Arrest, and Release, in Nicaragua Illustrates Confusion about Honduras

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The arrest, and quick release, in Nicaragua of a Honduran opposition political figure with suspected criminal links illustrates the complex overlap between politics and organized crime in Central America.

According to La Prensa, on July 3, Nicaraguan authorities detained Honduran cattle rancher Ulises Sarmiento — along with his wife and four of his children — only to release him the following day — although members of his family remained in police custody.

The Sarmiento family is seeking political asylum in Nicaragua, claiming they are the victims of political persecution by the Honduran government due to their involvement with the leftist political party Libertad y Refundacion (LIBRE). Rafael Sarmiento — one of Ulises’ sons — is a LIBRE congressional candidate.

Family members also claim their support for former Honduran President Manuel Zelaya has made them a target of the administration of current President Juan Orlando Hernandez. Zelaya was supporting the family in their asylum request, and strongly condemned their arrest. 

It remains unclear why authorities detained Sarmiento. For years, rumors have swirled about his alleged involvement in organized crime. His wife was assassinated in brutal fashion in 2013, and his nephew, the mayor of a prominent city, was arrested in June on gun trafficking charges. He has been the target of assassination attempts, but family members have told InSight Crime that these attacks are political, not criminal, in nature.

At least one report says Nicaraguan and Honduran authorities detained the family, but Honduran authorities later insisted there are no outstanding warrants for his arrest in Honduras and denied claims of political persecution.

InSight Crime Analysis

Sarmiento and his family might be political fugitives. They might be involved in criminal activities. Or both things might be true at the same time, and sorting through them is often a nearly impossible task.

To begin with, Sarmiento’s support for ex-President Zelaya — he is rumored to have helped Zelaya return to Honduras after he was ousted in the 2009 coup — is well known. His financial support of the party is also public knowledge. 

What’s more, Sarmiento’s connections to the left date back at least to the 1970s when he reportedly assisted Sandinistas from Honduras, providing a safehouse, among other logistical and financial support

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Elites and Organized Crime

Nonetheless, Sarmiento and his family have also been suspected of involvement in drug trafficking for years — allegedly forming a network to transport drugs through Honduran territory. Olancho, Sarmiento’s home state, is known to be a hotbed for drug trafficking, with ranchers allowing drug planes to land on their vast estates.

Regardless, Sarmiento’s arrest in Nicaragua, and its unclear motives, demonstrates the difficulty in distinguishing between cases of political persecution and legitimate criminal investigations in Honduras — a country where economic and political elites have repeatedly be shown to be involved in criminal activities.

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