New drug flight routes through Central America

The Mosquito Coast, which stretches along Nicaragua’s Atlantic coastline and into Honduras, is an increasingly important transit point for drug flights from South America, according to a report.

Honduran newspaper El Heraldo reported on a shift in tactics by traffickers moving drugs north towards the United States. Instead of bringing cocaine into Honduras on a six-hour direct flight from South America, the smugglers now often break their journey in Nicaragua and Panama, before entering Honduras in smaller, harder-to-detect aircraft -- often planes used for spraying crops -- or boats.

The drug flights generally take off from Venezuela, which has become the main shipment point for drugs leaving South America by air, as security advances in drug-producing Colombia have made it more difficult to launch flights from there. According to El Heraldo, the most important Venezuelan states for drug flights are Lara, Falcon, Trujillo, Zulia, Merida, Tachira and Apure, which are clustered in the northwest corner of the country, near the Colombian border.

The aircraft make the relatively short journey to Panama and then Nicaragua, stopping to change planes in the remote jungle region of Nicaragua’s Mosquito Coast. There, the drugs are shifted into smaller planes which fly at low altitude, or to river boats, and go to clandestine landing strips or bays along Honduras’ Mosquito Coast, according to El Heraldo’s sources.

The newspaper points to two main reasons for the shift towards breaking the journey of drug flights before Honduras: first, that there is now tighter surveillance in the Caribbean, particularly after the establishment of a new US-funded naval base in the Dominican Republic; and second, that the Honduran authorities shot down at least two suspected drug flights in 2012. These factors have pushed traffickers out of the Caribbean, and prompted them to adopt lower-profile means of flying drugs into Honduras.

InSight Crime Analysis

The shift in drug routes illustrates the “balloon effect” often seen in the fight against drug trafficking: even as the US-led war on drugs scores a success with the new Dominican naval base -- which the United States hailed as having “essentially eliminated” air trafficking via the island -- they make the situation worse in another place.

The increasing use of the Mosquito Coast by traffickers could be particularly bad news for Nicaragua, which has seen a surge in violence along the remote Caribbean coast in recent years. As InSight Crime found in a 2012 investigation, the region has become a stop-off point for traffickers moving cocaine north in go-fast boats, with some local organizations carving out a niche in providing crucial services; maintaining their boats, storing their drugs, and entertaining their crews.

The emergence of Nicaragua's Mosquito Coast as a drug hub has helped push the region’s violence and crime rates to the highest in the country. The phenomenon is most intense in the South Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAS), one of two semi-autonomous zones which make up most of the country's Caribbean coast. The RAAS saw a murder rate of 43 per 100,000 residents in 2011, compared to the national rate of under 13. Its capital, Bluefields, has become a logistical hub for the drug trade, with powerful local powerbrokers involved in the business, as InSight Crime’s investigation set out. The neighboring North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN), which borders on Honduras, has seen less of an impact from trafficking, and has a much lower murder rate, at 18 per 100,000. Organized criminal groups are present in the region, but much of the violence is due to personal disputes rather than criminal gangs, according to a recent study by the Managua-based Institute of Strategic Studies and Public Policy (IEEPP).

A move towards landing drug flights in Nicaragua could change this, and push up criminal influence in the RAAN to the level of its southern neighbor. The zone is a good place for traffickers to operate, because of its extreme isolation and lack of state presence; it has a low population density, few roads, and endemic poverty. The IEEPP notes that there have been five cases in recent years of drug flights landing in indigenous communities in the area, mistakenly thinking that they were in Honduras.

There are currently some four major local criminal groups that offer services to international trafficking networks, according to the IEEPP, which have particularly close links with groups in Honduras’ Gracias a Dios province. There are thought to be Honduran as well as Colombian and Nicaraguan traffickers in the RAAN, while Honduran traffickers were reported to have killed five people in the RAAN in December, and to be making frequent trips over the border and harassing locals.