The arrest of high-ranking Honduras police officers accused of having criminal network ties illustrates the challenges the government will have to tackle if it wants to successfully complete the purging of its police forces.
On October 9, the Honduran Attorney General’s Office announced the arrest of National Police Commissioner Lorgio Oquelí Mejía Tinoco and another 15 police officials, some on active duty and some who had already left the force or lost their positions. Those arrested stand accused of participating in a cattle trafficking network during the commissioner’s previous tenure as head of the police force in Choluteca department, on the Nicaraguan border.
At least three of the officers allegedly involved had already been let go as part of a purging process that began in 2016. More than 5,000 police employees have left the institution as a result of the purge, and another 2,000 are still being investigated.
The Attorney General’s Office is accusing Mejía of money laundering, bribery, illicit association and creating a “criminal structure” that charged cash bribes to allow transporters to move cattle without being stopped at police checkpoints. InSight Crime learned that some of the cattle entered Honduras illegally from Nicaragua.
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A later report from El Heraldo also indicated that Commissioner Mejía might be linked to the landing of a small plane loaded with drugs in Choluteca while he headed the department’s police force.
At the time the arrests were made, more than 31 assets were seized including seven homes, six vehicles and more than 20 bank accounts. Authorities are still to reveal more information about the massive amount of medications and medical supplies found in one of Mejía’s properties when it was raided.
The commissioner must now explain the origin of nearly 17 million lempiras (more than $700,000) found in his possession that do not correspond to the monthly salary of approximately $2,000 he received over the last two years.
The commission in charge of the police purging process appointed Mejía as deputy police commissioner in May 2016. In 2018 he was promoted to commissioner, the highest position in the institution.
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While the process enacted to purge Honduras’ police force has had some success since it began in mid-2016, it has also had its fair share of scandals and criticism.
The situation involving Commissioner Mejía underscores some of the shortcomings in the process and raises concerns about the possible participation of other current police leaders in criminal activities. It is a wake-up call that police reform in Honduras remains an unfinished task that requires significant improvements in transparency, institutional coordination and political will if it is to be achieved.
Despite Honduran law requiring that public officials declare their assets annually before the country’s Superior Accounts Tribunal (Tribunal Superior de Cuentas – TSC), Mejía managed to fly under authorities’ radar for years.
Moreover, this is not the first time authorities have identified police officers on active duty who were supposed to have been purged from the ranks. In July media outlet La Prensa reported a case in which a detective continued to receive his salary of 21,000 lempiras (nearly $900) a month despite having been dismissed for alleged links to drug trafficking.
In this and other cases, one way that police officials have managed to obstruct dismissal proceedings is by arguing that they are protected under Honduras’ old organic police law.
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To such roadblocks in purging the police can be added structural difficulties in both the institution itself and other governmental bodies. Conflicts of interest are commonplace, such as the police force investigating itself. And the selection process for Honduras’ attorney general ensures that the Attorney General’s Office often has its hands tied when it comes to independently investigating and pursuing cases, as evidenced in the paltry number of convictions it has secured for some of the country’s most important cases.
One bright spot is that Honduras has strengthened its money laundering laws. Recent sentences of up to 15 years were leveled against former police officers with lower ranks than Mejía in a case of illicit enrichment involving only a fraction of the money allegedly tied to the commissioner.
With the country’s new legislation possibly bringing sentencing up to 20 years, it is no wonder that so many purged police officers implicated in crimes are jumping at the chance to be extradited to the United States -- where they often receive much less jail time -- to face their charges. Such was the case of a Honduran police officer who was sentenced to five years in prison in the United States for trafficking cocaine there.
In another case, Carlos Valladares, former regional commander of Honduras’ now-defunct special criminal investigation unit (Dirección Nacional de Investigación Criminal – DNIC) in the city of San Pedro Sula, was recently sentenced in the United States to 14 years in prison. The charges against Valladares were related to his involvement with the Cachiros drug trafficking group, with the United States alleging that he worked for them as a hitman.
Image credit: Esteban Felix/AP