'Chepe' Handal Named First Major Honduran Drug Kingpin

The U.S. Treasury Department's recent designation of "Chepe" Handal as a key Honduran drug kingpin represents a boon for efforts to dismantle narco-trafficking networks in Honduras dominated by Mexico's Sinaloa and Zetas cartels. Mr. Handal, along with his wife, Ena Elizabeth, and his father, José Miguel Handal Larach, are allegedly at the center of the organized crime ring that facilitates the flow of illegal drugs from South America to Mexico and into the United States. The U.S. government will seek extradition of Mr. Handal from Honduras so he can stand trial for criminal charges in the U.S., including one "count of conspiracy to distribute cocaine with knowledge that it will be unlawfully imported into the United States." The public revelation of the case against Mr. Handal will likely cause a major disruption in drug shipments through Honduras. According to Treasury, it is Mr. Handal who has been financing and coordinating the "receipt" of all those narcoavionetas (drug aircraft) that began landing in clandestine airstrips in eastern Honduras in significant numbers in 2006 -- the first year of President Manuel Zelaya's administration. No more than a handful of these Cessna-type planes were identified in 2005. The numbers grew to between 5-10 in each of the following two years. A total of 16 planes were identified in 2008 (although many more are believed to have gone undetected), followed by 49 in 2009 (21 of them in the first half of the year, before the coup against President Zelaya), 94 in 2010, at least 99 in 2011, and 63 in 2012. Mr. Handal, allegedly, also arranges for ground transport of the drug shipments via Honduras' northern highway into Guatemala, where "members of Los Zetas and the Sinaloa Cartel take possession." The case against Mr. Handal may be good news for the U.S. and Honduran drug interdiction program, and bad for those who benefit from the drug trade in Honduras, including the cartels and the gangs they contract to be their enforcers, extortionists, and hitmen. It is bad news for the Handal family -- one of the wealthiest and well-connected families in Honduras. And it is bad news for anyone who does business with the Handals and has political ties to them.