The arrest of a former police chief in Honduras is a sign of the country's efforts to address corruption and develop the capacities of the police, amid indications that the overall security situation may be improving.
Former Police Commissioner Jorge Alberto Barralaga was arrested along with three other individuals on July 30 during Operation Perseus (Operación Perseo), Honduran prosecutors announced in a press release. Three other suspects remain at large.
The investigation, led by the Technical Agency for Criminal Investigation (Agencia Técnica de Investigación Criminal - ATIC) and a special unit in charge of prosecuting police officers dismissed from the force, uncovered evidence that the four suspects and three fugitives may have been involved in money laundering. Specifically, prosecutors cited the suspicious movement of up to 1.9 billion Honduran lempiras (more than $80 million) between bank accounts in recent months.
Barralaga had been investigated in the past by the police internal affairs bureau based on suspicions he received bribes and covered up criminal activities by his subordinates, according to La Prensa. He was dismissed in 2011 after allowing four policemen accused of murdering two individuals to flee, according to La Tribuna.
Among the three other suspects arrested was Montse Paola Fraga, the wife of Wilter Blanco Ruíz, the alleged leader of the Atlantic Cartel who is currently in US custody. The Honduran investigation found evidence of Montse Fraga's ties with the former police commissioner, according to La Prensa.
Meanwhile, two days before Operation Perseus, authorities announced that the country's homicide rate during the first seven months this year had dropped by over 8 percent compared to last year. Officials projected that this year's murder rate will fall to 45 per 100,000 citizens, down from the 60 per 100,000 recorded last year, La Prensa reported.
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Despite decreasing murder rates, Honduras faces significant security challenges, as evidenced by the fact that even the projected decrease in the homicide rate would still place Honduras far above the regional average of about 23 per 100,000. But the recent arrests of Barralaga and his alleged accomplices are another indication of authorities' commitment to tackling criminality at high levels of law enforcement.
Operation Perseus took place against the backdrop of an ongoing "purge" of the police, led by a commission set up in April 2016 to address deep-rooted corruption in law enforcement. The process has been fraught with obstacles and setbacks, but by starting its work focusing on the top echelons of the force, it has arguably gone further than any of its predecessors. The commission's mandate was renewed earlier this year until January 2018.
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It is still too early to tell what impact the police purge has had. But combined with other sustained efforts to combat organized crime, the initiative may be contributing to what appears to be a trend of declining insecurity. Indeed, Honduran authorities have dismantled several major criminal groups in recent years, and have recently begun targeting the financial assets of crime groups more aggressively -- a strategy that experts say is key to disrupting criminal networks. Although concerns remain about the strength of Honduras' judicial system, these efforts show the potential benefits of improving the ability of police to investigate crimes and capture key suspects.