The U.S. cable with several references to organized crime’s ties to former Honduran President Mel Zelaya is a tantalizing document on many levels, mostly because of the casual way in which then outgoing Ambassador Charles A. Ford describes the relationship, as if it were common knowledge.
Critics of the cable revealed by WikiLeaks – including Zelaya himself, who took to the airwaves on Sunday and sent the Associated Press a denial — say that it does not present evidence of these ties. But a diplomatic cable is not an indictment; it is, in this case, the ambassador’s perceptions, and these perceptions sting.
In addition to calling Zelaya, who was ousted in 2009 in what amounted to a military coup, a “rebellious teenager,” Ford says flatly, “There also exists a sinister Zelaya, surrounded by a few close advisors with ties to both Venezuela and Cuba and organized crime.”
What exactly Ford means by “organized crime” is not entirely clear. Numerous small aircraft, mostly from Venezuela, land with illegal drugs in Honduras regularly, and the country sees over 200 tons of cocaine go through its borders per year, according to latest State Department Drug Threat Assessment report.
But later Ford hints at something more.
“Zelaya’s inability to name a Vice Minister for Security lends credibility to those who suggest that narco traffickers have pressured him to name one of their own to this position,” he writes. “Due to his close association with persons believed to be involved with international organized crime, the motivation behind many of his policy decisions can certainly be questioned.”
The organized criminal syndicate pressuring the president was the so-called Cachiros gang. Run by Nelson and Javier Rivera, the Cachiros were car thieves and cattle rustlers in the Colon province before entering the drug trade. They now receive and move large quantities of cocaine from the coast to the border with Guatemala for the Sinaloa and Gulf Cartels, among others.
The Riveras had their political contact, the senator and former mayor of Trujillo, Ramon Salgado Cuevas, pressure the presidency to name a candidate of their liking, Honduran intelligence told InSight. Ultimately Zelaya deferred to his own candidate. Salgado Cuevas was later assassinated.
What the cable does not mention are the persistant rumors about Zelaya’s brother Carlos and his political benefactor, Ulises Sarmiento, and their connection to the drug trade. Neither has been accused of a crime, but in November 2009, gunmen attacked with automatic weapons and grenades the house of Sarmiento’s son in Juticalpa, the capital of the Olancho department, while Sarmiento was visiting.
No one was injured, and Sarmiento’s political allies said the attack was related to his support of Zelaya, who was then holed up in the Brazilian embassy trying to force the de facto government to put him back in power. However, the brazen assault bore the hallmarks of a battle between drug traffickers.
To be sure, Olancho, Zelaya’s homestate, has become a hotbed for trafficking. Ranchers “rent” their land so the criminals can land their aircraft. The drugs are then taken through Tegucigalpa or San Pedro Sula on their way north.
Former Honduran drug czar Aristides Gonzalez denounced ten airstrips in Olancho just days before he was assassinated last December.
The U.S. cable also shows the level of mistrust the U.S. had in Zelaya.
“I am unable to brief Zelaya on sensitive law enforcement and counter-narcotics actions due my concern that this would put the lives of U.S. officials in jeopardy,” Ford writes, before adding this ominous ending:
“The last year and a half of the Zelaya Administration will be, in my view, extraordinarily difficult for our bilateral relationship. His pursuit of immunity from the numerous activities of organized crime carried out in his Administration will cause him to threaten the rule of law and institutional stability.”
Zelaya lives in the Dominican Republic in exile.