An investigation by Contracorriente revealed the effects of drug trafficking in the communities of El Merendón, in northern Honduras, where villagers still fear Geovanny Fuentes despite his arrest and sentence in the United States. Fuentes used public institutions to carry out illegal activities and his case showed how rooted criminal organizations are within the Honduran State. Is Honduras still a narco-state? Contracorriente discussed this issue on Twitter Space.
Text: Daniel Fonseca
Photography: Fernando Destephen y Jorge Cabrera
Translated by: José Rivera
The US Attorney for the Southern District of New York stated in May 2023 that former Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernandez governed the country as a «narco-state», «he acquired political power through bribes with money from the drug trade and held on to that power to allow unrestricted transit of drugs in Honduras». This is not the first time the term «narco-state» was used.
Back in March 2021, during the trial that found Geovanny Fuentes guilty, the District Attorney used that same term to refer to Honduras. He stated that in Honduras politicians, judges, businessmen, police and military serve the interests of drug cartels that export illegal substances to the United States.
After the extradition of 37 Hondurans, including businessmen such as Geovanny Fuentes, former Chief of Police, Juan Carlos «El Tigre» Bonilla, former president Hernández and his brother, former congressman Antonio Hernández, allegations that drug trafficking controlled the State seem well-founded.
After Juan Orlando Hernández’s arrest and the weakening of different drug trafficking operations that were run by the other extradited Hondurans, several sectors in the country assured that the «narco-state» was weakened or doesn’t exist anymore, while others claim that the criminal organizations that used the State to carry out their operations have simply evolved and are still there.
¿Qué ha pasado con el «narcoestado»? ¿se desarticuló? ¿sigue vigente? ¡Ven a nuestro #ViernesDeSpace para conversar sobre este tema!— Contracorriente (@ContraC_HN) June 1, 2023
Nos acompañan @jcardonaerazo, ministro de @Sedesolhn y presidente del Consejo Directivo del @ip_hond y el analista @oscarlestrada. pic.twitter.com/Yr3EW9dwEk
On June 2, Contracorriente discussed this issue with Óscar Estrada and José Carlos Cardona, Secretary of Social Development (Sedesol) who is also president of the board of directors in the Land Registry.
What is life like for communities affected by the drug trade?
An investigation by Contracorriente showed how Geovanny Fuentes used public institutions to carry out illegal businesses in the mountain of El Merendón, in the department of Cortés, in northern Honduras. There he ran a narcotics laboratory, set up a mine without environmental permits, and contributed to deforestation to produce sawdust for his biomass business, a common practice in money laundering. He also illegally mortgaged more than 1,300 acres of land inhabited and cultivated by communities. It was all backed up by the mayor, police, a transnational company, and a Honduran bank.
Due to this property fraud, locals in the region live under the threat of eviction and no institution has been held accountable.
Jennifer Ávila, Editorial Director at Contracorriente, stated that Geovanny Fuentes’ case goes deeper than his crimes and allegations by the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York and Honduran institutions in collaboration with criminal organizations. Companies also backed him up as he was trafficking drugs, committing environmental crimes, and property fraud. “These events that took place years ago still have an impact on communities in Choloma and public institutions”, said Ávila.
Secretary Cardona stated that the collusion between drug traffickers and the Honduran State led to the country’s reputation as a «narco-state». “These are deep power structures that were or are still rooted in the State”, said Cardona and added that “the State became an office for drug traffickers and their interests”.
This collusion was evident, explained Cardona, when we look at how the Land Registry and other public institutions were run. “We all know what happened to the former president of the board of directors in the Land Registry, Ebal Jair Díaz Lupian, we know that as a politician and administrator, he was involved in protecting the interests of those who looted this country”, he added. Ebal Díaz, who is currently in exile in Nicaragua, was an important figure during Hernandez’ administration.
Cardona assured that the current administration has taken action to dismantle the narco-state, but has not made much progress because «the judicial branch and specifically the Public Prosecutor’s Office are still run by individuals from the previous administration and the National Party».
Can the narco-state be brought down?
According to Óscar Estrada, journalist and author of Tierra de Narcos (Land of Drug Traffickers), Xiomara Castro’s administration has taken steps to purge narco structures within public institutions.
«These structures are deeply rooted and it is hard to resist its economic power and unless institutions constantly persecute, investigate, and purge, the State quickly becomes corrupted by the influence of the drug trade», stated Estrada.
The lack of State oversight in rural areas or areas far from the economic and social centers in the country is an obstacle to fighting the narco-state. For example, departments such as Yoro, Colón, Olancho and Gracias a Dios, particularly the region of la Mosquitia, are areas that have been under the control of drug cartels for years.
«If you travel to La Mosquitia you’re lucky if you find an outpost with a couple of military officers, a school, a health center, and that’s the extent of the State there», said Estrada.
Estrada points out that in those regions criminal groups replace the State and take care of functions such as regulation of property, defense, security, and the economy.
«The State doesn’t have a monopoly on power based on classical political theory, there’s an oligopoly because the State has equal or less military power than drug traffickers», Estrada added.
In addition to its influence on public institutions, analysts indicate that criminal groups also work with cattle farmers.
«If we had a satellite image of the development of agriculture in eastern Olancho, as years go by you would notice that the influence of drug trafficking has expanded, deforestation has increased and conflicts in regions such as la Mosquitia have worsened», said Secretary Cardona.
Estrada added that some experts consider that soccer teams are a warning sign and can point to the influence of drug trafficking. «Let’s consider the Los Cachiros carter at the height of their operations and the soccer team from Tocoa that made it to the first division», said Estrada alluding to Olancho FC, a soccer team from that department in eastern Honduras where the drug trade has had a strong presence. That team made it to the first division in the National League for the first time in its history in May 2023.
On Twitter Space, Contracorriente’s Editorial Director, Jennifer Ávila, said that the narco-state has gone through some changes after Antony «Tony» Hernández’ trial which exposed in a very clear way how public institutions protect the interests of drug traffickers.
Otto Argueta, historian and PhD. in Political Science, joined the conversation and added, «we know that a narco-state, in all of its forms, and considering the dynamics of drug trafficking, cannot be seen in terms of black and white, “government good; drug traffickers bad”, on the contrary, it’s a symbiosis and both rely on each other. The question is, what’s the reach of drug traffickers within the State?»
Secretary José Carlos Cardona concluded: «The entire economy of drug trafficking was apparently shaken after the extradition of Juan Orlando Hernández and the other Hondurans, but it’s still operating. It’s like a plague, like a beehive without a queen».
Does the narco-state still exist?
Weeks after the Twitter Space took place, many events in Honduras brought back the discussion on organized crime within the State, including security forces.
On June 20, a confrontation between members of the MS-13 and Barrio 18 gangs inside a women’s prison resulted in the killing of 46 inmates. This is one of the deadliest clashes in Honduran prisons and happened amid an extended state of emergency that took effect in December 2022 and intervention from the executive branch in the National Penitentiary System.
As a response, President Xiomara Castro ordered the military forces to take control of prisons, a task she gave to the police in April 2022. Military forces took over the prisons in the country and it was similar to what we have seen during the administration of Nayib Bukele in El Salvador, who has been accused of torturing inmates, according to human rights activists.
Minister of Security, Ramón Sabillón, was dismissed even though he did not lead the audit commission and had an important role in the extradition of drug traffickers in this administration. In addition, colonel Elías Melgar, whose name was brought up in the trials in New York, resigned from his position as Junior Minister of Security.
There is also a wave of violence in many parts of the country. On Friday, June 23, Ericka Julissa Bandy was murdered. She was the widow of Magdaleno Meza Fúnez, a drug trafficker who was shot and killed in the maximum security prison «El Pozo» in October 2019. Magdaleno Meza was an associate of Antonio Hernández, a drug trafficker, former congressman, and brother of Juan Orlando Hernández.
The next day, Saturday, June 24, a massacre in Choloma, Cortés, led to the death of 13 people, eight of which were part of the labor union from Empresa Gildan San Miguel.
The former Minister of Public Accountability, Edmundo Orellana, recently resigned from his position and denounced in the 30/30 panel (a TV program from a Honduran news broadcast) that the police is responsible for the wave of violence in the country and that institutions in charge of safeguarding justice and security have to be purged. «Those responsible are not in the streets anymore, they’re part of the police and we have to find them and hold them accountable».
On Monday, June 26, before operation «Fe y Esperanza» took place, Colonel Fernando Muñoz said a Christian prayer in front of dozens of military officers and asked God to help the armed forces «resist corruption». «Help us so we don’t accept cursed money from criminal organizations that bribe and coerce authorities with the blood of our people», said the commander of the military forces.