Honduras: 300 police rifles “disappear” as drug running soars

Honduran police officials gave contradictory responses on Nov. 1 to a report published the day before about the disappearance of some 300 light automatic rifles (FAL, from the initials in Spanish) and 300,000 5.56-caliber bullets from a police unit. The weapons, which were in the control of the Cobras special operations police group, were taken from a Tegucigalpa warehouse in August or September; the Tegucigalpa daily El Heraldo broke the story on Oct. 31.

National Police spokesperson Silvio Inestroza insisted that this was an old case, referring to the similar disappearance of 186 weapons in 2007, also from a Cobras unit. But Police Internal Affairs director Simeón Flores said that a new arms theft had been reported two months earlier, and he asked why it hadn’t been investigated. José Ricardo Ramírez del Cid, the newly appointed head of the National Police, said that he didn’t know the details but that he had appointed a commission to study the matter. (Fox News Latino, Oct. 31; El Heraldo, Nov. 2)

Police director Ramírez had in fact only been in office since Oct. 31. Security Secretary Pompeyo Bonilla appointed him to replace José Luis Muñoz Licona following another police scandal: Tegucigalpa police chief Jorge Alberto Barralaga Hernández released four agents who are suspects in the murder of two university students; he told them to take a few days off and report back on Oct. 30. The four suspects never reappeared, and Barralaga Hernandez and Muñoz Licona were both dismissed. (Honduras Culture and Politics blog, Oct. 31)

Adding to the embarrassments for the government, on Oct. 30 the Associated Press wire service quoted an unnamed US law enforcement official who called Honduras “the number one offload point for traffickers to take cocaine through Mexico to the US.” An estimated 250 to 300 tons of cocaine are shipped from South America through Honduras each year, according to the AP article. Much of the cocaine comes by sea, but Honduras is also the region’s main center for smuggling drugs by air. The unnamed US official said that 79% of the drug flights from South America to the north land in Honduras.

Large numbers of people are reportedly involved in the trade, from the populations of impoverished fishing communities to corrupt soldiers. Drug traffickers stole a military plane from the San Pedro Sula army base earlier this year, according to Alfredo Landaverde, a former adviser to the Honduran security ministry; he claims that soldiers were involved in the crime. Rich landowners with property on the coast have also profited. The authorities “seized 13 luxurious homes and ranches and 17 boats” in a mass raid in the last week of October, according to the AP article. (AP, Oct. 30, via Miami Herald)

(One of the country’s richest landowners, cooking oil and food product magnate Miguel Facussé Barjum, may have been involved in three drug-related incidents at one of his properties in 2003 and 2004, according to a secret US diplomatic cable.)

Meanwhile, the country’s homicide rate more than doubled from 2005 to 2010, according to a United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report, “Global Study on Homicide 2011” (PDF). Honduras registered 82.1 homicides for every 100,000 people in the country in 2010, the highest rate per capita in the world. (Fox News Latino, Oct. 31)

A CID-Gallup poll from October found that 79% of Hondurans questioned consider violence and crime the country’s most important problems. Some 54% said the government of President Porfirio (“Pepe”) Lobo Sosa was the most corrupt in Honduran history, and 63% thought the president “never” or “almost never” does what is best for the people. Lobo won the presidency in November 2009 in a controversial election organized by a de facto government installed after former president José Manuel (“Mel”) Zelaya Rosales (2006-2009) was overthrown in a military coup. (Télam, Argentina, Oct. 28, via Terra.com; Honduras Culture and Politics, Oct. 31)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Nov. 6.

See our last posts on Honduras, the regional arms traffic, and Central America.