The Honduras National Police's emblematic Casamata station was awash with red and blue lights and cordoned off with yellow tape on the night of April 4 as special agents backed by military police raided the facility in search of evidence that highest level officers planned and committed the assassination of the country's drug czar in 2009.
Official documents leaked to El Heraldo newspaper in advance of the raid draw a compelling picture of top-level police conspiracies ending with the December 2009 assassination of Julián Arístides González, head of Honduras' Office to Fight Drug Trafficking (Dirección de Lucha Contra el Narcotráfico - DLCN) and the murder two years later of his one-time adviser, Alfredo Landaverde. Both men were outspoken critics of police involvement in organized crime, especially drug trafficking.
González had dropped his daughter off at school and was proceeding along his normal route to work when he drove into an ambush set by police at a stoplight in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa. Motorcycle police pulled up alongside his SUV and sprayed the high level official with gunfire. González died at the scene.
In December 2011, Landaverde met a similar fate and his wife was wounded as they traveled through the city in their car.
An investigative report from the Secretariat of Security's Inspector General's Office, published in El Heraldo, notes that "part of this criminal gang of police officials and police officers responsible for the murder of Mister Gustavo Alfredo Landaverde Hernández are also involved in the murder of" drug czar González.
In both cases it's clear that it was not clever planning or bad investigations that prevented justice from prevailing, but rather a lack of political will on the part of government officials and the police.
A report from the Office of Police Intelligence, a number of partially transcribed interviews with those involved and three surveillance videos detail the planning and execution of the drug czar's murder in incredible detail.
A sub inspector apparently tried to disable the camera in Casamata's main conference room by unplugging a computer in the next room that monitored it. The screen went blank but a centralized intelligence center elsewhere in the complex continued to record as the head of the national police and other top officials planned when, where and by whom González would be killed. An officer who later picked up the recordings, apparently to turn them over to investigators, has since been killed. La Prensa reported that Jorge Castro Duarte's body was found on Nov. 5, 2014, with a single gunshot to the head. The police officer's wallet, badge and service revolver were still on his body and his motorcycle was parked a few paces away.
Partial transcripts included in investigative reports indicate that officers alternately laughed at each others' jokes and cautioned each other to keep their mouths shut about the plot. They complained about how González was "no friend of the police," but the real motive came through as they discussed how they would be paid for the murders by "our friend," whose name has either been redacted from the reports or was not mentioned.
The officers also discussed the payment of 400,000 lempiras (approximately $20,000) that would go to the hitmen, two brothers who were motorcycle cops of dubious reputation and a third man who had been kicked out of the police for criminal conduct.
One of the sub commissioners present had been in charge of deploying a group of trusted officers to the chosen intersection in advance of the ambush. But the officer neglected to do so until the day of the murder, when he pulled four unsuspecting traffic cops from their unit's pre-duty formation and took them to the scene. By 5 p.m. on the day of the murder, one of those traffic patrolmen was in the human resources office of his station giving detectives an eyewitness account.
He said three policemen whom he recognized pulled up to the group of traffic cops on two motorcycles and warned them not to react or get in the way because they were waiting for a subject and were going to "put him down" when he arrived at the intersection. "I told him: Man, if it's an order from the director of police, what are we going to do?"
The conversation from the video indicates that undercover officers were also following González in at least two other unmarked vehicles. A camera in Casamata's parking lot reportedly captured images of the killers arriving at police headquarters shortly after the murder, apparently to collect their fee. They then were ordered to take a special 15-day leave.
'Don't you know that that guy was no friend of the police.'
When detectives caught up to the two brothers who had been identified by the traffic cop some weeks later, the brothers admitted their role amid obscenities and threats, according to a report of the interview.
"What the hell do you guys want to know?" officer Gherluis Salgado reportedly shouted at the detectives, making menacing gestures with his hands. "Do you want us to burn you too, you sons of bitches? Go and ask the director." Salgado reportedly went on to say: "They sent us and they paid us 20,000 dollars. Don't you know that that guy was no friend of the police."
El Heraldo only named people who have since passed away, saying it did not want to hamper the ongoing investigation. Salgado was reportedly killed some time after that. Salgado reportedly referred in his interview with detectives to an incident in the remote Mosquitia region on Honduras' Caribbean coast. The current investigation has apparently decided that it was this incident that triggered González' murder. Press reports say the National Police confiscated a shipment of cocaine from one group of traffickers with the intention of selling it to another, unnamed drug lord.
González reportedly found out about the operation and sent special agents to intervene, confiscating the drugs and arresting 12 police. The would-be purchaser of those drugs is thought to be the one who paid the conspirators at Casamata to orchestrate the murder.
La Prensa reported that one high ranking officer during that time, José Luis Muñoz Licona, publicly denied involvement in the González murder, telling reporters that he was the head of a different police unit at the time. Muñoz reminded reporters that General Salomón Escoto Salinas, since retired, was head of the National Police at that time, and he identified René Maradiaga Panchamé as the head of police intelligence under Escoto.
By the morning of April 5, calm had returned to Casamata and the special agents had withdrawn. It is unclear what evidence they were after that had not already been passed to and published by El Heraldo. No information was immediately available about what they found.
The current top police brass gave a press conference on April 4, denying any involvement in the murders and promising not to shield any active or retired police officials from prosecution.
"We want to clarify that the current command structure of the National Police did not form part of the Police High Command at the time of these events" spokesperson Leonel Sauceda said, with a row of high-ranking officers in blue standing behind him.
InSight Crime Analysis
The recent raid signals an important departure from the impunity Honduras' notoriously corrupt police force has enjoyed. The open cases will test other historically weak links in Honduran justice as it moves through the legal system.
Now that the story is out and the wheels of justice have started to turn in these two very high profile cases, it is yet to be seen how fast and how far the case will go. With 30 members of the police identified as being involved in the González murder and 24 supposedly implicated in the Landaverde killing, heads should soon start to roll.
President Juan Orlando Hernández affirmed as much in a statement on April 4th, calling for security officials to immediately separate any implicated active duty officers from the police and put all who allegedly took part on trial.
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But it is not just the police who have acted with impunity to this point. Prosecutors, the courts and the country's political leaders have also failed to take decisive action. González's widow has been publicly accusing the police for the past five years and has said that a lack of political will prevented prosecutors from taking on his case. (Landaverde's widow has made similar efforts.) The events of the past few days appear to prove her right on both counts. It remains to be seen whether unprecedented movement against police in these two emblematic cases will mark a significant turning point for the entire system.
Even if the Honduran justice system does finally come around, it is unrealistic to believe that all the country's officials will begin to swim against the relentless current of corruption induced by the sheer volume and value of illegal drugs flowing through and around the Central American isthmus towards buyers in the United States. Perhaps all we can expect is that next time, they will make sure the cameras are turned off.