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HONDURAS: Pressed by the U.S., Lobo Amends Extradition Laws

TEGUCIGALPA, Jan 20 2012 (IPS) - Following a surprise meeting between President Porfirio Lobo and U.S. government officials, Honduran lawmakers voted to amend the constitution to allow extradition of its nationals.

With no prior announcement, on Wednesday Lobo met with White House representatives in Miami, and only 24 hours later the Honduran national congress had passed an amendment that authorises the signing of treaties with foreign governments to extradite Honduran citizens charged with drug trafficking, terrorism and organised crime.

The decision was adopted in a closed session and under tight security measures. Of the 128 members of congress, only the representatives of the left-wing Unificación Democrática (Democratic Unification) party expressed any misgivings about authorising terrorism-related extraditions, but they still voted in favour.

To secure approval of the measure, government officials engaged in intense negotiations with the country’s political parties and powerful economic groups throughout Thursday.

The amendment modifies article 102 of the constitution, which prohibited the extradition of Honduran nationals to a foreign country. Starting Feb. 1, the Central American country will be able to sign extradition treaties with other countries.

In a very brief press release, issued Thursday night, legislators said the decision was made for reasons of national security.

Several sectors attribute the government’s quick move to pass the amendment to Washington’s concern over Honduras’ sluggishness in addressing security issues, a concern that was apparently voiced at the Miami meeting with Lobo.

One of these issues is a recent scandal implicating police officers in murders, kidnappings, weapon thefts, extortions and other crimes.

The U.S. is also concerned over other unresolved cases such as the murder two years ago of the head of the country’s anti-drug operations, Arístides González, and more recently the death of former security adviser and anti-drug expert Alfredo Landaverde over a month ago. Both González and Landaverde had close ties to the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa.

Former Attorney General Edmundo Orellana told IPS that “it’s obvious that there was pressure from the United States. How else can you explain that within a day of the Miami meeting congress was able to pass a constitutional amendment that was more than a decade-long demand?”

“I commend the legislators for this brave decision and understand the need to not make the session public or reveal the names of those who voted in favour, as many have received threats from the drug cartels,” Orellana said.

At the Miami meeting, right-wing President Lobo was accompanied by Security Minister Pompeyo Bonilla, Congress Chair Juan Orlando Hernández and two other high government officials.

According to Honduran diplomatic sources, the Washington delegation was headed by Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson and U.S. Ambassador in Tegucigalpa Lisa Kubiske, and included narcotics officers and U.S. Security Council officials.

At the meeting, U.S. officials are believed to have pressed for purges in the Honduran police to address the high level of corruption and influence from organised crime, after announcing that the U.S. would be sending two special security advisers to Honduras, who will work directly with President Lobo and Minister Bonilla as of February.

Lobo refused to give any details of the Miami meeting and merely repeated in general terms the press release issued by Washington announcing the two countries’ decision to cooperate in security matters, highlighting the legal action taken by Honduras to combat crime, and suggesting that greater “efforts” to purge police forces are needed.

Hernández was more forthcoming in his statements after the meeting in Miami. “We set out general strategic lines to address security issues and we can’t go back on our actions. We are going to move forward to implement the security reforms that are still needed,” he said.

He also said that forming a new police force is a possibility that cannot be ruled out and that there will be many legislative discussions that for reasons of national security “will not be open to the press, so we ask for the media’s understanding.”

Hernández’ comment regarding a new police force came as a complete shock to Coralia Rivera, security vice minister and former police commissioner, who at a public appearance said “we were not expecting this, especially not in the manner (Hernández) announced it, so out of the blue.”

Rivera is mentioned in confidential reports from the attorney general’s office, where she is accused of being involved in police and government corruption and in particular in drug-related crimes. But she denies the charges and claims she is working to “clean up” the police’s image.

The chancellor of the National Autonomous University of Honduras, Julieta Castellanos, told IPS that the decision to authorise the extradition of Honduran citizens “is a positive sign that (the government) is willing to take action, it’ll have a deterrent effect that will enhance the possibilities of effectively cracking down on organised crime networks.”

She also said that this amendment sends out an indirect message to “corrupt police officers”, in reference to the police involvement in recent criminal actions, such as the murder of her own son and his friend on Oct. 22, 2011. Five police officers have been imprisoned for that crime, but another three suspects are still on the run.

Rigoberto Espinal, a legal expert and adviser to the state attorney, told IPS that this measure “is a significant step in the battle against impunity. It was what we were hoping for because it gives us more legal elements to combat these crimes.”

Pressure from Washington to pass this amendment intensified two months ago when it pushed for Colombia’s criminal prosecutor, Germán Zamudio, to be invited to a forum in Honduras, despite strong resistance from important circles.

Several congresspersons and executive and judicial officers called for a low-profile visit and refused to let the government host his stay, which in the end was paid for by a private company.

With the amendment, Honduras joins its neighbours El Salvador and Guatemala in authorising extraditions. The three countries form Central America’s “northern triangle”, considered one of the most violent regions in the world due to the presence of drug cartels that have been displaced from Colombia and Mexico by the war on drugs.

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