Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Flying under suspicious circumstances

Five armed men broke into a military base at the major international airport in northern Honduras early Monday and made off with a small airplane that authorities seized last year in an anti-drug operation.

So says the Washington Post, so that must be what really happened.

But: El Heraldo's coverage of the events earlier today had, shall we say, an undertone.

And now the same thread is in Tiempo, which-- due to its unusually fact-based reporting during the de facto regime-- always seems to be that little bit more reliable.

The plane had been seized in 2008, suspected of being used in drug smuggling. Security Minister Oscar Alvarez, not surprisingly, immediately blamed organized crime for the theft:
"It was really a temptation for organized crime or drug traffickers to have the plane there."

Well, yes. But that undertone running through Honduran press coverage is not about drug traffickers: it is about a possible inside job. As La Prensa put it,
The northwestern coordinator of the Public Prosecutor's office, Marlene Banegas, said this Tuesday that there were preparations for the last two weeks to abstract the small plane Monday morning from the installations of the Armando Escalón military base in San Pedro Sula...

"The runway had everything needed for the plane to take off, also, every day it was warmed up and a week ago one of the two keys of the plane was lost and that was not reported"....

The guards informed the prosecutor that the plane had around 40 to 50 gallons of fuel which would not allow it even to arrive at La Ceiba [on the northeast coast]. "Nonetheless there were encountered in the place various cylinders with the remains of fuel which indicates that it was filled up there".

(El Heraldo's story seems to have disappeared or been edited, but La Prensa retains what we saw earlier today in its sister paper.)

In case readers missed the not-so-subtle implication, La Prensa later summarized:
Unofficial versions pointed out that technicians of the air base were warming up the plane hours earlier, that it was full of fuel and even had the key in place. The indications that there were members of the air base implicated in the operation are considerable because not one of those on duty noticed or reacted to the situation.

What seems to rouse the most concern is that someone communicated to the air traffic control tower that the take off of the stolen plane was authorized. Public prosecutor Luis Rubí-- famous for his relentless crusade to charge ex-president José Manuel Zelaya Rosales with something, anything that will stick-- bluntly said it was not an action of organized crime, but rather, one in which the military officers were complicit:

“It is a product of a degree of boldness that organized crime and the bands that operate in the country have. This was an operation in complicity with someone, definitely. It cannot be an act that someone arrives at an air base and carries off a plane, it causes us concern".

Defense Minister Marlon Pascua and Chief of Staff Carlos Cuéllar, meanwhile, were quoted as saying the theft might have been intended to damage the image of the Armed Forces. At the same time, their actions, removing from command Lieutenant Colonel Juan Carlos Gónzalez, suggest some degree of suspicion of the military contingent that was somehow overcome by five thieves. Some critics went so far as to call on the Minister of Defense to resign.

But it took Tiempo to come right out and say it:
As the hours pass, the Hollywood-esque story about the robbery of a small plane at the Armando Escalón Air Base loses ever more force and loose ends pop up that flow into a history of corruption inside that military unit.

Suspicions are focused on soldiers who testified that the plane was being serviced for the past two weeks in anticipation of it being absorbed by the Air Force, according to the sources cited by Tiempo, because the Air Force had not been approved to transfer the plane.

It may well be that the air force was acting in advance of authorization, and drew the attention of a particularly clever gang. Perhaps the claim by the defense secretary that this was a plot to embarrass the armed forces is true-- although it is utterly unclear why that would be a goal of drug traffickers.

But it is the suspicion of corruption and complicity that appears to resonate with Honduran observers, who seem well prepared to accept that the Air Force is corrupt and in league with organized crime.

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