By Adriana Beltran*
The Supreme Court of Honduras’ rapid and unexpected decision on August 8 to release from detention José Natividad Luna Pereira, alias “Chepe Luna,” a man with outstanding warrants in three countries on charges that include drug trafficking, human smuggling, and money laundering, is deeply troubling. Luna Pereira, who is also linked to the organized criminal network Los Perrones and has been sought by police authorities in the United States, El Salvador, and Honduras for a number of years, was released within twenty-four hours of his arrest. While it is a positive sign that Honduran police located and arrested Luna Pereira, his quick release by the highest court in Honduras raises serious questions about the Honduran justice system’s will and resolve to go after organized criminal networks.
If Honduras wants to maintain any credibility as a country fighting corruption and the influence of organized crime, it will have to commit police resources to locating Luna Pereira, monitoring his whereabouts, and ensuring that there are legally sound warrants for his detention. Authorities will need to promptly (and legally) detain Luna Pereira and proceed to either charge him under Honduran law or extradite him to El Salvador or the United States. This is the minimum they would have to do to restore any semblance of credibility when claiming respect for the rule of law.
More generally, the case highlights the profound weaknesses of the Honduran criminal justice system, and it underscores the urgent need to support the work of the newly inaugurated Commission for the Reform of Public Security (Comisión de Reforma de la Seguridad Pública). A true reform of the security sector in Honduras is necessary to ensure its effectiveness and to weed out the rampant corruption that currently prevents justice and promotes impunity.
Luna Pereira’s release echoes events that occurred in El Salvador several years ago. There, under indictment for involvement in drug trafficking and money laundering, Luna Pereira evaded capture on four separate occasions in 2005 and 2006, allegedly due to leaks from inside the police force. This case should spur Salvadoran authorities to initiate a thorough and impartial investigation of police corruption, including charges that have been leveled, but never fully investigated, against high-level officials.
According to reports, an investigation of drug smuggling in El Salvador conducted by Salvadoran police and agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in 2003 and 2004 identified José Natividad Luna Pereira as involved in cocaine trafficking. He was thought to be linked to the organized criminal network Los Perrones, which smuggles people, drugs, and contraband through El Salvador and other countries in Central America. In 2004, U.S. authorities filed charges in New York against Luna Pereira for involvement in cocaine trafficking from El Salvador to the United States, money laundering, and human smuggling. A federal court in New York requested that Interpol issue an international arrest order; as a result, an Interpol red alert was issued in March 2004. In 2005, there were four attempts to arrest Luna Pereira in El Salvador, but according to an article in El Faro, all four attempts failed due to information leaks from within the police that tipped him off before the operations took place. El Faro also mentions that one police officer who confessed to being involved in the smuggling ring named 14 other police officers who were involved, but none of these officers was ever criminally prosecuted.
Luna Pereira was in the news recently in Honduras when a journalist charged that Luna Pereira was controlling the drug trade in southern Honduras with the assistance of local police officials and some politicians. Luna Pereira was arrested in Honduras on Tuesday, August 7, 2012, on the basis of a 1998 Honduran warrant for human smuggling charges, but the Honduran Supreme Court ordered his release the next day after accepting the argument of his defense attorney that the 1998 arrest warrant charges had expired and that no Honduran judge had ordered his capture based on the Interpol red alert.
Honduras’ Commitment to Justice?
Luna Pereira’s release in Honduras despite arrest warrants in three countries and a red alert from Interpol should raise concerns about the lack of commitment to fighting organized crime and ongoing corruption within the Honduran judiciary. In recognition of the fact that tackling the deep-seated nexus between the police and judiciary and organized crime in Honduras will be a huge task, the Honduran government recently installed the Commission for the Reform of Public Security, a fully independent body charged with overseeing the clean-up of the police, public prosecutor’s office, and the judiciary, and with developing proposals for the reform of the public security system. This week’s events show how urgently this type of reform is needed and how important it will be for the Commission to receive ample support to carry out its work.
Chepe Luna and Police Corruption in El Salvador
In the last months of the Saca presidency in 2009, following the failed attempts to detain Luna Pereira, the Inspector General’s Office of the National Civilian Police (Inspectoría General de la Policía Nacional Civil) in El Salvador opened a series of investigations into the involvement of various members of the police, including Óscar Aguilar, Douglas García Funes, Pedro González, and Ricardo Menesses, with the Los Perrones criminal network. According to reports, the criminal investigations against members of the police were handed over to the Attorney General’s Office (Fiscalía General de la República), but the criminal cases against them have apparently not moved forward. As the article in El Faro and other reports have pointed out, far from ensuring prompt and thorough investigations, many of those under investigation now hold key, high-level positions within the police: Óscar Aguilar, who was under investigation for allegedly leading the four failed operations, is now the head of police intelligence; Douglas García Funes, who was under investigation for presumed links to drug trafficking networks and Luna Pereira, was appointed to command the western region of the country (through which many illegal drug shipments pass on their way from Honduras to Guatemala); and Pedro González, also under investigation for alleged links to drug trafficking and Luna Pereira, is now the head of the anti-gangs unit of the police. In an interview with La Prensa Gráfica yesterday, the Salvadoran Minister of Public Security and Justice (Ministro de Seguridad Pública y Justicia), David Munguía Payés, said that he was unaware of any police officials who had been linked in investigations to Luna Pereira.
WOLA has previously raised concern about the recent changes in leadership within the National Civilian Police (Policía Nacional Civil, PNC) and the need to take seriously allegations about possible links that some of these appointees might have to criminal networks. The arrest and subsequent release of Luna Pereira in Honduras brings to light once again the lack of investigation or criminal prosecutions for those involved in organized criminal activities in El Salvador, including members of the police. One test of the commitment of the Attorney General and the new Inspector General of the PNC, Carlos Rodolfo Linares Ascencio, to weeding out corruption within the institution will be whether investigations of police officers accused of colluding with organized crime move forward, including the cases pending.
The United States is investing heavily in the Salvadoran police through the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) and the binational Partnership for Growth. Given that the PNC has a crucial role to play in regional efforts against transnational organized crime, it is vital to ensure that effective measures are taken to strengthen the institution and weed out internal corruption.
Senior Associate for Citizen Security
*This piece was authored by Adriana Beltran, WOLA’s Senior Associate for Citizen Security, with contributions from Geoff Thale and Joe Bateman.