The approval of a new law targeting drug planes will afford the Honduras government improved access to US counternarcotics intelligence at a time when US prosecutors have repeatedly alleged the Honduran president has links to the drug trade.
The legislation, enacted by President Juan Orlando Hernández in late May, updates the government’s protocols for intercepting suspected drug planes.
The law -- previously dictated by the 2014 Air Sovereignty Law (Ley de Protección de la Soberanía del Espacio Aéreo) -- differs in that it prevents the Honduran military from damaging or destroying suspected drug planes, except in cases of "legitimate defense," according to La Prensa. Under the previous regulations, authorities had the option of "neutralizing" an unauthorized aircraft as a last resort, if the plane failed to respond to non-forceful attempts to intercept its flight.
The change appears to resolve US concerns that the previous legislation endangered undercover agents in the cartels that fly cocaine from South America into Honduras. The administration of President Barack Obama had suspended radar information assistance to Honduras after the 2014 law passed, La Prensa reported.
The new provisions limit the Honduras Air Force (Fuerza Aérea Hondureña – FAH) to firing warning shots if an intercepted aircraft does not comply with military demands to land at the nearest airstrip. The Air Force must also attempt to avoid impact with the intercepted plane, according to portions of the revised law published in Tiempo Digital.
SEE ALSO: Honduras News and Profiles
The US State Department congratulated Honduras on enacting the law, which will grant the Central American nation improved access to intelligence-sharing with the United States and many other Latin American countries, according to the Washington Post.
At the same time, President Hernández inaugurated a new anti-narcotics operation center (Centro Combinado de Operaciones Interagencial – CCOI) that will bolster airspace control in drug hotspots and receive support from US Southern Command.
InSight Crime Analysis
When it comes to curbing drug trafficking, the relationship between the United States and Honduras is beginning to appear schizophrenic.
On one hand, Washington’s praise for the legal reforms passed by the Hernández government presents Honduras as a key ally in the joint fight against drug trafficking in Central America.
But on the other, multiple allegations made by US prosecutors have alleged that President Hernández acted as a co-conspirator in an international cocaine trafficking operation run by his brother, Tony. High-ranking police and military officials close to the president have also been accused of trafficking.
One of those implicated is the country’s former police chief, Juan Carlos Bonilla Valladares, known as “El Tigre,” who according to a US indictment abused his position to protect drug shipments passing through Honduras.
In addition, current Security Minister Julián Pacheco Tinoco was previously the target of a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) investigation into trafficking among Honduras politicians, according to US federal court documents used in the trial of President Hernández’s brother who was convicted in October 2019.
During the trial of former Honduran President Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo's son, Fabio, who was convicted of drug trafficking in 2017, a prominent trafficker said officials in the Lobo administration allowed the use of airstrips for cocaine shipments.
A military airstrip in the northern Olancho department, on one of the country’s most active cocaine-smuggling routes, has also been used to land drug planes, according to a witness account cited in the Fabio Lobo case. Lobo and President Hernández both came to power through the country's National Party, several of whose officials have been accused of drug trafficking.
The many allegations made by US prosecutors against Hernández and top ranking law enforcement officials clearly has not led the administration of President Donald Trump to drop Hernández. The new Air Sovereignty Law, which will provide Honduras with privileged access to drug trafficking intelligence, ultimately costs Hernández little while providing the White House cover for his posture as an anti-drug ally.