assessments

Jul 2, 2012 | 10:31 GMT

3 mins read

Honduras' Counternarcotics Benefactor

Honduras' Counternarcotics Benefactor
STR/AFP/Getty Images
Summary

An unnamed U.S. official in Honduras has revealed the existence of Operation Anvil, an aggressive counternarcotics strategy officially established in April by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), U.S. media reported June 25. The purpose of the strategy is to track drug-laden aircraft entering Honduran airspace and to intercept those aircraft on clandestine landing strips. Through Operation Anvil, the United States is attempting to disrupt cocaine shipments heading north from South America into Central America, a geographic choke point for U.S.-bound narcotics.

Already the strategy has yielded results. In just two months, U.S. and Honduran law enforcement have intercepted four aircraft, compared to the seven aircraft they intercepted from mid-2010 to December 2011. And on June 23, Honduran police and DEA agents seized some 360 kilograms (793 pounds) of cocaine near Ahuas, Gracias a Dios department, during a raid under the aegis of Operation Anvil.

In addition to the necessary personnel and military hardware, conducting these operations requires extensive intelligence-gathering capabilities, equipment and support infrastructure. In Honduras, where there is limited military capability and capital, the United States must provide the vast majority of these assets. The aircraft intercepts are only the visible part of a larger counternarcotics effort in Central America. 

June 23 Raid in Honduras

June 23 Raid in Honduras

Central America is a crucial transshipment point for drugs, particularly South American cocaine that is headed to the United States. Its geographic location, weak law enforcement and institutional corruption make it susceptible to drug trafficking activities. The remote, poorly patrolled coastal departments of eastern Honduras are logical points of entry for cocaine shipments — nearly 80 percent of U.S.-bound cocaine passes through these areas.

But areas of heavy smuggling are vulnerable to disruption. Cocaine shipments to eastern Honduras are large — only further inland do traffickers divide shipments to make interception more difficult — which enables law enforcement agencies to make larger seizures.

Breadth of Operations

The effectiveness of the raids belies the difficulty of executing the operations used in Operation Anvil. Deploying ground forces by air to random locations in a timely manner requires significant amounts of assets, command and control, coordination, training and money. The units involved have to identify suspected smuggling aircraft through various forms of intelligence. Otherwise, assets monitoring airspace — P-3 patrol aircraft, for example — could identify suspicious planes and track them through the airspace to their offload location. After a suspected target is identified, the ground assault force would need to be prepared for the mission. 

Moreover, counternarcotics agents would need a mission plan, even if only a general template used for all such missions. Personnel would need to be fully equipped for combat prior to the raid. Also prior to the raid, they would have to have been loaded onto a helicopter that was either following a target aircraft or loitering in a nearby airfield.

Timing and precision are crucial in such operations — large cocaine shipments remain in place only while the aircraft is unloaded. Law enforcement aircraft would have to observe the target on the ground and provide real-time intelligence updates to the inbound assault force. Some form of communication network and joint operation center would need to be in place to provide command and control and to coordinate the multiple assets. 

Given their breadth and complexity, the operations necessitate more than the Honduran government alone can procure. If the publicly available tactical details of the raids are accurate, then the United States is probably giving Honduras more than helicopters and Foreign-deployed Advisory and Support Teams. Such assistance would provide Honduran forces with intelligence, equipment and personnel assets to enhance their ability to seize drug shipments transiting the country.

Notably, corruption within Honduran security forces limits the efficacy of any U.S. assistance. Corruption limits U.S. willingness to share intelligence. Shielding Honduran police from corruption is difficult, if not impossible, and the specially vetted units used for raids may not be an exception.   

It is unclear whether Operation Anvil will force drug traffickers to reroute their shipments to evade interception. Of course, traffickers may retaliate by threatening or killing Honduran government or law enforcement officials, but they will probably not confront U.S. forces directly, preferring only to evade capture.

The territorial scope of Operation Anvil likewise remains unclear. If U.S.-Honduran raids disrupt the flow of cocaine sufficiently, drug traffickers could be pressured to move their product through different parts of Honduras. Otherwise, they may choose less patrolled routes, such as those through the Caribbean or Nicaragua, for landing shipments. Any adaptation to law enforcement efforts could complicate the U.S. efforts to stem the flow of narcotics through the Central American choke point. 

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