The United States has maintained controversial ties to the Honduran military and police for years, even as the Central American country's government continues to take fire for its horrendous record of corruption and human rights abuses. Washington just took one major step away, however, saying they will no longer provide radar information to the Honduran government that could help it shoot down planes piloted by suspected drug smugglers.
The move comes as U.S. officials scrutinize a new Honduran law passed in January that authorizes military force against alleged drug planes as long as it is approved by the Honduran defense secretary, an official with the U.S. embassy in Tegucigalpa, Honduras' capital, confirmed Monday. U.S. officials must determine the extent to which the new "aerial exclusion zone" law breaks U.S. law, the embassy official said. The news was reported Sunday by the Spanish-language El Heraldo in Honduras.
"The U.S. government has already ceased to share certain types of information and assistance that would support an aerial intercept by the Honduran government," the embassy official said in an email, without specifying what else might be included. "At the same time, we are continuing our security cooperation with the Honduran government on counter-narcotics activities not related to aerial intercepts, with priority on the 80 to 90 percent of illegal drugs that enter Honduras via maritime routes."
It's not the first time the United States has backed off sharing radar information with Honduras. In September 2012, U.S. officials made a similar call after Honduras unilaterally shot down two planes off its northeastern coast, a common smuggling route. The United States reversed course a few months later, but the new Honduran law proved to be too much -- it codifies the Honduran military's ability to shoot down the planes, in violation of the Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation treaty the nation signed in 1953.
The CIA used to participate in similar shootdowns through its Airbridge Denial Program, feeding information to local governments in Peru and Colombia that their militaries used to shoot down civilian planes believed to be running drugs. The program was eventually killed after the Peruvian jet shot down by its military killed an American woman acting as a missionary and her infant child in 2001, causing an uproar.
The new decision with Honduras underscores the complicated nature of the relationship between Honduras and the United States, said Dana Frank, an expert on the country with the University of California in Santa Cruz. It also shows that Washington may have some misgivings about new Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, who was elected in November and took over in January. The president has called strongly for more U.S. involvement in fighting drug traffickers, even though numerous high-ranking Honduran officials are believed to be in cahoots with them. In one example, a police chief was suspended from his job in February for allegedly being involved in drug and weapons trafficking in the western province of Lempira.
"There's a basic contradiction in U.S. policy toward Honduras," Frank said. "On one hand, we're supposedly fighting a drug war there and pouring money into their military and police. And on the other hand, the government we're supporting is widely alleged to be interlaced with drug traffickers at the highest level."
The move comes as the U.S. military prepares to expand its interaction with the Hondurans in several other respects. In coming months, U.S. Southern Command, commanded by Gen. John Kelly, plans to increase surveillance flights over international waters near Honduras and to augment the amount of U.S. ships off Honduras' northern coast, where much of the drug smuggling occurs, said Col. Greg Julian, a spokesman for the general.
"The expanded assistance we envision includes responding to requests for additional naval and air support to assist Honduras to establish a maritime shield to disrupt the entry of contraband by sea," Julian said. "This support is especially important since 95 percent of drugs entering the country now do so by sea."
Kelly told reporters at the Pentagon on March 13 that he made a commitment to Honduras to "re-double and even triple" the U.S. push to help Honduras in its drug fight. The majority of the drugs entering the country is cocaine coming from South America, especially Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador. The bulk of it moves north toward U.S. cities by speed boats known as "go-fasts," although planes out of Venezuela also are common, Kelly said. The smugglers try to get lost in other boats and ships along the coastline, and then unload on the northern coast of Honduras.
U.S. officials are still exploring whether Honduras' Soto Cano Air Base could be used more, assumedly for both P-3 planes and possibly for surveillance drones. If it occurs, it would be a on a case-by-case basis at the request of the Honduran government, allowing it to find traffickers in remote areas so that forces can be deployed rapidly to stop them, said Julian, Kelly's spokesman.
The work will come at a time in which Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world, with about 79 per 100,000 people in 2013. The United States has increased its funding for Honduran security forces annually since a short break in 2009, reaching about $27 million in 2012, said Frank, who covered the issue in a Politico Magazine piece published recently. Nevertheless, police and military abuses remain a chronic problem. The Associated Press reported in May that it was likely that police acted as death squads, and were involved in at least five extrajudicial executions or disappearances of alleged gang members.