Honduran authorities have captured an alleged drug trafficker blacklisted by the US Treasury Department, whose links to the country's political establishment illustrate how organized crime is quietly attempting to infiltrate Honduran politics.
On March 12, Honduran police arrested Jose Miguel "Chepe" Handal Perez in the city of San Pedro Sula while he was visiting his father at a medical clinic, reported La Prensa. Upon realizing police had cornered him, Handal fled to his luxury vehicle before deciding to voluntarily hand himself in to the authorities, reported La Tribuna.
Handal was arrested on drug trafficking charges, and President Juan Orlando Hernandez stated that he will be tried by the Honduran justice system, rather than being extradited to the United States.
The US Treasury Department named Handal on its "Kingpin" list in April 2013, while he was campaigning for a congressional seat. Members of Handal's family, as well as several of his businesses, were also added to the list.
Handal had also been indicted by the US District Court in the Southern District of Florida in 2011 for drug trafficking (download the indictment here).
InSight Crime Analysis
The impunity that Handal enjoyed in Honduras between his 2011 US indictment and his recent arrest could be interpreted as one sign that he was receiving significant political protection. Handal ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2013 as a candidate for one of Honduras' most established political parties, the Liberal Party, despite accusations by the US that he allegedly served as the head of a criminal organization that acts as an intermediary between Colombian and Mexican drug traffickers.
Handal’s case is also significant because he was the first of a series of alleged Honduran drug traffickers to be named to the Treasury's “Kingpin” list in recent years. Faced with high levels of impunity in Honduras, the US Treasury Department began to blacklist alleged transnational drug traffickers as a means of pressuring the Honduran government. In some ways, it could be described as a "naming and shaming" approach, one that shone a spotlight on the top-level drug traffickers in the Central American country.
Since then, numerous US-designated drug kingpins have been captured in Honduras, and by October 2014 nearly half of the Honduran traffickers wanted by the US were in custody. In many ways, Handal's designation by the Treasury department was the first push that later caused so many seemingly invulnerable drug traffickers to fall.
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It would be unusual if Handal is prosecuted in Honduras, rather than in the US, as up until now many of the country’s most prominent drug traffickers -- such as the leaders of the Valle Valle drug clan or the Cachiros -- have been extradited to the US. Like Handal, they were once considered untouchable due to their high-level connections in political and business circles in Honduras. It is worth speculating whether information provided to the US authorities by the leaders of the Valle drug clan and the Cachiros helped lead to Handal's capture. In any case, the tightening net around Honduras' top drug traffickers could well be making other political and economic elites in the country very nervous.
Even as Honduras continues to register significant successes in pursuing transnational drug traffickers, the country still faces serious problems when it comes to improving citizen security, as well as its justice and penal systems. One recent attempt by the security forces to transfer imprisoned gang leaders to a higher-security prison sparked a riot that left at least 35 inmates injured and three dead.
Below, the US Treasury Department's chart of Chepe Handal's criminal network.