The number of destroyed illegal airstrips and the volume of seized cocaine in Honduras this year are set to surpass 2019 figures, indicating aerial routes for trafficking cocaine in the region remain very much alive.
On September 28, Honduran armed forces used explosives to disable an illegal airstrip used for drug trafficking in Brus Laguna, a municipality in the department of Gracias a Dios, according to Honduran news outlet Proceso Digital.
The illegal airstrip was the 31st destroyed in Honduras this year -- which will probably see more than the 36 airstrips destroyed in all of 2019. All 31 of the airstrips were found in the jungles of La Mosquitia, on Honduras’ Caribbean coast. In 2019, the vast majority of airstrips were found in the same region of Gracias a Dios.
Cocaine seizures are also rising, with the 2,218 kilograms seized in 2019 already overtaken by the 2,830 kilograms interdicted this year so far.
SEE ALSO: Honduras Goes From Transit Nation to Cocaine Producer
Guatemala also has seen an increasing number of clandestine airstrips. This year, authorities have disabled 15 of them, one fewer than the total for all of 2019. Authorities have also captured 20 drug planes this year, according to Guatemalan police figures sent to InSight Crime, though the number is unlikely to surpass the record 40 planes secured in 2019.
The same Guatemalan police figures suggest that traffickers are using more sophisticated aircraft in aerial smuggling operations. According to Guatemalan police, 15 of the 20 secured planes this year were jets, which travel faster than the light propeller planes typically used, while jets accounted for only nine of the 40 captured planes in 2019.
A jet can also haul more cocaine -- between three to five tons. As a result, the amount of drugs seized from aerial smuggling has increased. From the 20 captured aircraft this year, Guatemalan authorities seized seven tons of cocaine, while the 40 captured aircraft in 2019 yielded a total of five tons of cocaine, according to the documents seen by InSight Crime.
InSight Crime Analysis
The increase in aerial trafficking to Guatemala and Honduras sheds light on a parallel trend: the renewal of Central America's land routes on which cocaine is later moved.
Drug planes arriving in Honduras partly feed overland routes to Guatemala, with which it shares a 160-mile border. Guatemala has long been the crown jewel in the Central American drug trafficking network, bordering Mexico and with access to the Caribbean and Pacific coasts. Maritime routes -- particularly along the Pacific -- also feed Guatemala's overland cocaine passage into Mexico.
The jump in aerial trafficking is likely a product of a historic spike in Colombian cocaine production and Venezuela's increased use as a trampoline to Central American countries.
Honduras is important in this context for several reasons, not least of which is that some four percent of cocaine shipments that reached the United States in 2019 first made a stop by air or sea in the country, according to the US State Department’s 2020 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report. Furthermore, most of that cocaine travels from Honduras overland into Guatemala, from where it continues its northward journey.
SEE ALSO: Cocaine Seizures Expose Flaws at Guatemala, Honduras Ports
In 2015, Honduran authorities claimed that aerial drug trafficking had dropped drastically after improved interdiction capabilities, but maps tracing aerial and maritime drug trafficking to Central America indicate that the number of drug flights reaching Honduras is on the rise.
The dense jungles of Petén in Guatemala and Gracias a Dios provide traffickers with remote landing spots that are difficult to access. Even when drug planes are detected, they are often ditched and burned before authorities can arrive.