2012-07-16

Alleged Los Zetas Operative Captured in Honduras

Los Zetas suspect: Arístides Cruz, an alleged member of a transnational criminal organization, was recently captured in Honduras. He is accused of money laundering and illegal possession of weapons. [Photo: Honduras Attorney General’s Office]

Los Zetas suspect: Arístides Cruz, an alleged member of a transnational criminal organization, was recently captured in Honduras. He is accused of money laundering and illegal possession of weapons. [Photo: Honduras Attorney General’s Office]

By Talita Verastegui

Is Los Zetas expanding its operations in Honduras? Police and army soldiers in Honduras raided a house in Tegucigalpa last month, detaining Arístides Cruz, 40, an alleged member of the transnational criminal organization.

Authorities seized several handguns, about a dozen bulletproof vests, three luxury vehicles, U.S. military uniforms and $70,000 in cash.

A few days after the operation, authorities found 20 pounds of C-4 explosives, several grenades, communications equipment, and more American uniforms in a room Cruz rented in another area of the city, as well as in his mother’s home.

Cruz was charged with money laundering and illegal possession of firearms and military gear. Authorities conducted the raids after receiving tips Cruz — a Honduran national — may be involved in suspicious activity.

“We had information that people in the area were trafficking weapons, and now we have the evidence,” said Col. Fredy Alejandro Cruz, a commander in the First Battalion of Engineers of the Armed Forces of Honduras.

Los Zetas, other cartels operate in Central America In another indication that Los Zetas is becoming more active in Honduras, the Mexican Navy in May seized 80,000 gallons of diesel fuel that belonged to Los Zetas and was destined for the Central American country, according to published reports.

The fuel was hidden aboard a ship in Ciudad del Carmen, in Campeche. Naval authorities found the fuel during a regular inspection. The seizure was made on May 15, but was first reported in June.

In recent years, authorities have cracked down on commonly used drug trafficking routes in the Caribbean. In response, Los Zetas and other transnational criminal organizations have increased their activities in Honduras and other Central American countries:

• In March, Guatemalan Interior Minister Mauricio Lopez Bonilla said Los Zetas was expanding its operations in his country. Los Zetas had become the most powerful organized crime group in Guatemala, he said.

• In April, Ecuador’s National Police captured El Chapo’s primary enforcer in that country. Police arrested Cesar Demar Vernaza Quinonez, who is known as “The Courageous.” The gang transported and guarded drug shipments for El Chapo which went through Ecuador, authorities said.

• In May, a light aircraft loaded with $1.4 million in cash crashed in Ecuador. The airplane probably belonged to fugitive drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán, leader of the Sinaloa cartel, authorities said. The aircraft did not have permission to fly in Ecuador, and the pilot and co-pilot were from Mexico.

Drug shipments move through Honduras

Honduras has become a crucial transshipment region for Los Zetas, El Chapo, and other transnational criminal organizations, officials said.

About 95 percent of the cocaine that is moved from South America north to the United States moves through Central America, according to the U.S. State Department’s International Narcotics Control Strategy Report. Eighty percent of drug cargo flights heading north from South America land first in Honduras, the report estimated.

In late June, one of those airplanes landed in Ahuas, located in the department of Gracias a Diós, in the remote, eastern region of La Mosquitia. The area has little infrastructure and a limited state presence, factors which make it an ideal location for illicit flights.

Acting on a tip, Honduran police — aided by U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents — met the airplane as it landed. The police and DEA agents found 360 kilograms of cocaine on board, and promptly arrested the pilot and three other people. That same week, Honduran police raided three houses in San Pedro Sula.

“We found several vehicles with irregularities, one of them had been reported stolen,” said Leonel Sauceda, chief of the national Preventive Police in San Pedro Sula. Police seized a dozen vehicles, he said. The cars and trucks had all been altered to have secret compartments, which are often used to conceal drugs, said Sauceda, adding that 32 kilos of cocaine were found inside the false compartment of a Mercedes-Benz. Authorities also found $450,000 inside a truck, said Óscar Aguilar, spokesman for the National Criminal Investigation office.

No truce in the war on drugs

The police and the Honduran military are collaborating on an anti-drug mission called “Operation Thunder.” The mission is led by General Commissioner Juan Carlos Bonilla, chief of the National Police. In December, the Honduran government authorized the military to join police in fighting drug trafficking.

Operation Thunder has led to the capture of dozens of drug traffickers and organized crime operatives, and the destruction of 60 clandestine landing strips throughout the country, Defense Minister Marlon Pascua said.

Honduran authorities are working to strengthen the country’s police forces, by hiring more officers and providing additional training. In the meantime, the military’s assistance is crucial in the battle against transnational criminal organizations, Security Minister Pompeyo Bonilla said.

“Without the support of the Armed Forces it would be very difficult to strengthen the police, which doesn’t have the sufficient means or personnel its constitutional duty at this time, but it is something transitory,” Bonilla said. Civilian police forces will be ready to assume the responsibilities of battling organized crime groups without the help of the military within a year, Bonilla said.

and former Colombian officials who successfully battled drug cartels in that country are cooperating with Honduran authorities by sharing experience and information. Among those advisors is retired Colombian Gen. Rosso Cerrano, one of the strategists behind the dismantling of the Cali and Medellín cartels.

“Drug trafficking is a corrupting element, but it can be faced,” Cerrano said during a recent visit to Honduras, adding that security forces must collaborate against organized crime and that Honduras can eventually get force Los Zetas out. “When there is a strong police, the criminals tremble,” he said.

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