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HONDURAS AND THE POLITICAL USES OF THE DRUG WAR

Charges of complicity in narco-trafficking make for useful propaganda in Latin American political conflicts. Illegal drugs are such a major part of the region's economies—right up there with oil, tourism, and legal agro-exports like coffee, beef, and bananas —that allegations of narco-corruption against anyone in the region's power elite are never hard to find. But which charges stick against which leaders in the US media appears to have more to do with politics than fact.

The latest example of this double standard took place in 2009, following the ouster of former Honduran president Manuel Zelaya. The Los Angeles Times reported in July that Cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga, the archbishop of Tegucigalpa and a prominent supporter of the coup, had urged the country's attorney general to produce drug trafficking evidence against Zelaya. "My son," the archbishop was reported as saying, "we need that proof. It's the only thing that will help us now."

After the June 28 coup, the de facto government launched a vigorous PR campaign against Zelaya, accusing him of being involved in drug trafficking. The campaign began with a formal request to Interpol for an international arrest warrant on Zelaya and many of his officials. In addition to the usual charges of supposed constitutional violations, the request said the Zelaya administration had been involved in drug trafficking. Interpol declined to issue the warrant, citing sovereign immunity, and did not address the allegations. Still, linking Zelaya to drugs remained a prominent feature of the coup regime's propaganda during its seven-month reign.

The coup-installed foreign minister, Enrique Ortez, said the government had proof that Venezuelan planes loaded with cocaine and cash had landed in Honduras with the Zelaya government's knowledge. "Every night, three or four Venezuelan-registered planes land without the permission of appropriate authorities and bring thousands of pounds...and packages of money that are the fruit of drug trafficking," Ortez told CNN en Español. "We have proof of all of this. Neighboring governments have it. The DEA has it." Picking up on this, Micheletti later remarked in July that "during our short period of being in power, no small plane has landed in the country loaded with drugs, which used to happen frequently."

Later that month, however, a cocaine-laden plane crashed on a highway in northern Honduras, the second such accident involving a drug-transporting plane since the coup. In October, the de facto government's head of national counter-narcotics, Julián Arístides González, admitted that the number of planes smuggling cocaine through Honduras had surged since the coup. In the foregoing month alone, Arístides said, authorities had found 10 planes abandoned on runways and remote highways, compared with just four all the previous year. "These are the facts. The flights have intensified," Arístides said. But, perhaps making a virtue of necessity, he blamed the uptick on Washington's suspension of Drug War aid in the wake of the coup.

The US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) told the Associated Press it could neither confirm nor deny that it was investigating the matter. The US State Department declared that official corruption in Honduras "continues to be an impediment to effective law enforcement, and there are press reports of drug trafficking and associated criminal activity among current and former government and military officials."

Adding fuel to the fire, TV network Telemundo reported that Zelaya government officials could have been linked to Venezuelan and Colombian drug traffickers. The report fingered Héctor Zelaya, the president's own son, as a possible mafioso. Seizing on the reports, Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, met with DEA officials to discuss drug trafficking in Honduras. "Obtaining an assessment from DEA about the situation on the ground is of increasing importance in light of recent developments in Honduras and reports of possible Zelaya drug ties," Ros-Lehtinen said.

Honduran de facto authorities even claimed that Colombia's FARC guerilla organization was financing Zelaya supporters. The National Police said in late July that they seized a book and receipts allegedly showing payments of between $2,500 and $100,000 from the FARC to Zelaya officials to "spend in El Paraiso," the region on the Nicaraguan border where followers of Zelaya were then gathering in wait for the ousted president's return. Given the FARC's disarray in the face of the Colombian government's US-backed offensive, this seems highly improbable. Nonetheless, the Honduran attorney general's office opened an investigation into whether Zelaya had funded demonstrations in support of Venezuela's Hugo Chávez with FARC-supplied drug money.

Writing in The Wall Street Journal on Aug. 10, columnist Mary Anastasia O’Grady cited a 2005 letter purportedly intercepted by Colombian authorities from the late FARC chief Raúl Reyes to another commander listing "political contacts." One was apparently the Honduran Democratic Unification (UD) party—which, while not Zelaya's party, was a key voice demanding his return. So not only was this evidence pretty far removed from Zelaya, but it meant little more than that Reyes sought to propagandize the UD—even assuming the letter is real.

Decriminalization: Zelaya's Kiss of Death?

The campaign to portray Zelaya as a drug trafficker partly rested on twisting his real position on drug policy, which evolved considerably during his time in power. In November 2008, during a regional meeting of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Tegucigalpa, Zelaya declared his support for decriminalizing drug consumption and shifting the emphasis of anti-drug policy from interdiction to prevention. "Instead of pursuing drug traffickers," Zelaya said, stunning the drug war stalwarts in the Honduran government, "societies should invest resources in educating drug addicts and curbing their demand." The president went a step further the next month, when he sent President-elect Obama a letter complaining of US "interventionism" under cover of the drug war.

"The legitimate fight against drug trafficking...should not be used as an excuse to carry out interventionist activities in other countries,” he wrote, adding that it should also "not be divorced from a vigorous policy of controlling distribution and consumer demand in all countries, as well as money laundering, which operates through financial circuits and involves networks within developed countries."

Rodolfo Zelaya, the head of a Honduran congressional commission on drug trafficking (no apparent relation to the president), told participants at the meeting that he was "confused and stunned" by the president's new drug position. After all, this was a president who came to power on a hardline, pro-drug-war ticket.

Yet Manuel Zelaya's new enlightened position on drugs may better reflect a growing regional consensus against the militarized approach to addressing drug trafficking. Even such conservative figures as Mexico's President Felipe Calderón and ex-president Ernesto Zedillo have joined a growing chorus of Latin American officials who have criticized the militarized, supply-side approach to drug trafficking as both ineffective and destructive.

Nonetheless, Zelaya's new position put him in league with other countries, especially Bolivia and Venezuela, that were no longer willing to play by Washington's rules. Moreover, the Bush administration may have been taken aback by the Honduran's desire to convert the US airbase at Soto Cano into a civilian airport. The base is used for Pentagon drug surveillance flights, and had housed thousands of US troops in the 1980s.

With alarm bells going off within the Bush administration, outgoing US ambassador to Honduras Charles Ford fired a warning shot across Zelaya's bow, charging that a large portion of remittances sent by US-based Hondurans back to their home country were the product of illicit drug trafficking. Speaking to local TV media, Ford declared that 30% of the remissions were the product of money laundering. Ford was joined in his criticism by his French counterpart in Honduras Laurent Dominati, who remarked that the Central American nation was in danger of becoming a "narco-state."

Ford's remarks caused a diplomatic firestorm, with the Honduran foreign ministry shooting back that the ambassador's comments were unacceptable. Having caused a diplomatic row, Ford left Tegucigalpa after three years of ambassadorial duty. And what was Ford's next job? He served as diplomatic attaché for the US Southern Command in Miami, charged with prosecuting the Drug War in Latin America. In an interview with the Honduran daily La Prensa, Ford warned that "big people" from the Mexican, Guatemalan, and Colombian cartels had arrived in Honduras in recent years. It was up to the United States and its Latin American allies, Ford added, to counteract such influence through joint efforts such as the Merida Initiative—the multi-billion-dollar Drug War aid package for Mexico and Central America.

Zelaya himself signed on to the Merida Initiative, which includes millions in military aid. In an effort to tone down tensions, he met with new US ambassador Hugo Llorens to shore up the Merida plan. Zelaya was still critical of US drug policy, however, and declared that Washington was not doing enough to help Honduras counteract violence and the cartels. Worse, Zelaya charged that the United States was the "chief cause" of drug smuggling in Latin America and the Caribbean. Ford had been "belligerent," Zelaya affirmed, simply because Honduras pursued diplomatic relations with Caracas, Havana, and Managua. Although Honduras received US aid, Zelaya said, this did not make his country a "vassal" of its northern benefactor.

Nostalgia for the '80s?

To those who follow US–Latin American relations, there is a sense of déjà vu to all this. Let's go back to the Reagan administration's Contra war against Nicaragua some 25 years ago. In the mid 1980s, Washington launched a propaganda campaign similarly attempting to link the Sandinista government to drug trafficking.

In 1984, the CIA, which was training the Contras at the time in an effort to overthrow the Sandinistas, installed a hidden camera in the C-130 cargo plane of Barry Seal, a convicted drug runner–turned-informant. Seal then snapped an out-of-focus photo of himself with a top Sandinista official, who was likely a US spy, and a Colombian drug trafficker unloading bags of cocaine at an airstrip in Nicaragua. Oliver North, then of the National Security Agency, was intimately involved in the affair and coordinated efforts with the CIA. When the photo of Seal in Nicaragua was leaked to the press, all the major papers ran sensational articles about Sandinista drug-running. The Reagan administration used the incident for maximum PR effect, with the president displaying Seal's photo in a nationally televised speech in March 1986.

Washington also employed a propaganda campaign in this era against Panamanian dictator Manuel Antonio Noriega. In an effort to justify invasion, the US sensationalized Noriega's links to drug trafficking. Yet throughout the 1980s, the CIA collaborated with Noriega and Colombia's Medellín Cartel to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. "Privatized" CIA assets maintained Honduran and Costa Rican airstrips as transfer points for coke going north and guns coming south for the Nicaraguan Contra rebels. Officially derided as "conspiracy theory," this fact has been abundantly documented since the so-called Contragate scandal broke in 1986.

In July 1989, just months before the United States invaded Panama, five key US figures associated with the Contragate scandal—North, Maj. Gen. Ricard Secord, former National Security Advisor John Poindexter, former Ambassador Lewis Tambs, and former local CIA station chief Joe Fernández—were barred from returning to the territory of US ally Costa Rica after a special commission of the country's congress concluded that the Contra resupply network they had established on the Nicaraguan border doubled as a cocaine-smuggling operation.

After the scandal, Noriega became more useful as a scapegoat than a client. On Christmas 1989, the United States invaded Panama and installed the client regime of Guillermo Endara. President Endara was also ensconced with the cartels. As an attorney he had represented companies run by Carlos Eleta, a Panamanian business tycoon arrested in Georgia that April for conspiring to import more than half a ton of cocaine each month into the Untied States. (The indictment would be dropped after the invasion.) His vice president, Guillermo "Billy" Ford, was a co-founder and part owner of the Dadeland Bank in Miami, named in federal court testimony in the US as a repository for Medellín Cartel money.

These rather salient facts went down the Orwellian Memory Hole as the media portrayed a one-sided US victory over a corrupt narco-regime in the Christmas 1989 invasion of Panama.

Drug Charges Against US Allies Don't Stick

A decade later, when fiery Hugo Chávez came to power in Venezuela, the US-led Drug War once again became the topic du jour. A fierce critic of US militarization in neighboring Colombia, Chávez prohibited Pentagon over-flights of Venezuelan airspace and ceased cooperating with the DEA, accusing the agency of drug running and espionage.

The Bush administration fired back, accusing the Chávez government of having "failed demonstrably" to halt the flow of drugs through Venezuela. When Chávez allied with Bolivia after the rise of the leftist former coca-growers leader Evo Morales in 2005, Washington once again went on the offensive. US officials were dismayed by Morales' coca policy, which sought to increase the amount of coca that could be legally grown for traditional and medicinal purposes and asked farmers to voluntarily tear up their plantings above half an acre. The policy, which promised to crack down on cocaine, abandoned previous efforts of government-forced eradication of coca plants. The US State Department lambasted Bolivia for supposedly backsliding in the counter-narcotics effort.

For some contrast, let's look at the situation in the closest US ally in South America—Colombia, where President Alvaro Uribe now hopes to open the country to permanent US military bases to police the rest of the continent against drug trafficking. Somehow, evidence of Uribe's ties to the cartels doesn't seem to stick.

In 2004, a single New York Times story noted the emergence of a 1991 report from the US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) naming Uribe as a high-level operative of the Medellín Cartel. The DIA report was released under the US Freedom of Information Act to a DC-based research group, the National Security Archives. The report asserts that Uribe, then a senator from the department of Antioquia, was "dedicated to collaboration with the Medellín cartel at high government levels." It named him as a "close personal friend" of cartel kingpin Pablo Escobar, and claimed he helped Escobar secure his seat as an auxiliary congressman.

Both Uribe and the US State Department denied the charge. But the National Security Archives' Michael Evans said: "We now know that the DIA, either through its own reporting or through liaison with another investigative agency, had information indicating that Álvaro Uribe was one of Colombia's top drug-trafficking figures."

Washington portrays Uribe as a key ally in the war on drugs and terrorism, boasting that his administration has extradited 150 accused traffickers to the US, more than twice the number extradited in his predecessor's four-year term. But there have been persistent claims that as chief of Colombia's civil aviation authority in the late 1980s, Uribe protected drug flights. When he was governor of Antioquia between 1995 and 1997, paramilitary activity exploded in the department.

Another study in contrast is provided by Peru—second to Colombia as a US ally and anti-drug aid recipient in South America. According to the latest report of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), coca cultivation fell in Colombia last year (after several years of growth) but rose 6% in Bolivia and 4.5% in Peru. Yet, the two countries are treated entirely differently. While the US has entered into a free trade agreement with Peru, it has just cut trade preferences with Bolivia—a move that could cost thousands of jobs in the country's export industries—on the grounds the government of Evo Morales is not doing enough to combat coca cultivation.

Who Ran Honduran "Narco State"—Zelaya or Micheletti?
Some reports emerged indicating that de facto Honduran President Roberto Micheletti may have been himself tied to traffickers. The Havana-based website Cuba Debate sports a scanned version of what purports to be an undated document from the Honduran Defense Ministy that names one "Roberto Michelleti Bain" (with an evident mis-spelling) on a list of several Honduran nationals with international drug trafficking connections. His "connection" is named as the Calí Cartel and his area of operations is named as Yoro. In the '80s, when the Calí Cartel was at its peak of power, Micheletti was a member of the local council in Yoro department, in the north of the country near the Caribbean coast. He would later successfully run for congress from Yoro.

Jean Guy Allard, the author of the article, did not answer e-mails to clarify where he acquired the document implicating Micheletti in drug trafficking. This did not stop others from the left-leaning nations of the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas (ALBA) from repeating the accusations. In August, José Vicente Rangel, who has served in various high level posts within the Chávez government, made reference to the Cuban report on Venezuelan TV.

ALBA leaders said the drug spin about Zelaya was, in fact, all backwards: It is the CIA, the Pentagon, the Southern Command and drug smugglers who were really behind the coup in Honduras. Rafael Correa has voiced similar concerns—the Ecuadoran president said he had "intelligence studies showing that after Zelaya, the next destabilization effort would be me."

"Honduras was not an isolated occurrence," Correa said. "A de facto government which is so crude and insulting could not maintain itself without external assistance and it gets this help from powerful groups in the US and the Latin American oligarchy.”

Correa has denounced a supposed domestic and international media campaign designed to destabilize his country and link him with FARC guerrillas in Colombia. In a video which surfaced in Colombia, a FARC leader named Jorge Briceño says that his organization helped to finance Correa's presidential campaign in 2006. Correa believes the video is part of a right-wing strategy to destabilize progressive governments in the region.

Correa rejected the claims as "clownish talk," "idiocies" and "barbarities" (cantinfladas, tonterías and barbaridades). But he said he would appoint a commission to investigate whether any member of his campaign received "even 20 centavos from any extremist group."