Honduras has changed the law to allow the extradition of its citizens on drug trafficking and terrorism charges, raising concerns within the country that the government is allowing the US to administer justice instead of reforming its own system.
Within 24 hours of President Porfirio Lobo’s meeting with US officials in Miami on January 18, the Honduran Congress passed a constitutional reform to allow the extradition of Hondurans charged with drug trafficking, terrorism, or organized crime. The legislation was ratified a week later, reversing a ban on extraditing nationals that had been in place since 1982.
The government presented the move as part of a national security drive for Honduras -- where the murder rate is the highest in the world -- which includes reforming the police force and sending the military on to the streets in a law-enforcement role. Lobo welcomed the amendment as “historic,” arguing that Honduras “has sent a clear message … that we will not allow the country to become a center of drug trafficking for the region.” Rene Osorio Canales, head of the armed forces, said extradition would act as a deterrent for criminals, declaring that all those who can be proved to have committed one of the relevant crimes will be extradited.
The move drew criticism within Honduras, however, raising concerns that it could damage sovereignty, taking away the incentive to reform domestic legal systems, and simply exporting the problem abroad. A column in La Tribuna argued that because the government must now extradite criminals instead of battling impunity, means “Honduras is showing the signs of a ‘failed state.’”
Another issue is the perception that the Lobo administration is bowing down before US wishes. The move to allow extradition seems likely to have been influenced by US pressure, coming so soon after the meeting that country’s officials, and it will probably be used primarily to send suspects to the US. The Lobo administration does appear to be increasingly looking outward for help on security, particularly towards the US, drafting in experts from that country to carry out analysis work, and establishing a new US military base off the northeast coast. Some argued that the constitution was amended without political debate, and without the government gaining popular support for the measure.
However, as Lobo pointed out, in allowing the extradition of its nationals Honduras is not an exception in the region, but is following the path of neighboring countries such as Guatemala and El Salvador -- two places which face comparable problems with drug trafficking.
Guatemala in particular has leaned heavily on outside support to make up for the shortcomings of its legal system. This has borne fruit, with the creation of a UN-backed commission against impunity (CICIG), which has had a number of successes in investigating difficult cases. The country is also very open to extradition demands in drug cases, setting up special courts in 2008 to expedite these requests. Through cooperation with the US, the country has captured several of its biggest drug kingpins in the past few years, many of whom did not face any charges within Guatemala itself but only from the US. The country only began to unravel the Lorenzana drug trafficking network once the US Treasury placed Waldemar Lorenzana and three of his sons on the kingpin list, after they had enjoyed years of almost total impunity within their country. Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz told the press at the time of Lorenzana’s capture, in 2011, that "He could be accused of committing crimes in Guatemala, but he was captured on the basis of a US extradition request." Another example is Juan Alberto Ortiz Lopez, alias "Juan Chamale," one of the country’s top traffickers, who at the time of his capture in March did not face any charges in Guatemala, but only an extradition order from the US.
Guatemala, then, is an example of how extradition can be a useful tool for breaking up criminal networks in the absence of a sufficiently strong domestic legal system. However, it also shows the failings of this kind of approach, where justice is administered from outside. Last year a Guatemalan court acquitted former President Alfonso Portillo of charges including fraud and money laundering, despite the existence of overwhelming evidence against him -- he now faces extradition to stand trial in the US. As one analyst told InSight Crime at the time of the not guilty verdict, echoing the concerns in Honduras over extradition, "If we can't reform the courts, we need to start talking about a failed state."
The country where extradition has been most heavily used is Colombia, which sent an average of more than 130 suspects abroad each year between 2002 and 2010, the vast majority of them to stand trial for drug trafficking in the US. This has been a contributing factor in the country’s vastly improved security situation, though it has also incurred much criticism. One problem is that the US system is more open to granting sentence reductions to those who hand over information on their trafficking networks and help prosecute others. This can lead to large concessions for high-level criminals who are prepared to inform on their organization, even those who have committed atrocious human rights abuses in their home countries. This appears to be the case for many of the Colombian paramilitary leaders extradited to the US to stand trial on drug charges.
Mexico has also stepped up its cooperation with US justice in recent years, as it has developed a closer relationship on security with its northern neighbor. Almost three times as many people were extradited in the first five years of Felipe Calderon’s presidency as under the previous administration, with some 464 extradition cases, 99 percent of them sent to the US. Some 40 percent were extradited on drug trafficking or conspiracy charges. The Calderon administration faced similar criticisms for the high extradition rate, with El Universal arguing that this stops the domestic legal system developing, and shows the lack of confidence on the part of the government.
However, it seems clear that extradition has been extremely useful in disrupting certain Mexican drug networks. One example is the Tijuana Cartel, aka the Arellano Felix Organization, whose loss of power in recent years has been attributed in part to the extradition of some key leaders, who have given information on its workings to US prosecutors. Given the weakness of some Mexican prisons, it might simply be impossible to hold some of the most powerful drug traffickers in them, given their power and influence -- the most famous example being, the 2001 escape of Joaquin Guzman, “El Chapo,” from a prison in Jalisco, spurred by the threat that he could be sent to the US.
Extradition can be a useful tool to break up drug networks in the absence of a fully functioning legal and prison system, though it should not be used as a substitute for reform and institution building. Many governments clearly find it to be a useful measure, and even Venezuela, whose President Hugo Chavez often colorfully declares the US to be the enemy, has handed over some 19 foreign drug traffickers to the country in the last six years, according to Interior and Justice Minister Tareck El Aissami. One indication of the power of extradition is given by the fact that Honduras’ Congress voted on the bill in a closed session, with tight security measures. In Colombia, many lives were lost as powerful drug traffickers fought to prevent the government allowing extradition in the 1980s and 90s, with traffickers famously declaring; “Better a grave in Colombia than a prison in the US.”
It’s possible that Honduran traffickers could fight back against extradition. Indeed, as La Tribuna pointed out, former Security Minister Alfredo Landaverde, who was assassinated on the streets of Tegucigalpa in December, had spoken out in favor of extradition in one of his last public appearances.