Political hopeful Jose Miguel Handal Perez, alias “Chepe Handal,” may have failed in multiple attempts to run for office in Honduras, but he has managed to remain in the public eye as one of the country’s most prolific drug traffickers, with strong connections to Mexican cartels.
Like some other transportistas in the region, Handal comes from a wealthy family with significant business connections. His family owns several companies in San Pedro Sula and his brother, Esteban, known as the “Red Bull,” has had a long political career, including a failed presidential bid. In addition to working in his family’s auto import business, “Chepe” has attempted to follow in his brother’s footsteps, waging several unsuccessful campaigns for political office at the local and regional levels.
However, Handal’s savvy has primarily been put to use in activities more sophisticated than inventing political slogans. He has leveraged his business connections and clout to develop a drug trafficking empire on the north coast of Honduras, where he is one of the main facilitators connecting Colombian cocaine producers with Mexican organizations and the US market. His links to the Zetas and Sinaloa cartels and control of many of the aerial routes into Honduras have designated him one of the most important and powerful transportistas in Central America’s most violent country, a crucial link in northbound trafficking routes.
Since 2006, Handal has been the primary individual funding and coordinating flights that leave Venezuela and land on clandestine airstrips in eastern Honduras, carrying Colombian cocaine. Under Handal’s oversight, the number of such flights increased from the single digits in the mid-2000s to nearly 100 in 2011 – a tally that does not include flights that passed undetected. Handal also oversees ground transport of drugs through Honduras to Guatemala, where they are passed on to representatives of the Zetas and the Sinaloa Cartel.
Over the past year, Handal has drawn the attention of US and Honduras prosecutors and anti-drug agencies. In April 2013, the US Treasury Department added Handal, his father and his wife to its “kingpin list,” freezing their assets and prohibiting companies in the US or Honduras from doing business with them. In the release, the US described Handal as “the head of a Honduran-based drug trafficking organization responsible for the coordination and distribution of multi-ton shipments of cocaine from Colombian sources of supply into Honduras.” Handal was the first Honduran to be added to the kingpin list.
Later in April, Honduran authorities, under the direction of public prosecutor Orlán Chávez, seized 14 properties under Handal’s name. The family had been notified and had fled the empty properties, leaving only their exotic pets. Complicating matters, Chávez was assassinated just hours later, and the case has since stalled with Handal still at large. The US claims it has been seeking extradition of Handal since 2011, when a US District Court in Florida issued an indictment charging him with conspiracy to distribute cocaine within the US and conducting drug trafficking activities in at least five Latin American countries between 2008 and 2011. However, no criminal charges have been filed against him in Honduras so far, and his whereabouts are currently unknown.
It remains to be seen if Handal will follow through with his campaign for a congressional seat in November’s upcoming elections.