The future of a controversial highway in Honduras, thought to be a conduit for drug trafficking, remains uncertain as the government and local associations remain at each other's throats.
In late June, the government announced the suspension of construction activities for a road passing through a jungle region in the remote eastern region of Honduras known as La Mosquitia – a major center for drug trafficking and illegal logging.
But on July 5, Mirna Wood Flores, the vice president of an Afro-Honduran Moskitia community organization, stated locals would defend the project "with our lives." According to Wood, the 28-kilometer road was being self-financed by impoverished local populations seeking to improve connectivity between the communities of Krausirpe and Wampusirpi.
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In the weeks leading up to its suspension, there was considerable controversy surrounding the highway, which would have cut across the Río Plátano Biosphere – a UNESCO-protected nature reserve in La Mosquitia already hard hit by deforestation.
Environmentalists and local populations say the route was being built by local drug traffickers in the region, La Prensa reported. Critics also emphasize the serious ecological damage being caused, as its construction involved indiscriminate logging and would likely facilitate illegal ranching.
Despite Wood Flores' claims, the road was being built without the necessary legal permits, according to Proceso Digital.
Since the pandemic began, deforestation has increased by 72 percent in the Río Plátano Biosphere, while 39,000 hectares of forest have been razed in the nature reserve over the last five years.
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It is not clear who would stand to benefit the most from this road project: local communities who genuinely need better infrastructure or criminal groups known for carving out clandestine routes for drug, timber and cattle trafficking.
La Mosquitia's dense rainforest, bereft of national highways, makes it almost impossible to access the region by land, meaning smugglers often rely on illegal roads to transport drug shipments to other parts of the country.
This pattern is not uncommon. In 2019, InSight Crime reported on another illegal highway, allegedly built and controlled by drug traffickers, which connected Culmí, in northeastern Honduras, to Tahuaca on the border with Nicaragua.
These clandestine roads often work in tandem with the numerous hidden runways scattered throughout La Mosquitia – a region routinely used by drug traffickers to receive cocaine shipments in Central America thanks to its isolated location and minimal state presence.
The aggressive appropriation of land by drug traffickers is a key driver of deforestation in La Mosquitia, including in the Río Plátano reserve, which loses around 2,700 hectares of forest each year, according to data from the National Institute of Forest Conservation and Development (Instituto de Conservación Forestal de Honduras – ICF). Aside from building illicit roads and runways, drug traffickers and other criminal groups in Honduras' eastern jungles also seek to profit by illegally harvesting precious woods, such as mahogany and cedar, further accelerating deforestation.
These groups are also involved in illegal cattle ranching. An environmental activist from Río Plátano, who asked to remain anonymous due to security concerns, told InSight Crime that there are cattle farms within the reserve housing drug runways and that serve as money laundering fronts for criminal groups.