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Latin America Report

From Haiti to Honduras, is it good or bad if U.S. justice replaces Latin American justice?

Former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez in handcuffs and chains in Tegucigalpa last week after the U.S. requested his extradition on drug-trafficking and weapons charges.
Elmer Martinez
Former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez in handcuffs and chains in Tegucigalpa last week after the U.S. requested his extradition on drug-trafficking and weapons charges.

From murder to drugs, Latin America's underdeveloped justice systems often rely on the U.S. to prosecute crimes. But does it simply keep them underdeveloped?

From Haiti to Honduras, the U.S. justice system has recently begun prosecuting several suspects linked to crimes committed in Latin America and the Caribbean. But while the wheels of gringo justice usually do spin more fairly and effectively than those in developing countries, outsourcing these cases to the U.S. raises a concern:

By essentially taking over for the justice systems in those countries, is the U.S. helping to stall, if not undermine their own development?

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That question is particularly important right now for Haitians — since so far more suspects linked to last year's presidential assassination are being prosecuted here in Miami than in Haiti.

“It does seem to be an affront to the sovereignty of the legal system of that nation," said Fort Lauderdale attorney and Haiti native Ronald Surin.

These days Surin often represents Haitian lawyers and judges who are seeking asylum in the U.S. Many have received death threats from the criminal gangs that now rule large parts of Haiti — and Surin feels that helps explains why the Haitian justice system is unable to prosecute suspects in last July’s brutal assassination of President Jovenel Moïse.

READ MORE: U.S. diplomat helping Haiti rebuild its police: elite ties to gangs are 'on notice'

“The reality is the judicial system in Haiti is in shambles," Surin said.

"People can manipulate judges, and in too many cases that corruption makes arrest, thorough investigation and prosecution and conviction very unlikely.”

The U.S. has jurisdiction in the Moïse murder conspiracy case since the plot was partly hatched in South Florida. But since the murder itself happened on Haitian soil, that's technically Haitian authorities’ turf — and the investigation there has largely been a mess.

Haiti hasn’t issued a formal charge in the killing yet despite several arrests. One judge, meanwhile, has accused interim Prime Minister Ariel Henry of involvement in the conspiracy. That chaos is a big reason two top suspects were recently extradited to Miami to face trial.

U.S. extradition requests give us hope — but we need to see that this can happen in our own countries. We currently don’t have justice systems that can make this happen for ourselves.
Natalia Lozano

One was former Colombian soldier and alleged mercenary Mario Antonio Palacios— who in a message recorded while he was in hiding in Haiti insisted that he did not take part in Moïse’s killing — and that he could "not be guaranteed a just trial in Haiti."

Not surprisingly, Prime Minister Henry told the Miami Heraldthis month Haiti is happy to send more suspects to Miami.

Surin said that might be a good thing for the Moïse case — but it risks making Haiti’s legal institutions even weaker if not useless.

“It’s implied," he said, "that Haiti is under the control of the United States.”


Across the Caribbean, Hondurans too are wondering if they're relying too much on the U.S. justice system.

Last week the Biden Administration requested the extraditionof former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, who left office just a few weeks ago, on drug-trafficking and weapons charges. Honduran police arrested Hernández at his home in Tegucigalpa, and now the Honduran judiciary must decide whether to approve his extradition.

Hernández is linked to several other corruption scandals — and polls suggest Hondurans do want to see him prosecuted. But at the same time, many are bothered that the U.S. is playing a role they want their own authorities to play for a change.

“This [U.S. extradition request] will give us a sense of hope," said Natalia Lozano, a leading Honduran human rights activist with the nonprofit Seattle International Foundation.

"But we need to see that this is also able to happen within [our] country. We currently don’t have a justice system that could make this happen for ourselves.”

In fact, Hondurans like Lozano fear their current justice system is so politically allied with Hernández and his right-wing National Party that it will block his extradition to the U.S.

Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega in Miami to face drug-trafficking charges after the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama.
Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega in Miami to face drug-trafficking charges after the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama.

This issue is not new in U.S.-Latin America relations. Washington has long used extradition to prosecute Latin American kingpins who traffic drugs into the U.S., for example. (Or other means — like the 1989 invasion of Panama that brought narco-trafficking dictator Manuel Noriega to Miami for trial.)

But some legal experts see another issue driving the U.S.'s latest legal involvement in Latin America.

“The U.S. is trying to show that they’re doing something with respect to the root causes of immigration,” said University of Miami law professor Pablo Rueda-Saiz, who teaches international aw.

Rueda-Saiz points out Haiti and Honduras are two of the largest sources of illegal immigration into the U.S. And, arguably, the chief driver of that immigration is the terrifying criminal violence their justice systems are too weak to stop.

Countries like Haiti and Honduras, along with many U.S. officials, may say "let the U.S. deal with these cases, with these criminals," Rueda-Saiz said. "But it’s a façade. The problems will persist.”

Over the years the U.S. has in fact made efforts, via agencies like USAID, to help developing countries build up their own justice systems. Rueda-Saiz acknowledges his home country of Colombia for years relied on extraditing its narco-criminals to the U.S. Today Colombia's judiciary is more effective — thanks largely to a modernizing 1991 Constitution, but also in part to U.S. assistance.

“The best thing the U.S. can do is to help strengthen existing institutions in Latin America," Rueda-Saiz said. "Not to try to make those justice systems in its own image, which doesn't work, either — but to keep extending technical cooperation.”

Many legal experts agree that if the U.S. stepped up that kind of work in Latin America, it might not have to do so much stepping in.

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. Contact Tim at tpadgett@wlrnnews.org
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