Honduras Becomes U.S. Military Foothold for Central America

Alex Sánchez

When Honduran President Manuel Zelaya visited Washington this past June, he had two security-related requests for President Bush. The first was to convert the Colonel Enrique Soto Cano airbase (also commonly known as Palmerola) into a commercial air cargo terminal, while the second was to deploy U.S. Special Forces along the Mosquitia region in eastern Honduras to help combat drug-trafficking along the Caribbean coast.

At the time of President Zelaya’s visit, there were numerous media reports indicating that a military facility would be built in the Mosquitia with Washington aid that would, most likely, house some form of a U.S. military presence.

The U.S. has used the Soto Cano base for several decades, saddling it with a somewhat infamous record. During the 1980s, Palmerola was part of a sizeable tract of land, assigned on a de facto basis, which became known as the Nicaraguan Contras’ “unsinkable aircraft carrier.” From there, the U.S–backed irregulars launched raids into Nicaragua. The toll from this deadly sport of stalk and kill amounted to over 30,000 fatalities. Recently, there has been a growing debate about the facility’s future. If Soto Cano becomes a mixed-use civilian facility, it seems very likely that the Pentagon will move ahead to help create the proposed replacement facility along the Mosquitia coast, which would also have important anti-drug functions. Should the construction of the base and transfer of U.S. personnel come to pass, it is likely that its overarching role would be to support Honduras’ war against drug traffickers. More importantly, it is unclear what other U.S. security operations will take place at the air base under the rubric of safeguarding this country’s national interests. But it is instructive to remember that U.S. military ties usually do not come without long and very binding strings attached.

Honduras’ Cancer

The Honduran daily La Tribuna has quoted Colonel Alfonso Reyes Discua, commander of the Fifth Infantry Battalion based in the province of Gracias a Dios, as saying: “I believe that the Mosquitia is the main entry for drugs coming into Honduras.” The Mosquitia region, situated between the Caribbean and Nicaragua, is thinly populated, with barely 70,000 inhabitants living throughout the province of Gracias a Dios. The region contains dense rainforests and features very few roads and other means of communication to the rest of the country. This self-isolating topography has helped turn the Mosquitia into one of Honduras’ major in-flow points for drug trafficking. It is used by drug cartels to transport illicit substances coming from Colombia, Peru and Bolivia, into American and Canadian markets via Mexico. According to the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala, more than 100 tons of drugs destined for the U.S. pass through Honduras each year. La Tribuna has expanded its belief that drug-trafficking is the Mosquitia’s major issue.

To cope with drug flow of this magnitude, the Honduran police only has around 8,000 officers. This is a grossly insufficient figure, considering that the force also must confront an escalating wave of non drug-related murders and kidnappings. Drug-traffickers are often equipped with state-of-the-art technologies, often utilizing fast boats much faster than those employed by the country’s navy. This offers yet another example of how the Honduran security forces lack the resources to deal with the threat posed by the local as well as external drug mafias. The country’s armed forces, which number around 10,000, lately have been engaging in joint operations with the police. However, as the drug trafficking scenario in the Mosquitia exemplifies, the available number of security forces is too small and stretched too thin to adequately deal with these serious security issues.

The U.S. Military Presence

The U.S. has had a lasting presence in modern Honduras, primarily at the Soto Cano airbase, which has witnessed scores of human rights abuses during the 1980s. The American troops now stationed in Honduras are known as Joint Task Force Bravo (JTF-Bravo), a component of the U.S. Southern Command (Southcom), which was formed in 1983 under the original name of Joint Task Force 11. At that time, handsomely bribed Honduran officials closed their eyes to the fact that U.S.-backed insurgents were staging sorties into Nicaragua from Honduran territory, while Tegucigalpa concomitantly refused to acknowledge the covert ventures. It is not entirely clear how many U.S. troops were stationed at Soto Cano and other Honduran-based military installations during the 1980s. Conservative estimates place that number at anywhere between 2,000 to 5,000 troops, who were there as part of a training mission. The estimated number probably does not include former Green Beret forces as well as CIA operatives who served as advisers to the Contras.

John Negroponte’s Honduras

Among the U.S.-trained Honduran troops were members of the sinister Battalion 3-16, accused of scores of kidnappings and human rights abuses against Honduran anti-Contra dissidents. In 1999, the NACLA Report on the Americas announced that three mass graves and prison cells had been discovered at the former Contra military base of El Aguacate, near the Nicaraguan border. This facility had been built by U.S. troops in 1983. It is believed that the Contras used the gravesites to dispose of the prisoners they had executed on political grounds. Among the hundreds of dissidents who had disappeared during the Contra War was an American priest, Father James Francis Carney. In a January 1984 issue of The Nation, William LeoGrande, a professor at American University, explained that: “[Washington’s] efforts to destabilize Nicaragua have had the perverse effect of destabilizing Honduras, where civilian authorities have been reduced to rubber-stamping the militarization of their country under General Gustavo Alvarez Martinez.” Indeed, a strong argument can be made that very little good – if any at all – came out of the U.S. presence in Honduras during the 1980s. The alleged “communist threat” posed by the Sandinistas eventually cost 30,000 lives and caused economic ruin in both Nicaragua and Honduras, in what soon became a U.S.-induced civil war.

Today, Soto Cano houses between 350 to 500 U.S. troops belonging to the 612th Air Base Squadron and the 1st Battalion, 228th Aviation Regiment. Since the closing of the American facilities in Panama over the last decade, the U.S. has relied more and more on smaller bases across the hemisphere. These include Manta in Ecuador, Comalapa in El Salvador, as well as a comparable base in the island of Aruba. Still, Honduras’ Soto Cano continues to be the pillar of the U.S.’s Central American military presence. With the departure of the U.S. Army’s 228th Aviation Battalion from Fort Kobbe, Panama, many aviation assets of U.S. Army South (USARSO), Southcom’s army component, were moved to Soto Cano. These include a command and control element, CH-47 “Chinook” helicopters, as well as UH-60 “Blackhawk” and “Medevac” helicopters. Since the end of the 1980s, the troops serving at Soto Cano have often been used for disaster relief operations. A Joint Force Quarterly article proudly cited how JTF-Bravo aided the populations of Guatemala and Honduras after last year’s Hurricane Stan and Tropical Storms Beta and Gamma hit the region. The base has always been on Washington’s radar, as exemplified by President Clinton’s trip to the facility in March 1999, and the recent Bush-Zelaya discussions on its future.

The Future of Soto Cano and the Mosquitia

General Romeo Vázquez, chairman of the Honduran joint general staff, declared on July 15 that Honduras would be building, with U.S. assistance, a new military installation in the province of Gracias a Dios. According to Vázquez, the proposed base would house aircraft and fuel supplying systems. On July 23, the Honduran Defense Minister, Arístides Mejía, stated that what the government plans to build is not a military base so much as “a refueling facility to redirect our response capacity, together with the U.S., to the problems of drug trafficking.” In spite of these attempts at clarification, there are many skeptics who wonder what kind of facility will actually be constructed.

Given its isolated geographical position, the denseness of the rainforest that would surround it and the scant population in the immediate surroundings, large numbers of troops could be housed there in relative obscurity. The future fate of a new facility in the Mosquitia will in large part be determined by Washington’s intentions for the region, as well as by the intended uses of Soto Cano. If it is converted into Tegucigalpa’s new international airport or a mixed-use facility, Soto Cano’s strong points cannot be denied. The facility is located in the commercially strategic, central department of Comayagua, which is an important area for agricultural production.

Many would like to see the base replace Toncontín as Tegucigalpa’s international airport, which already is too small to accommodate some of the larger commercial aircraft now using it. However, it is uncertain if a decision will be made anytime soon regarding the future of the project. On October 9, Mejía observed that it would require a huge amount of work to convert the military airbase into a commercial airport. He estimated that these costs could range between L$1.9bn and L$3.8bn (US$100m-US$200m) and would take much longer than initially thought.

Various Strategies at Work in Honduras

Should plans move forward to turn Soto Cano into a commercial airline hub, it is unclear what the U.S. military will do to restructure its presence in the region. Withdrawing from the country would be out of the question, due to Washington’s geostrategic interests and the extremely cooperative attitude of Honduran officials. A former U.S. diplomat who requested anonymity was interviewed by COHA and asked if a continuous presence in Palmerola was really a vital necessity for the U.S. in the post-Cold War world. He replied: “Probably not, but is there strong opposition to keeping it, and if so from whom and why? … I can’t imagine that today it has any strategic significance, or that it’s essential to U.S. defense.” This would be particularly the case given the combat missions that already have been assigned to U.S. Air Force resources stationed in Puerto Rico and Southern Florida that were only minutes away from major regional centers.

It is more likely that Washington will push for the construction of a new base in the Mosquitia, to which the Zelaya administration is almost certain to enthusiastically endorse. This would occur for two reasons: the Mosquitia is an isolated area, where the construction of a military facility would cause little, if any, clashes with local civilian interests. In addition, Tegucigalpa probably would want a base in the Mosquitia region in any case, if only to deal with local drug trafficking activity. It would be too costly for a poor Central American nation such as Honduras to build and operate such a major military facility on its own. It would be more cost-effective to accept Washington aid in exchange for joint use in carrying out the two countries’ anti-drug efforts.

Ironically, area experts such as former U.S. diplomat Ernesto Uribe do not view a U.S. military presence in the Mosquitia as making an important contribution. He explains that: “In order for a U.S. military presence to be effective, they would need about as many troops as they have in Afghanistan. There is simply no military solution to the drug war. The problem with drugs is the demand for them in the U.S. You put a blocking unit in Mosquitia and the drug operations will go above or around the Mosquitia. An increased military presence in that swampy terrain would be useless.”

The fate of Zelaya’s other request – the dispatching of U.S. special forces to the country – is still pending. Washington will most likely be very interested in this possibility, given that the U.S. military does not have many choices for comparable access elsewhere in the region.

Regional Politics and Inevitable Spats

Another issue is how this “refueling facility” will affect regional politics, namely relations between Honduras and Nicaragua. Managua traditionally has been wary of any U.S. military presence in the region, a legacy of the Contra-Sandinista war. With the respectable showing of Sandinista candidate Daniel Ortega in the just-concluded presidential elections, this issue will likely involve bi-partite discussion in the near future. In a démarche that will hardly improve relations between Managua and Tegucigalpa, Mejía declared that his government had not gone out of its way to formally notify Nicaragua about the proposed Mosquitia facility. He argued that since it was really not a base, there had been no need to inform Nicaragua under the terms of existing confidence-building agreements.

Even without the U.S. military factor at work, Honduras and Nicaragua have had to face continuous mutual security issues. The most recent tensions stem from Managua reports alleging Honduran military incursions into Nicaragua’s southern stretch of the Coco River. Other sources of tension arise from Tegucigalpa’s decision last February to add 4,000 troops to its armed forces, as well as an additional 1,000 police officers. Moreover, Nicaragua’s armed forces have destroyed its inventory of anti-air missiles, while Honduras has yet to do so. The continuous strengthening of the Honduran military is being viewed as a significant security threat by Managua. More U.S. military aid, akin to that provided during the 1980s, would only create more insecurity along a border which repeatedly has witnessed armed conflict in recent decades. Ortega’s electoral victory, as well as the potential U.S military presence to be located in the Mosquitia can be counted on to heighten Tegucigalpa-Managua tensions in the near future.

The Future after Rumsfeld

It remains to be seen how U.S.- Latin American security relations will be affected by the departure of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. During his tenure, Rumsfeld persistently promoted a greater U.S military presence in Latin America and clamored for stepped-up military ties. As the centerpiece of his hawkish policies, he increasingly labeled Venezuela a “rogue” state that the U.S. and its regional allies had to rally against. In order to achieve this, Rumsfeld repeatedly visited the region in search for allies and a more aggressive policy. Last month, he attended the three-day Western Hemisphere’s Defense Ministers Conference held in Managua, where he emphasized the necessity of regional cooperation, particularly towards combating drug trafficking. Rumsfeld also declared that: “I can understand neighbors being concerned, and I guess each country has to make a judgment as to what they do, how they invest their money, what they purchase.” This was clearly a reference to Venezuela’s military expenditures (including automatic weapons from the Russian Federation), which have been viewed by Washington with considerable unrest.

While Washington defense officials see Caracas as a potential security threat to its neighbors, some would argue that Venezuelan officials could make the same accusations regarding Rumsfeld’s actions in the region. Under Rumsfeld, the U.S. significantly expanded its military presence and ties throughout the hemisphere. On August 2005, he was the first U.S. Defense Secretary to visit Paraguay. The trip was widely regarded as connected to the ongoing U.S. military exercises (13 in total from July 2005 to the present). It has been widely speculated that these talks may have involved the consideration of permanent bases that could signify a more permanent American military presence in Paraguay. Rumsfeld later visited Peru during his South American tour in order to court then-president Alejandro Toledo. Rumsfeld also was after gaining more support for the ill-reputed, Brazilian-led MINUSTAH mission in Haiti.

An Expansive Rumsfeld

“I can’t imagine why Venezuela needs 100,000 AK-47s,” Rumsfeld told reporters in Brasília during a March 2005 joint news conference, in regards to the proposed Venezuelan purchase of rifles from the Kremlin. Rumsfeld may have grounds to criticize such a transaction, but he lacked consistency when he neglected to comment on the numerous Chilean military purchases. These have led to the beginning of what may well be a multinational arms race, raising already mounting security concerns in Lima and La Paz. On October 22, the Chilean daily El Mercurio reported the first batch of 100 Humvee all-terrain vehicles had arrived, purchased by Santiago as part of its aggressive military modernization campaign. According to the report, the Chilean army plans to buy over 200 Humvees and upgrade them with 106mm guns and a battlefield missile system. Chile also purchased a squadron of Lockheed F-16s raising concerns regarding its growing air force. If Rumsfeld was so concerned with the de-stabilizing effects of aggressive weapon purchases by a western hemisphere nation, he could have used the same language to object to Chile’s recent purchases with equal justification.

Rumsfeld is known to be a strong supporter of maintaining a U.S. presence in Soto Cano, and would have probably advocated moving Palmolera’s operations to the Mosquitia site if necessary. With his resignation, it is not entirely clear if Washington will continue to prioritize the maintenance of a noticeable footprint in the area, especially if it serves, apart from responding to natural disasters with relief assistance, very little purpose. Former officials such as Uribe point out that there is little need for the U.S. to maintain a presence at Soto Cano in the post-Cold War world.

In theory, an American military presence could help Honduras’ anti-drug efforts by fortifying the country’s ability to deploy its resources more effectively. Washington’s strategy to battle drug trafficking is to destroy trade routes and processing facilities. But what some see as an ideal scenario might not easily become a reality. Should a base be opened in the Mosquitia, the U.S. will demand autonomy concerning operations it carries out from there – something that the Zelaya government would be incapable, or at least not inclined, to prevent. In any case, as the aforementioned diplomat noted: “The U.S. military supports the Drug Enforcement Agency and other civilian U.S. government anti-narcotics efforts, but doesn’t have the lead role.” As Uribe sees it, an option would be to turn over Soto Cano “to the Honduran Armed Forces and [for them to be] given a yearly grant to maintain the runways and ground facilities in case the U.S. ever needs to use it.”


Alex Sánchez is a Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) in Washington, D.C. This analysis originally appeared on the COHA Web site.

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