Outgunned: the Honduran fight against transnational cocaine traffickers.

AuthorKolb, Ana-Constantina

Transnational organized crime (TOC) is an insidious and omnipresent element in twenty-first century Honduras, representing a clear threat to the stability of its democracy. Over the past five years, criminal organizations have extended their grip on the fragile states of the Northern Triangle--El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras--leading to a severe deterioration in citizen security. By leveraging domestic crime and violence, these organizations inhibit further development and pry on the glaring social inequality prevalent in these countries. This essay will use the definition of TOC as defined by the U.S. Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime, which understands TOC as "those self-perpetuating associations of individuals who operate transnationally for the purpose of obtaining power, influence, monetary and/or commercial gains, or violence." (1) The essay will mainly focus on transnational drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) actively operating in Honduras. First, the essay will give an overview of the operations and expansion of DTOs in the country. Subsequently, it will explore the effect of DTOs on Honduran governance and security. The essay will conclude with a review of current responses and recommendations for future policy.


In the context of the international drug trade, the Central American isthmus is an ideally located geographic region with weak institutions and high levels of poverty and social inequality as well as a legacy of armed conflict, military rule, and illicit trafficking. As a result of these characteristics, it has overtaken the Caribbean as the primary route for drug traffickers transporting drugs from South American producer countries to North America. (2) Drug trafficking organizations appear to benefit from the raging instability of the countries of the Northern Triangle, all of which hold horrendous public safety records in terms of violent crime and homicides. Additionally, recent estimates now declare this region to be the chosen route for drug traffickers, with an estimated 90 percent of cocaine destined for the United States traveling through Central America and/or Mexico. (3) For these reasons, Central America is now" 'caught in the crossfire' as [a] key drug transit route" and Mexican drug cartels are strongly active there. (4) Within this crossfire, Honduras is a central landing point for drug runs, acting as the first stop for approximately 79 percent of all cocaine transfers from South America. (5)

In order to understand why TOC expanded into Honduras so successfully, it is necessary to illuminate four developments. First, the grip of TOC on Central America is a result of advances in the fight against organized crime and drug trafficking in South America and the Caribbean. Second, it is also a reflection of the modernization of the Central American countries. Like any business, TOC benefits from modern communication, transportation, and banking systems. Third, the 2009 coup d'etat ousting President Manuel Zelaya allowed TOC to thrive in Honduras in part due to the interim government's struggle to maintain political order. (6) This governance vacuum allowed criminal organizations to operate relatively freely in the country while most state authorities were occupied with the governance crisis. Fourth, with the highest number of homicides in the world, citizen security has been problematic in Honduras for a number of years. (7) In essence, the precarious nature of security has allowed criminal groups to commit crimes with impunity. Proportionally, the country has the highest gang membership in Central America and crimes committed by these youth gangs (maras) have contributed to Honduras' notoriety as one of the most violent countries outside of war territory. Furthermore, Honduras is now one of the most dangerous countries for journalists in Latin America. (8) Although the complexity of the gang phenomenon is beyond the scope of this paper, the combination of the above factors and developments has allowed TOC to successfully establish itself in Honduras.

Although Honduras has intensified its law enforcement and criminal justice efforts, the under-resourced country finds itself increasingly powerless in the fight against TOC. Essentially, Honduras is engaged in a battle against a far better-resourced and equipped foe. In an effort to support Honduras in the fight against TOC, U.S. Military and Drug Enforcement Authority (DEA) support has been increased. Alternative policy solutions are being sought, but the authorities often fail to send a strong message of political will. While it may not always be possible to clearly differentiate between cause and effect, it is certain that symbiotic relationships seem to exist between TOC and weak institutions, crime, and security.


TOC poses a serious threat to Honduran democracy and its institutions. Conversely, the country's weak institutions and rule of law have multiplied the impact of TOC groups. During the government of Roberto Micheletti, who took over as interim president following the 2009 coup, the amount of cocaine moved through Honduras increased exponentially, exhibiting the strong relationship between weak governance and expanding TOC activity. (9) This resulted in "a kind of cocaine gold rush." (10) Moreover, not only have cartels now infiltrated local and municipal governments, but the cartels are known to invest in public works, providing public services that the state is often unable to supply. This has lead some communities on Honduras' Caribbean coast to switch allegiance from the state to DTOs. (11) Since the drug business is vastly able to outspend the Honduran state, it readily attracts willing local helpers. Therefore, DTOs are not only undermining the Honduran state's authority but, perversely, are also directly competing with the state in providing basic needs.

However, it is the prevalence of human rights violations, the corruption within the political and security system, and the impunity with which crimes are committed that ultimately create an ideal breeding ground for maximizing the influence of organized crime. (12) In view of the amount of money involved, it is no surprise that DTOs have benefitted from the already widespread corruption in the country. Honduras ranked 129th out of 183 countries in Transparency International's 2011 Corruption Perception Index...

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