The return of a former Honduran police chief who fled the country after arresting a string of top traffickers is the first sign that President Xiomara Castro wants to shake up the country’s security forces – but it will be a difficult task.

Ramón Sabillón, who on January 27 was appointed security minister by Castro, spent the previous five years in exile. Sabillón left because he feared for his own safety, claiming in interviews that he did his job too well by arresting traffickers and implicating politicians in the drug trade.

In 2014, Sabillón oversaw the arrests of top leaders of the Valle drug clan. He was later fired by then-President Juan Orlando Hernández.

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Sabillón fled Honduras in 2016 after the emergence of documents that allegedly implicated him in a cover-up of police involvement in the 2009 case of a murdered police czar. Sabillón later claimed the government fabricated the documents as part of an effort to “neutralize the Honduran national police.” According to Univision, the documents are now “widely believed to have been manipulated for political purposes.”

Upon his return to Honduras, a triumphant Sabillón signaled he was ready to work for President Castro. He said he plans to continue extraditing traffickers as security minister.

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Though the return of Sabillon may be a promising step after years of corruption, Castro faces a host of challenges when it comes to rooting out drug trafficking and graft that reach the highest levels of the Honduran security forces and government.

To begin with, the new president inherits a security force heavily infiltrated by drug traffickers and their proxies. Military and police escorted cocaine shipments on the orders of top government officials, according to testimony heard during the trial of Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernández, the brother of President Hernández. Tony Hernández was convicted of drug trafficking in the United States in October 2019.

Several top Honduran security officials were accused of being linked to international drug conspiracies in US court filings. These included former security minister Julián Pacheco (2015-2022), who allegedly provided protection to a convoy transporting drugs from Honduras to Guatemala.

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Sabillón’s predecessor as police chief, Juan Carlos Bonilla Valladares (2012-2013), was indicted in 2020 by US prosecutors, who accused him of protecting cocaine shipments on behalf of Tony Hernández’s drug ring.

Castro must also contend with the possibility that her predecessor might soon be indicted by the United States.

Tiziano Breda, Central America Analyst for the International Crisis Group, stressed the challenges faced by Castro in overhauling Honduras’ drug and security policy, citing institutional weaknesses and “sky-high levels of impunity” as key causes for concerns.

“Not only does she inherit a complex security situation, but also ill-prepared institutions to address it,” Breda told InSight Crime. “By naming a new minister, it is not guaranteed that she can heal the security forces.”

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