At least 7,500 crocodiles at a farm in northern Honduras belonging to one of the country's richest and most powerful men have begun to starve in the wake of his indictment in a US court for laundering drug money profits.
The October 7 indictment of 79-year-old Jaime Rosenthal — alongside his son Yani Rosenthal and nephew Yankel — brought with it a ban on US firms doing business with several companies owned by the family including a bank called Banco Continental that is now being liquidated.
This has plunged other non-blacklisted companies in the Rosenthal business empire into crisis. At the huge Cocodrilos Continental crocodile farm owned by the elder Rosenthal the reptiles are not being fed properly.
Sandra Sánchez of the Honduran government's conservation body told VICE News that local providers are still willing to supply meat for the crocodiles bred at the 70-acre farm located close to the city of San Pedro Sula. But, she added, there is no money to transport the food to the farm, or fill up the fuel tanks of the tractors used to distribute it around the 135 different ponds where the reptiles are kept.
Add to this the frustration of farm employees — who are limiting the amount of work they do in protest at not being paid for nearly a month — and the situation has become desperate.
"There is no cash flow," said Sánchez who has made regular visits to the farm in recent weeks. "Immediate emergency action is needed."
While official registers indicate Cocodrilos Continenal maintains around 7,500 crocodiles at the farm, security guards told the news agency AFP that there were 11,000 crocodiles on the property and that dozens have already died from starvation.
Sánchez said that she had yet to see evidence of mass deaths which she added should have been been kept at bay temporarily thanks to the delivery at the weekend of 15,000 pounds of chicken donated by a local supplier.
"Yesterday we went to the breeding area with 51 five-meter-long adults who had been desperate for food before, but were now looking relaxed and satisfied," she said. "This is only a temporary solution," she added.
Cocodrilos Continental was founded in 1989 and exports crocodile meat and skins, primarily to the US. It is by far the biggest such farm in the country. The farm also houses a private collection of animals including seven lions and a puma. Sánchez said these animals are also suffering from lack of food, though they have received more regular feedings than the crocodiles.
The conservation authorities have said that the government cannot directly intervene in the farm unless the company formally declares that it is no longer able to maintain it and transfers ownership to the state. So far, however, the administrators of Cocodrilos Continental have limited themselves to making it clear that they cannot currently cover the monthly running costs of around 300,000 lempiras ($13,600).
The accusations against the Rosenthals have sent shock waves through the Honduran elite long used to feeling above the law. As well as interests in banking, media, real estate, tourism, livestock, agriculture and crocodiles, members of the family have held numerous political posts.
Jaime Rosenthal was a vice president in the 1980s. Yani was a minister from 2006 to 2009 and sought to be a presidential candidate in the last election. Yankel served in President Juan Orlando Hernández's cabinet as investment minister before leaving the position in June.
Yankel Rosenthal was arrested in Miami airport on October 6. According to the Honduran daily La Prensa he pleaded not guilty to the charges in a New York court ahead of the first hearings in the trial that are not due to start until March. Jaime and Yani Rosenthal, who remain in Honduras, have also insisted they never had any indication that their businesses might be being used by drug traffickers to clean their profits.
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