On September 1, 2012, the then-current head of the Honduran Air Force, Colonel Luis (or Ruiz) Pastor Landa stepped down as head of the Air Force, turning over his command to Colonel Miguel Palacios.
At the ceremony, Armed Forces Chief General Rene Osorio Canales lavishly praised Pastor Landa, and later told Radio Globo:
We're not happy; we're uncomfortable with these situations because we must be Hondurans with love of country..."
What did Osorio Canales mean by this?
On June 13, 2012, the Honduran Air Force shot down an alleged civilian drug plane, killing the two crew members. One of the crew members, the Honduran press says, was a DEA agent who had infiltrated the drug cartel. This was not revealed to the press at the time.
Shooting down suspected drug planes is controversial, on its face, an illegal act in violation of paragraph 3bis of International Civil Aviation Organization's (ICAO) Convention on International Civil Aviation.
This is not to say there is universal agreement as to the meaning of paragraph 3bis. As we wrote last April, the Convention says:
the contracting states recognize that every state must refrain from resorting to the use of military weapons against civil aircraft in flight, and that in case of interception, the lives of persons on board and the safety of aircraft must not be endangered.
It establishes that civil aviation aircraft are supposed to obey orders from military aircraft. The Convention, however, recognizes a nation's sovereignty over its airspace, a loophole that in the past has been used by some nations to justify the downing of civilian aircraft.
The Honduran military, since last spring, has been vocally in favor of shooting down drug planes, though at the same time they claim not to be capable of doing so without the purchase of new aircraft.
General Rene Osorio Canales, back in April, called shooting down civilian airplanes suspect of drug trafficking, "more effective than legalizing drugs" for combating the drug cartels. In fact, the Honduran military itself advocated for shooting down civilian aircraft suspected of engaging in drug trafficking back in March, 2012 when they supported Juan Orlando Hernandez, president of Congress, in his call for such a procedure.
So why is General Osorio Canales unhappy?
It seems, based on the evidence at hand, that the head of the US Southern Command, General Douglas Fraser, met with Porfirio Lobo Sosa on August 24, 2012 in Honduras. Ambassador Lisa Kubiske also was at the meeting. Based on a letter from the Defense Minister, Marlon Pascua, translated below, General Fraser expressed his unhappiness with the current Honduran policy (unacknowledged) of shooting down civilian aircraft suspected of drug running; and objected to Honduras compromising an ongoing investigation of the DEA. As Porfirio Lobo Sosa stated at the time, Fraser
"expressed his concern over some incidents that in some manner violated the agreements on aerial navigation."
Air Force Colonel José San Martin F. wrote an editorial in La Tribuna published on September 2 calling for a rewrite of paragraph 3 bis of the OACI Convention. Colonel San Martin F. was frustrated by the Honduran Air Force's inability to respond in 2009 when a plane carrying deposed President Manuel Zelaya was trying to land in Tegucigalpa. Paragraph 3bis, Colonel San Martin F. writes,
"unfortunately permitted that that violation [of Honduran airspace] went unpunished."
La Tribuna published a letter from Secretary of Defense, Marlon Pascua to his Foreign Minister, Arturo Corrales the same day stating:
With respect to what was discussed in our recent visit to the Southern Command of the United States in a meeting held this day with General Fraser and Ambassador Kubiske, and following the instructions of the President we have sent the following instructions:
1. In the command structure we make the following changes
a) The Commander of the Air Force starting September 1 will be Colonel Miguel Palacios Romero.
b) The head of the Air Force command starting September 1 will be Colonel Jimmy Rommel Ayala Cerrato.
2. [We will] restructure the Operations Center of the Air Force.
3. [We will change] the general process of certification of the pilots in the finding, identification, surveillance and interception of civilian aircraft
4. Honduran Air Force pilots who have participated in interception missions in this year will be sent back for a process of reinduction and retraining.
The letter is signed Marlon Pascua Cerrato and dated August 24, 2012.
The letter from Pascua seems pretty clear. The US Southern Command "requested" a change in the command structure of the Honduran Air Force in General Fraser's meeting with Porfirio Lobo Sosa, and Corrales is being told of the results of the meeting, what Lobo Sosa will order as civilian commander of the Honduran Armed Forces. Its also clear that General Osorio Canales doesn't like it.
Nor do high ranking members of the Honduran Air Force.
The editorial by Colonel José San Martin F. on September 2 challenges the decision expressed in Marlon Pascua's letter to rescind the policy the Air Force had been using to train pilots. He wants clearer guidelines about when he can shoot, and he wants shooting down civilian aircraft suspected of drug running to be the policy in Honduras. He best expressed this position in writing of his frustration at not being able to do anything in 2009 against the plane that was carrying President Manuel Zelaya trying to land in Tegucigalpa after the coup. Unstated was his clear desire to shoot it down.
In March, General Osorio Canales seemed to be both for it, and against it on the same day, in articles in the same newspaper. On the same day, in another newspaper, Porfirio Lobo Sosa, Osorio Canales's commander in chief, said that such a policy would be a violation of international law. Even Osorio Canales, in one of the two articles, acknowledged that there needed to be legal changes before drug planes could be shot down.
It therefore seems likely this the adoption of a shoot-down policy was instituted by the military without civilian government approval.
Pascua's letter confirms that the United States forced the removal of Colonel Pastor Landa as head of the Honduran Air Force.