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Honduras President Selective When Targeting Criminal Crackdowns

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While he cracks down on gangs, the president of Honduras has largely ignored drug trafficking charges leveled at his family members and officials within his governing party, raising questions about his desire to take on corruption that implicates his inner circle.  Beginning in late January, President Juan Orlando Hernández sent military and national police into the streets to take on gangs like the MS13. Amid this show of force, Hernández said that the Central American nation needed to increase the presence of its security forces, including elite units. In addition, Hernández is pushing to create a remote maximum security prison with no satellite communication, saying that the country’s current prisons are “insufficient for so many captured criminals,” La Prensa reported. The president’s focus on hard-line security measures and combating the gangs comes shortly after federal US prosecutors accused two Honduran mayors of importing “massive quantities of cocaine” into the United States and using “heavy weaponry” like machine guns to protect drug shipments while working with other traffickers in Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico. Prosecutors say Amílcar Alexander Ardón Soriano, the former mayor of El Paraíso in Honduras’ western Copán department along the border with Guatemala, had access to at least one cocaine laboratory and a clandestine air strip. He “leveraged his power by charging a per-kilogram tax” on cocaine shipments transported by other traffickers through the area under his control, according to the indictment. Ardón Soriano also allegedly used some of his drug revenues to “fund political campaigns in Honduras” for himself and other associates.

SEE ALSO: Honduras News and Profiles

During Honduras’ 2013 presidential elections, Ardón Soriano was also accused of engaging in dirty tricks in favor of the governing National Party’s candidate at the time, President Hernández. He allegedly helped intimidate voters and block access to voting centers. Hernández secured more than 80 percent of the vote and went on to win the presidency. Also charged with federal drug trafficking crimes is Mario José Cálix Hernández, the former mayor of Gracias in western Lempira department along the border with El Salvador. Prosecutors say he facilitated cocaine shipments and worked with drug traffickers who allegedly paid bribes to public officials, including to members of the National Congress and National Police, according to his indictment. Cálix Hernández is the cousin of the head of Honduras’ Anti-Narcotics Directorate, Soraya Cálix. His co-conspirator, according to authorities, was former Honduran congressman Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernández, the brother of President Hernández.  Federal US authorities arrested Tony Hernández in November 2018 on drug charges. Prosecutors allege he was a “large-scale drug trafficker” who went so far as to stamp his initials on drug shipments he handled.

InSight Crime Analysis

Aside from responding to the arrest of his brother, President Hernández has largely remained silent on the slew of Honduran officials charged with drug trafficking, of which Ardón Soriano and Cálix Hernández are just the latest examples.  In 2018, US authorities charged former National Party Congressman Midence Oquelí Martínez Turcios with conspiring to traffic cocaine into the United States. Before that, in August 2017, Hernández’s former investment minister, Yankel Rosenthal, pleaded guilty to US charges that he laundered drug money. Meanwhile, Hernández has chosen to hammer down on the gangs, rather than address the allegedly corrupt government officials linked to the country’s drug trafficking groups. In November of 2017, Hernández won a bitterly contested reelection bid that was defined by allegations of widespread fraud and the deadly repression of protesters. “It is entirely implausible that Hernández did not have knowledge of the alleged criminal activities of these newly indicted individuals or of his brother’s criminal projects,” Dana Frank, a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, told InSight Crime in an email.

SEE ALSO: Honduras Elites and Organized Crime

Christine Wade, a Central America expert and political science professor at Washington College, said these latest indictments against two former mayors with ties to Hernández showcase the “systemic rot” of the country’s political establishment.  “Organized crime and drug trafficking organizations have permeated Honduras’ state institutions at every level,” she added. Despite all this, Hernández is still embraced by the United States as a key regional ally on security and anti-drug issues. But Wade says that “mounting criminal charges in US courts,” in addition to what Ardón Soriano may possibly reveal through cooperating with US authorities in the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), may make the misdeeds of those around Hernández “harder to ignore.”

Honduras Oil Theft Sees Renewed Attention for Old Crime

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Oil theft in Honduras has been a reliable source of income for gangs for years, but the recovery of 50,000 liters of stolen fuel in the city of Puerto Cortés may lead authorities to finally crack down on this pursuit. The special operations unit of the Honduras Attorney General’s Office has opened an investigation, following the seizure, valued at around $122,600. Three years ago, a case had already been filed with Honduras’ Prosecutor Against Organized Crime, but it was never investigated. Now armed with new evidence, the special operations unit is renewing its attempts to curb a crime once thought to have been controlled by a few operators, but which has spiraled into lucrative revenue for gangs.

SEE ALSO: Oil Theft Coverage

Much of the oil theft in Puerto Cortés is focused along 8 Avenida, a vital road that connects the local oil refinery to the city’s main thoroughfares. During the trajectory, the thieves known as ‘lateros’, would ‘milk’ the trucks by extracting low amounts of fuel, even when the trucks were moving. They also stole bunker fuel, and other derivatives leaving the refinery. The stolen fuel would then be stored in surrounding neighborhoods, such as Los Mangos and Campo Rojo, where the 50,000 liters were recovered. Deputy Police Commissioner Marlon Miranda stated that while the police had been aware of the practice for years, a lack of complaints or charges by those impacted had made it challenging to prosecute anyone arrested in connection with oil theft. And truck drivers are likely to be working in connection with these gangs, decreasing the chance of any complaints being made.

InSight Crime Analysis

While Mexico has been in the media spotlight of late for its ongoing crackdown against rampant oil theft, this Honduras case shows that criminal groups across Latin America continue to thrive from this source of illicit income. While such theft has often been concentrated in large oil producers such as Mexico, Colombia, and Venezuela, smaller Central American countries have increasingly fallen prey to this practice. Oil theft is an incredibly difficult practice to eradicate, given the plethora of ways in which it can be carried out. In Costa Rica, millions of dollars in losses have been seen through illegal oil taps on pipelines.

SEE ALSO: Honduras News and Profile

In Honduras, where security gains appear to be very tenuous, it is telling that oil thieves can simply drive trucks up to refineries and siphon off gasoline from tankers rolling out of the gates. The announcement of an in-depth investigation into fuel theft and the involvement of prosecutors, police, and the military in this latest raid raise hopes the government will finally take real action. And with gasoline prices having been increasing rapidly in early 2019 in Honduras, urgent action is needed for fear of the demand for illegal fuel also growing in turn.

Corruption Probe Catches Up With Former Honduras President Porfirio Lobo

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The latest in a series of investigations involving former Honduras President Porfirio Lobo, his family and associates for corruption and drug trafficking pits the Attorney General’s Office directly against Lobo as it investigates him for diverting public funds. On February 4, the National Anti-Corruption Council (Consejo Nacional Anticorrupción – CNA) submitted accusations against Lobo to the Special Prosecution Unit Against Impunity for Corruption (Unidad Fiscal Especial Contra la Impunidad de la Corruption – UFECIC), which is part of the Attorney General’s Office. The CNA accused Lobo of misappropriating as much as $1 million in government funds.

SEE ALSO: Honduras News and Profiles

According to the CNA, the funding was supposed to be used for implementing social programs managed by the board of directors of the National Children’s Trust (Consejo Directivo del Patronato Nacional de Infancia – CODIPANI). However, the former president and former first lady, Rosa Elena Bonilla de Lobo — who is currently in pretrial detention — allegedly diverted the money in a series of withdrawals from CODIPANI in June 2013 to pay for presidential security. In response, Lobo held a press conference during which he said a journalist friend of his had already informed him of the investigation shortly before the CNA went public with it. He added that the accusations came from “pressure from above” and that he “would never take a cent from the poor.”

Video courtesy of TSi Honduras

In an interview with Proceso Digital, Attorney General’s Office spokesperson Yuri Mora stated that the office is in the process of analyzing the evidence that the CNE provided.

InSight Crime Analysis

Lobo’s presidency was riddled with criminal investigations and court cases against many members of his inner circle. But if the Attorney General’s Office confirms the CNA’s accusations, it could be the first time a criminal investigation directly targets the former president himself — despite what past speculation may have claimed. In November 2018, a joint investigation conducted by the Attorney General’s Office and the Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (Misión de Apoyo contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras – MACCIH) linked Lobo’s brother and former secretary to another case of alleged misappropriation of public funds. Known as the Brother’s Petty Cash, the scheme was described as “a framework for diverting public money originally destined to defray presidential palace security costs into their own pockets.” The case has a lot in common with another one the same two entities brought against former first lady Lobo in February 2018, similarly dubbed the First Lady’s Petty Cash. It too alleged that first lady Lobo diverted money intended for social works.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Elites and Organized Crime

Lobo’s brother had already been brought before a New York district court due to testimony from Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga, leader of drug trafficking group Los Cachiros, alleging that he facilitated ties between the criminal organization and his brother’s government. Rivera Maradiaga also testified that he bribed the former president. Even Lobo’s son, Fabio Lobo, has had underworld ties, and in this case they landed him in US prison. In November 2017, Fabio Lobo was sentenced to 24 years in prison in the United States following his guilty plea to conspiracy to traffic cocaine. A US Justice Department press release stated that “ (in order) to assist traffickers and enrich himself, Lobo used his father’s position and his own connections to bring drug traffickers together with corrupt police and government officials.” But in recent years, the CNA has presented 80 cases, of which only 13 have been prosecuted. According to InSight Crime sources Honduras, while it is undeniable that impunity runs high in the country, simple corruption may not be the sole explanation for it. The state of impunity of the CNA’s 67 remaining cases may be partly due to the weakness of the evidence presented by the organization. For example, the current case against former President Lobo includes photocopied documents, not originals. As InSight Crime has reported, varying economic and political powers converge within the CNA, which may have cost some of the organization’s cases their objectivity.  

The Collaborators in Honduras: The Girls Who Want to be Mortal

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At 15, you are a woman, a gang member for the Barrio 18, in a marginal barrio of Honduras. You have kids, you are jailed, police abuse you and you question how to change your future. This is a story about three such women, two teens and one adult, who are living an endless cycle of violence. Two teen girls look at a pool without any bathers. They are in a part of the city that they don’t know. Impatient, they toss the plastic bags containing their drying clothes over a yellow and white-striped hammock. Reddened from the strong rays of the mid-afternoon sun in San Pedro Sula, they hop on the hot concrete. They enter the water dressed in t-shirts and shorts. Até, pale with straight hair, grabs ahold of a pool lifesaver. Asteria, brown with curly hair, small eyes, and a slight nose, takes three swipe to clime onboard. They ask to learn to float.

*This report is part of The Collaborators series, a journalistic project about the current role of women in Central American gangs carried out by El Intercambio, financed by Internews, and published in partnership with InSight Crime.

Até lies back toward the sky, trying to make her body resist gravity to let her float. She can’t do it. Neither can her friend. Stubborn and smiling, they try over and over again. For two hours they try until getting out of the water to eat pizza. At least for an afternoon in a private pool, protected from stares, they appear happy even after so many failures. The situation is improbable. For two hours, telling their own story is a chance to express themselves without the violence and suffocating heat that ferments under their tin-roofed houses where they are anchored to immense poverty, in a barrio surrounded by deadly threats.

***

The barrio from which Até and Asteria hail is called Cerrito Lindo. The barrio’s ruler is thin and lanky, 19 years old, with his pants tied in a cinch, an enormous white t-shirt, and pounds of jewelry. It’s his way of showing authority. To get to Asteria and Até, we had to speak with him.

SEE ALSO: Barrio 18 News and Profile

In Cerrito Lindo, everyone pays homage to “Mortal.” Neighbors and gang members alike. He is the palabrero, or the local leader of this Barrio 18 cell, the second most violent gang in all of Latin America surpassed only by the monumental Mara Salvatrucha (MS13).
Mortal, the leader of the Barrio 18 street gang in a sector of San Pedro Sula called Cerrito Lindo, tests his gun. He shoots it three times at a bottle but never hits the target.
Mortal, who entered the gang when he was barely ten years old, has been imprisoned three times. The second time was shortly before we met him in July 2018. He escaped but he returned to jail in September. Now an adolescent nicknamed Scorpion runs things. Through a mouth filled with tiny teeth, Mortal speaks few words. Whatever women have to say is not important to him. And thanks to that disregard, the girls can speak freely, at least in the pool. In El Salvador and Guatemala, women have not been allowed to ascend within gangs since the 2000s. That leaves Honduras as the last country in Central America in which women can still be gang members, even high-ranking ones. In Honduras, their chance to become leaders is real. Até and Asteria are civilians — without any formal relationship to the gangs — but since they were ten, they played a role within Barrio 18. Now they are 15. A female gang collaborator is known as a “paisa” and she begins by watching corners, collecting extortion fees from businesses, sharing food with the “homies,” the name for the men in the gang, and caring for those sick or injured. Becoming a boss comes much later. Asteria and Até thought about becoming gang members, but they never fully joined. More than a year ago they decided to leave the Barrio 18, a gang which they never formally entered, but remain linked to. “At some point, were you called upon to kill someone?” (two seconds of silence) “We don’t talk about that, it’s very secret,” says Asteria, speaking for the two of them. Asteria and Até are not their real names. We have changed them to keep them out of harm because they risk being identified or confused with other girls. There are many such girls with stories like theirs in this barrio. The girls say that they don’t work for the gangs. What they do is favors. A favor can be anything, a favor can be doing for free exactly what they did before for $20. “What does it mean to do a favor when you’re not obligated?” “If one of them says to me: ‘look, go get me such and such a thing.’ If I want to, I go. If not, I don’t go,” says Asteria. “But you know that if you do a favor once, you are always going to keep doing it,” adds Até. “And the more you end up doing, the more involved you become.” They claim to be independent. But they are available to do many things for the Barrio 18. Because they say they want to. To be inside or outside the gang would appear to be the same. “Why? Because in the eyes of God and the Barrio, we are all equal,” says Asteria. “One is not better, one is not worse,” responds Até. “Because we all support it equally,” says Asteria. “We were supporters,” says Até. “We still support it. We give our lives for the Barrio,” she confirms. “What does it imply for you to not be in the group?” “We are shitting with fear,” responds Até.

The Hotel Pool

Cerrito Linda is in the immense Rivera Hernández sector, one of the largest barrios of San Pedro Sula, the most murderous city in the world until 2015 and now ranked third on the list. Within Rivera Hernández, there are more than 100 districts and settlements. Most residents of San Pedro Sula avoid them if possible. In 2015, six gangs fought over the sector. Three years later, residents say there are now eight gangs. A war zone sits within the dusty array of flat streets, adobe houses, and small shops, known as pulperías.

SEE ALSO: Honduras News and Profiles

The Honduran government knows little about female gang members. In general, the government only has an idea about the groups operating in the entire country. In particular, there is an understanding that within the Barrio 18, there are women who collect extortion debts. The police go after girls like Até and Asteria. The authorities place them in fixed boxes to position them within the gang structure: debt collector, informant, girlfriend. They never mention the possibility of leadership. Not understanding makes things simpler.
Most of the houses in Cerrito Lindo are blocks of cement and wood with tin roofs and curtains for doors.
Sitting on a porch in the neighborhood, in the afternoon light, we ask Mortal about a strange theme for him: women in gangs. He doesn’t have a prepared answer. He responds that they are like men. The difference is the reason they enter. They enter, at times, because of family issues or to follow a “homeboy.” Women, he says, are traitors. The boys laugh at his jokes and light their cigarettes until two confident teen girls, wearing shorts, interrupt. Their hair is pulled back, their lips are reddened, and their eyes are smoky. They were like that when we met them — Asteria with bright eyes and Até with straight hair and a sassy look. Both are trying to flee the gang, the police. If they don’t make it out, Asteria and Até, for having been born in San Pedro Sula, will become Artemis. Artemis is thin and strict. Nearly 40 years old she directs a small embryo of the gang, in a rival sector of Rivera Hernández. She is the leader of a group of teens that are trying to become gang members, she says. She is both mother and protector to her savage creatures, her boys. Artemis would not be a leader if her life had not begun like Até and Asteria.  If the struggles of poverty hadn’t taken their toll, she would be pretty. Her hair is faded, her hands are worn from washing with too much detergent, and her feet are hardened from walking for so long without shoes. She is similar to Mortal. Artemis and Mortal are two versions of the same problem. They are, also, mirrors into the which Até and Asteria see themselves.

***

The two girls smoke marijuana, they drink, they’ve used cocaine since they were ten. Até and Asteria met each other in the streets. If anything is like a family to them, it’s the gang. Asteria doesn’t get along with her father, and her mother died when she was ten. She has a brother in the Barrio 18. Até also had family in the gang. Her father was one of the first members in San Pedro Sula’s Poor Barrio 16, a neutral number between the two dominant gangs in Central America, Barrio 18 and MS13. The 16, from which Até is a descendant, links her to Artemis, the protector. Artemis also belonged to that gang. Até’s mother abandoned her when she was a baby. Her father was killed when she was just three months old. Her aunts and grandmother raised her. At 14, she was pregnant with a gang member’s baby. He was not with her at the time and still isn’t now. She didn’t realize she was pregnant for three months. Speaking of her son bothers her a lot. She distrustfully admits that the baby was the reason that she didn’t want to belong to the Barrio 18.
Each night, Até goes out to drink and smoke with her male friends, all gang members.
Asteria relates her decision to leaving the gang to having a revelation. She was imprisoned for her alleged participation in the killing of a man. In jail, she couldn’t sleep for nights on end. She was afraid of being alone. She longed for her mother as if she had just died. Two months after going inside, an Evangelical pastor said to her that she wasn’t going to stop being afraid to sleep unless she left the Barrio 18. “I was saying I’ll never leave the Barrio, I’m going to die for the Barrio,” Asteria said. But she remained paralyzed until midnight in front of the cell’s bars, thinking about the pastor’s words.

Gang Issues

What are the most frequent problems that you, as a gang leader, have with women in the gang?” “It’s that they are more sentimental, for love they can sell out the gang,” replies Mortal. In the last five years, the most common offenses for which the police have detained women are assault, possession of drugs and extortion. The tracking of women gang members by police changed in 2015, the year when extortion became a central focus. The police now arrest many more women for their association with criminals. The two girls became dedicated extortionists for the Barrio 18 during the past four years. Once a week, they visited the small shops, and they asked for between 100 (around $4) and 500 lempiras (around $20), depending on the size of the business. Some shopkeepers shut down rather than pay the so-called war tax. The National Anti-Gang Task Force (La Fuerza Nacional Anti Maras y Pandillas – FNA-MP) is made up of the police, the army, and the Attorney’s Office, and it has operated since 2013 in Honduras. Raids are common in this sector of Rivera Hernández. During the past five years, a human rights commission has made 60 complaints against the FNA-MP. The most common is excessive force when detaining suspected gang members. In early 2017, one day after the killing of the man which ultimately led to Asteria being jailed for a year, the FNA-MP knocked down the doors of the house in Cerrito Lindo where she was with a group of “homies.” Asteria says that the agents pushed her against the wall and smacked her hands and butt with a tree branch. She said they told them to pray to god because they were going to die. But the press arrived, and she stopped her prayers. Saúl Morales, spokesperson for the FNA-MP, said the number of registered complaints are almost too many to count. “There are many, like 300 complaints, I have received so many that I can’t even count them all,” says this young agent with a crew cut and who asks not to be photographed. When I ask him about Asteria’s case, he isn’t surprised. “At times it has gotten out of hand,” he admits as if it were normal to speak about police brutality.

The Enemy of Barrio 18

 Can the women be leaders like you?” “Yes, there have been. At the moment, no, because they are in prison, but there have been “locas” that have carried weight,” replies Mortal. In the same sector of San Pedro Sula, in Rivera Hernández, ten minutes from Cerrito Lindo, is where Artemis tries to protect her savage creatures. Before being in charge of this group of armed boys, Artemis was like Asteria and Até, a skinny and clever girl, with a poor family that she was supposed to be in charge of. Once her original gang, the Barrio Pobre 16, was destroyed, she joined up with Barrio 18. For two years, under her direction, protection, and experience, her shabby group of boys has fought the Barrio 18, the Mara Salvatrucha 13, the Locos Vatos and any other gang or authority that sticks its noses in the few streets and paths they control.
The group of boys who are under the tutelage of Artemis, a female gang leader.
The fight for territory also includes the police, just one more aggressor. Artemis recounts how on several occasions they entered her house shooting and threatening her. The police, she says, also take objects that are supposedly robbed. But what worries her most is not being robbed by police, it’s when they capture her boys and torture them. Three women. The same trajectory. Até and Asteria are trying to stay afloat in a muddied barrio that is violent. Artemis survives by elimination, like the head of a hydra at war, any day it can be cut, sacrificed, eliminated by Mortal’s men.

*This report is part of The Collaborators series, a journalistic project about the current role of women in Central American gangs carried out by El Intercambio, financed by Internews, and published in partnership with InSight Crime.

The complete investigation may be read here.

 

New Year’s Bloodshed Casts Doubt on Honduras Security Gains

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Authorities in Honduras have touted a decline in homicides in recent years, but a series of massacres to start 2019 raises questions about the ongoing security situation in the Central American nation. During the first two weeks of the new year, at least 30 people were killed in eight massacres* that took place across the country, from the northern Caribbean city of Puerto Cortés to western Olancho department and the capital Tegucigalpa, El Heraldo reported. Local criminologists said rival gangs warring over territory and control of small-scale drug trafficking were responsible for the bloodshed, La Tribuna reported. A reduction in police operations after the Christmas season could also be contributing to the violence as gangs settle scores and seek extortion payments. The Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) are Honduras’ two dominant gangs. 

SEE ALSO: InDepth Coverage of Homicides

When asked about the recent massacres, National Police spokesman Jair Meza told Confidencial that it’s important to remember that homicides are down in comparison to years past. Homicides have dropped considerably since the country’s murder rate peaked at 86.5 per 100,000 citizens in 2011. The homicide rate was cut by more than half to 42.8 in 2017 and then to 40 in 2018, the lowest rate seen in more than a decade. Experts told InSight Crime in November 2017 that a variety of factors have helped to reduce violence, such as the dismantling of large criminal networks and reforming and purging the national police. 

InSight Crime Analysis

Though homicide rates have dropped in Honduras, the high body count to start the new year is a reminder that violence — fed by institutional corruption — continues to threaten the country’s long-term security. While the review of the country’s police force, which began in 2016, has resulted in the dismissal or investigation of thousands of officers, the force continues to be beset by corruption. In October 2018, authorities charged and issued an arrest warrant for National Police Commissioner Lorgio Oquelí Mejía Tinoco and more than a dozen other officials for their alleged connection to a cattle trafficking network. Mejía Tinoco remains on the run. This high-level misconduct also extends into Honduras’ political class. In November 2018, US authorities arrested former Honduran congressman Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernández, the brother of President Juan Orlando Hernández. Prosecutors allege the president’s brother is a “large-scale drug trafficker” who trafficked “multi-ton loads of cocaine” into the United States.

SEE ALSO: Honduras News and Profiles

Political elites have also been embroiled in a series of corruption scandals, including the pilfering of state resources and the diversion of millions of dollars of public money. It’s estimated that around $1 billion is lost to corruption annually in Honduras, according to the National Anti-Corruption Council (Consejo Nacional Anticorrupción – CNA). What’s more, Honduras has one of the highest impunity rates in Latin America. Citizens have little faith in elected officials or the authorities tasked with protecting them from crime and violence, pushing many to flee. In the northern city of San Pedro Sula, considered one of the most violent in the world, a new migrant caravan — one of several to depart Central America in recent months — just left for the United States. *This article was updated to include the most current number of massacres and victims in Honduras.

GameChangers 2018: Threatened by Inquiries, Central American Elites Strike Back

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As 2018 came to a close, two things became clear: the once impenetrable armor against corruption that the United States and other international donors provided in the region has weakened; and the political and economic elites of Central America are simply unwilling to allow not only international commissions but also their own attorneys general offices and other independent investigators to get too close for their comfort.

A single image summarizes the entire year: Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales surrounded by two dozen uniformed military officials as he announces his intention to toss out the investigations against him.

August saw the battle between Morales and the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG) reach a boiling point. Morales was furious about the CICIG’s investigation into his victorious 2015 presidential campaign.

As InSight Crime reported in a special investigation on the Guatemalan president’s alleged illicit campaign financing, Morales’ dominance — and his rise to the presidency in 2015 — rests on his alliance with powerful ex-military officials, evangelicals and business leaders, groups which have traditionally held sway over the country. Perhaps not coincidentally, the investigations that the CICIG and the Attorney General’s Office conducted wound up identifying representatives from all such groups as suspects.

Of course, such actions are not found in Guatemala alone. Elites have also been closing ranks after coming under fire in El Salvador and Honduras, the other two Central American nations that make up what is called the Northern Triangle.

The Honduran government is being criticized after the leader of its internationally-backed anti-graft body resigned. Meanwhile, in El Salvador the prevalence of political mafias on both the right and the left has stifled incipient anti-corruption efforts in the Attorney General’s Office and the Supreme Court.

Long gone is the enthusiasm that had been awakened in the three countries in previous years for judicial processes and criminal investigations against ex-presidents and businesspeople entangled in complex webs of corruption. The struggles against corruption have not died out, but they will end the year weaker than they started it.

Corruption: Guatemala’s Political Hallmark

If Morales has an opponent in the corruption battle, it is Iván Velásquez, a Colombian judge and the current head of the CICIG, the judicial body backed by the United Nations that has been assisting the Attorney General’s Office in investigating and bringing corruption cases to court. At the beginning of the year, Velásquez told InSight Crime that Morales’ alleged illicit campaign financing is the original sin of the corruption plaguing Guatemalan politics. Then he set out to prove it.

Over the past two years, the CICIG and the Attorney General’s Office have upended Guatemalan politics by revealing connections that the now defunct Patriot Party (Partido Patriota) and Morales’ FCN-Nación party maintained with corrupt businessmen and politicians, who have hijacked and defrauded the government for decades. The investigations also revealed the role the country’s traditional economic elites played in these schemes.

Former president and capital city mayor Álvaro Arzú joined the current president’s efforts to discredit and besiege the CICIG. Morales also attempted to prevent the cases against him from moving past the investigation stage by selecting a new attorney general known to be in line with his interests.

However, not everything turned out the way Morales planned. Arzú died in April, and on August 10, newly selected Attorney General Consuelo Porras requested a new preliminary hearing against Morales for his alleged illicit campaign financing.

Events culminated in August with both Velásquez and Morales surrounded by soldiers. In the case of the former, they had arrived at the CICIG with the goal of escorting the commissioner out of the country, but he ended up staying. For Morales, the soldiers were present at his announcement that he would not renew the CICIG’s mandate, which ended in September 2019.

Timeline of CICIG head Iván Velásquez's road out of Guatemala
Timeline of confrontation between Guatemala President Jimmy Morales and CICIG head Iván Velásquez.

Morales then seized an opportunity when Velásquez visited the United States in search of further anti-corruption support, ordering his government to bar him from reentering Guatemala.

The country’s Constitutional Court in turn ordered the president not to prevent Velásquez from reentry, but the commissioner has avoided returning to Guatemala for the time being. Even so, the Morales government remains defiant of the court order and insists Velásquez will not be allowed to return to Guatemala.

In late December, Guatemalan officials further tightened the noose around the CICIG, announcing that 11 of its investigators, including some involved in the probe of the president, would not have their visas renewed. That decision left open the possibility that the investigators would be expelled from the country.

While the CICIG and the Attorney General’s Office continue to open corruption cases against local officials, the country’s fight against graft has lost some of the momentum it gained in 2015. At that time, investigations led to a cascade of judicial and political events that kept the government of then-President Otto Pérez Molina in check and eventually put the former president behind bars, where he awaits trial for corruption.

Honduras: Glass Half Full

The event that may best encapsulate the effect of the Honduran political elites’ reluctance to submit to investigations is the February resignation of Peru’s Juan Jiménez Mayor, who led the Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (Misión de Apoyo contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras – MACCIH).

Jiménez resigned in protest after the government of President Juan Orlando Hernández blocked the work of the international organization. The MACCIH was created in 2016 under the auspices of the Organization of American States (OAS) to assist the Honduran Attorney General’s Office in its efforts against graft.

In his letter of resignation to the OAS secretary general, Jiménez explained that Hernández’s National Party used legislators, judges and other quasi-public agents to embark on an institutional campaign to block legal reforms and criminal proceedings being pursued by the MACCIH and the Attorney General’s Office.

Jiménez accused government officials of using the national sovereignty argument to minimize the mission’s impact, among other issues. He also lamented the lack of support he received from OAS headquarters and its secretary general.

In June, the MACCIH — without Jiménez — and the Attorney General’s Office announced the Pandora case, which accused 38 people including officials from both the National and Liberal parties of diverting some $12 million from Honduras’ treasury. One of the issues involved in the Pandora case is the financing of President Hernández’s campaign.

Initially, Hernández seemed to support the investigation, but only conditionally.

“It is fundamental that justice be done. No one is above the law, but at the same time we should all be seeking the principle of the rule of law, the principle of innocence,” he said

By the end of the year, InSight Crime confirmed that the better part of the Pandora case remained stuck in a quagmire of judicial procedures.

In Honduras — as in Guatemala — national sovereignty and the presumption of innocence became the elites’ go-to arguments in their opposition to anti-impunity efforts embodied by organizations like the MACCIH and the CICIG.

It seems no accident, for example, that Hernández was the only president to support the actions of his Guatemalan counterpart at the UN General Assembly in September, when Morales accused the CICIG of “judicial terrorism” and of damaging the country’s sovereignty.

El Salvador: Individuals Sentenced, but Schemes Remain Intact

There is some good news to be had this year. September saw the sentencing of former Salvadoran President Antonio Saca to ten years in prison for corruption and bribery. The Attorney General’s Office brought charges against Saca for stealing some $300 million in public funds during his 2004-2009 term. Moreover, after a 2-year investigation, Saca finally gave a confession that implicated not only his own administration in the pilfering of funds, but also the administrations of his predecessor and his successor.

However, the case against Saca is a bittersweet victory for El Salvador. While it marks the first sentencing of a former head of state in the country, the 10 years behind bars that the Attorney General sought is far below the 25 years permitted by law. And Saca’s confession made it clear that the corruption schemes that allowed former Salvadoran presidents to siphon off millions of dollars through a so-called secret fund reserved for the presidency are still intact.

How El Salvador's former president Antonio Saca pilfered $300 million in public funds.
How El Salvador’s former president Antonio Saca pilfered $300 million in public funds.

Both the investigation against Saca and another against his successor, former President Mauricio Funes, began with discoveries made by the Supreme Court’s Probity Section, tasked with monitoring the income of public officials. Between 2014 and 2015, the Probity Section opened files on dozens of former presidents, ministers and legislators.

The files could develop into criminal investigations, thanks to a push from the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court, which wrapped up in July. However, the first signals from the new court, elected in November, are not good. It has already said that the investigations about possible misuse of public funds will be kept confidential.

The Ever-Simmering Triangle

When considering the state of the Northern Triangle at the end of 2018, it is hard not to be conflicted. Despite onslaughts from political and economic elites, the anti-graft agenda is holding strong in some government institutions — above all, attorneys general offices — as well as in important sectors of civil society and two international judicial bodies that provide significant global support.

It is undeniable, however, that the region’s elites have gained ground in their attempts to stop the anti-corruption and anti-impunity efforts targeting them. With that, the Northern Triangle’s old woes have returned to center stage.

It is clear that the main objective of the region’s powerful elites is to maintain the control they need over public institutions to evade criminal investigations and prosecution. Unfortunately, this means diverting anti-graft resources from their intended purpose and towards political gains, as in Guatemala; scrimping on anti-corruption efforts, like in Honduras; or even joining the forces of two opposing parties, as in El Salvador.

Credit: AP Images

GameChangers 2018: The Year Crime Became an Ideology

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Welcome to InSight Crime’s Criminal GameChangers 2018, where we highlight the most important trends in organized crime in the Americas over the course of the year. From a rise in illicit drug availability and resurgence of monolithic criminal groups to the weakening of anti-corruption efforts and a swell in militarized responses to crime, 2018 was a year in which political issues were still often framed as left or right, but the only ideology that mattered was organized crime.

Some of the worst news came from Colombia, where coca and cocaine production reached record highs amidst another year of bad news regarding the historic peace agreement with the region’s oldest political insurgency, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC). The demobilization of ex-FARC members has been plagued by government ineptitude, corruption, human rights violations, and accusations of top guerrilla leaders’ involvement in the drug trade. And it may have contributed directly and indirectly to the surge in coca and cocaine production.

It was during this tumult that Colombia elected right wing politician Iván Duque in May. Duque is the protégé of former president and current Senator Álvaro Uribe. Their alliance could impact not just what’s left of the peace agreement but the entire structure of the underworld where, during 2018, ex-FARC dissidents reestablished criminal fiefdoms or allied themselves with other criminal factions; and the last remaining rebel group, the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN), filled power vacuums in Colombia and neighboring Venezuela, making it one of our three criminal winners this year. Meanwhile, a new generation of traffickers emerged, one that prefers anonymity to the large, highly visible armies of yesteryear.

Also of note in 2018 was a surge in synthetic drugs, most notably fentanyl. The synthetic opioid powered a scourge that led to more overdose deaths in the United States than any other drug. Fentanyl is no longer consumed as a replacement for heroin. It is now hidden in counterfeit prescription pills and mixed into cocaine and other legacy drugs. It is produced in Communist-ruled China and while much of it moves through the US postal system, some of it travels through Mexico on its way to the United States. During 2018, the criminal groups in Mexico seemed to be shifting their operations increasingly around it, especially given its increasing popularity, availability, and profitability. The result is some new possibly game changing alliances, most notably between Mexican and Dominican criminal organizations.   

Among these Mexican criminal groups is the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG), another of our three criminal winners for 2018. The CJNG has avoided efforts to weaken it with a mix of sophisticated public relations, military tactics and the luck of circumstance — the government has simply been distracted. That is not the say it is invulnerable. The group took some big hits in its epicenter in 2018, and the US authorities put it on its radar, unleashing a series of sealed indictments against the group.

Mexico’s cartels battled each other even as they took advantage of booming criminal economies. The result was manifest in the record high in homicides this year. The deterioration in security opened the door to the July election of leftist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador. AMLO, as he is affectionately known, did not necessary run on security issues, but he may have won on them, and in the process, inherited a poisoned security chalice from his predecessor. While Peña Nieto can claim to have arrested or killed 110 of 122 criminal heads, AMLO faces closer to a thousand would-be leaders and hundreds of criminal groups.

The rise in the availability of cocaine and fentanyl greatly impacted the United States, which remains one of the world’s largest consumers of drugs. But 2018 showed that the days of the US using drug policy as a foreign policy hammer may be nearing an end. In the run-up to the United Nations General Assembly, for example, the Trump administration’s four-pronged “Call to Action” went largely unanswered by other countries in the region. Canada, meanwhile, legalized marijuana, and Mexico’s newly elected president considered a radical departure from the law and order approach the Trump administration promotes.

Still, two years of Donald Trump’s strange, haphazard foreign policy has had a devastating impact on foreign relations in the region and has opened the door to transnational organized crime. To begin with, Trump has largely abandoned years of anti-corruption efforts in Central America, while his administration faces near constant accusations of corruption inside his own regime.

Specifically, 2018 will be remembered as the year the US government stopped supporting the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG), the UN-backed adjunct prosecutor’s office in that country. During nearly 10 years in Guatemala, CICIG-led cases have imprisoned presidents, vice presidents, vice presidential candidates, former ministers, bank owners, hotel owners, and many more. But this year, current Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales — who is also under CICIG investigation  — began lobbying the White House and its allies directly, and eventually succeeded in cobbling together a coalition of accused elites. Morales sidelined the CICIG and exiled its celebrated Colombian commissioner, despite pressure from US Congress to keep the judicial adjunct in the country.

Other presidents, most notably Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernández, has played a similar game and largely succeeded in neutralizing that country’s version of the CICIG, the Support Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (Misión de Apoyo contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras – MACCIH). In February, Juan Jiménez Mayor, the head of the MACCIH, abruptly resigned. In an open letter published on his Twitter account, Jiménez said he left because of lack of support from MACCIH’s progenitor, the Organization of American States (OAS), and concerted efforts by the Honduran congress to undermine the Mission. In both Honduras and Guatemala, there have also been constitutional challenges to the MACCIH’s and the CICIG’s mandates. But, on a positive note, the re-election of the relatively active attorney general in Honduras may make efforts to neutralize anti-corruption forces there moot, most notably on one investigation that inches very close to President Hernández himself.

None of this seems to bother Trump, who spent 2018 engaged in a near permanent political campaign in the US, much of which revolved around conflating immigrants fleeing criminality with the actual criminal groups going after them, like the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13), something we tackled in our three-year investigation into the gang. Even worse, his administration’s border policies are actually helping organized crime. And his administration seems to have abandoned any pretense of pushing for human rights or a free press, even while the region remains the most dangerous place on earth to be a journalist largely because of the organized crime, corruption, and impunity that US allies like Morales and Hernández foster.

Indeed, Trump’s disregard for law, order and the truth allowed demagoguery to flourish, and nowhere was this clearer than in Brazil, where the rightward turn was even sharper than for its Colombian neighbors. After getting stabbed during a political rally, the military-evangelical populist Jair Bolsonaro — who was often described as a “Brazilian Donald Trump” — surged to the presidency on a racist, xenophobic platform that combined higher prison sentences, militarization of the war on crime, and turning back regional efforts to legalize certain illicit substances.

But if 2018 is any indication, bullying his way towards a more secure Brazil — which saw an astounding record of 63,880 homicides in 2017 — may not be so easy, even if it was a popular solution. The year witnessed another round of fighting in different parts of the country, including a series of battles between the Family of the North (Familia do Norte) and the Red Command (Comando Vermelho), which effectively ended a 3-year pact between the two groups. However, it was the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando Capital – PCC), which continued to pose the biggest threat, expanding both within Brazil and the region, and putting it at the top of our list of criminal winners for 2018.

Ironically, it was the leftist government of El Salvador that most resembled the militaristic Bolsonaro anti-crime strategy in 2018. The Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional – FMLN), effectively green-lit a hardline strategy that reminds many of the same regimes that FMLN guerrillas once battled against before it turned into a political movement. In 2018, the party also codified its most draconian measures and largely protected the intellectual authors of the most egregious human rights violations, even while the results of these measures remained spotty at best.

Meanwhile, gangs like the MS13 showed their ability to adapt in 2018, and to exert their political muscle in ways that continue to surprise, most notably in the capital city, San Salvador. Here the former mayor, and current leading presidential candidate Nayib Bukele —  himself a political chameleon who swapped from the leftist FMLN to a rival centrist party — negotiated with the gangs so he could start reshaping the city’s Historic Center into a more family-friendly — or at least, tourist friendly — area. The approach in many respects worked; as violence was down, the center got some much-needed structural upgrades, and new businesses opened. A drop in homicides this year suggests that the FMLN and other political operators may have also noticed the political results and may be seeking to accommodate the gangs as well in the lead up to the February elections.

Towards the middle of the political spectrum was Costa Rica, which in April elected Carlos Alvarado Quesada of the center-left Citizens’ Action Party (Partido Acción Ciudadana – PAC) as president. There, the election did not seem to turn on citizen security, but the survival of the new president’s administration may. Homicide rates are at record levels, in large part because Costa Rica is playing a greater role in transnational criminal activity, but possibly also because 2018 showed that the country’s security forces may be more deeply involved in crime than ever.

On a political spectrum all his own was Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, who was reelected in April in an exercise that seemed to confirm that he has long since dispensed with any pretense of democracy. As we chronicled in a multi-part special investigation, Venezuela has effectively become a vehicle for criminal interests. The reasons for this center on the emergence of homegrown criminal groups that are both inside of the government and connected to it; the abdication of the state of its duties especially as it relates to prisons; and the death of any viable economic system to support the corruption and ineptitude that prevail in the Maduro government.

The result was nothing less than chaos in 2018, with thousands of refugees who flowed daily into other countries. The unprecedented refugee crisis brought with it desperation and, inevitably, more organized crime. In short, Venezuela became a regional crime hub in 2018, a place where everything from stolen fuel to teenage girls and rotten food was for sale and every space was open for competition. The government did not seem to mind. It responded by launching a cryptocurrency tied to its failing oil industry, even while the First Lady was fighting off accusations of drug trafficking.

Venezuelan migrants trek through Peru.

Amid the stark zero-sum political squabbles, there is an outlier, a beacon of hope even. In 2018, Argentina seemed to be searching for some sort of happy medium in the battle against crime. The government made a push to improve data collection and intelligence gathering, while it punched up its arrest and seizure statistics. It has implemented a community policing program, even while it has flirted with using a militarized approach along the borders and elsewhere.

The results are coming in fits and spurts. The dismantling and trial of one of the country’s most violent criminal groups, for example, was upstaged by its continued ability to operate from prison. And a new plea deal law opened a window into official corruption, most notably among politicians connected to the former government of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

As Argentina’s Security Minister Patricia Bullrich told InSight Crime in an interview in 2018, the government’s plan is almost perfect. “We set into motion what we call the 80/20 model: 80 percent intelligence, 20 percent chance,” she said.     

It was, in 2018, a refreshingly candid remark, an admission that not every program is as advertised.

Credit: Ap Images

Gang Prevention in Central America: A Lost Battle Against State Indifference?

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With migrants fleeing murder and violence in droves and the evident flop of repressive policies in the Northern Triangle, gang prevention and rehabilitation programs seem evermore appealing. But their impact will continue to be limited unless governments invest time and resources in more effective, and long-term, strategies. “There was this young kid, ‘Chucky’, they called him. We started pulling him into various programs. But it seemed he was coming along more to see what we were up to, take pictures and record audio and video.” Juan Alberto Sánchez, the security coordinator for Villa Nueva’s municipal police, recalls the story of the 13-year-old boy and “The Exodus” (El Éxodo) community youth center as we patrol the violent Zone 12 neighborhood on the outskirts of Guatemala City. “We would just let him do it and we would ask him ‘why are you filming us?’ And at the same time, we’d be roping him in and trying to get him involved in the activities [at the youth center]. He was drawn to the recreational activities … but it was complicated for him to participate directly because he had already started to get involved [with the gang].” A community police officer, Sánchez is part of a preventive approach to the gang problem launched by local authorities. They try and redirect local kids away from gangs by offering alternatives, like cultural activities. It wasn’t enough for Chucky. The young man quickly rose in the hierarchy of the Barrio 18 gang, which left little time for anything else.
A graffiti by local kids in the courtyard of The Exodus center in Villa Nueva
“Every time he would go up in the hierarchy, Chucky would become a little bit more aggressive… It was really interesting to see how sometimes he would just disconnect, and all of a sudden — it would hit him, he had a duty, and he would tell us ‘I’ve got to leave.’ “When he was 17, we heard he had been ‘brincado’ (the ceremony to become a full-fledged gang member). He was sent to pick up extortion money from The Exodus… then he was killed by his very own gang.”

The Premise of Prevention

In the sprawling and infamous Rivera Hernández neighborhood of San Pedro Sula, Honduras, brand-new workout machines meet visitors at the “Centro de Alcance,” an outreach center for local youth. Pastor Arnold, who manages the center, describes the place as an oasis of safety, training, and recreation for kids. In 2013, Rivera Hernández was the most violent neighborhood in the deadliest city of the world’s most homicidal nation. Violence, coupled with poverty and lack of opportunities, made it a prime recruitment ground for gangs.

SEE ALSO: Poor ‘hood, Mean ‘hood: the Violent History of Rivera Hernandez, Honduras

“The kids around here don’t have anything to do, they take drugs, steal… we had to find them a place where they could relax and carry out healthy activities,” Arnold explains.
The gym room at Rivera Hernandez’ “Centro de Alcance”
For years, the general consensus has been that such US-funded programs dealing in primary prevention — prevention with at-risk youth that have not yet meddled with gang activities — have had a positive impact. Rivera Hernández was the first Honduran neighborhood to see such a center back in 2009; there are now 65 throughout the country, aimed at providing vulnerable youth with “a second home.” In Villa Nueva’s Zone 12, police officer Sánchez insists that local prevention work has helped contain some of the gang violence. Violence prevention strategies have also been successful in other countries. In Colombia, for instance, non-repressive strategies have been praised for their impact on street gangs. In Ecuador, authorities have gone so far as to legalize gangs to reintegrate its members into society. But these strategies have limits. The scarcity of scientific data on the impact of prevention programs in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras make any objective evaluation, at best challenging and at worst impossible. The strong US politicization of the migration issue only promises to cloud the needed scientific debate. In addition, these types of projects usually lack the resources needed to tackle one of the primary risk factors for gang recruitment: a disrupted household. “They work up to a point,” Quique Godoy, a former vice mayor of Guatemala City who also worked for USAID on prevention told InSight Crime. “But when you get back home, there’s a single mom, who works between 18 and 20 hours a day to be able to make ends meet … or she has a violent partner … it [pushes] you away from home to look for someone who protects you, and that’s where the gangs are.” The control that gangs have on their territories make it particularly difficult to reach a large number of vulnerable kids as they cannot cross invisible borders without risking their lives. A former gang leader interviewed by InSight Crime just a few blocks away from Rivera Hernández’ youth center said the kids from his area couldn’t set foot in the place.

Institutional and Structural Deficiencies

The fact that prevention strategies are not resolving the security crisis in the Northern Triangle does not mean they should be forgotten. Homicide levels in the three countries remain among the highest in the world; internal displacement and migration continue to be fed by gang violence; there is increasing evidence of human rights abuses by state agents; and a concerning criminal sophistication of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13). Central governments in the Northern Triangle seem to be completely indifferent to the potential of prevention strategies, including education and rehabilitation. Instead, they focus all energy and resources on repressive strategies. “The problem [of gang recruitment] arises with the 12 to 14-year-olds,” Guatemala’s former Interior Minister Francisco Rivas told InSight Crime. “There are primary schools everywhere [in the country], but no secondary schools.” Only two out of every 10 children in Guatemala attend secondary school, the former minister said, providing the gangs with a formidable recruitment pool in areas such as Rivera Hernández or Villa Nueva. A lack of focus on women, the absence of any rehabilitation programs in jails, the list of additional problems fueling gang violence can seem endless. But the potential of these prevention strategies does not seem to be interesting those in power. A continued focus on immediate repression instead of long-term multi-faceted strategies is likely to continue, along with the violence.

Guilty Verdict in Berta Cáceres Murder Trial in Honduras is Partial Justice

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Authorities in Honduras found seven of the eight men accused in the high-profile murder of renowned environmental activist Berta Cáceres guilty, a welcomed step forward, but justice was only partially served. Prosecutors found seven of the defendants, Sergio Ramón Rodríguez, an engineer for Desarrollos Energéticos SA (DESA); Douglas Geovanny Bustillo, DESA’s former head of security and a retired military officer; Mariano Díaz Chávez, a former soldier who served with Bustillo; Henry Javier Hernández, a former Honduran soldier who served with Díaz; Edwin Rápalo, former Honduran soldier Edilson Duarte Meza, and Oscar Torres guilty of Cáceres’ murder, the Attorney General’s Office announced November 29. The eighth defendant, Emerson Duarte Meza, was found not guilty due to insufficient evidence against him and released. Hernández, Rápalo, Edilson Duarte and Torres were found guilty of the attempted murder of Mexican environmentalist Gustavo Castro. The verdict comes more than two years after armed gunmen burst into Cáceres’ home in La Esperanza in southwest Honduras on March 2, 2016, killing her and wounding Castro, who survived only because he played dead.

Berta Caceres Crime Scene(Graphic showing Cáceres’ murder scene c/o International Expert Advisory Panel report)

In 2015, Cáceres, who founded the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Populares e Indígenas de Honduras – COPINH), was awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for her activism. Cáceres’ staunch opposition to the construction of the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam managed by DESA, which threatened to jeopardize indigenous Lenca communities living along the Gualcarque River that they consider sacred, is believed to be what ultimately led to her murder. Authorities in Honduras first arrested Rodríguez and Bustillo, as well as two others, in connection to the murder in May 2016. By January 2017, they had arrested Hernández,  Rodríguez and Atilio Duarte, in addition to two of the other defendants. In March 2018, authorities arrested Roberto David Castillo Mejía, DESA’s executive director at the time of Cáceres murder. It’s unclear when he will stand trial. The owners of DESA, the powerful Atala Zablah family, have not been charged with any crimes and deny any involvement in the murder.

SEE ALSO: Honduras News and Profiles

Cáceres’ eldest daughter, Olivia Zúñiga, told the Guardian that the family is “glad to see jailed the killers who murdered my mother,” adding that they demand “the masterminds behind the murder be brought to justice.” Robert Amsterdam, the international counsel to DESA who is representing Rodríguez, rejected the court’s guilty verdict and said he will appeal the ruling. “There is no question that this trial was the subject of an overwhelming international pressure campaign based on false claims, and now it has produced its desired result – a politically motivated farce to imprison an innocent man despite a lack of evidence,” he said in a statement. The defendants could receive up to 30 years in jail for Cáceres’ murder and between 20 and 30 years for Castro’s attempted murder. Sentencing is scheduled for January 10, 2019.

InSight Crime Analysis

The convictions in Berta Cáceres case are, although imperfect, historic. The fact that nearly all of those identified as material authors of the murder were arrested, tried and convicted for their crimes is a historic step for a country that has struggled to improve the investigative and prosecutorial capacity of its institutions in recent years. This was no easy task and could serve as a stepping stone for future prosecutions. Successful convictions in these types of cases almost never happen in Honduras and in Latin America more broadly, which is one of the deadliest regions in the world for environmental activists. A 2017 Global Witness report found that the killings of environmental defenders “rarely result in prosecutions.” However, there is still a long road ahead to achieving justice. The guilty verdict in the most high-profile murder case authorities in Honduras have arguably ever seen was welcomed, but predictably it did not satisfy all of the victims’ families or international observers, who argue that there were serious prosecutorial issues and that authorities failed to reveal the full truth or hold all of those involved in the crime accountable. “Since the beginning of this process, almost three years ago, it has been clear that the murder of Berta Cáceres was planned by the executives of DESA and then executed by hired assassins linked to the armed forces of Honduras,” COPINH said in a statement.

SEE ALSO: InDepth Coverage of Elites and Organized Crime

The murder investigation was marred by controversy long before the trial began. Incredibly, two vehicles stopped an appellate court judge in October 2016 and robbed her of the case file that she had taken from her office to further analyze at home. In addition, a separate investigation conducted by an independent group of experts found that the existing evidence is “conclusive regarding the participation of numerous state agents, high-ranking executives and employees of DESA in the planning, execution, and cover-up of the assassination.” Castillo Mejía, who is awaiting trial, is the only alleged intellectual author of the crime to be arrested so far. The trial itself was also filled with irregularities and roadblocks. The murder trial was delayed from the start, for example, after the private lawyers representing Cáceres’ family accused the judges presiding over the case of abuse of authority and a cover-up. Then, just before the trial began, judges ousted them, leaving the victims’ families with a public prosecutor. Despite the case’s clear flaws and holes, and the many structural issues that Honduras’ justice system must still confront, the guilty verdict is a step forward towards ensuring complete justice is served. The next test will come during the trial of former DESA executive director Castillo Mejía — who was the alleged mastermind of Cáceres’ murder. The Cáceres case illustrated the potential of the justice system in Honduras to secure convictions. But the larger question is whether this was just an isolated resolution made possible by the immense national and international pressure the case received. It remains to be seen if the justice system can function effectively without the eyes of the world fixated on it. Photo: AP/Fernando Antonio