HomeNewsCocaine and Narco-Politics in the Mosquitia Region of Honduras
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Cocaine and Narco-Politics in the Mosquitia Region of Honduras

COCAINE / 7 JUL 2022 BY HELEN MONTOYA EN

When brothers Seth and Roberto Paisano Wood returned to their hometown of Brus Laguna, in northeastern Honduras, their employees and family held a welcome home party to show their continued loyalty and excitement over their release from prison.

The gathering "was not an outlandish party," according to one local resident working on a property owned by the Paisano Wood brothers, but a gathering at their mother's house attended only by relatives and close friends. Several pastors joined to pray and thank God for their homecoming.

Arrested in October 2019, the pair had spent two years in a Honduran maximum-security prison known as La Tolva on charges of money laundering related to alleged drug trafficking. Honduran authorities accused the politcally-connected brothers of running a criminal network that trafficked drugs out of the Gracias a Dios department, a remote territory on Honduras' Atlantic Coast that includes a densely-forested region known as La Mosquitia.

SEE ALSO: Brothers' Arrest Displays History of Narco-Politics in Honduras Drug Corridor

Geovany Antonio Serrano Torres, the head of the anti-narcotics division of Honduras' National Police, told InSight Crime that "they were in charge of storing drugs that came from South America and then distributing them" to others that moved cocaine across Honduras.

In November 2021, the Paisano Wood brothers were released from prison after a judge ruled that the case against them lacked sufficient evidence, though an official financial analysis reportedly found there was no legal or economic justification for the wealth the siblings had amassed. The brothers apparently benefited from a controversial reform to the country's money laundering laws that now requires the Attorney General's Office to directly link assets to specific crimes.

InSight Crime attempted to contact the Paisano Wood brothers for comment on the accusations against them but received no response.

In their temporary absence, drug trafficking through La Mosquitia never let up. Here, longstanding ties between local political power and the drug trade have allowed the isolated region to remain a primary thoroughfare for US-bound cocaine.

La Mosquitia: A Highway for US-bound Cocaine

Nestled on the easternmost extremity of Honduras, the sparsely-populated La Mosquitia region hugs the country's Caribbean coast and is home to mountainous forest, lowland marshes and tropical rainforest. A significant amount of the cocaine that enters Honduras from Colombia and Venezuela passes through the area, either by go-fast boat or in small jets.

La Mosquitia "continues to be a [drug trafficking] route because, apart from the fact that this area is very large, we don't have any way to cover the entire department [of Gracias a Dios]," said Serrano Torres, the anti-drug chief.

Here, there is no shortage of people ready to receive cocaine shipments from South America. Drug-running networks, known locally as transportistas, store drugs in the area before loading them onto speedboats and transporting the narcotics across Honduras and into neighboring Guatemala, eventually reaching Mexican organized crime groups that manage the final push into the United States.

Well-established Honduran networks like the Cachiros drug clan and the Atlantic Cartel have maintained a presence in La Mosquitia for years, relying on political connections to facilitate cocaine trafficking through the region. Powerful political families are a permanent feature of La Mosquitia's drug trade, according to local agricultural workers and farm laborers in the area who spoke to InSight Crime. The Paisano Woods are thought to be one of those families.

For many years, Roberto was a political powerbroker for the National Party (Partido Nacional - PN), while Seth served as a congressman with the Liberal Party (Partido Liberal - LP) between 2014 and 2018. During this time, the Atlantic Cartel was able to expand its operations in La Mosquitia in part thanks to its connections to the Paisano Wood brothers and the National Party, according to an InSight Crime investigation into the party's criminal activity.

Top National Party politicians facilitated a vast cocaine trafficking network that managed shipments through Honduras' Atlantic region. They included former president Juan Orlando Hernández (2014-2022), who was extradited to the United States in early 2022 on drug charges, and his brother, former congressman Juan Antonio "Tony" Hernández, who was convicted in 2019 of cocaine trafficking and is now serving a life sentence in a US prison.

SEE ALSO: One Party, Many Crimes: The Case of Honduras' National Party

These political connections not only grant drug traffickers access to privileged information but also afford them high-level protection. Locals interviewed by InSight Crime in Brus Laguna said both the Paisano Wood brothers and powerful brokers like Tony Hernández owned properties in the town that were allegedly used to receive small planes loaded with cocaine.

This is not uncommon in La Mosquitia. The majority of clandestine runways destroyed by Honduran authorities over the last decade were located in the jungle region, with Brus Laguna the most common destination, according to official data reported by Proceso Digital.

The Paisano Wood Brothers and Narco-Politics

In the beginning, it was just the Paisano Wood brothers and a nephew. They began as low-level players working for other drug trafficking networks. When Roberto was between 25 and 30 years old, he was arrested for carrying cocaine in a suitcase and spent five years in La Ceiba prison in the department of Atlántida, according to a family member of the brothers.

Up until their arrest in 2019, the Paisano Woods had a strong presence in the area. The brothers helped safeguard and administer clandestine landing strips. Cocaine was transported in speedboats and stored in safehouses. They also hired young people in the area to help with these activities, according to a family member of the brothers with knowledge of their alleged criminal activity.

They "were coercive, they covered a lot of land and goods, they had economic power, they bought people by distributing money," according to the same family member.

A local who worked tending Paisano Wood properties in Brus Laguna told InSight Crime the brothers operated trafficking routes coming in from neighboring Nicaragua. But despite their power, the brothers did not maintain direct relationships with Colombian drug traffickers, nor did they transport drugs directly to the United States, according to locals employed by the siblings. Rather, their job was simply to receive, guard and transport the drugs to other parts of Honduras, sticking with the traditional role Central America's transportistas have long played.

In La Mosquitia, narco-politics was key. Politicians, military officers and police actively participated in the drug trade throughout the region, especially in Puerto Lempira, about 100 kilometers east of Brus Laguna. They "bought people to move product,” a local community leader from the area told InSight Crime.

The operations began in the dark of night on clandestine airstrips, with more than 100 armed individuals ordinarily present for protection. The airstrips were near major rivers, providing easy access for speedboats that would swiftly move the drugs to their next destination. The same relative said "the drugs and corresponding payment were delivered, received [and] exchanged between speedboats” at these same locations.

According to Honduran anti-drug officials, the Paisano Wood brothers managed these drug networks by establishing links with Víctor Hugo Díaz Morales, alias "El Rojo," a well-known drug trafficker now in prison in the United States who moved cocaine alongside Tony Hernández. They also maintained contact with Arnulfo Fagot Máximo, alias “Tío Arnulfo, another drug trafficker arrested in August 2017 in Puerto Lempira. He was later sentenced to 33 years in a US prison for transporting Colombian cocaine through La Mosquitia.

Direct political connections may have also helped them. Their sister, Teonela Paisano Wood, was mayor of Brus Laguna for the National Party from 2014 until early 2022. Her political clout is thought to have provided the brothers with protection and allowed them to establish connections with high-ranking politicians, including the former president and his brother.

When Teonela assumed office, international observers believed links between drug trafficking and the political system in La Mosquitia were "becoming institutionalized" because it was "well-known that her brother is a drugs trafficker," according to a report from the Denmark-based International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs.

She also had run-ins with law enforcement. In late 2019, she was briefly detained at an airfield in Puerto Lempira while in possession of 279,000 lempiras in cash (about $11,350) but was later released after claiming the funds were destined for construction projects. The next year, authorities stopped her while traveling in a vehicle registered in the name of Dora Blanco Ruiz, the sister of Wilter Blanco Ruiz, the former Atlantic Cartel leader now serving a 20-year prison sentence in the United States on drug trafficking charges.

Teonela has never been formally accused of any crimes linked to any of her brothers' alleged criminal activity. She did not respond to InSight Crime's request for comment.

But her role gave her tremendous power and economic influence, the kind that local drug trafficking groups have long co-opted to their advantage. As mayor, she allegedly "supported her brothers with all the municipal, legal and administrative aspects,” according to a local community leader in Brus Laguna.

Cocaine Continues to Flow through La Mosquitia

After a multi-year investigation, the Paisano Wood brothers were arrested in 2019 and accused of belonging to an extensive organized crime network dedicated to cocaine trafficking and money laundering in Brus Laguna and the surrounding Gracias a Dios department.

As far back as 2014, the network coordinated the arrival of drug flights in the coastal department, offloading and transporting cocaine via maritime routes to other parts of the country, according to a statement from the Attorney General's Office at the time of their arrest, which came as part of “Operation Corsario,” conducted by the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Organized Crime (Fiscalía Especial contra el Crimen Organizado - Fescco).

During operations targeting the brothers, the Honduran Directorate for the Fight Against Drug Trafficking (Dirección de Lucha Contra el Narcotráfico - DLCN) also seized nine properties, five commercial companies and nine boats. Their assets were returned when the charges against them were dismissed.

Serrano Torres, the anti-drug chief, said that attacking the leaders of drug trafficking organizations in La Mosquitia leads to a sort of merry-go-round for authorities. "These leaders have...lieutenants below them," he said. "To be able to capture the entire structure...both the leader and all those that are with them, is very difficult."

"There will always be someone who follows in the footsteps of the boss. [That's] normal," he added.

The brothers' current activities are uncertain, though Serrano Torres told InSight Crime the investigation into them is "ongoing."

The political panorama for them has changed vastly. The National Party was dethroned by the 2021 presidential election victory of Xiomara Castro, and their sister is no longer mayor of Brus Laguna.

Regardless, cocaine continues to flow through this jungle region. Just one week after the brothers were welcomed home to Brus Laguna, authorities intercepted a drug flight from South America that was transporting almost two dozen bales of cocaine through the brothers' hometown.

“The planes continue to land and you see Colombians and Venezuelans. The planes are burnt once the merchandise is unloaded, none return to their country of origin and the pilots stay overnight in the area,” said a former employee of the Paisano Wood brothers.

"When they arrest a narco, they only spend a couple of months without work and then they continue," the employee added.

Featured image: An aerial view of the Mosquitia region near Ahuas, Honduras (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

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