New details about an alleged hit squad run out of Honduras' National Police headquarters carrying out high profile assassinations for organized crime have met with a wave of denials, claims of ignorance, and more action in the political arena than the legal realm.
Documents purported to be part of an official investigation launched the day drug czar Julián Arístides González Irías was ambushed by gunmen in December 2009 at a stoplight in Tegucigalpa were leaked to and published on April 4 by Honduras' El Heraldo newspaper.
The following day El Heraldo published another set of official looking documents alleging National Police involvement in a plot that ended with the December 2011 murder in similar circumstances of González's former advisor, Gustavo Alfredo Landaverde Hernández. In both cases, the documents appear to be Honduran police files and include signatures and official stamps. Much of the most damning information is said to be transcribed from a surveillance camera in the offices of the general director of the National Police.
González was head of the Honduran anti-drug trafficking agency (Dirección de Lucha contra el Narcotráfico - DLCN). He had earned a reputation for actually doing his job in a country that traditionally had done little to confront the drug barons who serve as a vital link in the chain that moves cocaine from South America to the lucrative US market. Landaverde had been an outspoken critic of organized crime and police corruption in Honduras, often speaking to the media on those issues.
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Citing the lack of court action in cases which are still subject to prosecution, El Heraldo redacted names and positions from its report, mentioning only the ranks of police officers implicated by the leaked documents. The newspaper also withheld the name of the alleged drug trafficker the documents said paid the police to carry out Gonzalez's murder. InSight Crime reported on the El Heraldo revelations on April 5.
The New York Times reported the story on April 15, adding to its account the names of those allegedly involved. The US daily named Winter Neptalí Blanco Ruiz as the person who paid police to carry out the hit. It named two former directors of the National Police as leading the operation from within the police headquarters know as Casamata. The name means "slaughterhouse" in Spanish and is derived from the neighborhood in which the old police headquarters is located.
The two former police directors named by the Times were quick to deny the allegations. Speaking to Radio America, Ricardo Ramírez del Cid characterized as "fraudulent" the documents that say he participated in planning the murders and shared in the alleged payoff.
"This is all very ugly, manipulated and made up, and there should be an investigation to get at the real criminals," the former police director said. Del Cid told the radio station he believed the revelations about these old murders were "a smoke screen" laid down in advance of the installation in Honduras of an internationally backed investigative unit. The Support Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (Misión de Apoyo contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad - MACCIH) is scheduled to get underway this week.
Pronounced locally as "Maxi," the mission is sponsored by the Organization of American States and will support the investigation of emblematic cases, including the March 3, 2016, murder of indigenous and environmental activist Berta Cáceres.
Former police director José Luis Muñoz Licona issued a similar public denial, La Prensa reported. Sub-commissioner Hector Caballero appeared at the government's ombudsman's office (Comisionado Nacional de Derechos Humanos - Conadeh) telling reporters he sought protection. Caballero said he wanted to clear his name after being mentioned in the leaked documents as the officer who directed a team of assassins who carried out Landaverde's killing, El Heraldo reported.
Denials of participation from those accused in the documents of planning and executing the murders have been accompanied by claims of ignorance by other officials who should have received copies of the investigations but say they never did. Former Security Minister Oscar Alvarez, now a member of Congress, was one of the first officials to appear before TV cameras saying the investigative documents had never crossed his desk. Former Security Minister Arturo Corrales last week abruptly resigned as Honduras' foreign minister.
During a Sunday April 10 interview show on TVC television, President Juan Orlando Hernández noted that responsibility in the González case goes beyond the National Police. "Just like in this case, there are great number of cases from the past in which they say, 'How is it they didn't know?' Hernández said. "Don't fool yourself, how are they not going to hear about this in the Public Ministry? How are they not going to hear about it in the courts? How is it that they didn't find out in the investigative agencies?"
InSight Crime Analysis
Apart from the scenes aired on television of bullet riddled cars and Gonzalez's wife crying over his lifeless body, virtually all that is known about the cases has come through these documents leaked to the press years after the fact. The government of Honduras immediately launched what may have been a symbolic raid on Casamata. But the bulk of its action came on a political level. Within days the administration introduced legislation that would allow it to proceed with a dramatic overhaul of police leadership. Legislators passed the measure just as quickly, and a commission made up of three non-governmental notables was named to oversee the police purge.
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That process has dominated Honduran news in the two weeks since El Heraldo's dramatic revelations. However, the media has been almost devoid of the reports on indictments and other criminal proceedings that one might have expected. It is unclear how much evidence authorities have collected. A Public Ministry official who asked not to be identified by name told InSight Crime that one key piece of evidence, the surveillance video, is not in the official case file.
The alleged drug trafficker named Winter Blanco "is still walking free" and believed to be working in the Honduran Mosquitia region on Honduras' remote northeastern coast, he said. Authorities seized many of Blanco's assets a year ago on suspicion that he had acquired them with money of illicit origin. The confiscated assets included more than 50 properties, three very well appointed ranches, two wholesale seafood businesses, and dozens of vehicles, the official said, adding: "He has never come forward to say 'Hey, all this in mine.'" The official said that Blanco could eventually be charged with money laundering.
One of the properties confiscated by authorities in April 2015.
The public outcry and commotion caused by El Heraldo's revelations have provided plenty of fuel for a political agenda that includes muzzling the notoriously corrupt National Police. But it is still unclear who might actually face justice for the murders of González and Landaverde and for the apparently widespread and prolonged cover up that followed. Such prosecutions would be the most fitting and effective way to ensure that impunity does not continue to reign in Honduras.