Honduras and the Political Uses of the Drug War

Soon after the June coup in Honduras, the de facto government unleashed a vigorous PR campaign against ousted president Manuel Zelaya, accusing him of being involved in drug trafficking. This linking of Zelaya to drugs remained a prominent feature of the coup government’s propaganda during its seven-month reign, and offers an insight into the the many political uses of the drug war in the Americas, even to justify the overthrow of a democratically elected president.

Nikolas Kozloff and Bill Weinberg

Soon after the June overthrow in Honduras, the coup-installed, de facto government launched a vigorous PR campaign against ousted president Manuel Zelaya, accusing him of being involved in drug trafficking. The campaign began with a formal request to Interpol for an international arrest warrant on Zelaya and many of his officials. In addition to the usual charges of supposed constitutional violations, the request said the Zelaya administration had been involved in the illicit drug trade. Interpol declined to issue the warrant, citing sovereign immunity, and did not address the allegations. Still, linking Zelaya to drugs remained a prominent feature of the coup government’s propaganda during its seven-month reign.

The case against Zelaya reflects the multiple political uses of the drug war in the Americas. The Los Angeles Times reported in July, for example, that Cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga, the archbishop of Tegucigalpa and a prominent supporter of the coup, had urged the country’s attorney general to produce drug trafficking evidence against Zelaya. “My son,” the archbishop was reported as saying, “we need that proof. It’s the only thing that will help us now.”

At the same time, the coup-installed foreign minister, Enrique Ortez, claimed the government had proof that Venezuelan planes loaded with cocaine and cash had landed in Honduras with the Zelaya government’s knowledge. “Every night, three or four Venezuelan-registered planes land without the permission of appropriate authorities and bring thousands of pounds . . . and packages of money that are the fruit of drug trafficking,” Ortez told CNN en Español. “We have proof of all of this. Neighboring governments have it. The DEA has it.” Picking up on this, the de facto president, Roberto Micheletti, remarked later in July that “during our short period of being in power, no small plane has landed in the country loaded with drugs, which used to happen frequently.”

Just a few days after Micheletti’s comment, however, a cocaine-laden plane crashed on a highway in northern Honduras, the second such accident involving a drug-transporting plane since the coup. In October, the coup government’s head of national counter-narcotics, Julián Arístides González, admitted that the number of planes smuggling cocaine through Honduras had surged since the coup. In the foregoing month alone, he said, authorities had found 10 planes abandoned on runways and remote highways, compared with just four during the entire previous year. “These are the facts. The flights have intensified,” González told the Honduran paper La Tribuna. But he blamed the uptick on Washington’s suspension of drug war aid.

The DEA told the Associated Press it could neither confirm nor deny that it was investigating drug flights in Honduras under Zelaya. The U.S. State Department declared that official corruption in Honduras “continues to be an impediment to effective law enforcement, and there are press reports of drug trafficking and associated criminal activity among current and former government and military officials.”

Micheletti himself may have had ties to traffickers. On July 17, the Havana-based website Cuba Debate published a scanned version of what purports to be an undated document from the Honduran Defense Ministry that names one “Roberto Michelleti Bain” (with an evident misspelling) on a list of several Honduran nationals with international drug-trafficking connections. His “connection” is named as the Calí cartel, and his area of operations is named as Yoro. In the 1980s, when the Calí cartel was at its peak of power, Micheletti was a member of the local council in Honduras’s Yoro Department, which is near the Caribbean coast in the north of the country. He would later successfully run for Congress from Yoro.

Jean-Guy Allard, the author of the article, did not answer e-mails to clarify where he acquired the document implicating Micheletti in drug trafficking. This did not stop others from the left-leaning nations of the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas (ALBA) from repeating the accusations. In August, José Vicente Rangel, who has served in various high level posts within the government of Hugo Chávez, made reference to the Cuban report on Venezuelan TV.

Shifting Drug Policy did not Please Washington
Charges of complicity in narco-trafficking have long made for useful propaganda in Latin American political conflicts. Illegal drugs are such a major part of the region’s economies—right up there with oil, tourism, and legal agro-exports like coffee, beef, and bananas—that allegations of narco-corruption against anyone in the region’s power elite are never hard to find. But the question of which charges stick against which leaders, especially in the U.S. media, appears to have more to do with politics than fact.

The campaign to portray Zelaya as a drug trafficker partly rested on twisting his real position on drug policy, which evolved considerably during his time in power. In November 2008, during a regional meeting of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Tegucigalpa, Zelaya declared his support for the decriminalization of drug consumption and the shifting of the emphasis of anti-drug policy from interdiction to prevention. “Instead of pursuing drug traffickers,” Zelaya said, stunning the drug-war stalwarts in the Honduran government, “societies should invest resources in educating drug addicts and curbing their demand.” The president went a step further the next month, when he sent President-elect Obama a letter complaining of U.S. “interventionism” under cover of the drug war.

Zelaya’s new, enlightened position on drugs may have simply reflected a growing regional consensus against the militarized approach to addressing drug trafficking. Even such mainstream figures as Mexico’s ex-presidents Ernesto Zedillo and Vicente Fox and Brazil’s former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso have joined a growing chorus of Latin American politicians who have called for the decriminalization of marijuana as a first step in a redesigned, anti-trafficking policy.

Nonetheless, Zelaya’s new position also put him in league with countries like Bolivia and Venezuela that were seeking new, independent paths of development and were no longer willing to play by Washington’s rules. The Bush administration may have been taken aback by the country’s entry into ALBA in August 2008, and Zelaya’s desire to convert the U.S. airbase at Soto Cano into a civilian airport. The base has been used for Pentagon drug surveillance flights, and had housed thousands of U.S. troops in the 1980s.

With alarm bells going off within the Bush administration over Zelaya’s new policies, outgoing U.S. ambassador to Honduras Charles Ford fired a warning shot across the government’s bow, charging that a large portion of remittances sent by U.S.-based Hondurans back to their home country were the product of illicit drug trafficking. Speaking to local TV media, Ford declared that 30% of the remittances came from money laundering. He was joined in his criticism by his French counterpart in Honduras Laurent Dominati, who remarked that the Central American nation was in danger of becoming a “narco-state.”

Ford’s remarks caused a diplomatic firestorm. The Honduran foreign ministry shot back and said that the ambassador’s comments were unacceptable, and Ford left Tegucigalpa after three years of ambassadorial duty. And what was his next job? He served as diplomatic attaché for the U.S. Southern Command in Miami, charged with prosecuting the drug war in Latin America. In an interview with the Honduran daily La Prensa, Ford warned that “big people” from the Mexican, Guatemalan, and Colombian cartels had arrived in Honduras in recent years. It was up to the United States and its Latin American allies, Ford added, to counteract such influence through joint efforts like the Merida Initiative—the multibillion-dollar drug war aid package for Mexico and Central America.

Zelaya himself signed on to the initiative, which includes millions in military aid. In an effort to tone down tensions, he met with new U.S. ambassador Hugo Llorens to shore up the Merida plan. Zelaya was still critical of U.S. drug policy, however, and declared that Washington was not doing enough to help Honduras counteract violence and the cartels. Worse, Zelaya charged that the United States was the “chief cause” of drug smuggling in Latin America and the Caribbean. Why?, Zelaya asked. Because, he responded, the United States was a key drug consumer. Moreover, he charged, Ford had been “belligerent,” simply because Honduras pursued diplomatic relations with Caracas, Havana, and Managua. Although Honduras received U.S. aid, Zelaya said, this did not make his country a “vassal” of its northern benefactor.

Adding fuel to the fire, the television network Telemundo reported that Zelaya government officials could have been linked to Venezuelan and Colombian drug traffickers. The report fingered Héctor Zelaya, the president’s own son, as a possible mafioso. Seizing on the reports, Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, met with DEA officials to discuss drug trafficking in Honduras.

Honduran de facto authorities even claimed that Colombia’s FARC guerilla organization was financing Zelaya supporters. Given the FARC’s disarray in the face of the Colombian government’s U.S.-backed offensive, this seems highly improbable. Nonetheless, the Honduran attorney general’s office opened an investigation into whether Zelaya had funded demonstrations in support of Chávez with FARC-supplied drug money.

Writing in The Wall Street Journal August 10, columnist Mary Anastasia O’Grady cited a 2005 letter purportedly intercepted by Colombian authorities from the late FARC chief Raúl Reyes to another commander listing “political contacts.” One was apparently the Honduran Democratic Unification (UD) party—which, while not Zelaya’s party, was a key voice demanding his return. So not only was this evidence pretty far removed from Zelaya, but it meant little more than that Reyes sought to make use of the UD—even assuming the letter is real.

Drug Charges Against U.S. Allies Don't Stick
For some contrast, it is worth looking at the situation in the closest U.S. ally in South America—Colombia—where President Álvaro Uribe now hopes to open the country to permanent U.S. military bases. Somehow, evidence of Uribe’s ties to the cartels doesn’t seem to stick. In 2004, a single New York Timesstory noted the emergence of a 1991 report from the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) naming Uribe as a high-level operative of the Medellín cartel. The DIA report was released under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act to a D.C.-based research group called the National Security Archive. The report asserts that Uribe, then a senator from the department of Antioquia, was “dedicated to collaboration with the Medellín cartel at high government levels.” It named him as a “close personal friend” of cartel kingpin Pablo Escobar and claimed he helped Escobar secure his seat as an auxiliary congressman.

Both Uribe and the State Department denied the charge. But the National Security Archive’s Michael Evans said: “We now know that the DIA, either through its own reporting or through liaison with another investigative agency, had information indicating that Álvaro Uribe was one of Colombia's top drug-trafficking figures.” Further, there have been persistent claims that as chief of Colombia’s civil aviation authority in the late 1980s, Uribe protected drug flights. When he was governor of Antioquia between 1995 and 1997, paramilitary activity exploded in the department.

Even though the accusations against Uribe have a lot more substance than the accusations against Zelaya, Washington portrays the Colombian president as a key ally in the war on drugs and terrorism, boasting that his administration has extradited 150 accused traffickers to the United States, more than twice the number extradited during his predecessor's four-year term.

Another study in contrast is provided by Peru—second to Colombia as a U.S. ally and anti-drug aid recipient in South America. According to the latest report of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), coca cultivation fell in Colombia in 2008(after several years of growth) but rose 6% in Bolivia and 4.5% in Peru. Yet, Peru and Bolivia are treated entirely differently. While Washington has entered into a free trade agreement with Peru, it has just cut trade preferences with Bolivia—a move that could cost thousands of jobs in the country's export industries—on the grounds the government of Evo Morales was not doing enough to combat coca cultivation.

Meanwhile, ALBA leaders have said the drug spin about Zelaya has been, in fact, all backward: It is the drug smugglers themselves, they maintain, together with the CIA, the Pentagon, and Southern Command, who are really behind the coup in Honduras. Rafael Correa has voiced similar concerns about his own country. Recently, the Ecuadoran president said he had “intelligence studies showing that after Zelaya, the next destabilization effort would be me.”

“Honduras was not an isolated occurrence,” Correa said. “A de facto government which is so crude and insulting could not maintain itself without external assistance and it gets this help from powerful groups in the U.S. and the Latin American oligarchy.”

Correa has denounced a supposed domestic and international media campaign designed to destabilize his country and link him with FARC guerrillas in Colombia. In a video that surfaced in Colombia, a FARC leader named Jorge Briceño says that his organization helped to finance Correa’s presidential campaign in 2006. Correa believes the video is part of a right-wing strategy to destabilize progressive governments in the region. He has referred to the strategy as “clownish talk,” “idiocies,” and “barbarities” (cantinfladas, tonterías and barbaridades). But he said he would appoint a commission to investigate whether any member of his campaign received “even 20 centavos from any extremist group.”


Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave, 2008). Visit his website to see more of his work. Bill Weinberg is the author ofHomage to Chiapas: The New Indigenous Struggles in Mexico (Verso, 2000). He is the editor of the World War 4 Report.

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