Honduras' Attorney General's Office has helped capture some of the country's most powerful criminals and their assets, shaking the country's underworld, but the government's reliance on extradition raises questions about the long-term impact of these actions.
On February 27, the Attorney General's Office issued a press release on what it called "Operation Titan." The target -- a family with the last name Montes Bobadilla -- had operated since the early 2000s, the release said, moving drugs through the northeastern part of the country in conjunction with the infamous and now dismantled Cachiros criminal organization, among others.
The attorney general worked with the Administrative Office of Seized Properties (Oficina Administradora de Bienes Incautados - OABI) to capture 40 of the family's properties. But no arrests were made. When InSight Crime inquired if there were charges against the family members in Honduras, the Attorney General's Office indicated that if they were captured, they would most likely be tried in the United States following their extradition.
— Ministerio Público (@MP_Honduras) February 27, 2017
The decision not to charge the family members in Honduras is understandable. All charges against Hondurans must be vacated before anyone is extradited. And according to the press release, the family patriarch, Adán Montes Bobadilla, had been arrested in Honduras in 2003. But he had escaped his house arrest; he was arrested again in Colombia in 2007, and was again given house arrest until his death in 2014.
While it was understandable, the decision to send any captured Montes Bobadilla to face trial in the US was also illustrative of a problem in Honduras: at what point does using the US justice system to deal with large-scale drug traffickers stop serving Honduran interests?
The question is not limited to Honduras. Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico are all exporting large-scale traffickers to face trial in the US. And while it services the short-term interest of these governments to rid themselves of powerful traffickers who can continue to do illicit business from their jail cells, the judicial results in the United States have often left a bitter taste and led more than one to question the long-term utility of the measure, despite the institutional shortcomings at home.
Since Attorney General Óscar Fernando Chinchilla took over in September 2013, the Attorney General's Office has conducted a total of 43 operations against criminal groups and drug trafficking organizations, according to a recent report by the office (see report below). The "historic and forceful blows against criminal structures," the document begins, have been delivered through joint efforts by the Technical Criminal Investigation Agency (Agencia Técnica de Investigación Criminal - ATIC), the Directorate of the Fight Against Drug Trafficking (Dirección de Lucha Contra el Narcotráfico - DLCN), as well as anti-narcotics special units and prosecutors.
Two of Honduras' most important drug smuggling organizations, the Valles and the Cachiros criminal groups, were severely undermined by asset seizures and captures of top members. In fact, one of the first successful operations under Chinchilla's leadership targeted the Cachiros. In September 2013, authorities seized 117 properties allegedly acquired with drug money; the group's assets reach upwards of $500 million, authorities claimed. The brothers at the head of the criminal group later handed themselves in to US authorities.
Honduran authorities also seized 116 assets in 2015 from Juan Gómez Meléndez, a former governor and former deputy accused of acting as a front man for the criminal group. (Gómez was assassinated just days before the Cachiros handed themselves in to US authorities.)
SEE ALSO: Honduras Elites and Organized Crime
In the case of the Valles, the Attorney General's Office report says that authorities seized 72 properties and 10 companies in 2014. The three brothers at the head of the organization were arrested and two were extradited that same year to the United States. The report also underlines the fact that the seizure operations began before the three brothers were added to the US Treasury's "Kingpin List."
Two years later, during an operation against "new cells of the [Valles] cartel" in September 2016, authorities also arrested the son of one of the brothers incarcerated in the United States. The minor -- suspected of having taken leadership of the organization following the 2014 arrests -- was first released by a judge, before an appeal by the Attorney General's Office overturned this decision and produced another arrest warrant, according to the report. The son, however, remains at large.
Other criminal structures that worked as subcontractors or partners of these two important drug smuggling groups, such as the Zelaya clan and "Los Pintos," also suffered a string of seizures over the past three years.
Honduran authorities also succeeded in bringing down a number of high profile criminals, including José Miguel "Chepe" Handal, a former candidate for congress arrested in 2015; "El Negro Lobo," who became the first Honduran to be extradited in 2014; and Wilter Ruíz Blanco, the leader of the Atlantic Cartel who was eventually arrested in Costa Rica during an international operation.
Prior to Chinchilla's time as attorney general, there was little or no movement against these criminal organizations. As we chronicled in our series on elites and organized crime in Honduras, these groups dominated entire swaths of territory, hobnobbed with politicians and economic elites, and helped shape the economic and political fortunes of thousands, if not millions of people.
The prosecutor's achievements are particularly laudable when considering the influence that the country's powerful criminal groups wield and their infiltration of state institutions. These are not easy targets, and their demise impacts entire regions, so the decision to go after them comes with its own physical, political and -- perhaps most importantly for a poor country like Honduras -- economic consequences. This is what Attorney General Chinchilla has absorbed, and it has nearly cost him his job.
The creation of the ATIC and the restructuring of the DLCN under Chinchilla were also critical moves by the Attorney General and his cohorts. The ATIC is comprised of 275 agents who are trained in scientific investigations.
In the case of Orlán Arturo Chávez, the ATIC is employing its newly acquired skills. Chávez, the former head of the Attorney General's anti-money laundering unit, was murdered in April 2013. In February of this year, ATIC tied three policemen to the murder, using scientific evidence. Two of the suspects were already ordered pre-trial detention; the third individual is currently incarcerated in relation to a separate case.
The Weakest Link
Critics of the Attorney General's Office, though, say that the success against high profile criminals is often dependent upon avoiding the weaknesses of Honduras' judiciary; and the possibility that this institutional weakness imperils the longevity of any reform efforts.
As the Attorney General's Office report mentions in its introduction, several of these operations were the result of international cooperation, and many of the high profile criminals are currently incarcerated in the United States, or are under threat of extradition.
In fact, since 2014, eighteen Hondurans have been extradited to the United States. At least eight of these individuals were leaders or associates of the Valle Valle criminal organization, an indication of the extent to which the extradition process decimated the group's hierarchy.
International cooperation is an obvious strategy when attempting to bring down groups with transnational criminal ties. Other countries, most notably Colombia, have relied on it to corral large, dangerous criminal groups.
SEE ALSO: Honduras News and Profiles
But the extradition process between Honduras and the United States that was implemented in 2012 has taken on a significant -- and perhaps excessive -- role in the Central American country's fight against drug traffickers.
For his part, Chinchilla defended the government's use of extradition and noted that the institution he heads, "Has also brought accusations against important drug traffickers, meaning that extradition is not the only method used to fight against them, and that there are also procedures and sentences in Honduras."
He cited the case of José Miguel "Chepe" Handal Pérez, who was convicted in Honduras and is awaiting sentencing, and the Valle Valle case, which could lead to them serving sentences in the US and Honduras.
"Legally speaking, they can complete sentences here and then there or vice versa" he said. "As a matter of fact, the Valles [three of which are currently facing trial in the United States] are also facing an arrest warrant here in Honduras as well."
However, recent reports indicate that five mid-ranking members of the Valle Valle family are also set to be extradited and join the three brothers in the United States, a further sign that the Attorney General's Office is still wary of the Honduran judicial system.
Extraditions and US Assistance - A Double-edged Sword
In October 2015, the United States released an indictment against several members of the Rosenthals, a family of elite political and economic power brokers. The charges of money laundering were based on suspicions that the Rosenthal-owned bank, Banco Continental, was used to launder drug money from the Cachiros enterprise, as well as from some unrevealed corruption schemes.
Authorities in Honduras did not charge any of the Rosenthals, but based solely on US accusations, it liquidated the bank. Thousands were put of out work, as the ripple effect of this move was felt in and around the Rosenthal's headquarters in San Pedro Sula.
The indictment in the US sent a message to the elites, but the loss of jobs hit a political nerve back home. The same domino effect occurred following the dismantling of the Cachiros and the Valle Valle groups.
Authorities in Honduras are also troubled by the results of these judicial processes in the United States. Two of the accused Rosenthals, Yani and Yankel Rosenthal, have set bond and have been released until their trial. A third defendant in the case, the Rosenthal family lawyer Andrés Acosta García, is also out of jail on bail and has already entered plea negotiations that may provide him with a light sentence.
Members of the Cachiros are also thought to be cooperating with US law enforcement, as are five policemen who were extradited last year, one of whom is implicated in the murder of Chávez, the fomer head of the money laundering unit. The results of these cases will most likely be sealed, unavailable to the public. US officials cite security reasons to conceal these cases from public view, but the lack of transparency is frustrating for Honduran law enforcement.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Extradition
Similar processes have played out with drug traffickers from Colombia and Guatemala. The US justice system rewards cooperation, and the quick release of some of these extradited figures often surprises the governments who sent them to face trial and then do not have access to them once they are in the US penal system.
That is not to say that Honduras could handle such high level traffickers. As InSight Crime previously wrote, the heavy reliance on extradition and US indictments means that there is still a lack of confidence in the Honduran justice system's capacity to successfully try these suspects. But this lack of confidence is understandable in light of recurrent missteps from the Honduras' judiciary, including in relation to certain judicial cases mentioned by the Attorney General's Office report.
Wilter Ruíz Blanco, for example, was reportedly arrested by Honduran authorities in September 2016, along with three associates. Yet all were quickly released, possibly with the help of colluding officials.
The report also raises the case of former Judge Wendy Vanessa Caballero, condemned for absolving an alleged drug trafficker in exchange for a bribe. As previously mentioned, even the son of a Valles brother currently facing trial in the United States was surprisingly released by a judge before the decision was overturned on appeal.
It seems that until Honduras enjoys a fully functional judicial system, it will continue to rely disproportionally on the double-edged sword of US support and have to accept the consequences -- both financial and moral -- that come with it. This reliance carries the risk of masking Honduras' institutional weaknesses by creating a veil of successes against high profile criminals and groups.
*This article is part of an ongoing series on judicial and police reform in Honduras. It has been updated since its original publication with information provided by former InSight Crime editor Dan Alder.