SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras — Even by the brazen standards of cocaine cowboys, what happened a few months ago at an air force base here set new levels for audacity: Drug traffickers snuck onto the heavily guarded base and retrieved a confiscated plane.
Confederates at the airbase had already fueled and warmed up the motors of the Beechcraft Super King Air 200, a workhorse of the cocaine trade. Within days, it would be again hauling dope from South America.
The stunt was a black eye for the Honduran military, and just one of many signs that parts of Central America have fallen into the maw of international organized crime, threatening decades of U.S. efforts to stanch the tidal wave of drugs headed to American cities and towns.
Washington has spent billions of dollars to help push drug cartels out of Colombia, and to confront them in Mexico. Now they've muscled their way into Central America, opening a new chapter in the drug war that almost certainly will exact further cost on U.S. taxpayers as American authorities confront drug gangs on a new frontier.
The extent of the infiltration is breathtaking. Drug cartels now control large parts of the countries of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, the so-called Northern Triangle of Central America. They've bought off politicians and police, moved cocaine processing laboratories up from the Andes, and are obtaining rockets and other heavy armament that make them more than a match for Central America's weak militaries.
Air Force Gen. Douglas Fraser, chief of the U.S. Southern Command in Miami, told a March 30 Pentagon news briefing that Central America "has probably become the deadliest zone in the world" outside of Iraq and Afghanistan. Homicide rates in cities such as San Pedro Sula in northern Honduras are soaring, making them as deadly as Mogadishu, Somalia, or the Taliban home base of Kandahar, Afghanistan.
The political influence of the drug gangs is burgeoning. One former member of Honduras' Council Against Drug Trafficking estimated that fully 10 percent of members of the Honduran congress have links to drug traffickers.
"The overall situation is alarming, definitely," said Antonio Luigi Mazzitelli, the head of the U.N. office on Drugs and Crime for Mexico and Central America.
The heavy footprint of the traffickers is visible everywhere.
A month ago in San Salvador, police arrested a 30-year-old man with five bags containing $818,840 in $20 bills. In September, Salvadoran authorities found a total of $15.7 million in cash buried at two locations outside the capital, San Salvador. Honduras seized $14.4 million in drug cash last year.
By many accounts, the tide of cocaine through the region has become a sea.
"We have evidence that about 42 percent of all cocaine flights that leave South America for the rest of the world go through Honduras. That's a pretty staggering number," U.S. Ambassador to Honduras Hugo Llorens said.
An accused Venezuelan drug lord, Walid Makled, told the Univision Spanish-language television network this month from his prison cell in Colombia that five to six aircraft loaded with cocaine leave Venezuela every day for Honduras.
Armed with bags of cash, narcos lure and enmesh politicians in the trade, using them to appoint complicit senior police and army officers to key posts.
Alfredo Landaverde, a onetime adviser to Honduras's security ministry and former member of the state Council Against Drug Trafficking, leaned back in his seat and reflected on the levels of corruption in the Honduran Congress.
"There are 16 current deputies who are drug traffickers," he calculated. "That's more than one-tenth of congress."
When things go awry in the drug business, blood can spatter across borders.
On Dec. 2, assailants armed with AK-47 assault rifles gunned down Honduran legislator Juan de Jesus Deras Madrid in Copan before fleeing across the nearby border with Guatemala. A few days later, three of the killers were themselves gunned down, Security Minister Oscar Alvarez said. Then on Feb. 24, a new commando arrived and killed Deras Madrid's brother.
Such executions combine military precision with cartel cruelty — a hallmark of Los Zetas, Mexico's most brutal criminal group. Both Los Zetas and its rival Sinaloa Cartel are heavily active in Central America, anti-drug officials said.
Indeed, Mexico's push to control the cartels, which has also turned that country into a killing field, is one reason for Central America's problems, according to El Salvador Defense Minister David Munguia Payes. The Mexican campaign "has generated new challenges for Central America in the sense that the cartels are pushing toward the south," he said.
That's brought a military complexion to the drug gangs.
The Zetas, formed more than a decade ago by deserters from Mexico's special forces, have links to rogue ex-commandos of Guatemala's special operations unit, the Kaibiles, in the northern Peten region. The Kaibiles have conducted military-style training for Zetas recruits, some of whom are members of streets gangs that sprawl across Central America, such as MS-13 and 18th Street.
"They have taken gang members to the Peten for training, and they have tried to recruit people from the army and the police," Munguia said. He estimated that as many as 20 gang members had taken the training.
"The situation could hardly be grimmer," Democratic U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont said March 31 in a speech on the Senate floor in which he urged U.S. support for Guatemalan judicial reform.
Drug gangs have penetrated "every facet of life" in Guatemala, he added.
Guatemala's police chief and anti-drug czar were both arrested on drug charges last year, and gunmen killed the Honduran drug czar in December 2009.
"We have reports of increased poppy cultivation in Guatemala," said Mazzitelli, referring to the flowering plant that's the source for opium and heroin. "Where does the expertise come from? It may come from Sinaloa."
In some ways, what unfolded after the theft of the twin-engine Beechcraft Super King Air 200 plane from the Armando Escalon air base in San Pedro Sula on the night of Nov. 7 was as instructive as the heist itself. The plane headed toward Venezuela, anti-narcotics officials said. Then it began hauling dope again.
Six days later, in the deep of the night, the same aircraft landed on the main highway in southern Belize, the makeshift runway lit by lanterns powered with car batteries. As the craft approached for landing, the crew pushed packages of cocaine out of the plane.
As it landed, however, one of the wings clipped a pine tree, damaging the plane so that it couldn't take off again. The crew, and their confederates on the ground who were prepared to refuel the aircraft, fled into the woods, leaving behind the plane, which was empty except for a few spent cans of Red Bull.
Five Belizean police officers near the landing site were arrested, allegedly in cahoots with the traffickers.
Rogue police and army officers, and weak security at army munitions depots still brimming from civil wars in the 1980s and early 1990s, are a growing concern. So is the vast power of cartels to corrode the pillars of government.
Trafficking groups in Guatemala originally thought they were strong enough to partner with Mexican cartels, according to a 2009 U.S. diplomatic cable obtained by McClatchy through WikiLeaks. But the Guatemalan narcos misjudged.
"The Guatemalan traffickers are now being forced to loan to the Mexicans their entire infrastructure — police, prosecutors, judges and members of Congress," the cable quotes one source as saying.
If such images are like pointillist dots in an oil painting of a region roiled by narcotics gangs, the broader picture has come into sharper focus since March 9.
That was the day when a U.S.-vetted Honduran police unit, acting on a tip, seized a full-fledged cocaine-processing laboratory in jungle terrain, the first ever such lab found in Central America.
The counternarcotics officials said chemicals found at the lab were sufficient to process eight tons of cocaine. Experts said other processing labs were likely scattered about Honduras.
Following further tips, police raided an industrial property in San Pedro Sula on March 17, finding containers of semi-refined coca paste awaiting processing, and an arsenal that included 39 light anti-tank weapons, 24 assault rifles and several rocket-propelled and hand grenades.
Mazzitelli said the discovery of the jungle lab and the coca paste augurs a major shift. Just as Colombian traffickers in the 1980s traveled to Bolivia and Peru to buy coca paste, setting up labs in their own country to refine it and smuggle it north, traffickers may be shifting again, he said.
Now, Central America may become the new Colombia, he said, and even Mexican crime groups fed up with violence at home will transfer operations.
"The seizure of the lab might indicate a process in which Mexican drug trafficking organizations bring coca paste . . . to Central America to refine and reship through new trafficking routes that bypass Mexico," Mazzitelli said. "If I were a drug trafficker, I would not risk moving stuff through Mexico . . . where there is a war for control of the territory."
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