The cold-blooded double murder of a congressman and his father, himself a former high-court judge and aspiring president, has sent another round of shivers through Honduras' elites as the country struggles to come to grips with the reach and power of its drug trafficking organizations.
The attack came on April 10 in the late morning as Liberal Party Congressman Jose Eduardo Gauggel Medina and his father, former Supreme Court Magistrate Eduardo Gauggel Rivas, were entering Gauggel Rivas' house in San Pedro Sula in Gauggel Medina's grey armored Toyota Land Cruiser.
Two cars pulled up, and two men got out of each car wielding high powered weapons, a police commander in San Pedro Sula told Tiempo. A firefight ensued. The congressman and his father died at the scene suffering what appeared to be multiple gunshot wounds.
At least one of the perpetrators was injured in the exchange, and authorities arrested him at a clinic in Villa Nueva, some 25 kilometers from where the attack took place.
Authorities quickly claimed the gunman, identified as Gabriel Enrique Ponce, said he had killed the two men in an attempted robbery at the behest of the MS13 gang.
The head of a special police unit in San Pedro Sula said it was possible the two had been at the bank to withdraw a large sum of money to pay their workers, but that the police had yet to confirm this withdrawal and that they had not found any money in the car of the victims.
On April 12, a second suspect was captured, EFE reported. No further details were given following the second capture.
InSight Crime Analysis
The Honduran authorities' quick reaction to the double homicide is heartening, even if their version of the events is very questionable. The MS13, and their counterparts in the Barrio 18, are brutal and have been known to steal and kill, but mostly in their areas of influence -- the poor, marginalized neighborhoods that lie far away from where Gauggel Rivas lived.
More importantly, the gangs have become an easy scapegoat for even the most high-level assassinations in the volatile atmosphere of one of the most violent countries in the world. And the context around this assassination gives it a much more organized crime feel.
Gauggel Medina was based in Copan, a western province with its fair share of powerful drug trafficking interests. Until recently, the core of Copan's dominant underworld force was the Valle family, a cattle-rustling and contraband clan that US authorities stated last year was moving between five and 10 tons of cocaine through Honduras per month, a huge amount by any standard.
Just weeks after US authorities arrested Digna Valle in July 2014, Honduran authorities captured three other Valle brothers in a surprising series of sweeps that devastated the organization.
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There has long been speculation that Gauggel Medina was a political operator for the Valle family and had received financial support for his campaign from them. The congressman denied having any links to the family, and after a photo of Gauggel Medina with two of the Valle brothers surfaced on social media, the congressman said it was just a routine picture that happens with many people on the campaign trail.
"As a politician, I attend all types of public events where all types of people come, and that is completely normal," he told local media. "A lot of people ask to take pictures with politicians, and that does not constitute a crime."
From left to right: Luis Alonso Valle, Jose Eduardo Gauggel, Arnulfo Valle and Rene Fernandez Rosa.
He added that he had not received "one cent" from illegal organizations for his political campaign.
But Gauggel Medina was not the only questionable one on his ticket. His alternate -- who will now become his permanent replacement -- is Rene Fernandez Rosa, the brother of Hector Emilio Fernandez Rosa, alias "Don H," who was captured last year in Honduras and extradited to the United States in February.
Gauggel Rivas was more powerful than his son. In addition to his run in the Honduran courts, he was the president of the Supreme Court of Central America and member of the Central American Parliament. He is also a man of considerable power within the Liberal Party; recently, he mulled a run for president.
Gauggel Rivas worked closely with others in the party, including the Handal family. The Handal family enterprises were added to the US Treasury's "Kingpin" List in 2013, in a high profile announcement that started what has been a string of drug trafficking dominos falling in the country. Two of those dominos were Jose Miguel "Chepe" Handal Perez, and his father, Jose Miguel "Chepe" Handal Larach, both of whom were arrested this year.
Two others, Javier and Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga, the heads of the famed Cachiros trafficking group, turned themselves in to US authorities in January (a third, Santos Isidro, may have as well, although there is no record of him in the United States and Honduran authorities have not said where he might currently be).
The Cachiros' political operator and principal third-party owner, Juan Gomez, was gunned down just days after the Rivera Maradiaga brothers absconded, apparently making their way by boat towards the Caribbean where they negotiated their own handover.
There is some speculation that Gauggel Medina played a role for the Valle family that was similar to the one Gomez played for the Rivera Maradiaga family: acting as conduit to the national political scene, helping to notify them of security schemes or investigations that might impact them or their operations, and opening the door for business opportunities.
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In declarations to the press after the incriminating photo with the Valle family emerged on social media, Gauggel said he had nothing to hide and had invited the Attorney General's Office to investigate him. Before his death, there was little chance that investigation would happen. Officially, Honduras' politicians have immunity while they are in office (one way drug traffickers seek to avoid prosecution is by signing up as congressional alternates, who also have immunity).
Unofficially, Honduras' political elites have lifetime immunity. And now that he's dead, there is no chance the Attorney General's Office will investigate Gauggel's potential ties to criminal groups. It would never risk the political fallout that would surely come with an investigation.
Instead, as with the case of Juan Gomez's murder, there will be speculation, rumors and hearsay that sometimes point towards unlikely culprits in the country's street gangs.
*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.