Unfinished Business: The Military and Drugs in Honduras

01 December 1997

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Drug trafficking in Honduras continues to be a taboo, referred to only in terms of a registry of confiscated drugs - cocaine or marijuana. The deeper implications, the interests involved, and state policies to control and combat it are never discussed.

In this nation in the heart of Central America, the people are afraid to discuss drug trafficking, although its presence here began three decades ago when military de facto regimes ruled the country. Press accounts of the time relate that drug activity in Tegucigalpa arose with the military governments, expanded under impunity, and threatened to establish itself in key political sectors.

Honduras has approximately five and a half million inhabitants; 70% live in poverty or extreme poverty. The nation returned to democracy in 1981, when the military gave up the government and allowed elections. After sixteen consecutive years of formal democracy, the country will hold its last elections of the century on November 30. At least 2.3 million Hondurans will elect a new president, congresspeople, mayors and provincial governors.

The country's democratic history has been characterized by a give-and-take relationship between civilian and military power. For the past three years, the armed forces have maintained absolute control behind the scenes, and in spite of certain advances, evidence exists that it will resist completely abandoning the sweet taste of power.

Impunity, an Eternal Military Ally

Accustomed to impunity as a norm and way of life, the Honduran armed forces silently began to move into private areas, such as business, after the end of the Cold War. Whenever the military feels attacked, it resorts to religious sermons in an effort to send intimidating messages to civilian society.

Their Colombian, Army chaplain Aníbal Montoya,born in Colombia, but a nationalized Honduran, sent the latest of these "Christian messages" in early July. He indicated that the military "could take up arms again at any moment", if the harassment against them continued. In this significant message, the military priest even showed disrespect for the Honduran president, Carlos Reina, by telling him to his face at a ceremony that he did not believe in his "moral revolution" to combat corruption and impunity. The military made it clear that the "Tiger", the symbol of the armed forces, should not be antagonized.

The warning from the "Cappy-Chaplain", as Honduran columnists baptized Montoya, was a result of the implication of several members of the armed forces in car thefts, extrajudicial executions, and a series of crimes, including drug trafficking. The reputations of two military police colonels were tarnished in these illicit activities. In spite of the prosecutors' efforts and the proof presented, a judge decided to free one of them because of the "lack of evidence", and set a ridiculously low bail of $80. From then on, topics like drug trafficking have been dealt with subtly in Honduras, where civilians have yet to overcome their fear of the military; despicable actions still occur and drug trafficking is an Achilles' heel of democracy.

An Enviable Location

With a territorial extension of 112,492 square kilometers, Honduras's location is ideal for drug activity because it shares borders with Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador. In general, the country is considered a transit zone for drugs. Drug production within its borders is insignificant, except for marijuana, now cultivated in some regions and increasingly consumed, especially by the nation's youth.

With the murder of Mario and Mary Ferrari, the country became known as a stop-over for drugs traveling from South to North America. At the same time, names of military officers linked to drugs emerged. The Ferraris were found dead in an artesian well on June 15, 1978, on the San Jorge farm in what is now the populous Cerro Grande neighborhood in the capital.

The couple had tried to appear to be "simple businesspeople" by running a beer factory, whose installations were the property of the Central Penitentiary (PC) Director, Col. Ramón Reyes Sá nchez, with whom they were close friends.

For the police, the Ferraris were drug traffickers, primarily cocaine, and also smuggled arms and emeralds with the help of Honduran kingpin Juan Ramón Matta Ballesteros. Tiempo, one of the most belligerent newspapers of the time, linked the kidnapping and murder of the Ferraris with drugs and the military, causing strong censorship and pressure in an effort to intimidate its writers.

From Military Intelligence

According to newspaper accounts, the couples' deaths were planned in the Military Intelligence offices, or G-2 of the armed forces, in collaboration with Matta Ballesteros, who was serving a life sentence in the United States. At this time, the participation of soldiers in the drug business was so obvious that Mario Ferrari's father, Luis, stated that discussing his son's case would be "seeking" his son's death.

In a letter sent to Tiempo, Ferrari's father wrote, "Some high ranking military men were involved with my son in cocaine contraband, a business that generates high profits that he shared with those that are now responsible for the disappearance of my son and his wife..." These explosive statements reflected the magnitude of the problem that months later would cause a kind of "Honduras Connection" with drug traffickers.

The names of several members of the armed forces emerged as part of this connection: Col. Leónidas Torres Arias, chief of military intelligence; Col. Ramón Reyes Sánchez, PC director; Lt. Col. Juan Angel Barahona, Interpol chief; Col. Armando Calidonio; and Carlos Coello, an officer, were among them.

Angel Barahona was accused of receiving money from the Mafia to allow Ramón Matta to leave the country for Colombia in the period when the Ferrari murder was committed. Barahona vehemently denied the accusations and began to "let loose" fragments of a story that remains unclear. He affirmed that behind the Ferrari murder, there were people with "many stars", a popular reference to high ranking military officers. He sustained that Gen. Policarpio Paz García, head of the armed forces at that time and later dictator from 1980-1981, possessed recordings and documents proving military officers' involvement in drug trafficking.

The armed forces denied Barahona's statements, but they named a High Level Commission to "investigate" the denunciation. The Commission's report exonerated the Honduran military officers of any responsibility. One of the fragments, a statement elaborated by the Armed Forces Public Relations Office, declared, "No officer in service within the armed institute has been involved in the crimes of drug and narcotics trafficking, in the case of the Ferrari couple, nor in the violent acts about which the press claim to have informed ..." But it also recognized that "some members of the armed forces could have committed irregularities while carrying out their duties, by act or omission...". This closed one of the most painful chapters in the history of crime and drug trafficking in Honduras.

Drug Trafficking Disappears from the Agenda

It is important to emphasize that the Ferrari case took place in the country when the United States was intensifying its anti-communist fight in Central America by implementing the so-called Swift Operation that the Nicaraguan and Honduran governments had secretly carried out to attack the Sandinistas. At that time tensions also worsened on the border between Honduras and El Salvador before the signing of the General Peace Treaty in 1980 that laid the foundation for a later definition of borders in 1992 by the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

This national and international context helped permit the disappearance of drug trafficking from the government's agenda, and even that of the press. All efforts were concentrated on denouncing or covering up the ideological war against communism imposed by the United States in Central America during the 1980s. This war caused serious human rights violations in Honduras, culminating in the forced disappearance of 184 people for political and ideological reasons. Efforts continue to make the military accept responsibility for its deeds.

In the Ferrari case, sources linked to the family of Honduras's military leader at that time, Gen. Juan Alberto Melgar Castro, commented in closed circles that the coup d' état that unseated the general at the end of the 1970s was a result of the military's desire to reveal a list of drug traffickers within the armed forces in an effort to set a precedent and clear the institution's name. This little-known unofficial version asserts that drug trafficking and the Ferrari case were the true causes of the coup against Melgar, causing him great indignation.

According to the President of the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights in Honduras (CODEH), Ramón Custodio López, the degree of infiltration of drug trafficking in the country was implanted from its inception at the highest levels, because the chief of military intelligence at that time, Col. Leonidas Torres Arias entered into the game. Custodio affirmed that Torres Arias's activities "permeated" the upper echelons of the armed forces and from then on "we can say that drug trafficking has extended through an inverted capillarity from the cupola to the roots". He stated:

At this moment, I even believe that it has taken root in Honduran society with a series of connotations. Before it was simply a stop-over, next came the stage of consumption as part of the new habits of the nouveau riche of high society, but later it became dollar payments for services rendered [and then] payments in kind because there was already an internal market for coca[ine] and we have advanced in the area of money laundering and narco politics.

In terms of drug trafficking, Honduras has become a kind of Bermuda Triangle. One corner of the triangle is the Honduran Mosquitia Region, on the Atlantic Coast, near the Nicaraguan border. The Bahia Islands in the Caribbean and the southern border with Nicaragua, at the El Guasaule customs post in the Choluteca Department represent the other two vertices.

The First Civilian Effort

Until 1994 the Honduran armed forces and military police maintained control of the war on drugs and drug trafficking. The military police should come completely under civilian control at the end of this year.

The creation in 1994 of the Attorney General's office and the first civilian police force for criminal investigation, the DIC, provoked distrust in civilian-military relations, where drug activity began to be reshaped. The Attorney General's Office was formed after a former military secret police officer denounced that his forces killed, tortured, assaulted, and created criminal gangs to terrorize the public. This first episode laid the foundation for new relations between civilian government and military power in Honduras.

President Reina took the next step by abolishing mandatory military service in 1995 in favor of educational and voluntary service, at the same time he began to take away important posts from the military. Although Reina successfully launched his "moral revolution" to combat impunity and corruption, two dark crimes three years ago curbed the demilitarization of society.

These incidents took place during the first half of 1995; according to a September 29 Miami Herald article, they were committed by a sector of the military allied with anti-Castro Cuban groups. The newspaper's assertion, citing private military and presidential advisors as sources, states that the leaders of the action were the head of Military Intelligence for the Honduran Armed Forces at that time, Col. Guillermo Pinel Cálix, and exiled Cuban businessman, Mario Delamico, who had sold arms to the Honduran army.

According to The Miami Herald, the high command and the Executive found out about the officer's plans and activities. As a result, Pinel Cálix was named the Inspector General of the Armed Forces, a bureaucratic post designed to diminish his power. At the present, investigations of the attacks against Reina have not become public, but the suspicion of military involvement grew in some circles of society, especially among humanitarian groups that had warned the president that he was wanted.

The US newspaper publication brings out the alliance between Honduran military officers and Cubans in exile. The latter dislike Reina because they believe that he "flirted" excessively with Cuba by announcing at the beginning of his administration plans to strengthen diplomatic relations with Havana, though he did not follow through. The armed forces vehemently denied the Miami Herald's version, and attributed it to an international defamation campaign, identified in advance by its intelligence corps.

An Urgent Police Purge

Within the movement to demilitarize society, it has been determined that the task of combating narcotics should be the responsibility of the Attorney General's office antinarcotics department, and yet civilian police force to be established, purified and free of the vices that existed under the aegis of the military.

The purge occurred because of concern provoked by past and recent suspicions that the military has been linked, in one way or another, to the development of drug trafficking. An ex-police officer recently commented that at the beginning of the 1990s, the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) paid military officers for each kilogram of cocaine confiscated. It was common for "high ranking officers" to show up before large scale missions to "guard" the drugs, and, obviously, await their reward.

This DEA strategy changed when it was proven that many military personnel were in the business. It began to concentrate instead on relations with the Special Prosecutor's Office against Drug Trafficking within the Attorney General's office. The DEA gives training, advice, and economic aid as part of US-Honduras bilateral relations on drugs. This assistance amounts to around 250 million dollars, varying according to Washington's whims. For now, the Honduran armed forces only give logistical support in the operations carried out by the Special Antidrug Prosecutors, with whom they had serious clashes when it was proved that several military officers were drug traffickers.

A prosecutor from the Attorney General's office commented that they have evidence that several high-ranking officers control small drug rings. It is difficult to capture them because they operate under a veil of impunity. He noted, "They have controlled everything that is drug trafficking for many years and, as a result, are experienced at evading justice."

Nevertheless, Honduran armed forces spokesperson Col. Mario David Villanueva believes that military participation in drug trafficking "responds to isolated events and is not an institutional norm of the armed corps". He reiterated that the existence of small cartels in the armed forces:

Cannot be discounted for the simple fact that we are human beings, we are in a country in a privileged position for this illicit activity. What can be said is that it could be the exception and not the norm at this time.

According to the military spokesperson, drug trafficking has no borders and its presence is pervasive, evidenced by the appearance of nouveau riche from one day to the next even during a serious economic crisis in the country.

For this reason, humanitarian groups and analysts estimate that the war on drugs will only be effective if Honduran society can be demilitarized and power can be wrested from the hands of the armed forces. Its success depends on the way in which the country chooses to redefine relations with the United States, that until now has taken the lead, set the terms, and in some cases, tolerated acts of drug trafficking in order to realize other goals such as the purchase of arms, such as in the Iran-Contra affair. Within this framework, Honduras, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama, played an important role by harboring within their borders almost 40,000 men of the now-defunct Nicaraguan Contras who strove to defeat the Sandinistas in Managua.

The United States' role in fighting communism through the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was unclear in Honduras. The US Senate has been petitioned to investigate the role that Honduras played in the Iran-Contra drug trafficking game. This assures that for now the drug trafficking issue in Honduras is dealt with through political alignments, translated into text within the national agenda. The war on drugs is excluded from the true political agenda, because it is not in the interest of involved groups.

At the same time, there is a perceptible increase in banking, construction, tourism, availability of credit cards, beauty contests, sports investments, and a series of mechanisms that give reason to believe that Tegucigalpa is becoming a strong zone for the laundering of profits from drug trafficking and organized crime.

In the view of the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights in Honduras, the less that is said about drug trafficking, the more impunity prevails in the country, thus eliminating any critical conscience that could alarm the public about the effects of this crisis.

What Is Convenient for the DEA

The military discourse now focuses on avoiding conflicts that are not strictly regulated by the Constitution and advocating a head-on approach in the war on drugs. The armed forces sustain that although they are not "chemically pure", they continue to maintain the "good will" to collaborate in the drug war.

So far only five military officers are in prison for their drug connections; some were directly involved and others allowed confiscated drugs to disappear right from under their noses. At the request of an American journalist, the DEA declassified fragmented information about Honduran soldiers involved in drug trafficking. The report mentions, among others, retired Gen. José Abdengo Bueso Rosa, an unconditional ally of the United States and a trained assassin. The documentation states that Bueso was found guilty of transporting 760 pounds of cocaine to Florida. According to the DEA report, the drugs were to be used to kill the Honduran president, Roberto Suazo Córdoba, whose term lasted from 1982 to 1984. Bueso was convicted in 1986 at the Miami District Court.

The same DEA documents mention the former chief of the Honduran armed forces, Gen. Humberto Regalado Herná ndez, suspected of protecting Colombian drug traffickers, as well as of diverting funds from US military aid to a personal account.

Relations between military personnel and drug traffickers are a type of nebulous mystery. When DEA agents found evidence of officers involved in the business in 1989, they were suddenly removed from their posts in Tegucigalpa. The organization's offices were then officially closed on that date, according to the bulletin of the Honduran Documentation Center (CEDOH).

The antinarcotics prosecutors, along with the government's National Commission for the Fight Against Drug Trafficking, struggle because Congress is approving an asset law that will permit the suspension of banking confidentiality to strike a blow at drug lords. Until now Congress has not passed the law, in spite of broad consensus about the measure.

Although drug trafficking entered in the politician's platforms for the November general elections, the struggle to control the war on drugs will subtly diminish with the transfer of the police into civilian hands, and it will become clear to what extent the military will permit the cleansing of this security organism.

In this sense, Honduras enters the new millennium, dragging the social problems that result from centuries of poverty and without having developed a well-defined agenda about the importance of drug trafficking in the nation's evolution.