Honduran Navy Confronts Maritime Drug Trafficking

Honduran Navy Confronts Maritime Drug Trafficking

By Dialogo
October 21, 2015

Good news. There needs to be more coverage, i.e. more issues such as politics and other topics. We should support the police

The Honduran Navy (FNH, for its Spanish acronym), working in cooperation with the Coast Guards of Colombia, the United States, and Canada, has since 2014 reinforced security measures to block the trafficking of narcotics through the country, according to Rear Admiral Héctor Orlando Caballero, FNH’s commander.

“We have reduced the transit of drug-trafficking boats by 75 percent,” he said. “We have seized more than 1,500 kilograms of drugs. We’ve had only about two dozen vessels attempt to unload in our territory and we have intercepted more than half of them.”

Far fewer drug traffickers are trying to use Honduran maritime routes in the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean than in previous years.

“There was a time in the past when we would find abandoned motor boats every day, in our shores, in canals, and in entrances to rivers,” said Lieutenant Commander Alex Carbajal, who leads the Naval Base in Carastasca in La Mosquitia. “This year (in 2015) we’ve only found three, and one of them was very old; it must have been left there a long time ago, not recently by any means.”

Cooperation with partner nations

Under Operation Swordfish, a collaborative international initiative among the Honduran Navy and Colombian, U.S., and at times Canadian Coast Guards, the FNH patrols the waters off Honduras’ Pacific coast to crack down on maritime drug trafficking.

The FNH also participates in Operation MARTILLO, a joint Western Hemisphere and European partner-nation effort targeting illicit trafficking routes in coastal waters along the Central American isthmus.

“On both coasts, we are permanently positioned in strategic points that allow for our fast response in the case of an event,” said Rear Adm. Caballero. “It is a large effort to maintain a large number of vessels covering the entirety of the coasts.”

The FNH is also devoting much of its resources to its 700-kilometer Atlantic coast.

“That is a strategic point to cut off the illicit drug flow from South America,” explained the Rear Admiral. “We place a larger emphasis in the zone between Puerto Castilla, in the department of Colón, and La Mosquitia, because of the high incidence of drug trafficking we have registered in that area.”

Successful drug interdiction

The FNH’s vigilance in the Atlantic Coast region paid off around noon on August 23, when U.S. security forces alerted the FNH that a vessel with a load of drugs was headed toward the country’s waters from Colombia.

“It takes about seven hours to reach our waters, depending on the speed of the boat and their cargo, but we were ready,” said Lt. Cmdr. Carbajal. “We had boats floating in the water and in the openings of rivers to intercept their arrival. When we have an alert we can remain in the area for as long as 48 hours or more, waiting.”

“Coming into La Mosquitia is harder now,” he explained. “Our coasts are lined with sea patrols and land elements covering 50 to 80 kilometers of seashore. Traffickers know this, so they are trying to find other spots. Our first barrier is two Coast Guard vessels and then other smaller vessels we have working in pairs, because we will always have two of our boats to fight one of theirs.”

On that occasion, the FNH was prepared to stop the suspicious vessel.

“The boats traffickers use are small, which makes them hard to detect, but we knew this one was coming,” said Lt. Cmdr. Carbajal. “All our boats deployed that night and because La Mosquitia was blocked, they went farther, to Colón. It was of no use because our Marines there tracked them and followed them to shore, where they tried to flee.”

The FNH intercepted the drug boat near the ethnic Garífuna community of Limón in Colón, where a team of eight Marines engaged in a gun battle with the suspected drug traffickers. Two of three men who had been on the vessel escaped, but the Military captured the third man, identified as Loran Arrechavala, a Colombian native, and seized 45 kilograms of cocaine, a Military assault rifle, and several barrels of fuel.

“These beaches are surrounded by jungle,” explained Lt. Cmdr. Carbajal. “We lost two (suspects) in the vegetation and in the dark, but Loren Arrechavala couldn’t outrun our men on land. They captured him. He was promptly put on a helicopter and turned over to authorities.”

Dangerous missions

Fortunately, no Marines or other service members were injured during the operation that ended with Arrechavala’s capture - but drug interdiction operations remain inherently perilous.

On the night of October 2, for example, FNH service members followed a suspicious motorboat near Iriona, in Colón, and engaged in a gun battle with suspected criminals that left three Marines injured. The suspects, who were attempting to unload illicit cargo on the beach, also threw a grenade at the Naval patrol. The firefight ended with the Marines capturing the four suspects and seizing Russian-made, rocket-propelled grenades from the motorboat.

In mid-October, one of the Marines remained in the Military Hospital in Tegucigalpa, where doctors were trying to save one of his eyes.

“We know the risks are high, but we are resolutely committed to blocking traffickers from using our territory as transit ground for their activities,” said Rear Adm. Caballero.

A few weeks before the October incident, the FNH had engaged in a firefight with suspects aboard a suspicious boat in the Colón area. The crew members tried to escape by directing the vessel inland, but National Inter-Agency Task Force (FUSINA) agents captured one suspect, Gerson Rutherford, who was identified by authorities as a Colombian national. The FNH also seized 211 kilograms of cocaine, weapons, and ammunition from the vessel.

Rear Adm. Caballero is familiar with La Mosquitia, where he was assigned before his current post.

“Some three or four years ago, we had locals who worked with traffickers; they got paid for safekeeping bundles of drugs temporarily,” he said. “I would describe them as narco-communities that protected the individuals involved in this type of activities. It is no longer so.”

The government is providing social action programs in these communities to provide residents economic opportunities and various goods and services.

“We in the FNH have begun preparations to start taking food, products to cover basic needs, and even equipment to facilitate their participation in different productive activities,” said Rear Adm. Caballero. “Mosquitia will be a drug-free territory. That is our mission.”

“A lot has been done in a relatively short time,” he stated. “We will be relentless. The mission is to eradicate the flow of illicit drugs through our country, and I believe we are achieving it.”