By Douglas Haddow for The Guardian. One month after relinquishing control of night raids in Afghanistan, a raid in Honduras led by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has shed light on how the US is beginning to shift resources from its wars in the Middle East to its ongoing drug war in the Americas.
In the pre-dawn hours of 11 May, the DEA and Honduran police (in concert with the US Navy) were tracking a group of suspected cocaine smugglers along the Patuca River, near the village of Ahuas. Using a fleet of US state department helicopter gunships, piloted by Guatemalan military personnel and temporary contract pilots, the operation followed the smugglers to a boat dock, at which point a firefight broke out, killing four.
Now here’s where things get even murkier. The DEA initially reported that only two people were killed in the raid, both of whom were involved in the transport of cocaine. But the mayor of Ahuas, Lucio Baquedano, claimed that four innocent bystanders were also killed. In an interview with the Honduran newspaper El Tiempo, Baquedano stated that the helicopters mistakenly fired on a fishing canoe near the one transporting cocaine. After anti-DEA protests erupted, the Honduran government confirmed that the raid had in fact killed two pregnant women, a man and a 14-year-old boy, as well as injuring five others. Locals claim that the fishing canoe was involved in a routine trip to the Caribbean coast, where it dropped off lobster and picked up passengers on the way back. But Honduran and American officials have both cast doubt on the nature of the trip, suggesting that due to its timing and remote location and the canoe’s proximity to the cocaine, its passengers must have been involved, somehow.
In the New York Times, an unnamed American official said of the incident: “There is nothing in the local village that was unknown, a surprise or a mystery about this … what happened was that, for the first time in the history of Ahuas, Honduran law enforcement interfered with narcotics smuggling.” The raid, or “small-footprint mission”, is part of a new counter-narcotic offensive in which the DEA, along with various segments of the US military, is applying tactics developed in the Iraq and Afghan wars to combat cocaine smuggling throughout Central America. The offensive thus far includes the construction of three new military bases in Honduras, which house some 600 American soldiers. This expansion of the US’s presence was agreed upon shortly after former president Manuel Zelaya was deposed by the Honduran military in 2009.
What the incident in Ahuas serves to illustrate is yet another example of the US’s inability, or perhaps unwillingness, to confront the reality of its own conclusions on the nature of the conflicts it is perpetuating. Given this dogged, myopic dedication to blanket solutions, it’s only natural, or perhaps predictable, that the US would attempt to graft every newly minted anti-drug tactic from one theatre to another. But as a recent UN report on opium production in Afghanistan indicates, the US’s efforts have, once again, proven a complete failure.
The dynamics of the drug war are often portrayed as a battle between America’s sprawling complex of bloated paramilitary counter-narcotic operations versus a well-funded and ruthless group of international crime syndicates, with innocent bystanders being the unfortunate byproduct of crossfire. But as with Afghanistan, large parts of Honduras are beholden to a narco-economy. In such a context, one is not fighting a specific group, but rather the economic conditions that give rise to those groups. Whatever form drug profiteers take, be they inspired by dogma or greed, is irrelevant as long as profit margins continue to exist. This much we all know, or at least, should know by now.