A former security minister of Honduras tells InSight Crime the country is set to begin extraditing criminals, expediting police reform and taking a hard-line against the country’s gangs under the upcoming administration.
The following are excerpts from a December 2013 interview with Oscar Alvarez, the former security minister of Honduras, and a current member of Congress. After being unexpectedly removed from his security ministry post in 2011, he spent time in the United States before coming back to the country as campaign manager for incoming President Juan Orlando Hernandez — who takes office on January 27. Among other things, Mr. Alvarez was responsible for drafting the extradition law passed in 2012, and has been a principal proponent of police reform. He is also rumored to be named the next security minister, which would be his third stint in that job.
To listen to the full interview, click on the audio recording attached below.
Many have described Mr. Hernandez’s security plans as a “mano dura” approach. How would you characterize his security strategy?
My opinion, personally, in terms of security is he’s going to be very tough on criminals. At the same time, though, he’s investing a lot of time and money in prevention programs, especially for youth.
Juan Orlando is a person who on the one hand is very tough on crime, and on the other hand, is someone very concerned about the people and social risks. From far away you see a very strong face… You need to see him face to face, talk to him in person.
What are some of the major challenges facing the new administration in Honduras?
Right now, the fiscal deficit is very large… We need to jumpstart the economy, and this goes together with security. If we can show Hondurans and foreigners that we are up to the task of reducing crime, we are going to be successful.
Right now one of the major problems we have in security is not necessarily kidnappings but extortion — what they call the “war tax”… That’s a major challenge.
At the same time, I think it’s such a problem that we have more than 100,000 Hondurans in extreme poverty. Juan Orlando has a program called ‘Vida Mejor’ — Better Life — where they go to the countryside and find people who have a shack… and build them a house and help them make a more dignified living.
So you would say Hernandez’s economic plans form part of an integral security strategy?
Yes, the main plan has to do with three major areas. One has to do with security and peace; another one is employment and infrastructure development; and the third is social progress. Those are the three main strategies for the administration… and the cabinet is going to come under just three umbrellas to make the work of the government more efficient.
You have been a major proponent of police reform. If we were to find you in a post in the new administration, what would you do about this issue?
I want a way to expedite the purging of the police. Officers have been questioned… But they still have to be evaluated and all that.
Does Mr. Hernandez have plans to expedite the police reform process?
He says that whatever makes the process more efficient, he is willing to try. He and this Congress already passed a law that gave special powers to him to reduce the size of government. He is trying to cut the fiscal deficit, which is very important. That way he will cut excessive spending. There are some ministries, some offices, some directorates that are duplicating efforts, and he wants to make them more efficient. But for sure he will expedite the purging of the police force, which is the one thing he can do now. And he will push other organizations like the Attorney General’s Office to do their part.
What plans does the incoming president have to tackle corruption in other institutions, such as the justice system?
Juan Orlando’s four-year plan is to fight directly against corruption and to go directly against all these corrupt justice officials… [For example], the Supreme Court accused a judge of helping one drug dealer get out of jail because he was sick. I’m an optimist. I think we are on the right path, but I would like to move faster.
What kind of threat is posed by transnational criminal groups from Mexico and Colombia, as well as rising domestic criminal groups such as the Cachiros?
Well, they represent a major threat…The Cachiros were named by the US White House as a criminal organization. Even when I was security minister, we were working on gathering intelligence on them. This year, the police and the Attorney General’s office seized most of their properties, and I hear there are warrants for their arrest.
Also, we’re getting information that the Cachiros are planning to retaliate; these are just intelligence sources. They want to retaliate against Juan Orlando Hernandez, and myself, because of what we did. Juan Orlando had been a promoter of extradition, and I pushed for extradition.
How will the administration deal with these threats?
We’re committed [to fighting this threat]. Juan Orlando is very committed. We are buying radars to detect incoming drug planes, and we are working on a plan to deal with those planes, to identify them, and force them to land and give themselves up if they are flying through our air space. That is a big commitment; we are investing a lot of money in those radars…We are trying to get our air access to 100 percent readiness for when we get the radars.
We passed the “anti-maras” law. It’s actually an illicit association law. What it is, in layman’s terms, is conspiracy to commit a crime. Here we have the Roman law, where you have to come with the proof… Now with the criminal intent, we can intercept communications. We can intercept two drug dealers just planning to move drugs in Honduras, and we can go and capture them and accuse them of drug trafficking….We’re trying to be more efficient in the fight against organized crime.
What do you think will happen in regard to extraditions under the upcoming administration?
Well, I did my part. I presented the law, and Congress approved it when Juan Orlando was the president of Congress. And then we sent it to the Supreme Court for them to regulate it. And they have been saying that to protect the national judges, ‘We need armored cars, we need this, we need that.’
I don’t want to start finger-pointing right now…But I get frustrated with some people. We are ready; we are ready to put those guys in the first plane out and let the US deal with it. Why? Because even Colombia and Mexico, which have better jails than we have, are using extradition as a tool to fight more fiercely against crime and that’s enough.
Juan Orlando, he’s ready to work with the Supreme Court and the judicial system to send the first people out as soon as possible… we’ve told them we are ready. And Juan Orlando’s said privately and publicly, ‘I’ll do what I need to do.’
So the government’s plan would be to step up the attack on the Cachiros in the near future, and hopefully get members extradited to the US?
Not only that. Juan Orlando’s already talked to the attorney general and told him, ‘Hey, it’s time to check your files, and what your cases would be against corrupt people.’
Important figures in the country are committing crimes and are corrupt, not only the Cachiros. There are some other figures that we are working on, and we will follow through.
Then the major holdup is fear of retaliation against the judges?
In simple terms, yes, because we have done everything that needs to be done. We have the intelligence in place; we have the opportunity in place; we have the laws in place. Now we need the judges to give the ok.
I’m telling you, we are ready, and Juan Orlando has the ability and the courage to do it. Now we need everybody to get on the same page. We need everything from the administrative offices to the judges, and if we do that — and I imagine the US is more than eager for this — we are ready to go.
Aside from extradition, what do you see the United States’ role in security, and particularly the fight against transnational criminal groups, being in the upcoming administration?
The US has been an ally in our efforts to modernize the police, to help us train in the use of non-lethal equipment, prevention programs…But still, more needs to be done in the country.
I would say we need to bring more assets, like more transportation, helicopters…We don’t have enough helicopters in the Honduran military. I think the US could bring more helicopters here…We have good pilots who can be trained.
I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts about the gang problem, as well as where efforts for a gang truce stand?
There were some religious organizations here in Honduras trying to negotiate a truce between the government and the gangs, saying that by securing them we can stop their massacres. That didn’t go very far. Why? For one reason: these gangs are transnational organized crime. (The US gave the status of transnational criminal organizations to these gangs, particularly the Mara Salvatrucha). That’s my opinion; the gangs are killing machines, and you cannot negotiate with criminals.
We won’t negotiate with criminals. We will help gang members who haven’t committed major crimes, like homicides. We will extend a hand to followers who are trying to become members of gangs. Members move up in gangs by killing. You get points…How are you going to negotiate, have an amnesty or trust, with those criminals?
What will Mr. Hernandez do about the gang threat under the new administration?
What you can do is with the gang members that haven’t committed crimes, you can help them get into programs. We have a program here that has been supported by Hernandez, called the Centro de Alcance [Outreach Center], and this program is supported by the United States.
He would support all these prevention programs, and I like that because in my second term as minister, I got the idea that we should do more prevention, for the medium and long-term, as a strategy.
What has the administration been doing to address the extortion problem until now?
We are working on a strategy to cut the signals of cell phones from major prison centers; we found out that from those areas they are committing extortion. We also have a new task force on extortion — the National Intelligence Agency [Direccion Nacional de Inteligencia]– which has the capacity to intercept communications and investigate.
Another important subject is the military police. I am curious as to how you see their role developing in the upcoming administration?
The police has diminished its capacity to handle all the requirements of law enforcement right now. The military police are seen as a solution, not a permanent solution, but a transitional solution, while the police get to full strength.
Right now we have 1,000 military police, and in the next four years, we want to reach a total of 5,000 military police. They’re going to be used mostly in areas where organized crime has been strongest. The situation [now] is that we have a policeman that carries a small rifle, and he goes to these neighborhoods and is faced with heavy machine gun fire. How are they going to face that? The military police are more capable of working in that environment.
Like I said, it’s medium term [solution], but I think it might happen for the next two administrations, these four years and the next four years — while the police and all these programs are working on prevention — until we see the levels of organized crime going down.
We have an integrated strategy here, and the military force is a key element of that strategy.
Where are you going to find the budget for this force?
Like I said, the idea is to have a total of 5,000 military police, that would be ideal. But we have a big fiscal deficit; we have to find the budget for the salaries, the equipment, the operations…That’s the ideal. At the end of the day, we might just have half of that [force]. Right now we’re working on next year’s budget, and we’ll see how that comes out.
What kind of training are members of the military undergoing before they are put out on the streets as military police?
They are getting three months’ training in law enforcement, and working with the police and human rights officials on how to do arrests, on due process…We are confident that this strategy is going to be successful…You know, crime changes, they do different things. And we are going to be looking at the evolution of crime to see what happens. We need to move and change with the purpose of keeping these organizations under control.
Do you see it as problematic that this new force will be working closely with a police force you described as corrupt?
Juan Orlando already said that he wanted to expedite the police purging process, and where the military police is working, they’re going to be working with certified policemen, because contamination is the key element to avoid…The idea is that the military police work in the company of a prosecutor and a judge who will lead the operations. The prosecutors will make the arrests, and that way we don’t have the defense trying to drop the charges. We’re trying to close all the gaps, and respect all the rights of the accused.
I have heard rumors that you may become security minister again under the Hernandez administration. Can you address those rumors?
Well, right now Juan Orlando hasn’t mentioned any [cabinet] positions. Among the people, some of them said they’d vote for me as a congressman…[and others] said they would push for me to become security minister again. But in the end, Juan Orlando is going to decide who is going to be the candidate.
Another rumor is that I have the possibility to become the next president of Congress. One reason is because I’ve had the most votes. That means the people trust me to lead them, to work beside them. But in the end, who knows? I’m just waiting.