Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
April 18, 1988
A gun-toting judge wages war on drugs
Report from: Honduras

TELA, Honduras - Soldiers with M-16s stood watch on the front porch of the house, where the guards had taken over the living room with their mattresses and their portable radios.

"Welcome to my general headquarters," said Miguel Angel Izaguirre, who was shirtless with a towel wrapped around his neck. He is a federal judge, and in recent months his home has become a barracks.

Well that Izaguirre should receive this protection, for he is on a one-man crusade against the drug traffickers who have turned Honduras into a major transshipment point for Colombian cocaine on its way to the United States.

"I am on the front lines of this war against drugs," Izaguirre said in an interview after he donned a black satin shirt and walked the two blocks to his courthouse office in Tela, a Caribbean port of 25,000 people.

He is well-armed for the battle. An aficionado of weapons and military history, Izaguirre goes into court with a machine gun in tow. He says he has survived four attempts on his life, in one of which he fired back with a Soviet-made AK-47.

Since being assigned to Tela 10 months ago and handing down the country's first conviction for cocaine trafficking, Izaguirre has received enormous attention from the local news media. He has become a folk hero of sorts, the Rambo of the Honduran judiciary, the marshal in a lawless frontier.

While he kept a gun trained on the defendants, Izaguirre in February arraigned the men charged with shipping four tons of cocaine that was seized in November in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The seizure was the largest in U.S. history.

The arrest April 5 of suspected drug dealer Juan Ramon Matta, whose expulsion to the United States set off riots in which the U.S. Embassy annex in Tegucigalpa was burned, only underscores the influence of the international narcotics traffickers, Izaguirre said.

"He's crazy, but he's a valiant man," one local resident said of the judge. "They say he doesn't fear anything."

Nor is he modest. "I am a man for extraordinary circumstances," said Izaguirre, 41, a short, stocky man who attributes his fiery oratory to his Basque blood. "I am the commander of the 'White War' in Honduras. It's a more dangerous war than conventional war."

There are limits to his courage, though. While U.S. officials in Washington have alleged that some high-ranking Honduran military officers are involved in the narcotics networks, Izaguirre will not prosecute the officers. "There are military tribunals to deal with that," he said. "This is a civilian court."

In fact, he said it was the military that sent him to Tela with orders to crack down on the drug traffickers, who use the clandestine airstrips and remote harbors of Honduras' Caribbean coast to receive Colombian cocaine and repackage it for shipment to the United States.

It was on one such airstrip, tucked between the banana plantations and the groves of African palms that stretch for miles across the sweltering lowlands, that the narcotics traffickers last fall received a huge shipment of pure Colombian cocaine.

The cocaine was then packed into the hollows of three-inch-thick cedar planks, which had been skillfully planed to disguise that they had ever been cut open. The lumber was sent to the United States, where it was intercepted by U.S. authorities in Fort Lauderdale.

The four tons of cocaine had a street value of $1.4 billion - about a third of Honduras' gross domestic product last year.

"This country couldn't buy that much cocaine," said Izaguirre. "Honduras is so small, so economically dependent, that we have to watch that we don't lose the war against drugs."

In February, the Honduran military arrested Jose Rodriguez la Valle, a Honduran, and Ricardo Arguello Pravia, a naturalized Honduran from Nicaragua, and charged them with participating in the massive cocaine shipment. They are among three dozen men in the Tela jail who are being held on charges of drug smuggling.

Before Izaguirre was assigned to the Tela court last year, he said, there was virtually no prosecution of drug traffickers. "Many cases were dismissed within five days for lack of evidence," he said. "There was no prosecution because of fear."

The effect of his hard-line stand is difficult to measure. Certainly he has struck fear into Honduran producers and sellers of marijuana, who account for most of his convictions - he almost always gives the maximum sentence of five years in prison.

But Izaguirre said he has done more - he estimates that he has halted 70 percent of the cocaine that once passed through Honduras. "I am taking on the Medellin cartel," he said, referring to the feared Colombian cocaine ring.

"He's a showman," said one government official in Tegucigalpa. If he were really taking on the Medellin cartel, which has murdered judges and prosecutors in Colombia, Izaguirre would no longer be alive, the official said.

Izaguirre said it is only by the grace of God - he keeps a Bible on his desk, open and facing the visitor - that he is alive.

In one attempt on his life, the assailants shot at his house, and he fired back. The other attempts were not so clear-cut. He and his motorboat sank in the harbor after the stops were mysteriously pulled out of the hull. On another occasion, someone boobytrapped a pile of marijuana left on the beach so that it exploded into flames when Izaguirre tried to dismantle it. A month ago, the steering gave out on his car.

He survived the crash.

He handed over a photo album of his exploits. In one picture, the marijuana is aflame on the beach. In another, he and his friends are bobbing in the water after the boat sank. But most of the photos are of a young woman, dressed in costumes varying from a bikini to a cowgirl outfit, in which she is posed holding one of his guns, an AK-47.

"She is the niece of a general," he said, waving off further questions. Izaguirre, who has been divorced four times, grew up wanting to be either a bullfighter or a pilot. His zealous drug-busting has finally landed him in the center of the ring.

But not everyone is amused. The Honduran Supreme Court recently reprimanded him for speaking so openly to the local press, and for posing for photos with his guns.

"They called me an exhibitionist because I carry a machine gun," he said. "But when you're in extraordinary circumstances, you have to break with traditions." home page   
Recent news
  | Africa coverage  |  Archives  |  Afghanistan coverage  |  E-mail from Africa  |  Magazine articles | Photographs  |  Bio 
African Odyssey
  |  Apartheid's Secrets  |  Democracy's Promises  |  The Forgotten Wars  |  Rwanda: Aftermath of Genocide

Copyright 2001-2006 Andrew Maykuth