Honduras Deploys Army in Cities, While Traffickers Take the Coasts

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As Honduras sends the army onto its streets in an effort to combat crime, it is doubtful that the move can turn things around in a country which is fast becoming the principal cocaine handover point for Colombian and Mexican traffickers.

Honduran President Porfirio Lobo has deployed troops onto the streets of two of the country’s main cities in an effort to clamp down on the soaring rates of violence. The army will support police operations, starting in capital Tegucigalpa and the city of San Pedro Sula.

The stated intention of the operation is to cut the soaring rates of violence and crime, with the government identifying street drug dealing, or “narco-menudeo,” and gangs, or “maras” as targets. A key factor behind both these phenomena, however, is Honduras’ increased importance in the international drug trade.

A recent Associated Press (AP) report calls Honduras the Western Hemisphere’s new “cocaine hub,” but figures vary on just how much of the drug passes through the country — though all suggest that it is a lot. The AP cites an anonymous U.S. law enforcement official who says Honduras is the most commonly used transit country for cocaine coming through Mexico to the United States. According to the press agency, almost half the U.S.’s cocaine supply makes a stop in Honduras; some 20 to 25 tons a month. Meanwhile the Honduran government has said that 87 percent of the cocaine making its way to the U.S. passes through the country, about 100 tons a year in total.

Other sources estimate that some 42 percent of cocaine flights from South America pass through Honduras. Whichever of these are closest to the truth, the proportion of cocaine that touches down in Honduras on its way to the U.S. is much higher than a few years ago. In 1999, only 54 percent of U.S.-bound cocaine passed through any part of Central America. This figure had grown to 88 percent by 2005, according to U.S. government figures quoted by the UN.

Honduras has become an especially crucial drug stop-off point since the 2009 coup. As InSight Crime has reported, trafficking groups were attracted by the general chaos, which was exacerbated by the fact that the security forces were busy propping up the new regime, rather than combating criminals. Meanwhile, the U.S. ceased to share drug intelligence with Honduran authorities in protest against the coup.

Since then, Honduras may have become one of the main handover points between Colombian suppliers of cocaine and the Mexican recipients, who handle drug shipments along the final leg of the journey through Guatemala into the United States. Most of the transit of drugs through Central America is handled by Mexican groups, unlike in the 1990s, when Colombians would often handle shipments all the way·up to Mexico.

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Much of this cocaine enters Honduras by sea, landing on the Caribbean coast, as James Bosworth states in a Wilson Institute report. In a map (see right), the AP tracks the main cocaine routes, from the country’s Mosquitia coast west to the Guatemalan border, and from there to Belize or Guatemala, and then Mexico. The report notes that the country’s “isolated, impoverished Atlantic coast” is a major attraction for traffickers.

However, air routes are also important. InSight Crime has seen confidential documents from the Colombian Defense Ministry showing that Honduras is now the principal air bridge for Colombian cocaine moving via Venezuela. This pattern took hold after the coup, with traffickers taking immediate advantage of the political chaos that ensued. However, air flights likely account for less of the cocaine entering Honduras than sea routes, according to Bosworth, though he notes that, according to his sources, there may have been a brief period post-coup when more of the drug was brought in by air.

Drug flights out of Venezuela have become increasingly significant in the last decade, as security advances in Colombia have cut the number of clandestine flights able to leave from that country. Growing quantities of cocaine are now smuggled by land into Venezuela, from where it can more safely be flown across the Caribbean.

Honduras’ popularity as a drug smuggling handover point is to some extent a feature of its geography, with its convenient location midway between the two biggest forces in the drug trade. A large part of it is driven by events within the country, however, as attested by the rise in drug trafficking in the wake of the coup.

To deter traffickers, however, the government might do better to establish more state presence in rural areas on the Caribbean coast, cutting down on clandestine landing strips and mooring sites, rather than upping military presence in the towns and cities. This is especially true given the military’s dire record on human rights.

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