Since early May, six American employees from Aqua Quest International, a private company based in Tarpon Springs, Florida, have been under arrest in Honduras. The Americans traveled to the Central American state to clean waterways for a local community. They were subsequently arrested by Honduran authorities because they were allegedly in possession of illegal weapons.
At the time of this writing, it remains unclear whether judicial proceedings will continue or if Washington will be able to negotiate the release of the prisoners.
Weapons-carrying treasure hunters?
Here is what we know so far:Aqua Quest Internationaldefines itself as a private sector, for-profit corporation dedicated to “the search for, and archaeological recovery of the world’s lost shipwreck resources.”
AMarch 26 postin the organization’s blog describes how a group of Aqua Quest employees travelled to the Ahuas community in the Gracias A Dios department of eastern Honduras. While there, the group worked with the Miskito Indians, a tribe that inhabits the region and relies on lobster diving for income.
The post explains how “a typical diver drops a tank to the bottom over 100 feet down, free dives to the bottom and starts to work […] until the tank is empty. With his last breath, he swims to the surface with the spent tank, takes a new one and starts all over again.”
Accordingto a CNN article, the team was tasked with removing mahogany logs from a nearby riverbed in Ahuas. “The goal was to clear the waterways to ease the way for boats in an area where there are few roads,” Aqua Quest explains.
On May 5, a 65-foot Aqua Quest vessel pulled into Puerto Lempira, a coastal town in Gracias A Dios. When the local authorities inspected the boat, they allegedly found a number of firearms, including an AK-47 rifle, two shotguns, and two handguns. The crew stated that the weapons were for protection against pirates.
In a statement made to the Honduran daily El Heraldo, Hector Caballero Espinoza, commander of the Honduran Navy, explained that there was no problem with Aqua Quest’s operations in Ahaus.
Rather, the employees were arrested because they carried five weapons, one of which is prohibited, and they did not have a permit to carry weapons in Honduran territory. On the other hand, a press release posted on an Aqua Quest-related Facebook page argues that the Honduran Navy and Police intercepted the vessel, “circumventing maritime protocol.”
The Aqua Quest team faced a judicial hearing on May 13, where the judge ruled the individuals would remain detained for illegal possession of weapons. The crew has been in a Puerto Lempira prison ever since.
Consular officials from the U.S. Embassy in Honduras visited the crew on May 19, according to a June 1 CNN article. Meanwhile, Representative Gus Bilirakis (R-FL) has been in contact with the State Department, the Honduran government, and the crew members’ families, according to the “Tampa Bay Times.”
A Crime Worth the Punishment?
It may be true that the weapons found aboard the Aqua Quest vessel were, in fact, for personal security. Eastern Honduras is known to be a paradise for drug smugglers, since its isolated location makes it difficult for Honduran security forces to properly patrol the region.
It is difficult to determine the extent to which the Honduran government will intervene; especially when one considers that the newly elected President Juan Orlando Hernandez ran on a “Mano Dura” platform, which promised a crackdown on rampant criminal activity. He achieved a major victory in March by capturing a notorious drug lord, Juan Arnoldo “El Negro” Lobo, who was subsequently extradited to the U.S. in early May.
The Honduran government certainly wants to maintain the positive momentum of Washington-Tegucigalpa relations, as showcased by aforementioned extradition of Lobo to Florida and the recent visit of SOUTHCOM’s General John Kelly to Honduras (he met with President Hernandez).
Yet the imprisonment of six U.S. citizens could be a divisive issue for future bilateral relations. On the other hand, President Hernandez could suffer domestically if he is perceived as bending the knee to Washington’s wishes, if he decides to release the detained individuals simply because they are U.S. citizens.
Moreover, weapons trafficking is a particularly sensitive issue in Honduras due to the country’s history of intense violence which makes the charges all that more severe.
Personally, I find it bizarre that the Honduran media has given little attention to the incident. In my research, I only managed to find a few articles by “El Heraldo” and “La Prensa” on the issue, and they tended to cite reports by U.S. news agencies as well as Aqua Quest’s Facebook page.
I will refrain from giving an opinion on whether Aqua Quest is more interested in treasure hunting than helping Honduran lobster divers. Nevertheless, a company whose goal is to help local communities and find the world’s lost archeological treasures should be better informed about the local laws where they are operating.