Honduras Discovers Cocaine Lab

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Honduras announced it had found a cocaine processing laboratory on the country’s north Caribbean coast, the second such discovery in 18 months and a sign that traffickers may be looking to increase their processing operations in the Central American country.

On August 28, agents from the Honduran Anti-Narcotics Directorate (DLCN) and national police force discovered a cocaine processing laboratory on a property in the northern province of Atlantida on the Caribbean coast. Five hundred kilograms of coca paste, 20 kilograms of cocaine and various precursor chemicals used to produce cocaine hydrochloride (HCl) were seized during the operation, reported La Prensa.

The remains of a light aircraft were also found near the site of the cocaine lab, according to Honduran radio station Radio America.

No arrests were made and police did not release any information regarding who the site may have belonged to. They have so far been unable to determine how long it had been operating for, though the discovery was the result of a six month investigation.·

InSight Crime Analysis

This is the second HCl lab to be found in Honduras in the last 18 months after another cocaine processing facility was dismantled in March 2011. As InSight Crime reported at the time of the first discovery, the presence of HCl labs in Honduras was a game changer for the regional dynamics of cocaine production. These labs have traditionally been run by Colombians, who perfected the processing technique when it supposedly shifted north from Chile in the 1970s. However, as pressure has grown on Colombia criminal groups in their home country, the appearance of HCl labs has become more dispersed throughout the region, with processing facilities found in countries like Bolivia, Argentina, and·Uruguay.

Honduras is a key transhipment point for US-bound cocaine, with an estimated 79 percent of South American cocaine smuggling flights passing through the country, according to the US State Department. As illustrated by the large quantity of HCl seized in this latest discovery, not all northbound flights are loaded with cocaine, but are likely carrying coca paste to be processed in Honduras. One reason explaining this could be the country’s deteriorating security situation since the 2009 coup and the endemic levels of police corruption in the country, a factor which allows criminal gangs to operate with relative ease.

Another, as former Security Minister Oscar Alvarez stated last year, is that Honduras has relatively weak enforcement laws for precursor chemicals, a crucial component in HCl production. Seizures this year of precursor chemicals headed to Honduras highlight this with one valued at $6 million that had been shipped from China via Guatemala.

One of the biggest questions from the find is who the lab actually belonged to. Colombian kingpin Daniel “El Loco” Barrera is known to ship cocaine via Honduras. The Urabeños also appear to have a presence in Atlantida as evidenced by the arrest of their alleged second-in-command in July in the provincial capital of La Ceiba. On top of this, Mexican drug gangs the Zetas and the Sinaloa Cartel both have operations in the coastal province, according to former Minister Alvarez. The HCl lab discovered last year was in fact believed to be run by the Sinaloa Cartel.

Prior to the arrival of cocaine processing labs, Honduras was already a site for synthetic drug production. In 2008, officials dismantled a large lab used to make ecstasy and methamphetamine.

Interestingly Honduras has been the only Central American site for cocaine labs to date, despite the fact that neighboring Guatemala possesses many of the same characteristics that draw organized crime. It too sees high levels of corruption, is a major transit point for narcotics and has lax restrictions on precursor chemicals. Earlier this month Guatemalan authorities seized a shipment of cocaine paste, prompting the country’s interior minister to declare the country was being used to process cocaine, but no cocaine processing labs have yet been found there. Considering the similarity of conditions there to those in Honduras, however, this may soon change.

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