The discovery of large amounts of cocaine in cargo shipped from Honduran and Guatemalan ports has revealed the difficulties in securing maritime shipping operations on the northern stretch of Central America's Caribbean coast.
Customs officials at the port of Le Havre in northern France found 1.4 tons of cocaine hidden inside a shipping container transporting coffee, according to a statement released by French authorities on May 19.
The shipment had set off on April 6 from Puerto Cortés, Honduras’ main commercial port on the country’s Caribbean coast, La Prensa reported. The cargo swapped ships in the Dominican Republic prior to arriving in France, where it was flagged and searched by French customs officials.
The cocaine seizure was “the third-largest made by border authorities in France in the last seven years,” said Gérald Darmanin, French Minister of Public Action and Accounts (Ministère de l'Action et des Comptes Publics). He said the haul amounted to a loss of more than 100 million euros (about $110 million) for the criminal network that organized the shipment.
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In January 2019, nearly 650 kilograms of cocaine, valued at $148 million, was discovered by Italian police at the port of Livorno, also in coffee cargo that left from Puerto Cortés.
In June of that year, just a short distance north from Puerto Cortés, Guatemalan authorities seized over 5.8 tons of cocaine in a shipping container at Santo Tomás de Castilla, a state-owned port in the country’s Izabal province. The cocaine was detected by drug-sniffing dogs.
Less than three months later, at the same port, authorities found 500 packages of cocaine hidden in six shipping containers that had arrived in Guatemala from the Colombian port city of Cartagena.
InSight Crime Analysis
Security shortcomings at the Guatemalan and Honduran ports have made them attractive to traffickers seeking to feed the European drug pipeline.
Honduras' Puerto Cortés relies on gamma-ray radiography systems -- high-powered scanners that can penetrate steel -- to examine all of the estimated 1.2 million shipping containers that pass through the port on an annual basis, according to a statement sent by email to InSight Crime by the Honduran National Commission for the Protection of Ports (Comisión Nacional de Protección Portuaria – CNPP).
But only 0.017 percent of these containers are subsequently sent for a physical inspection on suspicion of hiding illicit narcotics, the CNPP said.
In October 2019, the CNPP began using its own specialist canine unit to speed up drug checks. Before this, port authorities were limited to calling police and waiting for officers to arrive and conduct inspections, according to La Tribuna.
Puerto Cortés also lacks effective intelligence systems for profiling suspect cargo, instead relying mostly on international agencies to pass on this type of information, according to the CNPP.
Despite these security measures, drugs have continued to flow through the port. This is partially due to the sheer quantity of cocaine trafficked along Honduras’ primary overland cocaine smuggling routes, which begin in the country’s remote Atlantic region and pass through Puerto Cortés, or the nearby city of San Pedro Sula, on the way into neighboring Guatemala.
About 4 percent, or 120 metric tons, of cocaine shipments from South America "made a first stop by air or by sea in Honduras in 2019,” with more “assessed to have transited through Honduras by land after making the first arrival in other countries,” the latest US State Department International Narcotics Control Strategy Report states.
In neighboring Guatemala, port authorities on the country’s Caribbean coast confront similar challenges.
The overland drug smuggling routes that pass by Puerto Cortés also feed the flow of cocaine into Guatemala’s two Caribbean ports: Santo Tomás de Castilla and Puerto Barrios.
The Santo Tomás de Castilla port currently does not possess X-ray scanning technology for examining containers, a customs official, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the topic, told InSight Crime.
Police officers and special anti-narcotics units are limited to carrying out physical checks on containers selected by a computer system, which flags around 13 percent of those passing through the port, according to the same official.