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

Rosemary Joyce, professor of anthropology | May 19, 2012

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.

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

  1. This does not surprise me non of the least. If I can help please let me know. This is not the first time America has done something like this. My husband is from Copan and I know this is true, Honduras must have something of value that the U.S government wants, or they wouldn’t be lying about murders. Hondurans don’t want the help of Obama or the U.S government. They asked for help a year ago but Obama sure rushed to help Africa for blood diamonds, he said because his father was African. Honduras does need help, but not from Obama or the U.S government

  2. Dear Professor Joyce, Thanks very much for this article. It follows very closely the findings of a delegation sponsored by Rights Watch and Alliance for Global Justice that visited Ahuas on May 22 and 23, 2012.

    It also answers a question I attempted to pose to the Honduras Culture and Politics blog yesterday.

    A person who lived in the village upriver from Ahuas for several years disputes the story that travel on the river at night is a common practice because of Miskito fears of spirits or river gods. Can you clarify this point for me?

    To me the important point is that the US DEA admits that they were in charge; therefore, I say the responsibility is theirs. However, they say they have no evidence of the deaths or the injuries–curious.

    • I would never contradict the testimony of the person who made the decision to travel by night, and as the operator of the boat (which clearly was traveling along the river for commercial purposes) explained that they did so to avoid the heat of day, that should be enough.

      Traditional Miskito belief does include the presence in the rivers of malign spirits that will capsize boats. I have never heard that they restricted their activities to night time; they are especially associated with rapids. Here, though, it is critical to note that Miskito today are likely to be Christian. While traditional understandings (especially of illness) are not incompatible with Christianity, it does mean that we should not fall into the trap of freezing Miskito people in time.

      I agree that the US has responsibility that it needs to acknowledge. The claim not to have evidence of deaths or injuries is literally unbelievable, unless you pay close attention to the specific way answers are framed: the Honduran authorities will do the investigation; they saw no one injured when they arrived at the scene; the names of those admitted to the hospital in La Ceiba cannot be confirmed from other sources.

      This is bureaucracy at its finest. The US will rely for its information on Honduran agencies that have been universally deemed incapable of investigation. The actual bodies of people lying in hospital beds are not proof enough, because the names given in news coverage aren’t listed in some other source (undefined). The fact that the injured are in the hospital– in some cases, with independent witnesses like cab drivers who taxied them from the airport where they were brought by missionaries– doesn’t explain the absence of the injured from the site of the attack.

      The work you and others are doing is consequently of fundamental importance because only through such independent efforts will the voices of those surviving be heard.

  3. Some of the comments here demonstrate how effective the efforts to generally paint the residents of the Mosquitia as guilty have been. So it might be worthwhile to summarize continuing coverage based on interviews with the people of Ahuas and survivors who were taken to hospital in the city of La Ceiba. These witnesses agree that the people injured and killed were traveling home on a commercial river boat. Witnesses describe being wakened from sleep by shooting, and jumping into the river to escape. The people of Ahuas describe helicopters landing in town, breaking down doors, holding people at gunpoint– and they believe these attacks on their homes included US agents.

    The next day, angry town residents burned down four houses in Ahuas, apparently of residents believed to be involved in the drug traffic, and therefore blamed for the attack. Yes, drugs are passing through the Mosquitia– but that does not mean the people who live there have waived their right to be safe and secure in their daily lives. DEA agents are widely believed to have played active, violent roles by the local population. It is unlikely that the survivors of this incident will ever see justice from the Honduran government. But the US government could stop participating in raids that, if they took place in the US, would clearly violate the law, and which violate Honduran constitutional guarantees of civil rights and international conventions on human rights.

  4. I feel so sad reading about drug trafficking and all the innocent people involved. We are all living in a world where drugs have the power over our children.

  5. My girlfriend spent Dec. 2011 in Patuca with her family there. When she returned to La Ceiba all she could talk about is how much things had changed for the worse there. Everybody carrying guns, people being paid with handfuls of cocaine for off-loading planes and cutting down jungle for makeshift air fields. Family members finding kilos of cocaine washed up on the beach, drug buyers with cash, hanging out in the bars with armed guards. She saw several people shot in that month, non fatally. Honduras needs help, right away or there won’t be anything left to save.
    Also, all of those “Human Rights Watch” organizations are fronts for Socialist causes, they blame everything on the “coup”. Mel Zelaya was the start of the problem along with his narco friend Hugo Chavez, he needed to go or there would be a dictator here running Honduras now.

  6. I have been to Ahuas. I have helped in the hospital and clinic in Ahuas. I have been on the Patuca river. I have been at Bara Patuca, where the Patuca begins on the Caribbean. I have walked by homes that were pointed out of those who were drug runners. This is a real and present danger in that area of the world. The majority of Moskito people are to be admired for their perseverance in living in this land. The temptation to make more money to live a better life is an ever present danger. Is this temptation much different for many living here in the US, Thank you for your informative and well written article. I still have visions of those who I have grown to care deeply for in Ahuas.

  7. In all the storyies I read, including the SF chronicle and this, don’t know the reality, and spew their limited perception. For starters, for Ahaus is not a coastal town. Their are no lobster in Ahaus. Honduras, and that area has always been the big middle spot. Does not anyone remember Barry Seal??? You can always take a refresher course from Chip Tatum’s stuff on the net, bless his soul….

    Not much traffic on the Patuca at night. The folks there are used to the heat, and it’s cool on the River. I love it.

    If you like the area, and want to see what a trip down the Patuca is like, you can watch this youtube video, that’s starts out right on the Berkeley Campus.

    I’m used to being censored. Sometimes the truth hurts. Ted

  8. Dear Professor Joyce: Your present article provides a sober view of realities in Honduras, and is a welcomed and needed balance to the narratives we get in U.S. media that border on a jingoistic favoring of “U.S. interests.”

    Frankly, the wholesale U.S. policies —domestic, and foreign—which fall beyond the pale of legality, and are outright unconstitutional (NDAA the latest egregious case), give me the impression that the U.S.A. of today is nearly irrecognizable to me . . . and quite frightening.

    If I descry a glimmer of hope for our U.S.A., it is in the public activity of people with conscience, such as you, N. Chomsky, C. West, N. Wolf, C. Hedges, D. Ellsberg, et. al.

    My sincere thanks to you.

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