Alleged Atlantic Cartel head, Wilter Blanco

The Atlantic Cartel is a Honduran drug trafficking organization reportedly led by Wilter Neptalí Blanco Ruíz. The group's alleged connections with high-ranking military officials, police and politicians, along with the decline of the country's powerful narco-clans, have made it one of the largest and best-organized criminal operations in Honduras. The cartel operates in the departments of Gracias a Dios, Colón, Islas de la Bahía and Atlántida, where it manages drug-smuggling routes. 

History

The origins of the Atlantic Cartel are murky, but a 2016 US indictment alleges that Wilter Blanco has been involved in drug trafficking since at least 1999. A longtime resident of the eastern La Mosquitia region of Honduras, Blanco was the owner of various seafood export businesses as well as several luxury estates, where he reportedly hosted parties. It is likely that the transportation infrastructure of his export businesses, combined with the personal connections he made at parties he hosted, provided Blanco with the resources necessary to thrive in the drug trade. In fact, a 2010 police intelligence document reportedly stated that Blanco paid for parties attended by high-ranking police officials, prosecutors and judges.

According to local press reports, Honduran anti-drug officials first began investigating Wilter Blanco in 2006, one year after Julián Arístides González Irías had assumed the top position in the country's national anti-narcotics agency. Little appears to have come from these investigations until June 2009, when González launched an operation that quashed Blanco's plan to use corrupt police officers to steal 143 kilograms of cocaine belonging to Emilio Fernández Rosa, alias "Don H," a rival drug trafficker in La Mosquitia.

González was assassinated by corrupt police officers just five months later, in December 2009. Honduran investigators later accused Blanco of ordering the murder as payback for disrupting the drug theft. Two years later, in December 2011, Blanco also allegedly ordered some of the same officers to assassinate González's chief advisor, Gustavo Alfredo Landaverde Hernández, who had publicly denounced criminal activity within the police force. Neither case has gone to court.

The investigations of the murders of González and Landaverde languished for years, and the cases came to exemplify the extent of criminality and impunity within the Honduran police force. In 2014, recordings surfaced from a police station known as the Casamata, or "Slaughter House," which showed officers discussing plans to execute González. Shortly thereafter, a police officer who had retrieved the recordings, apparently planning to turn them over to investigators, was found dead.

Efforts to crack down on the Atlantic Cartel's operations seem to have been revived in April 2015, when Honduran authorities began to seize property belonging to Blanco, including businesses, luxury villas, cars, boats and bank accounts. To date, authorities have seized more than 140 of Blanco's properties in the departments of Atlántida, Yoro and Colón.

In May 2016, Honduran authorities quietly issued an arrest warrant for Blanco, who has been charged with money laundering in Honduras. Several months later, on September 14, Honduran police reportedly arrested the suspected drug trafficker together with three of his associates, but they were inexplicably released shortly thereafter.

Less than a month later, on October 7, the US Embassy in Honduras announced that Blanco was under investigation for drug trafficking and corruption along with seven other suspects, including members of the Honduran military and police. Local press reports indicated that some 35 individuals, including businessmen, mayors, congressmen and judges, were also under investigation. On October 17, InSight Crime reported that a US embassy source said that Juan Antonio "Tony" Hernández, the brother of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, was considered a "person of interest" in the investigation.

Also on October 17, a US federal court unsealed an August 5 indictment charging Blanco with involvement in a cocaine trafficking conspiracy stretching back to at least 1999. Several local media outlets reported that Blanco was preparing to turn himself in to authorities, but he was instead captured in November 2016 in Costa Rica. Aside from Blanco, though, none of the others named on the list have been indicted in the US.

Blanco pleaded guilty to drug trafficking charges on July 2 and agreed to provide information on other criminal organizations to US authorities.

Leadership

The Atlantic Cartel is reportedly led by accused drug trafficker Wilter Blanco. Blanco's alleged deputy is Óscar Aragón Everest, a member of the cartel who operates in the Palacios region of the Gracias a Dios department. Other suspected top members of the group include Fredy Donaldo Mármol Vallejo, a convicted drug trafficker and money launderer, and Johana Martínez, about whom little is publicly known.

Geography

The Atlantic Cartel is largely based in the La Mosquitia region on the northeastern Atlantic coast of Honduras. However, the group also reportedly maintains a presence in the nearby departments of Gracias a Dios, Colón, Islas de la Bahía and Atlántida. The Atlantic Cartel appears to also operate in the western departments of Copán and Ocotepeque, the former stronghold of the Valle-Valle drug clan, where the group has established important alliances with the AA Brothers Cartel, allegedly headed by a former local mayor named Alexander Ardón and his brother, Hugo Ardón, a former top government operative.

Allies and Enemies

The success of the Atlantic Cartel depends largely on the protection the group reportedly receives fromhigh-ranking military, police and judicial authorities in Honduras. Despite increasing pressure in recent years, the Atlantic Cartel reportedly continues operate in La Mosquitia, aided by local police and military officials who allegedly allow a "happy hour" during which traffickers can load and unload drug shipments without repercussions from the authorities.

Aside from members of law enforcement, the military and key public figures, the Atlantic Cartel has managed to establish alliances with other drug trafficking groups based inside and outside Honduras. Chief among these is the relationship the group maintains with the AA Brothers Cartel. The territories controlled by the two groups border one another, and the Atlantic Cartel allegedly maintains the relationship in order to access airplane runways in the Gracias a Dios department and riverine routes in Copán.

Additionally, the Atlantic Cartel has been linked to Víctor Manuel Villela, alias "El Rojo," a suspected drug trafficker also operating on the Atlantic coast. According to police reports reviewed by El Heraldo, the Atlantic Cartel, El Rojo's organization and the AA Brothers Cartel comprise a "megastructure" that plays a prominent role in drug trafficking and money laundering in Honduras.

The Atlantic Cartel has also been linked to Roberto de Jesús Soto García, a prominent member of the Cartel of the Suns, a drug trafficking organization composed of members of the Venezuelan military. Soto has been accused of helping facilitate a drug deal involving nephews of Venezuelan first lady Cilia Flores, who allegedly planned to ship drugs from Venezuela to Honduras and on to the United States. Soto García was arrested in Honduras in October 2016 and is expected to be extradited to the United States on drug charges.

Prospects

Following an attack on a group of US anti-drug agents by suspected Atlantic Cartel operatives, and reported threats against US Ambassador to Honduras James Nealon in October 2016, the United States appears to be more determined than ever to dismantle the group. The successes of previous US-backed operations against Honduran criminal organizations like the Valle Valle family suggest that the Atlantic Cartel may not be able to withstand the increasing pressure that is being brought against it. Indeed, an operation involving US, Honduran and Costa Rican authorities led to the capture of cartel leader Wilter Blanco in November 2016 in Costa Rica. After pleading guilty to drug trafficking charges July 2, 2017, Blanco agreed to cooperate with US authorities. On August 17, 2017, Blanco was sentenced by a US federal court in Miami to 20 years imprisonment. It is possible that Blanco may reveal information to authorities that will help them dismantle what remains of the Atlantic Cartel.