TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) — On Honduras' swampy Mosquitia coast, entire villages have made a way of life off the country's massive cocaine transshipment trade. In broad daylight, men, women and children descend on passing go-fast boats to offload bales of cocaine destined for the United States.
Along the Atlantic coast, the wealthy elite have accumulated dozens of ranches, yachts and mansions from the drug trade.
And in San Pedro Sula, local gangs moving drugs north have spawned armies of street-level dealers whose violence has given the rougher neighborhoods of the northern industrial city a homicide rate that is only comparable to Kabul, Afghanistan.
Long an impoverished backwater in Central America, Honduras has become a main transit route for South American cocaine.
"Honduras is the number one offload point for traffickers to take cocaine through Mexico to the U.S.," said a U.S. law enforcement official who could not be quoted by name for security reasons. A U.S. State Department report released in March called Honduras "one of the primary landing points for South American cocaine."
Almost half of the cocaine that reaches the United States is now offloaded somewhere along the country's coast and heavily forested interior — a total of 20 to 25 tons each month, according to U.S. and Honduran estimates.
Authorities intercept perhaps 5 percent of that, according to calculations by The Associated Press based on official estimates of flow and seizures.
The flow is hard to stem, said Alfredo Landaverde, a former adviser to the Honduran security ministry, because there are few other sources of cash income here.
"We have to recognize that this society is very vulnerable," Landaverde said. "This is a country permeated by corruption, among police commanders, businessmen, politicians."
The country's isolated, impoverished Atlantic coast, remote ranches and largely unguarded border with Guatemala — where much of the cocaine is taken — also make it a haven for traffickers.
"When the traffickers are unloading a go-fast boat in (the Atlantic coast province of) Gracias a Dios, you can sometimes see 70 to 100 people of all ages out there helping unload it," said the U.S. law enforcement official. "The traffickers look for support among local populations."
In the past year, authorities seized 12 tons of cocaine, according to the Honduran government — a vast improvement from previous years, but still a small portion of the estimated 250 to 300 tons that come through annually.
Most of the cocaine arrives in Honduras via the sea, in speedboats, fishing vessels and even submersibles. In July, the U.S. Coast Guard, with Honduras' help, detained one such craft that had been plying the waters with about 5 tons of cocaine per trip.
Fishermen who once worked catching lobster now look instead for a much more prized catch, the so-called "white lobster" — bales of cocaine jettisoned by drug traffickers to either escape detection or to be picked up by another boat.
Honduras is also by far the region's biggest center for airborne smuggling. Of the hundreds of illicit flights northward out of South America, 79 percent land in Honduras, said the U.S. official. Ninety-five percent of those flights hail from Venezuela, which also has become a link for cocaine produced elsewhere.
Landing aircraft in Honduras was once so profitable and planes so easy to get that traffickers would sometimes simply offload the drugs and burn the aircraft, rather than take off again from dangerously rudimentary clandestine landing strips.
Last year, however, they started reusing the planes to ferry loads of bulk cash back to Colombia, the U.S. State Department report said. Authorities found one load of $9 million in U.S. cash stuffed in plastic bags in the trunk of a car, and millions at a time in suitcases at local airports.
Earlier this year, as aircraft became more difficult to obtain, traffickers stole a military plane from the San Pedro Sula army base on the Atlantic coast, said Landaverde, adding that soldiers were accomplices to the theft.
"The plane is left outside," he said. "Some guys turn it on and take off. Nobody leaves a plane like that, ready to fly." In fact, one of the soldiers involved in that incident was later arrested in September with other ex-soldiers as they allegedly waited to meet a drug flight on the country's Atlantic coast.
It is not just poverty-stricken fishermen and corrupt soldiers who are the beneficiaries of the emergent cocaine republic. Last week, authorities seized 13 luxurious homes and ranches and 17 boats in the first such mass raid since the country enacted a drug-properties seizure law in 2010. All were owned by local people.
Key members of the region's business community who have hotel, real estate and retail holdings have been named as associates of the cartels, often for money laundering. Nor are the drug trade's ripple effects restricted to the coast.
Copan, a Guatemalan border province popular with tourists because of its Mayan ruins, is a lawless area dominated by business interests tied to the drug trade, said a radio station owner who asked not to be quoted by name for security reasons.
"These people move without shame in politics and the business world," the station owner said. "They are involved in large-scale businesses in tourism. This region has been separated from the nation's territory. It is their lair."
At the other end of the economic spectrum are local street gangs, who are often paid in drugs as well as cash to move drugs north. Their ranks are growing and competition among them has pushed up the country's escalating homicide rate to one of the highest in the world.
The country of 7.7 million people saw 6,200 killings in 2010. That's the equivalent of 82.1 homicides per 100,000 people — well above the 66 per 100,000 in neighboring El Salvador.
Others are becoming players in the bulk trade, the U.S. official said, remarking that, "Lately, we've seen some gangs that will purchase the cocaine and resell it."
The high volume of drugs coupled with the alarming homicide rate is tough to address in a nation where many police and army officers are working with drug gangs.
Corrupt law enforcement officials had a fierce foe in the person of former Honduran Security Minister Oscar Alvarez, who was fired by President Porfirio Lobo in September after proposing a law to purge the police force of corrupt cops.
Alvarez had said publicly that some corrupt police essentially act as air traffic controllers for the drug flights. When a suspected drug flight was detected in August, Alvarez was quoted by a local newspaper as saying that two police officials not assigned to the district were in the area — their cellphone signals were traced to the control tower where the plane landed.
Alvarez claimed he was fired because of his campaign to clean up the police force, saying, "It was easier to get rid of a minister than to get rid of a corrupt cop."
But his replacement, Pompeyo Bonilla, said that given Honduras' highly protective labor laws, a mass firing of police officers probably would have been quickly followed by the reinstatement of many.
He also claimed that Alvarez overstepped his authority by sending his proposed police cleanup law to congress without even telling Lobo.
"The president heard about it on television," Bonilla said.
Alvarez, who left for the United States soon after his dismissal, was not available for an interview, according to an unidentified woman who answered his U.S. cellphone number.
U.S. Ambassador Lisa Kubiske said she expects to work well with Bonilla. "President Lobo's administration is totally serious about fighting the cartels," Kubiske said. "When you talk to them, counternarcotics is almost the first word out of their mouths."
Alvarez was accustomed to dropping bombshells, including the claim that fugitive Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman had visited Honduras' border region next to Guatemala.
In March, police under Alvarez's command raided a remote mountain lab in northeastern Honduras. Alvarez said the lab processed cocaine from the paste of partly processed coca leaves, the first time that would have been done outside South America and an ominous development for Honduras. The lab, however, had apparently not yet been put to use.
Bonilla said the lab was a small one, quickly dismantled, and no other such lab has been discovered in Honduras. "We are rather more a transit route" than a producer or processor, Bonilla said.
Some doubt the lab was intended to process coca paste; it may have been simply dedicated to cutting and repackaging imported cocaine, which is usually cut many times before it reaches the street.
"We haven't seen any evidence of cocaine processing taking place in Honduras so far," the U.S. official said, adding, "Twelve thousand kilos of cocaine were seized in Honduras this year, and we haven't seen a single ounce of cocaine paste."
Associated Press writer Luis Alonso in Washington contributed to this report.
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