Honduras is one of the most important drug trafficking operation centers between South America and Mexico. With all of its branches of government and its armed forces plagued by corruption, Honduras has evolved into a transit nation in which criminal groups, protected by the political system, have developed the capacity to produce cocaine hydrochloride in local laboratories.
Since the end of the last decade, political protection has allowed the traditional drug trafficking groups to flourish. Testimony provided by drug traffickers and Honduran politicians on trial in the United States have revealed the deep-seated connection between organized crime and the governing National Party.
Control of illegal activities in Honduras lies in the hands of local criminal groups connected with the country’s political and economic elite. The judicial system suffers from political intervention and corruption, as well as a lack of transparency and capacity. Meanwhile, the Honduran police has proven to be one of the most corrupt public institutions and that generates the most distrust in Latin America, and the Army has also been accused of participating in criminal activities. The National Party, in power since 2010, has increasingly delegated police surveillance functions to the Army, particularly in the fight against gangs, like MS13 and Barrio 18. The government of Juan Orlando Hernández started an effort to purge the police force in 2016.
Honduras, the second-largest country in Central America, is bordered by Guatemala to the west, El Salvador to the southwest and Nicaragua to the southeast. The country has a long coastline in the Caribbean and access to the Pacific Ocean via the Gulf of Fonseca in the south.
The remote, forested northeastern Mosquitia region and small islands off the Caribbean coast have become prime landing spots for drug flights and boat shipments coming from Colombia, South America’s main cocaine producer. Large swathes of the country’s forests have been cleared by drug traffickers to build air strips and create money laundering opportunities. Honduras’ largely unmanned border with Guatemala is an important crossing point for contraband products and drugs.
Gangs are concentrated in the country’s largest urban areas, including the capital Tegucigalpa, the economic hub of San Pedro Sula and the Caribbean coastal city of La Ceiba.
Honduras became an independent country in 1838. Its first half-century of existence was characterized by tensions between political factions. Beginning in the early 1900s, the United States became heavily involved in Honduras, including by deploying US soldiers, as US companies invested heavily in the banana industry, transforming Honduras into a so-called “banana republic.”
Political turmoil and severe economic struggles based in large part on the country’s reliance on exports fueled a military revolt in 1957, which paved the way for several decades of military rule marked by a series of scandals, a bloodless coup and a brief war with neighboring El Salvador. From the 1970s to the 1990s, Honduras was an island of relative stability in the region as its Central American neighbors — Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador — were rocked by civil wars. But as one of the poorest Latin American countries surrounded by war, Honduras became vulnerable to corruption and organized crime.
Throughout the 1980s, Honduras was used as a trampoline for the movement of all types of illicit goods, from drugs to weapons and contraband — even after the wars ended, these trafficking routes would remain.
The US government, focused on fighting what it considered a burgeoning communist threat in the region, used Honduras as a hub for supporting anti-communist fighters in El Salvador and Nicaragua, even establishing training and attack bases along the country’s borders. Honduras became increasingly militarized during this time, setting the stage for traditional economic powers to be eclipsed by a new elite class.
During this time, Honduras’ first major international drug trafficker, Juan Ramón Matta Ballesteros, set up an underworld “Honduran bridge” between Mexico’s emerging Guadalajara Cartel and Colombia’s Medellín Cartel to facilitate the northern transport of cocaine into the United States. Matta Ballesteros relied on ties to the highest levels of power in Honduras, particularly within the military, and owned legitimate businesses in the country. The US government even contracted Matta Ballesteros’ airline company to shuttle aid and weapons to Nicaragua’s secretly US-funded “Contras,” who were fighting against the left-wing Sandinista government.
In 1985, Matta Ballesteros became one of the most-wanted men in the region when he and the Guadalajara Cartel allegedly tortured and killed US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent Enrique Camarena. In 1988, Matta Ballesteros was arrested by US Marshals in Honduras and extradited to the United States where he was convicted of kidnapping and remains incarcerated.
The 1990s were marred by rising crime and violence, corruption, economic crisis and environmental devastation caused by Hurricane Mitch, one of the worst storms in history to strike the Western hemisphere.
In the early 2000s, Honduras experienced a new surge in drug trafficking and other illicit activity. As Mexican drug trafficking organizations gained more control over the distribution chain, Central America’s importance rose. Local trafficking groups emerged across Honduras, the most important of which were the Cachiros in the northeastern Caribbean coastal department of Colón, and the Valles in the western Copán province bordering Guatemala. These organizations worked with other Honduran crime bosses such as business magnate and trafficker José Natividad “Chepe” Luna and drug trafficker José Miguel “Chepe” Handal, as well as international groups like the Sinaloa Cartel.
President Manuel Zelaya took office in 2006 with promises to tackle crime and implement social programs. But in 2009, Zelaya was ousted in a military coup after calling for a constitutional referendum to pave the way for his reelection. Criminal groups have taken advantage of the resulting political turmoil, as well as corruption within the country’s security forces and elite class, to expand their activities.
In the 2010s, Honduras’ homicide rate skyrocketed, peaking in 2011 and slowly declining since. The primary drivers of this violence are gangs like the Barrio 18 and MS13, which concentrate their criminal activities in urban areas and recruit young people, many of whom are suffering from widespread economic inequality and a lack of opportunity. These gangs, also present in Guatemala and El Salvador, often exert influence over entire neighborhoods, imposing their own order, demanding extortion payments from businesses and residents, and running local drug sales and kidnapping rings.
Since 2003, Honduras has pursued an “iron fist” security strategy against gangs. These policies, which did not address the root causes of gang membership or provide rehabilitation for gang members, have led to an increase in the prison population and burdened Honduras’ already stumbling penal system.
The National Party has maintained control of the presidency since the 2009 coup, first with President Porfirio Lobo Sosa and then with President Juan Orlando Hernández’s election in 2013 and controversial re-election in 2017, which was marred by fraud allegations.
In 2010, the United States designated Honduras as a major drug transit country for the first time. Since then, drug trafficking activities have intensified in the region, driven in part by a boom in Andean cocaine production. Honduras has cooperated closely with the United States on combating drug trafficking in recent years. In May 2014, Carlos “El Negro” Lobo became the first Honduran drug trafficker to be extradited to the United States. A number of other high-profile criminal suspects have subsequently been extradited, and several have provided information to US authorities as part of plea agreements.
This cooperation has at times sparked controversy. In 2012, several anti-drug raids conducted with assistance from US law enforcement allegedly involved unjustified uses of deadly force, including one incident in which a number of civilians were killed.
On the other hand, there is increasingly more evidence of the close relationship between the National Party administrations and organized crime. The most emblematic case is that of Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernández, the bother of the sitting president, who was found guilty on cocaine and arms trafficking charges in a US court in October 2019. Tony Hernández acted as a link between the government and various drug trafficking groups, like Los Valle, Los Cachiros and the Atlantic Cartel.
Several high-ranking officials within the country’s armed forces have also had links to drug trafficking. For example, Juan Carlos “Tigre” Bonilla, the former director of the National Police who served under the administration of Porfirio Lobo (2009-2013), was accused by the United States of abusing his authority and protecting drug shipments, as well as consping in the murder of a rival drug trafficker.
President Hernández himself has been mentioned in US court documents. In March 2020, when the United States arrested the drug trafficker Geovanny Fuentes, prosecutors from the Southern District of New York reported that the president and his brother Tony had been protecting a laboratory, located in the Cortés department, capable of producing between 200 and 500 kilograms of cocaine per month.
Meanwhile, corruption has been endemic in the country. In 2016, public protests against corruption led to the creation of the Mission to Support the Fight Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (Misión de Apoyo contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras – MACCIH), which is backed by the Organization of American States (Organización de Estados Americanos – OEA).
La MACCIH worked with a specialized unit within the Honduran Attorney General’s Office to reveal the existence of embezzlement networks involving hundreds of officials across the spectrum of political parties. They also uncovered a scheme to divert money destined for social programs to electoral campaigns, including those of Juan Orlando Hernández. The scheme was run by the president’s late sister, Hilda Hernández.
Nevertheless, at the end of 2019, the Honduran Congress issued a recommendation to disband the MACCIH. The mission left the country in January 2020 and a few months later, several of the most emblematic cases started to be buried.
Honduras’ most important criminal organizations have largely been dismantled over the last decade, with the arrests of their top leaders and their extraditions to the United States. Nevertheless, testimony given by these criminal bosses during their trials has provided evidence of their continued operations in the country and its penetration into the highest spheres of political power.
The former leader of the Cachiros Cartel, Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga, alleged in his testimony that he operated with the assistance or complicity of various political and economic elites. He even alleged bribing Tony Hernández.
The drug trafficking organization Los Valle, that allegedly trafficked several tons of cocaine per month to the United States from the Guatemalan border, has also almost been dismantled, with various members tried and prosecuted in the United States. Nevertheless, field investigations conducted by InSight Crime between 2019 and 2020 found that remnants of the group continue to operate.
The Atlantic Cartel was another important group at the beginning of the century. The group is presumed to have operated under the protection of military agents, police and judges. Its leader, Wilter Neptalí Blanco, was arrested in Costa Rica in November 2016. As of July 2017, he has agreed to collaborate with the US criminal justice system.
On the other hand, several politicians on the local level – primarily associated with the National Party – have been linked to these structures, and it is presumed that they may have inherited the drug trade once the traditional kingpins were extradited. In El Paraíso, Copán, for example, former mayor Alexander Ardón controlled the drug trade from his municipality to Guatemala. In the remote region of La Mosquitia, a political clan formed by the Paisano Wood brothers operated a drug trafficking network in order to receive cocaine shipments and send them to the border with Guatemala. These types of examples of collusion between politicians and criminal actors, are repeated in various regions around the country, such as in Yoro, Lempira and Olancho.
Finally, the primary gangs present in Honduras are MS13 and Barrio 18, which operate mainly in urban areas like Tegucigalpa or San Pedro Sula or in rural areas close to the border with El Salvador, where they find a safe haven. Both gangs are dedicated to extortion and micro-trafficking and maintain an important control within the country’s penitentiaries.
Honduras’ national police force is overseen by the Secretary of Security, which had 18,770 agents in 2020 and ambitious plans to reach 26000 by 2022. The National Police is responsible for avoiding and investigating crimes in Honduras, and consists of the National Preventive Police and different special units focused on anti-gang and anti-narcotics operations, investigations, intelligence and community police. The police also work in coordinations with an anti-crime task force, known as the FUSINA, that includes prosecutors and soldiers.
Honduran police have been known as know of the most corrupt forces in the region. Honduran police agents have been accused of one of the greatest varieties of criminal activities, that include corruption, passing information to criminal groups, letting drug shipments pass through without inspection, protecting drug trafficking activities and participating in violent criminal operations, and in some cases even directing them. At the beginning of 2016, Honduras created a commission for purging the police following revelations that leading members of the police had participated in the 2009 murder of the country’s drug czar. Unlike previous efforts to purge the police force, the commission made some early progress, reviewing hundreds of senior officials and discharging thousands of agents from the institution. The commission’s mandate remains in force and by January 2020 more than 6,000 agents had been removed. Nevertheless, scandals involving relations between organized crime and police leadership have put the commission’s legitimacy into question.
Honduras has militarized the fight against organized crime in recent years, granting police surveillance authority to the military in 2011 and creating an elite military police force in 2013. President Hernández’s administration has deployed thousands of military police personnel since 2014, which has reportedly led to human rights violations, including kidnapping.
By 2015, the Honduran Army, managed by the Ministry of National Defense, had around 24,000 active members within its forces, including the armed forces, navy and military police. Under Honduras’ constitution, the Ministry of Defense may call on the army to support operations against terrorism, arms and drug trafficking. However, there have been accusations of collusion between senior officials and criminal groups for drug trafficking purposes.
Honduras’ highest judicial body is the Supreme Court of Justice, which includes chambers for constitutional, criminal and civil cases. Below this are an appeals court, first instance trial courts for criminal and civil cases, and municipal and district-level justices of the peace. Honduras has an Attorney General’s Office (Fiscalía General) that functions as part of the independent Public Ministry (Ministerio Publico) and handles criminal investigations.
Honduras’ judiciary is widely considered to be weak, ineffective and highly corrupt. The selection processes for Supreme Court magistrates and Attorney General have both been subject to manipulation by members of Congress, many of whom have been implicated in corruption scandals. The World Justice Project’s 2017-2018 Rule of Law Index ranked Honduras as one of the countries with the most corrupt and least effective criminal justice systems in Latin America and the Caribbean. Given the weakness of Honduras’ judiciary, many high-profile drug trafficking suspects have been extradited to the United States.
The internationally-backed MACCIH supported the Attorney General’s Office in its corruption investigations from 2016 until 2019, when Congress voted to end its mandate.
Honduras’ overburdened prison system is overseen by the National Penitentiary Institute (Instituto Nacional Penitenciario- INP) and administered by the National Police – and in some prisons – the Armed Forces. In September 2019, prisons in Honduras were reportedly operating at 204% above their capacity, despite the reforms of 2014, which sought to reduce issues with overcrowding. Detainees in pre-trial detention represent more than half of the prison population and often face abuses and are denied the rights to due process.
The country’s overcrowded and under budget prison systems are affected by riots, homicides and deplorable conditions. This chronic dysfunction has also allowed inmates to escape. Between October 2019 and August 2020, at least 50 prisoners died during brawls and riots, as well as targeted killings.
Prisons have become centers of criminal activity for gangs due to authorities’ lack of control in many facilities. The Honduran government tried to counter the gangs’ power within the prisons in 2017 by transferring hundreds of gang members to maximum security facilities that had recently been constructed, supposedly offering greater controls. Nevertheless, instances of violence within these facilities in 2020, made it evident that these prison dynamics are recreated even under greater controls, as gang members can continue corrupting security guards to pass them contraband, like drugs and high calibre weapons.