The suspension of American aid and high-level contact with Honduras' interim government following the ouster of its president in a coup is hurting anti-drug efforts, a U.S. Congresswoman said after meeting with officials in the troubled country.
The administration of President Barack Obama is seeking to pressure the government of interim President Roberto Micheletti, has suspended more than $40 million in non-humanitarian aid and halted high-level contacts, including those related to long-standing joint efforts against smuggling of U.S.-bound cocaine from South America through Honduras.
That lack of cooperation "harms U.S. security," said U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican who was visiting Honduras on Monday in support of the Micheletti government.
"They have no interaction with the military, they have no interaction with the police," Ros-Lehtinen, referring to U.S. authorities, said in an interview with The Associated Press. "How many drugs are getting through Honduras now because the Honduran government doesn't have the wherewithal to fight these narcotraffickers."
Ros-Lehtinen, like a number of conservative U.S. lawmakers, supports the interim government and hopes to convince the Obama administration to drop its insistence that President Manuel Zelaya be allowed to serve out the remainder of his term, which ends in January.
Zelaya was forced from office with the backing of the Honduran Congress and Supreme Court for trying to hold a referendum on rewriting the constitution. His opponents charge he wanted to lift the charter's provision limiting presidents to a single term _ an accusation he denies.
While the U.S. and other nations have pushed for his return, some conservatives in the U.S. are wary of his support from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and insist his ouster was legal under the Constitution of Honduras.
The United States and Honduras have long had close ties. American forces and Hondurans work side by side at the Soto Cano Air Base, part of a network of multinational counter-drug centers in the region for tracking and pursuing smugglers.
The annual State Department's report on international drug trafficking lists Honduras as a transit country, with smugglers in planes and boats taking advantage of the sparsely populated and isolated jungle along its Atlantic coast.
Air Force Lt. Jennifer Richard, a spokeswoman for the U.S. task force that operates at Soto Cano, said that they have limited military-to-military contact with the Honduran armed forces to "only what is necessary to maintain" the base. She declined to comment, however, on any specific changes to counter-narcotic operations.
The U.S. Embassy said some counter-drug cooperation was still occurring despite the official policy of no-contact with the interim government.
Counter-drug personnel "maintain close working relations with their Honduran counterparts," and are continuing to share intelligence and information, spokesman Michael Stevens said.
"Honduras has the resources to attempt interdiction efforts and does so, albeit on a more limited basis," Stevens said.
Ros-Lehtinen said she is not permitted to disclose what she learned at a classified briefing at the U.S. Embassy during her visit to Honduras but that she remained concerned about the issue.
"I know the U.S. officials will say everything is great," she told AP. "But when you ask them: 'So, are you cooperating the same as always with the military in Honduras?' They say: "No of course not we don't recognize the government.' ... How could it possibly be that everything is peachy keen when it comes to stopping money laundering or being a transit point."
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