(Adds details on intelligence, paragraphs 2, 10)
By Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON, Dec 2 (Reuters) - The United States could begin sharing sensitive intelligence with Honduras about inbound flights carrying drugs, U.S. officials told Reuters, even as the Central American country faces scrutiny from Washington over drug-related corruption.
A proposed memorandum of understanding on flight-path intelligence sharing, which has not previously been reported, has yet to be finalized by the U.S. and Honduran governments. Still, Honduras has already agreed to a key U.S. recommendation that it rescind authority to shoot down suspected drug trafficking planes flying into the country.
Washington is proceeding carefully, having learned painful lessons after Peru acted on a CIA tip in 2001 and shot down a plane carrying American Christian missionaries, killing a mother and her infant daughter.
Former U.S. officials and experts cautioned that sharing intelligence with Honduras about flights entering the country could prove particularly tough, given well-documented, parallel U.S. concerns about corruption inside Honduras stemming from cocaine trafficking.
"It's difficult because you want to collaborate with the Honduran authorities. But Honduras is so pervasively corrupt ... it's difficult in this case to warrant it," said Charles Call, a former U.S. State Department adviser at the Brookings Institution think tank.
Honduras' envoy to the United States, Luis Fernando Suazo Barahona, told Reuters his country had demonstrated its commitment to combating drugs and stressed that anyone involved in intelligence sharing would undergo careful vetting.
Navy Admiral Craig Faller, head of the U.S. military's Southern Command, said Honduras, like other Central American nations, was seeing a surge in drug flights from Venezuela.
Washington indicted Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro earlier this year for alleged involvement in cocaine smuggling into the United States. Maduro dismissed the accusation.
From October 2019 to June 2020, Central America was the first stop for 90% of the cocaine departing Venezuela via air, according to data from U.S. Southern Command. Of that, 11% landed in Honduras, it said.
"The threat is so significant that it was one of the things that influenced the Honduran government to change their law, their air sovereignty law, which will now allow us to move forward with sharing" of information about the flight paths, Faller told Reuters.
'CORRUPTION AT THE HIGHEST LEVELS'
Honduran Foreign Minister Lisandro Rosales told Reuters that security forces would use U.S. intelligence on incoming flights to intercept drug smugglers more quickly once the aircraft landed.
The U.S. State Department said in a statement it was "taking steps to resume information sharing for aerial interception upon the successful negotiation and conclusion" of the memorandum of understanding.
Experts on Honduras cautioned, however, about the risks of trusting Honduras with sensitive trafficking information.
Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez was implicated during a New York trial that last year convicted his brother, Honduran politician Juan Antonio "Tony" Hernandez, on drug trafficking charges. Prosecutors accused Tony Hernandez of enjoying the protection of his brother.
Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga, former leader of Honduras' Cachiros gang who is now in U.S. custody, testified that he paid bribes to multiple officials including Juan Orlando Hernandez.
Honduras' president denies any wrongdoing, representing himself as tough on drugs and responsible for breaking up the six most powerful cartels in Honduras and extraditing numerous traffickers to the United States.
In its 2020 counter-narcotics report, the State Department said that "corruption within Honduran law enforcement remains a concern" and urged the government to "address impunity at all levels and root out corruption from all institutions."
"You're not just talking about corrupt police that have allowed drug shipments to go by, or a few bad apples here or there," said Adriana Beltran at the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights advocacy group. "You're talking about corruption at the highest levels."
Asked about the risks, Southern Command spokeswoman Colonel Amanda Azubuike said Southern Command has long supplied counter-narcotics intelligence to U.S. law enforcement agencies that work with partner nations.
"We are confident in their ability to manage sensitive information with our partners and the complexities that come with these conditions," Azubuike said. (Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Michelle Nichols and Peter Cooney)
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