What to do about Honduras

What to do about Honduras

"Our homeland is bleeding painfully," is how Honduran Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez put it recently at a religious event whose audience included Honduran President Porfirio Lobo.

Indeed, Honduras is spiraling into an ungovernable and unstable situation due to the increased operations of international drug syndicates and their local gang proxies within its territory.

Last October, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime reported that Honduras, a nation of 7.6 million, now has the highest homicide rate in the world.

Honduras is a victim of what counter-narcotics experts refer to as the "balloon effect," where heavy pressures on traffickers in Colombia and Mexico have forced them to relocate to less dangerous environments such as Honduras, where they are flooding the country with hundreds of millions of dollars in drug profits, bribing legislators, judges and police officials, and further debilitating already weak institutions.

What can the U.S. do about this situation? Well, the first thing that’s important is emphasizing what we should not do — and that is cut off all police and military aid, as a recent tendentious op-ed in the New York Times argued. The piece went on to make the preposterous claim that the Obama administration is responsible for the drug carnage in Honduras because it supported elections to end the 2009 presidential crisis that saw the ouster of proto-authoritarian Manuel Zelaya.

While it is true that the Honduras crisis does have its origins in the U.S., it’s not quite the way the op-ed’s author imagines. It is the U.S. insatiable demand for illicit narcotics that fuels the crisis there and throughout Central America. (U.S. officials estimate that fully 95 percent of the illegal drugs that go from South America to the United States pass through Central America.)

As such, we have an obligation to the Honduran people to help mitigate the violent fallout. But we also have to recognize the U.S.’s present fiscal situation and that major new assistance initiatives are unlikely to be contemplated. But there are important things we can do now within present budgets.

Because the narcos have so thoroughly penetrated the police forces, the military has had to be called in to try and stabilize the situation. We need to work with the Honduran government to allow the DEA to train and vet special law enforcement units as they have done in other countries. Without wholesale reform of front-line units, no progress in the drug war will be possible. Similarly, increased support for witness, judge and prosecutor protection programs to eradicate impunity is essential.

Second, the U.S. needs to implement an extradition treaty with Honduras as quickly as possible. Extradition to the U.S. is what kingpins fear the most, because they know they cannot buy their way out. It has proved extremely valuable in Colombia’s war against the cartels and needs to be replicated here.

Yet, these immediate steps and any subsequent measures cannot succeed absent local leadership, which is something the U.S. cannot provide. Regrettably, President Lobo’s tenure has not been marked by strong leadership on this front. In short, he is no President Uribe of Colombia. 

Honduras needs a leader who is willing to take on the drug cartels and those corrupted by them and move his country — principally the political and economic elites — to make the necessary sacrifices to reclaim their country’s sovereignty from the drug lords and gangs. President Uribe challenged the wealthy to radically increase Colombia’s security resources and they responded, because they saw him as a leader who could be trusted.

Of course, reducing U.S. demand for illegal drugs would begin to solve the problem, but that is not going to happen in the short-term, and the house is on fire today. Decriminalization is a pipe dream. Neither is walking away from the problem a serious option. Honduras’s war on drugs is ours too, and it’s time that both sides begin treating it as such.

[Full disclosure: In July 2009, I helped to advise a Honduran business delegation that came to Washington during their presidential crisis to defend Manuel Zelaya’s removal from power.]