Story highlights

The Honduran Congress passed a decree giving the military more power

There is distrust of police because of corruption

But the military says it is not replacing police

Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world

CNN  — 

In an effort to purge its national police force of corruption, the Honduran Congress voted to empower its military to carry out most police duties for at least 18 months.

Tuesday night’s vote gives the military a broad mandate over day-to-day crime fighting in the country, and gives the armed forces additional powers against organized crime in the country.

“We cannot have an armed forces only for foreign threats when there are so many deaths in the country because of violence,” Juan Orlando Hernandez, president of the Congress, said before the vote. “We are making this decision to support the Honduran people.”

Honduras has the world’s highest murder rate, with 82.1 murders per 100,000 inhabitants in 2010, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. According to a recent report by the country’s own human rights commission, that rate could increase to 86 per 100,000 this year.

The military’s expanded powers would be in effect for at least 18 months, during which a purging process of the police will take place. The decree gives the military the power to make arrests, searches, and execute warrants in police matters.

But the military is not displacing the police, armed forces spokesman Col. Alcides Flores told CNN.

“We are just augmenting the capacity of the police,” he said. “At no time are we replacing the police.”

The approval of the decree is a sign that the country has admitted that the police force alone does not have the resources to reduce crime, he said.

But there is also a high level of distrust of the police among the public. Earlier this month, the country placed 176 officers under investigation for a range of alleged crimes, from corruption to murder.

The Honduran military had already been involved in operations against Mexican drug cartels operating in the country, but the new rules will give them more powers.

Before, the military could only go on operations together with police, and served simply as a force multiplier. They were not allowed to make arrests or collect evidence. Only the police had these powers, and they were the only agency that could send a case to prosecutors.

As a result, there were cases in which the military had to let suspected drug traffickers or other criminals escape because there was not a police officer available to make an arrest, Flores said.

“The new decree authorizes the armed forces to make captures without a police presence,” Flores said.

The military’s new policing powers draw comparisons to Mexico’s criticized military offensive against the drug cartels, but Flores said that isn’t the case.

“We are not following the Mexican model. We are making a Honduran model,” he said.

In Mexico, the military has been accused of abuses and corruption in its policing duties, but Flores insisted that there will be much more supervision of the Honduran forces.

The military will only flex its new muscle with the specific approval of the president at the request of the ministry of security, and the preference will be for joint operations with the police.

The locations for domestic military operations and their size will depend on what the president authorizes, but Flores estimated the initial force will involve between 1,000 and 1,500 troops.