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Institutions in remote Honduras are permeated by organized drug crime

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Last year, a man known as Tony Hernandez was sentenced to life in prison on federal drug trafficking charges. Now, that was in the U.S. But he's also a former congressman in Honduras, where his brother is the country's outgoing president.

CARLOS DADA: I don't like to talk about the United States as a single entity. There has been a conflict between the DEA policies in the region and the State Department policies in the region. While the State Department was supporting all this time President Juan Orlando Hernandez, the DEA was investigating him for his links with drug trafficking.

CORNISH: Journalist Carlos Dada has reported a lot about Central America as co-founder of the online newspaper El Faro, and his latest story took him deep into the links between drug cartels and the Honduran military and businessmen and politicians.

DADA: So it's the whole institutionality of the state at the service of drug trafficking. That's what we usually understand as a narco-state.

CORNISH: In late November Honduras elected new leaders - new mayors, new Congress members and a new president. Carlos Dada went to a remote department - Colon, a place controlled by drug traffickers for many years.

DADA: As one Honduran journalist told me, it is a place that is outside the dynamics of global economy. So there is not much chance of survival or of agency on a better future for - especially for the young people of the region. But drug trafficking - that's the best offering of a better life that they have in that region. It's an impoverished region controlled by big agro-industrial businessmen and drug traffickers. That's how it is.

CORNISH: And you write, interestingly, that they also fill the vacuum where the government fails - right? - whether that's aiding with building schools or - I mean, they are the economy.

DADA: That's what usually happens when you have a region or a country controlled by drug traffickers or by any kind of organized crime. They fill the vacuum of the state where the state has no reach. They offer the local population these kind of services - education, health. And they become the solution to some of the people's - impoverished people most urgent needs. That's how it works, yes - exactly.

CORNISH: I was surprised to see in your reporting the voice of a person who was pretty frank about his connection to drug traffickers, someone who had been in Congress for 30 years. Tell us about him.

DADA: Well, Oscar Najera is kind of a character on his own because he doesn't shy away from confessing his longtime friendship with the biggest drug traffickers from Honduras. And he doesn't shy away from telling you that he has control over the whole region through informants all over. He actually told me that it was obvious that Honduras was a narco-state. And I was very surprised by some of his answers, but I thank him for being so straightforward. That was surprising indeed.

CORNISH: You've been reporting on this for a long time. What are the one or two questions you're going to have going forward in the coming months, what you're looking out for?

DADA: Well, first of all is the new government's capacity of acting in the middle of these constitutionality permitted by organized crime. It's not enough to change the president of the republic because the rest of the institutions are still permeated by the organized crime in that country. So the new president will come independently of her agenda or her projections. She will come to sit on the top of a state completely permeated by organized crime. So it's not an immediate change in any ways. And the second is how, in this new world, the president manages to position herself, especially now in Central America, where there is a big race between China and the United States for influence in the region. So we are still to see how she's going to position herself in that race. Those are the things I will be looking for.

CORNISH: Carlos Dada, thank you so much for sharing your reporting with us.

DADA: Audie, thank you very much to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.