The Destruction of Narco Airstrips in Honduras

Nearly 79 percent of all narco flights originating in South American countries use the Mosquito Coast as a drop-off point for cocaine shipments.
Brenda Fiegel, Foreign Military Studies Office, Fort Leavenworth | 5 March 2015

La Mosquitia is located in the easternmost part of Honduras along the Mosquito Coast and is known for its lush rainforests and diverse indigenous populations. Cut-off from urban society, this region extends across 32,500 square meters, has few roads, and is best accessed by air and water routes. In spite of its difficult access by land, its location is geographically perfect for receiving aerial drug shipments from countries in South America, which is why the area is home to more than 200 clandestine airstrips, as reported by Honduran newspaper El Heraldo . In fact, the same source reports that nearly 79 percent of all narco flights originating in South American countries use the Mosquito Coast as a drop-off point for cocaine shipments.

Still, the Honduran Military continues to conduct widespread efforts to destroy the airstrips in the region in order to curb the influx of narco flights. As part of this effort, the National Inter-Institutional Security Force (FUSINA for its Spanish acronym), which is comprised of Military and police, follows a four-phase systematic approach to eradicating landing strips. According to El Heraldo , these phases include identification of airstrips, seizure, movement of explosives to destruction site, and the actual bombing. In employing this method, FUSINA reportedly destroyed 48 clandestine airstrips in 2014 as part of Operation Morazán. The majority of these was located in the Brus Laguna sector of Gracias a Dios Department, per a source cited by local newspaper La Tribuna .

Identification

Clandestine landing strips are most commonly built in remote-access areas within the dense Honduran rainforest, including Brus Laguna, Ahuas, and Puerto Lempira. The principal means that Honduran authorities use to discover these strips include aerial reconnaissance, ground patrols, and the collection of human intelligence. Once detected, FUSINA operatives in Gracias a Dios get the exact geo-coordinates so they can plan a destruction mission if deemed necessary.

Site Preparation

Once an airstrip is identified, explosive experts and support staff assigned to the 1st Engineering Battalion dig three 90-centimeter holes in a triangular formation. Soldiers then place 50 pounds of ANFO (ammonium nitrate/fuel oil) in each hole and attach a 45-foot slow-burning fuse to a detonation cord, which is wrapped around two dynamite cartridges and a one-pound bar of explosive emulsion and placed on top of the ANFO. Finally, they cover the hole, leaving only the slow-burning fuse visible.

Ready to Bomb

The non-essential support staff retreats 200 meters from the blast zone before the explosives experts light the fuse and move back to join the others. At the two-minute mark, smoke comes off the slow-burning fuse as the fire advances to the explosives, and the whole area begins to smell like explosive powder. A minute later, it detonates, leaving behind craters measuring approximately 18x7 meters and rendering the airstrip unusable by traffickers. Depending on the length of the landing strip, the Soldiers may need to repeat this process six or more times.

Destruction Complete

In a perfect world, bombing a single airstrip would be enough to impede traffickers from rebuilding in the area, but this not true here, since they consider those airstrips essential for operations and quickly move to rebuild them. El Heraldo reported on a popular strip in Brus Laguna that was bombed by Honduran authorities on three separate occasions last year. If the traffickers plan on rebuilding a bombed airstrip, they generally allow the ground to settle for a few days before doing so. At that point, hundreds of workers are hired to work during the night to meticulously repair the holes and ensure a smooth landing strip.

Future Operations?

Operation Morazán will continue in 2015, according to Honduran authorities. In fact, two clandestine airstrips have already been destroyed in the Brus Laguna sector of Gracias a Dios since the start of the year. As they continue to destroy clandestine airstrips, Honduran authorities hope to block strategic routes used by traffickers to move drugs, weapons, and humans through national territory, according to La Tribuna .

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