CENTRAL AMERICA NEWS – TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras – A newly formed undercover police intelligence unit is allowing Honduran authorities to close in on organized and petty crime nationwide.
The 253 officers who make up the National Police’s Strategic System for the Collection, Collation, Analysis and Storage of Information (SERCAA) – as the unit is known – have been working since its formation March 5 to go after gang leaders, extortionists, hit men and drug traffickers throughout the country.
“The SERCAA [is focused on] finding and processing information in the fight against organized crime,” said Gen. Félix Villanueva, the National Police deputy director. “To ensure the effectiveness of the SERCAA, the officers work under cover. We will not disclose their base of operations nor their identities.”
In 2013, Chilean, Colombian and United States consultants trained members of the future Honduran unit in logistics, technology and equipment needed for covert operations, Villanueva said.
Among the unit’s notable early cases, on June 5 it arrested five members of the Barrio 18 (M-18) gang in Palmira de Chamelecón, a neighborhood in the northwestern city of San Pedro Sula.
Four young people were among the five. The oldest of these suspects taken into custody, José Ramón Tovar Ayala, 24, had planned to carry out multiple crimes, authorities alleged.
“SERCAA tracked the suspects because we had information that they intended to commit a massacre in Puerto Cortés [304 km from Tegucigalpa],” Villanueva said. “Fortunately, the quick steps taken by the unit prevented a bloodbath, and [the suspects] were turned over to the courts.”
During the arrests the authorities seized an AK-47, 270 ammunition cartridges, two .9 mm pistols, a .38mm revolver, ski masks, four bulletproof vests, military uniforms and 90 bags of marijuana, according to Elvin Guzmán, spokesperson for the Office of the Public Prosecutor in San Pedro Sula.
“The five detainees are accused of criminal conspiracy and the illegal possession of weapons and are facing 20 to 30 years in prison,” Guzmán said.
Dragnet tightens around organized crime
SERCAA’s creation is part of a larger strategy to strengthen the National Police, according to authorities.
On Feb. 11, the police acquired 84 vehicles, 400 motorcycles and 5,000 bulletproof vests, Villanueva said.
The moves appear to be producing positive results.
For one, through the first five months of this year, the country’s murder rate dropped significantly compared with this period last year, according to the Online System for Police Statistics. From January to June 7, there were 3,035 homicides. That’s 619 fewer homicides than the same time in 2013.
“Gang members and drug dealers feel cornered by the authorities. Therefore, they react by trying to terrorize the population through massacres, or by mutilating the bodies of their victims, in an attempt to regain control of the areas where they have operated with impunity,” said Migdonia Ayestas Cerna, coordinator of the Violence Observatory at the Institute for Democracy, Peace and Security.
Minors and young people are particularly vulnerable to organized crime, security analyst Allan Fajardo added.
“It’s common for criminal groups to make young people consume drugs in order to draw them in, because their need to continue using drugs leads them to commit crimes,” Fajardo said.
The use of youths by organized crime grew after April 2012, when Congress increased the punishment for extortion, according to Fajardo.
In the past, the crime of extortion – which involves threats of violence or intimidation to obtain money or other goods – was punishable with sentences of six to nine years.
Blackmail, threatening someone’s honor or prestige, or releasing personal secrets were punishable with sentences of three to five years.
Now, those convicted of extortion face 15 to 20 years in prison, plus a fine of 50 minimum wages [US$12,000], and those convicted of blackmail face terms of six to 12 years.
Alongside the effort to fight crime, it is necessary to carry out social prevention projects to dissuade young people from joining organized crime, according to Ayestas Cerna.
“The [police] operations are important, but it is also incredibly important that the government carry out social reinsertion and prevention projects, so that at-risk children and adolescents don’t fall into the clutches of gangs and drug trafficking,” she said.
To prevent organized crime from continuing to lure children and young people, the government is promoting educational and employment opportunities for them, according to Reinaldo Sánchez, private secretary to the Honduran president.
“One of the main focus points for the government is the creation of jobs and opportunities,” Sánchez said. “To meet this goal, the government will create 100,000 jobs a year for the 750,000 ninis [young people between the ages of 15 and 20 who do not study or work] in the country.”
One of the programs geared toward this goal is Chamba Ahorita [Work Now], a partnership between the government and employers to create opportunities for young people.
“The Secretariat of Labor and Social Security identifies vacancies in the companies participating in the program and hires the personnel, and the government pays half of their salary for two months [which is the trial period],” Sánchez said. “If the young person performs well, a permanent contract is offered with all of the legal benefits. As an added incentive, the government pays half of their salary for the third month.”
If children are being forced to join organized crime groups, their parents can contact the National Police via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by calling (504) 2222-2288 in Tegucigalpa and (504) 2222-2222 in the rest of the country.