The National Interagency Security Force conducts land and air patrols to keep the Central American country free of narcotrafficking.
From January to June 2018, the National Interagency Security Force (FUSINA, in Spanish) of the Honduran Ministry of Defense found, secured, and disabled 28 clandestine airstrips in the eastern and western part of the country. International narcotraffickers used the rural airstrips to transport drugs, mostly cocaine, to the United States and Mexico.
“Most of the destroyed clandestine airstrips were located in the Mosquitia area, department of Gracias a Dios, and one [airstrip] was found in the department of Cortés, near the Guatemalan border,” Honduran Navy Captain José Domingo Meza Castillo, director of Public Relations for the Armed Forces, told Diálogo. “We owe the results to FUSINA’s constant land and air patrols to keep the national territory free of narcotrafficking.”
FUSINA’s actions fell under Operation Morazán, launched in 2014. “We established a land, air, and naval shield, deploying troops, air, and naval [resources] in great numbers to better control the area and create a peaceful and safe environment for the country,” Honduran Army Colonel José Ramón Macoto Vásquez, commander of Joint Task Force Policarpo Paz García, told Diálogo.
Operation Morazán, a joint effort of the Armed Forces and state institutions under FUSINA’s leadership, aims to eliminate criminal groups in major urban cities and remote areas of the country. “In the last three years, narcotrafficking crimes have decreased considerably due to the coordinated efforts of the institutions that make up FUSINA, which dismantled criminal groups,” Col. Macoto said.
From January 2014 to December 2017, authorities destroyed about 200 airstrips, most of them in Mosquitia, the easternmost part of Honduras. “The flat lands of the department of Gracias a Dios facilitate the landing of small drug smuggling planes [coming from South America]. We maintain constant air and land patrols,” Capt. Meza said.
“Once a clandestine landing area is destroyed [by explosive ordnance specialists of the Honduran Armed Forces’ Engineer Battalion], a follow-up air and land reconnaissance operation is carried out to reduce the chances that the airstrips will be rehabilitated,” Capt. Meza said. “Explosive ordnance specialists carry out detonations that leave craters throughout the length of clandestine airstrips.”
Authorities disable airstrips in three stages. First, landing areas are identified and located. Security personnel and sappers then transfer onsite with demolition materials to destroy the airstrip. Finally, authorities monitor operations with programmed reconnaissance. The task takes no more than 24 hours from the moment an airstrip is located.
Col. Macoto and Capt. Maza estimate that criminal organizations use 30 to 50 people to set up an illegal airstrip. According to the officers, the drug trade uses clandestine landing areas to save time and resources.
In addition to destroying airstrips, FUSINA also conducts patrols, searches for criminal gangs, and captures narcotraffickers responsible for setting up illegal landing areas. “Establishing checkpoints throughout the area of operations allowed us to keep the initiative and be proactive to prevent crime,” Col. Macoto said. “The goal is to keep the department of Gracias a Dios from becoming a drug trafficking hub.”
According to the 2017 World Drug Report of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the Drug Enforcement Administration “estimated that in 2015, 76 percent of the cocaine departing South America transited the eastern Pacific, entering Central America or Mexico before being transported overland to the United States.” Moreover, the International Narcotics Control Board Annual Report 2017, said narcotraffickers have destroyed thousands of acres of forests in Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua by opening airstrips and damaging important natural areas in all three countries in the last decade. “Drug trafficking opens airstrips and damages important areas in the three countries, which suffer the ravages of illicit cocaine trafficking,” said Luis Otárola Peñaranda, INCB member in Perú, in a UN news report published in March 2018.
“The fight against narcotrafficking requires multilateral efforts. It’s important to coordinate regional efforts to obtain better results,” Captain Meza said. As such, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras created the Trinational Task Force in November 2016 to improve cooperation and combined operations, as well as fight transnational organized crime head-on.
U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), through the Joint Interagency Task Force South, helps detect, monitor, and alert partners about narcotrafficking routes as well as strengthen security capabilities of partner nations. “Combining efforts leads to better results,” Capt. Meza said. “SOUTHCOM supports us with information, identification, and location of clandestine airstrips,” Col. Macoto concluded.