Opinion Honduras, the narco-state that illustrates U.S. contradictions

Protesters demand the resignation of Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández. (Orlando Siera/AFP via Getty Images) (ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP via Getty Images)
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Carlos Dada is the founder and director of the news site El Faro in El Salvador.

Wherever you walk in Honduras, you are most likely in drug trafficking territory. For half a century, this country has been the Central American base for drug trafficking. Organized crime has infiltrated all institutions. If a Honduran comes across any authority — police, mayor, congressman — chances are that figure has commitments to organized crime. However, the Honduran drug trade has moved in step with the United States’ interests.

Lost Cause: The War on Drugs in Latin America

The recent New York trials against Honduran drug traffickers allow us to measure the extent of the infiltration by organized crime: military and police chiefs, politicians, businessmen, mayors and even three presidents have been linked to cocaine trafficking or accused of receiving funds from trafficking.

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But the trials have a subplot that the scandalous testimonies of criminals have buried: the clash of agendas between the different U.S. agencies involved in Central America. The CIA, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the State Department have rarely acted in unison.

Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernández, brother of President Juan Orlando Hernández, was found guilty of smuggling 185 tons of cocaine into the United States and sentenced to life in prison. “Here, the [drug] trafficking was indeed state-sponsored,” U.S. District Judge Kevin Castel said in the sentence.

The jury concluded that Tony Hernández used the Honduran army and police for his criminal activities. From these earnings, he contributed large sums of money to the political campaigns of his brother and then-President Porfirio Lobo Sosa.

An American jury concluded that the brother of the Honduran president used the army and police for his criminal activities.

The case against him was the product of years of investigation by the DEA and the Justice Department into the criminal activities of the Hernández family. While the anti-drug agents followed the trail of the drug trafficker, the Honduran president received support from the State Department, which even endorsed his fraudulent 2017 reelection because the opposition leader, former president Manuel Zelaya, aligned himself with the Venezuelan regime. The DEA’s priority is to hunt down narcos. In Honduras, the State Department’s priority is to weaken the Bolivarian government of Venezuela, even if that means endorsing the fraudulent reelection of the head of the Hernández family.

Fabio Lobo, son of the former president Lobo, and banker Yani Rosenthal, son of one of the richest men in Honduras, were previously convicted in the same New York court. Rosenthal was found guilty of laundering money in their banks for the Los Cachiros cartel. He served a three-year prison sentence and returned to Honduras, where he’s currently the opposition’s presidential nominee.

In Honduras, one of the most violent countries in the world, 60 percent of deaths are attributed to organized crime. There are 37 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, and all 18 provinces are within the criminal groups’ grip. However, this isn’t something new. Large-scale drug trafficking in Honduras dates back to the 1970s. Ramón Matta Ballesteros, a Honduran born in poverty, took advantage of the geographical benefits of his country and established himself as a link between the Medellín Cartel (led by Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar) and the Guadalajara Cartel (led by Mexican drug lord Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo). He operated with the protection and collaboration of the Honduran Armed Forces, politicians and police, and became one of the wealthiest and most powerful Central Americans.

Matta set up an airline that had two clients: the Escobar cartel and the CIA. The flights went north from Colombia to the United States loaded with cocaine and emeralds and returned south to Nicaragua with weapons and ammunition for the counterrevolutionaries. Amid the Cold War, the CIA’s goal was to end the revolutionary government that the Sandinistas had installed in Nicaragua, even though the United States had already declared war on drugs.

To achieve this, the CIA needed not only Matta’s airline but the involvement of the Honduran army, which protected Matta. Years later, the Kerry committee report on support operations to the Nicaraguan Contras confirmed Matta’s involvement with the drug trafficking and the transportation of combat supplies. It also questioned the fact that DEA operations in Honduras were shut in 1983, despite evidence of military involvement and knowledge of Matta’s activities. The DEA’s anti-drug agenda collided with the anti-communist strategy of the CIA and the White House. But the anti-narcotics agents investigated Matta’s associates in Mexico.

The Honduran caporegime kept sending drugs and receiving weapons. He amassed such a fortune that he offered to pay the whole foreign debt of Honduras. His luck changed in 1985 when he visited his Mexican associates and got involved in the torture and murder of DEA agent Enrique Camarena.

Almost 40 years later, Matta is still in a Pennsylvania prison, and the U.S. agencies keep clashing in Honduras, a narco-state in which the United States still has the main military base of the region.

The Biden administration — committed to regaining the prestige squandered by President Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump — faces an enormous challenge. The U.S. agenda on Honduras doesn’t typically prioritize democratic consolidation and an anti-corruption stance. But if Washington is bent on a principled foreign policy, it will have to look under the stones to find legitimate players in a country plagued by organized crime.

It’s challenging to find a politician, military chief, police officer or prominent businessman who isn’t linked to drug trafficking or corruption in Honduras. Everyone knows it, but saying it out loud is dangerous. In November 2011, on a national television program, Honduran analyst Alfredo Landaverde claimed that 14 businessmen were laundering money for the cartels and that the political parties were just fronts for organized crime. At that point, drug trafficking was already so widespread that it affected all Hondurans in one way or another. The surprising thing was that this man dared to say it out loud on national television.

Five weeks later, Landaverde was assassinated.

Read more:

Dana Frank: Biden must end U.S. policy shoring up the corrupt and authoritarian regime in Honduras

The Post’s View: Kamala Harris seeks the ‘root causes’ of migration. They start with corruption.

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Kassandra Frederique: To truly reimagine safety, we must end the war on drugs