions to consider whether these strategies might be helpful there.”

Experts differ on why the D.C. homicide rate has fallen. One factor is the subsiding of the crack-cocaine epidemic that hit Washington hard in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The D.C. approach also has sought to target the most violent offenders and to prosecute them in federal courts. In addition, the district tries to deploy its resources in areas where high-tech modeling and confidential intelligence sources say violent crime is likely to increase.

“We have been engaging the community, working more closely with our local and federal partners, and we have been focusing on repeat violent offenders,” said Gwendolyn Crump, the communications director for the D.C. police. “Currently, homicides are down 17 percent compared with this time last year, and our homicide closure rate is 94 percent. According to projections, for the second year in a row, we will end the year with the lowest number of homicides since 1963.”

The visit by Lobo was the first from a Honduran leader since the June 2009 coup that ousted Manuel Zelaya. The Obama administration at first supported Zelaya and cut off relations with the government that replaced him. The relationship resumed in October 2009, after Lobo won the presidential election and Zelaya rejected a deal that would have temporarily returned him to power.

In joint remarks with Lobo, Obama said: “Two years ago, we saw a coup in Honduras that threatened to move the country away from democracy, and in part because of pressure from the international community, but also because of the strong commitment to democracy and leadership by President Lobo, what we’ve been seeing is a restoration of democratic practices and a commitment to reconciliation that gives us great hope.”

The visit with President Obama is very important to Honduras. It reaffirms that things have gone back to normal.

“The visit with President Obama is very important to Honduras. It reaffirms that things have gone back to normal,” Lobo said. “This allows us to talk with President Obama about two or three topics that are of great interest, and reiterate our thanks for the constant permanent help” from the United States.

Specifically, Lobo said he was asking the United States for transport helicopters and maritime and air radar to assist with interdiction. Honduran officials familiar with the meeting said the president did not make the request to Obama in the meeting.

Lisa Kubiske, the U.S. ambassador to Honduras, said the United States was reviewing the request.