Army Major General René Orlando Ponce Fonseca, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Honduran Armed Forces, is committed to interagency operations to combat transnational criminal organizations, and more specifically drug trafficking. The National Interagency Security Force, the Guardians of the Homeland program and border security binational agreements are part of his institutional commitment.
Maj. Gen. Ponce spoke with Diálogo to address these topics during the 2018 Central American Security Conference (CENTSEC, in Spanish), held in San Salvador, El Salvador, May 9th-10th. CENTSEC serves as a platform for Central American defense and public security leaders to examine regional security problems and identify measures to improve regional collaboration and eliminate illicit networks.
Diálogo: What’s the objective and importance of Honduras’s participation in CENTSEC?
Army Major General René Orlando Ponce Fonseca, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Honduran Armed Forces: Our objective is to combine all these experiences and opportunities for mutual cooperation that we must have among states, especially Central American countries. It’s important to understand the critical thinking of each chief of general staff on how to confront these emerging threats that affect the region.
Diálogo: What are the Honduran Armed Forces’ initiatives for joint and combined operations to counter transnational organizations?
Maj. Gen. Ponce: We conducted a series of initiatives. One of the most important is FUSINA, whose objective is to combat the scourge of drug trafficking, maras, and gangs, as well as weapons and human trafficking that cause so much damage to society. Security is a comprehensive matter; we worked hard to strengthen laws, such as confiscating assets coming from illicit activities and lowering the age of criminal liability, because some illicit activities in Honduras involve children and teenagers who belong to criminal organizations and carry out many criminal activities. Another initiative is strong social projection where government makes important investments to create a better quality of life for the people. Through these social programs we, as an armed force, conduct medical training with the Guardians of the Homeland program aimed at rescuing youngsters at social risk. As such, we reach neighborhoods and villages with high crime rates to impart social, ethical, spiritual, and moral values and provide them with the opportunity to finish primary or secondary school.
Diálogo: What are some of FUSINA’s operational results?
Maj. Gen. Ponce: FUSINA integrated various state institutions. Through this joint effort we managed to dismantle most of the organized criminal gangs in Honduras. The government’s strong political will to confront this challenge made this possible. When we address the issue of security and aim to confront narcotrafficking, we believe this problem requires integral participation not only from the Armed Forces and the police, but also from the judiciary system and others. Comprehensive and coordinated effort is vital, as operations are more likely to be successful if we all are committed to work jointly within a strong legal framework.
Diálogo: One of FUSINA’s responsibilities is controlling land, air, and maritime borders to counter transnational organized crime, especially capturing gang members who escape to neighboring countries. What joint and combined work does Honduras conduct with the armed forces of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua to counter this challenge?
Maj. Gen. Ponce: Within this interagency effort, which we also call multinational, Honduras signed security protocols with neighboring countries. I had the opportunity to travel to Nicaragua in April 2018 with Army General Julio César Avilés, commander in chief of the Nicaraguan Army. We signed a protocol of mutual cooperation between countries and the armed forces to conduct operations along the border to reduce the influx of illegal immigrants and increase control of blind spots along the border that drug traffickers use. This protocol is paying off. With Guatemala, we have Joint Task Force Maya-Chortí, which enabled major reductions in smuggling, but its main mission is to control narcotrafficking in the area. With El Salvador, we have a combined effort, Joint Task Force Lenca-Sumpul, whose military mission is similar to JTF Maya-Chortí, and had great results. We are very satisfied because we keep excellent relations with neighboring countries thanks to our joint and combined work, as we understand that this is a challenge that not only affects Honduras, but also Central America, Mexico, the United States, and Canada due to geostrategic locations.
Diálogo: What are some of Joint Task Force Maya-Chortí’s achievements?
Maj. Gen. Ponce: This JTF trained personnel from the Air Force, Navy, and Army. Its operations cut off illicit activities, especially in the department of Gracias a Dios, where we had a major presence with air, maritime, and land patrols. Drug trafficking activities were obvious, with many criminal issues. When JTF Maya-Chortí became operational in 2015, it reduced the crime wave. As a result, members of the Valle Valle brothers gang, a powerful narcotrafficking organization, were extradited to the United States, reducing this scourge.
Diálogo: Citizens provided FUSINA with useful information about suspicious individuals. What’s the importance of citizens’ participation in the fight against crime?
Maj. Gen. Ponce: At first it was difficult to make society take part so as to have an effective flow of information to produce operational intelligence that would generate positive outcomes. These days there’s a stronger social commitment, and we’re able to promote the reporting of illicit actions, some are Honduran nationals, others foreigners based in the country. Information from the population was fundamental and allowed for efficient and concrete results.
Diálogo: How was this culture of citizen reporting created?
Maj. Gen. Ponce: The Armed Forces and other institutions publish newsletters about the importance of citizen security, among other activities. We earned the people’s trust, so they feel confident enough to report incidents. That’s why the people highly accept other government entities, such as the National Anti-Extortion Force.
Diálogo: Elite training for the Honduran Armed Forces has been crucial for the success of Operation Morazán. What kind of international cooperation do you carry out with partner nations to train the armed forces?
Maj. Gen. Ponce: I must emphasize the great cooperation we have with U.S. Southern Command, more specifically through Army South with whom we trained our personnel in decision-making, and our noncommissioned officers in urban operations, building clearance, patrols, and checkpoints, etc. We also carry out training exchanges with Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua. We achieved positive results because we earned greater confidence.
Diálogo: What kind of cooperation do the Honduran Armed Forces and SOUTHCOM’s Joint Task Force Bravo (JTF-Bravo) have? What is its importance?
Maj. Gen. Ponce: Our cooperation with JTF-Bravo is very important. We coordinated air reconnaissance operations with their aircraft and they support us continuously in aeromedical missions in different parts of the country. JTF-Bravo’s mission is extremely important not only for the United States, but also for us. It is important to emphasize our friendship, cordiality, and coordination. We work toward the same goals, since drug and arms trafficking, and terrorism threaten the Western Hemisphere. Well-equipped, trained forces to provide prompt and timely response to any problem that may arise benefit both countries.
Diálogo: Why do you believe that interoperability is essential to combat organized crime?
Maj. Gen. Ponce: We came to the conclusion that we must make this interagency effort. Interoperability is critical, as security doesn’t fall back on a single institution. Without interoperability it is extremely difficult to counter security challenges.