A rush of drug plane traffic from South America, coupled with traffickers smuggling large cocaine shipments after coronavirus border restrictions eased, led to a surge in narcotics transiting Central America this year, including along resuscitated land routes.
In the first seven months of 2020, Honduras had seized more cocaine than during all of last year. By September, security forces destroyed more than 30 hidden airstrips in its northeastern jungles.
In Guatemala, high-powered jets, which can travel faster than the light propeller planes typically used and can haul up to five tons of cocaine, were set ablaze following their landings along remote airstrips.
Costa Rica seized 37 metric tons of cocaine by mid-October, nearly 50 percent more than in all of last year. All the cocaine landing in Honduras and Costa Rica had a ripple effect, revitalizing surrounding overland routes.
In El Salvador, which has not seen much use as a transshipment point in recent years, authorities discovered large amounts of cocaine smuggled in tractor-trailers that had left from Nicaragua.
The flood of cocaine means the trafficking map in Central America now looks a lot like it did a decade ago, when land corridors were as vital as maritime routes for moving cocaine north from South America.
A US intelligence source in Honduras told InSight Crime that border closures during the first few months of the pandemic forced drug traffickers to use Central America as a waystation, which likely led to the increase in drug flow when mobility was gradually re-established in the last quarter of the year.
Yet the trafficking landscape differs from a decade ago, when Mexico’s powerful Sinaloa Cartel and other trafficking groups used Central America. Mexican operators made direct deals with smuggling clans in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador that received cocaine from South America by sea or air and then moved it to the cartels through a clear smuggling chain.
In Honduras, for example, remnants of the Valles and the Cachiros trafficking clans have teamed up with army officials and politicians to reignite their businesses and drive South American cocaine shipments east into Guatemala, according to security officials and military intelligence agents interviewed by InSight Crime in Tegucigalpa. There, on the other side of the border, small groups of transporters now operate the land routes to Mexico established by their predecessors, the same officials say.
Additionally, in Guatemala and Honduras, trafficking groups have continued to experiment with coca cultivation, to reduce costs and shorten the supply chain. The spread of coca crops in both Honduras and Guatemala was concentrated in departments on the Caribbean coast, the start of a crucial land trafficking corridor that connects both countries to Mexico’s southern border.
In El Salvador, factions -- or even individual members -- of historically powerful trafficking clans like the Texis and Perrones cartels have also tried to take control of the transshipment trade, using overland routes fed by cocaine entering on the eastern border with Honduras or on the country’s Pacific Coast. Dubbed “baby cartels” by one former police official, the factions are in some areas competing with aspiring traffickers from gangs such as the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) along the eastern tip of El Salvador’s Pacific Coast.
What’s more, Central America is awash in smuggling opportunities. Traffickers have increasingly used the region as a dispatch point to Europe, a booming market for cocaine. Scanners at Costa Rica’s new shipping terminal at Limón, built to accommodate Panamax ships, have uncovered massive amounts of cocaine concealed in fruit cargo headed to Belgium and the Netherlands.
Below, InSight Crime provides a country-by-country breakdown on how drug trafficking evolved in the region in 2020:
In Honduras, authorities seized 2,241 kilograms of cocaine between January and July, eclipsing the 2,218 kilograms seized in all of 2019. The increase points to a resurgence of one of Central America’s most important cocaine routes, despite border shutdowns and transport restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Many of the seizures took place in La Mosquitia, a jungle region on Honduras’ remote Caribbean coast carved up by clandestine airstrips. It is the start of a westbound land route by way of the Atlantic coast of Honduras, then Guatemala and Mexico, eventually reaching the United States.
Back in 2015, Honduran authorities claimed that aerial trafficking had dropped drastically after their interdiction capabilities had improved, but new figures suggest this type of smuggling has taken off again. As of mid-December, Honduran armed forces had destroyed 34 airstrips in the country -- all of them in La Mosquitia. They dismantled more than 30 landing strips in 2019 as well. Any increase in air trafficking also means an increase in the amount of cocaine transiting through Honduras by land.
The regional spike in air trafficking has brought more cocaine to Guatemala. According to the US State Department’s March 2020 anti-narcotics report, an increase in Guatemalan naval pressure in the Pacific has pushed drug traffickers further out to sea, leading to increased air trafficking as a way of recouping maritime losses.
Officials from the US Southern Command have also said that Guatemalan smugglers are adapting their routes due to coronavirus-related port closures and increased patrols at sea. This is leading to more air trafficking from Venezuela to Guatemala, and it appears that land seizures are increasing in the Central American nation, the officials say.
Figures from Guatemalan authorities show drug flights accounted for 84 percent of cocaine seizures in the country in 2020; compare this to just 3 percent of seizures in all of 2019, according to data from the National Civil Police (Policía Nacional Civil) and Defense Ministry published in a Prensa Libre report. Meanwhile, maritime seizures decreased from 44 percent of total cocaine seizures in 2019 to just 4.5 percent in 2020, the same figures show.
Guatemalan authorities registered 20 drug plane landings by mid-September, mostly in the northeastern territories of Petén, Alta Verapaz and Quiché, and departments on the country’s Pacific Coast, according to information provided to InSight Crime by the police’s anti-drug agency (Subdirección General de Análisis de Información Antinarcótica - SGAIA).
In the SGAIA reports, the majority of landings did not lead to drug seizures. Often drug planes are tracked to remote landing spots, where the drugs can be unloaded and the aircraft ditched and burned before authorities can arrive. This, according to Prensa Libre, may help explain why 2020 has only seen about half the cocaine seizures of the previous year -- 9.5 tons between January and November, compared to 18.9 tons in 2019.
These shifts in the cocaine trade have followed the downfall of Guatemala’s main cartels on the country’s eastern border with Honduras and El Salvador -- notably the Lorenzanas in Zacapa, the Mendozas in Izabal, the Leones in Jutiapa -- and a subsequent reshuffling of the cocaine trade in the region.
Today, a number of smaller, little known networks of traffickers control minor stretches of the routes connecting eastern Guatemala to the western border with Mexico, according to a host of interviews that InSight Crime conducted with security officials, government employees, journalists and human rights officials in Guatemala City and key drug-trafficking territories. In many cases, the local fixers dominate life in the towns where they operate, relying on the complicity or active participation of local authorities, including mayors, military officials and police chiefs, the same sources said.
There are also signs that remnants of the old drug trafficking organizations are still active in the trade. In November 2019, for instance, a member of the Lorenzana family was arrested in the Zacapa province, the clan’s stronghold. But multiple sources interviewed by InSight Crime said that the Lorenzanas, like the other formerly dominant groups, have been severely weakened and are now forced to share space with the smaller networks.
In October 2020, authorities seized 1.5 tons of cocaine worth $37.9 million during searches of two tractor-trailers – finds that recalled when “transportistas” routinely smuggled drugs into El Salvador from Nicaragua and Honduras. Authorities stopped one of the trucks after it entered the country through the El Amatillo land crossing that borders Honduras. A month later, El Salvador police made more arrests on the same route, seizing 100 kilos of cocaine being trafficked by two Nicaraguan nationals and a Salvadoran.
This route was once favored by the Perrones drug trafficking group. But the group’s downfall in the eastern part of the country triggered a war of succession that has been won by an unlikely candidate: the MS13 street gang. One of the MS13’s most powerful cells -- the Hempstead Locos Salvatruchos -- has successfully established control of a key maritime corridor in the Gulf of Fonseca, in which small fishing boats loaded with cocaine sail between Nicaragua and El Salvador, according to a Salvadoran police commissioner previously stationed there and Nicaraguan police investigations accessed by InSight Crime. The boats land on the beaches of La Unión, El Salvador’s easternmost province, and then smugglers move the drugs along land routes crossing El Salvador from east to west.
Among the countries supplying El Salvador’s land routes is Nicaragua, long a drug transit point but a far smaller one than its western neighbor Honduras. Though Nicaraguan authorities have downplayed the country’s role in the cocaine trade, multiple seizures in 2020 have revealed an active flow of cocaine through the nation.
For instance, the tractor-trailers intercepted in El Salvador had set off from Nicaragua and were being driven by two Nicaraguan nationals, according to officials in El Salvador. Trucks transporting cattle and cheese have long been a favorite of Nicaraguan drug networks moving cocaine north along Central America’s highways at the behest of larger drug groups.
Nicaragua also sits between Costa Rica and Honduras -- two countries currently experiencing a boom in cocaine trafficking. A number of seizures have taken place in Peñas Blancas, on the cusp of Nicaragua’s border with Costa Rica.
Unlike its neighbors, however, Nicaragua has seen cocaine seizure tallies fall. Police seized around 16 tons of the drug between 2017 and 2019, a significant drop for the 36 metric tons confiscated a decade earlier from 2007 to 2009, according to police data cited by Artículo 66.
Costa Rica has been struggling to cope with a radical increase in cocaine trafficking throughout 2020.
As of mid-October, Costa Rican authorities had seized 37 tons of cocaine, according to data from the country’s Security Ministry obtained by InSight Crime. That figure is the highest in recent memory. From 2014 through 2019, the country did not surpass 26 tons annually.
Aside from being a springboard for overland cocaine shipments bound for the US, the country also serves as a gateway to the European drug market via its ports.
The Port of Limón, on the Atlantic coast, is the current epicenter of drug trafficking in Costa Rica. Following a field investigation, InSight Crime chronicled how a combination of poverty, corruption and limited checks on shipping containers creates the ideal conditions for moving cocaine in and out of the port.
While Colombian trafficking groups appear to be behind the vast majority of cocaine smuggled into the Costa Rican ports, InSight Crime has also documented the Italian mafia’s infiltration of the Port of Limón, from which it sent drugs to Europe using export companies as a front.
Costa Rica’s Pacific route is also active. In the first three weeks of 2020, authorities seized 300 kilograms of cocaine in the Pacific Ocean, where speedboats and semi-submersible vessels travel with drugs sent from Colombia and Ecuador. Wealthy fishermen control fleets of boats that use clandestine docks on the Pacific coast to pick up cocaine and then disembark for Guatemala and Mexico.
Before the coronavirus pandemic fully set in in Central America, Costa Rica’s security minister told InSight Crime that the country’s police were reinforcing their presence in the Pacific, with the aim of curbing drug trafficking.
Costa Rica has also had to grapple with an increase in aerial smuggling. As of March 2020, authorities had identified at least 140 hidden airstrips in the country. In September, the government passed a law allowing authorities to destroy clandestine runways on private properties.
In the first six months of 2020, authorities seized nearly 35 tons of cocaine. More than ten tons of this were seized on boats in waters off the Bocas del Toro province, an archipelago that borders Costa Rica on the Caribbean. While the Pacific has long been the favored maritime route for traffickers in Panama, border closings with Colombia and mobility restrictions seemingly forced them to make heavier use of Caribbean waters.
As in previous years, Panama authorities also discovered semi-submersible vessels transporting drugs along the country’s shores in 2020.
An expansive shipping industry also makes Panama an attractive location for cartels looking to send drugs to Europe. Colombia’s boom in production and Europe’s appetite for cocaine have made Panama and its commercial ports a common target for drug traffickers.
An Open Flow of Cocaine
State responses to 2020’s shifts in the cocaine trade may well define whether they become a permanent feature of the regional trafficking panorama. So far, there has been a mixed bag of new legislation, efforts hampered by enduring institutional shortcomings, or no effort at all.
Honduran authorities, aside from destroying over 30 airstrips, also updated their protocols for intercepting drug planes. But shortly after, the country also introduced a new penal code that reduces sentences for drug trafficking, further deteriorating the government’s already minimal credibility when it comes to anti-drug efforts. Honduras also deepened its bilateral antinarcotics ties with the United States.
Costa Rica passed a new law making it easier for authorities to search for and destroy illegal runways on private properties. The country’s Security Minister, Michael Soto, also told InSight Crime that the country had reinforced its logistical capacity, particularly in the Pacific, where drug trafficking has boomed in 2020.
Faced with increased aerial trafficking but declining cocaine seizures, a Guatemalan Defense Ministry spokesperson told Prensa Libre that a lack of military planes has hindered efforts to intercept drug-laden jets, most of which land in remote areas. The government did install an X-ray scanner at a shipping port plagued by drug trafficking, just a stone’s throw from the main land trafficking routes passing through the Guatemalan Caribbean.
In El Salvador, drug trafficking has not made a notable appearance on the policy agenda, as is customary in a country where gang violence dominates security.
Panama authorities continued to make large-scale seizures, concentrated in the Caribbean, whereas Nicaraguan officials played down the country’s role in drug trafficking.
The trajectory of the coronavirus pandemic will determine whether the region can continue to re-establish commercial and civilian traffic through its borders. For the foreseeable future, though, the Central American cocaine corridors look wide open.