HomeNewsAnalysisUS Life Sentence for Honduras Partner of ‘El Chapo’ Sets Precedent
ANALYSIS

US Life Sentence for Honduras Partner of ‘El Chapo’ Sets Precedent

EXTRADITION / 24 MAY 2018 BY FELIPE PUERTA EN

A US court handed down a life sentence to a Honduran drug trafficker linked to the Sinaloa Cartel -- just the second time that a life term in prison has been given to a Honduran kingpin.

On May 21, the US Department of Justice announced the sentencing of Honduran drug trafficker Sergio Neftalí Mejía Duarte, alias “El Compa,” by the US District Court for the Southern District of Florida. He was arrested in Honduras on August 20, 2017, and extradited to the United States in October of the same year.

Mejía was found guilty on January 10 for trafficking over five kilograms of cocaine since 2012. After seeing the evidence presented at the trial, which included testimony from other drug traffickers and photographs of a shipment of more than two tons of cocaine, the jurors determined that he led a criminal network that conspired to traffic more than 20 tons of drugs into the United States.

El Compa’s extradition was requested after he came up in the testimony of Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga, the leader of the Cachiros drug trafficking group, and during the trial of Fabio Lobo, the son of former Honduran President Porfirio Lobo. In 2017, Fabio Lobo was sentenced to 24 years in US prison for drug trafficking.

Mejía is said to have been present at a meeting to plan the 2009 murder of then-drug czar Julián Aristídez González, who served as head of Honduras' anti-drug trafficking agency (Dirección de Lucha contra el Narcotráfico – DLCN) until he was gunned down by a hit squad. Former Congressman Fredy Nájera, also extradited to the United States on drug trafficking charges, is said to have attended the same meeting.

SEE ALSO: Honduras News and Profiles

Some of the drugs El Compa trafficked were hidden in banana containers coming out of Colombian ports on the Atlantic Ocean, including Cartagena and Santa Marta. They then entered Honduras via the port city of Puerto Castilla in the department of Colón, where Mejía had been active at least since 2000 with other drug trafficking groups like the Cachiros and Wilter Blanco’s group.

From there, the drugs were taken to Guatemala by land, air or sea, then to Mexico, where they were delivered to the Sinaloa Cartel.

Acting US Assistant Attorney General John Cronan said that “until his arrest, Sergio Neftali Mejia-Duarte was a violent and prolific drug trafficker whose criminal organization supplied cocaine to the Sinaloa Cartel.”

Mejía also had direct relationships with convicted drug trafficker Joaquín Guzmán, alias “El Chapo,” and Ismael Zambada, alias “El Mayo,” the latter of whom is still at large and is considered by authorities to be the current head of the Sinaloa Cartel.

Like many of the other high-level drug traffickers with whom he associated, El Compa had a taste for mansions, weapons and horses, often bringing his own chef to events he attended, as InSight Crime has learned.

However, despite his powerful role, Mejía maintained a low profile and until now was not identified among the most well-known drug traffickers in the region.

El Compa began to grow his operations around 2005, when he violently split from his friend and drug trafficking partner José Peña González, alias “Joche.” According to former Chief of International Operations at the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Mike Vigil, the split led Mejía to seek out other alliances with Colombian paramilitary groups.

InSight Crime had access to information indicating that one of the witnesses who testified against El Compa was Colombian drug trafficker Óscar David Pulgarín, alias “El Señor de los Caballos” (“Lord of the Horses”). Pulgarín had connections with the Urabeños organized crime group and is now serving a 20-year prison sentence in the United States.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Extradition

In the Justice Department press release, Assistant Attorney General Cronan thanked “our law enforcement partners in Honduras and Colombia for their assistance in bringing Mejia-Duarte to justice.”

When it came to partnerships in Mexico, Mejía worked exclusively with the Sinaloa Cartel. According to Vigil, business grew until he was able to move between 10 and 20 tons of cocaine a month before he was apprehended.

Vigil also says that the sentence imposed on Mejía was influenced by the amount of power the drug trafficker had, despite his supposed invisibility. It also points to the scope of his operations and the amount of responsibility he had in a series of deaths and violent outbreaks in several countries including the United States.

InSight Crime Analysis

Before Mejía, the only Honduran who had ever been sentenced to life in prison in the United States was drug kingpin Ramón Matta Ballesteros in a landmark case. Matta had ties to the Medellín Cartel and was a key player in linking them to the Mexican cartels.

The life sentence for El Compa could indicate that US authorities might seek a similar sentence against his old partner, El Chapo. Prosecutors and judges will use every tool at their disposal for Guzmán’s trial -- set to begin in September -- including Mejía’s sentence and the information that came out during his trial.

Mejía’s fate may also serve as a warning to other drug traffickers who refuse to plead guilty or reach agreements to cooperate with authorities in exchange for leniency. Like Mejía, other drug trafficking defendants who take their chances at trial often recieve hefty sentences.

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