"If you want to see the inner workings of the drug trafficking business, Honduras is the country" says Victor (not his real name). He was a major drug trafficker before he became a born again Christian, after being shot in the skull and surviving. Now he wants to purge all his sins, including several murders, to avoid being sent to hell in the after life, he says. He was in charge of overseeing cocaine shipments and "narco planes" to Honduras.
The illegal drugs from Colombia and Venezuela travel to the heart of Central America, where they are handed to Mexican drug lords in Guatemala or Mexico. He would then personally deliver the money to the cartel boss. He was making $200,000 a month, but others were making a lot more: approximately 5 shipments a month, carrying 4,500 kilos, bought at $2,000 each but re-sold at $7,000, adds to more than $100 million per month.
"I had a godfather, everything was easy, I just needed to call him up if the police stopped me at a check point and asked about the bags of money that I often transported in my car." He says the government and armed forces have been infiltrated by the cartels.
When cameraman Alfredo DeLara and me traveled to Colon (in Honduras) we were surprised to see what this rural province has become. Everyone is armed: we saw drug dealers with ak47s and revolvers in Toyota cars, farmers with AK 47's and gun men in trenches within the perimeters of the Palm oil plantations. The small hotel our crew stayed in had signs everywhere, "no guns or knives in the pool", "no guns in the restaurant" "no guns in the front desk"...
The kingpin in charge of the area is Leonel Rivera known as El Cachiro. He travels around freely, most people don't recognize him physically and the myth says his cars never have plate numbers.
Victor says the palm oil fields are a perfect cover for the illegal business and many land owners are now establishing alliances with the drug lords. There are small airstrips within the plantations or nearby roads where the narco planes land and the cocaine is shipped near the ports, sometimes inside the palm oil containers. Violence is starting to force out farmers; already a small community had their village burnt during a failed mass eviction.
As the local press is too scared to report on this (the country has one of the highest rates of journalist's murders, 7 reporters have been killed this year) most of the reality of Colon and other provinces is completely unknown. But action is not lacking, and modest estimates suggest 2 or 3 planes per week are landing in illegal air strips up to date.
The minister of security told us the situation could become as serious as the one in Mexico if nothing is done. Three Mexican cartels are now operating in the country. Many believe that the coup that toppled Manuel Zelaya in 2009 and the subsequent political crisis reinforced the drug dealer's hold of some portions of the territory. Others say the post-coup only exposed a problem that had been growing.
The Obama administration has reportedly requested 68 million dollars for Honduras this year. The country already receives US funds as part of the CARSI or Central America Regional Security Initiative. Money itself will not curb the illegal trade; and such amounts, less so. Only a month ago the US Coast Guard intercepted a narco submarine with 7.5 tons of cocaine, worth 180 million dollars in the Atlantic Ocean, near the Honduran coast. It was the first time such a vessel has been spotted by the authorities in the Atlantic Ocean. Perhaps they have been there all along; and perhaps it also means that there will be more to come.
Originally published on Al-Jazeera.