By Alex Karney
HONDURAS—Although Mexico and Colombia often steal the grim limelight of the ultra-violent, Latin American drug trade, Honduras has now become possibly the most important cocaine transit point in the region. Along with Guatemala and El Salvador, these countries make up the so-called “Northern Triangle,” a region with the highest homicide rate in the world.
Honduras, a country barely associated with the drug trade in the popular imagination, now has the highest homicide rate in the world, with El Salvador and Guatemala not too far behind. All three of these countries are well ahead of both Mexico and Colombia, two countries with outsized (though obviously still deserving) reputations for narcotics-related violence.
The history of Honduras is not entirely peaceful, but the dramatic increase of violence is undeniably recent: In 2010, there were 6,239 intentional homicides, nearly triple the 2005 rate of 2,417. In casual conversations, many Hondurans note the situation has especially worsened in the past 5 years, and said they were far less likely to go out to bars or clubs on a weekend than before. Of course, these attitudes inevitably make the situation worse, leaving fewer “eyes in the street” and creating even more incentive to pursue illicit activity and income.
From June 2010 to December 2011, I worked in Honduras for an environmental non-profit, and the murder figures come as no surprise to me or any of the other expatriates I worked with or met. But why is there such a problem in Honduras, in particular? The reasons are complex, but in addition to possessing an ideal geographic location between points of production in South America and the distribution hub of Mexico, Honduras also faces chronic economic problems and political instability, both of which appear to be exerting the strongest influence on its prominence in the drug trade.
One of the main reasons for the cocaine trade’s dominance here is sheer economic power. British journalist Misha Glenny suggested in 2009 that global crime networks control an enormous 15 % of global GDP, “buck[ing] the current recession with equanimity.” The cocaine trade likely represents an even greater percentage of the Honduran economy, and though little hard data exists (likely due to the danger in collecting it), local estimates are that between 20 and 60 % of the Honduran economy is laundered drug money. In my experience, these figures seem reasonable. As an American friend of mine once aptly pointed out, “There are way too many [Toyota] Hiluxes in La Ceiba (a resort city) for the legal economy.” An abundance of empty high-end hotels also suggest the presence of money laundering.
The continued dominance of the cocaine trade in this region runs contrary to global trends. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (2010) has confirmed that cocaine use has declined significantly from its peak in the 1980s, with consumption dropping in the United States and other key market areas. Explanations for this range from the stigmatization of a formerly-popular derivative (crack) to the recent sophistication of synthetic chemical drugs, such as methamphetamines. Regardless, the quantity and monetary value of cocaine are still enormous, and it in 2010 it was estimated that hundreds of tons of cocaine, worth billions of dollars, still pass through Honduras each year.
The hard economic times in Honduras, and especially since President Manuel Zelaya’s forced removal in June 2009, have made the country more vulnerable to well-financed drug traffickers.
But another important factor has been the decline of fruit production at Dole and Chiquita subsidiaries. Honduras, once the quintessential “banana republic,” has seen fruit exports gradually decline since the 1980s. According to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), banana exports fell a cumulative rate of 4.5 % annually from 1985 to 2002, despite a population increase of more than 2 million (from 4.2 to 6.6 million) over the same period. Many Hondurans in La Ceiba commented on (and lamented) the decline of the fruit companies’ presence in the past 20 to 30 years, particularly as the drug trade (and a modest degree of tourism) were the only obvious replacements. The maquiladora clothing manufacturing industry has also helped fill the void, but hardly to the degree of influence once exerted by the mighty fruit companies.
The dramatic change in government in 2009 also had disastrous economic effects: Aid was suspended and tourism plummeted. An estimated 180,000 Hondurans lost their jobs during this period, in a country already hard-hit by the recession. Organized crime reportedly seized on this opportunity. The illicit sums involved are remarkable compared to the legal economy. One friend reported that simply delivering a car to a set location, once a month, would have earned him $2,000 (U.S.) per trip from the trafficking organizations – double what most would consider a very good wage in Honduras, and roughly 4 to 8 times the standard wage. Other reports indicate drug-trafficking organizations pay a month’s wages or more for as little as a day’s work of simple unloading or delivery work. As the legal economy disintegrated, it is little wonder that work from drug-trafficking organizations would have been attractive to many Hondurans.
The political situation in Honduras since the government was overthrown has also been ideal for organized crime, as a corrupt, poorly-functioning, troubled-but-not-altogether-collapsed state that retained the structures of legitimacy. Scholar J. Mark Ruhl noted in early 2010, shortly following the government change, that cocaine traffickers were “expanding their influence” in this political atmosphere. James Bosworth of the Woodrow Wilson International Center also noted that year that although targeting organized crime was downplayed under president Manuel Zelaya (2006-2009), it was completely ignored by his successor, Roberto Micheletti, who was looking simply to build basic legitimacy for the new government. To make things worse, U.S. military aid was cut off for parts of this period. The political environment for drug organizations could hardly have been better.
An environment of impunity is another important reason for the increase of organized crime, with two primary causes in my observation: police corruption and a cumbersome bureaucracy. For the former, Transparency International (2010) awarded Honduras a score of 2.4 out of 10, ranking it 134 out of 178 countries, with only Paraguay, Haiti, and Venezuela (also cocaine trafficking channels) scoring lower in the Western Hemisphere. I did not meet a single Honduran in a year and a half that trusted the police, and many had negative stories. One police officer who played on my basketball team was a known cocaine addict, a hot-head and in very poor physical shape. In general, officers were tolerated, perhaps humoured because they had guns, and a select few were acknowledged to be good people. However, very few ordinary Hondurans would trust any officer enough to actually believe they might solve a crime and bring evidence forward; as one blogger put it, the police were “useless at best, dangerous at worst.” The police were even implicated in a high-profile murder case in October, 2011, in which most officers were released with little due process. This resulted in the dismissal of many high-ranking police officials and resulted in greater public scrutiny of the police force, but highlights the lack of popular trust in civilian security institutions.
A slow-moving, complicated legal bureaucracy also enables the drug trade to thrive. In the countryside region of Sico-Paulaya in Northeastern Honduras, where I spent a lot of my time, everyone was affected by, and knew of, the local drug trade, but it was never reported to authorities. In addition to running up against corrupt officials, documenting and reporting even the simplest and most obvious crimes involved complicated and elaborate reports, long trips to government centers at one’s own expense, and persistent time and energy. Reports would then need to be sent back and forth between the capital and other departments to be ratified, and would almost invariably be lost or forgotten unless one was either extremely persistent or had government contacts. In the best case scenario, the earliest one could expect a response would be months, perhaps years. As any drug-involved individual with any kind of power would be able to handsomely pay an informant, they could determine and neutralize any legal threat before the authorities would even begin to act.
My personal impression of government institutions was that they were incompetent. Myself and several forest technicians worked to document illegal invasions of a legal forest management area, and submitted a report and map in June, 2011. Despite international pressure, no action has yet been taken to expel the invaders. Further, simple permits for very low-scale, non-destructive botanical sampling took months of bureaucratic wrangling the first time, around 2010. In another later case, a set of permits to legally ship small amounts of plant samples for genetic analysis contained a number of fundamental errors and spelling mistakes that took hours to rectify at customs. The situation did appear to improve over a year and a half, and there are certainly hard-working and bright individuals of integrity within these institutions. However, such experiences hardly inspired confidence that well-organized, well-armed crime groups could ever be effectively stopped by such institutions, unless a few token captures were in their interest.
The impact of the cocaine trade in Honduras ripples beyond the violence. There are also significant ecological effects. The Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve provides habitat for 39 species of mammals, 377 species of birds and 126 reptiles and amphibians. The presence of mammals such as the endangered Baird’s tapir (Tapirus bairdii), the threatened West Indian manatee (Trichechus manatus) and the vulnerable giant anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla) have also been documented, among other rare (and probably many undocumented) species of birds, reptiles, amphibians and plants.
However, drug organizations have gradually moved into the region over the past decade, building clandestine air strips for frequent incoming flights that were reported as early as 2005. The presence of criminal drug organizations in the region was palpable: On one occasion a co-worker and I avoided going for a beer after a three-week tour in the countryside documenting forest destruction when a group of fully-armed, non-military men arrived blaring music near the hotel entrance. Drug money is suspected in most of these land invasions of legal harvest areas – both in terms of direct laundering for cattle ranching, and indirectly for farmers wishing to gain saleable real estate. There have also been reports that sales of timber have been used to launder money.
Is there hope for Honduras? I think there is. Despite the violence, corruption, and culture of blame-shifting, I encountered a generation of young people that were becoming increasingly intolerant of the unjust and violent state of their country. If consumption continues to decline, perhaps the power of the DTOs will one day diminish to insignificance. Now, however, the journey forward will be long and difficult, requiring collaboration at all levels both nationally and internationally, not only in prevention but also in education and preventative deterrence.
Photos by Alex Karney