TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) — A Honduran court has issued arrest warrants for five national police officers accused of killing seven gang members, a prosecutor's spokesman said Tuesday.
The officers are accused of assassination, illegal breaking and entering, and abuse of authority in connection with a 2011 case in the northern city of San Pedro Sula, said Elvis Guzman of the Honduran Attorney General's Office.
The victims were members of the 18th Street gang, one of Honduras' two most powerful and violent criminal organizations. The gang has accused Honduran police of running death squads that commit extra-judicial killings rather than bring gang criminals to justice.
An Associated Press investigation found that since January, at least five people affiliated with the 18th Street gang in the capital city of Tegucigalpa disappeared or were found dead after being seen in police custody.
The warrants resulted from a year-long investigation into a 2011 shooting in the Lima district, a violent and gang-ridden suburb of San Pedro Sula, which is one of the world's most dangerous cities. According to press reports that day, police said they were fired on by gang members when trying to make an arrest, and seven members of 18th Street were killed when police returned fire. There were no police injuries.
It wasn't clear Tuesday if the five police officers still serve on the force. One of the highest-ranking officers accused, Elvis Bonilla Andara, served last year as police chief for Tegucigalpa. His current status with the department was not known.
The warrants were turned over to Honduran police, who have the responsibility of arresting suspects.
"Their capture is in the hands of police," Guzman said.
Police did not return telephone calls from the AP seeking comment and information on the accused officers.
The 18th Street gang and another gang known as Mara Salvatrucha are the country's biggest crime groups. Both were formed by Central American migrants who served time in U.S. prisons, and the gangs overran this small Central American country as their members were deported back home.
Both engage in dealing drugs and extorting money from businesses and others under threat of death.
The Honduran police force has long been accused of running death squads, which police have consistently denied.
The 18th Street gang says its members are being targeted by the squads, described by witnesses as heavily armed masked men in civilian dress and bullet-proof vests who kill or "disappear" gang members instead of bringing them to justice.
Last year, the U.S. Congress withheld direct aid to Honduran police chief Juan Carlos Bonilla after he was appointed to the top law enforcement post despite alleged links to death squads a decade earlier. Bonilla, nicknamed "the Tiger," was accused in a 2002 internal affairs report of involvement in three homicides and linked to 11 other deaths and disappearances. He was tried in one killing and acquitted. The rest of the cases were never fully investigated.
The U.S. State Department has resumed funding to the Honduran police, but says the money supports only units vetted by the U.S.
So far this year, the U.S. has provided $16 million to the police force, and has said the money isn't sent directly to Bonilla or any of his top 20 officers.