Freeing of MS13 Leader in Honduras Raises More Questions Than Answers

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A tactical military-style operation allegedly carried out by suspected gang members succeeded in freeing a high-profile MS13 leader jailed in Honduras, but serious questions remain about who may have been involved in the audacious attack.

Some 20 heavily armed men dressed in uniforms of Honduras’ military police and National Anti-Gang Force (Fuerza Nacional Anti Maras y Pandillas — FNAMP) stormed the courthouse in the city of El Progreso in northern Yoro department and freed MS13 leader Alexander Mendoza, alias “El Porky,” on February 14, according to security footage of the attack.

Authorities had arrested Mendoza, a top Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) leader in the industrial hub of San Pedro Sula, in December of 2015 on various criminal charges, including murder. Then in April 2019, Mendoza was one of 12 “feared” gang leaders transferred via helicopter on the orders of President Juan Orlando Hernández to the US-style maximum-security prison known as La Tolva located in Morocelí municipality of El Paraíso department.

It’s not clear why Mendoza had been removed from there and taken to El Progreso.

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Following the ordeal, authorities reportedly uncovered a cache of weapons believed to belong to the alleged material authors of the crime, according to the Attorney General’s Office. Among the items recovered were 35 high-powered weapons, 32 bulletproof vests, 19 handguns, 14 falsified FNAMP and military police uniforms, as well as a grenade launcher, among other things.

The Attorney General’s Office has since zeroed in on three individuals alleged to be involved in the courthouse offensive, which killed four security force members in the process, according to an official press release. The Honduran government is offering a reward of two million lempiras (around $80,000) for information leading to Mendoza’s recapture.

“In an investigation of this magnitude, we do not discard any element and those responsible will be brought to justice,” said Security Minister Julián Pacheco Tinoco in a government press release, adding that the nation’s security forces are united and working together to ensure there won’t be impunity for the crime.

In an intelligence operation carried out days after the attack, the FNAMP captured one alleged MS13 member thought to have participated in freeing Mendoza. At least nine others alleged to be involved have also reportedly been arrested.

InSight Crime Analysis

A closer look at the takeover of the courthouse in El Progreso by alleged MS13 gang members raises far more questions than it answers.

First, by all accounts, Mendoza was a prominent MS13 gang leader in Honduras’ second-largest city, and authorities have treated him as such in the past. After already being sent to La Tolva maximum-security prison and receiving a 20-year sentence for illicit association, authorities have yet to clarify why Mendoza was brought to El Progreso less than a year after his high-profile transfer.

What’s more, with the presence of such a high-ranking member of the MS13 — one of the government’s primary anti-gang targets — security surrounding the courthouse was woefully inadequate. Such targets have in the past been accompanied by extra security to mitigate the threat of any possible attack.

The style of the attack also did not appear to resemble the MS13’s work. While the gang has previously sold high-powered weapons, its members rarely use them nor have they shown an ability to carry out a coordinated attack with this level of sophistication.

Extortion is the bedrock of the MS13’s operations, but the group is also involved in petty drug dealing and other small-time crimes in the territories they control. More importantly, the gang has a decentralized power structure with no clear hierarchy, which raises questions about the group’s ability to carry out such an attack.

SEE ALSO: MS13 in the Americas Investigation

To be sure, one of the most in-depth and far reaching indictments to hit the MS13, stemming from the so-called “Operación Jaque” (Operation Check), provided a trove of information on the gang. Much of it focused on the gang’s financial networks, extortion rackets and money laundering operations. Phone taps provided insight into the gang’s attempts to acquire a more advanced arsenal, but little on the gang actually being equipped with the type of weapons used in the attack in El Progreso.

In addition, while fake security force uniforms have been used before by other actors to carry out attacks in Honduras, the gang has not been known for such tactics. If they had access to such resources, it’s likely there would be more evidence of their use.

The courthouse debacle comes amid considerable upheaval within the country’s penitentiary system. Following the conviction of President Hernández’s brother, Tony, on drug charges in the United States, a number of individuals linked to the case — including two inmates housed in maximum-security facilities and the prison director of one of those prisons — were brutally murdered at the end of 2019.

Following these slayings, as well as the killing of five other inmates and a lawyer representing a drug trafficker who played a key role in Tony Hernández’s conviction, a state of emergency was declared in the prison system and control was transferred to the armed forces.

This extraordinary situation has not changed, raising questions about what role, if any, the armed forces may have played in the decision that brought Mendoza out of a maximum-security prison and to the low-security courthouse he was eventually freed from.

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