November 11, 2010

Honduras' Avionetazo

Marlon Pascua and General Carlos Cuéllar
Minister of Defense Marlon Pascua with General Carlos Cuéllar

All photos: La Tribuna, Honduras

Though few questions are being answered about the 'Avionetazo', the brazen theft of a confiscated narco plane [English] on October 31, it has been announced that somewhere between US $300,000 and $400,000 was paid to the participants for their actions or inaction. Presumably that information came from one or more of the 19 military who were questioned and detained by the military. (Note: all links are to Spanish-language articles unless otherwise noted.)

Marlene BanegasThe interim coordinator of the San Pedro Ministerio Publico (MP - similar to District Attorney), Marlene Banegas, has been quite vocal much to the chagrin of Minister of Defense Marlon Pascua, who expressed his displeasure in a television interview. Banegas said that the incident happened around 10 p.m. on Sunday night but wasn't reported to civilian officials until about 4 a.m. Monday morning. She stated that after the plane left San Pedro, it landed in La Ceiba where it was fueled, filled with (narco) money, and then flew on to Colombia. She announced that the five individuals who stole the plane have been identified but because of the ongoing investigation, she can't name them.

Minister of Defense Pascua stated that 19 military, including 4 "officials" have been identified as being involved, but similarly stated that he can't name them due to the ongoing investigation. He has given even less information to the media than Banegas, but specifically stated that at no time has he accused Lt. Colonel Gonzales, commander of the San Pedro base, of being involved.

The other colonel

Col. Helmer HermidaPossibly also involved was the La Ceiba base comandante Colonel Hilmer Hermida, who, according to Banegas, mysteriously "arrived at the SPS base on Sunday night 20 minutes after the theft" (San Pedro is a minimum 2-hour drive from La Ceiba or about a 30-minute flight).

In a radio interview, transcribed by La Tribuna, Colonel Hermida expressed his anger at Fiscal Banegas. He told of receiving a call from his commander at 10:33 p.m. telling him to take precautionary measures in his unit [the La Ceiba air force base]. His answers seem evasive. He finally mentions at the end of the transcript that Lt. Colonel Gonzáles was present at the La Ceiba base at the time (!) and that he asked Colonel Hermida to "help him take control of the SPS base." Hermida said that he asked and received permission from his commander to do so. He said they arrived at the SPS base at 11:20 p.m. and that the log book [maintained by the military under these officers' control] will prove that. He also said that he gave all this information to the Fiscal but doesn't know where she is getting the information she is giving to the media.

Based on this information, one hypothesis might be that the agreement was that payment for the 'favor' would be made in La Ceiba when the narco plane was free and clear of San Pedro. Both colonels would have a solid alibi that they were not in San Pedro and the bribe money would not be in San Pedro where searches might find it. If they were involved, they could have departed La Ceiba for San Pedro immediately after overseeing the landing, receiving the payment, and seeing the takeoff of the plane in La Ceiba.

The full weight of the law - measured in milligrams

Also under investigation is Interairports (Aeropuertos de Honduras), the concessionaire who runs the Honduran airports, related to the fact that lights and radar were turned off and security cameras were unable to capture any information (apparently at either airport).

Despite all the talk of applying "the full weight of the law", Banegas said the accused would be charged with "the crime of aggravated vehicle theft". There was no mention of bribery, treason, illegal enrichment, dereliction of duty, or other crimes. On November 5, Pascua said the case was in the hands of the Fiscal. On November 7, it was announced that, because the crime was committed on military property, any accused military will be under the jurisdiction of military law, which Marlon Pascua described as "muy suave" (very soft) compared to Honduras' criminal law.

The Avionetazo shows every sign of following the long list of Honduras' '-azo' scandals [English] that fade from the headlines with at most a bit of temporary embarrassment for those involved — who often bounce back quickly by being reelected to office, appointed to high-level government positions, or receiving lucrative government contracts!

Liberty for the implicated military

A few days after the theft of the narco plane, it was announced that 14 military personal were involved and were in military custody. That number was upped to 19 and apparently does not include Lt. Col. Gonzáles who was in charge of the Armando Escalón military base in San Pedro Sula.

Yesterday, CODEH (Committee for Human Rights) filed a writ of habeas corpus, claiming that the soldiers were being denied their individual and constitutional rights as they had not yet been formally charged with anything. The Appellate Court ordered that the 19 be released from custody and they were. CODEH is likely one of those human rights organizations who President Lobo was referring to, along with COFADEH [English], when he recently accused "some" of these human rights organizations of mixing politics with human rights and taking actions to denigrate Honduras based on the dollars they receive from "the exterior". CODEH had a valid argument this time, but during the past year and a half this organization has been infamous for denouncing non-existent death camps, planned military-led massacres, and other absurdities that no legitimate media in the world have found credible enough to report.

Lt. Col. Juan Carlos GonzalesThe SPS comandante Juan Carlos Gonzáles was suspended from his duties but no mention was made of any measures to ensure that he didn't leave the country nor that his house or bank accounts were being searched for large amounts of US cash. (With a possible US $400,000 floating around, you might think that would be the first thing they would do. Maybe they did; they aren't talking.)

More Keystone Kops

Last week, it was announced that the Ministerio Publico would be taking Gonzáles' statement/questioning him on Monday or Tuesday (a week after the fact!). Later the MP said they couldn't find him to serve him the subpoena — though reporters have apparently had no trouble in finding him for a statement. Then, according to La Tribuna, the MP was waiting for the two officers to present themselves voluntarily to give their declarations. Today it was reported that Colonel Hermida will give his statement today (12 days after the fact) and that Lt. Colonel Gonzales said he was unaware whether a citation from the MP had arrived and that he is waiting for the required legal citation. Who knows what tomorrow will bring? Clearly, the officers have had almost two weeks to work on their stories and, if they were involved, plenty of time to dispose of the cash where it cannot be found.

Interpol issued an international alert regarding the stolen plane on Monday (a full week after the theft!).

The MP, in a ridiculous statement yesterday, announced that the Secretary of Defense is obligated to return the airplane that was put into their custody or pay its equivalent in cash. It is a ridiculous statement because no officials in Honduras under any circumstances are ever held responsible for their actions. At most, this would result in one arm of the government paying another arm and who pays for that? The people of Honduras, who in the end pay for all corruption! Instead of cooperating to finalize a serious and speedy investigation, we are seeing infighting among the government organizations.

Despite all the talk, I wouldn't be surprised if, as usual, a few peons go to prison for a short time (for the 'show'), until their convictions are overturned, while the higher-ups get off scot-free, with the bribe money intact. The MP is famous for dragging out cases until the accused are nowhere to be found and the witnesses have forgotten, can't be found, or have been bribed or intimidated into not responding.

Business as usual in Honduras.

Tomorrow: How bad is the MP's record and how many planes are there?
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