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Monday, 31 October 2011

men, women and children descend on passing go-fast boats to offload bales of cocaine destined for the United States.

  • Map locates the Mosquitia coastal area and Copan area in Honduras Photo: AP / AP
    Map locates the Mosquitia coastal area and Copan area in Honduras Photo: AP / AP


Along the Atlantic coast, the wealthy elite have accumulated dozens of ranches, yachts and mansions from the drug trade.

And in San Pedro Sula, local gangs moving drugs north have spawned armies of street-level dealers whose violence has given the rougher neighborhoods of the northern industrial city a homicide rate that is only comparable to Kabul, Afghanistan.

Long an impoverished backwater in Central America, Honduras has become a main transit route for South American cocaine.

"Honduras is the number one offload point for traffickers to take cocaine through Mexico to the U.S.," said a U.S. law enforcement official who could not be quoted by name for security reasons. A U.S. State Department report released in March called Honduras "one of the primary landing points for South American cocaine."

Almost half of the cocaine that reaches the United States is now offloaded somewhere along the country's coast and heavily forested interior — a total of 20 to 25 tons each month, according to U.S. and Honduran estimates.

Authorities intercept perhaps 5 percent of that, according to calculations by The Associated Press based on official estimates of flow and seizures.

The flow is hard to stem, said Alfredo Landaverde, a former adviser to the Honduran security ministry, because there are few other sources of cash income here.

"We have to recognize that this society is very vulnerable," Landaverde said. "This is a country permeated by corruption, among police commanders, businessmen, politicians."

The country's isolated, impoverished Atlantic coast, remote ranches and largely unguarded border with Guatemala — where much of the cocaine is taken — also make it a haven for traffickers.

"When the traffickers are unloading a go-fast boat in (the Atlantic coast province of) Gracias a Dios, you can sometimes see 70 to 100 people of all ages out there helping unload it," said the U.S. law enforcement official. "The traffickers look for support among local populations."

In the past year, authorities seized 12 tons of cocaine, according to the Honduran government — a vast improvement from previous years, but still a small portion of the estimated 250 to 300 tons that come through annually.

Most of the cocaine arrives in Honduras via the sea, in speedboats, fishing vessels and even submersibles. In July, the U.S. Coast Guard, with Honduras' help, detained one such craft that had been plying the waters with about 5 tons of cocaine per trip.

Fishermen who once worked catching lobster now look instead for a much more prized catch, the so-called "white lobster" — bales of cocaine jettisoned by drug traffickers to either escape detection or to be picked up by another boat.

Honduras is also by far the region's biggest center for airborne smuggling. Of the hundreds of illicit flights northward out of South America, 79 percent land in Honduras, said the U.S. official. Ninety-five percent of those flights hail from Venezuela, which also has become a link for cocaine produced elsewhere.

Landing aircraft in Honduras was once so profitable and planes so easy to get that traffickers would sometimes simply offload the drugs and burn the aircraft, rather than take off again from dangerously rudimentary clandestine landing strips.

Last year, however, they started reusing the planes to ferry loads of bulk cash back to Colombia, the U.S. State Department report said. Authorities found one load of $9 million in U.S. cash stuffed in plastic bags in the trunk of a car, and millions at a time in suitcases at local airports.


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