Violence is decreasing in Honduras, which once had the world’s highest homicide rate: last year it dropped to 68 per 100,000 residents after peaking at 86.5 in 2011.
“It’s a considerable decrease,” said Migdonia Ayestas. She's the director of Honduras’ National Violence Observatory and the National Autonomous University’s Institute on Democracy, Peace, and Security (IUDPAS, for its Spanish acronym), which was created in 2008 to strengthen the bonds between the university’s research, education, and society.
“Twenty people were losing their lives daily at that time. The number of deaths per day now is 14...we assume that the homicide rate number will drop a little bit more by the end of 2015, given the current conditions. To begin with, there is a full awareness of the problem. Municipal authorities also understand that security is an issue that pertains to them. Lastly, civil society is empowering itself, owning this difficult, life-or-death topic, demanding more security, and the reduction of impunity in the country.”
Many Honduran victims of homicide are young: 51 percent of victims of violent deaths are under the age of 30. “It’s the vulnerable groups of people – women, children, the youth, the public transportation workers – being hit the hardest.”
Drug traffickers captured and extradited
The drop in the number of violent deaths follows the capture and extradition during the past year of several Honduran organized crime leaders and operatives. In addition, security forces have strengthened the country’s air, land, and sea shields against international drug trafficking.
“There is a correlation,” Ayestas said. “The laws that allow the extradition of drug traffickers (and) the creation of new police forces, including the Military Police and a new investigative police, have had an effect.”
Those forces have succeeded in capturing several important drug traffickers in recent years. For example, by the end of October 2014, the Military and police had arrested eight of 19 alleged drug traffickers wanted in the U.S. Among them was Héctor Emilio Fernández Rosa, an alleged drug trafficker who was arrested on October 7, 2014, by Military Troops in cooperation with prosecutors and U.S. security forces.
Such cooperation between Honduran and U.S. security forces has led to significant progress against Los Valles, an international drug-trafficking operation that’s closely aligned with the Sinaloa Cartel, a Mexican transnational criminal organization. In July 2014, U.S. federal authorities arrested Digna Valle Valle, a key member of Los Valles, in Florida. She eventually agreed to cooperate with U.S. federal prosecutors and pleaded guilty to drug-trafficking charges; in July, a U.S. federal judge sentenced her to 11 years and three months in prison.
A month after her arrest, Honduran security forces seized more than 50 properties that belonged to members of Los Valles, including homes, a farm, a hardware store, a cafe, a cattle ranch, and land. And two months after those seizures, Troops captured three of Digna’s brothers who were leaders of Los Valles: José Inocente Valle Valle, Miguel Arnulfo Valle Valle and Luis Alonso Valle Valle. The latter two brothers were extradited in December to the U.S. to face drug-trafficking charges.
Amid these successes, civilians are contributing to the fight against crime through the “Únete a Nuestra Lucha” (Join Our Fight) campaign -- an initiative that allows residents to cooperate with the Drug Enforcement Bureau (DLCN) to reduce and eliminate the sale of narcotics and to disband drug-trafficking gangs. Through the program, civilians have the opportunity to provide anonymous tips to fight drug trafficking, money laundering, and related crimes. As a consequence of the campaign, the Armed Forces received 112 reports and tips about drug trafficking and money laundering activities between May 11 and August 14, compared to 32 during the same time frame in 2014.
Honduran law enforcement efforts
Meanwhile, law enforcement agencies are working with the Armed Forces to capture drug traffickers and confront violent street gangs, such as Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 (M-18).
Two new law enforcement agencies are contributing to the fight. In March, the Public Ministry created its own criminal investigation unit, the Technical Criminal Investigation Agency (ATIC), which focuses on high-profile cases. And on September 1, a new police investigative branch - the Police Investigations Division (DPI) - began operations; with improved training and equipped with modern technology, this new branch replaces the former national investigative unit, the National Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DNIC).
“We will begin working with 1,000 agents during this first phase of the DPI,” said police spokesman Deputy Commissioner Leonel Sauceda. “When people are attacked or grieving, and file a report, they can expect answers.”
Law enforcement agencies have also been coordinating with the Armed Forces to help improve public safety. For example, the National Interagency Security Force (FUSINA), created in February 2014, brings together the Armed Forces, National Police, judges, investigation agents, and prosecutors against organized crime, drug trafficking, and common offenses. Working cooperatively, Armed Forces Troops and police officers conduct security patrols and man checkpoints throughout the country.
Between January 1 and early July, FUSINA forces and other law enforcement officers arrested more than 800 suspects allegedly participating in extortion schemes. During that time, the Military and police executed 1,634 arrest warrants for various crimes and broke up 55 criminal gangs.
FUSINA is also one of multiple agencies, including the National Intelligence Investigation Bureau, the Armed Forces, the National Police, and other justice and government agencies, to participate in Plan Morazán. That initiative was put into effect in late January 2014 to protect Hondurans, reduce crime rates and improve citizen security through the improvement of democratic governance, security and economic development. Participating agencies work together to provide an interdiction and response capability able to execute counter-drug operations and actions against other illicit criminal organizations and activities. This Plan has had positive effects in lowering crime rates and improving citizen security in Honduras.
“Honduras is regaining its territory,” Ayestas affirmed.
During CENTSEC 2014, General Freddy Santiago Díaz Zelaya, Chief of the Honduran Armed Forces' Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Diálogo that Honduras will not halt in their efforts to curb crime in the country. "We will use all of the state's resources to keep drug-trafficking from occupying our territory."
Confronting evolving threats
That level of coordination is proving necessary as street gangs and transnational criminal organizations expand their tactics and strategies.
“Gangs started to evolve in the early 2000s, after laws prohibiting gathering of citizens for illicit purposes were approved,” Ayestas said. “Some of those laws have even gotten tougher. Gang members have stopped tattooing themselves in visible areas of their bodies. We get glimpses only when their shirts are removed. So, in that sense, their external appearance has changed, but not the ways in which they communicate.”
They have also diversified their source of income. Gang members are responsible for almost all extortion in various neighborhoods, where they also account for most retail drug peddling, and where members of MS-13 and Barrio 18 also carry out murders-for-hire.
While security forces have made good progress in the battle against gangs and organized crime groups, they must remain vigilant.
“We will need a sustained effort,” Ayestas said.