Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

Honduras Worried About Becoming Narco-State

Thelma Mejía

TEGUCIGALPA, Oct 22 2010 (IPS) - Fears of becoming a narco-state have prompted Honduras to refocus its anti-drug strategy, in order to block the infiltration of Mexican drug cartels, which are moving southward into Central America, experts told IPS.

Porfirio Lobo and David Johnson, centre. Credit: Office of the Honduran President

Porfirio Lobo and David Johnson, centre. Credit: Office of the Honduran President

This week’s visit by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs David Johnson highlighted right-wing President Porfirio Lobo’s determination to step up the fight against the increasingly active presence of the drug mafias.

The official also visited Guatemala, before heading on to the Honduran capital on Wednesday. In both countries he met with the highest-level authorities, to discuss how to improve the fight against drug trafficking and strengthen anti-drug and law enforcement institutions, and to highlight how important the two Central American nations are for Washington in the war on drugs.

Johnson said on his visit to Honduras that this country is not on the verge of becoming a narco-state, as some have warned because of the growing penetration of the country by drug mafias, especially along the lengthy Caribbean coastline, where there are areas that the police are unable to enter.

After meeting with President Lobo in the government palace Thursday, the U.S. official said that working together with the United States, Honduras can build more solid institutions to face the challenge of drug trafficking.

He added that mechanisms for assistance in meeting that challenge must be designed under the Merida Initiative, a multi-billion dollar U.S. counterdrug assistance programme for Mexico and Central America.

Johnson said he was satisfied with Honduras’s efforts against the drug trade but stressed that the road ahead was long, and said Washington would be a key partner of Honduras in its fight against the drug cartels.

Less than two weeks before the U.S. official’s visit, the government dealt a blow to the drug mafias, as part of an 18-month undercover operation that also involved Colombia and Panama and that led to the arrest in Bogotá of a member of the “Buda Cartel” based in San Pedro Sula, 250 km north of Tegucigalpa.

The man arrested was Miguel Villela, a prominent Honduran businessman with ties to the most powerful economic elites in Honduras’s second biggest city.

Security Minister Óscar Álvarez told IPS that Villela confessed that he belonged to the cartel, and that he was cooperating by providing the names of politicians and members of the business community who are connected to the drug trafficking ring.

After Villela was arrested, the minister said his capture was arranged outside Honduras because in this country “justice does not work in these cases, and we were afraid he would be released, given his connections and influence.”

With the exception of one magistrate, the Supreme Court remained silent in the face of the harsh allegations.

A counterdrug agent who took part in the operation told IPS that “Villela is not a big fish, but he has political ties, and his arrest has scared a lot of people.”

The agent, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that what lies ahead is “a new, more strategic phase in the anti-drug fight, and the United States has made it clear that it wants more compelling results.” Villela will likely be extradited to the United States.

Alfredo Landaverde, an expert on drug trafficking, agrees. But he was more explicit, telling IPS that after Villela’s arrest, “the police will have to start taking action and coughing up information, because he was not doing things on his own, and it is very likely that there were police officials behind that drug network.”

After the businessman was arrested in the Colombian capital, several homes in San Pedro Sula were raided, and an estate belonging to a Guatemalan citizen in the western province of Santa Bárbara was confiscated, its owner accused of laundering money for the Buda Cartel.

“It is important to head off the drug cartels,” minister Álvarez commented to IPS. “We are coordinating actions with friendly countries like Colombia, and in this new phase with the United Status, we are seeking support, not only in terms of logistics and financing, but also police training.”

So far this year, the police have seized 4.6 tons of cocaine, two haciendas, and at least seven small planes carrying drugs.

But in the same period last year, 144 aircraft were confiscated, in anti-drug operations, or because they broke down and were abandoned.

As the Mexican government wages its controversial war on the drug trade, authorities in this country are worried because the cartels have been increasingly pushed southward into Central America, especially Guatemala, which shares a long border with Mexico, and Honduras, the next nation over.

The biggest concern is over the already visible tentacles of the Sinaloa Cartel led by Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, who is said to be active in towns in western Honduras, where the security forces do not venture.

On Wednesday, a group of 30 members of the U.S. Congress wrote U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to call for the suspension of aid to Honduras, especially military and police assistance, because killings of political activists, journalists and others continue, in impunity.

But Johnson arrived that day with an offer of greater cooperation, to help dismantle criminal organisations operating in Honduras.

In the 1980s, this country began to serve as a corridor for the flow of drugs between drug-producing nations to the south and the United States, the world’s largest market for narcotics, to the north.

Honduras gradually became a more strategic area of drug-related activity, with its own networks connected to Mexican and Colombian cartels. As a result, crime has soared in the first decade of the 21st century.

Homicides climbed from eight a day in 2000 to 16 a day in June this year, according to a report by the Office of the National Commissioner for Human Rights.

Many of the murders are the work of hired killers at the service of drug gangs, said Álvarez. But the Lobo administration has decided that “this has to stop, because these people are not going to turn Honduras into their own private domain.”

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