Operation Avalanche Hits MS-13 in Honduras

Operation Avalanche Hits MS-13 in Honduras

By Geraldine Cook
March 15, 2016

Honduran security forces captured 15 alleged members or associates of Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) as part of Operation Avalanche, a mission to dismantle violent street gangs.

Honduran security forces captured 15 alleged members or associates of the violent gang known as Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) on February 23rd as part of the first of three phases of Operation Avalanche, a mission led by the elite National Inter-Agency Security Force (FUSINA) to dismantle violent street gangs with a particular focus on MS-13. Seven hundred members of the Armed Forces, including FUSINA, the Military Police, the National Police, the Technical Agency of Criminal Investigation (ATIC for its Spanish acronym), and the Anti-Drug Trafficking Office participated in the sweep.

The joint forces conducted simultaneous raids in the nation’s capital of Tegucigalpa and in its neighboring towns of Talanga and Valle de Ángeles, as well as in San Pedro Sula and Villanueva in the northern department of Cortés. Authorities seized about $9 million — roughly 200 million lempiras — during Operation Avalanche’s initial phase, according to Ricardo Castro, head of the ATIC.

“This is a big psychological blow [against MS-13] – they were not expecting such a forceful response from the state,” Honduran Security Minister Julián Pacheco told the Honduran newspaper El Heraldo
. “We have hit the leadership structures, the heads of this mafia. The operation will continue through 2016 and 2017 until we are done with it.”

In addition to the arrests, law enforcement authorities and service members seized assets allegedly owned by the MS-13, including several homes; an apartment building; a commercial center; a medical clinic; a transportation company; a car junkyard; and a barber shop. At some of the properties, authorities seized two dozen police uniforms, about 20 firearms, including handguns and rifles, and bullet-proof vests. A few days later, authorities seized a soccer sports center they suspect was operated by gang members.

“These structures are very complex and we haven’t even touched a tenth of what they are,” Pacheco stated. “This is a gang with a nationwide presence. (Operation) Avalanche took place in San Pedro Sula, Tegucigalpa, and in surrounding areas ,
but there are other cities we will cover.”

Continuing operation

MS-13 was the focus during Operation Avalanche’s first phase because of the gang’s involvement in several violent criminal enterprises, which include extorting local businesses and transportation workers, such as taxi and bus drivers. The extortions rob hundreds of thousands of lempiras from hard-working people.

MS-13, which is also being targeted along with members of the Barrio 18 gang, also partners with international narco-trafficking groups. For example, MS-13 members help transport cocaine north to Mexico and the United States. They also own businesses that launder illicit drug money, law enforcement investigations have shown.

“They are a complex criminal organization with abundant resources that permit them to invest in several industries,” explained Military Justice Lieutenant Colonel Santos Nolasco, a FUSINA spokesman. “They owned a chemical laboratory in which we found drug-making precursors, so it is evident that they were expanding the scope of their operations.”

International threat

MS-13 began as a street gang and has evolved into a highly-sophisticated criminal organization. “Even college students are members of this gang, as we have seen,” Lt. Col. Nolasco stated. “The gang has permeated different areas and is operating with the involvement of people you would not expect.”

Law enforcement authorities in the United States, an important partner nation, agree that MS-13 is an international threat. “MS-13 ranks among the most dangerous and rapidly expanding criminal gangs worldwide, and poses a direct threat to communities across the United States and throughout Central America,” said John E. Smith, Acting Director of the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.

Smith made his remarks in April 2015, when U.S. authorities designated three of the gang’s alleged high-ranking leaders – Salvadorans José Luís Mendoza Figueroa, Eduardo Erazo Nolasco, and Élmer Canales Rivera – for their suspected involvement in transnational criminal organizations. The sanctions freeze their assets in the United States and generally prohibit all U.S. persons from engaging in transactions with them.

Rooting out corruption

Two former authorities from the municipality of Talanga, in Francisco Morazán department, were among the suspects arrested on February 23rd: Jorge Neftaly Romero, the former municipal government leader, and Álvaro Ernesto García Calderon, former police commissioner. Honduran authorities had removed García Calderón from his post after he had failed a series of tests as part of the depuration process, which is used to root out officials suspected of corruption.

Romero is not the first municipal authority suspected of working with a criminal group. In October, police detained the town leader of the municipality of Sulaco, in Yoro department, who allegedly led a violent criminal group. In June, FUSINA captured Ramón Sarmiento, who was then the municipal head of Juticalpa, capital of Olancho department, for his alleged involvement in the illegal possession of weapons and ammunition. On March 9th, law enforcement authorities captured a town leader, Jairón Chinchilla, in a house in San Fernando, Ocotepeque department. Authorities suspect he led a band of hitmen by the name of “Los Carrillos.”
It is very important how in recent years the U.S. has been supporting with personnel and donations, such as the Cesna 201 airplane, to be able to fight these criminal groups. We have to watch over the heavens of America and Latin American. From the air with eagle eyes. Which is the symbol God left to have as a model of courage and beauty.
In difficult times let us take the eagle as a role model he is always above the storms and from there visualize all the surrounding area.
It is very important to report on how corrupt some authorities become, when money comes easily. With no regard for the consequences We have to keep watch over the Latin American and American skies…from the air with eagle eyes. Which is the symbol left by God to have as an example of courage and beauty.