The abrupt removal of the commanding general of the Honduran Air Force has raised questions over whether it was because the Air Force shot down a suspected drug flight, currently banned under Honduran law.
Brigadier General Ruiz Pastor Landa was removed as head of the command of the Honduran Air Force on August 23, a day before General Douglas Fraser, Commander of the US Southern Command, visited the country and met with the president.
According to a report by Honduran newspaper El Heraldo, Landa was removed after the Air Force intercepted a suspected drug flight near the Bahia Islands in early August. The interception was not publicly reported to the media at the time.
While it is not clear whether the Honduran Air Force actually shot down the suspected drug flight, or forced it to crash land, President Porfirio Lobo told El Heraldo that there was a recent “military action” that “violated” international law. According to El Heraldo, Lobo’s statements refer to the shooting down of the suspected drug flight over the Bahia Islands, which then prompted Landa’s dismissal.
"There was an incident in which in some way we, you could say, violated a treaty that we have for this type of fight against organized crime," Lobo told the newspaper.
Under the terms of an international aviation treaty known as the Chicago Treaty, Honduras does not have the authority to shoot down suspected drug flights. Presumably, this is the treaty which Lobo implies Honduras has recently “violated.”
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Lobo’s statements to El Heraldo are far from a clear admission that the Honduran Air Force has actually shot down suspected drug flights and thereby violated international law. By the account of the security forces, the Air Force has engaged in previous operations that forced drug flights to make rough landings, without actually opening fire. On August 4, for example, the security forces reported intercepting a plane piloted by a Colombian and a Guatemalan, carrying some $4,800 in US bills and half a million Colombian pesos (about $280) in cash.
El Heraldo’s report is just one theory for why Landa was stripped of his position so suddenly. La Tribuna published a letter reportedly written by the defense minister, stating explicitly that the decision to remove Landa was made after meeting with the US Southern Command and with the US Ambassador to Honduras.
La Tribuna has also published an unsubstantiated report that Landa was fired after the Air Force forced down a suspected drug flight on June 14, which allegedly carried a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent. The two bodies recovered from that crash were burned beyond recognition and could not be identified, authorities said.
What appears to be driving the intrigue is two issues. The first is whether Landa’s removal should be interpreted as evidence of US influence over Honduran security policy. Such questions of Honduras’ sovereignty have become especially sensitive in the public sphere, as Honduras has accepted increased aid from the US to bolster its fight against organized crime. And with various reports this year of the DEA participating in fatal shootings against drug traffickers in Honduras, the question of the US role in Honduran security is becoming increasingly delicate.
Second, Landa’s exit -- and Lobo’s vague statement to El Heraldo -- also raises the question of whether the Honduran Air Force has actually shot down suspected drug planes. Honduras has made previous efforts to upgrade its limited Air Force, but currently has no legal authority to shoot down aircraft. Notably, the head of the Honduran armed forces has publically said that Honduras must be able to do so, in order to properly combat drug traffickers. A survey published last June by government human rights comission CONADEH also found that 73 percent of those surveyed were in favor of the government shooting down aircraft, showing that the measure does enjoy substantial popular support.
Lobo’s remarks are far from official confirmation that Landa’s removal was prompted by a shoot-down. But the larger debate over how the Honduran security forces should react to drug flights will likely continue, especially as more drug traffickers use Honduras as a key transit zone. In 2011, for example, 99 drug flights were tracked landing in Honduras, according to El Heraldo.