Monday, June 9, 2014

US Crew Runs Afoul of Honduran Gun Laws

US attitudes towards guns are notoriously different than those elsewhere in the world. And despite the well-promoted image of Honduras as inherently "violent", it is aligned with the rest of the world in restricting access to guns.

Now that difference has tripped up a ship's crew from Aqua Quest International, a self-described "Ocean Exploration and Archaeological Recovery Corporation " out of Tarpon Springs, Florida, that has landed itself in jail in Honduras by being ignorant of Honduran gun laws. Unfortunately, the news media in the US are not doing a very good job of understanding the actual laws involved, being too ready to accept another ready-made image: that of the corrupt foreign officials. While sometimes that definitely fits the Honduran case, this seems to be an exception: the Honduran legal system is working the way it is supposed to.

The Aqua Quest International crew was on its way to take a contract with the town of Ahuas, where a DEA supervised helicopter murdered 4 Honduran citizens including a pregnant woman in a botched drug interdiction.  The contract was to dredge the lower Patuca river, recovering sunken mahogany and ceder logs worth thousands of dollars.  Aqua Quest would get 30% of the sale price of the logs recovered.

It is not uncommon for ships sailing in US coastal waters, and even in the Caribbean, to have guns on board, but the Captain must be aware of local laws concerning guns before entering a port.  In many countries, Captains with guns have to sink a container with the guns onto the ocean floor, in international waters, marking the location, and retrieve them after leaving port.  This is a complicated, and not always successful project.  But local laws apply when a ship enters a port, and that includes gun laws.

But the captain and crew from Aqua Quest International entered Puerto Lempira not knowing Honduran law, and apparently not knowing that they were breaking it.  They declared their guns to the military vessel that checked them as they entered Honduran national waters, and were expecting the Port Captain to decide if they could keep their guns or needed to have them locked up.  Instead they were met by, and arrested by, the local police.

Their lawyer, Armida Lopez de Arguello claims this is a violation of maritime law.

It is not.

Honduran law is very clear. 

If you want to bring a gun into Honduras by sea, air, or land, you better already have a permit issued by Honduras.  Any attempt to bring a gun in without such a permit, aboard ship, via air, or overland, will get you arrested and thrown in jail.  Wikipedia mentions it, and cites a section of the US State Department website on Honduras. 

Under the heading "Firearms" the State Department website clearly states:
Firearms: No one may bring firearms into Honduras, except for diplomats or individuals participating in shooting or hunting sport events who have obtained a temporary firearm importation permit from the Honduran Ministry of Security prior to their travel to Honduras.
Firearms for personal safety or for purposes other than those mentioned above must be purchased locally through a store named “La Armería.” These stores are regulated by the Honduran Armed Forces and are located throughout Honduras.

It's even on the Honduran Embassy website, albeit in the Spanish language FAQ. 

A little research on the internet might have saved the ship's Captain and crew from its current predicament.

The ship had two shotguns, two handguns, and a semi-automatic "sports rifle" that resembles an AK-47.  Shotguns and hand guns can be easily permitted in Honduras, but that semi-automatic "sports rifle" cannot. Possession of such a rifle in Honduran territorial waters is itself a criminal act.

Despite easy access to the facts of Honduran law, most of the English-language media seem perplexed as to why the crew were arrested. 

Fox news used the phrase "trumped up changes", echoing the words of Stephen Mayne, the company's chief operating officer, brother of the ship's Captain, Robert Mayne, Jr., who is also the company's CEO. 

NPR covered the story this week without mentioning Honduran law. 

Stephen Mayne told the Macon Telegraph that:
“They shouldn’t be (in prison). (The crew) did everything by the book. They’ve been detained unlawfully by officials with suspect motives.”

Only a few media outlets got the facts right, and it makes for some strange bedfellows.

A New York Times article quotes a government prosecutor in Tegucigalpa as saying that the men should have had a permit for the guns because they had entered Honduran waters. The Voice of Russia reports that "the Honduran armed forces said the crew was arrested because they didn't have permits to possess guns in the country."

It's pretty clear that the actions of the US group were due to ignorance of Honduran law.  A Honduran appeals court will decide if they will continue to be held for trial, or can be released awaiting trial, later this week.

Meanwhile, we can hope that in the interim, more of the English language media can learn the facts, and begin to explain them to a US public that at times really doesn't understand that in other countries, being casual about firearms is not acceptable.