Honduras Toughens Penalties for Extortion
By Kay Valle/ Diálogo April 20, 2017Extortion is a crime that the National Anti-Extortion Force (FNA, per its Spanish acronym) fights daily. However, the Honduran Criminal Code did not classify extortion accordingly. This legal vacuum impeded the fight against it. That is why judicial officials solicited a revision of the law. On February 27, 2017, the National Congress approved reforms to Articles 222 and 335, and Articles 335A and 335B were added to the law. “We felt that there were gaps in the legal tool regulating the fight against this crime. When extortionists developed the planning and intimidation phase against their victims, in other words, when they called people on the phone with death threats or threatened to burn down their businesses, we weren’t able to act,” Lieutenant Colonel Amílcar Hernández told Diálogo. He is the director of the FNA, an entity composed of the Public Ministry, the National Police, the Honduran Armed Forces, and the National Directorate of Investigation and Intelligence. “They were [only] able to arrest the person and prosecute them when money was exchanged with the victim, and if this transaction did not occur, the criminals could not be charged or arrested, despite the fact that they had been identified,” he added. This has changed. The reform specifies that it will be considered “consummated extortion” when threats are made, and the perpetrators will be charged whether or not they have achieved their goal of violence or intimidation. According to security analyst Allan Fajardo, a sociology professor at the National Autonomous University of Honduras, the change will facilitate prosecution of extortionists. “This reform ensures the inclusion of levels of the crime that were not specified before in the Criminal Code,” he said. It “facilitates the reporting of the crime and guarantees confidentiality, empowers justice officials to negotiate with those who commit the crime or with their accomplices, everything to get information that could lead to the prosecution or conviction of the perpetrators.” Other actions against extortion The legal amendments show that movement in the right direction is a reality. That is why a benefit for the victims was approved during the testimonial stage. Before the reform, victims had to testify during every stage of the judicial proceedings. Now they are only required to participate by submitting evidence prior to the trial, that is, the extorted party will make one single declaration before a judge, and that will be enough for a conviction. According to Lt. Col. Hernández, the requirement for the victim to appear in court was reformed because more than 80 percent of those crimes are committed by maras and gangs, and although judges did not allow confrontations between victims and their extortionists, they testified before the defense attorney. “Once they had the case file, the defense attorneys would often unintentionally pass that information to the criminals, who would again threaten the victims, forcing them to drop the complaint or not follow up in the case, and they were set free,” he reported. Penalties were also included for extortionists’ actions against individuals and property, and for forcing people to close their businesses or leave their homes or the country. “When someone sets a shipping or transport unit on fire, causes a person to die or be seriously injured, damages property, or forces them to leave a place, it is now classified as terrorism,” Lt. Col. Hernández said. Fajardo considers the inclusion of the term positive since “common or organized-crime activity creates terror among the citizenry, the direct victims of extortion, or among judicial officials so they can avoid prosecution.” Strategies to eradicate extortion Among the things that will help eradicate extortion are the use of technologies, changes in the habits of users, and measures that should be taken by business owners and state institutions, Lt. Col. Hernández told Diálogo. “The transportation sector has been infiltrated by maras and gangs, and letting go of personnel (drivers, assistants or route controllers) in order to clean up the companies cannot be done because the owners are under threat,” he added. He emphasized that this is why a high-level certification for all employees will be carried out by the National Transportation Institute. Panic buttons will also be installed, along with camera systems in the terminals and on buses and prepaid cards will be used to avoid the use of cash. Lt. Col. Hernández explained that members of criminal structures will receive different sentences. The prison term for the illicit association is 20 years, and if the detainees are carrying arms when they are apprehended, there will be an added term of no less than five years. If the crime is deemed to be terrorism, the minimum sentence is 40 years. Other aggravating circumstances, such as inducing a minor to extort, could add to more than 60 years in prison, and when a murder is involved, such as of a judicial official, the penalty is increased by a third. Since March 2013, when the force was created, four officers have been killed in the line of duty. “We are aware that it is a risk that goes with the territory in this fight, and we are not scared. Actually, it motivates us to continue honoring the memory of our partners who gave their life to defend people. There is a big responsibility in the fight against extortion, and we will continue growing and working to protect the lives of citizens and their property,” Lt. Col. Hernández concluded.