Central America Destroys Clandestine Airstrips in Anti-Drug Crackdown
By Dialogo July 01, 2013
Honduras plans to destroy at least 30 clandestine landing strips in July as part of a crackdown on drug smuggling, said Gen. René Osorio, chief of the Honduran Armed Forces, told reporters June 10 in Tegucigalpa.
Army spokesman Jeremias Arevalo said the following day that “the destruction of these tracks is the fifth stage of Operation Martillo, and we will be able to do it thanks to the efforts made by intelligence groups operating nationally both over ground and over the air on flights that have allowed us to locate the tracks.”
“We expect this will strain the capabilities of drug traffickers,” Arevelo said of Operation Martillo, a multinational effort which targets organized criminals using aircraft and maritime vessels to sneak drugs into Central America and onto Mexico and the United States.
Up to 87 percent of all cocaine flights departing South America first land in Honduras, according to the U.S. State Department’s latest International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR) published in March — making Honduras a major drug transit country.
“The Northern Atlantic coastal region of Honduras is a primary landing zone for drug-carrying flights. The region is vulnerable to narcotics trafficking due to its remoteness, limited infrastructure, lack of government presence, and weak law enforcement institutions,” the report said.
Guatemala also destroying ‘narcopistas’
Last year, Honduran authorities destroyed more than 70 clandestine airstrips, known in Spanish as “narcopistas.” They also seized more than 5,000 kilograms of cocaine and about 20,000 kilos of pseudoephedrine to manufacture ecstacy pills. Arevalo said military units are now preparing to destroy all newly identified airstrips, though for security reasons he declined to disclose their locations.
Neighboring Guatemala is also struggling to track aircraft laden with drugs bound for Mexico or the United States. The Organization of American States, in a May 2013 report on the issue, says Guatemala has already lost 40,000 hectares of rainforest to the illegal construction of landing strips used primarily by and for drug smugglers.
Such clandestine airstrips have even been found at Mayan archaeological sites which are supposed to be protected, according to media reports. Last year, Guatemalan authorities destroyed 15 airstrips in the sparsely populated northern department of Petén, which covers one-third of Guatemala’s land area but is home to only 600,000 of its 15 million inhabitants.
Cocaine transport patterns throughout the region area also changing, said the OAS. While most cocaine departing Venezuela bound for Europe or the United States still goes by sea, air routes are growing in importance — especially via Central America and the Caribbean.
Costa Rica, Mexico take action against illegal drug flights
The INCSR study also noted that further south, in Costa Rica, an under-resourced Coast Guard makes the country’s coastline an attractive landing zone for smugglers.
“Costa Rican-flagged fishing boats continue to be used by traffickers to smuggle multi-ton shipments of drugs through the littorals and to provide fuel for ‘go-fast’ boats that favor Pacific routes,” the report said. It added that a common practice is for traffickers to load their drugs onto trucks and other vehicles traveling north along the Pan-American Highway.
Meanwhile, in Mexico’s northeastern state of Sonora, authorities destroyed 127 clandestine airstrips last year, according to that country’s Secretariat of National Defense (SEDENA). Officials said organized criminals are also using Sonora’s wide highways to land their planes.
Honduran authorities calculate that 80 percent of drugs transiting Honduras moves by sea and the remaining 20 percent by land and air.
“One of our concerns is that more and more shipments seem to be coming by sea now,” Arevalo said. “We’ve seen that they stopped shipping as much by air and now they’re turning to sea and using underwater vessels like narcomarinos. It requires constant work to keep track of what type of vessels they are using, but we do it every day because the Armed Forces are fully committed to eradicating all criminal activity.”