This article was written by Ana Arana and Daniela Guazo for Fundación MEPI. We will publish the whole article in a series of three posts. This is the first post in the series.
San Pedro Sula: Colon is prime farming and cattle territory in the Honduran Caribbean coast. Its geography extends across eight thousand plus kilometers through mountains, rivers and thick vegetation. It is a strategic territory and middle transit point for drug transshipments from South America to Mexico and the United States. At the helm of these operations are Mexican and Colombian traffickers, according to Colombian and Honduran police reports. Plantations of African Palm conceal clandestine landing strips, which were previously used by crop fumigation planes and where today small planes laden with cocaine land unrestricted, according to the Honduran Armed Forces.
The local chieftains are Javier and Leonel Rivera Maradiaga, brothers and former cattle rustlers who today oversee a multimillion-dollar empire. Their organized crime group is called Los Cachiros, which allegedly picks political candidates and has close links to local police, according to the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Access Control, OFAC.
Until recently, few Hondurans knew about Los Cachiros. Journalists did not dare write about their activities. In fact, few reporters visit Colon, their territory, or other northern territories in this Central American country, where dozens of narco chieftains have built profitable drug trafficking networks with little scrutiny from the local press.
In June of this year, Hondurans finally read in the local press about the Maradiaga brothers and their organization. Something similar occurred with José Handal Pérez, a prominent businessman in San Pedro Sula, owner of a retail empire, which includes clothing stores, auto part shops and restaurants. Local media wrote about Handal Pérez in April, following the release of another report by the OFAC, which identified him as a drug transporter and money launderer.
“We published (the story) because the United States gave us information,” explained without hesitation a local newspaper editor who asked not to be identified in this article. “To investigate such matters in this country is very difficult. We can't take the risk. Also no local authority would provide us with such evidence.”
Honduras has become the ideal transit spot for international drug traffickers. The country and its government institutions are mired with government corruption and ineffective or compromised public security forces, according to a September 2012 report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), “Transnational Organized Crime in Central America and the Caribbean.” In the last four years since President Manuel Zelaya was deposed and President Porfirio Lobo was selected, an institutional crisis has hit the country, creating a power vacuum that has been exploited by local and international organized crimes groups, according to UNODC. Today Honduras has the highest per capita murder rate in the world with 91 murders per 100 thousand inhabitants. The crime statistics are higher in northern territories, where drug trafficking networks operate. The country also has one of the highest numbers of journalists killed, or attacked, in a country not at war.
The Mexican cartels—Zetas, Sinaloa and Gulf—have had a presence in Honduras for quite some time. Two Colombian criminal bands, The Rastrojos, who have a working relationship with Los Cachiros, and the Urabeños, have a presence in the country. Maras or organized youth gangs—MS13 and Mara 18, which originated in the nineties with deported gang members who grew up in low-income barrios in California—control barrios in some of the country's most important cities. In La Ceiba, a Caribbean resort town that has a reputation as an important drug trafficking corridor, and where civil society is desperately trying to rebuild its tourist flow, youth gangs have proliferated and even determine who can live in their areas of control. Youth gangs throughout the country work as low-level level drug distributors and are sometimes subcontracted by the cartels as foot soldiers or enforcers, according to Honduran police and the UNODC.
However, when reading most Honduran newspapers, readers go away with little understanding of what is occurring in the country. Most crime stories are written without context or explanation and are accompanied by bloody, gory pictures. In the next post in this series we will look at how news media reports about crime in Honduras.