Oscar Alvarez, former Security Minister under Porfirio Lobo Sosa, introduced a bill in the lame duck Congress to permit the Honduran Armed Forces to shoot down suspected drug planes, among other rules.
Yesterday, by a vote of 80 to 1, Congress passed the law. This comes as Honduras prepares to install three radar systems it purchased from Israel after the US removed radars when the Honduran air force shot down two separate alleged drug flights in 2012, in violation of international treaties and an agreement with the US.
The new law creates an exclusion zone in the airspace over the departments of Gracias a Dios, Colon, and Olancho between the hours of 6 pm and 6 am. The alleged goal is to prevent the arrival of narco-airplanes. Only planes with legally filed flight plans would be allowed in the zone during those hours. The law also establishes that no plane can fly under 18,000 feet, or slower than 300 knots during this time period in the exclusion zone.
Planes without flight plans that show up in the region or disobey the rules would be intercepted by the Honduran air force from La Ceiba (the nearest military airfield) and the interceptors would attempt contact. If the plane fails to talk to, or obey the instructions of the interceptor, the protocol would permit shooting it down, but only with the explicit authorization of the Minister of Defense for this incident.
As we noted when Honduras originally proposed this, the country would have to repudiate its signature to several international air treaties to implement it, especially the Chicago Convention which prohibits the shooting down of civilian aircraft.
Honduras signed the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) protocol documents in 1944, and portions of it became effective in 1945 while others took until 1953 to become in effect. A specific clause (3bis) explicitly prohibiting the shooting down of civilian aircraft without a declaration of national emergency was added in the 1990s.
Likewise Honduras signed, but apparently never ratified, the Montreal treaty on civilian air traffic which again does not allow for shooting down civilian aircraft.
Nor is it clear that this new law will have the effect that is intended.
The conditions proposed in the law affect overflight traffic unless the plane is flying above 18000 feet and traveling more than 300 knots. Many civil aviation aircraft can do neither.
Many planes typically used to haul drugs have no problem flying at that altitude or speed. They are typically executive jets or planes, capable of holding 8-12 passengers or equivalent in cargo.
The kinds of aircraft interdicted here would be those used for air taxi service to small, legal airstrips in the region, as well as seaplane or pontoon plane air taxis. These typically hold 2-6 passengers, typically fly at speeds well under 300 knots, and altitudes well under 18,000 feet (they lack pressurized cabins and sources of oxygen).
Because planes crossing the no-fly zone would have to be sure to clear it before 6 pm, and the height and speed exceptions are impossible for air taxis and general aviation, this law has the potential to reduce useful air service in the region.
Nor does the history of other countries that have made similar attempts suggest it will stop illegal drug flights over Honduras
The Dominican Republic passed a law allowing their military to shoot down drug planes, and they proceeded to shoot several down. What that did was temporarily cause the cartels to switch to water based shipping, and to move air flights out into international waters except for the last few minutes of the flight, which can be done at treetop levels. Drug overflights have since rebounded in the Dominican Republic.
Venezuela began such a policy in October, 2013, and has shot down a few aircraft. A Mexican executive jet was reportedly shot down, creating an international incident where Mexico is still looking for answers as to how the plane, and some of its citizens, were targeted and killed by the Venezuelan air force. The new policy has not resulted in a slowing of drug flights from Venezuela to Central America and the Dominican Republic.
In Peru, the same policy resulted in at least one civilian aircraft loaded with missionaries being shot down and some of the occupants killed (gun camera video here). It's notable that Peru followed the same "protocol" specified in the Honduran law.
All of these countries still have drug overflights in similar numbers to prior to the shift in policy.
Why would anyone expect a different outcome in Honduras?
Then there's the question of why only part of the airspace is being targeted.
The region targeted seems mostly crafted to disrupt the Zetas, who are the primary users of airstrips in eastern Honduras, leaving other parts of Honduran airspace used by the Sinaloa cartel along the Guatemalan and Salvadoran border, unchanged. Is someone crafting policy to favor one cartel over the other?
The new policy might have the effect of shifting the pattern of drug overflights, but planes can continue to land in Yoro and Atlantida, where they often use roads as landing strips. This would match the experience of other countries that have tried this policy where it resulted in changes in the patterns of transshipment of drugs, but failed as an interdiction strategy.
Finally there's the question of the US response.
While the Southern Command has been known to promote such a policy for countries that we support in the war in drugs, the United States also has a strict policy since 1994 to not share intelligence or data with countries that do so, lest information we supply lead to such a downing, which under US law would make the information providers accomplices to an illegal act.
That's why the US packed up its radar and stopped sharing information with Honduras in 2012 when Honduras shot down two alleged drug planes using US provided information.
Instead of temporarily withdrawing support for Honduras, support could be permanently withdrawn under current US policy if Honduras adopts this law.
Shooting down planes is bad policy.
It hasn't worked elsewhere. It won't work in Honduras. It doesn't work.