Honduran military prepared to intercept, shoot down narco-planes
By Dialogo February 21, 2014
The Honduran Congress recently approved a law to protect the country’s air space, which is sometimes used by drug traffickers to transport cocaine and other illegal substances.
Congress passed the law in January 2014. The law authorizes the Honduran Air Force to shoot down suspicious aircraft which do not comply with official orders. The airspace protection law is pending publication in the state's official newspaper La Gaceta, to take effect.
The new law will help security forces fight drug traffickers, who in recent years have been making incursions into Honduran airspace with increasing frequency, said Army Gen. Fredy Santiago Díaz.
“Honduras needs this law to be in effect urgently,” Santiago Díaz said. “The importance of this law is that it serves a preventive instrument. Any country of the world makes planes respect their airspace. Permissions have to be granted to fly over them. Drug traffickers knew that we didn't have that protection, so they've kept entering our territory.”
Drug traffickers have used Honduras as an important bridge as they transport drugs from Mexico to the United States. Nearly 80 percent of all illicit flights to transport cocaine from South America to Mexico and the U.S. make stops in Honduras, according to a 2012 report by the U.S. State Department.
The Honduran Defense Ministry has identified hundreds of clandestine airstrips which are used by drug traffickers. Among the international drug trafficking organizations which operate in Honduras are Los Cachiros, a Honduran organized crime group, and the Sinaloa Cartel, the world’s largest transnational criminal organization. The Sinaloa Cartel, based in Mexico, is led by fugitive kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. In 2012, Honduran security forces launched a campaign to find and destroy clandestine landing strips. Authorities have destroyed more than 100 such airstrips as of December 2013.
The illicit airstrips are typically between 800 and 1,600 meters long. They are scattered throughout the country, primarily in remote jungle regions in the northern and eastern parts of the country, close to the Caribbean. Authorities have found large numbers of illicit airstrips in the departments of Gracias a Dios, Colón and Olancho.
Initially, the tough new air space law was only going to apply to those three departments. But after further analysis and discussions, members of Congress decided to expand the law to the entire country. Lawmakers realized that drug traffickers could simply begin operating in other departments if their traditional smuggling routes were cut off.
Shooting down aircraft will be a ‘last resort’
The new law allows authorities to take a series of steps to deal with unidentified aircraft. Unidentified aircraft will be shot down only as a final resort, after other options have been exhausted, and only with the final approval of the Minister of Defense, according to Gen. Díaz.
The law establishes that when an unidentified plane is detected, authorities will attempt to contact the pilot. Pilots and crews wich refuse to answer when contacted by Honduran authorities will be considered suspicious. So will all planes which fly during non-authorized hours, between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. each day.
The law was authored and presented by Congressman Oscar Alvarez, who is a former security minister. The law is necessary to deal with the threats posed by international drug traffickers, Alvarez said.
“Drug trafficking results in the high levels of violence we observe in the country,” Alvarez said. The new measure will be an “air shield’ which will force narco-traffickers to find other drug smuggling routes, the congressman said.
“The protocol we will follow is the one observed in other countries that have air exclusion areas,” Alvarez said. “Traffic control will attempt to contact the flight crew, if they don't respond an Air Force plane will take off to intercept the aircraft. If they don't obey, they will be taken down.”
The new law does not violate international flight agreements Honduras has previously agreed to, Vice President Samuel Reyes told La Prensa.
Honduran lawmakers based their decision to pass the new law based on the International Civil Aviation Treaty, otherwise known as the Chicago Treaty. The treaty states that every country has complete exclusive sovereignty on the airspace over its land as well as on its adjacent seas, and that each country can, for military or public safety reasons, restrict or prohibit flights over certain zones of its territory.
“This is a legal instrument that shows that we are serious in our mission,” Reyes said. “Fighting drug trafficking is a priority for this government.”
Zero tolerance for drug trafficking
Juan Orlando Hernández was inaugurated as the new president of Honduras in January 2014. Hernández vowed during his inauguration speech to do whatever is necessary to reduce narco-trafficking in Honduras and restore security and tranquility throughout the country.
“Whichever policy Honduras establishes to fight insecurity must have at its fundamental axis the fight against drug trafficking, organized crime and money laundering,” Hernández said. “Consequently there will be zero tolerance. Just like you hear. Zero tolerance. Period.” Honduras recently purchased three radar devices from Israel, which will help security forces detect narco-flights. Authorities said they expect the devices to be operating by April 2014. The Honduran Air Force is also revamping its fleet of A-37 and F-5 airplanes, as well as Toucan aircraft.
Honduras is going through one of its most difficult moments in history, with drug trafficking “leaving a trail of death, impunity and pain that is intolerable,” Hernández said
In recent years, Honduras had a homicide rate of 85 per 100,000 residents. In 2013, the homicide rate declined, to 79 per 100,000 residents. Most of the killings – 70 percent – are connected to drug trafficking, authorities have said.
Positive outcomes are expected: Analyst
The tough new law protecting the country’s air space, the renovation of its Air Force fleet, and the ongoing efforts to destroy illegal landing strips, should produce positive results, said Germán Leitzelar, Honduran security analyst.
“It has been positive in other nations that have implemented similar measures. The Dominican Republic is the best example,” Leitzelar said. “When they purchased new planes and closed their airspace in 2010, narco flights decreased significantly. In fact, it was afterwards when they started to come here.”
The airspace protection law is pending publication in the state's official newspaper La Gaceta, to take effect.
President warns gangs
President Hernández recently warned gangs and other criminal groups that they have run out of friends and have three options.
“Gang members, extortionists, people involved in organized crime have very few friends remaining. The dark party that has caused so much harm to this country is over,” Hernández said. “Either shape up your behavior, seek peace in your souls, dedicate yourselves to your families and work decently, or you have the option of leaving the country, and if not, you will end up in prison.”
For criminals, “the party is over,” President Hernández said in his inauguration speech."