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- 05-23-2012, 08:29 PM #1
Drug Trafficking and Raids Stir Danger on the Mosquito Coast
Drug Trafficking and Raids Stir Danger on the Mosquito Coast
By DAMIEN CAVE
Published: May 23, 2012
AHUAS, Honduras — The orange glow of a burning house brightened the morning sky. Then another and another. Four homes were set ablaze in this muddy river town just hours after Honduran and American authorities swooped down in helicopters as part of a major drug raid that recovered a half ton of cocaine.
Honduran Navy officers on patrol near Ahuas, a few weeks after the raid that appears to have mistakenly targeted civilians.
“At first we had no idea what was happening,” Sinicio Ordoñez, a local leader, said of the fires.
It soon became clear: the burned homes were not part of the raid itself, but retaliatory attacks by residents against their neighbors who were working with drug traffickers. As angry as residents were with the Honduran and American governments for a joint commando operation on May 11 that they insist took the lives of four innocent people, they had rage to spare for those who have helped make this poor town on the Mosquito Coast a way station for cocaine moving from the Andes to the United States.
“The drug activity here creates a danger to all of us,” said Mr. Ordoñez, president of the indigenous Council of Elders. “The people here, they just wanted to be rid of it.”
Honduras has received an enormous influx of American military and antidrug support over the past few years, reflecting cocaine traffickers’ shift toward Central America. But with all that muscle, people here in Ahuas and in other towns nearby now say they feel threatened from outside and from within.
They are furious with traffickers for making their country a cocaine transfer point; disappointed in their neighbors who rely on the drug trade for work; and frustrated, as well, with the Honduran and American authorities who, in their view, often invade their communities with more concern for seizing cocaine than protecting people.
“They need to take concrete steps to help people who live here,” said Terry Martínez, head of development programs for Gracias a Dios, the department, or state, that includes Ahuas. “They’re making global decisions, not local decisions.”
Vulnerability around here begins with the land. Gracias a Dios, which includes most of the Mosquito Coast, is a 6,420-square-mile area of jungle and savanna near Nicaragua with only 50,000 inhabitants. Most live in villages accessible only by boat or plane, scratching out subsistence lives, mostly speaking an indigenous language called Miskito.
Government is essentially absent. The police station in Ahuas, a town of 1,400, is a concrete box with a red hammock outside that usually holds a young officer in shorts and sandals. The only hospital is run by Christian missionaries.
Given the context, residents and experts say it is no surprise that drugs and drug money have become accepted. Here in Ahuas, people blame outsiders — the Colombians and Mexicans who arrived in larger numbers starting five years ago — but they also admit that more recently everyone in town spoke openly about when drug planes would arrive, as if they were legitimate charter flights.
The flights translated into much-needed work for local residents, who helped unload the contraband for transport further north. But they have also started to alter ancient customs. For many, hard work like farming has started to look like a waste of time.
“It’s creating huge long-term problems,” said Mr. Martínez, who works in Puerto Lempira, the capital of Gracias a Dios. “People aren’t thinking — they’re putting their hopes in drugs; oh, next week there will be another plane.’ ”
Young people have also started developing a taste for the “narco life.” Drug use used to be unheard-of on the Mosquito Coast. Now it is surging. More disturbingly to some, in a country with the highest homicide rate in the world, teenagers are developing a taste for weapons.
“They don’t even have enemies and they want to walk around the village with a gun,” said Mylo Wood, a lawmaker visiting his constituents in Ahuas on a recent day.
Many Hondurans acknowledge that their country cannot possibly tackle the drug problem alone. “It has to do with a logistical problem, with communications, with detection,” said Julieta Castellanos, president of the Autonomous University of Honduras. “The other problem, which is fundamental, is that the police are penetrated by organized crime.”
She added: “The participation of the United States is important. There are sectors of the country that are even asking for more participation.”
At the site of the raid, in fact, there is still a desire for American help. Town officials and victims like Hilda Lezama, 52, who has bullet wounds in her legs from the raid, say they mainly want an apology and an acknowledgment that they were not traffickers, as some American and Honduran officials have suggested.
The recent raid has also prompted many here to insist on a more balanced antidrug approach. “Helicopters and soldiers are not development,” said Raymundo Eude, a leader of the Masta ethnic group, which is calling for the Americans to leave the area by May 30. “It doesn’t help.”
Opinions vary on what else the United States government could do to squelch the drug trade and its negative consequences. Many support programs to beef up the court system. Some, like Mr. Martínez, are calling for better roads to support agriculture, whereas Mr. Eude expressed fear that roads would draw too many people to the area. He suggested that the Americans compensate indigenous groups for protecting the forests.
American officials, meanwhile, say they are already providing “soft side” assistance. The Agency for International Development has spent nearly $1 million since 2008 to preserve the spiny lobster fishery, a main source of work on the MC. The State Department has also contributed computers to a youth center in Puerto Lempira, while American soldiers have provided free medical and dental care.
But many say such programs are not enough.
“The Americans are driving the drug business with their demand, while we are the ones who end up with the dead bodies,” said Carlos H. Sandoval, a forestry engineer who travels throughout the Mosquito Coast.
And yet, for now, the frustration here is aimed at the traffickers, too. After Ahuas residents burned down the houses, several of the tenants who had links to the drug trade fled. American officials say they expect that traffickers may steer clear of the town given the highly publicized raid, and local residents agree that, at the very least, business will become more discreet.
Other towns have also challenged the status quo. Officials and residents of Brus Laguna, a town upriver from Ahuas, said a mob there threatened the mayor after the raid because they believed he was receiving money from the traffickers that he did not share with the community, forcing them to assume the risks but not the benefits.
And all across the area, residents are anxious about the future, questioning whether it will be the authorities or the traffickers who ultimately hold sway. “The people here are thinking more about all of this right now,” Mr. Ordoñez said. “But they are also thinking about the fact that they need to eat.”
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- 06-10-2012, 11:22 AM #2
Honduran, US relations overcome deadly drug raid
By Mariano Castillo, CNN
updated 8:30 AM EDT, Sun June 10, 2012
(CNN) -- Nearly a month has passed since a joint Honduran-U.S. drug raid fired upon a riverboat that survivors say was carrying civilians, not traffickers.
Four were killed, including two pregnant women.
The mission -- carried out aboard helicopters owned by the U.S. State Department and with support of Drug Enforcement Administration agents -- laid bare the reach of U.S. involvement in Honduran security missions, as well as its associated risks.
The apparent error stirred some local outrage, but the sentiment did not spread to the capital. The Honduran government, publicly at least, has not reprimanded the United States for any role it may have had, or said anything about reconsidering its cooperation arrangement.
It contrasts what is seen when civilians are killed in Pakistan, for instance, where tensions between the two nations are inflamed.
Or, closer to home, imagine if Mexican security forces killed civilians in an operation with any level of U.S. support, said Christopher Sabatini, senior director of policy at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas. There would be people in the streets protesting and visible outrage, he said.
The relatively muted reaction in Honduras to the May 11 incident in the country's Mosquitia region, reveals much about the Central American country's relationship with the United States and the dire security situation it faces, experts said.
Honduras has the highest per capita homicide rate in the world; it was 82.1 per 100,000 residents in 2011. It is also becoming a hotspot for drug trafficking, as Mexican cartels push their operations south of their own border because of increased enforcement in their country. The boat shooting was part of the response to these problems.
Hilda Lezama, the owner of the boat that was attacked, says she was transporting 13 passengers before dawn on the morning of May 11 on a river near the town of Ahuas, when the helicopters appeared overhead.
Her boat was nearing the landing, and she had never had problems on this route in 26 years, so she didn't think anything when the dark was broken by lights from the choppers.
In an instant, gunfire erupted and she jumped into the water. Her legs were hit.
"I don't know how to swim, but somehow I made it to shore," she recalled in a teleconference with reporters this week. "I was swimming with God."
She held onto a branch in the water for three hours before help arrived, she said. The next thing she remembered she was in the hospital.
The State Department this week said a preliminary investigation by Honduran authorities found that their security forces were justified in firing in self-defense.
There was anger from the local population after the shooting, but it did not manifest itself at the national or international level. The New York Times detailed how, instead, local residents burned down four houses believed to belong to local drug traffickers.
"My sense is that Hondurans are finding themselves in a desperate situation and they really want U.S. cooperation, and that gives the U.S. some margin to make mistakes," said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue.
Despite how worrying it is that an enforcement operation may have killed innocent civilians, the fact remains that Honduras is confronting a very violent time, he said.
That said, even the Hondurans have their limits, and the incident should serve a warning to the United States.
"I think the U.S. will be well-advised to be very careful. This should be an alarm," Shifter said.
serious review and accountability needed "There has to be a much greater sense of accountability."
Thus far, the U.S. government has downplayed its role in the shooting.
The DEA was involved, but only in a supporting role, agency spokeswoman Dawn Dearden said.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland emphasized that the agents did not use force.
"No U.S. personnel fired any weapons. We were involved purely supporting and advising," she said.
Still, the type of cooperation between the U.S. and Honduras is unprecedented in some ways.
Unlike other U.S. anti-drug aid, like Plan Colombia, there does not appear to be the same strict limits on the role of American agents, Sabatini said.
Honduras has "always been a strong security partner of the United States, and a willing one," he said.
The soft reaction to the Ahuas shooting boils down to a contradiction of Hondurans' situation, said Eduardo Gamarra, professor of politics and international relations at Florida International University.
Militarizing the war on drugs raises the possibility of civilians being killed, but at the same time, citizens wants security above all, he said.
"There is a very, very high possibility that errors will occur, mistakes are going to happen, and we will kill civilians," he said. But, "what average citizens in Honduras want is to be safe."
It's a contradiction that he sees across the region.
"People distrust the police, but they want more police," he said.
Honduran, US relations overcome deadly drug raid - CNN.com