Columbia International Affairs Online: Journals

CIAO DATE: 02/2013

Outgunned: The Honduran Fight Against Transnational Cocaine Traffickers

Journal of International Affairs

A publication of:
School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University

Volume: 66, Issue: 1 (Fall/Winter 2012)

Ana-Constantina Kolb


Transnational organized crime (TOC) is an insidious and omnipresent element in twenty-first century Honduras, representing a clear threat to the stability of its democracy. Over the past five years, criminal organizations have extended their grip on the fragile states of the Northern Triangle—El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—leading to a severe deterioration in citizen security. By leveraging domestic crime and violence, these organizations inhibit further development and prey on the glaring social inequality prevalent in these countries. This essay will use the definition of TOC as defined by the U.S. Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime, which understands TOC as “those self-perpetuating associations of individuals who operate transnationally for the purpose of obtaining power, influence, monetary and/or commercial gains, or violence.”1 The essay will mainly focus on transnational drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) actively operating in Honduras. First, the essay will give an overview of the operations and expansion of DTOs in the country. Subsequently, it will explore the effect of DTOs on Honduran governance and security. The essay will conclude with a review of current responses and recommendations for future policy.

Full Text

In the context of the international drug trade, the Central American isthmus is an ideally located geographic region with weak institutions and high levels of poverty and social inequality as well as a legacy of armed conflict, military rule, and illicit trafficking. As a result of these characteristics, it has overtaken the Caribbean as the primary route for drug traffickers transporting drugs from South American producer countries to North America.[i] Drug trafficking organizations appear to benefit from the raging instability of the countries of the Northern Triangle, all of which hold horrendous public safety records in terms of violent crime and homicides. Additionally, recent estimates now declare this region to be the chosen route for drug traffickers, with an estimated 90 percent of cocaine destined for the United States traveling through Central America and/or Mexico.[ii] For these reasons, Central America is now "‘caught in the crossfire' as [a] key drug transit route" and Mexican drug cartels are strongly active there.[iii] Within this crossfire, Honduras is a central landing point for drug runs, acting as the first stop for approximately 79 percent of all cocaine transfers from South America.[iv]

In order to understand why TOC expanded into Honduras so successfully, it is necessary to illuminate four developments. First, the grip of TOC on Central America is a result of advances in the fight against organized crime and drug trafficking in South America and the Caribbean. Second, it is also a reflection of the modernization of the Central American countries. Like any business, TOC benefits from modern communication, transportation, and banking systems. Third, the 2009 coup d'état ousting President Manuel Zelaya allowed TOC to thrive in Honduras in part due to the interim government's struggle to maintain political order.[v] This governance vacuum allowed criminal organizations to operate relatively freely in the country while most state authorities were occupied with the governance crisis. Fourth, with the highest number of homicides in the world, citizen security has been problematic in Honduras for a number of years.[vi] In essence, the precarious nature of security has allowed criminal groups to commit crimes with impunity. Proportionally, the country has the highest gang membership in Central America and crimes committed by these youth gangs (maras) have contributed to Honduras' notoriety as one of the most violent countries outside of war territory. Furthermore, Honduras is now one of the most dangerous countries for journalists in Latin America.[vii] Although the complexity of the gang phenomenon is beyond the scope of this paper, the combination of the above factors and developments has allowed TOC to successfully establish itself in Honduras.

Although Honduras has intensified its law enforcement and criminal justice efforts, the under-resourced country finds itself increasingly powerless in the fight against TOC. Essentially, Honduras is engaged in a battle against a far better-resourced and equipped foe. In an effort to support Honduras in the fight against TOC, U.S. Military and Drug Enforcement Authority (DEA) support has been increased. Alternative policy solutions are being sought, but the authorities often fail to send a strong message of political will. While it may not always be possible to clearly differentiate between cause and effect, it is certain that symbiotic relationships seem to exist between TOC and weak institutions, crime, and security.

TOC poses a serious threat to Honduran democracy and its institutions. Conversely, the country's weak institutions and rule of law have multiplied the impact of TOC groups. During the government of Roberto Micheletti, who took over as interim president following the 2009 coup, the amount of cocaine moved through Honduras increased exponentially, exhibiting the strong relationship between weak governance and expanding TOC activity.[viii] This resulted in "a kind of cocaine gold rush."[ix] Moreover, not only have cartels now infiltrated local and municipal governments, but the cartels are known to invest in public works, providing public services that the state is often unable to supply. This has lead some communities on Honduras' Caribbean coast to switch allegiance from the state to DTOs.[x] Since the drug business is vastly able to outspend the Honduran state, it readily attracts willing local helpers. Therefore, DTOs are not only undermining the Honduran state's authority but, perversely, are also directly competing with the state in providing basic needs.

However, it is the prevalence of human rights violations, the corruption within the political and security system, and the impunity with which crimes are committed that ultimately create an ideal breeding ground for maximizing the influence of organized crime.[xi] In view of the amount of money involved, it is no surprise that DTOs have benefitted from the already widespread corruption in the country. Honduras ranked 129th out of 183 countries in Transparency International's 2011 Corruption Perception Index.[xii] Consequently, what makes a substantial response to combating drug trafficking and TOC so challenging is that it is not merely a matter of addressing corruption and weak institutions, but also one of providing solutions to pressing societal and governance problems. In fact, surveys such as the Latinobarómetro demonstrate that support for democracy is falling.[xiii]

Yet, a democratic response by the Honduran state may be ambitious due to what Bruce Bagley calls the deinstitutionalization effect: "States determine the form or type of organized crime that can operate and flourish within a given national territory. Criminal organizations, in contrast, do not determine the type of state, although they certainly can deter or inhibit political reform efforts at all levels of a political system."[xiv] Violence and TOC spiked after the coup in 2009 for several reasons, which the international community should consider when formulating future policies sanctioning a country for undemocratic behavior. As James Bosworth points out, the diplomatic and financial isolation Honduras suffered in response to the coup created a vacuum that allowed TOC to operate more freely. The benefit for criminal groups from the isolation of a country violating basic democratic principles could create a natural incentive for such groups to actively attempt to topple democratic governments.[xv] U.S. counternarcotics assistance should therefore not have been discontinued, as the interim government lacked the resources to combat criminal groups on its own.[xvi] Furthermore, the Micheletti government focused on stabilizing its own fragile rule at this time. With few resources and little information available to the interim government, TOC was allowed to thrive.[xvii]

Although there are voices claiming that organized crime played a significant role in toppling the Zelaya administration, what criminal groups benefited from most was the vacuum created by the political instability, not the rule of a specific president.[xviii] Moreover, in addition to the domestic political issues the new Honduran government was struggling with, its legitimacy was also being called into doubt internationally.[xix] The rise in TOC from 2008 to 2009, the parallel escalation of gang violence, and the increase in illicit drug flights may have happened regardless of the 2009 coup, not because of it. As the balloon effect so validly explains, due to increased law enforcement efforts in Colombia and Mexico, increased TOC activity in Honduras may have been unavoidable.[xx] Nevertheless, corrupted authorities and weakened government institutions certainly aided the expansion of criminal groups in the country. Finally, it was the widespread insecurity and violence in Honduras that allowed TOC to tighten its grip on the country.

Transnational organized crime has exploited the already unstable citizen security situation in Central America in a diverse number of ways, with the illegal drug trade being a main driver of violence.[xxi] In Honduras, Atlántida is the province where most murders occur. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), one person out of every 1,000 is killed in a violent crime.[xxii] It is worth mentioning that the provinces with the highest homicide rates are also those provinces with the most strategic importance for the drug trade.[xxiii] Consequently, violence is both random and, at times, targeted. For example, in 2010, a Mexican DTO killed the Honduran antinarcotics czar, Julián Arístides González. In the same year, the Honduran National Directorate of Criminal Investigation (DNIC) stopped another plot to assassinate minister of security, Óscar Álvarez. The DNIC stated the attack was likely funded by a Mexican DTO.[xxiv] Drawing on this evidence, it is clear that TOC thrives on high levels of violence and crime in Honduras and, conversely, that crime and violence thrive on TOC activity.

The state has been unable to stem the rise in gang and drug-related violence during the past few years. The so-called mano dura (heavy hand) law that was aimed at cracking down on gang violence instead contributed to severe prison overcrowding. Whereas the academic discussion remains divided on whether the maras-violent criminal gangs originally founded in Los Angeles now found throughout the region-should be denominated as transnational, it is certain that they are used as "muscle" by Mexican organized criminal groups in Honduras.[xxv] The resulting relationship between transnational DTOs and local criminal youth gangs holds the country in a cycle of violence and insecurity. What is more, DTOs have been branching out, increasingly engaging in migrant smuggling and human trafficking across borders, further underpinning their transnational criminal operations and influence.

While TOC groups rake in huge profits, the costs of crime and violence to the state are immensely high-the World Bank estimates the overall cost of TOC to the region at 8 percent of GDP.[xxvi] These direct economic costs in health care and lack of competitiveness are accompanied by opportunity costs as well as less visible costs such as falling trust in the criminal justice system and deteriorating respect for the rule of law.[xxvii] A parallel development is the rise of private security firms, which is a clear indication of a lack of faith in the ability of the state to protect its citizens. While this development may increase the safety of those who can afford private security, it does little to improve the overall security situation in the country.[xxviii]

Responses To Date
Responses to these developments have taken on various approaches, with Honduras heavily reliant on outside military assistance. The United States, for example, is actively bolstering Honduras due to its important position in the illicit drug trade after reinstating its diplomatic ties and military assistance. As a new focal point in the drug war, the U.S. military has constructed three new forward bases in the country to easily access remote areas in which the drug trade is actively operating.[xxix] In an effort to support U.S. operations in the country, Honduran authorities are now beginning to destroy landing strips themselves.[xxx] However, independent Honduran efforts to combat TOC are undermined by the fact that the country lacks its own radar system, which makes it heavily reliant on U.S. information to identify the location of these landing strips.[xxxi] While the aim of these joint operations is to support Honduran efforts against TOC with desperately needed equipment, capacity, and expertise, it is questionable to what extent Honduran authorities can ensure implementation without violating human rights. This issue has become apparent through the death of four civilians, including two pregnant women, during a recent joint antidrug operation near the Mosquitia coast.[xxxii]

The increasing activity of the U.S. DEA in Honduras and casualties incurred during these operations call for reflection. The lack of a comprehensive and democratically anchored approach is highly problematic, precisely because TOC groups are so adaptive. The wide-ranging operational space of TOC and its ability to learn suggests a need for more coordination, particularly among the international bodies active in Central America as well as through the Central American Integration System (SICA).[xxxiii] Beyond DEA and military involvement, U.S. support to Central America is also increasing through the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI). Although not an initial priority for the U.S.-backed security agenda for Mexico and Central America, the recent increase in organized criminal activity has made it obvious that further attention on the region is crucial for U.S. and international security.

While the Obama administration's redefinition of domestic drug use as a public health rather than criminal justice issue is a positive step, drug consumption in Central America has risen. This increase is further proof of the interconnectedness of the drug trade. As supply strives to meet demand, more and more transporters are paid in drugs rather than in cash, fuelling consumption in the region. Throughout the world, drug consumption is increasing in transit countries for this reason.[xxxiv] As a result, this interconnectedness emphasizes that, "Central America's problem with organized crime is a direct consequence of the demand for narcotics from the United States," and other large consumer markets.[xxxv] Since drug abuse is a problem on an international scale, fighting the illicit drug trade will also require international solutions.

Observers have noted that TOC may be a bigger threat to the region than the civil wars of the 1980s, but the countries have neither the capacity nor the resources to confront this threat effectively.[xxxvi] Fundamentally, simple economics illustrate the asymmetry of power: roughly $38 billion in cocaine flows from South to North America every year, and, as mentioned above, the International Narcotics Control Strategy Report estimates that 79 percent of these drugs (i.e., $30 billion) pass through Honduras.[xxxvii] This is ten times as high as the Honduran state budget.[xxxviii] Furthermore, the Honduran police force not only lacks resources compared to the vast amount of cash involved in drug trafficking, it is also simply understaffed, with only 104 police officers for every 100,000 inhabitants.[xxxix] The following section will identify possible policy recommendations to combat TOC despite the challenges outlined above.

Policy Recommendations
Beyond closer international coordination, the most wide-ranging changes must be made on the national level. When considering possible policy options, it is crucial to keep in mind that eliminating illegal drug trafficking in the region will not eradicate crime. As Latin American leaders are debating alternatives to the drug war such as legalization and decriminalization, it is also necessary to reflect on the impacts of the potential legalization of drugs on TOC, which will most probably not be a panacea for Latin America's organized crime problems.[xl] Regardless of what combination of legalization and decriminalization policies are eventually chosen, the only way forward for Central America (and Honduras in particular) is to strengthen democratic institutions, reduce levels of corruption, and undergo a thorough reform of the criminal justice system and the security forces.

The Honduran state is facing the problem of lacking accountability mechanisms, which have permitted the continued infiltration of the police and justice systems of the country by TOC. There are also concerns on the U.S. side that information passed on to Honduran law enforcement is being leaked to DTOs.[xli] Honduras, moreover, needs to better implement the 2011 reform search and seizure laws to get into assets and bank accounts in order to prevent the money laundering of drug trafficking profits. Such developments should be combined with improved prosecution strategies and capacities; authorities should relentlessly go after businessmen, public officials, and political candidates with ties to TOC. Finally, an area of importance for the fight against TOC is that of extraditing Honduran nationals to the United States. Difficult in most Central American countries, the extradition of nationals is almost rendered impossible by the Honduran constitution.

Other issues of importance are capacity building and oversight. After the September 11th attacks, U.S. resources for the collection of TOC-related intelligence were diverted to other areas. The United States is now refocusing its resources on TOC.[xlii] Such capacities should also be developed among Honduran authorities. A further requirement is a commitment to full transparency, efficiency, and funding that allows the state to fulfill its duties. However, the focus cannot be solely on Honduras, as the fight against transnational crime is necessarily one that affects the entire region.

Central American countries have identified regional cooperation as a prerequisite for success in the fight against TOC. Considering successful reform experiences in the region, sharing best practices amongst these countries within the framework of SICA is a further useful approach. Peer learning is a recent development, with Honduran police authorities working on a joint action plan against organized crime with other Central American, Mexican, and Colombian forces.[xliii] The Honduran police are also being advised by their Colombian, Chilean, and Nicaraguan counterparts.[xliv] Moreover, Central American states are considering coordinating their antigang legislation, and the attorney generals are effectively cooperating in a mechanism set up for regional cooperation (such as the Council of Central American State Attorneys, known by its Spanish abbreviation CMPCAC). Finally, the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) is the first important step towards a Central American counternarcotics strategy.

The modernization of the fiscal system is another crucial factor. Honduras, as well as other Central American countries, needs more domestic resources to fight TOC. With low tax rates and revenues and incomplete accountability of budget spending, it is challenging to present a strong, united front against organized crime.

A promising idea being debated is the establishment of a Honduran International Commission against Impunity to combat TOC. Backed and funded by the international community and therefore equipped with international investigative capacities, the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala has been tackling corruption and organized crime in government institutions in that country. Although the experience in Guatemala has not brought all the promised successes, a similar body in Honduras could contribute to the fight against TOC groups by providing the desperately needed expertise in investigative capacities.[xlv] However, with bureaucratic turf wars being a possible obstacle, it is important to stress again that, regardless of a potential Honduran commission, the only long-term remedy is to strengthen Honduran domestic institutions. Transnational organized cooperation is therefore only part of the solution to combating transnational organized crime.

The Honduran National Congress recently passed a law for the full disarmament of the province of Colón, a good first step towards more state control and security.[xlvi] Together with physical security, improved social security for its citizens also constitutes an integral part of the fight against TOC in Honduras. Where social investment is taking place, closer coordination across the international aid system is a prerequisite. These are policy fields that projects supported by international donors should focus on in view of crime prevention. Short-term and long-term youth programs to permit their inclusion in the labor market should therefore be continued.

Lastly, with large projects, such as the establishment of Charter Cities being discussed, the Honduran state should not forget its foremost responsibility: protection of its citizens. Model development zones, such as Charter Cities, aim to establish private governance outside of the Honduran state's control-a ‘state within a state' with its own regulations, tax laws, and police.[xlvii] There is little guarantee of democratic oversight and accountability, or that TOC groups themselves cannot become active in these newly set up spaces. A Honduran Supreme Court of Justice ruling may still put a stop to the project on human rights, environmental, and social grounds. Either way, it is debatable to what extent the Honduran government would be kowtowing to the power of TOC groups with such a project.

The aim of this essay has been to demonstrate that TOC represents a severe threat to Honduran governance and stability. Affecting not only Honduras, but also the entire Central American region and beyond, the illicit drug trade is a public security issue of vast transnational importance. Honduras, however, does not have the resources to challenge the DTOs on its own, and while it is receiving much needed assistance from the United States and the international community, more reforms need to be implemented domestically. Moreover, developments such as the Charter Cities indicate that the national discourse is not focused enough on effectively equipping the state with the necessary capacities to combat criminal organizations. Yet, while the odds may seem overwhelmingly stacked in favor of TOC, with the adequate tools and the right convictions, there may still be a chance for Honduras and its Central American counterparts to win this fight.

Author's Biography
Ana-Constantina Kolb is a German-Honduran graduate student in public policy at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin. She holds a bachelor's degree in European Studies from King's College London. Among other positions, she has interned at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs as well as the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, and specializes in international drug policy.


[ii] Steven S. Dudley, "Drug Trafficking Organizations in Central America: Transportistas, Mexican Cartels, and Maras." (working paper series, U.S.-Mexico Security Collaboration, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington, DC: 2010), 3.
[iii] UN Office on Drugs and Crime, "Crime and Development in Central America: Caught in the Crossfire" (UNODC Research and Analysis Section, Vienna: 2007), 25.
[iv] U.S. Department of State, "2012 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report" (Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, Department of State, Washington DC: 2012),
[v] Marco Antonio Martinez, "Honduras since the coup: Drug Traffickers' Paradise" (Center for International Policy Americas Program, Mexico City: 2010),
[vi] UN Office on Drugs and Crime, "Global Study on Homicide" (UNODC Statistics and Sruvey Section, Vienna: 2011), 93.
[vii] Reporters Without Borders, "World Report: Honduras" (2011),,182.html.
[viii] UN Office on Drugs and Crime, "Transnational Organized Crime in Central America: A Threat Assessment" (UNODC, Vienna: 2012), 20.
[ix] Ibid.
[x] James Bosworth, "Honduras: Organized Crime Gained Amid Political Crisis," in Organized Crime in Central America: The Northern Triangle, ed. Cynthia Arnson and Eric Olson (Woodrow Wilson Center Reports on the Americas #29, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Latin America Program, Washington DC: 2011).
[xi] UNODC, "Transnational Organized Crime in Central America: A Threat Assessment," 76.
[xii] Transparency International, "Corruption by Country/Territory: Honduras" (2012),
[xiii] "The Latinobarómetro Poll: The discontents of progress," Economist, 29 October 2011,; Latinobarómetro is a non-profit organization that carries out public opinion surveys across Latin America.
[xiv] Bruce Bagley, "Drug Trafficking and Organized Crime in the Americas: Major Trends in the Twenty-First Century" (Woodrow Wilson Center Update on the Americas, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Latin America Program, Washington DC: 2012), 11.
[xv] Bosworth, 88.
[xvi] UNODC, "Transnational Organized Crime in Central America: A Threat Assessment," 44.
[xvii] Ibid.
[xviii] Ioan Grillo, "Behind the Murder of Honduras' Drug Czar," TIME, 9 December 2009,,8599,1948258,00.html.  
[xix] Daniel Altschuler, "Micheletti's Losing Battle for Honduras' Diplomatic Corps and its International Legitimacy," Americas Quarterly, 20 August 2009,
[xx] The balloon effect explains a displacement effect common in drug control policy. "When one squeezes a balloon, the displaced air moves in the balloon and pops out at another point in its surface. The simple image illustrates the dilemma of problems being merely displaced rather than eliminated," in Daniel Brombacher and Günther Maihold, "Cocaine Traffic to Europe" (German Institute for Security and International Affairs RP 10, Berlin: 2009), 20; UNODC, "Transnational Organized Crime in Central America: A Threat Assessment," (Vienna: 2011), 18-19.
[xxi] World Bank, "Crime and Violence in Central America: A Development Challenge" (World Bank Sustainable Development Department and Poverty Reduction and Economic Management Unit, Washington DC: 2011), 21.
[xxii] UN Office on Drugs and Crime, "Crime and Instability: Case studies of transnational threats" (Studies and Threat Analysis Section, Division for Policy Analysis and Public Affairs, Vienna: 2010), 23.
[xxiii] UNODC, "The Globalization of Crime: A Transnational Organized Crime Threat Assessment," 241.
[xxiv] Nick Miroff and William Booth, "Mexican drug cartels bring violence with them in move to Central America," Washington Post, 27 July 2010; "Desbaratan plan para ultimar a Oscar Álvarez" La Tribuna, 18 February 2010.
[xxv] Sonja Wolf, "Maras Transnacionales: Origins and Transformations of Central American Street Gangs," Latin American Research Review 45, no. 1 (2010), 256.
[xxvi] World Bank, "Crime and Violence in Central America: A Development Challenge" (World Bank Sustainable Development Department and Poverty Reduction and Economic Management Unit, Washington DC: 2011), 5.
[xxvii] Ibid., 9.
[xxviii] UNODC, "Transnational Organized Crime in Central America: A Threat Assessment," 71.
[xxix] Thom Shanker, "Lessons of Iraq Help U.S. Fight a Drug War in Honduras," New York Times, 5 May 2012.
[xxx]  "Destruidas 51 narcopistas," La Tribuna, 7 September 2012.
[xxxi] Edward Fox, "Honduras Destroys 51 ‘Narco' Airstrips," Insight Crime (Washington DC: 2012),
[xxxii] Charlie Savage and Thom Shanker, "D.E.A.'s Agents Join Counternarcotics Efforts in Honduras," New York Times, 16 May 2012.
[xxxiii] Juan Carlos Garzón Vergara, "The Rebellion of Criminal Networks: Organized Crime in Latin America and the Dynamics of Change" (Woodrow Wilson Center Update on the Americas, Washington DC: 2012), 4; The Central American Integration System (SICA) is a political, economic and cultural organization of Central American States aimed at consolidating Central American integration.
[xxxiv] UN Office on Drugs and Crime, "World Drug Report 2012" (Research and Trend Analysis Branch, Vienna: 2012), 66.
[xxxv] Arnson and Olson, 14.
[xxxvi] Dudley, 52.
[xxxvii] UNODC, "Crime and Instability," 4.
[xxxviii] Central Intelligence Agency, "The World Factbook: Honduras" (2012),
[xxxix] UNODC, "Crime and Development in Central America," 31.
[xl] Fernando Henrique Cardoso, "The war on drugs has failed. Now we need a more humane strategy," Guardian, 6 September 2009.
[xli] Bosworth, 94.
[xlii] National Security Council, "Strategy to Combat Transnational Organized Crime: Addressing Converging Threats to National Security" (Washington, DC: 2011), 17.
[xliii] "Centroamérica, México y Colombia discuten planes contra crimen organizado," El Heraldo, 23 August 2012.
[xliv] "Violence in Honduras: In the eye of the storm," Economist, 16 June 2012,
[xlv] Bosworth, 92.
[xlvi] "Decretan desarme general en el Bajo Aguán," La Prensa, 1 August 2012.
[xlvii] "City Building: Hong Kong in Honduras," Economist, 10 December 2011; Jonathan Watts, "Honduras to build new city with its own laws and tax system to attract new investors," Guardian, 6 September 2012.
[i] World Bank, "Crime and Violence in Central America: A Development Challenge" (World Bank Sustainable Development Department and Poverty Reduction and Economic Management Unit, Washington DC: 2011), 12.