Is Honduras Losing the Fight Against Aerial Drug Trafficking?

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Honduras authorities recently seized five airplanes thought to have been used to transport drugs through a remote region of the country where dozens of clandestine landing strips have been destroyed this year. But the long-running strategy of seizures and demolitions has done little to identify suspects, routes and suppliers, allowing the so-called “narco flights” to continue.

Honduran officials announced on July 10 that they had found three light airplanes that had been incinerated and buried in the remote Mosquitia region that runs along the country’s eastern Caribbean coastline. Authorities also seized more than 30 containers of airplane fuel at a makeshift camp site, and located a clandestine landing strip.

The search of the far-flung forested area was prompted by the July 8 discovery of two functioning airplanes and another illegal landing site nearby. Authorities say that the aircraft and landing strips are suspected to have been used by local crime groups to traffic South American cocaine through Honduras for transport to the United States.

SEE ALSO: Honduras News and Profiles

José Domingo Meza, the spokesman for Honduras’ armed forces, told Proceso authorities have not yet determined the exact source of the airplane fuel, which may have been purchased on the black market or from legal sellers. José Coello, another security force spokesman, told the news outlet that it is easy for criminal groups to obtain the fuel because its sale is not regulated.

No suspects were arrested during the operation, which Coello says is common in the rural region because the sound of security force airplanes monitoring overhead tips off those involved to hide in the dense rainforest surrounding their secret landing sites.

So far in 2018, Honduran authorities say they have seized a total of ten airplanes, most of them in destroyed condition, and have demolished 34 clandestine air strips, including the two found this month. Since 2014, authorities say they have destroyed more than 160 landing strips.

InSight Crime Analysis

Drug flights are expected to account for a relatively small proportion of trafficking into Honduras.* And in recent years, Honduran security officials have claimed to have nearly eliminated aerial drug trafficking in the country thanks in large part to the use of radar systems, fly-over surveillance and demolitions of landing strips. However, those assertions are undermined by the continued discovery of aircraft and landing sites suspected of being used for drug flights.

After 2014, when Honduras acquired radar systems and passed a law permitting the shooting down of planes suspected of transporting drugs — a policy which spurred the United States to temporarily stop sharing intelligence on drug flights — many criminal actors have simply adopted new methods. For example, planes flying below a certain altitude are not easily detected by the radar systems, and reports indicate that some Honduran security officials may have accepted bribes to turn a blind eye and let shipments through.

Moreover, while Honduras has scaled up its destruction of clandestine landing strips, the practice is unlikely to have any significant impact on traffickers, who can easily and quickly rebuild them or construct new sites.

* This article has been updated to clarify that aerial drug trafficking is less common than other forms of trafficking, and to clarify that the suspension of US intelligence-sharing was temporary.

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