Thanks to sensational atrocities like the 49 headless corpses dumped on a highway last weekend, Mexico tends to grab most of the world’s drug-war attention. But as we’ve reported, the western hemisphere’s most violent drug-trafficking nexus today is Honduras, where the murder rate is five times higher than Mexico’s and is now the world’s worst. Honduras wants to strengthen its feeble police presence; and, as the New York Times reported this month, it’s getting help from an alarmed U.S., which has set up three new “forward operating bases” inside the Central American country to assist Honduran military and law enforcement in remote areas like the Caribbean coast.
But a deadly incident in the pre-dawn darkness last Friday, May 11, has already cast controversy on this stepped-up interdiction partnership. According to local officials I interviewed by phone this week, at around 3 a.m. helicopters carrying Honduran national police officers and agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) engaged a speedboat ferrying cocaine to the mouth of the Patuca River on Honduras’ isolated northeast shore, known as La Mosquitia, or The Mosquito Coast. Traffickers inside the boat fired on the helicopters, which fired back. But, say the officials, another boat ferrying passengers was passing from the opposite direction and got caught in the nighttime crossfire. Four innocent civilians, they claim, including two pregnant women, were killed; at least three were seriously injured and two young children may be missing.
U.S. sources deny the most explosive charge – that the DEA agents also inadvertently fired on innocents. They tell me the operation was a Honduran police mission that DEA agents were only assisting “with logistical support,” and they insist the U.S. cops returned no fire of their own when the helicopters were shot at. Honduran officials, meanwhile, say the account of the local leaders I interviewed, who include a congressional deputy and the local mayor, both of whom related what they said was eyewitness testimony, still needs to be investigated. Honduras’ National Police Director, José Ricardo Ramírez, claims that two of those killed Friday were among the drug traffickers attempting to haul more than 450 kg (1000 lbs) of cocaine, a sizeable cache later seized by his cops.
To get to the bottom of what really happened last week on the Patuca River, the Honduran government is sending a commission of police, judicial and human rights representatives out to La Mosquitia to conduct an investigation. It will be an important test of the usually corrupt and incompetent justice system in Honduras, where there is a long and ugly history of rights abuses by the police and military. As Tegucigalpa and Washington intensify their joint anti-drug campaign, the probe should also make them more mindful of the potential for fatal mistakes in outposts like the Mosquito Coast. Says the congressional deputy, Maylo Wood of Gracias a Dios state, where Friday’s shootout occurred, “This has affected us tremendously because we carry a stigma in La Mosquitia, a false presumption that we’re all involved in drug-trafficking activity.”
The Mosquito Coast has become a favorite transshipment zone for drug traffickers – and the presumption Wood refers to stems in part from evidence on neighboring Nicaragua’s Mosquito Coast of a new, drug money-fueled affluence among its mostly poor and indigenous residents. That tends to make authorities assume that the denizens of Honduras’ Mosquito Coast, who are also mostly poor, indigenous farmers and fishermen, are moonlighting for narcos too.
As a result, boats traversing waters like the mouth of the Patuca at 3 a.m. come under suspicion, especially after authorities have been tipped off about small planes landing on clandestine airstrips near the river, as they were last Friday. That might have made the cops on the helicopters think the passenger boat was simply a companion to the drug boat that took delivery of a plane’s cargo, says Lucio Baquedano, mayor of the nearby town of Ahuas. But what the drug cops too often forget, Baquedano told me, is that “in a region like this, waterways like the Patuca are our highways – and to get to your job you may have to catch a boat at a very early hour. If these kinds of shootouts increase, people will feel they can’t travel the water at those hours anymore, and they’ll lose their livelihoods.”
Baquedano, who calls Friday’s operation “irresponsible” on both Honduras’ and the U.S.’s part, says the passenger boat caught in Friday’s crossfire had earlier dropped off sea-snail divers for their nocturnal work shift. It was then carrying back 12 people, some to jobs at local rice and bean farms. He identified the pregnant victims as Candelaria Trapp, 45, and Juana Banegas, 28, and he added that angry residents violently protested the shootings last weekend, especially after word got around that U.S. agents were involved. One of the injured, Lucio Nelson, Trapp’s nephew, told the Honduran daily Tiempo from his hospital bed, “The Americans confused us with narco-traffickers.” Officials like Wood and Baquedano say they believe him, an indication of the skepticism the DEA and the U.S. may well face during the Honduran probe.
Still, ballistic tests presumably can determine just who did the shooting from the helicopters. And given the nighttime conditions, investigators are bound to press witnesses like Nelson about how they could have discerned that “los norteamericanos” were firing too. Officials say the main role of the U.S. agents is to help professionalize Honduran police forces, not help them gun down narcos, and Matthias Mitman, the Chargé d’Affaires, a.i., at the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa, told me, “All [U.S.] forces in interdiction operations have agreed to obey strict guidelines related to the use of force in police operations.”
But even if U.S. agents did not return fire on the Patuca last Friday, just the fact that they were assisting Honduran police in an operation that might have killed innocents may be enough to make abuse-weary Hondurans and rights activists skittish about the new U.S.-Honduran push against drug gangs, as important as that campaign is. And that’s especially true in a zone like the Mosquito Coast, where even law-abiding residents fear the drug “stigma” has made them targets.