Saturday, October 24, 2015

Drug Planes: They're Back!

After an interlude of almost 18 months, drug planes are again using illicit landing strips in central Honduras, even as Honduras completes is radar coverage.

In February 2014, Willaim Brownfield,  US State Department Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, told El Heraldo that drug flights had dropped off precipitously:
"In the last 12-18 months the number of traces, flights, that go to Honduras have enormously been reduced.  We are talking about a reduction of more than 80%."
That trend was still true as of May, 2015 when General Kelly of US Southern Command said drug flights in general were down all over, and that Honduras had dropped from first to fifth place as a destination for drug flights.

However, there were signs earlier that 2015 was not going to be like 2014.

In February, long before General Kelly's speech, the Honduran military allowed as how they were having trouble keeping up with clandestine landing strips in the Mosquitia.  As fast as the Honduran military would blow deep holes in them to stop planes from landing, the drug runners would fix them up.  One clandestine strip was destroyed on January 28, only to be usable again when visited on February 3 of this year.

In April of this year, a Brazilian newspaper revealed a new drug ring that was buying drugs from the FARC in Colombia, and loading it onto planes in Venezuela and flying it to Honduras.  From Honduras it was flown to Mexico for the Sinaloa cartel.  This seemed to be confirmed in May, when Honduran authorities found a Brazilian pilot with severe third degree burns in a hospital in Tocoa, Olancho the day after they found a crashed and burned drug plane in the Mosquitia.

But its not just the landing strips being renewed.  After a long absence, drug planes are crashing and being abandoned in Honduras again.  The crash in May was just the start.

On September 14, authorities found a burned plane in El Jobo, San Esteban, Olancho.  There was no landing strip here, just a broad expanse of flat land.  The plane was completely burned except for the tail section, and so far no identifying numbers were recovered from the crash.  Local residents reported hearing the plane crash the previous day.

On September 25, a plane with two pilots from Olancho, crashed and burned in Tripoli, La Masica, Atlantida, killing both pilots.  No drugs were found but a Mexican bank book, extra gas cans, and a satellite phone were found at the crash site.

Finally, on October 22, a plane crashed in La Cuarenta, Progreso, Yoro.  The plane, a US registered (N40212) Piper Aztec from 1973, is currently registered to an owner in Miami, Florida but will probably turn out to have been recently sold.  Locals said the plane attempted to land around 2 or 3 am that morning, but crashed.  Several vehicles were observed around the plane.  The crash was not reported to authorities until 6 am, by which time the pilot(s) and any cargo were long gone.  Found inside the plane were buoys, colored lanterns for a landing strip, gas cans, a portable pump, and an inflatable raft.

All this activity comes as Honduras prepares to install its third and final radar bought from Israel for $30 million.  Honduras bought these 3 radar systems explaining that they would put an aerial shield over Honduras.  Two were supposed to be small, directional radar systems and this new one, a mobile system that does full 360 degree scans.  In April, the military's commander, General Freddy Diaz said:
"With this equipment we will complete the oversight system which Honduras should have.  This radar is part of a system of equipment with capacity to cover all of the national territory and parts of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans."
But now he's saying its not enough:
"Its not sufficient, we need more radars for us to do a strict watch over all the airspace."

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