Friday, March 11, 2011

Geography of Cocaine Processing

Honduran news media have for the last two days been reporting the discovery of Honduras' "first cocaine lab".

Honduran newspapers are, in general, lurid tabloids that delight in the presentation of crime and violence, the bloodier the better. The coverage of this raid has been, in my reading, contaminated by a kind of dark celebratory tone-- sort of "we told you it would come to this" combined with "we're on the world map".

This may partly be my reaction to the fact that, of all the events that happen in Honduras, it is things like this that international media, even the more reliable BBC, find worthy of coverage.

Honduras has been stereotyped, and this time, it isn't the old "banana republic": it is the corrupt drug capital.

Considering the fact that the storyline comes straight from the Minister of Security, Oscar Alvarez, whose entire political career is based on promoting a sense of lawlessness, I find myself feeling somewhat cynical about the hype. When Alvarez is quoted as saying that they found
"a laboratory of the first rank, Colombian-style, which appears to me is very worrisome because it is the first time that we discovered a cocaine processing laboratory in Honduras"

I hear the next sentence that he didn't say: "so give me more money and more weapons and more ways to clamp down on the entire population under the pretext that everyone is really, to some extent, a criminal".

Alvarez has been outspoken in recent weeks about lack of adequate US support for his activities. On March 5, a story in La Tribuna began:
The Minister of Security, Oscar Alvarez, in a sarcastic form stated yesterday that it made him happy that the State Department of the US is realizing that there is a serious problem of drug trafficking in the region, because then there might be more aid for the country to combat this scourge.

Alvarez was reacting to the 2011 State Department International Narcotics Control Strategy Report issued on March 3. The Honduras country summary there would not, at first glance, appear objectionable, although perhaps this passage stung a bit:
corruption within the Honduran government and its law enforcement elements presents obstacles to counternarcotics efforts. While law enforcement authorities made numerous arrests related to drug trafficking, prosecution rates remained low for all crimes and few convictions have been made, in part due to corruption at all levels of the prosecution process.

Oscar Alvarez complained particularly about Colombia receiving helicopters and radar that Honduras was not given. Clearly, his message was that the US was over-valuing the drug threat represented by Colombia and under-estimating the situation in Honduras. In fact, the US report began with a summary that concluded that organizations operating from South America and Mexico
use the remote northeastern region known as La Mosquitia and other isolated sites as transit and storage areas. Marijuana is cultivated in Honduras almost exclusively for domestic consumption. Honduran police have not detected any cocaine or heroin processing laboratories in the country. [emphasis added]

So I may be pardoned for wondering about the timeliness of Alvarez's find of "the first cocaine processing lab" in Honduras-- especially as there was no one to be arrested when the site was raided.

But my cynicism is not what motivated me to write this post (although it is what has motivated me not to write about this "discovery" until now).

What is driving me crazy is the complete inability of the international media to identify places in Honduras in any way other than by distance north of Tegucigalpa-- the capital city, yes, but not always the most relevant reference point.

The BBC describes the locale, Cerro Negro, as "a mountainous area north of the capital, Tegucigalpa" and as "about 175km (100 miles) north of the capital".

Boz, in a post about this story, citing the BBC report and reiterating the "100 miles north of the capital" description, was led to conclude
4) Also notable, this lab was in the middle of the country up in the mountains. It's not as if they moved it in by boat to some unoccupied coastal region. The people behind this lab had to get the coca paste in by air or land and a plan to get the processed cocaine out by land and sea. This required some significant logistics.

Well, yes and no. Significant logistics, maybe; but as in real estate, what matters here is location, location, location. Cerro Negro is not all that isolated, and it is in fact within easy reach of the Caribbean coast.

The Cerro Negro in question is up in the MontaƱa de Merendon, west of my beloved San Pedro Sula, and about 8 km south of Omoa, the little colonial town on the Caribbean coast where I spent June of 2009. Don't be confused by internet databases that show another Cerro Negro somewhat further inland; this one is called Cerro Negro de Omoa on topo maps, and Honduran press coverage makes it very clear that this is where the raid took place.

Topo maps made some time ago showed access via a dirt road up from Omoa to the aldea of Santa Tereza, then the closest inhabited place to Cerro Negro, again, about 8 km distance, although a rugged haul.

More recent topo maps show an improved road to a cluster of buildings at Cerro Negro itself, coming from the east, starting at a place called Bijao (along the Puerto Cortes-San Pedro Sula highway, north of Choloma, and location of major cement works). The road is visible and can be traced on Google Earth all the way up to the top of Cerro Negro, where the lab was apparently operating under cover of a coffee plantation.

While Honduran press reports say that local people indicated helicopters were used to transport drugs from the lab, the location lends itself to moving raw materials and equipment in from the Caribbean coast up into the mountains.

Even though I remain cynical about the timing of this raid, the bad luck that allowed all the people operating it to escape, and the convenient timing of finding "the first cocaine lab" just when Honduran authorities are airing their grievances about not getting enough support from the US to combat drug trafficking, I would still like discussion to take into account the actual geography of Honduras, and thus the actual effects experienced by actual people living there.

The laziness of the BBC and other major media substantively affects the ability of others to understand where this drug operation fits into the landscape of Honduras. I wonder what Boz would say about the implications of this location, with a more accurate geographic placement within a few hours drive (at worst) from San Pedro Sula and Puerto Cortes?


RNS said...

The Spanish language stories in the Honduran press were clear about the location, describing it as behind Bijao in the mountains, and as near Omoa.

Police reportedly accessed the lab using the road from Bijao and coming in overland from Omoa.

As for not finding anyone there, today's stories about finding cocaine paste claim that maybe police corruption is to blame for that.

boz said...

Thanks for the correction. This placement for a cocaine lab make a bit more sense from a logistics standpoint.