In Honduras, two high-profile killings have raised the question of whether criminal actors are waging a war against the government, in protest of the possible extradition of Honduran nationals to the US.
The murder victims included one of the country's top prosecutors for money laundering and corruption cases -- who was also working closely with the US government -- and a journalist who was reportedly advising the government on matters of public relations.
Prosecutor Orlan Chavez was gunned down in April. Alfredo Villatoro, a journalist who had close ties to President Porfirio Lobo, was kidnapped and held for several days in May of last year before his body was found dressed in a police uniform, with two shots to the head.
One question is whether those responsible for killing these two public personalities intended to also send a message that the extradition of Honduran nationals would be met with more displays of violence and more high-profile homicides. The killings were a year apart, but some officials say they could be connected to the pending extradition cases.
"Everyone's scared of extradition," said one employee of the Supreme Court, who spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity. "We think this could become another Colombia."
Colombia was torn apart by similar questions in the 1980s when Pablo Escobar waged a bloody public battle against extradition that included numerous bombs in public places; killings of judges, policemen, and politicians; and kidnappings of elites. To a certain extent, the strategy worked: delegates at the country's constitutional convention outlawed extradition in the 1991 constitution. Escobar was killed, however, during a massive manhunt in 1993, and extradition was effectively re-instituted in 1997.
Honduras is facing similar challenges. The Central American country of eight million sees 80 percent of the cocaine destined for the US pass through its borders, according to the US State Department. Honduras is also a relative safe haven from prosecution for high-level criminals, especially those seeking to escape the long reach of US prosecutors. Numerous Salvadoran and Guatemalan drug trafficking suspects, for instance, have sought refuge in Honduras, where nearly all crimes go unpunished and those that do seek justice often pay with their lives.
The Lobo administration supported the measure to institute extradition in 2012. This was partly a concession to a US government that has given Honduras $25 million in mostly security assistance since 2009. But the government has yet to extradite a single Honduran national.
This lack of will to fully implement the measure illustrates the incredible power organized crime has over elites in this country. In some cases, the criminals are holding politicians and businessmen hostage, threatening them and their families with violence if they do not comply with their wishes, as may be the case of extradition.
In other cases, organized crime and the elite are colluding; or worse: they have merged. Such is the case with Jose Miguel "Chepe" Handal Perez, a politician who has developed his own mini-empire, in part, because of his drug trafficking activities on the north coast.
In April, the US Treasury designated Handal part of its kingpin list, which forbids US and Honduras companies or individuals from doing business with Handal, or face sanctions and possible prosecution. The Honduran government and prosecutor Chavez quickly dusted off their case against Handal and confiscated several of his properties. Hours later, Chavez was assassinated. Handal is still at large but if captured, he could face extradition.
The first Honduran on the extradition docket, though, is Carlos Arnoldo Lobo, alias "El Negro," who officials say has no relation to the president. El Negro Lobo is accused in the Southern District of Florida of trafficking drug shipments through Panama and Honduras, and ultimately to the United States (read the indictment below). He operates from the Roatan island, one of the country's premier tourist destinations.
The noose is tightening around El Negro Lobo. In 2011, the government confiscated 32 of Lobo's properties in San Pedro Sula, La Ceiba, and Roatan. In January of this year, Colombian authorities arrested two of Lobo's principal providers of cocaine: Amaury and Mario Smith Pomare, alias "Los Mellos de Cassandra," or "Cassandra's twins," an apparent reference to their mother.
The Mellos had brokered a deal to source cocaine from the Rastrojos criminal organization in Colombia, who are also disintegrating amidst pressure from both Colombian and US law enforcement. Numerous Rastrojos leaders have been captured or have handed themselves in to US authorities.
To be sure, Colombia is the country that now most extradites drug trafficking suspects to the United States. Mexico has also extradited numerous suspected traffickers in recent years, and Guatemala, despite attempts to subvert the process, has also extradited suspects. Even Honduras extradited a high level Guatemalan suspect to the United States in 2011, the first extradition from this country since 1909.
However, Honduran traffickers seem to be resisting this fate. Negro Lobo remains at large and, along with many other traffickers, is a potentially destabilizing force.
"In response to our legislative actions, like extradition, our blows to drug trafficking organizations, they are doing things to strike fear in Honduran society," then-Minister of Security Pompeyo Bonilla said following Villatoro's death.
The fear is palpable and possibly impeding the process already. When Congress passed the extradition measure, it did so in a tightly guarded and closed session. No record was made available of the debate. Shortly thereafter, however, Congress requested that the Supreme Court clarify the criteria involved in extraditing nationals. The court complied, presenting a list last July, but Congress has stalled again.
The research presented in this article is, in part, the result of a project funded by Canada's International Development Research Centre (IDRC). Its content is not necessarily a reflection of the positions of the IDRC. The ideas, thoughts and opinions contained in this document are those of the author or authors.