TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) — A top leader of Honduras' battle against rampant drug violence has resigned, saying he lacked economic support for his efforts and had been stepping on the toes of powerful interests.
Security Minister Oscar Alvarez's departure was the biggest surprise announced late Saturday by the government of Honduran President Porfirio Lobo, who also accepted the resignation of Foreign Minister Mario Canahuati. The moves marked the biggest shake-ups so far in Lobo's nearly two-year administration.
Alvarez had been outspoken against growing drug trafficking in the small, impoverished Central American country and was considered both the most powerful Cabinet member and the one closest to Lobo.
Alvarez was also emerging as a presidential candidate for the ruling National Party in 2013.
He said in a press conference Saturday that he was unable to reach his goal of cleaning up Honduras' police force and that his work had been affecting powerful interest groups.
Lobo offered him the job of foreign minister and ambassador to the Organization of American States, which he declined.
"I didn't have the economic support," Alvarez said. "I was affecting big interests of drug trafficking, money laundering and kidnapping."
Alvarez was asked by a reporter if his resignation was the result of an insurrection of key police officials he was trying to oust because of corruption. He responded: "Those of you who are good investigative journalists should find out."
The outspoken former security minister told the Honduran newspaper La Prensa last week that the country's police had been infiltrated by drug traffickers in many sectors for many years.
He said he found at least 20 police chiefs who worked for international drug cartels and called them "air traffic controllers" for the dozens of airplanes that have landed in Honduras in the last four years carrying Colombian cocaine destined for the United States.
Lobo said Friday at a public appearance outside the capital that he was planning changes in his government because he's "very concerned" about the wave of violence afflicting the 7.6 million-person country, where at least 20 people are murdered every day.
National Human Rights Commissioner Ramon Custodio has warned that if the trend continues, Honduras could end the year with a homicide rate of 86 per 100,000 people, nearly 11 times the global rate of 8.8 homicides per 100,000 people.
Three deputy ministers in the areas of security, social investment and income also resigned late Saturday.
Foreign Minister Canahuati is also a presidential hopeful for the National Party. He lost to Lobo in the presidential primaries of 2001.
Lobo named retired army Capt. Pompey Bonilla as security minister and former Deputy Foreign Minister Alden Rivera to the country's top diplomatic post.
Like neighboring Guatemala, Honduras is a poor country with weak institutions that has long been a transit country for drugs headed to the U.S.
Mexican drug cartels now operate virtually uninhibited in Central American as U.S.-supported crackdowns in Mexico and Colombia have only pushed traffickers into countries like Honduras, where corruption is rampant.
The country was upended by a 2009 coup in which former President Manuel Zelaya was deposed at gunpoint, an act that isolated Honduras internationally and cost it international aid to fund security efforts and to fight poverty and drug-trafficking.
Honduran authorities have found an average of 20 abandoned airplanes a year along the Atlantic coast in the last three years and suspect that fishermen help offload drugs from ships at sea to avoid potential detection in ports.
Authorities in March found a massive cocaine-processing laboratory in the country's remote northeastern mountains. Evidence tied the lab, capable of producing 440 to 880 pounds (200 to 400 kilograms) a week, to Mexico's powerful Sinaloa Cartel.
Lobo was democratically elected in a previously scheduled election in 2009. Since taking office in January 2010, he has worked to normalize relations, including signing an internationally brokered agreement that allowed for Zelaya's return in May.
Zelaya claims Lobo's government is violating the accord. Two Zelaya supporters, one a journalist, have been murdered within the last week. A truth commission found that at least 20 Zelaya supporters were killed by security forces.