TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras – The United States has suspended sharing of radar intelligence with Honduras because the Central American nation's air force shot down two suspected drug planes in violation of agreements with Washington, the State Department and U.S. military confirmed Friday.
The decision came after two separate incidents in July, when civilian aircraft were shot down off the coast of northern Honduras, said William Ostick, spokesman for the State Department's Western Hemispheric Affairs Office. The U.S. agreement with Honduras for information sharing specifically prohibits shooting down civilian aircraft.
"We don't have information about the occupants or the cargo," said Ostick, who didn't say when the suspension began.
A State Department official said the radar intelligence was blocked starting in mid-August. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter.
At the U.S. military's Southern Command, spokesman Jose Ruiz also said information sharing had been halted.
"The U.S. government has suspended the sharing of all aerial intercept information with the government of Honduras and will assess our ability to resume sharing this information once the Honduran government has implemented all necessary remedial measures," Ruiz said.
President Porfirio Lobo replaced the head of the Honduran air force Aug. 25, a day after a visit by Gen. Douglas Fraser, head of the U.S. Southern Command.
Lobo acknowledged Thursday that the replacement was made because of a shooting-down incident that didn't follow protocol, but said he was not pressured by the U.S. to do so. He said Honduras has a procedure for bringing down aircraft, but he did not give details.
Ostick also said there was no pressure to replace the air force chief, but he added that the U.S. is reviewing Honduran drug-interdiction procedures and protocols to prevent future incidents.
The U.S. ambassador to Honduras, Lisa Kubiske, "expressed our grave concern to senior Honduran officials and asked for a full account from the Honduran government on these two incidents," Ostick said. "She has insisted, and we have insisted, on the implementation of a series of remedial measure to assure this does not happen again."
The State Department and Drug Enforcement Administration agents have worked regularly with Honduran security forces to fight drug-trafficking, most recently in a three-month offensive called Operation Anvil to stop planes carrying cocaine into the country. It wasn't clear Friday if the two planes were shot down as part of activities in the joint operation, which ended in mid-July.
A six-page agreement in 2004 on U.S. support for aerial counter-narcotics efforts with Honduras bans damaging, destroying or disabling aircraft as they are flying. It says Hondurans are allowed to fire warning shots "as a signaling measure, using ammunition containing tracer rounds," but says suspect aircraft cannot be in the line of fire.
The agreement specifies that if Honduras' government does not comply, the U.S. can cut off all assistance related to intercepting civil aircraft.
The State Department already has put a temporary hold on funds to the Honduran National Police while a U.S. group looks into the alleged human rights violations by Police Chief Juan Carlos Bonilla, nicknamed "The Tiger. The Bonilla investigation is a separate issue and is still under way, Ostick said.
International crackdowns in Mexico and the Caribbean have pushed drug trafficking to Central America, which is now the crossing point for 84 percent of all U.S.-bound cocaine, according to the U.S. military. Honduras is now the main landing point for such drug flights from South America.
Operation Anvil was run with six State Department helicopters and a special team of DEA agents working with Honduran police and military units to move more quickly and pursue suspicious flights.
The operation focused in Honduras' remote northern region and netted nearly a ton of cocaine, but also resulted in the deaths of at least a half dozen people, including a May 11 attack that locals said killed four innocent civilians traveling on a river at night. Honduran and DEA officials have said people on the boat fired first and the lawmen were acting in self-defense.
The pilot of a suspected drug flight was shot dead by two DEA agents in July after U.S. officials said he refused to surrender and made a threatening gesture. A DEA agent killed another suspected drug trafficker in a similar operation in late June.
The U.S. move to cut off radar information is not without precedent.
In April 1994, the Clinton administration cut off sharing of real-time aerial tracking information with the Peruvian and Colombian governments after they adopted "forcedown" policies that would allow them to shoot down suspected drug-trafficking airplanes. But by the end of the year, Clinton amended the National Defense Authorization Act, allowing shoot-downs if deemed necessary to defend the national security of Peru and Colombia.
Also in 2001, a U.S. Baptist missionary woman and her infant daughter were killed in the Peruvian Amazon after the plane they were travelling on was shot down. A surveillance plane operated by the CIA initially identified the plane as a possible drug flight, and a Peruvian interceptor then shot it down — over the protests of the CIA personnel on the surveillance plane.
Washington immediately suspended its surveillance flights in both Peru and Colombia pending investigations and reforms that could prevent accidents.
Poor communications and a language barrier between the Peruvian military and U.S. personnel on the CIA-run tracker jet, as well as Peru's inadequate air traffic control system, played a role, a U.S. Senate committee concluded.
Associated Press writer Martha Mendoza reported this story from Santa Cruz, California, and Alberto Arce reported in Tegucigalpa.