Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

With Increased US Aid, Honduras Militarises Anti-Drug Fight

Thelma Mejía

TEGUCIGALPA, Feb 18 2011 (IPS) - The United States appears to be strengthening its anti-drug strategy in Central America, whose focus in the case of Honduras will include military operations with troops from both countries, to begin in the jungle region of Mosquitia on the Atlantic coast.

Prior to last week’s visit by U.S. State Department Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs William Brownfield, Lt. Gen. Glenn Spears, 12th Air Force Southern commander, was in the country, to discuss humanitarian and antinarcotics cooperation.

Colonel Ruíz Pastor Lanza, head of the Honduran Air Force, said the U.S. support in the fight against drug trafficking will involve “more cooperation and coordination” at the level of equipment and operations.

The cooperation includes special equipment for night-flying operations for the Honduran military, IPS was told.

The assistance is being provided under the 1954 military treaty which provided for the U.S. military presence at the Palmerola Air Base in the 1980s. Palmerola, located in west-central Honduras, is the biggest U.S. base in Central America.

In Mosquitia, which holds the largest remaining intact rainforest in Central America, the engines of the military helicopters and armoured vehicles are revving up for a “surprise” strike against drug trafficking, in which U.S. forces from Palmerola are expected to take part.

Brownfield was in Tegucigalpa on a Latin America tour that forms part of a new U.S. offensive to counter the penetration of Mexican drug cartels pushed southwards by the Mexican military’s war on drugs and internecine violence among the drug syndicates in that country.

Mexico’s Sinaloa and Gulf Cartels are increasingly fighting over drug procurement points in Central America’s so-called Northern Triangle, made up of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

Los Zetas, originally formed by deserters from an elite Mexican army anti-narcotics unit and now involved in the drug trade and in the trafficking and kidnapping of migrants, are also active in the area, according to police intelligence reports.

Brownfield’s visit to Honduras came just a month after a major clash between drug cartels in the cities of Juticalpa and Catacamas in the eastern province of Olancho.

Javier Aguirre, a young man from Juticalpa, told IPS that things there are tense. “The traffickers walk about freely, flaunting their weapons and their bodyguards, and there are places where you can’t go after 8:00 at night, because they shoot you if they don’t know you.

“The problem is that there is complicity between the police and the ‘narcos’. Leaders of the cartels can often be seen going into the police station to ‘fix’ things with the police, using drugs or money,” he added.

The stories coming out of Olancho are shocking. For example, after the frequent shootouts and killings, groups of heavily armed thugs often show up before the forensic experts can identify the bodies, to burn the corpses so they won’t be recognised.

But such incidents are rarely covered by the press. A journalist from that area who spoke to IPS under condition of anonymity said reporters there engaged in self-censorship because they would not be “the first killed for talking.”

“In Olancho it’s better to keep mum,” Aguirre said. “The situation has cooled off a bit in the last week because of the military patrols, which are full-on in the attempt to crack down on the traffickers, and people have more confidence in them than in the police.”

Besides Olancho and the region of Mosquitia, the hot zones for drug trafficking in Honduras are the western provinces of Copán, Santa Bárbara and Ocotepeque; the northern provinces of Cortés, Atlántida and Colón; and part of Francisco Morazán in the centre of the country.

Raúl Pineda, a former government security adviser, commented to IPS that the drug syndicates “are no longer just passing through; they are staying, and they are strong and visible, especially in Central America’s northern corridor.

“I think we are arriving late to this war,” he said.

The United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Central American Human Development Report 2009-2010 on citizen security identified a number of different modes of organised crime in the region, ranging from drug trafficking and money laundering to vehicle theft, weapons smuggling and trafficking and kidnapping of migrants.

“There is a silent competition for the young: organised crime has in them a ‘reserve army’ of labour, and offers them incentives, and protection,” says the report, titled “Opening Spaces to Citizen Security and Human Development”.

The cocaine alone trafficked from this region to the United States is estimated at 250 tons a year.

Last year, authorities in Honduras seized six tons of drugs, and more than 14 million dollars and numerous assets from traffickers. They also destroyed at least 20 clandestine air strips in Olancho and western Honduras.

During his tour, Brownfield announced 200 million dollars in aid for Central America, to be used in the fight against organised crime and drug trafficking, to strengthen democratic institutions, and in youth gang prevention activities.

Honduran Minister of Security Óscar Álvarez said the assistance is “important, and reflects the U.S. interest in not leaving us on our own in this battle.”

“We are going to give the drug traffickers more than one surprise,” he told IPS, acknowledging that in the new crusade, the military will play a stronger role.

There is also talk about a Central America-wide regional security plan against organised crime.

Experts say the violence will continue to spiral in Central America, whose Northern Triangle was described as the region with the highest rates of non-political violence and crime in the world by the “Opening Spaces to Citizen Security and Human Development” report. 7 They warn that fighting among cartels will heat up, and in consequence, the military will become more and more involved, fomented by the United States.

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