Islands off the coasts of Honduras and Belize, two of the poorest Central American nations, offer drug traffickers respite and a ready-made labor force to move their product.
The 31 bales were hidden among a stack of rickety wood. For three days, they had been harassed by the Honduran navy in La Mosquitia, in the Caribbean, which was looking for the 775 kilos of cocaine that had arrived in Caratasca. The clues pointed to the brothers Kork Anderson and Antonio Oscarealis Wrist Lucas, who come from Roatan, the main enclave of the Bay Islands.
They had hidden the 25-foot boat, which had two 200-horsepower motors, in Cayos Vivorillo, a naval zone with many small islands that drug traffickers use. They were carrying eight barrels of fuel; they also left their ID's at home.
This is the second of three reports on "Narco-Islands." See original in Animal Politico here.
"It was an intense operation with good results," Minister of Defense Marlon Pascua announced after the seizure.
Pascua added that the drugs were on their way from the Bay Islands to the north of Honduras and then, most likely, to the United States. But Pascua knew the brothers would likely be freed and not face charges.
"Normally these people are released because of bad [police] procedures," he admitted.
Honduras: The Sieve
As in Panama, the Honduras' islands of Cayos Vivorillo, with little police or military oversight, are a regular Caribbean drug transit point. The area has more than ten little islands and sandbanks, which form part of the province Gracias a Dios on the border with Nicaragua.
According to the United States government, up to 80 percent of the cocaine that transits Mexico goes through Honduras first. Over the last few months, drug traffickers have changed their routes in order to bring drugs into Honduras and then to the United States. This is part of what the United States labels the drug triangle: from Colombia to Honduras to Mexico.
The coastal route has scattered maritime access, and within Honduras authorities do not rule out the existence of mini-cartels on Roatan (the biggest island), Utila and Guanaja, in the Caribbean sea; and in the south bordering Nicaragua. Honduras has gone from being a narco-bridge to a drug reservoir.
Under the pretext of promoting tourism, the Bay Islands have been left without a gatekeeper. The police are mostly absent, and much of the drugs trafficked by sea flows to the islands without the type of government vigilance as you see in other areas.
According to local officials, 90 percent of the Honduran fishing fleet is concentrated in these three islands. But the fishermen have learned to swap shellfish and lobster for the drugs that come from Colombia, particularly San Andres, the Colombian islands off the coast of Nicaragua.
The fishermen return to the Bay Islands without the fish, but with a lot of drugs. These drugs are also used to pay for the services of the local traffickers, producing small but important flows of microtrafficking in the country, and fomenting tourist and local consumption.
The problem repeats itself throughout the region: a neglected area, a forgotten and poverty stricken population, and a tourist market combine to create a drug haven. According to CEINCO – the Honduran Armed Forces Information Center -- there are sectors in La Mosquitia that participate in and cover up this activity. But the authorities cannot criminalize poverty.
All around them there are signs of the narco-influx. Suspected drug traffickers are buying properties in the provinces of Gracias a Dios, Colon and all along the Honduran Atlantic coast. Few seem to check the provenance of the cash used to buy these properties, which are often promoted by US real estate agencies.
Belize: The Hinge
Belize is the hinge. With islands located between the borders of Mexico and Guatemala, it has become a nest for drugs and weapons shipments that cross part of the Rio Hondo. This river traverses numerous islands and cays in the southeast where Mexican groups such as the Beltran Leyva Organization (BLO) operates. The BLO seems to thrive in places like this: they also operate in Acapulco and Cancun in Mexico.
Drug operations are focused on the jungles of Peten and Los Cayos -- a chain of 450 small coral islands -- where criminal groups traffic narcotics, people, weapons, wood and exotic animals.
The tourist island of Cozumel, considered to be one of the 18 connecting points for the movement of drugs to other parts of the country, is a clear example. The network of Joaquin Guzman Loera, alias "El Chapo," is allegedly in charge of this stretch.
Belize seems to have been swallowed by its neighbors' problems. In 2012, there were 146 murders in a country that only has a population of 321,115 people -- a murder rate of 44 per 100,000 people, double that of Mexico.
*This is the second of three reports on "Narco-Islands" that was produced as part of a project by the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) for which InSight Crime has collaborated. See original in Animal Politico here.