Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

The U.S. ‘War on Drugs’ and Honduras’ Miskito people

By Rosemary Joyce

I don't often write on the Berkeley Blog about Honduras, the country that for more than thirty years has been the focus of my own research. Despite the depth of US involvement in the politics and economy of Honduras, it is simply the case that there is so little coverage of the country in US media that things that happen there rarely rise to the level of visibility in the US that would be necessary for readers of this blog to really engage with what is happening in Honduras.

Over the last week, though, that has changed. The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times: if you read a major US newspaper, you had the chance to read breaking news about Honduras.

That is not to say that what you are reading is in any way accurate. Most of the reporting has relied on unnamed sources and US State Department briefings, all aimed primarily at absolving the US Drug Enforcement Agency of responsibility of the deaths of civilians in the northeast Caribbean coast of Honduras.

If you read coverage in any of these venerable news sources, you will be forgiven if the impression you got is that, in a remote, almost impenetrable jungle (think Vietnam) agents of an urgent "war on drugs", fighting to stop an increase in US cocaine consumption by cutting off the major supply line for transport to the US, came under fire from native "tribes" deeply invested in drug trafficking.

According to the US media, and the US State Department, the important point is that no DEA agents fired; it was the Honduran security forces that opened fire on a boat along the Patuca River, killing and wounding men, women, and children– including pregnant women.

If you read coverage in US media, you will come away with the sense that it is unfortunate that these jungle primitives chose the wrong side in the "War on Drugs". You will come away with the insinuation that it was suspicious for these people to be out on the river at night, or perhaps to be in the area at all. You will come away with the sense that it was, after all, their own fault.

Yet everything about this story– the "facts" and the insinuations– everything you will think you have learned is misleading.

The Miskitu or Moskito people who bore the brunt of this attack occupy an area of Honduras where there are no highways: the rivers are their roads. Indeed, they are part of a coalition fighting hard against Honduran government plans to dam the Patuca river for hydroelectric power. As the anthropological NGO Cultural Survival writes, for centuries

indigenous people have plied their dugout canoes up and down the Patuca River, the central artery of Honduras’ vast Moskitia lowland rainforest.  On its rich floodplain they grow cocoa, oranges, rice, beans, cassava, and other crops for subsistence and sale, and its fish provide a vital source of protein.  “The river is our life,” says Lorenzo Tinglas, president of the Tawahka people’s governing council. “Any threat to the Patuca is a threat to four Indigenous Peoples—the  Tawahka, Pech, Miskitu, and Garifuna—and we will fight to the death to protect it.”

The boat that was fired on indiscriminately was part of this local transport system, which is why so many people of mixed ages and sexes were victims. Boats like these ply the waterways bringing people to and from centers where they shop and seek services, where they sell the fruits of their labor as fishermen to gain the money to eke out a living.

According to the first-hand testimony of Hilda Lezama, one of the boat operators who was wounded in the attack, they were on the river after dark “to avoid the strong sun.” This reality of the tropics seems to be unknown to Honduras' foreign minister, Arturo Corrales, who is quoted in the same New York Times article saying

“it was totally dark, in a place that is not a fishing spot.... It’s in the jungle. It is very hard to believe that at 2 a.m., in the jungle, the people in a boat that is beside another boat with 400 kilograms of cocaine were fishing.”

In fact, of course, it is not at all surprising that different boats would be near each other as they approached the landing; as anyone who has traveled the rivers of Central America in similar traffic knows, when you reach the landing, you are gunwale to gunwale with others in the riverine equivalent of a busy intersection.

To the residents of the region, US media coverage has added salt to the very real wounds, portraying them as criminals. Reading the accounts and seeing the photos they have provided of armed forces in the streets of their villages– not available in the mainstream media– you feel their desperation at living under the gun.

US media have not only had trouble understanding these realities of life in this river country; they seem almost incapable of imagining how indigenous people in this region are organized and maintain their way of life. An article no longer accessible online described a statement from Miskito organizations protesting the incident as from a series of "ethnic groups", Masta, Diunat, Rayaka, Batiasta and Bamiasta. In reality, these are the names of a federation of organizations at the level of the individual village (MASTA) and individual chapters of the federation representing affected villages, including Ahuas, where the attack happened (BAMIASTA).

On Monday May 14 something called the Communique Brus Laguna was issued by these "representatives of the territorial councils, supported by MASTA: DIUNAT, RAYAKA, BATIASTA AND BAMIASTA" who described their objective as to

analyze and report the massacre of innocent Miskito indigenous people on Friday, May 11th at 1:30 am, by the U.S. armed forces in conjunction with members of the armed forces of Honduras, in the river passage between the Barra Patuca community and Ahuas.

The first demand they make is for US forces to cease operations in Moskito territory:

To declare persona non grata the presence of Honduran and U.S. military forces in the Moskitia territory for the invasion, for affecting our security, and for creating situations of intimidation and fear for these humble people who survive with their own efforts, without fulfilling their mission to defend our sovereignty.

"Our sovereignty" here does not simply mean that of the nation of Honduras, which the present government is eagerly selling to the highest bidder under the guidance of novel economic "development" policies originating in the US.

It means the sovereignty that the indigenous peoples of northeast Honduras historically enjoyed, and seek to protect, citing international treaties, through demands they make in items 8 and 9 of the Communique Brus Laguna:

We demand the prompt withdrawal of the foreign military forces from our Miskitia territory, as they have only violated our rights as a people.

We urgently demand the legalization of our territory as the main basis of legal security for our lives, goods, food security, natural resources, and our existence as indigenous people.

To underline the fundamental cultural difference between the way the people of the Rio Patuca understand their place, and the way that urbanites like Arturo Corrales do, the communique includes as demand 6 an explicit claim to rights of use of the river:

That the liberty and safe, free movement of the population is respected as the river represents the means of communication for this population and that the people of the Moskitia are not intimidated with weapons.

Let us grant the US State Department the one point it is trying to make: DEA agents did not pull the trigger in the Mosquitia. But without US urging, without US equipment, the Honduran security forces would not have been out in (US) helicopters trying to shoot drug traffickers. This is a direct outcome of US policy. In celebratory reporting in the New York Times on May 5, we read that

The United States military has brought lessons from the past decade of conflict to the drug war being fought in the wilderness of Miskito Indian country, constructing this remote base camp with little public notice but with the support of the Honduran government… This new offensive, emerging just as the United States military winds down its conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and is moving to confront emerging threats, also showcases the [US's] new way of war: small-footprint missions with limited numbers of troops, partnerships with foreign military and police forces that take the lead in security operations, and narrowly defined goals, whether aimed at insurgents, terrorists or criminal groups that threaten American interests… In past drug operations, helicopters ferrying Honduran and American antinarcotics squads took off from the capital, Tegucigalpa, whenever an intelligence task force identified radar tracks of a smuggler’s aircraft. The three-hour flights required to reach cartel rendezvous points did not leave much idle time to spot airplanes as they unloaded tons of cocaine to dugout canoes, which then paddled downriver beneath the jungle canopy to meet fast boats and submersibles at the coast for the trip north…the new outposts — patterned on the forward bases in Iraq and Afghanistan that gave troops a small, secure home on insurgent turf…[are] no more than 30 to 45 minutes’ flying time from most smuggling handoff points.

"Aimed at insurgents, terrorists or criminal groups that threaten American interests"…

What are the US interests in northeastern Honduras that prompted construction of a military base in the area, viewed by the Moskito who occupy this so-called "wilderness" as a violation of their sovereignty, the base that supported an all-too-predictable incident involving civilian casualties?

News reports say 400 kilos of cocaine were seized from an abandoned boat found when the Honduran and US DEA operatives landed after shooting the occupants of the unrelated boat who now lie dead or in the hospital. So in this case, at any rate, the "tons" of cocaine amounted to considerably less: about 800 pounds.

State Department sources, in the wake of this tragedy, have given exaggerated estimates of the proportion of cocaine that is destined for the US that flows through Honduras, claiming that 79% of cocaine destined for the US touches down in Honduras first. The New York Times estimate would place it considerably lower: one-third of the cocaine passing through Central America, which overall sees 90% of the cocaine from Venezuela and Colombia headed for the US– or about 30% of the US supply.

US and international sources document that US demand for cocaine is not increasing (instead, sadly, Central American consumption is). The US National Institute on Drug Abuse says cocaine use has been declining in the US since 2003. South American cocaine production, according to international studies, has remained relatively constant. Seizures of cocaine in the US have, according to the DEA itself, declined 50% since 2007, while seizures of other drugs, such as marijuana, have increased.

There is another "interest" the US has in supporting Honduran security forces in showy exercises of quasi-military might.

That is to shore up a dubious claim that the current government of Honduras, installed in 2010 as a result of elections held in November 2009 while Honduras was under the control of an illegal government unrecognized by the US or members of the UN and the OAS, is somehow succeeding in restoring the rule of law. The US State Department has repeatedly described Honduras' government as making progress toward what it most recently characterized as "a safer, more prosperous nation".

This is not the conclusion of respected organizations like Human Rights Watch, which provides a grim (yet actually somewhat conservative) tally of excesses under the de facto regime of 2009, continuing since it was replaced by the current Honduran government. The main webpage for the Interamerican Commission on Human Rights of the OAS has, with depressing regularity, featured condemnations of violence in Honduras against sexual minorities, journalists, and community organizers since the 2009 coup, based on in-depth reports from within the country. The Committee to Protect Journalists continually updates the tally of deaths of Honduran media figures, pointing the finger at the government for the situation:

"A climate of unrelenting hostility toward Honduran journalists is restricting the flow of news and eroding citizens' right to information… This situation endures because Honduran authorities have yet to take decisive action to enforce the law and guarantee the safety of journalists."

The US continues to provide the Honduran government with extensive military and police aid, despite internationally documented evidence that the Honduran security forces, far from stabilizing the country, are responsible for systematic violence against Honduran citizens.

Doing so, the US supports the militarization of everyday life in Honduras, where the current government has failed to ensure safety, security, and constitutional guarantees for a people who were deprived of these rights by the 2009 coup d'etat.

It would be convenient for the US if the storyline they are floating– that Hondurans in the Mosquitia are simply drug traffickers responsible for the violence perpetrated against them by their crime of living in their traditional homeland– were accepted.

Writing in major US newspapers unfortunately is doing a lot to advance that storyline, very very little to contest it, and next to nothing to explain the larger contexts.

Ultimately, this story will fade from the headlines in New York, DC, Chicago, and LA. But the events won't fade from the memories of the small families and villages that have been terrorized, in part due to actions taken by our government.

Members of the US Congress and Senate have been speaking out on against continued US funding of Honduras' corrupt and violent security forces for a long time. US organizations troubled by what has been happening have been calling for the same change in policy, mostly without coverage in the US media.

Perhaps it is time for someone to listen and change this policy– before the next innocent victim dies and her survivors have to listen to her characterized as a criminal.