Honduran President Assures Authorities Will Go After Extortionists’ Assets - But Will It Work?

As 2015 came to a close, La Prensa reported Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández’s praise of the country’s security achievements, especially the 20 point reduction in Honduras’s homicide rate in two years. Hernández also announced the implementation of a new security strategy in January 2016; assets seizures for extortion ring leaders. Tiempo detailed the Fuerza Nacional Antiextorsión (FNA), the Fuerza de Seguridad Institucional Nacional (Fusina), and a newly created cadre of anti-extortion judges with national jurisdiction will work closely to implement this new strategy. Hernández cited the impact of assets seizures on drug traffickers, money launderers, and in relation to corruption as the primary reason for implementing the same strategy against extortionists. According to La Tribuna, the President also called on the public to report extortion more frequently. 

While the assets seizure strategy might have been successful among drug traffickers, money launderers, and corrupt individuals, the same strategy is unlikely to be effective against extortion ring leaders, with the hopeful outcome of decreasing extortion and related violence, for three reasons: 

  1. The strategy relies on the public to step up and call out extortionists, reporting them to police, which is unlikely due to public security concerns and mistrust of police forces,
  2. There are a plethora of extortionist groups, making it difficult to create targets, and
  3. The impact of asset seizures on extortionists will inflict less discomfort than in other instances.

President Hernández specifically highlighted the role of the public in the new efforts to tackle extortion, requesting they report incidents. However, it is unlikely the public will immediately rise to his call, as intimidation by extortionists is how the situation started in the first place. Under pressure to protect themselves and their families from extortion-related violence, the public will likely continue to keep silent. The widespread and sometimes correct perception that local police officers are corrupt and collude with extortionists will also prevent significant increases in reporting. 

After tallying up the count, Security Secretariat Spokesman Leonel Sauceda revealed 172 criminal groups were broken up during 2015, leading to the arrest of 737 people, meaning the extortion “groups” averaged fewer than five people each. Sauceda told La Prensa and other journalists on 3 January 2016 these individuals were arrested for extortion, homicide, robbery, the illegal possession and trafficking of arms, and drug trafficking. The following day, on 4 January 2016, Tiempo reported five members of Barrio 18 gang were arrested in the colonia Ebenezer, in the Chamelecón sector of San Pedro Sula, where two weapons were seized and book used for tracking extortion fees. These examples indicate the rampant nature of extortion in Honduras; hundreds of small groups are involved in extortion and it continues undeterred by the large number of arrests of low level actors. If one group falls, another group moves in and takes over.

Finally, drug traffickers, money launderers, and receiver of bribes are targetable individuals with significant assets that can be confiscated. Asset forfeiture has a large impact, not only in terms of what is confiscated, but also in the total dollar value. Seizing assets from wealthy criminal groups hurts the bad guys a lot and helps the government even more. But, for smaller criminal groups roaming the country, the situation is different. While millions are being extorted from businesses, the money is spread among numerous different groups instead of consolidated into the holdings of a few. These groups rarely have a “kingpin” making millions or even tens of thousands and living infancy mansions, making the confiscation less “painful.” As previously mentioned, only two weapons and a small book were seized during a recent arrest. While, it is likely the book would lead to more confiscation of more assets, it is unlikely they would be on the same scale as a drug trafficker’s fortune, resulting in a less effective impact.