Former Contra base is reborn as airport
BY JOHN RICE
CATACAMAS, Honduras -- There's a cockfighting arena across the street from the Baptist Church, and the road into town was recently known as "the corridor of death.''
But where others see Catacamas as a rambunctious little cattle town in a remote part of Central America, Larry August sees a potentially booming business center, with tourists and entrepreneurs flying in daily by air.
August, a former New Orleans public relations man, was sponsoring
an archaeological expedition near Catacamas a few years ago when he stumbled
across an odd
sight: a clearing outside town that stretched more than two miles through the jungle.
"I thought it was a road, and wondered why there was this road out in the middle of nowhere,'' he said.
He asked local officials about it. "They said: 'That's no road. That's Oliver North International Airport.' ''
U.S. engineers built the hardened-earth runway in the early 1980s
as part of the Reagan White House effort to supply the contra rebels who
were fighting the leftist
Sandinista government then in power in neighboring Nicaragua.
The Aguacate base, which also included a hospital, was listed officially as a Honduran military farm experiment station.
The airstrip was abandoned within a few years and its buildings vanished. "The people carried away the metal to build their houses,'' said Ramón Díaz, former mayor of Catacamas.
August saw it as a wasted opportunity. After winning a 20-year concession from the Honduran government, he is building a small terminal, stripping away weeds from the runway, and hoping to welcome the first flights in December.
Reina Mejía, sales manager for the Honduran airline Isleña, confirmed it is considering flights to the airport.
August said the airport could lift the impoverished Olancho province
toward prosperity with a flood of visitors: Miners coming to tap deposits
of gold and silver.
Businessmen seeking markets for meat and cheese. Tourists flocking in for river rafting or trips to dude ranches and archaeological sites.
Olancho is ``potentially the wealthiest area in Central America. . . . It's a sleeping giant,'' August said.
At this point, the key word is ``sleeping.''
Newspapers in the capital, Tegucigalpa, until recently referred to the highway to Olancho as ``the corridor of death'' because of frequent attacks on travelers by robbers.
A U.S. State Department travel advisory said Olancho ``has a reputation as one of the most violent areas in Honduras. Travelers in that area should use extra caution.''
August almost snorts at that: ``I've been here five years and nobody's shot me yet.''
The airport is reached by a temporary bridge villagers built to replace one washed out by Hurricane Mitch in 1998.
On a recent day, bulldozers growled over the dirt access road to the airport and workmen, accompanied by a skeletal mongrel dog, slogged in a mucky field to erect the frame of the new terminal.
``That high ground below you, that's where the gas station will go,'' August said. ``Over there, that's where the hotel will go.''
The airstrip itself has been cleared of a decade's worth of shrubbery, and the grass has been cut low. The ground packed hard by U.S. engineers 18 years ago remains firm.
LIFE DURING THE STORM
The airport already has come to life at least once. When Hurricane Mitch hit, nearly every airport in Honduras was flooded, blocking relief efforts.
August said he had finished repairing the airport's drainage four days before the storm. ``Aguacate was the only totally dry operational airport in Honduras,'' he said.
It took several days to convince relief agencies, however. ``Because it was a covert airstrip, it wasn't on the map . . . They kept telling me it wasn't there,'' he said.
August's project was delayed when the government gave most of the land it had pledged for the airport back to previous owners, but it finally found a parcel for August.
Now that the families are back, Murillo said they are happy to see August developing the airstrip. ``Naturally we hope to benefit,'' he said.