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El Salvador’s ‘Pablo Escobar’ Briefly Captured in Honduras

Chepe Luna,” the trafficker who has done the most to develop El Salvador’s drug trade, was freed just one day after being arrested in Honduras, in the latest of his series of narrow escapes from the law.

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Jose Natividad Luna Pereira, known as “Chepe Luna,” was arrested by Honduran police at 11:30 a.m. on August 7 in the offices of his company Transportes Ulua, in Tegucigalpa, as La Prensa reported. Though Chepe has been one of El Salvador’s most prolific traffickers, wanted by the US and Interpol, he was arrested on the strength of a 1998 warrant issued by a Honduran court for human trafficking.

But just as it looked as though Chepe Luna's ability to evade justice might have run out, he was freed the following afternoon, after Honduras’ Supreme Court accepted a habeas corpus request filed by his lawyer.

The Cheese Cartel

Chepe Luna has dodged the law many times during his three decades in the trafficking business. Born to a Honduran father and Salvadoran mother, he got his start in the criminal world smuggling coffee from Honduras and beans from Nicaragua before getting into cheese smuggling, winning him and his association the name the “cheese cartel.” They later moved into smuggling migrants. The expertise of Luna and other contraband smugglers in getting their products through Central America did not go unnoticed by the Colombian cartels, who in the 1980s started paying them to move drug shipments, making use of their trafficking routes and extensive contacts with officials.

Later, Chepe would bring together a loose federation of "transportistas," known as the Perrones. Hector Silva-Avalos, a Salvadoran diplomat, told InSight Crime that Luna was a pioneer in being the first Salvadoran to transport drugs all the way to the United States, instead of handing them over to the next step on the chain in Guatemala -- “In that sense he was the Pablo Escobar of El Salvador.” Like the famed Colombian drug lord, Chepe had extensive networks of contacts among officials and the police, and sought to purchase public approval by paying for festivals and horse shows in the east of the country.

These contacts have been able to protect Chepe Luna from numerous attempts to bring him to justice. He was arrested in El Salvador in 2002 accused of assaulting police officers, but released without charge. In 2004, a New York court issued an arrest warrant against Chepe, accusing him of people smuggling and drug trafficking, and requested an international alert via Interpol. Under pressure from the US, the administration of President Antonio Saca launched no less than four operations to capture him between 2005 and 2006, all thwarted by Chepe’s close contacts in the Salvadoran police force. Chepe fled to Honduras, where he also holds citizenship, and since then has been lying relatively low. He was reportedly arrested by the Honduran police in January 2007, but later freed.

The Perrones suffered a series of heavy blows in the years after he left. Chepe's heir Reynerio Flores was arrested in Honduras in 2009 and extradited to El Salvador, and other traffickers began to take over the group's routes.

Why Now?

It is worth asking why the Honduran authorities moved against Chepe Luna this week, 14 years after issuing the arrest warrant against him. In recent months Luna is said to have been on the move, meeting with old associates from the Perrones in Tegucigalpa and moving to buy land in northeastern Honduras -- a key location for drug flights from South America. As InSight Crime reported in May, Chepe is reported to be running the group again from Honduras, meeting with high-level political contacts there. Government spokesman Hector Ivan Mejia explained the arrest by saying that it was just one of some 100 warrants that police were reviewing. However, according to Silva-Avalos, it was likely connected to Chepe's higher profile, “It seems like he wasn’t lying low any more, he started doing his business in an open manner.”

The immediate catalyst pushing the authorities to act seems to have been accusations made days before by journalist Ariel D’Vicente. The broadcaster, who heads a TV network in Choluteca, on the border with Salvador, went on the TV show "Frente a Frente" and declared that Luna controlled the drug trade in southern Honduras, supplied drugs to the Zetas, and was helped by elements in the police, army, and some politicians. D’Vicente spoke out in strong terms about the police’s failure to take action against Chepe Luna, saying that he was recognized as a drug trafficker by Salvador’s president and by the US authorities, but that “there in Choluteca the police eat with him, talk with him ... He has 400 trucks going from Panama to Mexico, and the police chiefs of Choluteca are the only ones who haven’t realized.” (See video, below)

This was an embarrassment for the police. Newly appointed police chief Juan Carlos Bonilla was in the studio, and can be seen hurriedly conferring with other officers as D’Vicente makes his statements. In the second segment of the program Bonilla, who has spoken strongly on the need for police reform, responded to the claims, admitting that “our police have been at the service of drug trafficking. I have seen it with my own eyes.”

It seemed likely that the Honduran authorities might also be trying to appease the US, amid increasing anti-drug cooperation between the two. Hector Ivan Mejia even suggested the Honduran authorities were planning to extradite Chepe Luna to the US, following a newly-signed extradition deal between the two.

A Free Man

But, just over 24 hours later, Chepe Luna was leaving the government migration office as a free man, telling journalists that there were no charges pending against him in El Salvador or Honduras, reported La Prensa. “It was all down to the journalist’s complaints … but they found that I had nothing to do with the allegations.” He said that he would sue D’Vicente, “so that he realizes that what he is saying is a lie.”

According to Luna, the Honduran arrest warrant against him expired in 2000. He claimed that he was being persecuted due to competition between his bus company and a rival, reported El Tiempo. Meanwhile his lawyer told press that there was no Interpol “red alert” against his client, as had been widely reported, but a “red diffusion.” A diffusion is a less formal version of the red notice, sent by the requesting country (in this case the US) to the countries of their choice. It is not clear whether there is a diffusion or a more formal red notice against Chepe Luna, as the case has not been made public by Interpol. Neither type of alert would oblige Honduras to arrest him.

President Mauricio Funes of El Salvador expressed his disappointment at the decision, saying that it meant Chepe Luna would not have to face justice, while the head of the Honduran Supreme Court, Jorge Rivera Aviles, tried to distance the court from the move, saying that it was “purely administrative” and not the result of a judicial ruling.

With the arrest, Honduras’ police showed that there is a will to capture Chepe Luna. Police chief Bonilla suggested that it was not the end of the matter, saying, “This does not mean that he can’t be recaptured.” However, the trafficker's swift release means that something went wrong along the way, either because of some kind of administrative failure to get the proper documents against Chepe Luna, or because the transportista’s connections in Honduras go even higher than D’Vicente suggested.

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