When I heard last week about the fatal shooting of four people, including two pregnant women, by a joint Honduran-U.S. anti-drug raid in the Mosquito Coast of Honduras, I was only surprised that it hasn’t happened more often.
The incident, reported by Fox News Latino and other media, has sparked angry protests over the American presence and prompted human rights groups and at least one US congressman to question US involvement in these operations.
According to US officials, at about 3 a.m. on May 11, US helicopters carrying Honduran police officers and DEA agents swooped toward a boat loaded with cocaine in the Patuca River. As the helicopters approached, people who were loading the boat fled, but a second boat approached and began to fire, prompting the Honduran officers to return fire. But survivors and local residents claim that the agents fired at the wrong boat, killing and wounding innocent people who were returning home from a daily trip.
Anyone who has set foot in the Mosquito Coast in recent years, as I did in 2006 to investigate illegal logging as a Johns Hopkins’ International Reporting Fellow, knows that the remote northeast shore has become a favorite route of transport of cocaine from Colombia and Venezuela to the United States.
Similar in size to the state of Connecticut, the Mosquito Coast is one of the most isolated places in Honduras, and its vast stretches of inhabited terrain of tropical rainforest are accessible only by plane or boat. It has also traditionally been a hardly policed area with vast ungoverned areas and little institutional presence.
This last aspect is probably behind the US decision to increase its logistic support to its Honduran counterparts in the fight against drug trafficking in the region, and to establish three new military bases in northeastern Honduras for that purpose.
Its indigenous inhabitants, who have lived in the Mosquito lowlands and jungles for centuries, are among the poorest in Honduras. Few houses have electricity, running water or sanitation. Miskitos and other indigenous people have traditionally lived as hunters, subsistence farmers, and fishermen, but their survival is threatened by the encroachment on their land by illegal loggers, cattle ranchers, slash-and-burn farmers, and now narco-traffickers.
“Threats by illegal loggers, narco-traffickers and other people are our daily fare. I have received threats myself,” an indigenous leader from the Miskito town of Brus Laguna told me then. “A friend of mine had his house burned down for speaking out against narco-traffickers and was forced to leave our town for good.”
“We receive a lot of complaints from honest farmers in the region who are being forced by narco-traffickers to sell their lands for nothing,” the then Honduras’ head of anti-drug trafficking operations, retired general Julián Arístides González, told me over a meeting at his Tegucigalpa office in 2006. González was murdered by drug mercenaries in 2009, a day after voicing concerns over the alarming rise of landing strips in Honduras.
Corruption of the Honduran security forces was also a major concern for the anti-drug chief.
“When you see a high volume of drug trafficking, like in Honduras, it means that there is widespread police corruption,” Arístides González said. Maybe something to keep in mind for the US when supporting security forces abroad with dubious human rights records, as is the case of Honduras, according to human rights groups.
When I visited the Mosquito Coast, the presence of drug traffickers was palpable: their speedboats were parked in the wharfs of the river towns in broad light; their large cement houses towered over the modest wooden structures of the typical Miskito home; their semiautomatic weapons were hardly concealed as they walked through the towns.
Residents knew that narcos from Colombia and Honduras were buying large houses and tracks of land in the area. There, they cleared areas of jungle for their landing strips. This put them sometimes in collision with the Honduran environmental authorities. Their expensive properties were known among indigenous groups as “narcotierras” or “narco-land.”
The cocaine flights in, clandestine airstrips and even clandestine landings in official airports were hardly a secret. Residents also talked about the bales of cocaine that sometimes washed ashore and that some villagers would collect to resell them to drug traffickers. Some villagers in the region were also involved in the drug trade, and drug addiction had also become a problem over the years, especially among the Miskito lobster divers, many of whom consume cocaine and pot to alleviate the pain of decompression sickness.
But this doesn’t mean that everyone in the Mosquito Coast was involved in drug trafficking. I met many humble and honest people who ran hostels for the tourists, worked as guides or forest agents, cultivated the land, fished, build canoes, etc. I was moved by their perseverance in forging a living in this hardscrabble place, despite the long odds and clear lack of government interest. I witnessed a visit to Brus Laguna by then President Manuel Zelaya that was so short that indigenous leaders representing the interests of the 40,000 indigenous people who live in the region didn’t even have a chance to greet him. Zelaya left after posing for photographers sent from the capital papers.
“There is nobody here. This is the reality. The Mosquito Coast it totally neglected by the government,” Osvaldo Munguía, the Miskito executive director of MOPAWI, an NGO that has worked since the 80s in the area, told me.
US and Honduran officials have expressed doubts that villagers would be in the river in the middle of the night, near where helicopters had landed. They should know better. In this roadless region, the area's vast lagoons and rivers are precisely their roads and highways. Residents use boats and dugout canoes to reach the different villages. Helicopters and planes are too expensive for their inhabitants, most of whom earn less than $2 a day.
And yes, people also travel during the night, because covering the distance between one village and another can take up to a day. I remember coming back by boat from a long trip in the jungle and arriving at the lagoon in Brus Laguna close to midnight. The light of the moon showed my Miskito guides the way back. I remember thinking how peaceful and beautiful the Mosquito Coast was. How warm and welcoming the air of the lagoon was. I would be scared of repeating this experience now.
To me, the explanations provided so far by the Honduran and US officials just show their lack of understanding of the realities of life in the Mosquito Coast. Even if US agents didn’t open fire, they provided the necessary equipment and support to the Honduran security forces to do so.
The government of Honduras is sending a commission of police, judicial and human rights representatives to the area. The incident should also prompt the US to review its policy. Militarizing the conflict is likely to result in an escalation of the violence. Perhaps it’s time for the US to review its policy to avoid any collateral damage in its war of drugs.
Eva Sanchis' is a freelance reporter in London. Her series on illegal logging and peasant villages on the Mosquito Coast of Honduras won the 2006 National Association of Hispanic Journalist Guillermo Martínez Award for Latin American reporting. The series can be read here. It ran originally in El Diario/La Prensa of New York, and her research there was made possible by a Johns Hopkins International Reporting Fellowship.