Evidence presented in a Honduras court that a former mayor's campaign was partly financed by the MS13 -- the first such case in the country -- is a new sign pointing to the gang’s increasing infiltration of local politics across the region.
Honduran authorities presented evidence in court on June 12 that the MS13 financed the electoral campaign of the former mayor of the central municipality of Talanga, Jorge Neftalí Mejía (also spelled Neptaly), local media reported.
Authorities say Neftalí promised the gangs political favors in exchange for 12 million lempiras (more than $500,000), if he won the election in 2013. A source within Honduras' Technical Criminal Investigation Agency (Agencia Técnica de Investigación Criminal – ATIC) -- an investigative unit of the Attorney General's Office -- told InSight Crime that authorities had both documents and wiretaps with evidence against the former mayor.
Neftalí, who was arrested in February 2016 as part of a wide-ranging operation against MS13 leaders and collaborators dubbed Operation Avalanche I, is currently on trial along with MS13 leaders and collaborators. Prosecutors recorded more than 3,000 phone calls as part of the case.
The indicted former mayor has maintained his innocence. In comments to television channel TN5 reported by Proceso, Neftalí argued that “one can’t know the origins of the funds" used in political campaigns.
The trial stemming from Operation Avalanche is the second in three months in which a former mayor stands accused. In April, a court found the former mayor of the town of Sulaco in central Honduras, José Adalid González Morales, guilty of criminal association. No links were established with the MS13, however, as authorities believe González Morales created his own criminal structure dubbed "Los Banegas."
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As the trial unfolds, the noose is tightening around Neftalí, who seems poised to become Honduras’ first mayor convicted of criminal association with the MS13.
This might be the first time evidence against Neftalí is presented in court, but it is not the first time he is accused of having links with the street gang.
InSight Crime previously reported on Neftalí’s relationship with the MS13 as part of a wide investigation into the criminal group.
“The relationship continued after the elections. Authorities played for InSight Crime telephone intercepts of conversations between [MS13 leader] Porky and the mayor discussing, among other things, a tractor the MS13 was giving to the municipality,” the report details, noting that investigators labeled Neftalí as one of the MS13 “Collaborators and Fronts.” These investigators also told InSight Crime that the MS13’s real end game with Neftalí was to help the politician reach the national Congress.
These accusations fit into a regional pattern of the MS13 infiltrating local politics for long-term political and criminal ends. This highlights both the large sums of money available to the gang to invest in political campaigns, as well as the crime group's growing sophistication.
In neighboring El Salvador, for instance, InSight Crime chronicled the criminal relationship between the MS13 and José Elías Hernández, the former mayor of the town of Apopa. In the wake of Hernández’ arrest, a spate of other Salvadoran mayors have been charged for colluding with the street gang.
In Guatemala, meanwhile, former Interior Minister Francisco Rivas recently told InSight Crime that the MS13 had even successfully placed its own candidate in a mayoral election. While this appears to remain an isolated incident in the region, its repetition could mark a significant shift in the MS13's presence on country's national scene. A 2016 study by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation examining the gang's creation of a "parallel state" in El Salvador highlighted the fact that the gang did not yet seek to directly control public office.
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Beyond efforts to attain influence over municipal governance, the MS13's growing sway over social and political affairs in Honduras may also affect the gang's extortion operations -- its main source of revenue.
In a March 2018 report on the evolution of the MS13 in El Salvador and Honduras, authors Douglas Farah and Kathryn Babineau claim that the MS13 has ceased to extort residents and small businesses in some gang-controlled neighborhoods, with the objective of gaining sympathy from the local population and building the gang's social capital.
It is important to note, however, that the MS13's trend toward sophistication is not necessarily unfolding homogeneously throughout the organization.
"The transformation of MS13 gang is not uniform across all gang structures and substructures, nor is it the same from country to country," Farah and Babineau wrote in their report, highlighting the disparities in sophistication from one MS13 clique or program to another.
This appears to be true, for instance, of the decision to cease extortion in certain areas.
"I don’t think that’s across the board, I think that’s concentrated in some cliques," José Miguel Cruz, director of research at Florida International University's Latin American and Caribbean Center, recently told InSight Crime, labeling the phenomenon a "clique pattern" rather than a gang dynamic.
Still, the growing political bent of even a few of the MS13's structures, in a region still contending with tumultuous national political environments, promises to deepen the challenge that the gang phenomenon represents.