By W. Alex Sanchez
Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs
Honduras’s efforts to combat drug trafficking suffered a blow this month when the US announced it would no longer share radar data with the Central American country. This is due to a controversial decision passed by the Honduran government to shoot down aircraft that are suspected of transporting drugs over Honduran airspace.
Without a doubt, President Juan Orlando Hernandez, who assumed the Honduran presidency this past January, will have a difficult road ahead as he fights to crack down on criminality, from street crimes to large-scale drug trafficking. Witness a statement from the the Nicaraguan Army late last week declaring that Mexican criminal networks have established bases along neighboring Honduras’ Caribbean coast.
This accusation comes as no surprise: Honduras has long been regarded as a stopover point for drugs, primarily cocaine transported from South America to the US via Mexico. Drug trafficking has become a major problem in Honduras where political instability (I have discussed elsewhere whether Honduras should be labeled as a semi-failed state) has resulted in looser security.
So far this year, Honduran security forces have destroyed at least 75 clandestine landing strips. According to General Freddy Diaz, chief of staff of the Honduran armed forces, the plan is to take out between three to five landing strips per week. The Honduran armed forces are using a reactive strategy: searching out and destroying landing strips rather than preventing their construction in the first place.
The Office of Foreign Assets Control, part of the US Department of the Treasury, has described the links between the powerful Sinaloa Cartel of Mexico and Honduran gangs such as Los Cachiros. Sinaloa’s leader, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, was arrested in February (with US intelligence aid) and it is unclear what the future of this criminal entity will be (whether it will remain united or factionalized), including its proxy criminal entities outside of Mexico
Exactly how much cocaine coming from South America to Mexico and the US passes through Central American states like Honduras is unclear. According to a January 2014 report in Costa Rica’s La Nacion, 80% of South American cocaine passes through Mexico; a March 2014 in Mexico’s El Economista argues that 90% of Colombian cocaine passes through Central America to Mexico. Either way, it’s a hugely significant figure.
As for Hernandez, he faces a difficult four years. When he was inaugurated, he promised a “mano dura,” (a hard hand) and “zero tolerance” against crime in the country (though he seemed to be focused on combating the country’s homicide rate and street crimes like extortion, rather than combatting drug trafficking).
The cornerstone of his security strategy will be the Military Police, a security entity created in 2013 that is expected to have around 5,000 personnel. The goal of this agency is to patrol the streets of major cities, providing support to the country’s police force.
In addition, the Honduran Navy has received new military hardware, which will allow it to better patrol the country’s coasts. This past March, the navy received a patrol boat from Damen Shipyards, a shipbuilding company based out of The Netherlands. Honduras has acquired two patrol boats (Damen Stan Patrol 4207) and six speedboats (Damen Interceptor DI-1102) from the Dutch company.
Unsurprisingly, the US has a strong interest in seeing Honduras succeed at combating drug trafficking. The US military, through its Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), has maintained its support of Honduran security forces. A September 2013 report in the Honduran daily La Prensa interviewed several SOUTHCOM personnel who explained that US-Honduras cooperation includes training and logistical support, but it does not permit training with weapons and lethal equipment.
Besides military cooperation and training, the US has a military base in Honduras: the Joint Task Force-Bravo, located in the Soto Cano air base (in Comayagua). How much SOUTHCOM will be able to help Honduras in the coming years is debatable. The new US defense budget will be a hurdle: it includes deep cuts and prioritizes other regions of the world.
Which means that President Hernandez will have to rely on limited intelligence and armed forces bereft of a credible “big stick” threat – i.e. US man- and firepower – to brandish.
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