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It was around midnight that police in a rural area of the northern department of Olancho first heard the distinctive buzz of a low-flying aircraft. Night duty officers in three municipalities called their division chief and told him the plane was flying “without lights.” At 1:15 a.m., the police chief of one of the rural municipalities called the chief again, this time with the news that the plane had crashed. It was June 13, 2012.

A scramble to find the aircraft ensued. Police dispatched several patrols, but residents also called the police and said four pickup trucks packed with heavily armed men wearing ski masks were driving around the area, asking locals if they had seen or heard where the plane might have fallen.

In the end, police said they found the plane at 5 a.m. It had smashed against two trees, was burning and contained the dead bodies of two Colombian nationals who authorities would later say piloted the plane. Shortly thereafter, the police stopped three vehicles that fit the descriptions they had heard from residents, and they detained six men. Inside the cars, they found munitions and firearms.

This is the second of a three part series on mayors and organized crime in the Northern Triangle. The investigation was done with assistance from the Swedish government.

Among these men was Miguel Angel Urbina Soto. The Urbina Soto family was already known to law enforcement. Miguel Angel’s oldest brother, Carlos Fernando Urbina Soto, had been arrested and convicted for murder before escaping from jail and eventually settling his case out of court. His youngest brother, Mario Urbina Soto, was allegedly involved in local drug dealing in their home municipality of Yoro, in the department that carries the same name. Their mother, Lilian Soto, had also been charged for murder but was later released.

There was little chance that Mario’s transgressions would catch up to him though. His father had been mayor of Yoro in the early 1990s, and his other brother, Arnaldo, had been elected mayor of Yoro in 2009, some three years before this incident. His sister, Diana, was an aspiring congresswoman, and Arnaldo was positioning himself to head the National Party in the department of Yoro. Their political tentacles reached to the highest levels, and they held a tight rein on local police and judicial matters in the area.

SEE ALSO: Honduras Elites and Organized Crime

Carlos Fernando and Arnaldo had also been connected to drug trafficking in Yoro, according to an Attorney General’s Office report issued in the days following the crash. In fact, the family was said to be receiving, storing and transporting drugs arriving via airplanes in both Yoro and the neighboring department of Olancho. But no charges had been filed.

Meanwhile, Arnaldo had used his time as the mayor to consolidate the family’s hold on political and underworld power in the region. This power, in part, came from Arnaldo’s political post, from which he could control the land titling agency and the office that regulated the wood industry. He could coordinate the public works contracts and would later become the manager of the National Party candidate for president, Juan Orlando Hernández.  

In the 2012 case in Olancho, police questioned the six suspects who told them that they were buying “roosters for cockfighting,” the Attorney General’s Office report says. And even though the Attorney General’s Office found that “what they said was unbelievable,” they released them.

The aircraft yielded 41 kilograms of cocaine, a surprisingly small load for which to perform such a high-risk landing without lights. In the official reports by both the police and the Attorney General’s Office, no one questioned this minuscule amount, and the Attorney General’s Office noted that police reported a military helicopter was in the area near where the aircraft had crashed, but “left without knowing if the [helicopter occupants] had taken evidence from the site of the wreckage.” In other words, maybe someone took some illegal drugs with them when they ran.

The Attorney General Office’s report on the matter ended with a recommendation: “Because of all this, we should continue investigating because the [Urbina Soto family] will probably keep committing crimes.”

A Family Business

Yoro is one of the largest municipalities in Honduras. It is a mostly hilly terrain, with a fearsome set of mountains on its northern edge popularly known as “Locomapa” — roughly translated, “crazy map.” It has long lived from its fertile soil and timber, but the land-locked area is known more for a natural phenomenon every spring in which it literally “rains fish.” (The various explanations for the phenomenon go from the supernatural to the natural — the fish simply wash up from local water sources.)

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(Mountain range known as “Locomapa.” Credit: Steven Dudley)

The lonely paved road leading in and out of the state from the country’s northern industrial city of San Pedro Sula is populated mostly by trucks carrying sugar cane and pine wood. There was a time when stretches of this road were also used to land aircraft carrying cocaine, government investigators and local residents say. The drugs were offloaded and guarded by police who accompanied them to their next stop in the multi-partner cocaine distribution chain moving north to Guatemala and eventually the United States. Yoro is in the dead center of the country, connected to Honduras’ two largest urban hubs — San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa — as well as a host of secondary roads and cities along the border with Guatemala.

Authorities eventually forced these traffickers to move from the highway into Locomapa and its surroundings, which gives way to the northern coast, specifically a road that stretches between La Ceiba, the country’s third largest city in Atlántida state, and Tocoa, the capital of the neighboring state of Colón. La Ceiba also connects to San Pedro Sula, the country’s industrial and criminal epicenter.

Locomapa is but one of the areas where Carlos Fernando Urbina Soto, alias “Nando,” is thought to hide from authorities. Carlos Fernando is frequently referred to in government documents as “the leader” of the Urbina Soto clan. One investigator who tracked the family for years and spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity said they received testimony that Carlos Fernando once shot a rival, then tied him to his car and dragged him around the city to prove his point.

But there is more than a little crazy to go around the family. The youngest, Mario, alias “soldado,” or soldier, is said to be the main distributor of drugs in Yoro. Residents and investigators alike said he arbitrarily dispenses discipline in the streets to anyone who crosses him, and will steal whatever he wants, reportedly including girlfriends of other men.

As with many stories regarding the Urbina Soto clan, it is difficult to separate fact from fiction. The family has long been part legend, part reality in the region. The father of the boys, Dario Urbina Fernández, married Lilian Soto and eventually became mayor of Yoro. Her family resided in Olanchito, the mountainous municipality leading to Colón, where they reportedly had a blood feud with another clan. We could not find the origins of the fight, but Urbina Fernández married into it, and it may have followed him into Yoro’s City Hall. In 1992, while he was mayor, he was assassinated, allegedly by a member of the family with which his wife’s family was feuding.

Violence continued to swirl around the Urbina Soto family thereafter. Carlos Fernando was reportedly arrested and jailed in Olanchito for an assassination. He escaped, then later allegedly got the charges dismissed. The family matriarch, Lilian Soto, was arrested for murder as well but was released. Yoro now has a neighborhood named after her. Other family members faced accusations but no formal charges.

Despite it all, or perhaps because of it, Arnaldo Urbina Soto ran for mayor. His nickname is “moreno” or “negro,” which literally translates as “Blacky,” for his slightly darker skin. When he talks, he smiles, and so some in the town have taken to calling him “Smiley,” or, as they say in Yoro, “Eh-smigh-lee.” He is a lawyer, the only one in the family, and bandies his title around when it suits him. He is approachable and reportedly made himself available to the public, literally opening his door to the people. There is little public record of the 2009 mayoral campaign, but in his first time running, Urbina Soto won with 11,948 votes, beating his closest competitor by over 6,000 votes.

According to three government investigators consulted for this report, the prospect of having a mayor involved in drug trafficking operations led to a deal between the Urbina Soto family and the largest criminal group in the area, the Cachiros. Like the Urbina Soto family, the Cachiros were a family criminal operation that started with small-time activities — in their case, cattle rustling. Beginning around 2005, the Cachiros also started to receive and move large quantities of cocaine through this northern coastal area.

As with many stories regarding the Urbina Soto clan, it is difficult to separate fact from fiction.

It was in this context that the Cachiros connected with the Urbina Soto family, government investigators told InSight Crime. The two families had something in common: the Urbina Soto family had also gotten their start in theft and resale of cattle, and both had moved into drug trafficking. They made an alliance: the Cachiros would pay the Urbina Soto clan to receive planes loaded with cocaine in their area of influence, store the drugs, and transport them to their next drop-point. This included maintenance of the airstrips, lighting and generators, fuel for the aircraft, security teams to meet and guard the merchandise, as well as other services like destroying evidence, if necessary.

The Cachiros were used to dealing with politicians and business elites. From the beginning, they had sold their stolen cattle to the Rosenthals, whose family patriarch, Jaime Rosenthal Oliva, was Honduras vice president in the late 1980s; Rosenthal’s son, Yani, served in the cabinet of President Manuel Zelaya and later ran for president himself as a candidate for the Liberal Party. (He lost in the primaries.) The Cachiros also made contact with powerful politicians and families from the country’s other major political party, the National Party, including with then-President Porfirio Lobo, whom they met while he was running for high office in 2009; Lobo’s son, with whom they worked after Lobo had become president; a former governor and two legislators, whom the Cachiros regularly used as intermediaries to secure favors from other national politicians and security forces.

On the local level, the Cachiros had for years allegedly paid for the election of their own mayor in Tocoa, so they understood the benefits of having the local power broker on their side who could steer or even control the police, as well as marshal the resources of the government to support their endeavor or deviate security forces towards a rival. Mayor Urbina Soto in Yoro reportedly did just that — providing the 20-strong police unit with gasoline for their patrol cars and paying for the maintenance of the vehicles, among other things — so they would keep watch over their illicit operations. The Urbina Soto family also made the Cachiros feel welcome in Yoro. They hosted parties for them, which included cockfights, one of the Attorney General’s Office investigators told InSight Crime. The Cachiros were generous allies, providing money for drug trafficking services as well as for political ends, government investigators said.

There were a few hiccups. On one occasion, a witness told authorities the Urbina Soto family stole a load of cocaine after an airplane crashed. One of the Cachiros flew a helicopter to Arnaldo’s home where he issued a warning: return the cocaine, or the whole family dies. The Urbina Soto family complied, the investigators said.

Through their business and political relationships, the Urbina Soto clan met another powerful trafficking clan with the last names Valle Valle, which complicated their lives. The Valle Valle clan — which had its headquarters in the state of Copán along the Guatemalan border — was part of the cocaine distribution chain. They received shipments via the Cachiros, according to investigators and the testimony of Cachiros leader, but they wanted to control Yoro, where they could field their own aircraft and control more of that distribution chain, which would give them a greater share of the profits.

Tensions built, one investigator said. He said these tensions were also political. Unlike the Cachiros, who interacted regularly with the National Party leaders, the Valle Valle’s strongest political patrons were from the rival Liberal Party. The Urbina Soto clan, the investigator said, was literally “in between the two groups,” in a geographic, a business and a political sense — the type of political-criminal squabble that may have set the stage for Mayor Arnaldo Urbina Soto’s eventual undoing.

Stealing Land

This criminal activity had a toll on the region. According to statistics from the National University’s Violence Observatory, the homicide rate in the department of Yoro rose from 27 murders per 100,000 citizens in 2005, to 86 per 100,000 in 2014. In the municipality of Yoro, the rate was 104 per 100,000, second only to the city of San Pedro Sula, which was then dubbed “the most violent city in the world.”

Despite rising criminal activity and violence in the region, the political stock of Yoro Mayor Urbina Soto and his family continued to rise during his first stint in office. And in 2013, he ran for reelection. His sister, Diana, decided to run for congress. The mayor was also tapped to run the presidential campaign in the department for the National Party.

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(Diana Urbina Soto, Juan Orlando Hernández, and Arnaldo Urbina Soto at campaign event. Credit: Cholusat Sur)

Then-presidential candidate Juan Orlando Hernández visited the municipality during the campaign. Violence was at its peak in the country, and Hernández was running on a law and order platform. The backdrop made the rally in Yoro, in which the presidential candidate and Urbina Soto paraded down the street together and gave speeches, more than a little ironic.

The visit was not free. According the opposition media Cholusatsur (Canal 36), Diana later said her family provided the presidential campaign with generous financial contributions, and authorities would later find a checkbook in one of the Urbina Soto cars with a receipt for a deposit of $4 million lempiras ($171,000) to the National Party. In the meantime, Arnaldo Urbina Soto kept campaigning, and on November 24, he won reelection, this time with 15,813 votes. His closest competitor got just over 4,000 votes.

President Hernández can claim ignorance, but the family’s violent tendencies were well known throughout the region. Numerous testimonies given to the Attorney General’s Office during this time period paint a thuggish picture. One particularly brutal case concerns their actions in a town called Rio Abajo, in the area of Locomapa. Witnesses said the Urbina Soto clan and their group of some 50 armed men terrorized the town between 2011 to 2013, stealing land from several families in the area and forcing much of the town to flee.

One witness said that Carlos Fernando Urbina Soto, the so-called “leader” of the clan, killed Nicolás Puente García in 2011. He later shot at Puente’s cousin, and began targeting the rest of the Puente clan “since the family was economically the strongest in the community, and he wanted to scare them so they fled and left their lands behind,” the witness said.

In 2013, the witness said Carlos Fernando and a group of armed men dressed as policemen entered one of the Puente’s homes. They then forced the inhabitants to lay face down on the floor and tortured them. The witness said Carlos Fernando, Mario and a local policeman also burned two houses as a way to scare the rest of the community to leave the area.

Later that same year, the witness stated, Carlos Fernando visited another member of the Puente family and told him he needed to leave because the land was now his. In all, another witness told authorities, they stole over 500 hectares of the Puente’s lands. Residents reported that Carlos Fernando then began to bring in “heavy machinery” to sow corn and other crops. That machinery was reportedly municipal property, furnished by the mayor’s office.

But the land appropriation process had only just begun. In mid-2013, a different witness said that Carlos Fernando and his men stole dozens of hectares of land from at least three more people. They also took the neighbors’ cattle and simply placed it on their stolen property. And they allegedly took an electricity generator that a foreign government had reportedly given to the community. Having the help of the mayor made this process easier, since any appropriation could be legalized by the local land title registry.

The Urbina Soto clan also reportedly occupied the land of another neighbor where several witnesses said they cleared an area for a clandestine runway that they used to receive drug shipments. In September, when a local teacher threatened to go to the authorities, they killed him, the witness said. In October 2013, they allegedly dragged another resident of Yoro from his home for unknown reasons; he appeared dead on the side of the road. Another potential cooperating witness was also killed, as were at least four others in an ambush.

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(Timber being loaded on a truck. Credit: Steven Dudley)

The Urbina Soto family also used the stolen land to harvest timber, in some cases illegally, according to investigators. Timber has long been a mainstay of Yoro, but the trade is taking its toll. The mountain’s once-thick cover of pine trees has been noticeably reduced to the point where there are large spaces between them. A report by the National Human Rights Commission (Comisionado Nacional de los Derechos Humanos – CONADEH) on deforestation in Honduras said that Yoro had the highest number of cases of illegal logging in the country.

This illegal activity is due, in part, to the impoverished and corrupted regulatory agencies in Honduras. While the legal framework is in place to combat the trade, the government’s operative side faces challenges of corruption and criminal penetration. Indeed, criminal groups are also playing an increasingly important role in this deforestation process. A recent report in Environmental Research Letters said that between 15 and 30 percent of deforestation over the last decade in Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras was caused by drug trafficking interests.

The Urbina Soto family’s timber business seems to fit into this pattern. Investigators told InSight Crime that Mayor Arnaldo Urbina Soto personally chose the head of the National Forest Conservation and Development Institute (Instituto Nacional de Conservacion y Desarrollo Forestal – ICF) in the area. That way the clan could control where he gave licenses to harvest and determine how big those harvests could be. The family also strong-armed purchasers to buy from them and determined the prices, the investigators said. When we confronted the current ICF director in the area about these charges, he demurred.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know anything about the mafia.”

The land gave the family more than just areas from which to do business. As Kendra McSweeney and her colleagues point out in an article in the Journal of Latin American Geography, having land would also give families like the Urbina Soto clan protection from rivals and the ability to launder proceeds. It would also give them political and social capital, and it would provide them a way “to neutralize” conservationists, indigenous and squatters who wish to stake claim to the land.

But it all started with the intimidation and murder. As the bodies piled up, the residents took to the mountains, leaving their homes behind and creating what many told us was a “ghost town.” Eventually these displaced people — which one local told us numbered 100 families — made their way to San Pedro Sula where an investigator found them on the street begging for food. He brought them to the office to tell their story, and a formal investigation began.

Guns, Cockfights and a Missing Brother

At 6 a.m. on July 27, 2014, just six months after Yoro Mayor Arnaldo Urbina Soto assumed his post for another four years, 30 members of the government’s Counter-narcotics Division (Dirección de Lucha Contra el Narcotráfico – DLCN), 170 members of the Military Police (Policía Militar de Orden Público – PMOP), and numerous prosecutors working under the aegis of the government’s anti-crime fusion center, the Fuerza Nacional de Seguridad Interinstitucional (FUSINA), raided the municipality.

Authorities headed straight to the mayor’s house, placed a detonator on his door, and blew it open. There they found Urbina Soto and his wife, as well as three others, including a German national, who were startled by the dramatic entrance. Amidst the melee, the mayor claimed the people in the house worked for him.

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(Arnaldo Urbina Soto’s house in Yoro. Credit: Honduras authorities via Twitter)

Investigators later described the mayor’s house as having “stone walls, coffee-colored doors,” and “to the side, a space reserved for cockfights.” In addition, the home had an elegant pool and there were numerous cars parked on the property, which authorities photographed to share with the press.

There was also a veritable arsenal. In one part of the house, they found a Heckler & Koch HK45 rifle, a Glock pistol, a Ruger rifle, a Star .22 pistol, a CZ pistol, a Remington rifle, a 9 mm Girsan, and a Colt M16 with its serial number filed off. In other parts, they recovered 20,500 lempiras ($876) in cash, as well as dozens of bullets for various other weapons including AK-47 and M16 assault rifles. Curiously, they also found an official case file related to an investigation of a murder near Tegucigalpa.

When they arrived at the house belonging to Arnaldo’s brother Miguel Angel, they found him sleeping. On his bed stand were a Glock pistol and a Colt handgun. In his garage, Miguel Angel had four cars and an all-terrain vehicle. And in a room, they found a receipt for payment for wood from a local company for 120,000 lempiras ($5,130).

Authorities captured Mario in his home with a Glock as well, and arrested six others, including the Urbina Soto brothers’ uncle and a Mexican national who was allegedly responsible for organizing the cockfights the family regularly hosted. At Carlos Fernando’s house, authorities found an AK-47, a military-issued flak jacket and over 100 cattle. But the so-called “leader” of the Urbina Soto gang was gone.

The next day, the nine accused were in court, where their lawyers argued that authorities had no proof and had violated their clients’ rights. They noted that Mario and Miguel Angel Urbina Soto each had permits for their weapons, and they said that the mayor was a “servant of society,” and should not be taken away from his job.

Fittingly, Mayor Urbina Soto was the only defendant who decided to exercise his right speak at the hearing.

“I am offended by the way my dignity and my family’s dignity was trampled,” he told the court, referring to the way the authorities had burst into his house. “I’ve earned all of my possessions because of my hard work in legal businesses, as well as through inheritances…It’s not right that you have treated me like a criminal…I am innocent.”

Outside the courthouse, hundreds of people who had been transported in some 20 buses protested the mayor’s arrest. “Blacky! Blacky!” (“Moreno! Moreno!”) they reportedly chanted on what was a brutally hot day. After one of them erroneously reported that the mayor had been freed, they all scrambled for the buses and returned to Yoro.

In the days that followed, however, authorities continued to raid houses and collect damning evidence. Inside several homes in Yoro, they found 16 assault weapons, munitions for these and other weapons including .50 caliber rounds, camouflage outfits, flak jackets, satellite telephones, generators and lights with extension cords, presumably to use when the aircraft landed in the mountains.

Prosecutors eventually claimed the “Urbina Soto Gang,” as they called them, had as many as 37 members, and was trafficking drugs, stealing land, selling illegal wood and laundering the proceeds. Citing something Urbina Soto supposedly said, they implicated the group in 137 murders and 45 disappearances, most of these related to land theft and cattle rustling. Authorities also connected the family to ownership of 53 properties worth as much as 30 million lempiras ($1.28 million), many of which were in a neighborhood that went by the name of their mother.

“They have total control of the Yoro Department,” one investigator wrote. “It’s well known and rumored that they control all of the government entities, and that they have a lot of political influence, which allows them to operate in impunity.”

“They have total control of the Yoro Department.”

The arrests came amidst a wave of law enforcement actions against mayors. According to the local watchdog group, the Association for a More Just Society (Asociación para una Sociedad más Justa – ASJ), there are 16 former mayors in Honduras charged with crimes ranging from murder to arms trafficking to corruption to extortion. They are from small and large municipalities and from all political parties. Authorities claim they used their political power to establish criminal enterprises. In one case, the mayor was connected to arms trafficking. In another case, a mayor was allegedly working with the MS13 gang that had bought him a backhoe for a public works contract.

As they have in El Salvador and Guatemala, mayors in Honduras have increasingly taken on a larger role in criminal activities. This is in part due to the decentralization of political power in the country. The physical isolation of mayors and the general corruption that pervades from the national to the local level also fuel this dynamic. Mayors do not control the purse strings of the police, but they provide them with important resources such as gasoline and food, as was reportedly the case in Yoro under Urbina Soto. They can also play a role in the maintenance of police living quarters.

In addition, mayors control important government resources for the construction and maintenance of infrastructure, such as roads, hospitals and schools. Mayors in larger municipalities, such as Yoro, control a disproportionate amount of these resources, since that is often where the bulk of the population resides and because it is so large a geographic space.

The resources create opportunity. Mayors use their influence over the allocation of these resources to create power bases; whoever receives government contracts is beholden to them. They also steal the money. There are few who are keeping watch, and those that do often fall down on the job.

‘It Was Not Done’

Mayor Arnaldo Urbina Soto was eventually sent to the jail in San Pedro Sula to await trial. He was held there until October 10, 2017, when he was transferred to the prison in El Progreso, Yoro, along with former San Pedro Sula Governor Óscar Kilgore and hundreds of other prisons, as part of a series of efforts by the Honduran government to tackle the crisis in its penitentiary system.

Lying in the heart of the city, the prison is more of a marketplace. Every day seems like visitors’ day, as dozens of people go in and out of the jail to see their relatives, friends and patrons. Many of them have staked claim to spaces inside the prison where they can hawk small items such as soap and toothpaste, or have established restaurants or other service businesses.

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(Arnaldo Urbina Soto, aka “Smiley,” outside of court. Credit: El Heraldo)

Urbina Soto got what is called a “private” room. If he was like any of the other prisoners in that part of the jail, he paid a few thousand dollars to the prison administrator and the prisoner who was the nominal boss of the whole penitentiary to have some prisoners remodel an area in a section adjacent to a corridor that housed many of these small businesses. InSight Crime visited the private section while the mayor was imprisoned there, and one of the prisoners showed us his private quarters, which was complete with a bathroom, a double bed, a plasma television and other amenities not available to the general prison population.  

Urbina Soto refused our overtures to meet and did not speak to us when we were there, but he did, according to prosecutors, meet regularly with his longtime political operators. To be sure, the mayor kept his finger on the pulse of municipal activities for months after he was jailed, maintaining at least one of his illicit schemes. In August 2016, prosecutors executed a surprise raid on his room where they found several copies of checks from the Yoro municipal government to Lenay Urbina Urbina. They also found some Rolex watches, which they say the mayor was hawking as a side business.

The prosecutors said that both before and after he was arrested, Urbina Soto and his cadre were arranging for the municipality to rent heavy machinery from a woman named Lenay Urbina Urbina for public works projects. Urbina Urbina would then cash the checks and hand the money to the mayor or his accomplices. Authorities said the former mayor collected as much as five million lempiras ($214,000) from the scheme even after he was jailed.

In December, judicial authorities raided the mayor’s office in Yoro and arrested five others for participating in the fraud, including the then-treasurer, the head of the municipal budget and the former head of the municipal budget. They charged them with abuse of authority and misuse of public funds. Prosecutors also slapped 192 additional charges on Urbina Soto ranging from abuse of his authority to unauthorized use of public funds.

The evidence seemed to be piling up, but prosecuting the Urbina Soto family was difficult. The third-party owner of the heavy machinery, Lenay Urbina Urbina, died before the trial, and the anonymous witness who tipped off the prosecution to the public works fraud was murdered after giving testimony.

In the courtroom, the other charges against the family also unraveled. In one telling exchange, a defense lawyer grilled a government investigator about their proof of illegal activities, their anonymous sources and their method of determining whether something was an illegal runway for drug traffickers to land their airplanes.

Defense Attorney: Did they [the witnesses] see any airplanes land?

Investigator: They mentioned that they had information that planes were landing.

Defense Attorney: Tell me when the planes landed, what dates

Investigator: Between May and June.

Defense Attorney: Tell me. You said in your testimony that these people [the Urbina Soto family] were involved in homicides. Tell me, did any of the witnesses see them committing murders?

Investigator: They said they had that information.

Defense Attorney: Did they see anything?

Investigator: One of them said they been a target of the family.

Defense Attorney: Did they see anything?

Investigator: Them, no. They said they have information.

In the exchange, the prosecution also had a hard time sustaining its allegations with any actual proof.

Defense Attorney: What evidence of drugs did you find?

Investigator: Where I investigated, I didn’t find any drugs.

By the end of the cross examination, it was clear that much of the government’s case was based on hearsay, rumors and innuendo.

Defense Attorney: You said that these people took you to a place called Rio Abajo and that they showed you properties that the Urbina Soto family had stolen from them.

Investigator: They testified to this.

Defense Attorney: They testified that they saw members of the Urbina Soto family taking these properties.

Investigator: They mentioned it.

Defense Attorney: Did you investigate if these properties are registered under the Urbina Soto name?

Investigator: That investigation was not done because of security [concerns].

The follies of the investigation did not end there. During one foray into Locomapa, a police vehicle ruptured a tire. By the time they fixed it, they had to return because of safety concerns. By all appearances, they never went back. When the defense attorney asked the investigator if he had even checked the property records to confirm who owns the land in question, the investigator simply said, “no se hizo,” or “it was not done.”

With its case unraveling, the prosecution appeared desperate when it added the charge of extortion to the now-former mayor, which ultimately did not stick.

Meanwhile, the Urbina Soto family went on the offensive. Arnaldo Urbina Soto declared on several occasions that the trial was “a media show.” The subtext was that the Urbina Soto case was more political than criminal. The former mayor’s sister, Congresswoman Diana Patricia, also appeared unapologetic and defiant.

“If we were trying to get revenge, then it’s a crime to defend yourself,” she told a popular television program. “We are ready. Even if they treat us like bloodthirsty criminals, we will protect ourselves.”

Two months after the trial had begun, the government had to switch the brothers to house arrest. And several weeks later, the courts came back with a verdict: Arnaldo was found guilty of money laundering and sentenced to 36 years in prison. Mario and Miguel Angel were found not guilty and released.

New Boss, Same as the Old

In March, shortly after the verdict, we traveled to Yoro. On the way, we passed numerous trucks carrying large amounts of pine wood exiting the area. The terrain looks depleted in some spots, even along Locomapa, the formidable mountain range to the north that connects Yoro with neighboring Olancho and is the presumed epi-center of criminal activity in the area.

We headed to the mayor’s office, a concrete, one-story building just off the main plaza with concrete walls that had recently been painted yellow. The wounds left by the former mayor were still raw, and part of his case was ongoing, giving people pause when we queried them. In addition to the verdict against Urbina Soto, the town was still dealing with the authorities’ raid of the mayor’s office and the arrest of the former mayor’s alleged accomplices in the public works fraud scheme.

What’s more, Carlos Fernando, the supposed “leader” of the Urbina Soto Gang, was still at large. Many people supposed he was hiding somewhere in Locomapa. Everyone not from Yoro was viewed with suspicion, and some of the locals seemed to be closing ranks around their own.

“We were all surprised,” José Rigoberto Urbina, the current municipal manager who said he is not related to the ex-mayor’s family, told us when we asked about the persistent rumors of the family’s criminal activities.

José and others said the former mayor seemed to be paying for the mistakes of his brothers, in particular those of Carlos Fernando. They said the mayor had done infrastructure projects and was considered a politician “of the people.” A health center, inaugurated in 2016, two years after his arrest, even carries his name.

“He is still popular,” Urbina said. “If he came back, he would get elected in a minute.”

Diana Urbina Soto was taking advantage of her brother’s popularity. She is on the ballot for mayor in the November 2017 elections, and when we visited, she had placed banners just below one advertizing Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, who is running for reelection. Just days before we arrived, she won the National Party’s nomination with 8,000 votes, almost double the vote of the losing party candidate in the previous elections.

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(Campaign posters outside of Yoro. Credit: Steven Dudley)

The prospect of another Urbina Soto in the mayor’s office has some people scared. One opposition politician told us that some of his colleagues were stopped by armed men in Locomapa as they headed to a meeting. He said they were told to turn around, return to town and not bother campaigning in that area. This politician, who did not want to give his name for fear of repercussions, said he was heeding their warning, and added that the leader of his party had left the area because of threats.

“We don’t have anyone” that wants to run for office, he said.

* This investigation was done with the assistance of Sweden. This is part of a three part series on mayors in the Northern Triangle.

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