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Teens’ thievery turns tragic for Honduran cop

December 27, 2013

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, while his partner, Eduardo Aguilera, insisted they go steal another bike.

From yesterday’s take, their first job, Edwin could buy a cellphone. If they did the same today, maybe Edwin could buy new sneakers. The boy relented.

A few miles away, in downtown Tegucigalpa, Santos Arita was starting a 12-hour shift as a traffic cop. At 42, he’d spent most of his career working in small towns. His new job in the capital made him nervous. He’d already been assaulted once by three gunmen on a bus.

With the world’s highest murder rate, Honduras is a dangerous country. People in the capital 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 nation that never developed democratic institutions that guarantee the 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.

After gulping down a breakfast of coffee, the boys headed downtown. They would use the same strategy as the day before. Edwin would drive, Eduardo on the back seat. When they found a target, Eduardo would hold the person up, then drive off on the stolen bike. Easy.

It was illegal for two men to ride tandem on a motorcycle — a new law meant to cut down on drive-by shootings. The boys ignored it 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.

Arita had been assigned to Tegucigalpa two months earlier and already had requested a transfer back home. He missed his family. They lived in Ocotepeque, a seven- or eight-hour bus ride from the capital, and 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.

When he was in the capital, he stayed in a police barracks with dozens of other men. There was no running water for a shower, just a cup and a barrel. No heat for the chilly evenings. No meals.

On the afternoon of Aug. 7, the traffic camera at Arita’s intersection captured his last day.

As soon as Arita saw the two teenagers on their motorcycle, he ran up to them. He ordered them off the bike and pulled out its keys.

He did not see Eduardo, dressed in black, reaching for something tucked into his pants. A gun.

Eduardo fired two shots before the policeman wrestled him to the ground and attempted to disarm him. Edwin, in a blue T-shirt, rushed in as drivers sped out of the way.

Edwin tried to grab the policeman’s weapon. Eduardo managed to hand him the other gun. In the struggle, Arita fell down. As he tried to get up, Edwin shot him twice in the back of the head point-blank. Arita collapsed lifeless.

Edwin picked the bike keys up off the road, waited for Eduardo to climb on, and sped off. But their calm soon gave way to panic, a series of CCTV camera footage shows, with the boys running on the streets after ditching the bike, desperately trying to stop anyone to give them a ride.

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, officers beat both teens.

“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.”

Before long, police took the young men to headquarters, where beatings continued for three hours.

The cops took pictures with cellphones, something Honduran policemen often do when they catch a suspect. La Tribuna published photos of the boys, showing Eduardo lying on the floor, shirtless, unconscious, bloody. Edwin slumped stunned against a wall, his face bloodied and hands cuffed.

Eduardo died four days later at Hospital Escuela, a medical school.

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

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.

“They are too dangerous to be allowed to live, these people should die,” read a typical comment. Video of the beatings was not released.

Four months later, there are no arrests.

At the correctional center for minors outside Tegucigalpa, Edwin faces eight to 15 years in jail. He will be lucky if he lives that long.

A guard said 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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