Honduras: Who's The Real Drug Trafficker?

In December 2008, just months before Manuel Zelaya was ousted from power by the Honduran military, he wrote Barack Obama and complained of U.S. "interventionism."
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While the foreign policy establishment in Washington, D.C. certainly had diverse reasons for disliking Manuel Zelaya, the deposed Honduran president's criticism of the U.S.-driven drug war certainly did not help to ingratiate the Central American within the halls of power. In December 2008, just months before Zelaya was ousted from power by the military, he wrote Barack Obama and complained of U.S. "interventionism."

Audaciously, Zelaya wrote: "The legitimate struggle against drug trafficking ... should not be used as an excuse to carry out interventionist policies in other countries." The struggle against drug smuggling, the Honduran added, "should not be divorced from a vigorous policy of controlling distribution and consumer demand in all countries, as well as money laundering which operates through financial circuits and which involve networks within developed countries."

It was not the first time that Zelaya had been so outspoken. Just a month before, during a meeting of Latin American and Caribbean anti-drug officials in Tegucigalpa, he declared that drug consumption should be legalized to halt violence related to smuggling. "Instead of pursuing drug traffickers, societies should invest resources in educating drug addicts and curbing their demand," Zelaya said. Rodolfo Zelaya, the head of a Honduran congressional commission on drug trafficking, rejected Zelaya's comments. He told participants at the meeting that he was "confused and stunned by what the Honduran leader said."

From "Mano Dura" to decriminalization?

What could have driven Zelaya to confront the U.S. so openly on drug policy? In recent years Honduras has been plagued by drug trafficking and so-called maras or street gangs that carry out gruesome beheadings, rapes, and eye gouging. The small Central American nation has become a major transshipment point for Colombian cocaine. According to U.S. authorities, the drugs arrive on non-commercial aircraft from Venezuela and increasingly in speedboats from Colombia.

Prior to Zelaya's election, Honduras adopted a mano dura policy towards the maras as opposed to focusing on prevention and rehabilitation. In 2002, the country launched special anti-mara operations under a zero-tolerance strategy including the passage of stiffer laws. But the strong-arm policies led to persecution of young people simply because they bore tattoos, frequently an identifying feature for gang members, or wore baggy hip-hop style clothes. In 2005, 204 maras were detained under a special law which allowed people to be arrested merely on suspicion of belonging to gangs.

The Honduran government was even accused before the Inter-American Court on Human Rights of prison massacres of young gang members. The massacres were allegedly planned as "purges," and included one incident in the El Porvenir prison in the city of La Ceiba in which a whopping 69 prisoners including 61 mara members were murdered.

After he was elected in 2006, Zelaya pledged to negotiate with Mara Salvatrucha gangs MS-13 and MS-18 in an effort to get the narco-traffickers to hand in their arms. Offering an olive branch, Zelaya said he wanted to peacefully rehabilitate the maras and reincorporate the gangs into society.

Unfortunately for Zelaya, the violence showed no signs of abating. In a country of just 7.4 million, 710 murders were reported in the first quarter of 2006 -- 100 more than in the same period in 2005. Experts worried that if the violence continued in Honduras that it would be next to impossible to implement social development policies and the nation's democratic stability would be jeopardized. After kidnappings surged and the nephew of the Speaker of Congress Roberto Micheletti (and future Honduran President following Zelaya's overthrow) was killed, Zelaya carried out Operation Thunder -- a broad police and military crackdown.

San Pedro Sula, an important commercial city, has been in the crosshairs of drug violence. The city has been the center of activity for drug smuggling gangs who transport cocaine from Colombia to the U.S. In recent years, San Pedro Sula gangs have fought out brutal turf wars. The violence has taken on a brazen quality with assassinations curb-side and night club attacks. The local bishop of San Pedro Sula remarked to reporters, "The city has had enough blood -- every day deaths and more deaths." He added, "This is a hell...people don't want to go out at night, there's a tremendous fear."

Zelaya doubled the national police budget and claimed that his government had confiscated more cocaine than his predecessor. The President also pledged to establish a special police unit which would combat Colombian drug trafficking via the Honduran Atlantic coast en route to the U.S. Zelaya also said that the army would be sent into the streets to reinforce the police.

Zelaya's efforts however foundered amidst unending violence. In mid-2008, thousands marched in San Pedro Sula in protest over drug-related violence. Some women held photographs of their sons who had been assassinated. Realizing that his strategy was not yielding a positive result, Zelaya sent his letter to Obama and in early 2009 gave a feisty press conference at the Organization of American States in Washington, D.C.

The U.S., Zelaya said, was not doing enough to help countries like Honduras confront drug smuggling. The Honduran however backed away from his previous remarks about drug policy, saying that he merely favored an international law which would regulate anti-drug efforts. "From the U.S. to Cape Horn in Chile and the plains of Argentina there should be just one rule, and that rule should be respected and it should come out of consensus."

Zelaya did get on board with the Mérida Initiative, Washington's multi-billion dollar Drug War aid package for Mexico and the Central American nations. In January 2009, Zelaya's Security Minister Jorge Rodas Gamero signed an agreement with U.S. Amabassador Hugo Llorens for Honduras to receive $3.5 million in mostly military aid under the program.

But Zelaya meanwhile raised eyebrows when he declared his intention to turn the military base at Soto Cano--which has long been strategic to Pentagon operations in the region--into a civilian airport.

Pentagon access to Honduras

The question of Pentagon access to Honduras may have been a central one to the coup d'etat. In 2006, Zelaya and the Bush administration negotiated the future of Soto Cano air base, which is northwest of Tegucigalpa in central Comayagua department. The base was known as Palmerola back in the '80s when it hosted some 5,000 US troops. Since then it has intermittently hosted lesser numbers, as well as serving as a base for US drug surveillance flights. Zelaya insisted on its conversion to a civilian airport and following a Washington, D.C. meeting with Bush that June, the US agreed.

The payoff, it seems, was to be greater US military access to Mosquitia. Rendered by its indigenous Miskito residents as Miskitia, this is the remote area of rainforest and coastal wetlands along the Nicaraguan border in the Caribbean zone. Drug traffickers have long used its many sheltered coves with impunity. Honduran Defense Secretary Aristides Mejía said the Miskitia presence wouldn't necessarily be "a classic base with permanent installations, but just when needed. We intend, if President Zelaya approves, to expand joint operations" with the United States.

Gen. Romeo Vásquez Velázquez, the armed forces chief who would later lead the coup against Zelaya, had already traveled to Washington to discuss future plans for Mosquitia. Contradicting his colleague Mejía, Vásquez said the plan was "to establish a permanent military base of ours in the zone," including aircraft. The U.S., Vásquez added, would help to construct air strips on site.

Then-Assistant Secretary of State John Negroponte -- who was ambassador to Honduras in the '80s and would later serve as Bush's first National Intelligence director -- weighed in, saying that Honduras could not transform Palmerola into a civilian airport "from one day to the next." He made his own trip to Tegucigalpa to discuss Palmerola and the Mérida Initiative in June, 2008. Speaking later on Honduran radio, Negroponte emphasized that the airport would have to receive international certification before plans could proceed. The Spanish news agency EFE reported that Negroponte also sat down with the president of the Honduran Parliament and future de facto president Roberto Micheletti Bain. The account did not say what the two discussed.

In December 2008, US Ambassador Llorens actually made a tour of the remote Miskito Coast with the local press and spoke about the narco threat to the region. Two months later, the Honduran armed forces named Laguna de Caratasca, near the regional capital of Puerto Lempira, as the site for the new naval installation with construction underway.

It may be significant that the impetus for closing Soto Cano came from Zelaya, while that for opening Laguna de Caratasca came from Vásquez. Perhaps, the general gambled that his enthusiasm for militarizing the Miskito Coast and generally opening Honduran territory to the U.S. military would keep him in Washington's good graces despite a messy little putsch. And with the Sandinista Daniel Ortega once again in power in Nicaragua, a U.S. military presence in the border zone may once again be perceived as an imperative in Washington -- as it was in the 1980s.

Narcotics and propaganda

Charges of complicity in narco-trafficking make for convenient propaganda ammunition on both sides of the Honduran conflict. After the coup, the de facto government issued a request to Interpol for an arrest warrant for Zelaya and many of his officials. In addition to the usual charges of supposed constitutional violations, the request made accusations of the Zelaya administration's involvement in drug trafficking. Interpol declined to issue the warrant, citing sovereign immunity and not addressing the allegations.

Meanwhile the Havana-based website Cuba Debate sports a scanned version of what purports to be an undated document from the Honduran Defense Ministy that names one "Roberto Michelleti Bain" (with an evident mis-spellng) on a list of several Honduran nationals with international drug trafficking connections. His "connection" is named as the Calí Cartel and his area of operations is named as Yoro. In the '80s, when the Calí Cartel was at its peak of power, Micheletti was a member of the local council in Yoro department, in the north of the country near the Caribbean coast. He would later sucessfully run for congress from Yoro.

The same report quoted Andrés Pavón of the Honduran Committee for the Defense of Human Rights (CODEH), who accused Gen. Vázquez of working with narco-traffickers in league with corrupt elements of the DEA.

Vázquez and his chief collaborator in the coup, air force chief Gen. Luis Prince Suazo, are both graduates of the U.S. Army's School of the Americas. Leaders of the popular resistance in Honduras also allege that Negroponte -- now ostensibly retired from public life -- made a quiet trip to Tegucigalpa in the weeks before the coup, where he met with Gen. Vázquez and other coup plotters.

This article was co-written with Bill Weinberg, the author of Homage to Chiapas: The New Indigenous Struggles in Mexico (Verso 2000). His website is World War 4 Report.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave, 2008).

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