Drug traffickers provide jobs in the countryside while a new president struggles with public security and a bankrupt government, Samuel Logan comments for ISN Security Watch.By Samuel Logan for ISN Security Watch
When Porfirio Lobo Sosa took office as the new president of Honduras on 27 January, the country's treasury was down to its last $50 million. The absence of international support during the interim presidency of Roberto Micheletti had left Honduras bankrupt.
Now, as Lobo moves his administration into position to repair the Central American country, economics looms large, yet it remains in the shadow of a much more pressing concern. Security reckons at the top of the new president's agenda, but a limited budget will only take him as far as enforcing public security in urban centers, leaving much of the rest of the country to fend for itself.
The Honduran military forced Lobo's predecessor, Manuel Zelaya, out of office on 28 June 2009, in a move that many governments considered illegal and a threat to Honduran democracy. By September, Zelaya had snuck back into the country. Housed in the Brazilian embassy, he waged an ultimately unsuccessful political battle for his presidency.
Micheletti transferred executive power to Lobo in late January after he won the November 2009 elections, which had been scheduled prior to the quasi coup d'etat.
Now, with Zelaya in exile, and the military absolved of guilt, Lobo has made significant steps toward normalizing relations with a host of patron nations, which up to Zelaya's ouster had provided Honduras with much needed financial aid.
On 8 February, Lobo spoke with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and soon after promoted the conversation as a significant step toward normalizing relations with Washington. A truth commission to help air the grievances of a stress-fractured nation seems to be the final step before Washington fully normalizes its relationship with Lobo, likely bringing in its wake offers of aid from the World Bank, currently headed by Robert Zoellick, former US trade representative, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
At home, Lobo has decreed austerity measures to ease the pressure on his thin government coffers, recently announcing a 20 percent cut across the board in government spending. Most departments will be effected, with the exception of the National Police.
Lobo knows public security is a priority, and on the first day of office, 27 January, Honduran National Police executed a nationwide raid that concluded in a number of arrests and netted long-barrel weapons and a grenade launcher in San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa.
Still, drug trafficking rages on in Honduras, where last December the country's top anti-narcotics cop was shot dead. During the course of 2009, agents with the National Directorate Against Drug Trafficking (DNLCN), Honduras' version of the US Drug Enforcement Administration, seized some 7.3 tons of cocaine, with over half entering the country through clandestine flights that landed largely in the Caribbean and northeastern regions of the country, where authorities counted at least 40 so-called narco flights in 2009.
Apart from a strong showing out of the gate, Lobo is likely to have a limited impact on improving his countrymen's perception of public security. For many Hondurans, this will be a serious problem, but there are some who would benefit from more drug trafficking, not less.
So many flights landed in remote areas of Honduras in 2009 that a cottage industry sprang up to provide pilot housing, plane refueling and off-loading of narcotics. In Warunta and Samil, the two local communities where many flights continue to land, most families live from supporting the drug trade, according to local media.
One local who worked for the men who traffic cocaine from Colombia to Mexico in that part of Honduras told local press that "we live from this [work], and we know it is not legal but it is something that we have to do to survive."
Other locals from the area reported that families from nearby communities had moved to their area because of a demand for more help. Locals can earn between $20 and $500 for off-loading or re-fueling flights, or preparing a clandestine runway by using a generator to line the airstrip with lights, or for simply providing food and shelter for pilots.
The first narcoavioneta of 2010 landed in the small hamlet of Arenas Blancas, southeast of San Pedro Sula, just three weeks before Lobo took office. It was the 52nd plane to have been discovered since Zelaya’s departure. Within 10 minutes of touchdown, the plan had been offloaded, lit aflame, with the pilot and cargo safely stored, all long before the police arrived to pick through the charred hull.
International organized crime has taken over many of the forgotten corners of Honduras, but it appears to have helped more than hurt, so far. Lobo is likely aware of this fact, but given his long list of priorities and limited financial resources, he will likely remain focused on public security in urban centers and hotspots as they flare up. Fortunately for Honduras' forgotten citizens in the countryside, there's plenty of work.