The Honduras government says Mexican gangs like the Zetas and the Sinaloa Cartel are turning the country into a "narco-storehouse." Has the country sufficiently recovered from the 2009 political crisis to rebuild its anti-crime efforts?
According to Defense Minister Marlon Pascua, 87 percent of the cocaine exported from South America to the U.S. travels through Honduras along the way. The authorities have seized more than 10 tons of cocaine in the past five months, Pascua added. This is compared to the 6.1 tons seized in the whole of 2010, meaning the Honduran security forces have basically doubled their interdiction rates, although this may be in part due to the higher quantity of drugs passing through this Central American nation.
Pascua is right to point to Honduras' strategic location as a reason why it has become a hub for transnational gang activity. But geography isn't the only reason that drug traffickers are increasingly using Honduras as a base for cocaine shipments. After the 2009 coup against President Manuel Zelaya, the state's attention shifted even further away from crime issues. Instead, police and military focused on suppressing protesters and cementing the control of temporary President Roberto Micheletti. Key allies cut aid to Honduras, including the U.S., while government agencies like the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) stopped sharing intelligence on trafficking.
With the state's focus fixed elsewhere and crucial support from the U.S. missing, criminal groups took advantage of the disorder. During Micheletti's brief time in office, up to 1,000 tons of cocaine may have traveled through Honduras by land, sea or air, according to analyst James Bosworth.
As Bosworth rightly points out, Honduras was experiencing a steady backslide in security even before the coup. But the political turmoil basically turned the country into the region's most convenient "narco-storehouse." In December 2009, the country's top anti-drug official was ambushed and killed in the capital, in one of the clearest signs yet of the growing power of the drug traffickers. Honduras now has the highest murder rate in Central America, with 77 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. According to a report recently released by the U.S. Senate, the country also has the highest number of gang members in Central America, with an estimated 36,000.
According to the numbers cited by Pascua, Honduras has improved its drug interdiction capabilities this year. In one much-trumpeted seizure in July, Honduran forces intercepted a "narco sub" carrying more than five tons of cocaine, with support from the U.S.
But interdiction statistics are only a sign of superficial progress. A report by a Honduran human rights group says the country is on track to reach a murder rate of 86 per 100,000 people by the end of this year. Meanwhile, Congress backed away from taking the tough, but necessary, measures towards a new security tax which would have funded the fight against organized crime.
When current President Porfirio Lobo assumed office in January 2010, his administration inherited extremely limited capabilities to combat drug trafficking and crime. If Honduras has indeed managed to significantly increase its cocaine seizures above those seen before the coup, it is testament that the security forces have significantly improved their anti-drug efforts.
But this is a small gain when considering the challenges that still lie ahead for Honduras. President Lobo recently initiated a shake-up among his top security officials, which may be a sign that he recognizes the current strategy isn't working. But it's just as likely that the changes in command are simply the result of political infighting. As observed by Bosworth, Lobo's strategies for fighting crime has relied heavily on the military, sparking some accusations of human rights abuses. The government has also tried to link the activities of land reform activists to organized crime, an approach that has proved dangerous and wrong. The touted improvements in drug interdiction rates are merely distractions from the government's ongoing failure to improve security.
The U.S. Senate has its own suggestions for how Honduras may finally consolidate, not just rebuild, security for its citizens in the post-coup era. These measures go far and beyond improving the country's drug seizure capabilities. What about establishing a replica of Guatemala's International Commission Against Impunity (CICIG, in Spanish) in Honduras, in order to strengthen the country's judicial institutions? The Senate report also suggests increasing the permanent presence of U.S. law enforcement agents in the country, by establishing the DEA's Sensitive Investigation Unit and the FBI's Transnational Anti-Gang Task Force, both currently absent from Honduras.
The defense minister's labeling of Honduras as a "narco-storehouse" is not far off the mark. But the country is not just a victim of geographic location and expansionist Mexican gangs. Thanks to political turmoil and ongoing institutional incompetence, Honduras has extended an open invitation for drug traffickers to set up shop inside the country. It will have to be very strategic about withdrawing that invite.