TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras – Authorities seized money and goods totaling $34 million lempiras (US$1.7 million) between January and June this year from drug cartels operating nationwide, according to the Administrative Office of Seized Goods (OABI).
Since its creation in 2003 to December 2011, the OABI has seized $493 million lempiras (US$25.8 million) in narco-traffickers’ assets, which include everything from residences, farms and shrimp boats, OABI Director Humberto Palacios Moya said.
In the same period, $459 million lempiras (US$24 million) has been distributed among various government agencies and programs, he added, with the rest used to cover legal fees and expenses.
“OABI also is providing a public service by providing proceeds of forfeited assets, money and auctioned goods to government agencies and society,” he said.
The Prosecutor’s Office, Department of Security, Supreme Court of Justice (CSJ), Financial Intelligence Unit (UIF), National Children’s Trust (PANI), Department of Defense, Honduran Air Force (FAH), Joint Information Center (CEINCO), the Office of the President and the Office of Social Development have all benefitted from money and products seized from narco-traffickers.
OABI’s warehouses in Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula have 129 vehicles, 16 motorcycles and 14 small airplanes that were awarded to the state by the court after they were seized from narco-trafficking organizations, according to its 2011 annual report.
Additionally, OABI has 137 more vehicles, 10 motorcycles and nine small aircraft seized from narco-traffickers that could be placed in its possession pending a court order.
Palacios Moya, however, said his agency is facing two major hurdles in its effort to increase confiscations nationwide.
First, the country doesn’t have a specialized police unit dedicated to seizing narco-traffickers’ properties and belongings. Secondly, OABI’s aging warehouses are in dire need of repairs, as they’re “almost in ruins,” Palacios Moya added.
The warehouses’ conditions are so poor “95% of the vehicles [kept] in San Pedro Sula are completely destroyed. We will need to sell the metal by the pound at public auctions,” Palacios Moya said, adding the majority of boats seized by his agency haven’t been maintained, causing them to sink.
OABI has 11 agents to cover the entire country, which is 112,090 square kilometers (43,278 square miles). It also is running low on funds.
“We have $1 million lempiras (US$52,410) for the entire year, which will be divided among wages, travel expenses and to guard seized items. We also have to pay for repairs to the warehouses,” Palacios Moya said. “We don’t know what will happen to us when our million lempiras run out. The Secretary of the Treasury has not responded to our requests for a budget.”
In the past, OABI received a share of forfeited assets, as established in the law against money laundering.
However, the Law on Civil Forfeiture of Illegal Assets did not create a budget for OABI, but it earmarked funds for the Prosecutor’s Offices, the Department of Security, the Defense Department, the Office of the President and the Office of Social Development.
But a group of lawmakers, led by Congressional Vice President Marvin Ponce, is introducing a bill to Congress that provides OABI with additional funds.
“We want to revitalize OABI and prevent this [lack of resources] from happening in the future,” Ponce said. “The historical problem with the OABI is that there is no clear description of its functions or budget.”
Dulce María Zavala, the coordinator of government accountability body National Anti-Corruption Council (CNA), supports OABI’s mission.
“In this country, transparency and accountability must prevail, especially when it is a question of how we handle assets seized from drug traffickers,” she said.
Juan Carlos Berganza, the head of the legal department of CNA, agrees.
“The fact that the funds [seized by OABI] should be used for national security and for the fight against corruption is undeniable,” Berganza said, adding a portion of the money made through the sale of seized goods should go toward “better equipping the National Police and the Army with advanced technology in order to fight drug cartels and small-scale drug dealers.”