Honduran security forces battle the Espinoza gang
By Dialogo March 20, 2014
Honduran security forces are waging a fierce battle with the Espinoza organized crime group in San Luis, a small village in a mountainous region of the department of Comayagua.
Dozens of heavily-armed members of the Espinoza gang streamed into the village in 2013, apparently intent on taking over the village, which is in the central part of the country. Dressed in camouflage military-style clothing and fake or stolen police uniforms, the gang members invaded San Luis and other nearby villages, terrorizing residents with handguns and AK-47s. In February 2014, police released three videos the gang made.
The videos show several gang members displaying their weapons as Mexican narcocorridos blast on the radio. In some of the video scenes, the men dance to Brazilian music with rifles slung over their shoulders. One video shows a pregnant girl who may have been held as a sexual slave, authorities said.
Police Director Ramón Sabillón said in a recent press conference, “one of those videos shows children in training, learning to use firearms.”
The gang members – many of whom belong to the Espinoza family – set fire to some of the homes that residents left behind and took over other houses. The Espinoza gang engages in extortion, theft, kidnapping and murder. Authorities suspect the gang collaborates with transnational criminal organizations, such as the Sinaloa Cartel, to traffic drugs. The Espinoza gang uses narcocorridos – songs which romanticize drug trafficking – to recruit children and teenagers, authorities have said. The gang is commonly known as Los Espinozas.
Gang members attack police
Honduran police launched an aggressive security initiative in February 2014 to confront the gang and to improve public safety in San Luis and the surrounding region.
“Normally we have 20 elements patrolling the zone, but in light of this chaotic, high-risk situation, we decided to send 85 more policemen, and a similar number of military officials additionally.” It wan’t long before alleged gang members attacked security forces.
On t he morning of Feb. 10, 2014, suspected gang members attacked a group of police officers who were patrolling the village. “Shots rang from behind, from the front, from everywhere. They were attacked from all sides,” said Commissioner Elder Madrid, Strategic Director for the National Police. One of the attackers was a young boy, about age 12. Police would later spot him in one of the videos the gang made.
“Police had seen the boy, but didn’t shoot because he was a child,” even though the boy fired shots at the police, Madrid said. Authorities suspect the boy had seen the police on patrol and had informed gang leaders.
“We learned later they were training kids, when we searched the houses they were staying at and found the videos among bullet-proof vests, helmets and other military paraphernalia,” Madrid said.
Gang members wounded five police officers. Two of the officers sustained serious wounds. Authorities flew those two officers in a helicopter to a hospital in Tegucigalpa.
The suspected gang members, including the boy, escaped through coffee plantations and dense bush, officials said. A trail of blood indicated that some of them were wounded.
A few days after police and the military increased their patrols, security forces in San Luis engaged in a gun battle with five suspected members of Los Espinozas. The security forces killed Darwin Rafael Espinoza, 25.
Police sent in reinforcements as part of a security initiative known as “Operation Morazán.”
Within days, police engaged in another gun battle with suspected Los Espinozas gang members. Security forces killed José Gerónimo Espinoza, 23, an alleged gang leader who was known as “El Chambo.”
Police Director Sabillón described the gang leaders’ way of thinking: “This criminal group says: I was born here, I grew here, here is where I will die.”
That is exactly what is happening, authorities said.
The Espinoza gang
At any given time, the Espinoza gang has about 40 leaders and key operatives. Most of these are immediate and extended family members.
The Espinoza family formed a gang in 2010, according to police. The Espinoza family was involved in a land dispute with another family. Members of the Espinoza family allegedly set fire to several properties owned by the other family. The Espinozas left signs at properties owned by the other family; the signs threatened that anyone who bought property from the family would die.
In recent weeks, security forces captured two alleged key members of the Espinoza gang: Gonzalo Luque Ramos, 23, and Samuel Baires Ruiz.
Security forces are still looking for alleged gang members Santos Isabel Espinoza Baires, 35; Walter Alexander Espinoza, 22, alias “El Militar”; Junia Espinoza Zúniga, 27; and Santos Priscila Espinoza Zúniga, 38.
The Security Ministry is offering 250,000 Lempiras, or the equivalent of a little over $12,000 for information leading to their capture.
“Operation Morazán has reduced impunity levels in the country,” says lawyer and security analyst Raúl Pineda Alvarado. “But it has not reduced the level of delinquency yet. The number of crimes has not gone down. What we have today is the largest number of prisoners in Central America, but we need to expand our vision to attack this problem from its inception. This is not only an issue for the police to solve. The police arrives after the commission of a crime, we need to nip it in the bud.”
If the authorities took care of the population from the street, neighborhoods or communities, many of these organizations would never be born. The control of every segment, even of families, would be through the population itself, meaning, there would be a higher interrelation with the population.