SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras --
For years, the Air Force Office of Special Investigations Latin American field office whose motto is “When Things Go South,” Region 2 OL-B, at Davis Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz., has been managing agent deployments and support to Joint Task Force – Bravo at Soto Cano Air Base, approximately one and a half hour’s drive north of the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa. OSI agents, proficient in the Spanish language, are carefully selected to partner with Special Agents of the Army’s 470th Military Intelligence Brigade, Fort Sam Houston, Texas. The joint team provides early-warning, “outside-the wire” awareness on counterintelligence and force protection issues that ultimately allow the JTF-B commander to shield his task force, made up of more than 500 soldiers, airmen, sailors, and marines from threats posed by narco-traffickers, hostile foreign intelligence services, and two of the most violent criminal gangs in the world: Mara Salvatrutcha -13 (MS-13) and the Eighteenth Street Gang (Barrio 18). It’s a full-time job.
One of the most dangerous places to be in the country, a commercial hub in North Honduras called San Pedro Sula, had gained notoriety, as late as 2014, as the murder capital of the world. The Honduran President, Juan Orlando Hernandez, or JOH as he is known by Hondurans, recognized his country’s security forces had to be revamped and restructured if the country was ever to regain the trust and confidence of its citizenry to protect them. JOH initiated a purge of thousands of corrupt police officers and other public officials and set about to rebuild the Honduran National Police force. One Honduran who answered the call to help his country in its time of need was Luis Antonio Lara Bu, known as Lara Bu by his friends and colleagues. Lara Bu made a name for himself as a member of the Honduran Police Special Operations Force, called TIGRES, conducting dangerous raids against the MS-13 and Barrio 18 gangs on their own turf in the worst parts of San Pedro Sula often considered “no-go zones” by the National Police and Military. Lara Bu’s modest, humble, and down-to-earth professionalism culminated in his selection as primary assistant to the head of the HNP Department of Criminal Investigations (DPI) covering the Northwest quadrant of Honduras and headquartered out of San Pedro Sula. Everyone knew and liked Lara Bu.
In early 2018, the commander of the JTF-B, Army Colonel Keith McKinley, wanted to remove San Pedro Sula from the Task Force’s “off-limits” sections of the country in order for personnel to travel to the city, some three and a half hours north of the base, to spend liberty time and get to know more of the Honduran culture of the Northern and coastal areas of the country. Before deciding to “open” the city to JTF-B personnel, COL McKinley had an obligation to make sure the city was “safe enough” to allow servicemen and women to venture into it and use the more economical airport in San Pedro Sula for official and leisure travel back to the CONUS. COL McKinley realized it was a big gamble and turned to his two-man OSI/Army MI team to gather the critical information he would need to decide to open the city to task force personnel or leave the designation as being prohibited. For months, OSI and Army MI agents like myself, Jim Pearson, Lolo Valdez and Juan Venega made frequent trips to the city meeting with police officials, conducting hotel assessments, and trying to become familiar enough with the large city to build an argument to open San Pedro Sula to JTF personnel, or not.
Agents quickly became friends with the Police Chief of the Northwest Region of Honduras, Commissioner Hector Ruiz-Martinez, who valued the partnership with agents from Soto Cano and invited them to his weekly sync meeting with all his police chiefs and specialty section leaders from Special Operations, Criminal Investigations and Criminal Intelligence. Ruiz-Martinez gave agents the floor to present themselves and the mission of the Task Force, particularly the JTF-B Commander’s intent to put San Pedro back on the list of potential liberty sites for task force members.
In early August, COL McKinley was succeeded by COL Brian Russell, who shared McKinley’s vision of opening San Pedro Sula. Russell said it was very important for Task Force members to enrich their tours in Honduras with more cultural insight and again turned to his OSI/Army MI team to finalize the intelligence needed to make a final determination. At the order of Commissioner Ruiz-Martinez, agents were linked up with the head of Criminal Investigation, Geovanny Serrano, to conduct one last area-familiarization of San Pedro Sula to complete the assessment for COL Russell’s decision brief.
On Aug. 23, 2018, SA Venega and I went to DPI HQ where we met Officer Lara Bu in Serrano’s office. Serrano assured us we were in great hands. Lara Bu took us to the City’s Airport and escorted us inside to meet with officials from the Honduran equivalent of our Transportation Safety Administration, HNP officers detailed to Interpol, and a host of other important airport officials. All appeared interested in our mission in San Pedro and willing to help JTF members however they could. The airport was important due to nearly 15 direct flights to the U.S., often at discounted rates, making it a prime option for task force members instead of the more costly airport in the capital Tegucigalpa. For the next several hours, Lara Bu somehow squeezed in all the high- and low-points of the city to include the most dangerous Barrio called Rivera-Hernandez, known prostitution areas, the main city market, city hall, cathedral, and finally the so-called “Zona Viva,” comprised mostly of the major Western hotels and eateries. Lara Bu made the impossible possible, and the team’s tourism map now clearly delineated what areas could safely be visited by Task Force Members. When that part of the tour was complete, Lara Bu asked if we would mind if he took care of something. We agreed and Lara drove us the University. Before arriving Lara Bu quickly peeled off his DPI Police polo and it appeared whatever was going to happen next wasn’t a planned part of the tour. Lara Bu said he was a law student and he needed to sign in at the university to get credit for attending the day’s courses. The tour had precluded him from attending classes.
Once back at the Headquarters, Venega and I invited Lara Bu and Serrano to an appreciation dinner. During the meal we expressed our gratitude to Lara Bu for spending his entire day escorting us around the town to conduct our assessment for the task force. I presented him with an OL-B challenge coin which he quickly photographed for his app profile picture.
What came next no one could have predicted. About a week later, while relaxing at a hotel in Tegucigalpa waiting to attend Embassy meetings the next morning, our phones showed a message from Serrano. He reported that our friend and colleague, Luis Antonio Lara Bu, had been shot and killed at point-blank range, so called “Quema Ropa” in Spanish, trying to stop an assault of a young woman in Lara Bu’s home department of Ocotepeque, while Lara Bu was on leave.
Venega and I were speechless trying to comprehend the news. Lara Bu was gone. Agents quickly put together a collection for Lara Bu’s surviving spouse and children and a condolence card signed by the JTF-B leadership. Without Lara Bu’s help, we would not have gained invaluable insight into the threat environment of San Pedro Sula to properly advise the JTF-B Commander on his decision to open the city.
On the next trip to San Pedro Sula, during a change of command at DPI Headquarters, Commissioner Ruiz-Martinez gave me the opportunity to formally express condolences to the men and women of the HNP and DPI in San Pedro Sula, as well as present the collection offering and card for Lara Bu’s family. As of the writing of this article, the suspects wanted in connection with Lara Bu’s murder are still at large. Lara Bu’s murder is still under investigation and the exact circumstances of what happened are still unknown. Regardless, one thing is certain, Lara Bu died a hero.
On Sept. 24, 2018, SA Venega and I invited Commissioner Ruiz-Martinez to JTF-B HQ to participate in the final briefing to the Commander, COL Russell. I explained the briefing was dedicated to Lara Bu who was responsible for a large part of the material presented for COL Russell’s review. After the brief, COL Russell decided San Pedro Sula would be opened for Task Force member’s to visit as soon as the upcoming Columbus Day weekend. During lunch at the base dining facility, friends and colleagues shared valuable time together, committing to learn from and help one another, “por la misma causa,” “for the same cause.”