Honduras Steps Up Its Fight Against Extortion

Honduras Steps Up Its Fight Against Extortion

By Julieta Pelcastre/Diálogo
February 06, 2017

Fifty new elite agents will join the Honduran Anti-Extortion Task Force (FNA, per its Spanish acronym) — a special unit made up of military service members, agents from the National Police, members of the Attorney General’s Office, and other law enforcement agencies — in order to reduce extortion. The new agents started an intensive training program on fighting extortion on January 24th. Training will last 45 days and will be followed by a tactical and practical phase in different regions. They will join the FNA beginning the first week of March. The participating officers will be equipped with the best skills for detecting those types of crimes, enabling them to carry out successful investigations against organized criminal gangs and the maras, or transnational gang organizations. “Many of these cases of intimidation — about 80 percent — are committed by the two main gangs in Honduras: the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13, per its Spanish acronym) and Barrio 18. They carry out extortion and other criminal activities such as murder, drug trafficking, small-scale trafficking, and robbery,” Lieutenant Colonel Amílcar Hernández, head of the Honduran FNA, told Diálogo. Criminals often make threats to small- and medium-size companies, transportation workers, bus and taxi drivers, and taxi dispatchers, forcing them to pay large amounts of money. Women and children are used to collect extortion payments. “The best strategies for fighting any type of crime, especially extortion, are reporting it to the police and having the community’s trust. Thanks to the fine results that we have had in recent years using our National Interagency Security Task Force (FUSINA, per its Spanish acronym), many people affected by this scourge have reported it to the police,” Lt. Col. Hernández said. “Extortion is a crime that takes a heavy toll psychologically, and because of that, the victim is often unable to go to the authorities. This type of crime is one of the public safety threats that harms Hondurans the most; a crime that is fueled by fear,” Carlos Flores Paguada, an independent analyst on Honduran security issues, told Diálogo. From the creation of FNA in March 2013 to January 23rd, authorities logged more than 5,000 victim complaints, according to statistics provided by the agency. Between January 1st and 23rd, authorities logged 50 new cases of extortion. In 2016, 1,147 cases were registered, and in 2015, 980 complaints were filed. The arrests of 2,477 extortionists prevented the payment of nearly $8 million. According to the FNA, two or three operations per month are generally carried out across the country, especially in cities with the highest levels of these crimes, such as Tegucigalpa, San Pedro Sula, and La Ceiba. In addition to the filing of complaints, which is done anonymously, the blocking of cell phone calls in the country’s (24) jails has shown to be an effective tactic for protecting the civilian population, according to a January 9th press release issued by the Secretariat for Defense (SEDENA, per its Spanish acronym). SEDENA underscores that “there are citizens who have lost their sense of fear. They found that the Anti-Extortion Unit did not turn its back on them, but instead solved their problem.” In December 2016, FNA teams carried out a series of operations across the length and breadth of the country. These were operations against extortion crimes committed by MS-13 and Barrio 18. During Operation Avalancha (Avalanche)conducted in San Pedro Sula, authorities seized more than $42,000 from MS-13. They also arrested business people who laundered money for both criminal organizations. They seized firearms, computers, and cell phones. In addition to those arrested, circumstantial and material evidence that will be used to prove the involvement of individuals who are serving sentences at penitentiaries was also collected. Some incarcerated crime bosses have other gang members who are not in prison act as extortionists. “In the coming weeks, arrest warrants will be issued for gang members and members of the maras,” Lt. Col. Hernández stated. “This is a systematic coordination effort with other institutions that belong to FUSINA and that are doing their part and helping to bring down the level of this type of crime.” “We cannot deny that the authorities are getting good results from the standpoint of reports to the police and arrests made against extortionist organizations,” Flores said. “These new FNA units will yield better results.” Lt. Col. Hernández indicated that the main challenges faced by FNA in combating this crime are gaining the trust of the community, the campaign to increase the culture of police reporting among citizens, and a new amendment to Article 222 of the Penal Code, through which an individual commits the crime of extortion by the mere fact of demanding money from a person under threat. “Our society at large must take the necessary actions to break the vicious cycle of crime, fear, and impunity,” Flores stated. “We are not going to eliminate these criminal organizations overnight.” According to Lt. Col. Hernández, “Whoever the extortionist may be, sooner or later, he will be trapped.”
Share