About 79 percent of cocaine flights that take off from South American airstrips land in Honduras, according to the U.S. Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.
The 2012 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR), released in March, said aerial cocaine shipments are using the eastern forest and jungle region of Honduras, known as La Mosquitia, as a transport hub to redistribute drugs. That region remains vulnerable “due to its remoteness, limited infrastructure, lack of state presence and weak law enforcement institutions.”
“La Mosquitia was a primary landing zone for drug-carrying flights, and transshipment was facilitated by subsequent flights, maritime vessels, riverine traffic and land movement on the Pan-American Highway and secondary roads,” the INCSR said.
Within days of the report’s release, the Honduran Armed Forces discovered more than 70 covert airstrips in the country’s sparsely populated eastern and northeastern regions. The Armed Forces found surreptitious landing strips in the Olancho, Colón, El Paraíso and Gracias a Diós regions, where swathes of jungle had been cleared to create narrow runways for small planes.
“These landing strips have been found intact for landings, which indicates to us that they are being used frequently, as many as one to two days a week by drug traffickers,” said Gen. René Osorio Canales.
Armed forces dynamite clandestine airstrips
Members of the country’s Army, Navy and Air Force jointly located airstrips throughout La Mosquitia, which is rife with dense forests and winding rivers that connect primarily indigenous communities, Osorio said. When found, military specialists dynamited the airstrips, which are between 1,200 and 2,800 meters long, to disrupt future landings.
The military destroyed 13 clandestine airstrips in the first two weeks of March, and plans to destroy another 60 or so by the end of April. The report describing excessive drug traffic in La Mosquitia comes as no surprise to Honduran military officials.
Since 2007, the Honduran military and the government’s Anti-Drug Commission have seized or recovered several small planes in the jungles of La Mosquitia. In March 2010, a small two-motor plane carrying 550 kilos of cocaine was discovered there, along with three boats and hundreds of weapons thought to be part of a Colombian operation.
In August 2010, a special Honduran drug enforcement unit responded to the landing of a suspicious aircraft. Soldiers apprehended the plane seized 470 kilos of cocaine and a rocket-propelled grenade from a truck.
In February, the Honduran Navy recovered an abandoned Cessna 206 in a swampy area located between two lagoons in La Mosquitia. Deemed to have irreparable damage, the Navy and Anti-Drug Commission destroyed the plane, which was believed to have been used for drug-trafficking purposes. The Defense Ministry says 99 drug planes landed in Honduras last year, up from 94 in 2010.
“It’s a shame that La Mosquitia is being used for drug trafficking,” Defense Minister Marlon Pascua told reporters in February. “It’s important that the Armed Forces maintain a heavy presence in the region so that drug traffickers don’t think La Mosquitia is a territory where they are free to operate.”
Semi-submersible sub capture marked a milestone
In addition to the presence of drug planes, in July 2011, the Navy intercepted a self-propelled semi-submersible vessel 17 miles off the coast of La Mosquitia. The capture of a drug submarine was the first ever in Honduras, and resulted in the confiscation of 5.9 tons of cocaine — the largest such seizure in Honduran history.
In September 2011, a second semi-submersible vessel was intercepted 130 miles off the same coast, carrying a similar amount of cocaine.
“We consider it a success that the Honduran Navy has intercepted these drug-trafficking vessels for the first time in national waters,” Pascua said. “It is evident that the technological prowess of the drug-traffickers is evolving and we must continue to advance our technology to stop future shipments from passing through Honduras.”
The Honduran Navy seized more than 22 tons of cocaine in 2011, nearly four times the amount confiscated in 2010.
Just north of La Mosquitía, in the mountain town of Cerro Negro, authorities last year discovered the country’s first-ever cocaine processing laboratory. The lab was unearthed after local residents tipped them off about strange activity at a remote coffee plantation — including the frequent arrival and departure of helicopters.
Secret cocaine lab in the mountains
Police officers hiked up mountains and traversed rivers by boat to get to the lab, where they found extensive and advanced technology used to process cocaine. Upon further investigation, they learned that the lab was a processing plant for coca paste smuggled in from Colombia and shipped to Guatemala and Mexico. The Defense Ministry ruled that the laboratory was operated by the Mexican Sinaloa cartel.
“The fight against drug trafficking must be a collaborative effort by countries throughout Latin America,” said former Defense Minister Oscar Álvarez. “The laboratory was found here, but is linked to Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico. We must work together to find all transport points from origin to destination.”
The report of cocaine traffic being routed through Honduras comes as drug-related violence has left the country in a state of crisis. In 2010, the Global Homicide Survey by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime found that Honduras had the world’s highest murder rate — 82 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants.
In February, Honduran President Porfirio Lobo said drug violence kills about 22 people daily, and that an “infinite number of lives” have been lost as a result of narcotics trafficking. Nearly 7,000 residents were murdered in Honduras in 2011. A UN survey last year found that 66 percent of Hondurans rank drug consumption as the top security issue at the neighborhood level.
The 2011 seizure indicated that Honduran security forces are improving, but the INCSR said their fight against drug smugglers will be a lengthy one. “Criminal organizations operating in Honduras are ruthless, well-armed, well-funded and logistically adept,” the report said. “While the Honduran government demonstrated improvements, it lacked the expertise, resources, and a complete legal framework to effectively counter the threat.”